Surge of Piety
Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life
- ISBN: 9780300203738
- Published By: Yale University Press
- Published: November 2016
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.
H. Larry Engle is professor emeritus of history at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.H. Larry IngleDate Of Review:February 24, 2017