Have Americans Lost Their Sense of Imagination?

The Marxist political theorist Benedict Anderson famously defined nations as “imagined communities” that depend on people’s illusion of membership in a shared national identity. The bonds that form as a result of this imagination can be remarkably strong. And when people lose the sense of common identity–when they no longer see themselves as part of a shared national heritage, even an imagined one–political dissolution can follow very quickly.

A new collection of essays from the University of Nebraska Press, Our American Story: The Search for a Shared National Narrative, edited by Joshua Claybourn, argues that Americans have lost a common store of symbols to unite us. The results seem obvious. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Over the past few decades, the complicated divides of geography, class, religion, and race created deep fractures in the United States, each side fighting to advance its own mythology and political interests. We lack a central story, a common ground we can celebrate and enrich with deeper meaning. Unable to agree on first principles, we cannot agree on what it means to be American. As we dismantle or disregard symbols and themes that previously united us, can we replace them with stories and rites that unite our tribes and maintain meaning in our American identity?

Against this backdrop, Our American Story features leading thinkers from across the political spectrum—Jim Banks, Pulitzer Prize–winner David W. Blight, Spencer P. Boyer, Eleanor Clift, John C. Danforth, Cody Delistraty, Richard A. Epstein, Nikolas Gvosdev, Cherie Harder, Jason Kuznicki, Gerard N. Magliocca, Markos Moulitsas, Ilya Somin, Cass R. Sunstein, Alan Taylor, James V. Wertsch, Gordon S. Wood, and Ali Wyne. Each draws on expertise within their respective fields of history, law, politics, and public policy to contribute a unique perspective about the American story. This collection explores whether a unifying story can be achieved and, if so, what that story could be.

A New History of the Councils

From Harvard, here is a new survey of recent–“recent” being a comparative term–ecumenical councils in the Catholic Church, When Bishops Meet: An Essay Comparing Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II, by Georgetown University scholar John O’Malley, whose work we have noted before. The book looks like it would be especially helpful for people who need an introduction to the subject. The publisher’s description follows:

From one of our foremost church historians comes an overarching analysis of the three modern Catholic councils—an assessment of what Catholicism was and has become today.

Catholic councils are meetings of bishops. In this unprecedented comparison of the three most recent meetings, John O’Malley traverses more than 450 years of Catholic history and examines the councils’ most pressing and consistent concerns: questions of purpose, power, and relevance in a changing world. By offering new, sometimes radical, even troubling perspectives on these convocations, When Bishops Meet analyzes the evolution of the church itself.

The Catholic Church today is shaped by the historical arc starting from Trent in the sixteenth century to Vatican II. The roles of popes, the laity, theologians, and others have varied from the bishop-centered Trent, to Vatican I’s declaration of papal infallibility, to a new balance of power in the mid-twentieth century. At Trent, lay people had direct influence on proceedings. By Vatican II, their presence was token. At each gathering, fundamental issues recurred: the relationship between bishops and the papacy, the very purpose of a council, and doctrinal change. Can the teachings of the church, by definition a conservative institution, change over time?

Councils, being ecclesiastical as well as cultural institutions, have always reflected and profoundly influenced their times. Readers familiar with John O’Malley’s earlier work as well as those with no knowledge of councils will find this volume an indispensable guide for essential questions: Who is in charge of the church? What difference did the councils make, and will there be another?

The Book of Common Prayer

People often give the King James Bible as a rare example of a beautiful text put together by government commission. Another example dates from the same period. The Book of Common Prayer traces back to the Tudors and, like the KJV, has entered into the common consciousness of the English-speaking world. The text was approved in 1559 by only three votes in the House of Lords, with no support at all from the Lords Spiritual. I’m not qualified to speak on the theology, but, at least in terms of the beauty and dignity of its language, those bishops definitely had it wrong.

Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs has written a new history, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. (Princeton University Press) Jacobs is always worth reading and this new book looks very interesting indeed. Here’s a description from the publisher’s website:

While many of us are familiar with such famous words as, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here. . .” or “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we may not know that they originated with The Book of Common Prayer, which first appeared in 1549. Like the words of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, the language of this prayer book has saturated English culture and letters. Here Alan Jacobs tells its story. Jacobs shows how The Book of Common Prayer–from its beginnings as a means of social and political control in the England of Henry VIII to its worldwide presence today–became a venerable work whose cadences express the heart of religious life for many.

The book’s chief maker, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, created it as the authoritative manual of Christian worship throughout England. But as Jacobs recounts, the book has had a variable and dramatic career in the complicated history of English church politics, and has been the focus of celebrations, protests, and even jail terms. As time passed, new forms of the book were made to suit the many English-speaking nations: first in Scotland, then in the new United States, and eventually wherever the British Empire extended its arm. Over time, Cranmer’s book was adapted for different preferences and purposes. Jacobs vividly demonstrates how one book became many–and how it has shaped the devotional lives of men and women across the globe.

Christianity & Political Theory

Earlier this month, InterVarsity Press released a new edition of David Koyzis’s survey of contemporary political theory from a Chrtistian perspective, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies. The last edition was published in 2003. A lot sure has happened since then. Here’s the publisher’s description:

What you believe about politics matters. The decades since the Cold War, with new alignments of post–9/11 global politics and the chaos of the late 2010s, are swirling with alternative visions of political life, ranging from ethnic nationalism to individualistic liberalism.

