A New History of the Transcendentalists

The 19th century Transcendentalists cast a long shadow in American religious culture. Their insistence that the individual is the sole measure of religious truth has greatly affected our law as well, notwithstanding Chief Justice Burger’s famous dismissal of Henry David Thoreau in Wisconsin v. Yoder. And you might say Transcendentalism is having a moment today, with the rise of the Nones, a movement that represents a mainstreaming of many ideas bruited about in Concord parlors in the 1830s and 40s.

A new history from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, The Transcendentalists and their World, by Robert Gross (University of Connecticut) situates the Transcendentalists in their hometown, showing the ways that their daily interactions influenced their ideas. Looks very interesting. Here is the publisher’s description:

In the year of the nation’s bicentennial, Robert A. Gross published The Minutemen and Their World, a paradigm-shaping study of Concord, Massachusetts, during the American Revolution. It won the prestigious Bancroft Prize and became a perennial bestseller. Forty years later, in this highly anticipated work, Gross returns to Concord and explores the meaning of an equally crucial moment in the American story: the rise of Transcendentalism.

The Transcendentalists and Their World offers a fresh view of the thinkers whose outsize impact on philosophy and literature would spread from tiny Concord to all corners of the earth. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Alcotts called this New England town home, and Thoreau drew on its life extensively in his classic Walden. But Concord from the 1820s through the 1840s was no pastoral place fit for poets and philosophers.

The Transcendentalists and their neighbors lived through a transformative epoch of American life. A place of two thousand–plus souls in the antebellum era, Concord was a community in ferment, whose small, ordered society founded by Puritans and defended by Minutemen was dramatically unsettled through the expansive forces of capitalism and democracy and tightly integrated into the wider world. These changes challenged a world of inherited institutions and involuntary associations with a new premium on autonomy and choice. They exposed people to cosmopolitan currents of thought and endowed them with unparalleled opportunities. They fostered uncertainties, raised new hopes, stirred dreams of perfection, and created an audience for new ideas of individual freedom and democratic equality deeply resonant today.

The Transcendentalists and Their World is both an intimate journey into the life of a community and a searching cultural study of major American writers as they plumbed the depths of the universe for spiritual truths and surveyed the rapidly changing contours of their own neighborhoods. It shows us familiar figures in American literature alongside their neighbors at every level of the social order, and it reveals how this common life in Concord entered powerfully into their works. No American community of the nineteenth century has been recovered so richly and with so acute an awareness of its place in the larger American story.

Why Religion is Good for Democracy

We hear a lot these days about how religion threatens American democracy. The view almost amounts to a consensus in some parts of the academy. But that was not always the case. For most of American history, observers have thought that religion, and religious communities especially, help promote democracy. That was Tocqueville’s view, obviously, and he wrote the most insightful description of American society ever.

A new book from Princeton, Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy, by leading sociologist Robert Wuthnow, picks up the theme. Anything from Wuthnow is worth reading, and this new book looks like no exception. Here’s the description from the publishers website:

Does religion benefit democracy? Robert Wuthnow says yes. In Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy, Wuthnow makes his case by moving beyond the focus on unifying values or narratives about culture wars and elections. Rather, he demonstrates that the beneficial contributions of religion are best understood through the lens of religious diversity. The religious composition of the United States comprises many groups, organizations, and individuals that vigorously, and sometimes aggressively, contend for what they believe to be good and true. Unwelcome as this contention can be, it is rarely extremist, violent, or autocratic. Instead, it brings alternative and innovative perspectives to the table, forcing debates about what it means to be a democracy.

Wuthnow shows how American religious diversity works by closely investigating religious advocacy spanning the past century: during the Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement, the debates about welfare reform, the recent struggles for immigrant rights and economic equality, and responses to the coronavirus pandemic. The engagement of religious groups in advocacy and counteradvocacy has sharpened arguments about authoritarianism, liberty of conscience, freedom of assembly, human dignity, citizens’ rights, equality, and public health. Wuthnow hones in on key principles of democratic governance and provides a hopeful yet realistic appraisal of what religion can and cannot achieve.

At a time when many observers believe American democracy to be in dire need of revitalization, Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy illustrates how religious groups have contributed to this end and how they might continue to do so despite the many challenges faced by the nation.

