A New Book on Methodism

Methodism, with about 80 million adherents around the world, has had an enormous influence in American culture, ever since George Whitfield preached during the Great Awakening. Like many mainline Protestant churches, the United Methodist Church, the movement’s American branch, is experiencing internal strains right now, over issues like same-sex marriage, which divide some American Methodists from their co-religionists in Africa and other regions. Earlier this year, the General Conference of the UMC sustained global Methodism’s opposition to same-sex marriage–a surprise, given the pattern in other mainline churches, though the controversy probably isn’t over. So this seems an opportune moment for a new book from Oxford University Press, released earlier this month, Methodism: A Very Short Introduction, by theologian William Abraham (Southern Methodist). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Beginning as a renewal movement within Anglicanism in the eighteenth century, Methodism had become the largest Protestant denomination in the USA in the nineteenth century, and is today one of the most vibrant forms of Christianity. Representing a complex spiritual and evangelistic experiment that involves a passionate commitment to worldwide mission, it covers a global network of Christian denominations.

In this Very Short Introduction William J. Abraham traces Methodism from its origins in the work of John Wesley and the hymns of his brother, Charles Wesley, in the eighteenth century, right up to the present. Considering the identity, nature, and history of Methodism, Abraham provides a fresh account of the place of Methodism in the life and thought of the Christian Church. Describing the message of Methodism, and who the Methodists are, he also considers the practices of Methodism, and discusses the global impact of Methodism and its decline in the homelands. Finally Abraham looks forward, and considers the future prospects for Methodism.

Movsesian on Masterpiece Cakeshop

For those who are interested, the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy has published my article, Masterpiece Cakeshop and the Future of Religious Freedom, in the most recent issue. Here’s the abstract:

Last term, the Supreme Court decided Masterpiece Cakeshop, one of several recent cases in which religious believers have sought to avoid the application of public accommodations laws that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Court’s decision was a narrow one that turned on unique facts and did relatively little to resolve the conflict between anti-discrimination laws and religious freedom. Yet Masterpiece Cakeshop is significant, because it reflects broad cultural and political trends that drive that conflict and shape its resolution: a deepening religious polarization between the Nones and the Traditionally Religious; an expanding conception of equality that treats social distinctions—especially religious distinctions—as illegitimate; and a growing administrative state that enforces that conception of equality in all aspects of our common life. This article explores those trends and offers three predictions for the future: conflicts like Masterpiece Cakeshop will grow more frequent and harder to resolve; the law of religious freedom will remain unsettled and deeply contested; and the judicial confirmation wars will grow even more bitter and partisan than they already have.

Readers can also download the article from the SSRN website, here.

Episcopalians’ Influence in American Culture

Speaking simply in terms of social status, Episcopalians have traditionally been at the top of America’s informal religious hierarchy. This was much more the case a few generations ago, perhaps, and even more so in the early part of the 20th Century. (When Golden Age Hollywood wanted to portray the upper class at church, it almost invariably depicted Episcopalians–just think of The Philadelphia Story and The Bishop’s Wife). A forthcoming book from the University of North Carolina Press, Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression, by Peter Williams (Miami University), explores the influence of wealthy Episcopalians on urban culture in America. Here’s the publisher’s description:

This cultural history of mainline Protestantism and American cities–most notably, New York City–focuses on wealthy, urban Episcopalians and the influential ways they used their money. Peter W. Williams argues that such Episcopalians, many of them the country’s most successful industrialists and financiers, left a deep and lasting mark on American urban culture. Their sense of public responsibility derived from a sacramental theology that gave credit to the material realm as a vehicle for religious experience and moral formation, and they came to be distinguished by their participation in major aesthetic and social welfare endeavors.

Williams traces how the church helped transmit a European-inflected artistic patronage that was adapted to the American scene by clergy and laity intent upon providing moral and aesthetic leadership for a society in flux. Episcopalian influence is most visible today in the churches, cathedrals, and elite boarding schools that stand in many cities and other locations, but Episcopalians also provided major support to the formation of stellar art collections, the performing arts, and the Arts and Crafts movement. Williams argues that Episcopalians thus helped smooth the way for acceptance of materiality in religious culture in a previously iconoclastic, Puritan-influenced society.

Divided America

9780815736912_FCTo say that we have yet another book to post on religious and political divides in America sounds a bit sarcastic, but I don’t mean it that way. The fact that so many serious books are appearing on polarization in America reflects something that all of us recognize. Deep fissures are appearing in our culture and no one knows quite what to do about them–assuming that we want to do something about them, which also is unclear. A new book from Brookings, Divided Politics, Divided Nation: Hyperconflict in the Trump Era, by Brookings scholar Darrell West, offers a personal perspective, from someone who began life in conservative Christian culture and now works in elite progressive culture. Here’s the description from the publisher:

Why are Americans so angry with each other? The United States is caught in a partisan hyperconflict that divides politicians, communities—and even families. Politicians from the president to state and local office-holders play to strongly-held beliefs and sometimes even pour fuel on the resulting inferno. This polarization has become so intense that many people no longer trust anyone from a differing perspective. Drawing on his personal story of growing up as a fundamentalist Christian on a dairy farm in rural Ohio, then as an academic in the heart of the liberal East Coast establishment, Darrell West analyzes the economic, cultural, and political aspects of polarization. He takes advantage of his experiences inside both conservative and liberal camps to explain the views of each side and offer insights into why each is angry with the other. West argues that societal tensions have metastasized into a dangerous tribalism that seriously threatens U.S. democracy. Unless people can bridge these divisions and forge a new path forward, it will be impossible to work together, maintain a functioning democracy, and solve the country’s pressing policy problems.

