Winterer, “American Enlightenments”

f91c0ad896d2f4ffe39f2cfa7861d6ddIn yesterday’s book post, I noted that the American Revolution was more complicated and contingent an event than commonly understood. If one or two battles had gone differently, the Crown might well have prevailed, with all that implies for, among other things, church and state in America. And conventional wisdom errs in assuming that the Revolution was a straightforward project of the Enlightenment, and that the Enlightenment itself was a unified movement. A book released by Yale University Press last month, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason, by Caroline Winterer (Stanford), argues that the Enlightenment had many different, competing, not always consistent streams. The author apparently thinks the Cold War is responsible for our exaggerated sense of the unity of our Revolution and its Enlightened character, which seems doubtful. But the main theme of the book looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

A provocative reassessment of the concept of an American golden age of European-born reason and intellectual curiosity in the years following the Revolutionary War

The accepted myth of the “American Enlightenment” suggests that the rejection of monarchy and establishment of a new republic in the United States in the eighteenth century was the realization of utopian philosophies born in the intellectual salons of Europe and radiating outward to the New World. In this revelatory work, Stanford historian Caroline Winterer argues that a national mythology of a unitary, patriotic era of enlightenment in America was created during the Cold War to act as a shield against the threat of totalitarianism, and that Americans followed many paths toward political, religious, scientific, and artistic enlightenment in the 1700s that were influenced by European models in more complex ways than commonly thought. Winterer’s book strips away our modern inventions of the American national past, exploring which of our ideas and ideals are truly rooted in the eighteenth century and which are inventions and mystifications of more recent times.

Frazer, “God against the Revolution”

9780700626960“Let tyrants shake their iron rod / And Slav’ry clank her galling chains / We fear them not, we trust in God / New England’s God Forever Reigns.” These words from a famous Revolutionary song reflect the Patriots’ belief that the Almighty was on their side in the struggle against the Crown and for independence from Great Britain. This belief carried forward after the war, so that, when Tocqueville visited in the 19th century, he observed that Americans so completely conflated Christianity and “freedom” that they could not conceive of one without the other. But there was another side in the Revolution. Like many colonial rebellions, the Revolution was in truth a civil war, and one with religious undertones. The Loyalists also thought God was on their side. But as Anglicans and conservatives, they thought He favored, not Republicanism, but Monarchy and the Established Church.

A new book from the University Press of Kansas, God against the Revolution, by historian Gregg L. Frazer (The Master’s University) evaluates the arguments of Loyalist clergy. It looks like a fascinating book. Perhaps, like Bernard Bailyn’s famous biography of Loyalist Governor Thomas Hutchinson, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, it will encourage some sympathy with the losers in our Revolution. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Because, it’s said, history is written by the victors, we know plenty about the Patriots’ cause in the American Revolution. But what about the perhaps one-third of the population who opposed independence? They too were Americans who loved the land they lived in, but their position is largely missing from our understanding of Revolution-era American political thought. With God against the Revolution, the first comprehensive account of the political thought of the American Loyalists, Gregg L. Frazer seeks to close this gap.

Because the Loyalists’ position was most clearly expressed by clergymen, God against the Revolution investigates the biblical, philosophical, and legal arguments articulated in Loyalist ministers’ writings, pamphlets, and sermons. The Loyalist ministers Frazer consults were not blind apologists for Great Britain; they criticized British excesses. But they challenged the Patriots claiming rights as Englishmen to be subject to English law. This is one of the many instances identified by Frazer in which the Loyalist arguments mirrored or inverted those of the Patriots, who demanded natural and English rights while denying freedom of religion, expression, and assembly, and due process of law to those with opposing views. Similarly the Loyalist ministers’ biblical arguments against revolution and in favor of subjection to authority resonate oddly with still familiar notions of Bible-invoking patriotism.

For a revolution built on demands for liberty, equality, and fairness of representation, God against Revolution raises sobering questions—about whether the Patriots were rational, legitimate representatives of the people, working in the best interests of Americans. A critical amendment to the history of American political thought, the book also serves as a cautionary tale in the heated political atmosphere of our time.

Sheehan-Dean, “The Calculus of Violence”

9780674984226-lgIt’s a puzzlement. The American Civil War took place in a deeply Christian, even Evangelical society, only a short time after the Second Great Awakening. And yet the conflict was intensely bloody–more than 600,000 people died. How could people who took Christianity so seriously engage in such carnage? A forthcoming history from Harvard University Press, The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War, by scholar Aaron Sheehan-Dean (Louisiana State) maintains that the belligerents in fact tried to limit the bloodshed, that it could have been much, much worse. So perhaps the puzzle is not so great as it appears. Here is the description from the Harvard website:

Shiloh, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg—tens of thousands of soldiers died on these iconic Civil War battlefields, and throughout the South civilians suffered terrible cruelty. At least three-quarters of a million lives were lost during the American Civil War. Given its seemingly indiscriminate mass destruction, this conflict is often thought of as the first “total war.” But Aaron Sheehan-Dean argues for another interpretation.

The Calculus of Violence demonstrates that this notoriously bloody war could have been much worse. Military forces on both sides sought to contain casualties inflicted on soldiers and civilians. In Congress, in church pews, and in letters home, Americans debated the conditions under which lethal violence was legitimate, and their arguments differentiated carefully among victims—women and men, black and white, enslaved and free. Sometimes, as Sheehan-Dean shows, these well-meaning restraints led to more carnage by implicitly justifying the killing of people who were not protected by the laws of war. As the Civil War raged on, the Union’s confrontations with guerrillas and the Confederacy’s confrontations with black soldiers forced a new reckoning with traditional categories of lawful combatants and raised legal disputes that still hang over military operations around the world today.

In examining the agonizing debates about the meaning of a just war in the Civil War era, Sheehan-Dean discards conventional abstractions—total, soft, limited—as too tidy to contain what actually happened on the ground.

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.

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