Political ideologies are not merely a matter of governmental efficacy, but are intrinsically and inescapably religious: each carries certain assumptions about the nature of reality, individuals and society, as well as a particular vision for the common good. These fundamental beliefs transcend the political sphere, and the astute Christian observer can discern the ways—sometimes subtle, sometimes not—in which ideologies are rooted in idolatrous worldviews.

In this freshly updated, comprehensive study, political scientist David Koyzis surveys the key political ideologies of our era, including liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democracy, and socialism. Koyzis gives each philosophy careful analysis and fair critique, unpacking the worldview issues inherent to each and pointing out essential strengths and weaknesses, as well as revealing the “narrative structure” of each—the stories they tell to make sense of public life and the direction of history. Koyzis concludes by proposing alternative models that flow out of Christianity’s historic engagement with the public square, retrieving approaches for both individuals and the global, institutional church that hold promise for the complex political realities of the twenty-first century.

Writing with broad international perspective and keen analytical insight, Koyzis is a sane and sensible guide for Christians working in the public square, culture watchers, political pundits, and all students of modern political thought.

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.”

Origins of the Two Swords

A few years ago, when we were in Trento for a summer meeting of the Tradition Project, I remember taking a picture of two crossed swords on the outside of the palace in the main square, symbolizing the office of the so-called “Prince Bishop,” a position created by the Holy Roman Emperor to embody the special powers of the secular-ecclesial steward in Trento (here, incidentally, is a review of a Trento restaurant called “Le Due Spade” but the reviewer claims the two swords refer to the shared Austrian-Italian power in Trento…I suppose it’s prettier to think so for the contemporary hungry tourist).

And here is a new book on the origins of the two swords view in the 13th century, The Two Powers: The Papacy, The Empire, and the Struggle for Sovereignty in the Thirteenth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press), by Brett Edward Whalen.

“Historians commonly designate the High Middle Ages as the era of the “papal monarchy,” when the popes of Rome vied with secular rulers for spiritual and temporal supremacy. Indeed, in many ways the story of the papal monarchy encapsulates that of medieval Europe as often remembered: a time before the modern age, when religious authorities openly clashed with emperors, kings, and princes for political mastery of their world, claiming sovereignty over Christendom, the universal community of Christian kingdoms, churches, and peoples.

At no point was this conflict more widespread and dramatic than during the papacies of Gregory IX (1227-1241) and Innocent IV (1243-1254). Their struggles with the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II (1212-1250) echoed in the corridors of power and the court of public opinion, ranging from the battlefields of Italy to the streets of Jerusalem. In The Two Powers, Brett Edward Whalen has written a new history of this combative relationship between the thirteenth-century papacy and empire. Countering the dominant trend of modern historiography, which focuses on Frederick instead of the popes, he redirects our attention to the papal side of the historical equation. By doing so, Whalen highlights the ways in which Gregory and Innocent acted politically and publicly, realizing their priestly sovereignty through the networks of communication, performance, and documentary culture that lay at the unique disposal of the Apostolic See.

Covering pivotal decades that included the last major crusades, the birth of the Inquisition, and the unexpected invasion of the Mongols, The Two Powers shows how Gregory and Innocent’s battles with Frederick shaped the historical destiny of the thirteenth-century papacy and its role in the public realm of medieval Christendom.

The Family That Prays Together

Several years ago, I watched the HBO version of David McCullough’s book on John Adams, the one with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. It was a good version, but one scene in the last episode annoyed me, because it seemed such an obvious mistake. At the end of his days, Adams advises his grandson always to remain optimistic about life: “Rejoice always!” Adams says. And when his grandson doesn’t recognize the reference, Adams admonishes him. “It’s from St. Paul,” he exclaims!

Except that’s not the full quote. The full quote from St. Paul is, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” I’m pretty confident Adams wouldn’t have edited it in the way the writers did, because Adams was a devout man for the whole of his life. Perhaps the writers thought the full quote would have unsettled too many HBO viewers.

A new book from Oxford, Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family, explores the way Christianity influenced that illustrious New England political dynasty–and, through them, American thought and politics. The author is Sara Georgini, editor of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Reflecting on his past, President John Adams mused that it was religion that had shaped his family’s fortunes and young America’s future. For the nineteenth century’s first family, the Adamses of Massachusetts, the history of how they lived religion was dynamic and well-documented. Christianity supplied the language that Abigail used to interpret husband John’s political setbacks. Scripture armed their son John Quincy to act as father, statesman, and antislavery advocate. Unitarianism gave Abigail’s Victorian grandson, Charles Francis, the religious confidence to persevere in political battles on the Civil War homefront. By contrast, his son Henry found religion hollow and repellent compared to the purity of modern science. A renewal of faith led Abigail’s great-grandson Brooks, a Gilded Age critic of capitalism, to prophesy two world wars.

Globetrotters who chronicled their religious journeys extensively, the Adamses ultimately developed a cosmopolitan Christianity that blended discovery and criticism, faith and doubt. Drawing from their rich archive, Sara Georgini, series editor for The Papers of John Adams, demonstrates how pivotal Christianity–as the different generations understood it–was in shaping the family’s decisions, great and small. Spanning three centuries of faith from Puritan New England to the Jazz Age, Household Gods tells a new story of American religion, as the Adams family lived it.

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