American Religion, American Politics

An Anthology

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Joseph Kip Kosek
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , May
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since the 1600s, religion has had a continuous but shifting role in American political culture. Yet events in the twenty-first century have demonstrated that extreme and polarizing discourse on the separation of church and state can easily blind politicians and voters alike to this long and complicated history. Consider an episode in the presidential primary elections of 2012, in which Republican candidate Rick Santorum was asked his opinion of a classic campaign speech delivered by John F. Kennedy, Jr. to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960. In that speech, Kennedy sought to move his presidential candidacy beyond the anti-Catholicism that was deeply-rooted among certain segments of the American electorate by declaring to the ministers gathered in Houston that while he would maintain his personal religious convictions as president, those convictions would not override all other considerations in pursuing a political agenda. In 2012, Santorum (himself a Catholic) responded to Kennedy’s remarks in dramatic fashion: “I had the opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up.” In clarifying his remarks in the weeks that followed, Santorum explained that his disgust with the speech was largely over Kennedy’s insistence that the separation of church and state was absolute (“Interview with Rick Santorum,” This Week, ABC, 26 February 2012). Clearly, Santorum did not understand the historical context in which Kennedy made his remarks. Nor did he seem to grasp the historically fluid nature of American civil religion, and the ebbs and flows of its impact on American politics.

Yet Santorum is hardly the only person who struggles with such historical short-sightedness. Indeed, recent events demonstrate that it is difficult for millions of Americans to look beyond the immediacy of elections and the cantankerous partisan discourse that accompanies them in order to see this larger, more nuanced portrait of religion’s varied roles in American political history. Further education on the subject alone is not likely to fully bridge this gaping disconnect, but it’s a good—and essential—start. Enter American Religion, American Politics, a new anthology edited by Joseph Kip Kosek and published by Yale University Press.

The anthology opens with a forward by Jon Butler and an insightful introduction by Kosek, followed by transcriptions of thirty-four primary source documents that cover a broad chronology. Commencing with John Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charity” (1630) and concluding with Wendell Berry’s “Faustian Economics” (2008), American Religion, American Politics represents a sort of “greatest hits” approach to the rich documentary record of religion in the politics of the United States. These “greatest hits” include the 1649 Maryland Act Concerning Religion, James Madison’s 1785 “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” and Frederick Douglas’s 1847 “Love of God, Love of Man, Love of Country.” Documents associated with several significant court cases are presented as well, including the decisions in Reynolds v. United States (1878) on Mormons and plural marriage, two different cases from the 1940s on the controversy surrounding Jehovah’s Witnesses and the saluting of the American flag, and a case on the extent of religious freedom in Employment Division v. Smith (1990). The role of ministers and Christians in fighting for civil rights is presented to readers in the form of an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and Jerry Falwell’s 1965 sermon, “Ministers and Marches,” in opposition to the involvement in politics of ministers such as King. An unconventional—but delightful—inclusion in the anthology is Julia Ward Howe’s 1862 classic song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And, yes, John F. Kennedy’s “Address the Greater Houston Ministerial Association,” is included—aspiring politicians take note!

The documents are organized into seven chronological sections. Running throughout and between each of these sections are three interrelated themes that Kosek identifies in the volume’s introduction: the scope of religious freedom and toleration; religion’s role as an ethical compass for public life; and the character of the American nation. Kosek effectively brings these themes to readers’ attention throughout the book in brief introductions to each document featured therein. Readers receive a sampling of the language of each historical figure and an explanation of the context in which they wrote or spoke, all while grasping a sense of both change and continuity over time.

Like popular musicians who release “greatest hits” albums, editors of anthologies that are selective rather than comprehensive subject themselves to quibbles over what they included and what they omitted. But this is not always a constructive exercise. While scholars could easily argue with Kosek’s inclusion of one document over another, the anthology represents an earnest attempt to provide chronological coverage and attention to the way questions of gender, race, law, social reform, and international affairs brought religion into the country’s political discourse again and again. That being the case, the book would still have benefitted from the inclusion of a formal statement on Kosek’s editorial method beyond the few lines dedicated to this matter in the introduction. Such a statement would further explain the criteria employed by the editor in selecting documents and clarify the way he went about preparing the published transcripts. Including a statement of editorial method would have preempted a number of questions and criticism on these matters and would have been in keeping with the standards of the documentary editing profession.

Nevertheless, Kosek is successful in his stated goal for the book: to invite further study and reflection on the role of religion in American politics. The anthology is tailor-made to support undergraduate courses on the subject, whether based on a historical or interdisciplinary approach. Indeed, the introduction and presentation of the various documents are designed to elicit and support in-depth conversations on the themes that pervade the anthology. American Religion, American Politics is an important and timely collection of primary source documents that offers readers deeper historical perspective on many of the complicated and controversial issues currently influencing religion and American political culture.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Spencer W. McBride is historian and documentary editor at the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

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

Joseph Kip Kosek is the author of Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy. He is associate professor of American studies at George Washington University and lives in Falls Church, Virginia.


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