Commentary Magazine


The Success of Faith:
Or is it the Faith of Success?

Faith, religious and moral, has traditionally been important in American life and culture, but today it is big business, as can be seen from the enormous audience—39,000,000—the radio program “This I Believe” enjoys, in which all kinds of prominent people state the faiths they believe in. Some of these declarations have been got together in a book, This I Believe (Simon and Schuster, 200 pp., cloth $3.00, paper $1.00) and William Phillips here examines them for the kind of values they indicate as enjoying high sanction in America today. 

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Every period has an ideal—and a scapegoat which it holds responsible for the failure to attain its ideal. In the 30’s, the ideal was the equalitarian society, the scapegoats those who failed to keep in step with history. More recently, however, the ideal has become the open, democratic society, not much different from what we already have, with a maximum of good and a minimum of evil, but to be worked towards very cautiously lest the whole status quo be upset. This prospect draws heavily on common sense, moderateness, and plain fear. But it is not very inspiring, and it generates all kinds of social hypochondria. After all, to watch one’s step and protect one’s social health is less exciting than making a revolution. Hence it requires a new kind of energy, derived from a new faith, to take the place of political zealotry.

This is one reason why, it seems to me, we have been hearing so much lately about the need for greater faith and spirituality, and why there are so many complaints about the moral failure of our time. If our ideal today is a good society without radical change, our scapegoat has become loss of faith—faith in ourselves, our fellow men, and God. Of course, we have been living through some kind of moral letdown, but where in the past morality was thought to be socially determined, today it is taken to be a force in its own right.

And now that history has proved to be unreliable, God has been restored once more to his proper place as the source of all good. The swing has been marked also by an emphasis on moral absolutes, on the tragic view of man’s plight, and on the sacred-ness of the individual, however tortured and irrational his existence. At the same time, the historical view of man and, generally, all forms of naturalist thinking have been under wholesale attack. Those who take an empirical approach to man and society have felt that this swing has gone too far towards obscurantism; still, many empiricists have welcomed the turn as at least a corrective to the breezy view of progress that had prevailed in psychology, education, science, and philosophy, as well as politics.

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I suppose it is inevitable in the era of mass media that even religious belief should be streamlined and packaged for mass distribution. After all, even good things can yield profits, and, besides, who is to say that an ounce of good is worse than none at all? So, just as there is someone like T. S. Eliot arguing for a homogeneous society and for traditional religion, there are also attempts to “popularize” religion in newspapers and over the radio—to make faith attractive and easy to take. So popular has one such effort been—the radio program “This I Believe”—that a selection from it has just been published in book form, presumably for those who prefer their philosophy between hard covers.

The “success” of the radio program itself can be gauged from the following figures taken from the foreword to the book. The program is “broadcast in the United States 2,200 separate times each week from 196 of the most powerful radio stations. It reaches 39,000,000 people in this country alone—on an average of twice a week. This makes it the most listened to radio program in the world. It is broadcast 900 times a week on 150 stations abroad, and over the Voice of America weekly in six languages. It reaches our men and women of the armed forces in Korea, in Germany, and around the world daily.” All this is over the air alone. On top of this, “newspapers in this country carry ‘This I Believe‘ some 8,500,000 times weekly—it appears once a week in 85 leading dailies.” If only a Moses, a Jesus, or a Mahomet had had such facilities at his disposal!

This project has been inspired and conducted by Edward R. Murrow, an able and respected journalist. But, so far as I know, he has never distinguished himself in theology, philosophy, or any branch of moral inquiry. In his foreword to the book, he indicates that his main concern is with the survival of democracy and with our social welfare generally. He feels that the publication of these spiritual messages will help both to preserve private belief and invigorate our faith in our social institutions. Obviously, the purpose of the venture is mixed: on the one hand, its aim is to spread some vague kind of religiousness; on the other, to combat what Mr. Murrow feels is a growing trend toward conformity and repression of opinion in this country. This confusion is apparent in Mr. Murrow’s statement of aims: “We . . . live in a society that is materialistic and mechanistic, where most of the goods we use are mass produced. We employ the same phrases, buy nationally advertised products, wear nationally branded hats and suits; the majority of newspaper editors have abdicated to the syndicated columns. The voice of one broadcaster is heard from one end of the country to the other. There exists a real danger that the right to dissent, the right to be wrong may be swamped because the instruments of communication are too closely held.”

This sounds like a blend of primitive religiosity and liberal muckraking. Not that a theologian cannot be a liberal, or a liberal believe in God. But generally the two are not identical, at least not on their deepest levels. It seems to me that what Mr. Murrow is doing is carrying over liberal sentiment—as distinct from basic liberal doctrine—seasoned with some folksiness, into the area of faith. The result is a mixture of religious and political platitudes, all adding up to the conclusion that we must live and let live, love our neighbors as ourselves, and consult a psychiatrist if we by chance dislike ourselves.

