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A book on religion and politics in the United States since the Civil War might be expected to center on presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, or politically engaged religious leaders such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Billy Graham, or possibly on First Amendment cases. Faithful Republic looks elsewhere, broadening its subject through a series of suggestive case studies. The politicians who get the most attention here were all congressmen (Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Father Robert Drinan, and Newt Gingrich), Francis Schaeffer is the most noted theologian, and the highlighted legal matters are late-nineteenth-century divorce laws and the New Deal. Place (cities, suburbs) and commerce (oil, books) also play important roles. The overall effect is to render familiar, even tired “church and state” terrain lumpy and surprising.
The contributors to this volume constitute a roster of up-and-coming religious historians, some with award-winning books already on shelves and others with first books in progress. Several of them have positioned their work as a response to a complaint articulated by Jon Butler in a 2004 article in the Journal of American History titled “Jack-in-the-Box Faith: The Religion Problem in Modern American History.” Whereas early American history was hardly ever narrated without sustained attention to religion, Butler wrote, later American history was cast (especially in textbooks) as political and secular, with colorful—and often retrograde—religious figures popping up only [End Page 286] sporadically. Butler insisted, however, that religion remained potent into the twenty-first century, influencing and being influenced by other cultural, political, and economic developments. The editors of Faithful Republic acknowledge this “dialectical relationship” between religion and politics, and the essayists document instances in which the interaction of the forces obscured any distinction between them (p. 4).
The case-study approach comes with strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, the essays brim with eye-opening details, such as the fact that Powell’s Abyssinian Baptist Church was the largest Protestant church in America from 1937 to 1972, and that J. Edgar Hoover once wrote an article on the “mood” of the New Left for Christianity Today. On the negative side, case studies sometimes leave the reader wondering if their insights are widely applicable. Lily Geismer’s chapter, for example, asserts that liberal religion thrived in wealthy suburbs, but her study focuses on the suburbs of Boston, in one of the bluest states in the nation. This short essay is unsuccessful in challenging the connection between suburbs and conservative religion drawn by Lisa McGirr (Suburban Warriors, 2001) and others.
Optimally, case studies zoom seamlessly out from close inspection of something curious to a wide view that frames familiar sights in a fresh way. Darren Dochuck’s essay starts with an investigation of the “Battle of Kuling,” an argument about missionary methods in China, and moves through the fraught history of Standard and Union Oil to explain why evangelicals are committed to small government. It is a masterpiece. In the next chapter, Alison Collis Greene mines an archive of letters written by southern pastors to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935 to explain why churches and the government sometimes collide even when their aims are aligned. “Black or white, clergy who believed the New Deal itself to be an extension of religious teachings outnumbered those who demanded an active role in administering it,” she wrote. “Yet when some southern religious leaders began to fear that the New Deal did not enhance but rather threatened their authority, they responded with outrage” (p. 68). [End Page 287]
The price of this book might place it out of reach for classroom use, but it works well as a sampler of cutting-edge scholarship, suggesting topics that both experts and casual readers would do well to think more about.
ELESHA COFFMAN teaches church history at the University of Dubuque. She is the author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant...