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.

Abramowitz, “The Great Alignment”

c12fe7bbfbb068920e7b30c9232dd9d0It often seems today that American society is coming apart. Our political, racial, and religious divisions seem ever more bitter and our capacity for goodwill and compromise ever more weak. Of course, this may only be a matter of perspective. Things might not be so bleak, or unusual. American society has been near fracture before. We had a civil war, in case people have forgotten. I heard someone say the other day that no one has ever accused a sitting president of treason before now; the person must never have heard of George Washington. And things looked awfully ominous in the 1960s. Perhaps our divisions only seem more pronounced than they have been . Perhaps, if we took a proper, historical view, today’s fissures wouldn’t be as worrying.

Well, a new book released today from Yale University Press maintains that we are right to be very worried, that our political, racial and religious divisions really are new and more bitter. The book is The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation, and the Rise of Donald Trump, by political scientist Alan I. Abramowitz (Emory). Readers can decide for themselves. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Alan I. Abramowitz has emerged as a leading spokesman for the view that our current political divide is not confined to a small group of elites and activists but a key feature of the American social and cultural landscape. The polarization of the political and media elites, he argues, arose and persists because it accurately reflects the state of American society. Here, he goes further: the polarization is unique in modern U.S. history. Today’s party divide reflects an unprecedented alignment of many different divides: racial and ethnic, religious, ideological, and geographic. Abramowitz shows how the partisan alignment arose out of the breakup of the old New Deal coalition; introduces the most important difference between our current era and past eras, the rise of “negative partisanship”; explains how this phenomenon paved the way for the Trump presidency; and examines why our polarization could even grow deeper. This statistically based analysis shows that racial anxiety is by far a better predictor of support for Donald Trump than any other factor, including economic discontent.

Kaplan, “Our American Israel”

9780674737624-lgA forthcoming book from Harvard University Press discusses America’s identification with Israel: Our American Israel: The Story of an Entangled Alliance, by University of Pennsylvania English professor Amy Kaplan. The author identifies several elements in post-war America that have led to the strong identification most Americans feel with the Jewish state, including the sense of biblical destiny. But Americans’ identification with Israel goes way back. American Protestantism has strongly identified with the Jews ever since the Puritans–just think of all those Old Testament names in New England. Even Thomas Jefferson wanted to make the story of the Exodus part of our national seal. Now that Israel is a nation state, the sense of common identity takes a somewhat different form, but it has been with us from the beginning. Here is the book’s description from the Harvard website:

An essential account of America’s most controversial alliance that reveals how the United States came to see Israel as an extension of itself, and how that strong and divisive partnership plays out in our own time.

Our American Israel tells the story of how a Jewish state in the Middle East came to resonate profoundly with a broad range of Americans in the twentieth century. Beginning with debates about Zionism after World War II, Israel’s identity has been entangled with America’s belief in its own exceptional nature. Now, in the twenty-first century, Amy Kaplan challenges the associations underlying this special alliance.

Through popular narratives expressed in news media, fiction, and film, a shared sense of identity emerged from the two nations’ histories as settler societies. Americans projected their own origin myths onto Israel: the biblical promised land, the open frontier, the refuge for immigrants, the revolt against colonialism. Israel assumed a mantle of moral authority, based on its image as an “invincible victim,” a nation of intrepid warriors and concentration camp survivors. This paradox persisted long after the Six-Day War, when the United States rallied behind a story of the Israeli David subduing the Arab Goliath. The image of the underdog shattered when Israel invaded Lebanon and Palestinians rose up against the occupation. Israel’s military was strongly censured around the world, including notes of dissent in the United States. Rather than a symbol of justice, Israel became a model of military strength and technological ingenuity.

In America today, Israel’s political realities pose difficult challenges. Turning a critical eye on the turbulent history that bound the two nations together, Kaplan unearths the roots of present controversies that may well divide them in the future.

Wright, “God Save Texas”

9780525520108Did you know that Texas has the largest Muslim community in the United States? I didn’t. That interesting fact, and many others, are discussed in a new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright, God Save Texas (Penguin Random House). Here’s the publisher’s description:

“The Future of Mainline Protestantism in America” (Hudnut-Beumler & Silk, eds.)

