God & Apple Pie

Religious Myths and Visions of America

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Christopher Buck
  • Troy, NY: 
    Educator's International Press
    , November
     2015.
     424 pages.
     $26.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781891928451.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As debates over America’s true nature and its ideal role in international affairs saturate current public discourse, Christopher Buck’s latest scholarly contribution is both timely and important. God and Apple Pie: Religious Myths and Visions of America offers readers an accessible account of the ways that America’s diverse religious communities have continually revised their understanding of America and their hopes for its future.

This work, released in 2015, is an expanded version of Buck’s Religious Myths and Visions of America: How Minority Faiths Redefined America’s World Role (Praeger Press, 2009). The change in title helps to clarify what this book does and does not try to do. As Buck explains in the first chapter, the goal of this book is not to document how or to what extent minority faiths’ visions of America have exerted a quantifiable influence on the American public sphere. Rather, Buck aims primarily to show that “religions remythologize and re-envision America.” In this regard, he offers compelling evidence. Furthermore, this edition contains a new introduction by J. Gordon Melton as well an entirely new chapter on the Christian Right as well as updates to each of the other chapters.

After the introduction and a chapter outlining the goals of the text, chapters 2 through 12 each treat a distinct religious tradition or group of traditions in America—Native American religions, Protestantism, the Christian Right, Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, Christian Identity, Black Islam, Contemporary Islam, Buddhism, and the Baha’i Faith. In each of these chapters, Buck presents the myths of America that have emerged from these religious groups and what those groups predict and prescribe for America’s future. The chapter on Mormonism is especially compelling, due in part to this religious tradition’s uniquely intimate relationship with the United States. Likewise, the chapter on the Baha’i Faith represents a valuable addition to the tiny but growing corpus of studies of this modern world religion.

Chapter 13 concludes the text and offers an argument about what America’s future should be, and how religions can contribute to that ideal. Buck judges that most of America’s religions increasingly affirm the ideals of internationalism, pluralism, and cosmopolitanism, and that those religions “can and should translate their shared ideals into an American civil religion—and a corresponding ethic—that can help form a basis for the world civil religion that Robert Bellah envisions,” (371).

Readers may find that an imbalance arises in the book’s treatment of these diverse traditions. This is due, in part, to the difference in the extent to which their authoritative texts or leadership figures have spoken about America. In this regard, Mormonism is exceedingly rich, Judaism is somewhere in the middle, and contemporary Islam is tough to analyze. Buck concludes that Islam does not yet offer any notable contribution to collective visions of America’s world role given that: 1) Radical Islamism only sees a negative role for America; and 2) Progressive Islam has not reached a consensus on the subject. These two points are valid, but perhaps a reconsideration of consensus as a condition for generalization about a group’s vision of America could create space for better appreciation of the positive visions of America that Muslims across the country share, and how those visions inspire public engagement.

Race is a crucial theme in this book, which faithfully traces the role of racial and racialized discourse throughout American religious history. The chapters on Christian Identity and Black Islam offer the most extended exploration of race and religion, but the overt racial implications of other religious visions of America—among Protestants and Mormons in particular—receive attention as well. In the concluding chapter Buck explains “The … history of the religious idea of America, therefore, can be analyzed, in part, as an evolution—protracted and painful—in the idea of the place of race and ethnicity in American life, as religiously valued. The evolution of American thought, with respect to the idea of America itself, is roughly a progression from religious—and often racial—particularism to universal inclusivism.” (349)

This overview of religions in America and their relationship with America as both “nation and notion” covers tremendous ground. To complete this massive undertaking as a single author demonstrates a remarkable breadth of knowledge, which lends weight to Buck’s analysis. God and Apple Pie is a veritable encyclopedia of both primary and secondary sources, but with the benefit of a more digestible presentation and a coherent narrative framework. Although the numerous, lengthy block quotes require some extra work from the reader, the overall effect is to empower the reader to see for themselves exactly how people within a given tradition mythologize and theologize America. That is to say, Buck shows as well as tells. This rich background information makes it easy for an educated reader unfamiliar with some or all of these religious traditions to jump into the text.

As one would expect with a work that covers this much ground, some nuance is lost. Buck chooses to make his points clear by favoring generalizing language and simplifications, thereby saving the reader from getting bogged down by disclaimers and qualifications. However, this also opens him up to criticism for reifying categories and labels that, although practical for his purposes, are inherently problematic. For instance, Buck offers a taxonomy of Islamic responses to modernity in which he states that Sunni Muslim clerics can best be understood as traditionalists whose goal is “to preserve the status quo.” If another edition appears in the future, the allocation of space to discuss the complexity that such generalizations mask would make the text stronger.

God and Apple Pie offers a valuable contribution to readers looking to understand why religion matters in America and how different American religious groups have seen their relationship with their country. Any reader, no matter how well versed in religious traditions, would learn a great deal by perusing its pages. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Emily Goshey is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Princeton University.

Date of Review: 
August 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher Buck is a Pennsylvania attorney and independent scholar who has taught at Michigan State University, Quincy University, Millikin University, and Carleton University. His publications include Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy; Paradise and Paradigm: Key Symbols in Persian Christianity and the Bahá’í Faith; Symbol and Secret: Qur’an Commentary in Bahá’u’lláh’s Kitáb-i-Íqán, as well as a number of book chapters, journal articles, and encyclopedia articles. 

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