By Lila Corwin Berwin
I want to focus these brief remarks—and appreciations—on the line between religion and politics. I do so because for me the central contribution of McGreevy’s work is its assertion that the boundary itself is a puzzle. Far from giving us a solid place to stand—to be able to say, here rests religion, and over there is politics—Parish Boundaries suggests the instability of the boundary. In doing so, it gently exposes a big lie of common sense American political thought: that religion is separate from the state, and that politics is separate from religion. Thus, the parish boundary may be precisely that boundary that must perish when we think about lived religious space and lived political space: the two, it seems, overlap in confounding and unexpected ways.
As I worked on a book about post-World War II Jewish urban politics, I returned often to the puzzle of boundary lines that McGreevy wrote about so insightfully. First, I thought about neighborhood boundaries and, with McGreevy’s work in mind, I saw how individuals and groups who named and marked these boundaries employed particular political tools. Neighborhood lines reflected access to assets enmeshed in rhetorical, religious, ethnic, and racial systems.
David Freund’s Colored Property and Bery Satter’s Family Properties, both indebted to McGreevy’s book, make all the more clear how the structural logic of neighborhood boundaries stitched religious self-definition to the political economy of racial power.
A second boundary puzzle that vexed the line of division between religion and politics had to do with authority. Which voices had the authority to shape a religious community’s narrative about its interactions with power structures and the state? McGreevy’s discussion climaxes as he identifies a full-blown “cultural divide between two ‘Catholic’ peoples” (215). Synoptically, a growingly conservative and Republican-supporting laity and clergy stood in tension with a liberal, generally more educated, wing of the church. In my research, I noticed that even as Jews as a whole did not experience this same cultural divide, they nonetheless embodied the contradictions of midcentury liberalism and its hybrid expectations of the state: that it should protect the individual, while also protecting the private, enterprise-based market structure. And where did religion stand in that vision—or to put a finer point on the question: did religion stand somewhere markedly different in conservative as opposed to liberal ideologies of the state? For McGreevy, the answer is not really. In both cases, citizens understood their religion as informing their expectations of the state. And why not? The state nourished religion through multiple means, from tax expenditures to Federal Communications Commission policies to chaplaincy programs. That is, the state acted in people’s religious lives. When clergy or lay people enacted their politics, they did so in a framework that sanctioned the enmeshment of religion and politics.
For me, the enduring and evolving lesson of McGreevy’s book is its ability to see the multiple levels upon which religion operates in the United States. Beyond the task of convincing urban historians to take religion seriously, which, by the way, is still serious business, we have a broader task. McGreevy began to expose that what Jon Butler has called “jack-in-the-box faith” is more than a curiosity to the real themes of American history; rather it is an essential analytical category that craftily and often elusively defies the boundary between structural forces and group or individual agency.
The Jewish social critic, with whom I started, fails to understand that in the United States, religious doctrine has long served as a source of deep and meaningful political motivation. The Christian theologians he so longingly cites protested a relationship that they knew existed in force (and they relied upon), and we should know to interpret even that protest as its own kind of political statement. To be certain, progressivism or liberalism does not have a lock on making religious claims. As we celebrate the twenty year mark of McGreevy’s landmark book, I hope we will hear its call, perhaps no more relevant than today, to shed our mythologies of religious separation from state matters and, instead, train our eyes to seeing religion and the state in unlikely and, often, conjoined places.