Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America/A Nation of Religions: The Politics of Pluralism in Multireligious America
Lawrence, John Shelton, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)
Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America Ellis Sandoz. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006. Eric Voegelin Institute Series in Political Philosophy: Studies in Religion and Politics.
A Nation of Religions: The Politics of Pluralism in Multireligious America Stephen Prothero, Editor. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
For conservatives, major institutional failures signal the forgetful neglect of an esteemed past. In contrast, progressives envision future more splendid futures and often celebrate the changing present as préfigurations. Taken together, these two books evoke a dialectic between these two stances toward religion and state. The preferred past of Ellis Sandoz is constituted by biblically faithful Protestants, their thinking also shaped by English common law and education in the ancient classics. The evolutionary present of Prothero and contributors is populated by American Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and immigrant Christians from many continents. As these rapidly growing groups balance the conflicting imperatives of resistance and assimilation, they work the political and legal systems to secure a respected standing. Do they dilute American unity or give it a more perfect expression? Or both? That is the politics of change that these books help us grasp.
For many decades, Ellis Sandoz has been a disciple of the political theorist Eric Voegelin (1901-1985). After studying government with Voegelin at Louisiana State University and then in Munich, Sandoz eventually became Director of the Voegelin Institute for American Renaissance Studies at LSU. Voegelin had been a 1938 refugee from Germany. In Nazism, he saw the satanic demon of modernity and resolved in America to preach its causes (materialism, atheism, utopianism). His term for the mindset that abetted the massive slaughter of populations under Nazism and Soviet Communism was "gnosticism," understood as the hubristic conceit of believing that one can understand and transform all. His antidote for such delusion is constitutional democracy that remains in touch with Transcendent Being, one which steadily reminds the mere human of fallibility and history's contingencies. Sandoz, as the carrier for this Voegelin legacy, thus has animosity toward any "Enlightenment project" with the "nihilistic" tendency to question "the human capacity for self-government under Providential guidance" (xi-xii). But he is no end-time triumphalist, who expects the New Jerusalem if only we align our institutions with God's will or pledge to rid the world of evil. His dour pessimism prevents such fantasy: "Human beings are virtually ungovernable-an inference that we are obliged to accept as an axiom of politics, past, present, and future" (186; author's italics).
Despite this view, which will strike progressive minds as too deeply grumpy, Sandoz is a convincing expositor of important and undeniable strands in American political and religious history. Reflecting decades of working with source materials and commentary literature from the most eminent university presses, he offers inconvenient truths about "the soul of America"-to proponents of the wholly secular public square. The book's major arguments are comprised by chapter one, "Republicanism and Religion"; chapter two, "Foundations of American Liberty and Rule of Law"; chapter three, "Education and the American Founding"; and chapter four, "Americanism: The Question of Community in Politics." Chapter nine, "Truth and the Experience of Epoch in History" nicely synthesizes the arguments of earlier chapters and reaffirms, Sandoz's dedication to Voegelin, Havel, and Solzhenitsyn as prophets of the failures emanating from "forgetfulness, the lust for power, rebellion-or plain crookedness" (200). The remaining chapters are topical exegeses of Voegelin's theories or biography.
In 1998, the Library of Congress created an exhibition titled "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. …