Faith in the New Millennium

The Future of Religion and American Politics

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Editor(s): 
Matthew Avery Sutton and Darren Dochuk
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     2015.
     320 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780199372706.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Faith in the New Millennium: The Future of Religion and American Politics, editors Matthew Avery Sutton and Darren Dochuk bring together seventeen established and rising religion scholars—nearly all professors of history or religious studies—to consider how “the nature and practice of religion and its impact on American political culture is shifting in… profound ways” (1). Foundational to the collection is the fact that religion has always been and will continue to be relevant to American politics. This is a “bipartisan affair” (2), and those who do not see the continued importance of religion—including, for example, the many colleges and universities shrinking their religious studies departments—are missing something of ongoing importance. In the new millennium, religion is not disappearing but “merely recalibrating and reloading” (3), a metaphor particularly apt in a time of increased religiously-justified violence.

The book begins with Kate Carté Engel’s examination of how the founders’ story is retold by conservative Christianity in a way that “continually reaffirms their vision of the nation’s moral purpose and serves as a call to action to rebuild what has been lost” (9)—a task that, as other authors illustrate, is taken up in a variety of ways. This “enduring and vexing theme” of America as a Christian nation, as Edward J. Blum notes in his contribution on how black residents of Massachusetts petitioned white Revolutionary leaders to end slavery, is addressed differently in a digital age, when information is ever more accessible, replicable, and manipulable (26). As Mark A. Chancey argues in his analysis of history textbook standards that promote a “red state” vision of America and religious history, Christian nationalism does not stay within the confines of religious culture but seeps into other domains, even apparently secular ones (175).  

The result is that even what we might think are secular conversations speak to religious concerns and are spoken about with religious conviction—concerns about abortion and same sex marriage, as Anthea Butler explores in an essay about black conservatives; about immigration politics, as Arlene Sánchez-Walsh shows in her contribution on Latino/a religious leadership; and about diversity, as Rebecca Anne Goetz considers in her work on “deep-rooted Islamophobic narratives” and the denial of “the Americanness of Islam” (75). These are conversations about who is and who is not one of us, and those who, like Mormons, are, in J. Spencer Fluhman’s words, “the quintessentially American religion, a patriotic if bland church extolling large families and capitalist achievements,” but are nevertheless sometimes in and sometimes out (218). Religion shapes, though it may not determine, our foreign policy, energy policy, and welfare policy, as argued in excellent essays by Andrew Preston, Darren Dochuck, and Alison Collis Greene.

At this juncture, between the general election of 2016 and the installment of the next president, the most compelling of Faith in the New Millennium’s essays are Steven P. Miller’s “Between Hope and Despair: Obama and Evangelical Politics” and Sutton’s “Preparing for Doomsday.” Calling the Obama years a “waning of a period of special evangelical influence” (199), Miller argues that Barack Obama was “better equipped than any president before him to grasp American pluralism in all its fullness” (212), a fact noted by many of the authors in the collection. Yet evangelical politics is different today, post-election, than it was just a few months ago when Faith in the New Millennium was published. Miller notes that conservative Christians’ political postures “are now entering their second generation, and they are easy to spot” (212). That second generation—including the actual sons of Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell—is here, fighting old battles about race, sex, and gender with new weapons, including a more explicit alliance with “alt-right” hate groups. This is not disconnected from the “long river of American Protestant apocalypticism” (236), which Sutton describes as offering “the promise of transformation and redemption in a world that seems to lack both,” motivating conservative political action rather than withdrawal (236). While Sutton’s analysis focuses on the words of David Koresh, Harold Camping, and Billy Graham, it invites consideration of how seemingly secular political actors also make use of apocalyptic thinking to activate political action.

What happens next in American politics and religion is somewhat unclear, though Matthew S. Hedstrom, in his “The Rise of the Religious Nones,” makes a compelling argument that our “revolt against Christian exclusivism, and indeed against organized (and politicized Christianity), does not arise from a widespread revolt against belief itself” (264). And so we may anticipate continued tension around what religion means and, potentially, increasing innovation in how religion operates politically. Indeed, as religious conservatives themselves split this fall over support for a candidate as obviously non-representative of their proclaimed values as Donald Trump, it became clear that old ideas about the “conservative Christian” no longer holds. More troubling, the 2016 election both revealed and emboldened those who object to “America’s quiet acceptance of religious pluralism,” as described by Kevin M. Schultz in “The Blessings of American Pluralism and Those Who Rail Against It” (271).  

This very fine collection highlights the need for even more scholarship on the future of religion and politics—or even, for that matter, its present. Scholarship from political science, law, sociology, and American studies, among other subfields, may provide insights at times more prescient for the near-term future of American religion and politics than what historians alone can provide. Thus, the collection should be read alongside texts by social scientists, such Theda Skocpol, Rhys H. Williams, or Jonathan Haidt, and scholars with interdisciplinary and conflict-oriented perspectives, such as those working in hate or peace and conflict studies.  

In the conclusion to Faith in the New Millennium, Amanda Porterfield reminds us that “every single advance made in broadening civil rights since the ratification of [the Constitution] has been a hard fought battle” (293). It’s a reassuring reminder in a time of renewed Christian nationalism and violent extremism that the collection did not seem to foresee and that, for the remainder of the second decade of the new millennium, may likely be our biggest political challenge.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Arkansas State University.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Avery Sutton is the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of History at Washington State University. He is the author of, most recently, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism.

Darren Dochuk is Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments