The Christian Cultural Age

A new book by the popular historian Tom Holland documents the depth of the cultural transformations brought on by Christianity, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (Basic Books).

“Crucifixion, the Romans believed, was the worst fate imaginable. It was this that rendered it so suitable a punishment for slaves. How astonishing it was, then, that people should have come to believe that one particular victim of crucifixion-an obscure provincial by the name of Jesus-had been a god. Dominion explores the implications of this shocking conviction as they have reverberated throughout history.

Today, the West remains utterly saturated by Christian assumptions. Our morals and ethics are not universal. Instead, they are the fruits of a very distinctive civilization. Concepts such as secularism, liberalism, science, and homosexuality are deeply rooted in a Christian seedbed. From Babylon to the Beatles, Saint Michael to #MeToo, Dominion tells the story of how Christianity transformed the world.”

Roosevelt the Christian

Here is what looks like a useful new book on FDR’s Christian beliefs and how they influenced his progressive politics: A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt (Eerdmans), by John F. Woolverton.

“When asked at a press conference about the roots of his political philosophy, President Franklin Roosevelt responded, “I am a Christian and a Democrat.” This volume—part of the popular and widely acclaimed Library of Religious Biography series—tells the story of how the first informed the second, showing how FDR’s upbringing in the Episcopal Church and education at the Groton School under legendary headmaster and minister Endicott Peabody formed him into a leader whose politics were fundamentally shaped by the social gospel.

A work begun by religious historian John Woolverton (1926-2014) and recently completed by James Bratt, A Christian and a Democrat is an engaging analysis of the surprisingly significant religious life of one of the most important presidents in US history. Reading Woolverton’s account of FDR’s response to the toxic demagoguery of his day will reassure readers today that a constructive way forward is possible for Christians, for Americans, for the world.”

A Demography of Evangelicalism

We have noted Thomas Kidd’s fine work here before. I’m particularly enthusiastic about his biography of Patrick Henry which, together with Jon Kukla’s book, is one of the few comprehensive treatments of Henry.

In this new book, Kidd investigates the demographics of Christian Evangelicals. The book is Who Is An Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (Yale University Press), and looks very worthwhile.

“Evangelicalism is arguably America’s most controversial religious movement. Nonevangelical people who follow the news may have a variety of impressions about what “evangelical” means. But one certain association they make with evangelicals in America is white Republicans. Many may recall that 81 percent of self-described white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, and they may well wonder at the seeming hypocrisy of doing so.

In this illuminating book, Thomas Kidd draws on his expertise in American religious history to re-narrate the arc of this spiritual movement, illustrating just how historically peculiar that political and ethnic definition (white Republican) of evangelicals is. He traces distortions in the public understanding of evangelicals, and shows how a group of “Republican insider evangelicals” aided the politicization of the movement. This book will be a must-read for those trying to better understand the shifting religious and political landscape of America today.”

Urban Exceptionalism?

Here is a new book that explores the idea of American exceptionalism reflected in the Puritan John Winthrop’s famous line that America would be “as a city upon a hill” in the history of America’s urban life. The book is City on a Hill: Urban Idealism from the Puritans to the Present (Harvard University Press), by Alex Krieger.

“The first European settlers saw America as a paradise regained. The continent seemed to offer a God-given opportunity to start again and build the perfect community. Those messianic days are gone. But as Alex Krieger argues in City on a Hill, any attempt at deep understanding of how the country has developed must recognize the persistent and dramatic consequences of utopian dreaming. Even as ideals have changed, idealism itself has for better and worse shaped our world of bricks and mortar, macadam, parks, and farmland. As he traces this uniquely American story from the Pilgrims to the “smart city,” Krieger delivers a striking new history of our built environment.

The Puritans were the first utopians, seeking a New Jerusalem in the New England villages that still stand as models of small-town life. In the Age of Revolution, Thomas Jefferson dreamed of citizen farmers tending plots laid out across the continent in a grid of enlightened rationality. As industrialization brought urbanization, reformers answered emerging slums with a zealous crusade of grand civic architecture and designed the vast urban parks vital to so many cities today. The twentieth century brought cycles of suburban dreaming and urban renewal—one generation’s utopia forming the next one’s nightmare—and experiments as diverse as Walt Disney’s EPCOT, hippie communes, and Las Vegas.

Krieger’s compelling and richly illustrated narrative reminds us, as we formulate new ideals today, that we chase our visions surrounded by the glories and failures of dreams gone by.”

Pathologies of Higher Education

Not strictly speaking a law and religion book, yet nevertheless relevant to both law, which might take a more aggressive regulatory hand, and religion, inasmuch as religious institutions of higher education surely are comprehended. At any rate, here is a new book documenting extensive and deep-seated pathologies in just about every element of the modern university: Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education (Oxford University Press), by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness.

