Perry, “Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States”

9780691179131For most of our history, America has been a Biblical nation. I don’t mean that statement to be polemical. It’s simply a fact that, for hundreds of years, Americans had a deep familiarity with the Christian Bible and would routinely and unselfconsciously refer to it in their communal life, including their political life. Certainly this was the case at the start of our history. A new, interesting-looking book from Princeton University Press, Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States, by Princeton religion professor Seth Perry, explores the early history. Perry’s basic point seems to be that the Bible’s meaning–I assume he means the meaning the speaker was trying to convey, rather than the true meaning of the text–shifted depending on who was citing it, and for what purpose. Well, the Devil can cite Scripture. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Early Americans claimed that they looked to “the Bible alone” for authority, but the Bible was never, ever alone. Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States is a wide-ranging exploration of the place of the Christian Bible in America in the decades after the Revolution. Attending to both theoretical concerns about the nature of scriptures and to the precise historical circumstances of a formative period in American history, Seth Perry argues that the Bible was not a “source” of authority in early America, as is often said, but rather a site of authority: a cultural space for editors, commentators, publishers, preachers, and readers to cultivate authoritative relationships.

While paying careful attention to early national bibles as material objects, Perry shows that “the Bible” is both a text and a set of relationships sustained by a universe of cultural practices and assumptions. Moreover, he demonstrates that Bible culture underwent rapid and fundamental changes in the early nineteenth century as a result of developments in technology, politics, and religious life. At the heart of the book are typical Bible readers, otherwise unknown today, and better-known figures such as Zilpha Elaw, Joseph Smith, Denmark Vesey, and Ellen White, a group that includes men and women, enslaved and free, Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Mormons, Presbyterians, and Quakers. What they shared were practices of biblical citation in writing, speech, and the performance of their daily lives. While such citation contributed to the Bible’s authority, it also meant that the meaning of the Bible constantly evolved as Americans applied it to new circumstances and identities.

Rosen, “William Howard Taft”

9781250293695We round out this week’s book posts with a new biography of William Howard Taft, who managed to serve both as President and Chief Justice of the United States and who was, incidentally, the last American President to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. (It’s true. He was a Unitarian. You could look it up). The publisher is Macmillan and the author is law professor Jeffrey Rosen. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

The only man to serve as president and chief justice, who approached every decision in constitutional terms, defending the Founders’ vision against new populist threats to American democracy

William Howard Taft never wanted to be president and yearned instead to serve as chief justice of the United States. But despite his ambivalence about politics, the former federal judge found success in the executive branch as governor of the Philippines and secretary of war, and he won a resounding victory in the presidential election of 1908 as Theodore Roosevelt’s handpicked successor.

In this provocative assessment, Jeffrey Rosen reveals Taft’s crucial role in shaping how America balances populism against the rule of law. Taft approached each decision as president by asking whether it comported with the Constitution, seeking to put Roosevelt’s activist executive orders on firm legal grounds. But unlike Roosevelt, who thought the president could do anything the Constitution didn’t forbid, Taft insisted he could do only what the Constitution explicitly allowed. This led to a dramatic breach with Roosevelt in the historic election of 1912, which Taft viewed as a crusade to defend the Constitution against the demagogic populism of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Nine years later, Taft achieved his lifelong dream when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice, and during his years on the Court he promoted consensus among the justices and transformed the judiciary into a modern, fully equal branch. Though he had chafed in the White House as a judicial president, he thrived as a presidential chief justice.

Schlereth, “An Age of Infidels”

spring2018catalogcoverHere is an interesting-looking new book from the University of Pennsylvania Press on conflicts concerning religious liberty in the early Republic, An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States. The author, University of Texas at Dallas historian Eric R. Schlereth, maintains that Americans in the Framers’ generation decided to handle religious accommodation as a political rather than a legal matter. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:

Historian Eric R. Schlereth places religious conflict at the center of early American political culture. He shows ordinary Americans—both faithful believers and Christianity’s staunchest critics—struggling with questions about the meaning of tolerance and the limits of religious freedom. In doing so, he casts new light on the ways Americans reconciled their varied religious beliefs with political change at a formative moment in the nation’s cultural life.

After the American Revolution, citizens of the new nation felt no guarantee that they would avoid the mire of religious and political conflict that had gripped much of Europe for three centuries. Debates thus erupted in the new United States about how or even if long-standing religious beliefs, institutions, and traditions could be accommodated within a new republican political order that encouraged suspicion of inherited traditions. Public life in the period included contentious arguments over the best way to ensure a compatible relationship between diverse religious beliefs and the nation’s recent political developments.

