Religion, Culture, and Politics Redux

Paul Harvey

While we're still on the subject of religion, culture, and politics, here's a nice text that should be useful for many in the classroom: Mark Hulsether, Religion, Culture, and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States (Columbia University Press, 2008).

The book is explicitly meant as a classroom text, and throughout, Hulsether uses the concept of mapping and touring as student-friendly ways to suggest how to think about religion in more complexly textured ways than students usually bring to the subject.

The work begins with some reflections on religion, culture, and hegemony, which he defines here as achieving consent without coercion, and establishing a “common sense” for a culture such that socially produced norms and structures come to be seen as natural and inevitable. In this fashion, Hulsether gently guides readers, including undergraduates, into considering thicker descriptions and deeper analyses of religious belief and practice than normally come into the classroom. After a relatively lengthy introductory chapter providing a quick overview of religion in America to the twentieth century, Hulsether provides parallel chapters on “religion and social conflict” and “cultural aspects of religion” first for the earlier twentieth century, and then for the later twentieth century. The conclusion considers “consensus” models for religion in America (largely conservative normative visions of a Christian America) and pluralist models obviously favored by liberals. Implicitly rejecting both, Hulsether proposes his own model: to “analyze cases where religion, culture, and politics come together in terms of the hegemonic and counter-hegemonic goals that are in play.” Again, the scary academic words there immediately come in view with concrete cases and thoughtful questions: “Would it be better – especially for minorities but also for majorities – to live in a land where a live-and-let-live approach is hegemonic? Conversely, does a society that valorizes postmodern pluralism reflect the hegemony of consumerism and dog-eat-dog corporate values?” (238). Rather than beginning with “building consensus or celebrating diversity,” Hulsether suggests that his own model fosters the task of learning to “think wisely – in concrete cases – about both harmonious pluralism and intractable conflict, both diversity and power imbalance” (240).
Hulsether also provides numerous clear-headed analyses of numerous particular subjects. For example, Hulsether provides a nice summary of William Jennings Bryan’s role in the Scopes episode, showing how he worried more about how “evolutionary theory eroded democracy . . . strengthened militarism and Social Darwinism” as he did about defending the stories of Genesis; as well, he also “saw himself upholding the rights of local communities to set their own educational goals” (135). Again, this story has become familiar to scholars through the works of Edward Larson and others, but these understandings scarcely have reached a broader or student audience. In another useful section, Hulsether shows how Reinhold Nieburhian thought in practice “carried forward the tradition of religious support for U.S. foreign policy, as well as optimism about the US as the standard-bearer for progress in the world” (105), effectively puncturing those who would deify the Protestant theoretician of power. Finally, Hulsether nicely parses the overly hyped numbers of religious immigration, showing that the pluralist reveries of some recent commentators exaggerate the numerical impact of non-Christian immigrant religions, which collectively number about the percentage of the population that Jews did a century ago.

Scholars of U.S. religion will find this book a most useful and engaging survey text for their field, and one eminently adoptable for the classroom.


Art said…
Great review, many thanks. I'm planning to submit a syllabus on this subject soon, so I'll need to look through it.
Mark Hulsether said…
Thanks for the nice review, Paul! Some readers might want to know about this page that I just posted to my website with an outline, vocabulary list, and study questions. Probably the best place online to check out the contents, and useful for teaching.