Mullen, “The Chance of Salvation”

9780674975620-lgObservers since Tocqueville have noted the individualism that runs deep in the American character. This individualism extends to religion. Americans see religion as a personal decision, a voluntary choice of spiritual identity. The idea that one would have a moral obligation to adhere to the religion of one’s ancestors, or to a religion one has chosen for oneself but no longer finds compelling, is quite foreign to us. This individualism explains why conversion is comparatively frequent in America — more frequent than in Europe, for example. A new book from Harvard University Press, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America, by George Mason University professor Lincoln A. Mullen, traces the history of conversion in America. Looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

The United States has a long history of religious pluralism, and yet Americans have often thought that people’s faith determines their eternal destinies. The result is that Americans switch religions more often than any other nation. The Chance of Salvation traces the history of the distinctively American idea that religion is a matter of individual choice.

Lincoln Mullen shows how the willingness of Americans to change faiths, recorded in narratives that describe a wide variety of conversion experiences, created a shared assumption that religious identity is a decision. In the nineteenth century, as Americans confronted a growing array of religious options, pressures to convert altered the basis of American religion. Evangelical Protestants emphasized conversion as a personal choice, while Protestant missionaries brought Christianity to Native American nations such as the Cherokee, who adopted Christianity on their own terms. Enslaved and freed African Americans similarly created a distinctive form of Christian conversion based on ideas of divine justice and redemption. Mormons proselytized for a new tradition that stressed individual free will. American Jews largely resisted evangelism while at the same time winning converts to Judaism. Converts to Catholicism chose to opt out of the system of religious choice by turning to the authority of the Church.

By the early twentieth century, religion in the United States was a system of competing options that created an obligation for more and more Americans to choose their own faith. Religion had changed from a family inheritance to a consciously adopted identity.

 

Whyte, “Hoover”

9780307597960I’ve often thought that Herbert Hoover is an under-appreciated and under-studied figure. One of the great humanitarians of the twentieth century, whose executive skill was essential in feeding millions in Europe after World War I, he is, I suspect, unfairly assigned too much blame for the Great Depression. (Even Harry Truman said so, as I remember). And he is also, I suspect, unfairly blamed for one of the last anti-Catholic campaigns in American history, the election of 1928, in which he soundly defeated New York Governor Al Smith, who carried only the solid South. Hoover didn’t make religion an issue in that campaign, although his surrogates did–and Hoover certainly benefitted. Anyway, it seems to me wrong simply to dismiss Hoover, as so many do. A new book from Penguin Random House offers what looks like a valuable rehabilitation. Here’s a description of the book, Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times, by author Kenneth Whyte, from the publisher’s website:

The definitive biography of Herbert Hoover, one of the most remarkable Americans of the twentieth century–a revisionist account that will forever change the way Americans understand the man, his presidency, and his battle against the Great Depression.

A poor orphan who built a fortune, a great humanitarian, a president elected in a landslide and then routed in the next election, arguably the father of both New Deal liberalism and modern conservatism–Herbert Hoover is also one of our least understood presidents, conventionally seen only as a heartless failure for his handling of the Great Depression.

Kenneth Whyte fully captures this rich, dramatic life: from Hoover’s difficult childhood to his meteoric business career, his work saving hundreds of thousands of lives during World War I and after the 1927 Mississippi floods, his presidency, his painful defeat by Roosevelt, and his return to grace as Truman’s emissary to help European refugees after World War II. Whyte brings to life Hoover’s complexity and contradictions–his modesty and ambition, ruthlessness and extreme generosity–as well as his political legacy. Here is the epic, poignant story of the poor boy who became the most accomplished figure of his time, who worked ceaselessly to fight the Depression yet became the public face of America’s greatest economic crisis. Here, for the first time, is the definitive biography that captures the full scale of this extraordinary life.

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

“The 60s” (New Yorker Magazine)

Things really seem to be coming unglued in America today. Vulgarity, suspicion, and Right-Left hostility pervade our public life. Not a few thoughtful people wonder whether the American political experiment, and the liberalism that forms its foundation, can survive. I’m not sure our times are so unprecedented, myself. In the 1960s, for example, it surely must have seemed the nation would fall apart. And yet, we didn’t. A new anthology of 60’s writing from The New Yorker, published by Penguin Random House, looks interesting as a period piece–a chronicle of how the bien-pensant set saw things back then. The 60s: The Story of a Decade may offer some insights into our current condition as well. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

9780812983319The third installment of a fascinating decade-by-decade series, this anthology collects historic New Yorker pieces from the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century—including work by James Baldwin, Pauline Kael, Sylvia Plath, Roger Angell, Muriel Spark, and John Updike—alongside new assessments of the 1960s by some of today’s finest writers.

Here are real-time accounts of these years of turmoil: Calvin Trillin reports on the integration of Southern universities, E. B. White and John Updike wrestle with the enormity of the Kennedy assassination, and Jonathan Schell travels with American troops into the jungles of Vietnam. The murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., the fallout of the 1968 Democratic Convention, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Six-Day War: All are brought to immediate and profound life in these pages.

