Review Roundup

BookForum has a roundup of reviews (HT) on a variety of books in American religious history, ranging from Garry Wills's Head and Heart: American Christianities, to Charles Reagan Wilson's Judgement and Grace in Dixie, to Terry Givens' history of Mormon culture.

I'll just mention a few that caught my eye. Jane Smiley (the novelist, I'm presuming) reviews Frank Schaeffer's (son of Francis Schaeffer, whose intellectual retreat at L'Abri and various books inspired some of the intellectual side of the religious right) memoir Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. Frank was something of an evangelical celebrity for a while in the 1980s, mostly for his association and co-authorship of books and films (notably including Whatever Happened to the Human Race?) with his father. But his memoir shows him to be a not-very-happy camper, hard to blame him with a mother who was, ahem, very problematic, as well as an association with those from the religious right who his father considered "co-belligerents" on the one hand, but also as "loonies." Frank considers all of the leading evangelical lights with whom he associated in the 1980s -- Graham, Robertson, Dobson, etc. -- either insane, or power-hungry, or just plain strange. One could invoke Freud here; but one won't.

I'll be interested to see what Barry Hankins has to say about all this in his biography of Francis Schaeffer which he's currently completing; I suspect the story is more complicated than what the memoir suggests. Smiley concludes cynically but in line with the bitterness (so I gather) of this particular memoir:

One lesson of all of Frank Schaeffer's work is that the inherent contradictions and terrors of Calvinist doctrine have been intolerable to the very family most famous in our day for spreading them. Another is that however the Schaeffers tried to mitigate those cruelties with personal kindness, their allies and associates have gone wholesale for the divisive, the inhumane and the mercenary. Francis Schaeffer's failure was that he didn't learn, from the very cultural history that he loved, the simple historical truth that tribalism and damnation are what organized religion does best.

Next up is Rich Barlow's review of Garry Wills, Head and Heart, a lengthy book for the normally more laconic Wills. The reviewer summarizes the thesis this way:

Definition is the first step to comprehension, and Wills deftly defines the two great tides of American faith, what he calls "Enlightened" and "Evangelical" religion. The former treasures reason for unlocking "the laws of nature and of nature's God" and deems compassion the commandment of those laws. Evangelicals profess "an experiential relationship with Jesus as their savior, along with biblical inerrancy and a mission to save others. . . . The emphasis of Enlightened religion is on the head. The emphasis of Evangelicals is on the heart." The Puritans were heart-believers. The Founding Fathers, aware of Puritan intolerance and its collateral damage, such as Dyer's execution, were head-believers. Wills sides with Enlightened religion.

Another review linked there, from the historian Glenn C. Altschuler, concludes that Wills's partisanship for "Enlightened" and over-reaching estimate of the influence of "Evangelical" religion somewhat mars the text. Oh my, so many books, so little time.

Finally, from The American Scholar, Ethan Fishman's "Unto Caesar: Religious groups that have allied themselves with politicians, and vice versa, have ignored at their peril the lessons of Roger Williams and U.S. history," continues a discussion that we've been having on this blog courtesy of John Fea.

A key passage from Fishman's article connects the differing yet related concerns of Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson, and the costs of the contemporary ignorance or flaunting of those concerns:

The two religious clauses of the First Amendment reflect the different concerns of Jefferson and Williams. Jefferson’s fear that one church would gain control of government resulted in the establishment clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Williams’s emphasis on protecting the independence of churches became the free exercise clause: “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Taken together, these two clauses prohibit government from either helping churches or hurting them. These few words set into law the standard of neutrality that Williams and Jefferson prescribed.

The Bush administration has sought to undermine almost every one of the contributions Williams and Jefferson made to the tradition of religious freedom in the United States. By giving religious denominations the power to directly influence public policy, it has allowed them to force their tenets on others. The administration has also exploited religion for the sake of gaining and maintaining political power. And it has used religious faith to justify the carnage caused by the war in Iraq.

A bit further down, Fishman concludes:

Roger Williams acknowledged that even the most devout religious communities cannot avoid living in the wilderness of the temporal world. The role that government plays in maintaining temporal order is valuable to religious and irreligious citizens alike. How, then, are churches supposed to resist the temptation to cross the line between mere coexistence with government and active political participation? In the eighth century B.C. the prophet Isaiah responded by teaching the Jewish people to strive to be in the world but not of it, and Williams sought to apply Isaiah’s message to colonial New England.

In June 2007 the National Association of Evangelicals debated whether to advise members to “guard against over-identifying Christian goals with a single political party, lest nonbelievers think that the Christian faith is essentially political in nature.” Perhaps that debate will cause the Bush administration and complicit religious groups to reexamine their policies in light of Isaiah’s teachings and Williams’s views.

You have your assignment. Discuss. One at a time, please. And you, in the back row, yo, turn OFF the cell phone, even if your ring tone is set to "Precious Lord, Take My Hand."


Randall said…
I tried to track down the Wills book, but it wasn't out when I was at the store.

John Leonard gave it a glowing review in the October issue of Harper's.
Phil said…
Saw a television interview with Frank a few years ago on Calvin College's school channel. He discussed his conversion to eastern orthodoxy and reading between the lines one could really sense some anger and disillusionment with the evangelical world he grew up in. This will make his memoir that much more interesting to read.

Perhaps the Schaeffer duo would fit into the parent-child/father-son/mother-daughter "ministry family" project spoken about in previous posts

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