Two recent religion book reviews

My wife encouraged me to add more book reviews to my blogging habits, so I thought I would give that a try.

Just wanted to add two quick book reviews here-

The first is American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by David Campbell and Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame).  So much has been written about this book elsewhere, that I do not have anything to add to the conversation– other than that it has my unequivocal recommendation.  The authors do an incredible job of weaving sociological and statistical insights with detailed on-the-ground observations and vignettes that give the text a very complete scope.  For a book that relies heavily on statistics, it is remarkably easy to read.  I have neither seen nor heard of another such accessible text that gives such a good picture not just of where American religion is today, but where it is going.

The second book is The Myth of American Religious Freedom by David Sehat, a historian at Georgia State University.  While I also liked this book, I would add that it is mis-titled.  The title should have been A History of How Religious Persons Violated Other Americans’ Freedom, which after all, is a pretty good title for a book, and could have been one quite a bit longer than this one, weighing in at a slim 294 pages.  The author sets for himself the purpose to explode myths of religious freedom on both the political left and the right– first, that there is and has been a strict separation (or wall) between church and state and secondly, that religion is indispensable, both then and now, to the preservation of American freedom.  (Sehat also adds a third myth- the myth of religious decline, meaning that religion was once important to the American project, but has ceased to be so).  It strikes me that the first myth is an essentially historical question (Did the Founders establish a wall between church and state?), while the second represents a question of analysis that will necessarily evoke value judgments about the nature of “religion” and “freedom.”  Though the two questions do not quite stand directly on par, the author gets credit for achieving the goals that he has set out for himself, though in a way that will undoubtedly be more pleasing to partisans of one side more than the other.

Sehat traces the history of American religious conduct since prior to the American Revolution up to the present time, purportedly by examining the stories of those who fell outside of the religious mainstream.  This is a kind of historical reading, though the eyes of dissenters, pioneered by Howard Zinn and others, and I thought more could have been done with it here, particularly with non-Christian Americans.  He manages to disprove the liberal myth of separation by identifying and examining the persistent influence of something he terms the “moral establishment,” which is a loose group, changing in composition over time, but generally representing the mean of American religious life.  At the same time, the myth of religion’s contribution to the progress of freedom is disproven by simply showing what a nasty piece of work the moral establishment was (and is), due to its reliance on, as the author terms it, “coercion” rather than more democratic means of “consensus.”

The truth as Sehat recognizes it is that religion has consistently been tied into American history, politics, and society, but most frequently to the detriment of American freedom.  Here we miss what would have been a worthwhile leap out of the straight historical narrative of is (or was) and into the ethical framework of ought, a leap with which I understand some historians are predictably uncomfortable.  But the question remains worth asking: should a more solid separation of church and state been enforced? (which is to say nothing of who or how it would have been enforced, given that large portions of the most powerful institutions in American life either constituted or were heavily dominated by, the moral establishment)  Or likewise, what should have changed about American religious practice to make it a more positive contributor to American freedom?

Looking to this latter question, one area I would like to see further research and analysis is the capitalist-industrial-evangelical fusion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wherein large portions of the moral establishment acquiesced in and promoted the demands of capital over and against labor, and took the side of the mighty property owners against the working class.  Can we imagine an alternative form of the moral establishment which took the rights of labor and the welfare of the working class as a guiding principle?  Roman Catholicism did this, but at the time, as a minority under suspicion, it did not yet form part of the moral establishment.  Likewise, there are plenty of examples of religious communities operating under principles of religious socialism or collectivism (e.g. the Mormon United Order, the Oneida Community, the Amana colonies), but none achieved size or longevity of any kind and most were later subsumed by the capitalist hegemony.  What religious tenets or other accidents of history needed to change to create a group that could have served this purpose?

Despite feeling that Sehat could have gone farther (and that it was somewhat misleadingly titled), The Myth of American Religious Freedom is still a worthwhile read, particularly in an age such as our own, shot through with religious conflict, bad history, and Founder-worship.


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