The New Yorker of the 1960s was also the wellspring of some of the truly timeless works of American journalism. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time all first appeared in The New Yorker and are featured here. The magazine also published such indelible short story masterpieces as John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” and John Updike’s “A & P,” alongside poems by Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

The arts underwent an extraordinary transformation during the decade, one mirrored by the emergence in The New Yorker of critical voices as arresting as Pauline Kael and Kenneth Tynan. Among the crucial cultural figures profiled here are Simon & Garfunkel, Tom Stoppard, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and Muhammad Ali (when he was still Cassius Clay).

The assembled pieces are given fascinating contemporary context by current New Yorker writers, including Jill Lepore, Malcolm Gladwell, and David Remnick. The result is an incomparable collective portrait of a truly galvanizing era.

Gura, “Man’s Better Angels”

This week our Scholarship Roundup contains books on the sociology and social history of religion in America. We begin today with a recent book from the Harvard University Press on American reform movements. A zeal for reforming society has long characterized American life, ever since the New England Puritans undertook their errand into the wilderness in the seventeenth century. Over time, though, the Calvinist Christian associations disappeared, to be replaced by other, non-sectarian forms of social progress. This past spring, Harvard published a history of some important antebellum reform movements, Man’s Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War, by University of North Carolina historian Philip F. Gura. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

9780674659544-lgBanks failed, credit contracted, inequality grew, and people everywhere were out of work while political paralysis and slavery threatened to rend the nation in two. As financial crises always have, the Panic of 1837 drew forth a plethora of reformers who promised to restore America to greatness. Animated by an ethic of individualism and self-reliance, they became prophets of a new moral order: if only their fellow countrymen would call on each individual’s God-given better instincts, the most intractable problems could be resolved.

Inspired by this reformist fervor, Americans took to strict dieting, water cures, phrenology readings, mesmerism, utopian communities, free love, mutual banking, and a host of other elaborate self-improvement schemes. Vocal activists were certain that solutions to the country’s ills started with the reformation of individuals, and through them communities, and through communities the nation. This set of assumptions ignored the hard political and economic realities at the core of the country’s malaise, however, and did nothing to prevent another financial panic twenty years later, followed by secession and civil war.

Focusing on seven individuals—George Ripley, Horace Greeley, William B. Greene, Orson Squire Fowler, Mary Gove Nichols, Henry David Thoreau, and John Brown—Philip Gura explores their efforts, from the comical to the homicidal, to beat a new path to prosperity. A narrative of people and ideas, Man’s Better Angels captures an intellectual moment in American history that has been overshadowed by the Civil War and the pragmatism that arose in its wake.

Cutterham, “Gentlemen Revolutionaries”

Here is an interesting looking new book from Princeton on the Framers’ generation, Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic, by historian Tom Cutterham (University of Birmingham). Among other things, Cutterham addresses the clash between conservative supporters of religious establishment, mostly from New England states, and populists who wished to use the Revolution as a tool to break the hold of traditional religious authority. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:

k11021In the years between the Revolutionary War and the drafting of the Constitution, American gentlemen—the merchants, lawyers, planters, and landowners who comprised the independent republic’s elite—worked hard to maintain their positions of power. Gentlemen Revolutionaries shows how their struggles over status, hierarchy, property, and control shaped the ideologies and institutions of the fledgling nation.

Tom Cutterham examines how, facing pressure from populist movements as well as the threat of foreign empires, these gentlemen argued among themselves to find new ways of justifying economic and political inequality in a republican society. At the heart of their ideology was a regime of property and contract rights derived from the norms of international commerce and eighteenth-century jurisprudence. But these gentlemen were not concerned with property alone. They also sought personal prestige and cultural preeminence. Cutterham describes how, painting the egalitarian freedom of the republic’s “lower sort” as dangerous licentiousness, they constructed a vision of proper social order around their own fantasies of power and justice. In pamphlets, speeches, letters, and poetry, they argued that the survival of the republican experiment in the United States depended on the leadership of worthy gentlemen and the obedience of everyone else.

Lively and elegantly written, Gentlemen Revolutionaries demonstrates how these elites, far from giving up their attachment to gentility and privilege, recast the new republic in their own image.

 

Bordewich, “The First Congress”

The Supreme Court has, on occasion, given the decisions of the First Congress great weight in interpreting the Establishment Clause. The Framers of the First Amendment sat in the First Congress, so it seems plausible to look to their decisions as indications of what the Amendment meant to people at the time. The Court has not strictly held to this approach–when it comes to the Establishment Clause, it doesn’t strictly hold to any approach–but it’s there in the cases.

A new book by author Fergus Bordewich, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (Simon & Schuster), discusses the history. The publisher’s description follows.

the-first-congress-9781451692112_hrThis “fascinating” (Chicago Tribune), “lively” (The New York Times) history tells how the First Congress and the Washington administration created one of the most productive and far-reaching governments in American history—“gracefully written…and well worth reading” (The Wall Street Journal).

The First Congress may have been the most important in American history because it established how our government would work. The Constitution was a broad set of principles that left undefined the machinery of government. Fortunately, far-sighted, brilliant, and determined men such as Washington, Madison, Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson (and others less well known today) labored to create a functioning government.

