Surge of Piety

Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life

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Christopher Lane
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , November
     2016.
     224 pages.
     $28.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300203738.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With this book, the old saw that warns against judging a book by its cover must be significantly modified. Here, the warning should apply to the inside flap of the dust jacket. When I glanced at the book, I immediately saw its jacket’s first sentence had erroneously described its subject as a “Presbyterian minister.” In most cases dust jacket prose originates with the author, an English professor at Northwestern University, who certainly knew that Peale was a Methodist minister (74-77), though his ministry was mostly at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, and its denomination—Reformed—never named. So my mistrust represents a marked transference, a term Lane fancies, to the book’s prestigious publisher.

What we have here is not a history—hardly exhaustive given its scant 157 pages of text—but an essay that attempts to show how one prominent minister of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s sought to use anticommunism to build support for a crusade that would tie Americans to conservative, evangelical Christianity; and in the process, Norman Vincent Peale would make his own notions of “positive thinking” and “currents in psychiatry . . . fervently pro-Christian” transform “the nation and its religious life” (4-5). This interpretation is asserted more than proved.

In locating and isolating Peale’s anticommunism Lane performs a useful service, but one that has not been overlooked by Peale’s biographer, Carol V. R. George. In God’s Salesman (Oxford University Press, 1993) she roots this emphasis in deeper and hence more convincing research. For example, Lane prefers headlines and book titles to digging, and dots his pages with them, seldom reading farther down to give his readers even the substance of what follows. This approach tends to leave the reader with the ephemeral substance of a social media Twitter feed.

Hence, the same reader is likely to get lost among the myriad groups of conservative anticommunist organizations with which Peale was tempted to affiliate himself from the late 1930s until his death six decades later in 1993. For only one example, a principal one—the California-based Spiritual Mobilization—apparently renamed itself the Christian Freedom Foundation in New York, with Peale in charge for some unclear time. Readers can be easily mystified by such permutations.

Lane seems especially critical of Peale for dipping into psychiatry, via his associate Smiley Blanton, who was himself analyzed by the Austrian master Sigmund Freud,. Lane attempts to prove that faith might be the object toward which an unwell person could project transference of physical and mental problems and produce healing. Peale’s phenomenal bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking (Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1952) would then become the vehicle by which Americans could solve their personal problems as well as defeat Communism.

What people who are interested in Peale and his impact need is a fuller and more complete analysis of his training and background and how these two components contributed to making him the force Lane claims for him. Without ever saying so in so many words, Lane doubts that Peale possessed any major insight into what Americans in the post-war period needed to solve their collective or personal problems. Yet, in a country where religious faith remains a formidable, if somewhat declining, force by the time of Peale’s death, the author fails to offer clues for Peale’s popularity and why his influence declined so precipitously after the 1960s.

There are even hints here that Lane wants to enlist Freud himself posthumously into supporting his ideas about Peale. Lane quotes the famed analyst’s assessment of American social reform efforts to impose prohibition so as “to deprive people of all stimulants, intoxicants, and pleasure-inducing substances, and instead, by way of compensation, are surfeiting them with piety” (52). Hence, reformers hoped that the nation would become “God’s own country.”

Finally, for those who have looked at Peale and his thought seriously, there is a nagging suspicion that he talked and wrote a better game than he was worth, and that his presuppositions remain vague and nearly impossible to square with any kind of hard-headed theological position, even an evangelical one. Hence, Lane may give him, as an individual, too much credit, even at 157 pages. Better to explore Billy Graham, Fulton Sheen, and Joshua Liebman—all merely mentioned in the book—and show how they helped together to remake American religious life for a brief time in the 1950s and after. But that was not the book Lane produced.

About the Reviewer(s): 

H. Larry Engle is professor emeritus of history at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

Date of Review: 
February 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher Lane is Professor of English at Northwestern University. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim and Mellon Foundations. His writing has appeared in numerous national publications, including the New York Times. He lives in Chicago, IL.

Comments

Christopher Lane

 

One of the principles drummed into me by book review editors, whether of scholarly journals or major newspapers, is the fundamental need to restate an author’s argument, long before that argument can be validated or contested. Not only is such a move of ethical importance to an author, given the labor involved in research and writing; it is of profound need to readers, since a reviewer has access to information that they generally do not.

