- The Religious Revival: Narratives of Religious Origin in US Culture
The administration of George W. Bush ushered in a new era of public religious discourse. Before the 2000 election, a politician’s religion generally remained in the shadowy recesses of private life, politely referenced only as metonymic evidence attesting to his or her strong moral foundation and character. The presidential campaigns of George W. Bush moved religious rhetoric from the political margins to the center, by speaking openly about the effects of his midlife conversion to Christianity and by using coded religious language to mobilize conservative Christian voters. This explicit inclusion of religious rhetoric has dramatically changed the texture of American politicking, with professions of religious piety increasingly requisite for candidates of both parties and with Republicans embracing the hard-line fundamentalist positions that had heretofore been regarded chiefly as curiosities of the American religious fringe. The constitutional divide between religion and politics—a position long embraced by the conservative Southern Baptist Convention and legitimized by Christian scripture in Jesus’s assertion that believers should “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21)—has fallen into disfavor in the last decade, as with the February 2012 remark of former senator Rick Santorum that this division once caused him to want to “throw up.”1
The consequences of this cultural sea change are many, but one is the renewed interest in religion in American studies, evident in the proliferation of panels and papers on religious subjects at the annual meetings in recent [End Page 251] years of the American Studies Association as well as the 2007 special issue of American Quarterly on religion and politics. Religion has rarely seemed time-lier as a subject of scholarly inquiry, and this sudden relevance has attracted numerous scholars new to the field but whose lack of specialized training in the nuances of American religion may undermine the integrity of their work. The two publications reviewed here demonstrate the new appeal of American religion as a subject of interdisciplinary study as well as the particular challenges that scholars newer to American religious studies may encounter. These publications also demonstrate that we would be well advised to be skeptical of widespread current media portrayals of American Christianity as homogeneous and uniform, for it is just as historically constituted and varied as other cultural formations; sound scholarship must not only consider Christian belief and practice within contexts but also adumbrate the significance of those contexts.
The influence of the Bush administration in revitalizing the study of American religion is evident in Christopher Collins’s Homeland Mythology: Biblical Narratives in American Culture, which considers the continuing usage of biblical narrative in American nationalist rhetoric. Throughout his career, the literary scholar Collins has specialized in cognitive poetics, examining the processes of perception and intellectual engagement that operate in oral texts such as Homer’s Iliad, and Homeland Mythology thus constitutes a significant departure from Collins’s prior research in its consideration of the grounding of American politics and culture in religious narrative. According to Collins, the United States understands itself as charged with fulfilling divine prophesies and establishing the “glorious kingdom” anticipated in the New Testament’s book of Revelation (ix). Homeland Mythology’s seven chapters consider the enduring legacies in American culture of particular features of biblical narrative, among them the expectation of divine punishment, the thematics of abduction and redemption, and the recurring metaphor of night to characterize periods of religious ignorance or anticipation. Scholars of American culture will recognize that there is nothing particularly new about this assertion that biblical precedent provides justification for American exceptionalism and self-regard, for such august scholars as Sacvan Bercovitch, Alan Heimert, and Perry Miller took up that very subject long ago, producing some of the founding works of interdisciplinary American studies.2 But...