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.

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.)

9780231183611

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”

9781108405607

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”

9781469638607

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.

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