In an eight-paragraph review that complains twice about the conciseness of my book, H. Larry Engle oddly manages to say nothing about its principal argument: that Peale was instrumental in making religious faith “a precondition for belief in oneself” and in one’s country (11). Supporting that deceptively simple but far-reaching thesis, the book demonstrates over and again from multiple archival and published sources, was a concerted, at times relentless campaign to bind religiosity and patriotism to mental health. The point and supporting evidence is restated several times across the book and itemized in the Index, to ensure that attentive readers simply could not miss it (e.g., “Mental health: religion cast as essential to”; and “Mental illness: as religious ‘deficit’; ‘as supposed religious failing’; ‘treated religiously,’” etc). The organization that Peale used for this end was, I demonstrate from his own correspondence and memos, the vehicle by which he and colleagues set about Christianizing psychiatry and validating “spiritual healing” among Ivy League universities, all the while making expressions of piety across the nation—in a wide range of forums—seem both natural and inevitable.

Via an extensive, well-funded, and thoroughly evangelistic organization, the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry, Inc., which Professor Engle also manages not to mention, though it is the focus of at least three of my chapters (“Religio-Psychiatry Arrives in New York,” “Psychiatry Goes to Church,” and “Religion and Mental Health Rebalanced”), programs were developed by satellite groups across the country to proselytize to a long list of American corporations, from General Motors to Merck pharmaceuticals and Rexall Drug Inc., to influence “national religious leaders,” and, in the words of one leading administrator, “every strategic care-taking group in the community, particularly the teacher, the family physician, the industrial nurse, [and] the police” (qtd. 112). For several years, the book corroborates, again from archival sources carefully cited, such efforts were enormously successful. Peale, as the foundation’s president, advertised it prominently in bestsellers that sold millions of copies. President Eisenhower, a friend and ally, singled it out for national praise and publicity from the White House (“satisfied customer”), while publicly invoking religious faith as his own personal “shield” against mental illness as Peale crowned him the nation’s “spiritual leader.” J. Edgar Hoover gladly expressed similar sentiment from the F.B.I. while writing articles on faith and family for Peale’s Guideposts, a magazine with twice the national readership of U.S. News and World Report and a million more than either Newsweek or People magazine. Substantial efforts were made to expand such programs across four continents, including via religious leaders in England, Germany, Sweden, Finland, India, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

A Coda to my book (“Faith as an Ongoing Force”), echoing Peale’s own term, considers the importance of such thinking to evangelicals today, including through the Prosperity Gospel that he helped popularize. It considers the problem of religious extremism (tied, Peale’s colleague Smiley Blanton insisted, to “religious transference”) and the national stakes of politicians, including the President, promoting religiosity and mental health in the same breath, in the advancement of a conservative agenda.

Anyone reading Professor Engle’s review would learn none of this, and would be pressed to find it in other studies of Peale. Carol V. R. George’s impressive biography God’s Salesman provides just a two-page summary of the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry, without documentary sources. Although she is stronger on Peale’s sister organizations, such as the Foundation for Christian Living, apparently she did not have access to the AFRP’s extensive archive, which includes multiple controversial, highly confidential documents, all cited in my book with permission. Even so, given her rich understanding of Peale’s religious and political influence, including via the evangelizing bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking, George rightly calls him the figurehead of 1950s religiosity, given his outsize role as its popularizer: “It was Peale’s message,” she determines, “that gave definition to the religious revival” in those years (qtd. 63)—an influence arguably exceeding even that of Billy Graham and bishop Fulton Sheen.

Professor Engle zeroes in on the mistake (in the book’s publicity) of calling Peale Presbyterian. Yet, as he may know, both the congregation and administration of the Dutch Reformed Marble Collegiate were at the time unhappy about Peale’s Methodism, for many years a source of friction and bitter correspondence among them, while Peale himself was reluctant to embrace all doctrinal elements of his new church and assumed a compromise position almost identical to Presbyterianism. The doctrinal shifts in his thinking and preaching, given his many years at the Marble Collegiate, make it inaccurate to call him consistently Methodist. As with so many labels, both intellectual and theological, Peale ended up confounding them.

— Christopher Lane, Northwestern University

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