Magazine article The Christian Century

American Religious History

Magazine article The Christian Century

American Religious History

Article excerpt

The books that have most caught my eye this year track a wide-ranging and multivalent landscape and focus on groups that have not been prominent in the received narratives of U.S. religious history--the great mythic mash-up that imagines pious but bighearted Pilgrims founding a Christian nation that nevertheless separated church from state and promoted religious freedom. That version of the story is neither good history nor a usable compass for contemporary times. These books build cultural competence by contributing to an ever-renewing narrative of U.S. religious history that views community as constituted by difference.

April E. Holm's exhaustive research into antebellum evangelicals in Delaware, Maryland, western Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri has produced A Kingdom Divided: Evangelicals, Loyalty, and Sectionalism in the Civil War Era (Louisiana State University Press). The book tracks the transformation of a political argument into a theological one, and it's one that seems custom-made for the times we live in.

Holm recounts how the future mainline Protestant churches--Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists--divided the slaveholding South from the antislavery North in the decades leading up to Fort Sumter. But then she digs for the reason that, against expectations, those ruptures persisted after Lee's surrender.

"Religious reconstruction" failed, Holm argues, because southern white Protestants resisted northern missionaries and federal pressures (including loyalty oaths and requirements to display the U.S. flag inside churches). Border-state moderates also resisted these pressures, eventually throwing in their organizational lot with the vanquished South, whose denominations benefited from the numbers and resources that border churches brought their way. Southern Protestantism thereby became less geographically circumscribed, while its style of Christianity--suspicious of both federal power and the black citizenry in its midst--spread more broadly. Southern-style suspicions hardened into a theological commitment to the "spirituality of the church," which became a major bulwark against racial integration during the civil rights movement. This story matters urgently to contemporary American self-understanding.

Holm's book may be read as a genealogy of white Christian conservatism, styles of which survive to this day. In a similar genealogical vein, Matthew J. Cressler's Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migration (New York University Press) examines stories of black migrants from the South who found community in Southside Chicago's Catholic parishes. They became Catholics, and then after Vatican II, many became black Catholics as they further reshaped an already Americanized tradition by infusing it with self-consciously African and African American impulses.

Cressler's work adds two new dimensions to histories of religion in the civil rights movement. He shows how ritual practice contributed to black migrants' Catholic transformation and self-understanding, and then he demonstrates how that consciousness fused Black Power with black Catholicism in a rejection of liberal interracialist Catholicism. Cressler's black Catholics "rejected the notion that there was only one way to be Black and religious." Not all black folk in Chicago were Protestant; not all Catholics were white. As the second-largest black Catholic community in the United States, Chicago's black Catholics helped transform the nation and the Catholic Church with politically engaged faith during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Just as Cressler's history augments received understandings of black Catholicism, black radicalism, and civil rights, Su'ad Abdul Khabeer's new book adds to the sometimes contentious conversations about being Muslim American. (Her research also happens to focus on the Chicago area.) Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States (New York University Press) playfully welcomes prospective readers with a striking cover image: a photograph by Awol Erizku that recreates Vermeer's painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. …

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