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We close the week with an interesting-looking new book from Columbia University Press on one of the most noteworthy changes in American religious culture in recent decades: the collapse of the mainline churches. Once the dominant group in American religious life, mainline Protestant churches experienced a dramatic decline in the last generation. Why has this occurred? The new book, The Future of Mainline Protestantism in America, edited by historian James Hudnut-Beumler (Vanderbilt) and religion scholar Mark Silk (Trinity College) attempts to explain. Unlike most treatments, this volume apparently is optimistic, in a way, about the mainline’s future. Here’s the description from the Columbia website:

As recently as the 1960s, more than half of all American adults belonged to just a handful of mainline Protestant denominations—Presbyterian, UCC, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and American Baptist. Presidents, congressmen, judges, business leaders, and other members of the elite overwhelmingly came from such backgrounds. But by 2010, fewer than 13 percent of adults belonged to a mainline Protestant church. What does the twenty-first century hold for this once-hegemonic religious group?

In this volume, experts in American religious history and the sociology of religion examine the extraordinary decline of mainline Protestantism over the past half century and assess its future. Contributors discuss the demographics of mainline Protestants; their beliefs, practices, and modes of worship; their political views and partisan affiliations; and the social and moral questions that unite and divide Protestant communities. Other chapters examine Protestant institutions, including providers of health care and education; analyze churches’ public voice; and probe what will come from a diminished role relative to other groups in society, especially the ascendant evangelicals. Far from going extinct, the book argues, the mainline Protestant movement will continue to be a vital remnant in an American religious culture torn between the contending forces of secularism and evangelicalism.

Lewis, “The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics”

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Minorities always favor civil rights, because rights protect them from the majority. So it shouldn’t be surprising that conservative Christians in twenty-first century America increasingly find themselves asserting rights in public controversies. A forthcoming book from Cambridge University Press, The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars, by University of Cincinnati political scientist Andrew Lewis, discusses the subject, and claims Christians’ move to a rights-based rhetoric is tied up with the abortion debate. Here is the publisher’s description:

The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics documents a recent, fundamental change in American politics with the waning of Christian America. Rather than conservatives emphasizing morality and liberals emphasizing rights, both sides now wield rights arguments as potent weapons to win political and legal battles and build grassroots support. Lewis documents this change on the right, focusing primarily on evangelical politics. Using extensive historical and survey data that compares evangelical advocacy and evangelical public opinion, Lewis explains how the prototypical culture war issue – abortion – motivated the conservative rights turn over the past half century, serving as a springboard for rights learning and increased conservative advocacy in other arenas. Challenging the way we think about the culture wars, Lewis documents how rights claims are used to thwart liberal rights claims, as well as to provide protection for evangelicals, whose cultural positions are increasingly in the minority; they have also allowed evangelical elites to justify controversial advocacy positions to their base and to engage more easily in broad rights claiming in new or expanded political arenas, from health care to capital punishment.

Perry, “May We Forever Stand”

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I was a twenty-something in Washington, DC, when I first heard a choir perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at an outdoor concert in Rock Creek Park, and the song has stuck in my head ever since. The melody, by John Rosemond Johnson, is dignified and stirring, and the words, by his brother, James Weldon Johnson, are moving. Also known as the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice” has a large place in the history of the civil rights movement. It serves as a reminder of the role religion played in that movement, and, more generally, the role religion has played in our national experience.

A new book from the University of North Carolina Press, May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem, by Princeton scholar Imani Perry (African-American Studies), tells the song’s story. The title refers to the final verse:

“Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.”

The publisher’s description follows:

The twin acts of singing and fighting for freedom have been inseparable in African American history. May We Forever Stand tells an essential part of that story. With lyrics penned by James Weldon Johnson and music composed by his brother Rosamond, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was embraced almost immediately as an anthem that captured the story and the aspirations of black Americans. Since the song’s creation, it has been adopted by the NAACP and performed by countless artists in times of both crisis and celebration, cementing its place in African American life up through the present day.

In this rich, poignant, and readable work, Imani Perry tells the story of the Black National Anthem as it traveled from South to North, from civil rights to black power, and from countless family reunions to Carnegie Hall and the Oval Office. Drawing on a wide array of sources, Perry uses “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a window on the powerful ways African Americans have used music and culture to organize, mourn, challenge, and celebrate for more than a century.

