James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth: What People Really Believe About Everything That Really Matters (New York: Prentice Hall, 1991), 270 pp., $19.95, cloth.
Americans have insatiable appetites for information about themselves. Preachers seem to have incredible appetites for information on their parishioners. We have, in fact, a tendency to binge on data of any kind. Nothing else can explain the millions of facts, figures, statistics, polls, and research reports which Americans devour yearly.
This is the era of “information anxiety” and data overload. The United States must be the world’s most self-absorbed nation, insofar as its citizens have an obsession to know ever more “facts” about themselves. Marketers, university researchers, and the U.S. Census Bureau keep these facts in steady supply.
How much of this do we really need to know? Is it really important for the American citizen to know that an average of three farmers die of asphyxiation in compost pits each year? That three out of four concert harpists have back problems? That forty percent of all peanut butter is chunky? Or that the average American will consume 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before adulthood? We are, we have been told, what we eat.
But statistics do deal with issues of greater social significance. Americans thrive on a steady diet of introspective analysis from pollsters and their popularizers. A recent publishing phenomenon reveals the potential market for such research. The Day America Told the Truth is destined to be a best-seller. Subtitled “What People Really Believe About Everything That Really Matters,” the volume is the product of James Patterson and Peter Kim of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency.
The authors designed a large national survey to measure the moral convictions, habits, and opinions of American citizens. Over 2,000 randomly-selected Americans answered over 1,800 questions with guarantees of anonymity and statistical accuracy.
What was the result? The researchers revealed that, according to their findings, Americans are generally an immoral lot. They divide the nation into nine “moral regions” which demonstrate considerable moral diversity. These range from “Old Dixie” in the Deep South to “Pac Rim” in the Pacific Northwest and “Granary” in the Midwest. None of the moral regions is a moral lighthouse for the nation, but each does demonstrate unique moral responses. In general, the Pacific Northwest emerges as the region least marked by traditional morality or any religious expression.
According to the researchers, residents of New South rank first in giving to charity and last in spying on their neighbors. They are also more likely to carry a weapon — in which case it is probably a good thing that they do not spy on their neighbors. “Marlboro Country,” the region with Denver as its capital, ranks first in believing that they should assist the poor, but are also the most likely to have considered killing someone. Charity only goes so far.
The book’s central argument concerns the breakdown of American society since the 1950s. “There is,” the authors insist, “absolutely no moral consensus at all in the 1990s.” Their research confirms their assessment. Only thirteen percent of Americans indicated that they believed all of the Ten Commandments were binding. “Everyone is making up their own personal moral codes,” the authors conclude, “we are the law unto ourselves.”
Do Americans believe in anything? When asked if there were any beliefs they would be willing to die for, fully forty-eight percent responded “no.” Interestingly, the baby-boomers were most likely to be willing to die for what they believe.
The researchers asked the respondents what they would be willing to do for $10 million. Twenty-five percent indicated that they would leave their family; sixteen percent would renounce their American citizenship, and seven percent said they would kill a stranger for $10 million. Probing further, the authors found that similar answers held when the amount was dropped to $5 million and $3 million. At $2 million they noted a fall-off. “Our price in America seems to be $2 million or thereabouts,” they surmise.
Religious folks tended to be far less likely to choose immoral behavior, but the average American registered very little religious belief. The most significant section of the book states that “For most people, religion plays virtually no role in shaping their opinions on a long list of important public questions. This is true even for questions that seem closely related to religion: birth control, abortion, even teaching Creationism and the role of women in the clergy.”
“We have established ourselves as the authority on morality,” the authors conclude, and their research bears the weight of that conclusion. What does all this say about American society? It certainly suggests that the American church had better awaken to the new social and cultural context of faith and ministry. American culture is inhospitable to Christian faith — if that faith is anything but a watered-down civil religion with a tip of the hat to the Almighty.
We can no longer rely on culture and society to inculcate Christian moral values. They will come from faithful and convictional Christian churches and Christian homes or they will not be found at all. Americans have found new avenues of immorality, but the story is as old as Sodom and Corinth. And the role of the church is the same — a community of faith and moral commitment amidst a society of unbelief and moral anarchy. The Day America Told the Truth does not really tell us anything new at all, but it might help some folks to get the point.
Preachers will find the book disturbing, yet most will be unable to put the book down until they have read it from cover to cover. The moral relativism and individualism documented so thoroughly in the volume can be confirmed by almost any preaching minister in America. The research certainly indicates that no region of the nation is immune from the rejection of traditional morality.
The Day America Told the Truth is not an authoritative guide to American society and contemporary moral ills. It is, however, an intriguing look inside the American psyche. Put the book on your summer reading list — and watch out for strangers with a fresh $10 million.
Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way (New York: William Morrow, 1990), 245 pp., paper.
Preachers are wordsmiths for whom language is the primary medium of meaning. Most of us tend to think of language as a given — a fact — rather than a developing body of symbolic meaning. Every language has a story, and that story is one key to understanding the language and those who speak it.
English has, we are not surprised to know, a rather incredible story. It has become the world’s international language for science, business, transportation, medicine, politics, and much of academia. Air traffic controllers and pilots speak to each other in English no matter where they may be, and the famous Pasteur Institute recently shifted the language of its prestigious journal from French to English. They wanted it read.
All preachers have some measure of facility with language. The Mother Tongue offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of the English language and its textures of meaning.
Bryson is a journalist — another word merchant — and he has an eye and an ear for recognizing a good story amidst the confusion of tongues. “Any language where the unassuming word fly signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel, and a critical part of a gentleman’s apparel is clearly asking to be mangled.”