In The First Congress, award-winning author Fergus Bordewich brings to life the achievements of the First Congress: it debated and passed the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which we know as the Bill of Rights; admitted North Carolina and Rhode Island to the union when they belatedly ratified the Constitution, then admitted two new states, Kentucky and Vermont, establishing the procedure for admitting new states on equal terms with the original thirteen; chose the site of the national capital, a new city to be built on the Potomac; created a national bank to handle the infant republic’s finances; created the first cabinet positions and the federal court system; and many other achievements. But it avoided the subject of slavery, which was too contentious to resolve.

The First Congress takes us back to the days when the future of our country was by no means assured and makes “an intricate story clear and fascinating” (The Washington Post).

FitzGerald, “The Evangelicals”

This month, Simon & Schuster release “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America,” by Frances FitzGerald.  The publisher’s  description follows:

This groundbreaking book from Pulitzer Prize­–winning historian Frances FitzGerald is the first to tell the powerful, dramatic story of the Evangelical movement in America—from the Puritan era to the 2016 presidential election.

the-evangelicals-9781439131336_hrThe evangelical movement began in the revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, known in America as the Great Awakenings. A populist rebellion against the established churches, it became the dominant religious force in the country.

During the nineteenth century white evangelicals split apart dramatically, first North versus South, and then at the end of the century, modernist versus fundamentalist. After World War II, Billy Graham, the revivalist preacher, attracted enormous crowds and tried to gather all Protestants under his big tent, but the civil rights movement and the social revolution of the sixties drove them apart again. By the 1980s Jerry Falwell and other southern televangelists, such as Pat Robertson, had formed the Christian right. Protesting abortion and gay rights, they led the South into the Republican Party, and for thirty-five years they were the sole voice of evangelicals to be heard nationally. Eventually a younger generation of leaders protested the Christian right’s close ties with the Republican Party and proposed a broader agenda of issues, such as climate change, gender equality, and immigration reform.

Evangelicals have in many ways defined the nation. They have shaped our culture and our politics. Frances FitGerald’s narrative of this distinctively American movement is a major work of history, piecing together the centuries-long story for the first time. Evangelicals now constitute twenty-five percent of the American population, but they are no longer monolithic in their politics. They range from Tea Party supporters to social reformers. Still, with the decline of religious faith generally, FitzGerald suggests that evangelical churches must embrace ethnic minorities if they are to survive.

Call for Papers: Religion and Politics in Early America

The Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis is hosting a conference entitled “Religion and Politics in Early America.” The conference will take place on March 1-4, 2018. The organizers of the conference are seeking proposals for both panels and individual papers. Proposals are due by Friday, May 26, 2017. Those interested in organizing a panel or submitting a paper can find more information here. The Danforth Center’s description of the conference follows:

Danforth Center.pngThis conference will explore the intersections between religion and politics in early America from pre-contact through the early republic. All topics related to the way religion shapes politics or politics shapes religion—how the two conflict, collaborate, or otherwise configure each other—will be welcomed. We define the terms “religion” and “politics” broadly, including (for example) studies of secularity and doubt. This conference will have a broad temporal, geographic, and topical expanse. We intend to create a space for interdisciplinary conversation, though this does not mean that all panels will need be composed of multiple disciplines; we welcome both mixed panels and panels composed entirely of scholars from a single discipline.

“A Liberalism Safe for Catholicism?” (Philpott & Anderson, eds.)

In June, the University of Notre Dame Press will release “A Liberalism Safe for Catholicism? Perspectives from The Review of Politics,” edited by Daniel Philpott (University of Notre Dame) and Ryan T. Anderson is (Heritage Foundation).  The publisher’s description follows:

This volume is the third in the “Perspectives from The Review of Politics” series, following The Crisis of Modern Times, edited by A. James McAdams (2007), andWar, p03317Peace, and International Political Realism, edited by Keir Lieber (2009). InA Liberalism Safe for Catholicism?, editors Daniel Philpott and Ryan Anderson chronicle the relationship between the Catholic Church and American liberalism as told through twenty-seven essays selected from the history of the Review of Politics, dating back to the journal’s founding in 1939. The primary subject addressed in these essays is the development of a Catholic political liberalism in response to the democratic environment of nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. Works by Jacques Maritain, Heinrich Rommen, and Yves R. Simon forge the case for the compatibility of Catholicism and American liberal institutions, including the civic right of religious freedom. The conversation continues through recent decades, when a number of Catholic philosophers called into question the partnership between Christianity and American liberalism and were debated by others who rejoined with a strenuous defense of the partnership. The book also covers a wide range of other topics, including democracy, free market economics, the common good, human rights, international politics, and the thought of John Henry Newman, John Courtney Murray, and Alasdair MacIntyre, as well as some of the most prominent Catholic thinkers of the last century, among them John Finnis, Michael Novak, and William T. Cavanaugh. This book will be of special interest to students and scholars of political science, journalists and policymakers, church leaders, and everyday Catholics trying to make sense of Christianity in modern society.

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