Interview with Christopher Buck, author of God & Apple Pie

Because of the diversity of religious beliefs that are present in the United States, the prospect of a singular religious vision for America and its role on the world stage is difficult to pin down. In God & Apple Pie: Religious Myths and Visions of America, Christopher Buck eschews any simple generalizations and instead chooses to survey eleven distinct religious traditions and the way that they frame the US in their canon and practices. Rather than landing on comfortable, generalized platitudes, Buck’s work offers a glimpse into the different and often conflicting ways that the subject, shadow, and promise of America factors into these different religious traditions. On July 8, 2018, I met with Dr. Buck on Skype to learn more about his work. – Troy Mikanovich, Assistant Editor

TM: Why don’t you start by telling me a little bit about God & Apple Pie? What are you arguing in the book and how did you get there?

CB: God & Apple Pie is based on a course that I designed and taught at Michigan State University in 2003–2004. At the time there wasn’t an argument or a thesis. After I moved to Pennsylvania and I was studying for the bar exam, a senior editor from Praeger sent me an email out of the blue saying, “We saw your syllabus; how would you like to put together a book proposal?” So I had to develop an argument. The two operative hypotheses I have, which are both quite general and I think fairly common-sense are first, “religions remythologize America,” and further, that “religions re-envision America.”

The book is a survey of eleven different religions, selected from among religions that have religious views of America either officially or popularly. In its original publication, the book was titled Religious Myths and Visions of America: How Minority Faiths Redefined America’s World Role. One of the themes in the book is America’s world role, however that’s defined—or “redefined”—by one of these religious traditions.

TM: In the United States, now as much as ever, some people are interested in having a debate between those who have a particularistic vision of American religion and those who have a pluralistic or inclusive vision of American religion. Was the process of revisiting the first publication of your work in 2009 informed at all by the current religious—or partisan—landscape?

CB: I would say that instead of this debate having informed the writing of God & Apple Pie, the current debate makes it more relevant.

TM: In what ways?

CB: I want to studiously avoid partisan politics, which I see as quite divisive. But on principle, there’s this idea of America’s world role—think of the slogan, “America First”—or, alternatively, “World First”—or some combination of these two catchphrases. President Woodrow Wilson, who was the only US president to have a PhD—a PhD in political science—is often credited by historians for being the first US president to openly define or propose America’s world role. Not that presidents didn’t have an idea of America’s place in world affairs before, but President Woodrow Wilson was arguably the first to articulate this vision of America’s world role so clearly and definitively. But that’s in the secular world. In the religious world, we have this idea of American exceptionalism going all the way back to the origins of America, and the “city upon a hill” idea that Ronald Reagan quoted in three speeches.

TM: He even added “shining”; it was now the “shining city upon a hill.”

CB: Yes—so, is that still the vision of America? And if so, what about America as an exemplar nation, whether religiously or socially? What can America contribute to the world? God & Apple Pie traces the evolution of an increasingly international awareness in the context of America’s world role.

TM: You talk about Woodrow Wilson ascribing a vision of America’s role in the world, but in a secular language. And as you say in the book, religious visions for the United States are not unique; there are plenty of other genres of vision: you can have a political vision for America, an economic vision. Would you say that there is anything important about religious visions for the United States? Are they potentially important in a way that political visions aren’t or that philosophical visions wouldn’t be?

CB: Where human values are sacralized, as they are in religions, then there is an added motivation, incentive, and dedication to such ideals. So you may have the same ideal expressed secularly, but the moment that it is adopted religiously it becomes charged with a sort of religious fervor or energy.

TM: Every year or so in the United States, there’s a Pew report that comes out saying that there’s a slightly higher percentage of “nones”: that by a lot of markers, the United States is experiencing some form of secularization. Perhaps there’s a secular vision that is trying to hold the religious visions you’re describing at a distance. What would you say to the secular response that argues that the problem with these religious visions is precisely their religious fervor, and that with different religious visions, it is unclear what common ground we have on which to decide what America should be.

CB: That’s where Robert Bellah’s idea of a “civil religion” comes into play. It mediates among the religions, translates—or potentially can translate—religious values into a kind of common ground that is intersubjectively available and shared—a shared vision, if you will. That has gotten a lot more attention than Bellah’s corresponding vision of a “world civil religion.” As you know, Bellah wrote a celebrated article called “Civil Religion in America.” Although he talks at some length about civil religion in the American context, Bellah also introduces the idea of a world civil religion. So, in God & Apple Pie, I suggest that American civil religion can tie in with an emerging world civil religion, to the extent that both can share universal human values.

TM: What changes have you noticed in religious visions for the world since the first edition of your book was published in 2009?

CB: The rise of the Islamic State, for one. In the chapter on Islamic visions of America, the 2009 edition dealt with the vision of America as the “Great Satan” as defined by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 during the Islamic revolution in the “Islamic Republic of Iran.” With the rise of the Islamic State, in the revised edition, God & Apple Pie, I now talk about these so-called “crusader nations,” with America being the ultimate one. I draw upon rhetoric and material from the first few issues of Dabiq, in particular.