Mangled or not, the world is coming to learn and use English as its lingua franca. Germans lament ein Image Problem and the Japanese have borrowed (and customized), for example: “erebata” (elevator), “nekutai” (necktie), “beikon” (bacon), “remon” (lemon), and shyanpu setto” (shampoo and set). The French have developed a certifiable phobia about encroaching Englishisms. French President Francois Mitterand recently declared that “France is engaged in a war with Anglo-Saxon.” The French have long had laws against the use of foreign words, but in 1975 they established the “Maintenance of the Purity of the French Language.” Nevertheless, a “pure language” is an oxymoron.
Bryson acknowledges the complexity of the English language. “Nothing in English is ever quite what it seems.” As he illustrates: “What, for instance, is the hem in hem and haw, the shrift in short shrift, the fell in one fell swoop? When you are overwhelmed, where is the whelm you are over, and what exactly does it look like? And why, come to that, can we be overwhelmed or underwhelmed, but not semi-whelmed or — if our feelings are less pronounced — just whelmed?”
The book includes interesting chapters on the origins and development of languages, but it does not linger on esoteric or technical issues. Bryson does consult the language experts and researchers, even when he exposes their incompatible conclusions. He provides a brief review of theories related to a primal language (Proto-Indo-European), but he does not dwell on the issue.
The Mother Tongue does dispel some misunderstandings. Among these is the claim that Latin was a widely spoken language at any time. As Bryson notes, classical Latin was the language of scholarship and literature, but “was effectively a dead language as far as common discourse was concerned long before Rome fell.” The awkwardness of all those high-school Latin practice sentences now makes sense!
How many different words does the average American know and employ? “Experts” have estimated the figure at from 15,000 to 250,000 words — quite a spread! How many words does the average preacher use? In general, more than the average church member. Those who work with words as a primary concern (writers, lecturers, preachers, speech writers, etc.) develop a special feel for the language and a taste for new words. From whence do these words come? An average of 10,000 new words per year are being added to the English language, and this may be just the tip of the iceberg. No one can catalogue all of these new terms.
Some new words have entered the language by mistake. According to the First Supplement of the Oxford English Dictionary, at least 350 words owe their existence to typographical errors or similar misrenderings. Others changed by the course of their hearing. As Bryson documents, asparagus was first “sparrow-grass,” buttonhole was “buttonhold,” and sweetheart was “sweetard.” Still other words have been borrowed from other world languages.
English is, in the main, an egalitarian language. It has developed by the course of common usage as well as literate discourse. As Bryson comments: “One of the undoubted virtues of English is that it is a fluid and democratic language in which meanings shift and change in response to the pressures of common usage rather than the dictates of committees.” The spread of English as the international language is not due to its inherent linguistic superiority (as the French claim for their tongue), but its democratic serviceability.
Bryson also lampoons some of the rather unreasonable and illogical rules of English usage, grammar, and syntax which vex writer and preacher. Why, for instance, do we assume that infinitives should not be split? In the pulpit, we must acknowledge, they regularly are, even by literate and careful preachers. Why? Because the human ear may not be able to follow the course of the sentence if the sentence is contorted so as to avoid the dreaded split. On paper, this can generally be avoided, but in spoken form, it is a dangerous maxim.
Preachers will enjoy The Mother Tongue even as the book offers a short course in linguistics and language. Bryson has filled his book with illustrations and anecdotes and his own dexterity with the language will please both the eye and the ear.
Martin E. Marty, The Noise of Conflict: Modern American Religion, Volume 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 444 pp., $27.00, cloth.
Martin Marty, Fairfax Cone Professor of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School, is the name a host of secular news reporters have listed under “religion” in their source files. When issues of American religious life emerge, Marty is often the sage called upon for comment and analysis.
He has observed and researched modern American Christianity for several decades, and has written or edited a small library of books covering issues ranging from friendship to the role of religion in health. The Noise of Conflict is the second volume in Marty’s projected three-volume history of modern American religion.
Marty took the title of this middle volume from Milton’s Paradise Lost, and he documents the reign of conflict in the period between the two world wars. “In matters specifically religious,” Marty explains, “the nation had never been more divided than it was in those interwar years.” The period set the stage for the modern shape of American religion, Marty argues, noting that the most important conflict of the day, the struggle between fundamentalism and modernism, “had effects which color all Protestant activities decades later.” As his volume makes clear, the impact was not limited to Protestantism.
Marty’s research is, as always, awe-inspiring. He cites obscure publications and delves into the intricate detail of chosen events and issues. Though he has covered much of this ground in previous books, Marty manages to bring fresh light and insight to this critical period.
The book gives primary attention to developments in the mainline Protestant churches and Roman Catholicism. It is heavily concentrated in the North, and it deals with fundamentalism and emerging evangelicalism with a generally anecdotal form of analysis. Marty seems to acknowledge this in his introductory chapter in which he notes the “canonical” character of the project. Outsiders, marginalized groups, and those outside the public eye are given slight treatment.
Marty states that his project “is to show how for one last time the winners from previous centuries were hanging on, trying to keep the outsiders outside and the ones they considered marginal at the margins.” Much of this must be attributed to Marty’s own Northern liberal and mainline Protestant perspective. He knows much about fundamentalism, for instance, but he does not know fundamentalism — a critical distinction and one which Marty would probably be the first to admit.
The Noise of Conflict is a chronicle of American public religion. The volume begins with President Warren Harding’s triumphant nationalism and ends with Reinhold Niebuhr’s eventual acceptance of the necessity of World War II. In between are chapters dealing with everything and everyone from Native American religion to Dorothy Day.
The Noise of Conflict is a worthy summer companion. Those who lived through the period and those who know it only as a distant past will find the volume a good resource for research as well as an interesting guide to issues of the period. Notes and bibliography are appended to the end of the volume, and thus do not interrupt the flow of the narrative.

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