Religion and Politics in Modern America
- ISBN: 9780812247022
- Published By: University of Pennsylvania Press
- Published: March 2015
The time to read this 2015 book is now. Religion and politics in modern America is attracting new scholarship at a rate of speed rapid enough to soon outdate any map of the field. All nine of the conference papers included in this volume exemplify the best of the monographic literature up through the time of its production. The essays are highly focused research papers, each addressing a particular question in the religion-politics relationship since the Civil War, not overviews of a given section of that scholarly domain.
Two major trends in the field are powerfully registered in this collection. One is the deeper understanding of the political triumph of white, evangelical Protestantism during the last half-century. The other is the recognition of the enduring, if often unnoticed, significance of the liberal, ecumenical Protestantism often called “mainline.”
Of the contributions that enhance our understanding of the politically prominent evangelicals, the most vividly argued and well-documented are by Molly Worthen and Darren Dochuk.
Worthen, working antiphonally to her important 2013 book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press), explains the most salient of the theological foundations for a singular evangelical presence in public life. Concerned to hold off science’s potential threats to orthodoxy, conservative theorists fixed upon the notion of the “inerrancy” of scripture, which gradually became the foundation for a putative “Christian worldview” applying to all of life. Once all issues, public as well as private, were understood to fit together in a single whole, it was possible to move from one liberalizing political initiative to another, opposing each one in turn.
Dochuk, working antiphonally to his important 2010 book, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (W. W. Norton and Company), explores in detail a major example of how big-money, anti-statist forces became allied with fundamentalist opposition to the social gospel. Oil wildcatter Lyman Stuart fought the more well-established Rockefeller oil interests just as fundamentalists fought the liberal Protestants with whom the Rockefellers were sympathetic and whose enterprises they often funded. The ways in which politically conservative millionaires and billionaires have promoted evangelical Protestantism is now a major preoccupation of the field, and in this essay Dochuk provides an exceptionally lucid, compact study of exactly how this financial basis for a major feature of American public life came into being.
Of the contributions that advance our understanding of the role of evangelicalism’s rival, ecumenical Protestantism, the two most helpful essays are by Matt Hedstrom and Lily Geismer. Again, the essays here are closely linked to book-length studies by the authors.
In The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 2013), Hedstrom detailed the process by which “middlebrow” literature served to advance relatively cosmopolitan ideas in the liberal Protestant readership. In his contribution to Faithful Republic, Hedstrom extends his analysis and provides an especially helpful portrait of the former missionary, Frank Laubach, whose uplifting, mystical writings made him a household name now forgotten. Geismer, in Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (Princeton University Press, 2014), recounted the gradual shifting of the demographic base of the Democratic Party from urban unions to suburban professionals. In his article in this volume, Geismer provides a cogent analysis of how the Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and others along Route 128 near Boston instantiated this important change. Hedstrom and especially Geismer remind us that the “mainline” Protestants have remained important actors in American politics, if in less flamboyant modes than their evangelical contemporaries.
The five other essays are all valuable but display the ad hoc nature of the collection. Edward J. Blum’s analysis of the career of the black congressman, Adam Clayton Powel Jr., clarifies the scandal-intensive Harlem preacher’s relation to Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. Alison Collis Green shows how the New Deal inspired extensive support among the Protestant clergy of the South before conservative forces within their churches overwhelmed them. Lila Corwin Berman’s essay on Jewish urban politics is something of an outlier since it is not religion-focused. No doubt the editors felt the need to have Judaism represented in the volume, but Berman’s contribution, while excellent in its own terms, is more about Jews as an ethnic group than a religiously-defined population. David Mislin explores the relatively unknown cooperation of Catholic and Protestant leaders of the late 19th century in opposing divorce. Bethany Moreton studies a somewhat parallel Catholic-Protestant connection through the recent career of Newt Gingrich.
It is easy to think of major episodes nowhere addressed in this volume. The index contains no mention of Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the most politically important Protestant theologian of the 20th century. Walter Rauschenbusch who, as the most conspicuous leader of the social gospel, perhaps the most long-lasting religious movement in 20th-century America public life, is also missing. So, too, Father James Coughlin. There are other, comparable examples. But this book makes no effort to cover the waterfront and should be welcomed for what it is: a collection of nine splendid studies on specific research topics.
David A. Hollinger is Professor of American History at the University of California, Berkeley.David HollingerDate Of Review:September 8, 2018