The Politics of a Word in America

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Matthew Bowman
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , April
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Matthew Bowman’s Christianity: The Politics of a Word in America is an intellectual history of how the term “Christianity” has been put to political use in the United States from the 1870s to the present. It is a work that achieves the rare scholarly virtue of being both sweeping in its explanatory scope and appropriately reserved in its claim to comprehensiveness. Bowman convincingly explores how “talk about Christianity in America is essentially diverse and disputed” (4), showing how many different groups used the term to articulate their political visions. But the book is also careful to present itself as “history” (11) that brings together a number of case studies to present a narrative through line.

Bowman argues that the term “Christianity” has been associated with a wide variety of political visions for the United States. Not just conservative or evangelical Christians, but mainline Protestants, radical spiritualists, black intellectuals, and Roman Catholics saw Christianity as central to America’s democratic civilization. The first chapter, which discusses the presidential election of 1872, illustrates Bowman’s approach. In that election three candidates—Olivia Woodhull for the Equal Rights Party, Ulysses S. Grant for the Republicans, and Horace Greeley for the Liberal Republicans—were each backed by partisans who claimed for their candidates the mantle of Christianity. Woodhull, for example, saw Christianity as a “radically optimistic ideology of human potential” which led her to back rights for women and African Americans (16), while Grant’s supporters portrayed him as a model of the “starched and civic-minded Christian republican tradition” characterized by a stern morality (18). The book carefully explains how many different political aims were articulated within this essentially contested term.

The book’s corollary point is that “Christianity” was typically juxtaposed against “materialism” in American history. Readers might already expect that “Christianity” was a contested term, but the surprising consistency with which that word was set against “materialism” lends a great deal of unity to Bowman’s narrative. Depending on who was using it, “materialism” could stand for the pursuit of wealth and consumer capitalism, the philosophical idea that everything was made only of matter, the excessive power of the state, or the racism at the root of American society. This persistent pairing of “Christianity” and “materialism” was the atmosphere in which American political discourse was conducted.

But just because those terms were omnipresent does not mean that everyone who deployed them did so with equal plausibility. The main change that this narrative uncovers is how the concept of Christianity became increasingly broad, moving from an association with specific forms of Christianity to a vague “Judeo-Christian” worldview. But at the same time, the term’s originally diverse political associations increasingly narrowed until in the recent past the term became associated almost exclusively with social conservatism and the regulation of sexuality.

Bowman narrates this shift in a series of chapters that explain how “Christianity” was deployed at different times by different groups. Columbia University’s course on Western civilization, adapted by many other universities and colleges, advanced a mainline Protestant vision of Christianity as undergirding Western democracy and civilization. At Howard University, scholars like the philosopher Alain Locke and the historian Carter G. Woodson agreed that Christianity was essential to civilization. But they argued that racism showed that the United States was a materialistic society, and they looked to Africa, especially Ethiopia, as the pinnacle of Christian civilization. Roman Catholics had internally competing political visions but criticized American capitalism ungoverned by natural law as materialist, and they looked to medieval Catholic Europe as the best Christian vision of society. The Cold War was the critical moment when visions of Christianity specific to particular denominations began to drop away in favor of a “Judeo-Christianity” marshalled against communist materialism. The civil rights movement for black political equality was motivated by a Christian vision and a political tradition associated more with African models than the materialist European-American tradition. But by the end of the century, white evangelicals had made “Christianity” a term associated almost exclusively with their resurgent conservatism.

A sign of a good work of scholarship is that it makes the reader wonder how its ideas could be extended beyond their original scope. In the case of this book, the most obvious question is whether the juxtaposition of “Christianity” and “materialism” extends earlier than the beginning of the book’s chronology. The book is primarily concerned with the 20th century, and it quite reasonably begins its analysis at the 1872 election—a bookend to its epilogue’s insightful discussion of the candidacies of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, both of whom represented a Christian political vision yet who were also criticized as not being Christians. But the Christian political ideologies discussed in the first chapter arrive on the scene in this book fully formed, though they have a longer backstory. While I suspect that the Christian/materialist concern would not map as neatly onto earlier parts of the 19th century, Bowman’s framework for understanding political discourse is sufficiently capacious that it could be taken in further directions by other scholars.

This book can be read as a part of the literature on religious pluralism in the United States. It offers an important contribution to that literature by showing how, despite the presence of religious diversity, the concept of Christianity was fundamental to American politics even as there was no consensus about what the term meant. This book can also be read as part of the historical literature on the rise of Christian right. What distinguishes this book from that literature is that rather than depicting Christian political language in the public sphere as a strange arrival on the scene in the late 20th century, it shows how that conception of Christian republicanism goes back to the 19th century, even if the vision of the Christian right has only recently displaced competing visions called Christian. This is the best sort of intellectual history: one which collects the diversity of American religious thought into a convincing narrative that uncovers the fundamental but changing conceptions that order Christian political discourse in the United States.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lincoln A. Mullen is Assistant Professor in the Department of History & Art History at George Mason University.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Bowman is Associate Professor of History at Henderson State University.


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