In the process, religion and politics in the early United States were remade to fit each other. From the 1770s onward, Americans created a political rather than legal boundary between acceptable and unacceptable religious expression, one defined in reference to infidelity. Conflicts occurred most commonly between deists and their opponents who perceived deists’ anti-Christian opinions as increasingly influential in American culture and politics. Exploring these controversies, Schlereth explains how Americans navigated questions of religious truth and difference in an age of emerging religious liberty.

Strobel and Crisp, “Jonathan Edwards”

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American religious culture is a somewhat odd combination of Evangelical Christianity and the Enlightenment. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that a transcendent order and personal liberty are wholly compatible. This was one of the things that most perplexed Tocqueville, when he visited America in the 1820s. “Americans so completely confuse Christianity and freedom in their minds that it is almost impossible to have them conceive of the one without the other.”

Here, from Eerdman’s, is a new book on someone who definitely combined Evangelicalism and the Enlightenment, the 18th Century theologian and preacher, Jonathan Edwards: Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought, by scholars Kyle C. Strobel (Biola University) and Oliver D. Crisp (Fuller Theological Seminary). Most Americans probably think of Edwards as a fire-and-brimstone, Puritan revivalist of the First Great Awakening. His sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is a staple of American literature classes, or was, anyway. But he was also a polymath who became, at the end of his life, the president of the College of New Jersey, now called Princeton University. The book looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) has long been recognized as one of the preeminent thinkers in the early Enlightenment and a major figure in the history of American Christianity.

In this accessible one-volume text, leading Edwards experts Oliver Crisp and Kyle Strobel introduce readers to the formi­dable mind of Jonathan Edwards as they survey key theological and philosophical themes in his thought, including his doctrine of the Trinity, his philosophical theology of God and creation, and his understanding of the atonement and salvation.

More than two centuries after his death, theologians and historians alike are finding the larger-than-life Edwards more interesting than ever. Crisp and Strobel’s concise yet comprehensive guide will help students of this influential eighteenth-century revivalist preacher to understand why.

Rubin, “America, Aristotle, and the Politics of a Middle Class”

6065I’ve been re-reading Tocqueville for a writing project, and have been struck once again by the crucial role he sees for religion in the American character. Tocqueville saw religion as providing a necessary restraint in a liberal republic. “At the same time that the law permits the American people to do everything,” he observed, “religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything.” Religion inculcated humility, without which Americans might easily fall into prideful excess.

I thought of all this when I read the announcement of a very interesting-looking new book from Baylor University Press, American, Aristotle, and the Politics of a Middle Class, by the late scholar Leslie Rubin. Rubin argues that the America of the founding era manifested the virtues of modesty and moderation necessary for Aristotle’s vision of the best politics. I have to think the sober Protestantism of the founding era had much to do with it. Here is the description of the book from the publisher:

Aristotle’s political imagination capitalizes on the virtues of a middle-class republic. America’s experiment in republican liberty bears striking similarities to Aristotle’s best political regime—especially at the point of the middling class and its public role. Author Leslie Rubin, by holding America up to the mirror of Aristotle, explores these correspondences and their many implications for contemporary political life.

Rubin begins with the Politics, in which Aristotle asserts the best political regime maintains stability by balancing oligarchic and democratic tendencies, and by treating free and relatively equal people as capable of a good life within a law-governed community that practices modest virtues.

The second part of the book focuses upon America, showing how its founding opinion leaders prioritized the virtues of the middle in myriad ways. Rubin uncovers a surprising range of evidence, from moderate property holding by a large majority of the populace to citizen experience of both ruling and being ruled. She singles out the importance of the respect for the middle-class virtues of industriousness, sobriety, frugality, honesty, public spirit, and reasonable compromise. Rubin also highlights the educational institutions that foster the middle class—public education affords literacy, numeracy, and job skills, while civic education provides the history and principles of the nation as well as the rights and duties of all its citizens.

Wise voices from the past, both of ancient Greece and postcolonial America, commend the middle class. The erosion of a middle class and the descent of political debate into polarized hysteria threaten a democratic republic. If the rule of the people is not to fall into demagoguery, then the body politic must remind itself of the requirements—both political and personal—of free, stable, and fair political life.

Kengor, “A Pope and a President”

popeandpresident_frontcoverWe’re a little late getting to this, but last year ISI Books released this interesting-looking book: A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century. The author is Paul Kengor, a political science professor at Grove City College. The book explores the relationship between the Catholic Pope and the American President, and, in particular, their joint efforts against Soviet Communism in the 1980s. At the time, few people, certainly few political scientists, could have thought their efforts, and those of other opponents of the Soviet regime, would be successful. Yet both lived to see the fall of the Soviet Union in their lifetimes. Here is the publisher’s description:

Even as historians credit Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II with hastening the end of the Cold War, they have failed to recognize the depth or significance of the bond that developed between the two leaders.

