Plenty of Piety
People of Plenty. By David M. Potter. (The University of Chicago Press; C.U.P., 12s.) The Godly and the Ungodly. By Reinhold Nie-
buhr. (Faber, 21s,)
HERE are three books from America which deal in one aspect or another with the American character in mid-century. People of Plenty is written by a historian; The Godly and the Un- godly by a theologian; and Inspirational Religion by two sociologists (with research assistants)— which makes them all sound much more formid- able than they really are. The books can 'be read profitably by any layman who is curious about life in the United States; and each of them illumin- ates more than the topics it discusses. Simply by being what they are, the books reveal something of the American character on its higher levels— something of its unabashed seriousness, its self- consciousness, and (in two of the books at least) its collaborative instincts.
Professor Potter writes as a historian who is anxious to bring his own subject into relation with the work of the social scientist. He believes that both disciplines would benefit from the inter- action; and his book is a brave attempt to prove his case by particular demonstration. In the first half of People of Plenty Professor Potter examines the way the historians and the social scientists have handled the concept of 'national character': he' finds that among the historians the use of the term has generally been an occasion for displays of prejudice, chauvinism and sheer muddle; and that a much greater degree of clarity and self- awareness has characterised the social scientists' handling of it. Then, in the second half of the book, the author tries to show how the historian who has benefited from the work of the social scientists can in turn deepen and enrich their insights. Taking as his examples the studies of the American character made by Riesman, Homey and Mead, the author suggests that this character —in its recurring ambitions and insecurities—has become what it is because Americans have always been 'a people of plenty'; that economic abun- dance has since the earliest days been the 'deter- minant factor' in American life. I think he suc- ceeds in stitching together pretty firmly one side of his history to one side of his social science; but at the expense of leaving the other sides of both his subjects a bit ragged. He rightly and repeatedly stresses that American abundance was not just a gift of nature, but was made by the Americans. What then, one asks more persistently than he seems to have anticipated, made them make it? And one wonders, too, how justified is his assump- tion that the insights of someone like Riesman do in fact derive from a superior methodology, rather than from the fact that Riesman happens to have a superior mind. Superior, for instance, to that of Margaret Mead, who figures with him on equal terms in the book.
Professor Reinhold Niebuhr, too, is much con- cerned with the question of American material prosperity in his latest collection of essays. The last two essays are 'pure' theology; but in the others Professor Niebuhr discusses such things as the struggle between Russia and America, higher education in America, the relations be- tween White and Negro and between Christian and Jew; in several he deals with the recent 're- ligious revival' in the United States. He does not think at all highly of the quality of much of this
revival; and adds to our understanding of it with a subtle analysis of its relation to the American belief in progress through technology and material abundance. To Professor Niebuhr there is no con- tradiction in the simultaneous strength of the kind of religion encouraged by the revival on one hand, and the secular utopianiSm of American 'liberal- ism' on the other. He believes that in an iMportant sense they can be said to support each other, for they share what he calls a 'common sentimentality' about the possibilities that life offers to the individual human being. Professor Niebuhr's political and social views are liberal and melior- istic enough in their own, terms; but they are in- formed by a conception of man which sees his misery as being as inalienable a part of man's dignity as his happiness. Unlike some fashionable religious writers on this side of the Atlantic, Pro- fessor Niebuhr does not use his faith in man's misery (if one can put it this way) as a source of personal gratification—he is not interested in scor- ing points, in demonstrating how much deeper his awareness is than that of the irreligious. He is a sincere, serious, and highly intelligent man; and though one is surprised at times• by a certain simplicity in his approach to some of the social and cultural problems raised in the book, even this simplicity is a kind of strength, a further reason for trusting him. Because everywhere else in the book one is engaged by the suppleness of his mind, in its perception of the paradoxes through which we all—godly and ungodly alike—
have to live. •
Some of Professor Niebuhr's fears about the quality of the religious revival are shown in Inspirationid Religion to be more than justified. Inspirational Religion is an analysis of forty-six religious best-sellers written by people like Nor- man Vincent Peale, Fulton Sheen and Liebman. The authors of the analysis find that these best- sellers can be described as positively 'antireligious' —their emphasis falls so grossly on wealth, suc- cess,_power and 'peace of mind' as the fruits of faith. It is difficult not to poke fun at the heavy sociological apparatus which the authors use to reach their conclusions; one cannot help feeling that George Orwell would have been able to do the job in the six pages which the present authcirs devote merely to 'Coding Categories Used in Con- tent Analysis.' But they are serious workers too in their way—their very American way—and they have done a useful piece of work.