American Saints

9781469649474Last October, I posted a new biography of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the Catholic Church’s first native-born American saint. This month, the University of North Carolina Press releases A Saint of Our Own: How the Quest for a Holy Hero Helped Catholics Become AmericanJudging from the publisher’s description (below), this book focuses not so much on the inner lives of Seton and other American saints, but on why American Catholics believed it so important to have the Church recognize them. American saints, the author maintains, helped American Catholics feel more at home in their culture. The author is historian Kathleen Sprows Cummings (University of Notre Dame):

What drove U.S. Catholics in their arduous quest, full of twists and turns over more than a century, to win an American saint? The absence of American names in the canon of the saints had left many of the faithful feeling spiritually unmoored. But while canonization may be fundamentally about holiness, it is never only about holiness, reveals Kathleen Sprows Cummings in this panoramic, passionate chronicle of American sanctity. Catholics had another reason for petitioning the Vatican to acknowledge an American holy hero.

A home-grown saint would serve as a mediator between heaven and earth, yes, but also between Catholicism and American culture. Throughout much of U.S. history, the making of a saint was also about the ways in which the members of a minority religious group defined, defended, and celebrated their identities as Americans. Their fascinatingly diverse causes for canonization—from Kateri Tekakwitha and Elizabeth Ann Seton to many others that are failed, forgotten, or still under way—represented evolving national values as Catholics made themselves at home. Cummings’s vision of American sanctity shows just how much Catholics had at stake in cultivating devotion to men and women perched at the nexus of holiness and American history—until they finally felt little need to prove that they belonged.

Some Good News About Religion in American Universities

9781481308717We’re a little late getting to this, but last September Baylor University Press released a book that argues religion is not in such dire shape in American academics: The Resilience of Religion in American Higher Education, by John Schmalzbauer (Missouri State) and Kathleen Mahoney (GHR Foundation). At a time when most observers see religiously-affiliated universities altering their missions to appeal to a more secular audience, for example, Schmalzbauer and Mahoney argue that many such institutions are actually embracing their founding faith traditions. Here’s a description of the book from the Baylor website:

A well-worn, often-told tale of woe. American higher education has been secularized. Religion on campus has declined, died, or disappeared. Deemed irrelevant, there is no room for the sacred in American colleges and universities. While the idea that religion is unwelcome in higher education is often discussed, and uncritically affirmed, John Schmalzbauer and Kathleen Mahoney directly challenge this dominant narrative.

The Resilience of Religion in American Higher Education documents a surprising openness to religion in collegiate communities. Schmalzbauer and Mahoney develop this claim in three areas: academic scholarship, church-related higher education, and student life. They highlight growing interest in the study of religion across the disciplines, as well as a willingness to acknowledge the intellectual relevance of religious commitments.  The Resilience of Religion in American Higher Education also reveals how church-related colleges are taking their founding traditions more seriously, even as they embrace religious pluralism. Finally, the volume chronicles the diversification of student religious life, revealing the longevity of campus spirituality.

Far from irrelevant, religion matters in higher education. As Schmalzbauer and Mahoney show, religious initiatives lead institutions to engage with cultural diversity and connect spirituality with academic and student life, heightening attention to the sacred on both secular and church-related campuses.

Sheen, King, and Falwell

Later this spring, Penn Press will publish Religion in the Public Square: Sheen, King, Falwell, by Ave Maria politics professor James Patterson. The book covers three preachers–not often linked–who influenced American public policy in the 20th Century. I wonder about Patterson’s point about Falwell: did Falwell instigate a breakdown in the post-war Judeo-Christian consensus or did he simply reflect it? Anyway, looks interesting. Here’s the publisher’s description

In Religion in the Public Square, James M. Patterson considers religious leaders who popularized theology through media campaigns designed to persuade the public. Ven. Fulton J. Sheen, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rev. Jerry Falwell differed profoundly on issues of theology and politics, but they shared an approach to public ministry that aimed directly at changing how Americans understood the nature and purpose of their country. From the 1930s through the 1950s, Sheen was an early adopter of paperbacks, radio, and television to condemn totalitarian ideologies and to defend American Catholicism against Protestant accusations of divided loyalty. During the 1950s and 1960s, King staged demonstrations and boycotts that drew the mass media to him. The attention provided him the platform to preach Christian love as a political foundation in direct opposition to white supremacy. Falwell started his own church, which he developed into a mass media empire. He then leveraged it during the late 1970s through the 1980s to influence the Republican Party by exhorting his audience to not only ally with religious conservatives around issues of abortion and the traditional family but also to vote accordingly.