Acclaimed scholar and bestselling author Paul Kengor changes that. In this fascinating book, he reveals a singular bond—which included a spiritual connection between the Catholic pope and the Protestant president—that drove the two men to confront what they knew to be the great evil of the twentieth century: Soviet communism.

Reagan and John Paul II almost didn’t have the opportunity to forge this relationship: just six weeks apart in the spring of 1981, they took bullets from would-be assassins. But their strikingly similar near-death experiences brought them close together—to Moscow’s dismay.

A Pope and a President is the product of years of research. Based on Kengor’s tireless archival digging and his unique access to Reagan insiders, the book reveals:

  • The inside story on the 1982 meeting where the president and the pope confided their conviction that God had spared their lives for the purpose of defeating communism
  • Captivating new information on the attempt on John Paul II’s life, including apreviously unreported secret CIA investigation—was Moscow behind the plot?
  • The many similarities and the spiritual bond between the pope and the president—and how Reagan privately spoke of the “DP”: the Divine Plan to take down communism
  • New details about how the Protestant Reagan became intensely interested in the “secrets of Fátima,” which date to the reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Fátima, Portugal, starting on May 13, 1917—sixty-four years to the day before John Paul II was shot
  • A startling insider account of how the USSR may have been set to invade the pope’s native Poland in March 1981—only to pull back when news broke that Reagan had been shot

Nancy Reagan called John Paul II her husband’s “closest friend”; Reagan himself told Polish visitors that the pope was his “best friend.” When you read this book, you will understand why. As kindred spirits, Ronald Reagan and John Paul II united in pursuit of a supreme objective—and in doing so they changed history.

 

 

Gerbner, “Christian Slavery”

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Earlier this week, I posted a book on the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and commented on the large role religion played in the civil rights movement. Of course, Christianity had a lot to do with that movement, historically, and a common appeal to Christian conscience had much to do with the movement’s success. But candor compels the recognition that Christianity’s record with regard to racial justice in America is mixed. A forthcoming book from the University of Pennsylvania Press, Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World, by University of Minnesota historian Katharine Gerbner, recounts some of the story. The publisher’s description follows:

Could slaves become Christian? If so, did their conversion lead to freedom? If not, then how could perpetual enslavement be justified? In Christian Slavery, Katharine Gerbner contends that religion was fundamental to the development of both slavery and race in the Protestant Atlantic world. Slave owners in the Caribbean and elsewhere established governments and legal codes based on an ideology of “Protestant Supremacy,” which excluded the majority of enslaved men and women from Christian communities. For slaveholders, Christianity was a sign of freedom, and most believed that slaves should not be eligible for conversion.

When Protestant missionaries arrived in the plantation colonies intending to convert enslaved Africans to Christianity in the 1670s, they were appalled that most slave owners rejected the prospect of slave conversion. Slaveholders regularly attacked missionaries, both verbally and physically, and blamed the evangelizing newcomers for slave rebellions. In response, Quaker, Anglican, and Moravian missionaries articulated a vision of “Christian Slavery,” arguing that Christianity would make slaves hardworking and loyal.

Over time, missionaries increasingly used the language of race to support their arguments for slave conversion. Enslaved Christians, meanwhile, developed an alternate vision of Protestantism that linked religious conversion to literacy and freedom. Christian Slavery shows how the contentions between slave owners, enslaved people, and missionaries transformed the practice of Protestantism and the language of race in the early modern Atlantic world.

Goldman, “God’s Country”

15764Here is an interesting-looking book arguing that the contemporary US-Israel alliance has less to do with recent phenomena and more to do with the historical identification Americans have had with Biblical Israel. The identification dates to the English Reformation. The Puritans brought with them a strong sense of commonality with the Israel of the Old Testament–consider all those Old-Testament names they gave their children–and that sense of identity has continued in American Protestantism, and therefore American culture more generally, ever since. In this way, contemporary Evangelicals really are the heirs of Cotton Mather.

The book is God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America (University of Pennylvania Press), by Samuel Goldman, a political scientist at George Washington University. The publisher’s description follows:

The United States is Israel’s closest ally in the world. The fact is undeniable, and undeniably controversial, not least because it so often inspires conspiracy theorizing among those who refuse to believe that the special relationship serves America’s strategic interests or places the United States on the morally correct side of Israel’s enduring conflict with the Palestinians. Some point to the nefarious influence of a powerful “Israel lobby” within the halls of Congress. Others detect the hand of evangelical Protestants who fervently support Israel for their own theological reasons. The underlying assumption of all such accounts is that America’s support for Israel must flow from a mixture of collusion, manipulation, and ideologically driven foolishness.

