Magazine article The Christian Century

Faith in the New Millennium: The Future of Religion and American Politics

Magazine article The Christian Century

Faith in the New Millennium: The Future of Religion and American Politics

Article excerpt

Faith in the New Millennium: The Future of Religion and American Politics

Edited by Matthew Avery Sutton and Darren Dochuk

Oxford University Press, 320 pp., $24.95 paperback

I suspect that the one of the few tasks more difficult than reviewing a book of essays by disparate scholars is assembling such a collection in the first place. In the case of this volume, that challenge was compounded by the fact that its organizing principle was not so much a conference (although one took place) as the shared affiliation of most of the contributors with the Young Scholars in American Religion Program at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. This remarkable program has groomed promising scholars in the field, and some of their work is on display here--although I confess that, as a historian, I'm always a tad chary about books with "future" in the title.

If such a volume is to succeed, it must be anchored by strong essays by established scholars, the academic equivalent of ringers. The editors, Darren Dochuk and Matthew Avery Sutton, more than amply fill that role, complemented by such luminaries as Edward J. Blum and Jennifer Graber--all historians, by the way. Some of the contributions are reworkings of previous scholarship (Sutton's study of apocalypticism, for instance), and others provide a glimpse into work in progress (such as Dochuk's examination of the relationship between religion and the oil industry).

One of the names invoked in several essays is David Barton, the faux historian who has fashioned a career out of manufacturing and propagating quotations from the nation's founders that "prove" that the United States is and always was a Christian nation. It's unfortunate that responsible scholars have to expend any energy whatsoever to refute such nonsense, but the cult of Christian nationalism is one of the many historical fantasies that the religious right has unleashed on the American public.

Kate Carte Engel, who studies the era of the founders, takes on these distortions, arguing that the perpetuation of this myth in certain circles is itself a form of religious ritual. Mark Chancey's essay about the follies of the Texas State Board of Education illustrates the mischief that Barton and his fabrications have caused in public education.

Several chapters deal with the rise of the nones in recent years, a phenomenon attributable to several factors, not least the crass politicization of religion since the late 1970s. Anthea Butler examines the quandary of African-American conservatives in coming to terms with a prochoice president who supports same-sex marriage, and Arlene Sanchez-Walsh finds that "Latino/a evangelicals have a higher proportion of anti-immigrant attitudes than Latino/a Catholics and mainline Protestants." Charles F. Irons compares John F. Kennedy's speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 with Mitt Romney's address about his faith at Texas A&M University 47 years later, although he fails to note that whereas Kennedy affirmed the First Amendment and the separation of church and state, Romney, looking ahead to the 2008 Iowa precinct caucuses, refused to do so.

One of the more fascinating essays, "The Welfare of Faith," by Alison Collis Greene, delves into a chapter of American religious history that is only now beginning to attract the attention it merits: the Great Depression. …

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