TM: Looking at the list of the eleven specific traditions you treat in your book, I would say that some of them are more well known than others. If I was to hail someone on the street, they could probably tell me what the Puritan vision for the United States is before they could tell me what the Bahá’í vision is. Did you uncover anything readers might find surprising about visions for America from religious traditions less well known to the American public?

CB: The Bahá’í vision of America is intriguing. There is good solid evidence that Bahá’u’lláh (1817–1892), the prophet who founded the Bahá’í Faith, envisioned a special role for America—it was quite prophetic. A full vision of America’s world role was put forth by his son and successor and interpreter,  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844–1921). After the Young Turk Revolution in July 1908,  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was freed and he traveled to Europe and North America. And in 1912, when he was in America, he said something that is often quoted by Bahá’ís, that America “will lead all nations spiritually.” That’s a unique vision.

The Bahá’í have no clergy. They elect councils, local, regional, national and international. Shortly after 9/11, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times. There, its vision for America is articulated in terms of social principles. First it invoked the October 1985 document, “The Promise of World Peace”—an open letter addressed “To the Peoples of the World” by the “Universal House of Justice” (the democratically elected international Bahá’í council)—and then discussed its principles: (1) universally accepting the “spiritual principle of the oneness of humankind”; (2) abolishing “racism” as “a major barrier to peace”; (3) achieving the “emancipation of women and “full equality of the sexes”; (4) eliminating the “inordinate disparity between rich and poor”; (5) abandoning “unbridled nationalism, as distinguished from a sane and legitimate patriotism” for “a wider loyalty, to the love of humanity as a whole”; and (6) overcoming “religious strife.” So the Bahá’í vision of America is tied into certain socio-moral principles that Bahá’ís see as universal in scope. Basically, these principles—which are secular as well as religious—are something that should be on our agenda, as individuals and countries, and as a world. So what America should do, according to the Bahá’ís, is to take a leadership role in promoting these and kindred social ideals.

Let’s now go to the Buddhist visions of America. So, in chapter 11, on “Buddhist Myths and Visions of America,” first I wrote about the Dalai Lama, and speeches that he has given about America’s world role. He basically said that America should promote human rights internationally. This partly arose out of enlightened self-interest—since the Dalai Lama is part of a government in exile—but it also imparted a universal vision of America’s ideal world role as a “Buddhist democracy.”

The Soka Gakkai material was quite interesting, as well. When I was asked to come to Soka Gakkai meetings as a young man in my twenties, different practitioners gave their testimonies, and I remember one of them: “It was late at night, the convenience stores were closed, but I really wanted a bottle of wine, so I chanted nam-myoho-renge-kyo, and went down to my local convenience store and got my bottle of wine!” But there’s been a dramatic change since the 1970s, and that’s due to SGI President Daisaku Ikeda and his vision of world peace. His writings and his statements about internationalism and where the world should be going are very progressive. Ikeda published a book of poems called Songs for America that outline both his secular and religious, and secular-religious, visions for America as a moral leader, especially President Ikeda’s 1993 poem, “The Sun of Jiyu Over a New Land,” written during a visit to Los Angeles.

TM: Could your book be written about a different country? Could there be a Religious Myths and Visions of France  or a Religious Myths and Visions of Niger? You have talked about how, for these religious groups, the potential for the United States to enact this kind of global vision or global ethic seems to be what places America in these religious canons. Do these different traditions see some sort of potential or destiny for America that is theological? Or is America’s role just about being a means to an end?

CB: I think it varies according to the religious tradition. That would be the fairest statement. Two other countries immediately come to mind: Israel and India. Israel and India each offer rich mythic and visionary traditions that provide a wealth of resources for similar projects. So it would be easy to conceive of comparable titles, such as Religious Myths and Visions of Israel and Religious Myths and Visions of India. As for America, let me give an example. Yesterday, I read an interesting story from the Jerusalem Post about why American synagogues began to display the American flag. 

A perfect example of this is shown in the frontispiece of God & Apple Pie. It shows a picture of the Rodef Shalom synagogue here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, featuring the interior of the main sanctuary, where you can see American and Israeli flags flanking the bimah (the elevated podium from which the sacred Torah scroll is read aloud during a synagogue service). Below the frontispiece photo itself is a caption that gives the text of the special Passover haggadah (“the telling” of Exodus, recited on the first two nights of Passover) that calls for placing an American flag on the seder (ritual and ceremonial dinner) table. Dr. J. Leonard Levy, who was the Rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation from 1901–1917, prepared a Passover ritual that includes an extraordinary—and highly Americanized—liturgical reading, in which the United States is acclaimed as foremost among nations, because it grants the greatest liberty to all, which is why the American flag is placed on the table, in honor. This fascinating liturgy goes on to compare the Declaration of Independence to the “Great Charter” proclaimed by Moses before Pharaoh—and that the American abolitionists were a product of the Bible, and that the Fourth of July holiday (Independence Day) is the “American Passover,” and that Thanksgiving is the “American Feast of Tabernacles.” Quite a remarkable liturgy—which is why I chose this photograph and caption as the frontispiece for God & Apple Pie.

