Christianity and American Democracy/Religious Freedom and the Constitution

By Moots, Glenn A. | Anglican and Episcopal History, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Christianity and American Democracy/Religious Freedom and the Constitution


Moots, Glenn A., Anglican and Episcopal History


Christianity and American Democracy. By Hugh Heclo. The Alexis de Tocqueville Lectures on American Politics. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007, Pp. ix, 299. $25.95.)

Religious Freedom and the Constitution. By Christopher L. Eisgruber and Lawrence G. Sager. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007, Pp. 333. $28.95.)

Though Christians made their self-conscious return to American politics over four decades ago, they increasingly provide fodder for scholarship and commentary. Some of this has come from "insiders," faithful scholars such as Mark Noll or Richard John Neuhaus who follow in the tradition of Jacques Maritain or Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr. But there is also a rising chorus of "outsiders" who perceive the intersection of faith and politics to betray American democracy.

Christianity and American Democracy enters the fray with helpful analysis and prescription. Hugh Heclo's Tocqueville Lecture, which also includes responses by Mary Jo Bane, Michael Kazin, and Alan Wolfe, together with a rejoinder by Heclo, asks what Christianity has meant for American democracy and what American democracy has meant for Christianity. In light of our contemporary squabbles, their analysis is both reassuring and troubling. Like any good historical analysis, it reminds us that our troubles are not entirely new. American democracy will survive. The more troubling question is what will become of Christianity in America?

Reflecting the erudite cast assembled, the text is often precise and clever. The book contains many a bon mot, particularly from Heclo. The essays do not offer the kind of "insider" tone found in Noll or Neuhaus, for example; but the book is no less a sincere and worthwhile meditation both on what it means to be an American and what it means to be a Christian.

Heclo's analysis and episodic history is worthwhile in its own right. Though his responders are collegial and admiring, they rightly point out where Heclo is either too ambitious or too narrowly focused. While Heclo's analysis largely addresses Protestant Christianity, Bane presents the evolving American Catholic tradition. Kazin provides a needed analysis of the early twentieth century. Wolfe and Kazin demonstrate the complicated (and complicating) differences among American Protestants. (Alas, Anglicans and Episcopalians are almost nowhere to be found amidst all the focus on Protestants and Roman Catholics.)

Heclo provides a welcome and spirited defense of those who seek to join faith to politics. And while Kazin moderates Heclo's optimism concerning the intersection of American democracy and Christianity, Heclo is probably right to suggest that we cannot conceive of the best of America's political traditions without a Christian ethos. But the inter section is not all good news, as Heclo and Wolfe point out. It is not just that American democracy has changed; so has American Christianity. Lamentably, the most recent and radical changes among the faithful resemble the poorer aspects of modern democratic culture.

Of course, any discussion of faith and politics in America cannot ignore the role of the courts. …

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