Movsesian on Courts’ Responses to COVID Restrictions

I’m happy to announce that my essay, “Law, Religion, and the COVID-19 Crisis,” is now available in the Journal of Law and Religion (Cambridge). The essay discusses courts’ responses to COVID restrictions on public worship worldwide, and what the response of American courts indicates about our deep polarization in this country. Here’s the abstract:

This essay explores judicial responses to legal restrictions on worship during the COVID-19 pandemic and draws two lessons, one comparative and one relating specifically to U.S. law. As a comparative matter, courts across the globe have approached the problem in essentially the same way, through intuition and balancing. This has been the case regardless of what formal test applies, the proportionality test outside the United States, which expressly calls for judges to weigh the relative costs and benefits of a restriction, or the Employment Division v. Smith test inside the United States, which rejects judicial line-drawing and balancing in favor of predictable results. Judges have reached different conclusions about the legality of restrictions, of course, but doctrinal nuances have made little apparent difference. With respect to the United States specifically, the pandemic has revealed deep divisions about religion and religious freedom, among other things—divisions that have inevitably influenced judicial attitudes toward restrictions on worship. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed a cultural and political rift that makes consensual resolution of conflicts over religious freedom problematic, and perhaps impossible, even during a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Legal Spirits Episode 023: Journalist Kelsey Dallas on Religion in America Today

Kelsey Dallas, the national religion reporter for the Deseret News, is one of the best religion journalists writing today: thorough, fair, and insightful. In this episode, she joins us to explains why, after getting a graduate degree in religion from Yale, she left academics to become a reporter, and why she finds American religion so fascinating. Along the way, we discuss how the COVID-19 epidemic is affecting churches, what stories she’s watching for future articles, and the never-ending Contraceptive Mandate litigation. Listen in!

Around the Web

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

What Does the Methodist Divide Mean?

Logo of the United Methodist Church

In the past couple of decades, American Protestant churches have suffered divisions on the question of homosexuality, and same-sex marriage in particular. Conservative congregations and dioceses have seceded from progressive national bodies, which has led, in some cases, to acrimonious, high-profile litigation over church finances and property. For lawyers and scholars who study law-and-religion, these disputes raise complicated and interesting legal questions. For the litigants, they are often emotional and painful conflicts–divorces, really–that leave everyone, winners and losers, worse off.

It seems that the United Methodist Church (UMC), America’s second-largest Protestant denomination, will not be able to avoid a split over LGBT issues. The Methodists may, however, avoid litigation. This week, a group of church leaders announced a plan for the dissolution of the worldwide church that would allow conservative congregations and conferences to leave the main body and join a new conservative denomination. Under the proposal, the UMC would give the new denomination $25 million and allow departing congregations to keep their property, and departing clergy, their pensions. The UMC seems likely to approve the plan at its next general conference in May.

Observers believe that most American Methodist congregations, which support same-sex marriage, will stick with the main body. But the UMC is a global entity, and, worldwide, the opposite may be the case. In a post at Juicy Ecumenism, Mark Tooley observes that the majority of Methodists today live in Africa, where the church is growing. African Methodists are quite conservative on LGBT and other issues. As a global matter, then, the large majority of Methodists may end up in the new, conservative denomination. If that is the case, Methodism will reflect the same dynamic that exists in Christianity worldwide: growth in conservative churches in the developing world, decline in progressive churches in the developed world. Another sign that Christianity’s center of gravity may be shifting from the global North to the global South.

Is American Christianity in Decline?

In his column in last week’s Times, the always interesting Ross Douthat sifts through recent data on the decline of Christianity in the United States. It’s true, he writes, that the percentage of people declaring themselves Christian is declining, and that the percentage of Americans who tell pollsters they have “no religion” is increasing. But that doesn’t indicate an across-the board decline in Christian belief and practice. Seriously committed Christians remain so. It’s the nominal, weakly committed Christians who are leaving the churches:

The relative stability of the Gallup data fits with analysis offered by the sociologists Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock in a 2017 paper, “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion.” Drawing on the General Social Survey, they argued that the recent decline of institutional religion is entirely a function of the formerly weakly affiliated ceasing to identify with religious bodies entirely; for the strongly affiliated (just over a third of the American population), the trend between 1990 and the present is a flat line, their numbers neither growing nor collapsing but holding steady across an era of supposedly dramatic religious change.

That resilience should not be entirely comforting for Christian churches, since both their everyday work and their cultural influence depends on reaching beyond their core adherents, and inspiring a mix of sympathy and interest among people who aren’t at worship every week. Indeed, combining an enduring core of belief with a general falling-away could make the Christian position permanently embattled, tempting the pious to paranoia and misguided alliances while the wider culture becomes more anticlerical, more like 19th-century secular liberalism in its desire to batter down the redoubts of traditional belief.