Let me give another example. Probably the religion where I had the most material to work from was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. For Mormonism, America is Zion, even though Zion later gets redefined as the Western hemisphere and eventually the whole world, but America still has a primary role. The LDS Church doesn’t have the same motivations we see in the Jewish vision of America—to safeguard freedom of religion for Jews and others. The Mormon perspective is that no matter what America does internationally, domestically the family, which constitutes the primary social fabric, must maintain the integrity of the social fabric. There is some overlap in different religious traditions’ views of America, but also a lack of common ground. The most divisive theme in the whole book is that of race, which emerges in the two most controversial chapters in the book: chapter 8 on “Christian Identity Myths and Visions of America” and chapter 9 on “Black Muslim Myths and Visions of America.”

Christian Identity—white nationalism—is an extreme form of a very common racial attitude among whites, historically. And what makes Christian Identity distinct from the Aryan Nations is that the Aryan Nations never really talks about religion. From what I can tell, they are pretty much secular. But Christian Identity is a term used by scholars to denote those white supremacists who rationalize or justify their racism based on the Bible. So there are various myths like the “mud peoples” myth, the myth of the creation of the Jews by intercourse between Satan and Eve—very repulsive and offensive stuff.

The chapter on Black Muslims articulates the paradigmatic form of black nationalism. In this chapter I talk about a four-part documentary that Mike Wallace (of 60 Minutes) produced and broadcast in 1959 which shocked white America, called “The Hate that Hate Produced.” The chapter goes through a number of black Muslim myths (referring here specifically to the Nation of Islam, and not to African American Muslims in general). For instance, you have the origin of the white race, created by an evil black scientist named Yakub who breeds babies for their progressively lighter—and ultimately white—skin. There’s also the destruction of America myth, along with Louis Farrakhan being taken up in a UFO called the “Mother Wheel” which contains I think 1,500 “baby planes” which are equipped with “drill bombs”—each of which can burrow a mile into the earth and explode and create a new mountain.

These are exotic myths. And quite different from the commitment to promoting ideal racial relations that you have, for example, in the Bahá’í Faith. During Jim Crow America, Bahá’ís launched what was called the “Race Amity” movement. Part of the idea was that people of different races should be able to intermarry if they so choose. That interested W. E. B. Du Bois greatly. His first wife, Nina Gomer Du Bois, was a member of the New York Bahá’í community for three years. And the first African American Rhodes Scholar, Alain Locke, became Bahá’í in 1918—back then it was called the “Bahá’í movement” or the “Bahá’í cause”—the same year he got his PhD in philosophy from Harvard University. So those are two different perspectives on a continuum, from black nationalism to interracial harmony.

By the way, Chapter 12—“Bahá’í Myths and Visions of America”—was recently released by the publisher as a third “sample chapter” along with the two previous sample chapters, “Native American Myths and Visions of America” (Chapter 2) and “Black Muslim Myths and Visions of America” (Chapter 9). Each of these three sample chapters includes the “Introduction” by J. Gordon Melton, Distinguished Professor of American Religious History, Baylor University, which is an enjoyable and eye-opening read, in and of itself.

TM: I am interested in the traditions that you didn’t look at. I would have expected, for instance, the Seventh-Day Adventists, or any tradition that was grown in the United States, to have some kind of grand vision of the United States. But as you note, they don’t really have a vision for the United States, per se. How did you distinguish between traditions that have some sort of vision for America versus traditions that have some kind of understanding of empire or some myth surrounding “the state” but don’t necessarily conceptualize the United States as being worth re-envisioning in any way?

CB: I was looking for examples of religious nationalism. I couldn’t find any religious nationalism in Seventh-Day Adventism. Rather, I found the opposite, because, according to one Adventist in 1851, America was interpreted as “the Beast” in Revelation 13. As another example, Jehovah’s Witnesses challenged American sacred symbols by refusing to salute the flag. So there’s no “religious nationalism” for Seventh-Day Adventists or Jehovah’s Witnesses. In terms of religious nationalism, some traditions were pretty obvious, like the Mormons. My criteria for inclusion in the book is either an official or popular (potentially collective) vision of America, not always in a positive way, but in a religiously meaningful way. One place where it is religiously meaningful but negative is the destruction of America myth from the Nation of Islam.

TM: How would you like people to use this book?

CB: Well, if I may, I would characterize God & Apple Pie as the ultimate “God and country” book! There are other books about Christian or Protestant visions of America, but we don’t see an example of minority religions (as James Moorhead called them) being included and seriously considered. When I talk about myths being “thought-orienting” and visions being “action-orienting,” that’s borrowed from symbolic anthropology, so the book could be deployed in that context. So God & Apple Pie would be an interesting American studies course textbook, because it deals so centrally with the idea of America.

I think that God & Apple Pie is an excellent point of departure for engaging in public discourse about America. The themes that arise in the book—from race relations or family values to world peace and prosperity—are perhaps most powerfully stated in religious discourse. Because of this, God & Apple Pie can be used as a resource for engaging in public discourse about America on topics that matter—without getting into divisive, partisan politics.