Finding religion in The Atlantic's Top 100

atlantic coverI generally like lists. But only if they're good lists. And by good I mean lists that generally agree with how I see things. In other words, this week's Washington Post "Ranking the League" (about the National Football League) is a bunch of garbage. The Indianapolis Colts are not #1. Somehow the geniuses over on 15th Street think that the San Diego Chargers and the Chicago Bears are better than the Peyton Manning's Colts. Go figure. I hope this intro gives you an idea where I am coming from when I say that I liked The Atlantic's "Top 100 Most Influential Americans of All Time" list. I particularly liked the project's open-ended, transparent method for determining who made the list: Ask 10 historians what they think and then compute and compile.

From the GetReligion perspective, all I'm able to do is quibble with The Atlantic's choice of historians. The list of historians is appropriately diverse. And I think the list reflects this diversity. The list also reflects that a number of the historians could have placed a couple more religious figures in their Top 100. But that just reflects the historians' biases, and The Atlantic seemed to realize this point.

I'll stop there and let the article, written by Ross Douthat, do the analysis on religion:

Mark Noll, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, shared [H.W.] Brands's expectation that politics would dominate the final list, but suggested that this was a reflection of how history has been taught -- "as a political narrative or as a reaction against the political narrative." He contended there is "little room for religion" in either of these narratives -- even though religious organizations "have been the main glue in American society since before there was a United States." His own list drove that point home, by including little-remembered but hugely influential figures like the nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Grandison Finney, or the itinerant Methodist bishop Francis Asbury.

. . . Take America's religious leaders -- represented on the list by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, Mary Baker Eddy, Jonathan Edwards (90), and the Presbyterian clergyman Lyman Beecher (91), as well as a number of ministers best known for their efforts at political reform, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (46). Worthies all, but you have to look farther down the winners' list to find the people who actually built the churches where most of today's Americans worship. Several Jews are in the Top 100, but the only rabbi to receive votes was Solomon Schechter, the architect of Conservative Judaism. The only Top 100 Catholics are George Herman "Babe" Ruth, Louis Armstrong, and James Gordon Bennett (69), the great nineteenth-century newspaperman; two panelists, however, suggested John Carroll, the nation's first Catholic bishop. There were also two votes for Fulton Sheen, another Catholic bishop, whose 1950s media ministry, as Mark Noll put it, "certified Roman Catholicism as a benign religious, political, and cultural influence" (and made him a trailblazer for today's rather-less- eloquent crop of televangelists).

Also falling short of the Top 100 were the architects of American evangelicalism, the most successful species of Protestantism in this largely Protestant nation. Two panelists listed Francis Asbury, the eighteenth-century Methodist bishop whose indefatigable missionary efforts created a model of entrepreneurial religion that successful evangelical pastors have followed ever since. The aptly named Evangeline Booth, the first female "general" of the Salvation Army, received one vote, as did Dwight L. Moody, arguably the nineteenth century's most famous evangelist; two votes went to Billy Graham, the twentieth-century heir to that title.

Another Noll pick, William Seymour, is perhaps more obscure than the other religious figures in the Top 100, but in the long run may prove more influential than any of them. The son of freed slaves, Seymour in 1906 lost his job as pastor of a Los Angeles church over his belief that glossolalia -- speaking in tongues -- was available to contemporary Christians; undeterred, he set up shop in a ramshackle building on L.A.'s Azusa Street, and thus touched off the "Azusa Street Revival," the beginning of the modern Pentecostal movement. Today, Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing form of Christianity in the world.

I guess one of the challenges of putting people known for their work in religion into a list like this is that their influence is very difficult to measure. While there is no doubt the Booths, Grahams and Finneys of the world had great influence of the lives of the people they touched, the result is much more subtle than with writers, politicians and inventors.

Outside the founders of Mormonism and Christian Science, only Jonathan Edwards and Lyman Beecher are on the list for their work as ministers. As Douthat notes, the historians placed little emphasis on American Protestant and Catholic leaders. While Edwards is on the list, there is no mention of the Puritans. Like him or not, Cotton Mather played a key role in early American history.

Why is this the case? Again, it is a reflection of the historians' biases. For example, as much as I enjoy Doris Kearns Goodwin's work, I don't see her placing Peter Cartwright anywhere in her Top 100 list. But that's OK, because Douthat does an excellent job discussing Noll's thoughts on why other American preachers are not on the list, such as Charles Finney, Francis Asbury, Fulton Sheen, John Carroll, Evangeline Booth and Dwight Moody. Then there is the absence of Billy Graham.

Another problem: Once you place Finney on the list, you would have a hard time explaining why Asbury or Carroll or several others are not on the list. One could say that, apart from Edwards and Beecher, it is tough to find an American religious leader who truly belongs in the realm of most influential, primarily because America has done little other than embrace and expound upon the work of the Catholic Church and the original Protestants. But then again, is that how we want to measure influence?

For the sake of discussion, why wasn't Billy Sunday mentioned? Or the Hoosier Lew Wallace, whose Ben-Hur was the bestselling book of the 19th century?

I'd like to also make the argument that the theologian Francis Schaeffer should have been on this list. While not very well known, this 20th century thinker, through his writing and teaching, laid much of the groundwork for today's opposition to theological modernism. His work is the basis for much of what we see today from the Christian right, which -- like it or not -- has become a major influence in today's politics.

That's all for now. Please discuss. What major religious figures in American history were left off this list?

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