Sheen, King, and Falwell were so successful in popularizing their theological ideas that they won prestigious awards, had access to presidents, and witnessed the results of their labors. However, Patterson argues that Falwell’s efforts broke with the longstanding refusal of religious public figures to participate directly in partisan affairs and thereby catalyzed the process of politicizing religion that undermined the Judeo-Christian consensus that formed the foundation of American politics.

Mahoney on the Religion of Humanitarianism

American politics is increasingly polarized along religious lines: the Democratic Party is increasingly secular, and the Republican Party increasingly religious. (I discuss this polarization, among other things, in a forthcoming article). But a religious left nonetheless exists: members of traditional faith communities who are committed to progressive causes. How strong the religious left is, and whether it will find a continuing place in the Democratic Party, is a matter of some debate.

I thought about the religious left when I saw the announcement for Daniel Mahoney’s new book, The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity (Encounter). Mahoney, a political philosopher at Assumption College, argues that progressivism is itself a kind of religion, one that divorces social justice from Christianity’s twin concern with transcendent truth. If Mahoney is right, then, at least with respect to Christianity, the attempt to harness Christianity to progressivism is doomed to fail. In any event, the book looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the Encounter website:

This book is a learned essay at the intersection of politics, philosophy, and religion. It is first and foremost a diagnosis and critique of the secular religion of our time, humanitarianism, or the “religion of humanity.” It argues that the humanitarian impulse to regard modern man as the measure of all things has begun to corrupt Christianity itself, reducing it to an inordinate concern for “social justice,” radical political change, and an increasingly fanatical egalitarianism. Christianity thus loses its transcendental reference points at the same time that it undermines balanced political judgment. Humanitarians, secular or religious, confuse peace with pacifism, equitable social arrangements with socialism, and moral judgment with utopianism and sentimentality.

With a foreword by the distinguished political philosopher Pierre Manent, Mahoney’s book follows Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in affirming that Christianity is in no way reducible to a “humanitarian moral message.” In a pungent if respectful analysis, it demonstrates that Pope Francis has increasingly confused the Gospel with left-wing humanitarianism and egalitarianism that owes little to classical or Christian wisdom. It takes its bearings from a series of thinkers (Orestes Brownson, Aurel Kolnai, Vladimir Soloviev, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) who have been instructive critics of the “religion of humanity.” These thinkers were men of peace who rejected ideological pacifism and never confused Christianity with unthinking sentimentality. The book ends by affirming the power of reason, informed by revealed faith, to provide a humanizing alternative to utopian illusions and nihilistic despair.

Movsesian on Religious Polarization

To follow on Marc’s post yesterday, here is the video of my panel presentation earlier this month’s at the annual Notre Dame Ethics and Culture Center Conference. The title of the panel, chaired by Notre Dame Law Professor (and Tradition Project member) Marah Stith McLeod, was “A House Divided–Polarization in Our Common Life,” and the subject of my talk, beginning at the 35:45 mark, was “Church and State in a Time of Polarization.” Thanks to Marah and my co-panelist, John Carr (Georgetown), and to the Notre Dame Center Director, Carter Sneed, for inviting me!

Pillar, “Why America Misunderstands the World”

9780231165914Americans, Winston Churchill supposedly said, can always be trusted to do the right thing, once they have exhausted all the other options. A forthcoming book from Columbia University Press argues that Americans typically make mistakes in foreign policy because we misperceive the world: Why America Misunderstands the World: National Experience and the Roots of Misperception, by Paul R. Pillar (Georgetown). Readers will have to judge for themselves. But it does occur to me that our lack of experience with deep and lasting religious conflict makes us tend to downplay the reality and significance of such conflict where it does exist–for, example, as the author suggests, in postwar Iraq. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:

Being insulated by two immense oceans makes it hard for Americans to appreciate the concerns of more exposed countries. American democracy’s rapid rise also fools many into thinking the same liberal system can flourish anywhere, and having populated a vast continent with relative ease impedes Americans’ understanding of conflicts between different peoples over other lands. Paul R. Pillar ties the American public’s misconceptions about foreign threats and behaviors to the nation’s history and geography, arguing that American success in international relations is achieved often in spite of, rather than because of, the public’s worldview.

Drawing a fascinating line from colonial events to America’s handling of modern international terrorism, Pillar shows how presumption and misperception turned Finlandization into a dirty word in American policy circles, bolstered the “for us or against us” attitude that characterized the policies of the George W. Bush administration, and continue to obscure the reasons behind Iraq’s close relationship with Iran. Fundamental misunderstandings have created a cycle in which threats are underestimated before an attack occurs and then are overestimated after they happen. By exposing this longstanding tradition of misperception, Pillar hopes the United States can develop policies that better address international realities rather than biased beliefs.

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