America's Religious Wars

The Embattled Heart of Our Public Life

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Kathleen M. Sands
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , June
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Kathleen M. Sands’ America’s Religious Wars: The Embattled Heart of Our Public Life offers an intriguing historical and legal analysis of several major battlefronts that have ostensibly been fought over religion in the United States. Sands’ thesis is that religion itself is a construct utilized to colonize and ensure Christian dominance over non-Christian people. In turn, Euro-Protestants in the United States have regularly used “religion-talk” to obscure their efforts to maintain white supremacy. This obfuscation leads many Euro-Protestants to promote what Sands dubs “Americanism” over any traditional faith. Even when trudging over well-tilled ground, Sands’ analysis is fresh, thought provoking, and meticulously footnoted.

Sands’ introduction proposes six social ethics that she believes lie at the heart of conflicts about religion: “Freedom, equality, community, limited government, dignity, and distributive justice” (6). She illustrates how Americans believe in these ideals but place different weights and limitations on each. The author also lays out a tension well known to any scholar of American religious history: that Americans either see religion as “private and walled off from public life” (8) or as the foundation of the nation’s social values. She points out common fallacies when it comes to discussing religion: that religion is basically good or bad (it can be both), that all religions are the same (religion is historically used to differentiate in- versus out-groups), and that religious and secular operate in separate spheres (an impossible division).

Chapter 1 explores the colonial development of religion as a construct for legitimation. Sands traces this from the time of Christopher Columbus—when Christians claimed only they had religion—through European attempts to negotiate tolerance between Protestants and Catholics and onto Euro-Protestant efforts to recognize other world religions.

In chapter 2. Sands considers how America’s founders confounded the country’s ability to define public versus private religion by both building a wall between church and state and viewing religious virtues as the foundational glue of the country. She teases out the tensions in this paradox by examining George Washington’s interactions with the Quakers and Thomas Jefferson’s with the Baptists. Chapter 3 explores how this tension impacted Roman Catholics and Mormons, who were forced to give up beliefs with public implications.

Chapter 4 highlights how the refusal to see indigenous beliefs as valid religion allowed leaders like President Teddy Roosevelt to exterminate native beliefs even as he played at being Indian by hunting Buffalo in Sioux territory. Sands shows how white supremacy and social Darwinism fueled his “Americanism” far more than Christianity. The author juxtaposes Roosevelt’s story with Sioux leader Black Elk’s lifelong effort to reinvigorate the traditions of his people, even after his conversion to Catholicism.

The fifth chapter does a deep dive into the battle between evolution and creationism, exposing how both scientists and fundamentalists promoted white supremacy. Sands starts with the Scopes trial and ends with contemporary efforts to promote intelligent design in Pennsylvania. However, she demonstrates that the real battle is over who gets to shape the nation’s thought and social hierarchy.

Chapter 6 analyzes how Supreme Court legal arguments evolved over time, from first denying LGBTQ+ individuals basic sexual privacy to protecting their right to sexual privacy and then their right to marriage. Against this legal backdrop, Sands explores the very personal battles for dignity undertaken by Emilie Townes, an ordained American Baptist Church USA minister and dean of Vanderbilt Divinity school, who has explored the theological ethics of being Black, female, and lesbian; and Stephen Greenberg, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, who has written extensively on the theological ramifications of being a conservative Jew and gay. The chapter focuses on the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision to legalize same-sex marriage and the two immediately preceding court decisions looking at sexual privacy. Sands only briefly alludes to ongoing efforts to grant religious freedom exemptions mostly to conservative Christians in states where nondiscrimination laws include sexual orientation.

While Sands fulfills her initial promise to unveil the social ethics that underlay religion-talk in reference to freedom, equality, and dignity, she does so more implicitly than explicitly. References to limited government and community are infrequent, and distributive justice is barely mentioned. This line of analysis offered tremendous insight, and further development of these themes would have boosted the book’s contributions. However, her concluding emphasis on understanding how one’s identity shapes how one weighs these social ethics presents a promising way forward in an increasingly pluralistic country.

Fascinatingly, throughout her book, Sands regularly shows how civil religion, or the beliefs and values of the nation at large, shapes Americans more than the Protestant majority. However, she avoids the term save for reference to philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s narrow definition (32). Instead, she refers to the “Americanism” of Teddy Roosevelt and others to convey the American mix of sacred and secular ideals that Robert Bellah called civil religion ("Civil Religion in America." Daedalus 96, no. 1 [1967]: 1-21). The omission is noteworthy, but of course Sands’ main point is that all discussion of what is valid religion and what is not is an act of political legitimation.

Although some of her arguments may be polemical to some people, Sands regularly acknowledges traditionalist views as having their own validity. She shows a theologian’s care in seeking to navigate the diversity of beliefs present in her readership and in the United States.  Sands’ work provides both important context and good discussion fodder for use in graduate and undergraduate classes on American religious history, social history, and jurisprudence. The book is of particular value in American Studies programs to help students wrestle with current tensions and better understand why they need to know the religious history of the United States, and particularly the role Protestants have played. Sands’ work helps readers get closer to the “heart of the existing order” (284).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christina Littlefield is associate professor of communication and religion at Pepperdine University.

Date of Review: 
August 6, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kathleen M. Sands is professor of American studies at the University of Hawai?i at Manoa and the author of Escape from Paradise: Evil and Tragedy in Feminist Theology.


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