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Who are the hundred chosen people whose messages this book gathers together in order to inspire the rest of us? With a few exceptions, the contributors have respectable or glamorous reputations; but only a handful, like Thomas Mann and Aldous Huxley, are really distinguished in their fields. They include businessmen, educators, writers, athletes, politicians, actors, journalists, movie directors, judges, generals, musicians, and a few people like Helen Keller, the household symbol of the power of mind over matter, and Lucy Freeman, the Horatio Alger of the psychic life. All the confessions of faith are short, and most of them have the vague precision of good advertising copy.

And what do they tell us? On the whole, we are constantly reminded of the virtues of truth, equality, progress, freedom, happiness, social welfare, justice, intelligence, reason, honesty, character, conscience, unselfishness, love, good citizenship, individuality, team spirit, democracy, devotion to one’s country. We are warned, however, against such things as evil, lack of faith in humanity, repression of opinion, inferiority complexes, and we are reminded that the heart is generally more reliable than the head. Most of the contributors confess rather modestly to a lifelong struggle to help both themselves and their fellow men simultaneously, while admitting to a few lapses in the past, usually in their childhood, or anyway before reaching moral maturity.

In this patter of moralizing, several themes stand out. The principal one is the idea of success, which is sometimes spelled out, but is generally assumed to be connected with true faith and the good life. The choice of contributors reflects this attitude; all of them are people who count in their fields, respectable, hard-working pillars of society. There are no cranks, rebels, saints, people against the grain, who are often not successful during their lifetime and occasionally not even afterwards, at least not by Who’s Who standards.

Obviously, all this has more to do with the market place and with current notions of power and achievement than with faith or religion in any form. Genuine faith has usually been unworldly, private, and lonely. In more secular areas, the man of faith might believe in an unpopular idea, or cause, or in his own gifts in one of the arts, and for a time run against the stream—in which case he might not even rate a radio or TV appearance, and God only knows how he could ever have got into This I Believe.

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Another theme is “adjustment.” By some simple shift of gears, many of the contributors to the book move from the idea of faith in humanity to that of living with one’s fellows, which in turn involves some sort of adjustment to them. Now I should make clear that I am all for adjustment though I am not always sure just what it means. But the notion of adapting oneself to one’s community and getting along with one’s neighbors, which presumably comes from popularized psychoanalysis and psychiatry, is a far cry from Freud’s tragic picture of man, with his burden of guilt and sin, and his lifelong struggle to marshal the forces of good against those of evil within himself. Nor, for that matter, is the idea of adjustment to society—or even to winning—the same thing as faith, religious purpose, or the moral life.

The book is loaded with all the passwords to the Hall of Fame, all the slogans of an alumni dinner for a winning football team. “Babe” Pinelli, the veteran umpire, says, “I believe in my God, my family, my country and baseball.” Nat Holman, the basketball coach, under the heading “You Cannot Fix a Real Faith,” says “winning is not enough. The game must be played right.” Joe Williams, who I happen to think is a good sports writer when he sticks to sports, here tells us he believes in God, country, decency, and the shortstop who makes errors because he is thinking only of his team. And so on. Some of the more highbrow contributors say much the same thing in the jargon of social consciousness. Elmer Davis believes in decency, freedom, and the team spirit of humanity, which he sees as progress. William Zorach, the sculptor, quotes at length from Longfellow’s verses about life being real and earnest.

There are, of course, a few pieces that rise above the generalities of good and evil, mainly by people who are serious in their own fields and know the difference between a statement of faith and an after-dinner speech. Robert Hillyer, for example, seems to describe himself honestly, in a way that takes account of the strength and power of evil. Thomas Mann, though a little pompous, at least disassociates himself from the time-less platitudes of the good life when he argues for an awareness of the transitory and the ambiguous. Also the comments by Margaret Mead, Saul Padover, C. Day Lewis, and Harold Taylor stand out from the rest and sound as though they had been thought about rather than fabricated for the occasion.

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It should be clear that the whole problem of faith or morality in our time is not a subject for polling. If you ask a business executive or a taxi driver or a mediocre but successful artist to make a public pronouncement on what he believes, he is bound to furnish you with some old wives’ tale about how he has fought the temptations of evil in himself and in others and how his whole life is dedicated to the good, the true, and the beautiful. Ten or twenty years ago he might have parroted platitudes about social justice; now he proclaims the moral and psychological platitudes of the day.

Morality has become the last refuge of our time. But morality, like theology or social thinking, must either be intellectually searching, or concrete and practical. For most of the contributors to This I Believe it is neither. Their professions of belief in God are perfunctory, lacking the agonies of doubt or the awareness of evil that we expect of deeply felt religion. Their religion is the religion of respectable opinion. And most of the expressions of social conscience simply echo the present concern over civil liberties. Of course, civil liberties are basic to any social morality. But more than pep-talks about democracy by celebrities from the entertainment world, what we obviously need are serious and specific analyses of the forces threatening our civil liberties and the means of combating them. One feels, too, that this question, important as it is, has become for many of the contributors a means of forgetting about all other social problems.

Few show much awareness of the actual moral choices we face today, both individually and socially. But this is not surprising; what is surprising is that some of the pieces in the collection should make sense. How could anyone write anything of value for a project in which faith is treated on the level of public relations, and what a person says is only so much additional copy for the publicity surrounding his name?

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