- American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity Edited by Catherine A. Brekus and W. Clark Gilpin
When Peter W. Williams asked in America’s Religions: From Their Origins to the Twenty-First Century (Urbana, IL, 2002) whether it is “still possible to present a narrative account of the religious life of the people of the United States as a unified whole” (p. 3), he acknowledged the same reality presented by Catherine Brekus and W. Clark Gilpin (both of the University of Chicago Divinity School) in their present edited volume American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity. Religion and its predominant American representative, Christianity, have been and continue to be both “one” and “many.” The principal argument of Brekus and Gilpin revolves around their statement that “even though Christianity has been the nation’s largest religion, most Americans are unfamiliar with its internal variety and tend to define Christianity in narrow terms according to their own upbringing or what they have seen and heard in the media” (p. 4). [End Page 174]
The twenty-two original essays of the book, arranged in four sections, are the work of scholars from a variety of historical and religious specialties, representing a cross-section of religious persuasions. The first section of essays, titled “Christian Diversity in America,” examines the variety of Christian voices that emerged due to external influences of arriving immigrants, along with numerous controversies and tensions that arose within the nation through the antebellum years of the nineteenth century. The ability of American Christianity to adapt to church and denominational mergers, as well as to draw upon elements of the broader social and religious environment, is discussed in this first section of the book.
Part 2 of this collection of essays, titled “Practicing Christianity in America,” looks at the interplay between Christian theory and Christian practice. The essays in this section illustrate the truth of Jewish scholar Will Herberg’s contention that Americans make a distinction between professed religion and “operative religion”—that religion by which Americans actually live. Some distinctions made between professed and operative religion are the result of change over time, whereas others are the consequence of genuine differences in understandings of religious symbols, rituals, and authoritative texts.
The third section of essays, “Christianity and American Culture,” plays off sociology’s functional approach to the study of religion (and of Christianity within it), which says that religion is not to be considered always as the independent variable that “causes” certain social and cultural developments; nor should religion be thought of as entirely a dependent variable that reflects its social environment. Rather, religion should be looked upon historically as both an independent and dependent variable. The editors note particularly how Alexis de Tocqueville recognized in his book Democracy in America (London, 1835) the interplay, not conflict, between religion and democracy. Brekus and Gilpin state, “By some symbiosis of religion, politics, and economics, the ideology of individualism deepened and extended its influence throughout the developing nation” (p. 276).
In the final section, “Christianity and the American Nation,” the essayists discuss the impact of Christianity on the shaping of an American identity. Although Christians have often found themselves on both (or more) sides of what an ideal America should look like (for example, abolitionists versus slaveholders, isolationists versus realists), Christians in America have at times set aside their differences and come together to argue on behalf of an American exceptionalism. Perhaps only in America could the legacy of Christianity look like this.
In this volume Brekus and Gilpin have done much to advance the conversation about the place of Christianity (or Christianities) in America. The essays are certain to broaden and deepen the understanding of both the specialist and generalist. [End Page 175]