Samuel Goldman proposes another explanation. The political culture of the United States, he argues, has been marked from the very beginning by a Christian theology that views the American nation as deeply implicated in the historical fate of biblical Israel. God’s Country is the first book to tell the complete story of Christian Zionism in American political and religious thought from the Puritans to 9/11. It identifies three sources of American Christian support for a Jewish state: covenant, or the idea of an ongoing relationship between God and the Jewish people; prophecy, or biblical predictions of return to The Promised Land; and cultural affinity, based on shared values and similar institutions. Combining original research with insights from the work of historians of American religion, Goldman crafts a provocative narrative that chronicles Americans’ attachment to the State of Israel.

“The Political Writings of Alexander Hamilton” (Holloway & Wilson, eds.)

9781107088474Alexander Hamilton had a tempestuous inner life, including with respect to religion. Devout as a child, skeptical as an adult, towards then end of his life he seems to have become an orthodox Christian. Whatever his internal views, his position with respect to the public importance of religion was clear. He drafted Washington’s Farewell Address, one of the most important texts in American history on the place of religion in public life, and even proposed a Christian Constitutional Society, to counter Jacobinism in the United States.

The Christian Constitutional Society is one of the issues addressed in a new, two-volume collection from Cambridge University Press, The Political Writings of Alexander Hamilton. The editors are Carson Holloway (Nebraska) and our own Tradition Project participant Bradford Wilson (Princeton). Looks very interesting. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Few of America’s founders influenced its political system more than Alexander Hamilton. He played a leading role in writing and ratifying the Constitution, was de facto leader of one of America’s first two political parties, and was influential in interpreting the scope of the national government’s constitutional powers. This comprehensive collection provides Hamilton’s most enduringly important political writings, covering his entire public career, from 1775 to his death in 1804. Readers are introduced to Hamilton – in his own words – as defender of the American cause, as an early proponent of a stronger national government, as a founder and protector of the American Constitution, as the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, as President George Washington’s trusted foreign policy advisor, and as a leader of the Federalist Party. Presented in a convenient two volume set, this book provides a unique insight into the political ideas of one of America’s leading founders; a must-have reference source.

Walls, “Thoreau”

9780226344690Yesterday I posted about the connection between Spiritualists and Transcendentalists in nineteenth century America, and about new book that argues that Spiritualism may be making a comeback, re-enforced by new scientific theories. To round out this week’s books, here is a biography published earlier this year on one of the original Transcendentalists, Henry David Thoreau. In Yoder, the Supreme Court famously offered Thoreau as an example of what did not qualify as a religion for First Amendment purposes (Thoreau manifested a philosophy rather than a religion, the Court explained), but, with the rise of the Nones, who knows? Maybe Thoreau would be a religion of one. The book is Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by University of Notre Dame professor Laura Dassow Walls, and the publisher is the University of Chicago Press. Here’s the publisher’s description:

“Walden. Yesterday I came here to live.” That entry from the journal of Henry David Thoreau, and the intellectual journey it began, would by themselves be enough to place Thoreau in the American pantheon. His attempt to “live deliberately” in a small woods at the edge of his hometown of Concord has been a touchstone for individualists and seekers since the publication of Walden in 1854.

But there was much more to Thoreau than his brief experiment in living at Walden Pond. A member of the vibrant intellectual circle centered on his neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was also an ardent naturalist, a manual laborer and inventor, a radical political activist, and more. Many books have taken up various aspects of Thoreau’s character and achievements, but, as Laura Dassow Walls writes, “Thoreau has never been captured between covers; he was too quixotic, mischievous, many-sided.” Two hundred years after his birth, and two generations after the last full-scale biography, Walls restores Henry David Thoreau to us in all his profound, inspiring complexity.

Walls traces the full arc of Thoreau’s life, from his early days in the intellectual hothouse of Concord, when the American experiment still felt fresh and precarious, and “America was a family affair, earned by one generation and about to pass to the next.” By the time he died in 1862, at only forty-four years of age, Thoreau had witnessed the transformation of his world from a community of farmers and artisans into a bustling, interconnected commercial nation. What did that portend for the contemplative individual and abundant, wild nature that Thoreau celebrated?

Drawing on Thoreau’s copious writings, published and unpublished, Walls presents a Thoreau vigorously alive in all his quirks and contradictions: the young man shattered by the sudden death of his brother; the ambitious Harvard College student; the ecstatic visionary who closed Walden with an account of the regenerative power of the Cosmos. We meet the man whose belief in human freedom and the value of labor made him an uncompromising abolitionist; the solitary walker who found society in nature, but also found his own nature in the society of which he was a deeply interwoven part. And, running through it all, Thoreau the passionate naturalist, who, long before the age of environmentalism, saw tragedy for future generations in the human heedlessness around him.

“The Thoreau I sought was not in any book, so I wrote this one,” says Walls. The result is a Thoreau unlike any seen since he walked the streets of Concord, a Thoreau for our time and all time.

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