Around the Web

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

Regnerus, “Cheap Sex”

9780190673611We’re a little late getting to this, but a few months ago Oxford published a new book by University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy, which has received a lot of attention. Regnerus addresses millennials’ apparent lack of interest in marriage and family and says much of the problem (if it is a problem) results from the fact that sex has become more accessible and less costly, and not only in monetary terms. As religious scruples fade, the spiritual costs of easy sex decrease as well — and when the cost of something goes down, more people decide they can afford it. In fact, Regnerus argues, for some people sex may take the place of traditional religion, offering a substitute, though ultimately dissatisfying, path to the transcendent. There are interesting gender dynamics, too. Regnerus, a conservative, points out that a regime of cheap sex favors men more than women–another irony of the sexual revolution, which was supposed to lead to greater equality between the sexes. Here’s the description from the Oxford website:

Sex is cheap. Coupled sexual activity has become more widely available than ever. Cheap sex has been made possible by two technologies that have little to do with each other – the Pill and high-quality pornography – and its distribution made more efficient by a third technological innovation, online dating. Together, they drive down the cost of real sex, and in turn slow the development of love, make fidelity more challenging, sexual malleability more common, and have even taken a toll on men’s marriageability.

Cheap Sex takes readers on an extended tour inside the American mating market, and highlights key patterns that characterize young adults’ experience today, including the timing of first sex in relationships, overlapping partners, frustrating returns on their relational investments, and a failure to link future goals like marriage with how they navigate their current relationships. Drawing upon several large nationally-representative surveys, in-person interviews with 100 men and women, and the assertions of scholars ranging from evolutionary psychologists to gender theorists, what emerges is a story about social change, technological breakthroughs, and unintended consequences. Men and women have not fundamentally changed, but their unions have. No longer playing a supporting role in relationships, sex has emerged as a central priority in relationship development and continuation. But unravel the layers, and it is obvious that the emergence of “industrial sex” is far more a reflection of men’s interests than women’s.

Hudnut-Beumler, “Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table”

9781469640372While on a recent trip to Charlotte, North Carolina — home of the Billy Graham Library — I attended Sunday Liturgy at St. Sarkis Armenian Church, founded about a dozen years ago. St. Sarkis is not the only Orthodox Church in Charlotte. There is a Coptic church, at least two Greek Orthodox churches, a couple of Russian Orthodox churches, a couple of Ethiopian Orthodox churches, and at least one Syriac church. The point is that if one thinks of Southern  Christianity as strictly Evangelical, one is making a mistake — though I should point out, in the interests of full disclosure, that the line of cars outside the Evangelical church a couple blocks away was a lot longer than the one at St. Sarkis!

A new study from the University of North Carolina Press, Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South, by Vanderbilt University historian James Hudnut-Beumler, describes the Christianities of the New South. Looks interesting. Here’s the publisher’s description:

In this fresh and fascinating chronicle of Christianity in the contemporary South, historian and minister James Hudnut-Beumler draws on extensive interviews and his own personal journeys throughout the region over the past decade to present a comprehensive portrait of the South’s long-dominant religion. Hudnut-Beumler traveled to both rural and urban communities, listening to the faithful talk about their lives and beliefs. What he heard pushes hard against prevailing notions of southern Christianity as an evangelical Protestant monolith so predominant as to be unremarkable.

True, outside of a few spots, no non-Christian group forms more than six-tenths of one percent of a state’s population in what Hudnut-Beumler calls the Now South. Drilling deeper, however, he discovers an unexpected, blossoming diversity in theology, practice, and outlook among southern Christians. He finds, alongside traditional Baptists, black and white, growing numbers of Christians exemplifying changes that no one could have predicted even just forty years ago, from congregations of LGBT-supportive evangelicals and Spanish-language church services to a Christian homeschooling movement so robust in some places that it may rival public education in terms of acceptance. He also finds sharp struggles and political divisions among those trying to reconcile such Christian values as morality and forgiveness—the aftermath of the mass shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church in 2015 forming just one example. This book makes clear that understanding the twenty-first-century South means recognizing many kinds of southern Christianities.

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