Mitch Horowitz is the author of “Occult America” and “One Simple Idea,” a history of the positive-thinking movement.
On a fall morning in 1960, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale stood before his congregation on Manhattan’s East Side and apologized for having gotten tangled up with a committee of evangelical ministers who questioned John F. Kennedy’s fitness to serve as president on the grounds that Kennedy, as a Catholic, might be subservient to the Vatican.
“I never been too bright, anyhow,” the famous minister told the pews to laughter.
Peale adopted the same aw-shucks tone that his friend, Kennedy’s opponent Richard Nixon, had used several years earlier in his “Checkers” speech. In both cases, controversy was allayed.
Although Peale’s quip went over well inside Marble Collegiate Church, his self-description unfortunately stuck. For decades, social critics have viewed the author of the 1950s mega-seller “The Power of Positive Thinking” as a sloganeer of happy thoughts, simplistic theology and covert bigotry. It hasn’t helped that Donald Trump, not widely known for tones of positivity, has called himself an admirer.
This is the Peale that historian Christopher Lane, a professor of English at Northwestern University, seeks to contextualize in “Surge of Piety.” Lane traces Peale’s connections to corporate and conservative elites, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, to show how the minister brought a mood of conservative piety to the nation. Peale, as Lane demonstrates, made churchgoing corporatists feel comfortable with themselves, affirming values of enterprise and anti-communism, sometimes denouncing liberal politicians and policies, and celebrating an agreeable, back-slapping personality as the key to success.
Peale’s Religio-Psychiatric Clinic, founded in 1937, sought to combine pastoral and psychiatric care; it became a kind of therapeutic adjunct to the conservative culture that Peale sought to promote, Lane writes, suggesting to churchgoers that if you get right with God and stock gains, you’ll get right with yourself. (Lane does not mention that Peale also helped destigmatize visiting a psychiatrist.)
The author delves deeply into the intellectual and spiritual search of Peale’s early collaborator in the clinic, psychiatrist Smiley Blanton, whose published diaries detail his psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud. The tensions between Blanton and Freud over religion make enthralling reading. When recounting such intellectual frictions, Lane’s writing is graceful and well-paced.
But Lane regards his main subject, Peale, in more simplistic terms. He overlooks, or is perhaps less interested in, the minister’s unlikely journey, divided between the devout Methodism of his youth (his father was also a minister) and his encounter with various strains of American mysticism. In neglecting this area, Lane skips over not only the forces that shaped Peale as a minister of self-help but also what made him interesting as a man.
Peale’s brand of “practical Christianity” grew from a spiritual-therapeutic tradition in American life that dates back to the Transcendentalist atmosphere of mid-19th- century New England, which gave rise to movements in mental healing, Christian Science and what William James called “the religion of healthy mindedness.” Peale was aware of, and well read in, these trends. They formed the seeds of his positive-thinking theology. Peale took careful measure of the postwar taste for self-help, signaled by the success of his younger contemporary, Boston-based Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, whose therapeutic “Peace of Mind” dominated bestseller lists in 1946, six years before Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking.” (Liebman, a deeply searching and intellectually rigorous man, died at age 41 in 1948. His name faded as Peale’s rose.)
Lane barely notes this history. Rather, he groups together “charismatic evangelizers in the ‘peace-of-mind’ movement — Rabbi Joshua Liebman, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Billy Graham among them.” Sheen had criticized Liebman’s therapeutic approach in bellicose terms, and Graham, whose emphasis was on traditional sin and salvation, stood aloof from the therapeutic gospel. Neither Peale nor other popular religious voices of his era were easily grouped under a shared banner of salvific self-help and American nationalism.
Lane is quick to suppose that Peale can be understood largely as a crusader for Christianity and capitalism. That is half the story. The author documents that half well in “Surge of Piety.” But as a nationalist conservative, Peale was also something of an outlier within America’s healthy-minded religious culture, and by legacy remains so.
“The Power of Positive Thinking” continues to sell many thousands of copies each year. But far surpassing it are self-help books by figures such as Deepak Chopra, Rhonda Byrne and the recently deceased Wayne Dyer, who have nothing in common with Peale’s patriotic tones. On the other side of the fence, evangelical ministers such as Joyce Meyer and T.D. Jakes sell vast numbers of their own Christian-themed therapy books; yet few media ministers acknowledge Peale. Given Peale’s mystical influences, many contemporary evangelicals find him theologically suspect. Joel Osteen is one of the few mega-ministers who names Peale as an influence and poses for the cover of his ongoing monthly, Guideposts.
In character and influence, Peale cannot be understood outside of his theological crosscurrents, any more than earlier American religious icons such as Mary Baker Eddy and Joseph Smith. Historical scholars sometimes take the attitude that exploring a modern figure’s religious development seems frivolous or requires fruitless hours searching down strange rabbit holes. This can result in oversight.
Lane deserves credit for filling a gap by documenting Peale at all. Since the minister’s death in December 1993, he has been the subject of few scholarly or historical studies. Lane’s book will surely be requisite reading for historians who strive to give us a fuller perspective on the career and impact of this unusual American religionist.
By Christopher Lane
Yale. 212 pp. $28