But for now that resilience also puts some limits on how successfully anti-Christian policies can be pursued, how easily religious conservatism can be marginalized within the conservative coalition (not easily) and how completely the liberal coalition can be secularized — not completely at all, so long as its base remains heavily African-American and Hispanic. (The tragic racial polarization of American Christianity, in this sense, may have one positive effect: preventing a complete polarization of our politics between Christian and post-Christian coalitions.)

Douthat is right about this. As I’ve written elsewhere, the real story in American religion is its increasing polarization. The middle is dropping out in favor of extremes on either end: the Nones and the Traditionally Religious. Whether the departure of the Laodecians from America’s churches will be on the whole a good thing, for the churches and the society at large, remains to be seen.

A New Edition of a Classic Textbook

Next month, Eerdman’s will release a new edition of A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, a textbook by one of the greatest living historians of Christianity, Mark Noll (Notre Dame – Emeritus). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Mark Noll’s A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada has been firmly established as the standard text on the Christian experience in North America. Now Noll has thoroughly revised, updated, and expanded his classic text to incorporate new materials and important themes, events, leaders, and changes of the last thirty years. Once again readers will benefit from his insights on the United States and Canada in this superb narrative survey of Christian churches, institutions, and cultural engagements from the colonial period through 2018.

A New History of the Religious Left

We close out the week with a new history of the religious left, Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left, by historian Vaneesa Cook. Cook says it’s wrong to see the American left as hostile to religion. It’s just that the left has had its own religious tradition, which she calls “spiritual socialism.” The tradition is continued today, she says, by figures such as Bernie Sanders, Pope Francis, William Barber, and Cornel West. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Refuting the common perception that the American left has a religion problem, Vaneesa Cook highlights an important but overlooked intellectual and political tradition that she calls “spiritual socialism.” Spiritual socialists emphasized the social side of socialism and believed the most basic expression of religious values—caring for the sick, tired, hungry, and exploited members of one’s community—created a firm footing for society. Their unorthodox perspective on the spiritual and cultural meaning of socialist principles helped make leftist thought more palatable to Americans, who associated socialism with Soviet atheism and autocracy. In this way, spiritual socialism continually put pressure on liberals, conservatives, and Marxists to address the essential connection between morality and social justice.
Cook tells her story through an eclectic group of activists whose lives and works span the twentieth century. Sherwood Eddy, A. J. Muste, Myles Horton, Dorothy Day, Henry Wallace, Pauli Murray, Staughton Lynd, and Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke and wrote publicly about the connection between religious values and socialism. Equality, cooperation, and peace, they argued, would not develop overnight, and a more humane society would never emerge through top-down legislation. Instead, they believed that the process of their vision of the world had to happen in homes, villages, and cities, from the bottom up.
By insisting that people start treating each other better in everyday life, spiritual socialists transformed radical activism from projects of political policy-making to grass-roots organizing. For Cook, contemporary public figures such as Senator Bernie Sanders, Pope Francis, Reverend William Barber, and Cornel West are part of a long-standing tradition that exemplifies how non-Communist socialism has gained traction in American politics.

The Kids Are Alright

That young Americans affiliate with religion much less than past generations seems irrefutable. But does that mean twentysomethings lack interest in religion? Maybe–but most Nones, young and old, say something different. Nones lack interest in traditional religion, but typically say they believe in God and think it possible to follow their own, individuated, spiritual paths. A new book out this month from Oxford, The Twentysomething Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults, by sociologist Tim Clydesdale (College of New Jersey) and religious studies scholar Kathleen Garces-Foley (Marymount), explores the phenomenon. I wonder how it compares with Smith and Denton’s Soul Searching, from 2005? Here’s the description from the Oxford website:

Today’s twentysomethings have been labeled the “lost generation” for their presumed inability to identify and lead fulfilling lives, “kidults” for their alleged refusal to “grow up” and accept adult responsibilities, and the “least religious generation” for their purported disinterest in religion and spirituality. These characterizations are not only unflattering — they are wrong. 

The Twentysomething Soul tells an optimistic story about American twentysomethings by introducing readers to the full spectrum of American young adults, many of whom live purposefully, responsibly, and reflectively. Some prioritize faith and involvement in a religious congregation. Others reject their childhood religion to explore alternatives and practice a personal spirituality. Still others sideline religion and spirituality until their lives get settled, or reject organized religion completely.

Drawing from interviews with more than 200 young adults, as well as national survey of 1,880 twentysomethings, Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley seek to change the way we view contemporary young adults, giving an accurate and refreshing understanding of their religious, spiritual, and secular lives.