“Academics extol high-minded ideals, such as serving the common good and promoting social justice. Universities aim to be centers of learning that find the best and brightest students, treat them fairly, and equip them with the knowledge they need to lead better lives. 

But as Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness show in Cracks in the Ivory Tower, American universities fall far short of this ideal. At almost every level, they find that students, professors, and administrators are guided by self-interest rather than ethical concerns. College bureaucratic structures also often incentivize and reward bad behavior, while disincentivizing and even punishing good behavior. Most students, faculty, and administrators are out to serve themselves and pass their costs onto others. 

The problems are deep and pervasive: most academic marketing and advertising is semi-fraudulent. To justify their own pay raises and higher budgets, administrators hire expensive and unnecessary staff. Faculty exploit students for tuition dollars through gen-ed requirements. Students hardly learn anything and cheating is pervasive. At every level, academics disguise their pursuit of self-interest with highfalutin moral language. 

Marshaling an array of data, Brennan and Magness expose many of the ethical failings of academia and in turn reshape our understanding of how such high power institutions run their business. Everyone knows academia is dysfunctional. Brennan and Magness show the problems are worse than anyone realized. Academics have only themselves to blame.”

The Church of Capitalism

A relatively new style of criticism is emerging that describes modern commitments to ostensibly non-religious institutions and ideas–for example, the market, the international order, the liberal state, and others–in explicitly religious terms. This kind of criticism is not brand new, but what may be new is that one sees it from both the political right and left, though targeted at different institutions.

Here is a new book that seems to fit within this larger style of critique: The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (Harvard University Press), by Eugene McCarraher.

“Far from displacing religions, as has been supposed, capitalism became one, with money as its deity. Eugene McCarraher reveals how mammon ensnared us and how we can find a more humane, sacramental way of being in the world.

If socialists and Wall Street bankers can agree on anything, it is the extreme rationalism of capital. At least since Max Weber, capitalism has been understood as part of the “disenchantment” of the world, stripping material objects and social relations of their mystery and sacredness. Ignoring the motive force of the spirit, capitalism rejects the awe-inspiring divine for the economics of supply and demand.

Eugene McCarraher challenges this conventional view. Capitalism, he argues, is full of sacrament, whether or not it is acknowledged. Capitalist enchantment first flowered in the fields and factories of England and was brought to America by Puritans and evangelicals whose doctrine made ample room for industry and profit. Later, the corporation was mystically animated with human personhood, to preside over the Fordist endeavor to build a heavenly city of mechanized production and communion. By the twenty-first century, capitalism has become thoroughly enchanted by the neoliberal deification of “the market.”

Informed by cultural history and theology as well as economics, management theory, and marketing, The Enchantments of Mammon looks not to Marx and progressivism but to nineteenth-century Romantics for salvation. The Romantic imagination favors craft, the commons, and sensitivity to natural wonder. It promotes labor that, for the sake of the person, combines reason, creativity, and mutual aid. In this impassioned challenge, McCarraher makes the case that capitalism has hijacked and redirected our intrinsic longing for divinity—and urges us to break its hold on our souls.”

Democracy and Equality Fusionism

The fraught relationship of democracy and equality has got to be one of those hearty perennials of political theory. Yet there is a certain strand of political theory (one noticed, but not quite approved, by Tocqueville) that sees ever greater egalitarianism in every strand of American political and social life to be synonymous with American democracy, or its most perfect expression–operating, as Christopher Caldwell has recently put it, “outside of formal democracy, but always…invoking democracy’s name.” Turning away from the favored egalitarian values championed by the writer is also a turning away from democracy, or at least democracy as ideally understood (by the writer).

Here is a book that it seems is very much in this vein: Democratic Equality (Princeton University Press), by James Lindley Wilson.

“Democracy establishes relationships of political equality, ones in which citizens equally share authority over what they do together and respect each other as equals. But in today’s divided public square, democracy is challenged by political thinkers who disagree about how democratic institutions should be organized, and by antidemocratic politicians who exploit uncertainties about what democracy requires and why it matters. Democratic Equality mounts a bold and persuasive defense of democracy as a way of making collective decisions, showing how equality of authority is essential to relating equally as citizens.

James Lindley Wilson explains why the US Senate and Electoral College are urgently in need of reform, why proportional representation is not a universal requirement of democracy, how to identify racial vote dilution and gerrymandering in electoral districting, how to respond to threats to democracy posed by wealth inequality, and how judicial review could be more compatible with the democratic ideal. What emerges is an emphatic call to action to reinvigorate our ailing democracies, and a road map for widespread institutional reform.

Democratic Equality highlights the importance of diverse forms of authority in democratic deliberation and electoral and representative processes—and demonstrates how that authority rests equally with each citizen in a democracy.”

