Varieties of American Religious Expression

Article excerpt

HAROLD BLOOM is hailed as one of America's finest literary critics. A scholar of enormous talent, he is a professor at Yale and New York Universities and author of more than 20 books, including "The Book of J" (1990), a provocative Biblical study written with David Rosenberg.

Bloom's new book, "The American Religion," is his observation of religion in the United States. America, Bloom asserts, is a "dangerously religion-soaked, even religion-mad, society." What is the nature of this pervasive and intoxicating religion? Bloom says that the American religion "masks itself as Protestant Christianity yet has ceased to be Christian."

Born around 1800, the American religion to Bloom (a Gnostic Jew) resembles ancient Gnosticism, particularly what he sees as creedlessness, emphasis on experience, and confidence in the redemptive power of "acquaintance with a God within the self."

For Bloom, the American religion has found enduring expression in the faith of the Mormons, Christian Scientists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, and Southern Baptists. Of these American originals, Bloom views the Mormons and Southern Baptists as the "two principal paradigms of the American Religion." His survey of the religious landscape in the United States also includes a scrutiny of African-American spirituality and the New Age movement.

Unlike Judaism and Christianity, the American religion is a Biblical faith, he says. Judaism, he writes, is "the religion of the Oral Law, the strong interpretation of the Bible set forth by the great rabbis of the second century of the Common Era." Similarly, Christianity is the religion of the "Church Fathers" and the theologians of the Protestant Reformation, who "joined the rabbinical sages in offering definitive interpretations that displaced Scripture. …