“JuBu” Fusionism

I confess I had never heard of this phenomenon, but it is certainly in keeping with other trends including the rise of the “Nones” (see Mark’s work on this front) and a kind of do-it-yourself-ism and spiritual-seeker bricolage when it comes to religion in America today. From Princeton University Press, this book is American JuBu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change, by Emily Sigalow.

“Today, many Jewish Americans are embracing a dual religious identity, practicing Buddhism while also staying connected to their Jewish roots. This book tells the story of Judaism’s encounter with Buddhism in the United States, showing how it has given rise to new contemplative forms within American Judaism—and shaped the way Americans understand and practice Buddhism.

Taking readers from the nineteenth century to today, Emily Sigalow traces the history of these two traditions in America and explains how they came together. She argues that the distinctive social position of American Jews led them to their unique engagement with Buddhism, and describes how people incorporate aspects of both into their everyday lives. Drawing on a wealth of original in-depth interviews conducted across the nation, Sigalow explores how Jewish American Buddhists experience their dual religious identities. She reveals how Jewish Buddhists confound prevailing expectations of minority religions in America. Rather than simply adapting to the majority religion, Jews and Buddhists have borrowed and integrated elements from each other, and in doing so they have left an enduring mark on the American consciousness.

American JuBu highlights the leading role that American Jews have played in the popularization of meditation and mindfulness in the United States, and the profound impact that these two venerable traditions have had on one another.”

And Speaking of Political Theology

Here is what looks like a very useful (although quite expensive) introduction to the subject of political theology: The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Political Theology (Wiley Blackwell, 2d edition), edited by William T. Cavanaugh and Peter Manley Scott.

“This book presents the latest thinking on the topic of contemporary Christian political theology, with original and constructive essays that represent a range of opinions on various topics. With contributions from expert scholars in the field, it reflects a broad range of methodologies, ecclesial traditions, and geographic and social locations, and provides a sense of the diversity of political theologies. It also addresses the primary resources of the Christian tradition, which theologians draw on when constructing political theologies, and surveys some of the most important figures and movements in political theology. This revised and expanded edition provides the most comprehensive and accessible introduction to this lively and growing area of Christian theology.

Organized into five sections, Wiley Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, Second Edition addresses the many changes that have occurred over the last 15 years within the field of political theology. It features new essays that address social developments and movements, such as Anglican Social Thought, John Milbank, Anabaptist Political Theologies, African Political Theologies, Postcolonialism, Political Economy, Technology and Virtuality, and Grass-roots Movements. The book also includes a new essay on the reception of Liberation Theology.”

The Return of Political Theology

Political theology, the study of the relationship between human authority and divine (or at least transcendent) authority, has sometimes been thought either a pre-liberal, pre-secular relic or, more plausibly in my own view, as generally flying stealthily just under the radar of political discourse. Both of these descriptions seem to miss something about the present moment, however, in which political theology is either reasserting itself (as against the first view) or showing itself more plainly and openly (as against the second). Law, as usual, is behind the times. I’m still waiting for somebody to write an account of the political theology of the Establishment Clause.

Here is a new book by Harvard history professor Eric Nelson (author of a terrific book on the powerful royalist–indeed, monarchist and neo-Stuart–views of some of the leading American statesmen including John Adams and Alexander Hamilton) all about the political theology of the present, dominant political ideology: The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God (Harvard University Press).

“We think of modern liberalism as the novel product of a world reinvented on a secular basis after 1945. In The Theology of Liberalism, one of the country’s most important political theorists argues that we could hardly be more wrong. Eric Nelson contends that the tradition of liberal political philosophy founded by John Rawls is, however unwittingly, the product of ancient theological debates about justice and evil. Once we understand this, he suggests, we can recognize the deep incoherence of various forms of liberal political philosophy that have emerged in Rawls’s wake.

Nelson starts by noting that today’s liberal political philosophers treat the unequal distribution of social and natural advantages as morally arbitrary. This arbitrariness, they claim, diminishes our moral responsibility for our actions. Some even argue that we are not morally responsible when our own choices and efforts produce inequalities. In defending such views, Nelson writes, modern liberals have implicitly taken up positions in an age-old debate about whether the nature of the created world is consistent with the justice of God. Strikingly, their commitments diverge sharply from those of their proto-liberal predecessors, who rejected the notion of moral arbitrariness in favor of what was called Pelagianism—the view that beings created and judged by a just God must be capable of freedom and merit. Nelson reconstructs this earlier “liberal” position and shows that Rawls’s philosophy derived from his self-conscious repudiation of Pelagianism. In closing, Nelson sketches a way out of the argumentative maze for liberals who wish to emerge with commitments to freedom and equality intact.”

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