Religion in American Politics: A Short History (Review)

Religion in American Politics: A Short History
(review reprinted from the newest issue of Journal of Church and State; pdf available here)

Paul Harvey
Religion in American Politics: A Short History.
By Frank Lambert. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. 294pp. $24.95 cloth; $18.95 paper.

In this readable synthetic text, Frank Lambert provides a reasonably brief, accessible, and fair-minded survey of the broad history of religion and American politics from the era of the American revolution to the present, including the 2008 election. He follows broad trends, such as the debates between proponents and opponents of "America as a Christian nation" and zooms in on specific controversies (the 1800 election, Sunday mail delivery, slavery, the New Deal, and contemporary fights between the religious right and religious left) to illuminate those broader themes. Eight chronological chapters follow religious controversies in the era of the founding, the formation, and then breakdown of Protestant unity in antebellum America (where Lambert proposes a useful critique of Mark Noll's thesis in America's God), the gospel of wealth and critical social gospel in the post Civil War years, the Scopes Trial and the modernist-fundamentalist controversy of the early twentieth century, the connection between religious liberalism and New Deal politics in the mid-twentieth century, the civil rights movement as a religious revival, and finally corresponding chapters on the Religious Right and Religious Left. The early chapters, which come from periods of Lambert's greatest scholarly expertise, are the strongest in terms of scholarly sophistication. The middle chapters tend more or less to be summaries derived from secondary literature and have less original argumentation. The final two chapters doubtless will draw the most interest from readers outside academia interested in the author's take on contemporary religio-political fights.

One basic conflict reappears throughout the book and serves as Lambert's central theme. On the one hand, Lambert follows how "religious coalitions seek by political means what the Constitution prohibits, namely a national religious establishment, or, more specifically, a Christian civil religion" (5). Seeking to influence public policy, religious groups "develop moral agendas that become the centerpieces of their political campaigns." On the other hand, from Eza Stiles Ely's call for a "Christian party in politics" in 1810 to Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority in the 1970s and his descendants today, "religion in American politics is contested," and "any religious group's attempt to represent the nation's religious heritage or claim to be its moral conscience" always meets opposition. This basic conflict, between religious visions of a Christian America and secular individualist notions of a politics free from religiously inspired divisions and free to pursue a pluralist polity, has defined the story of religion and American politics.

Lambert implicitly stakes his claim in the Madison/Jefferson school at the end when he joins in these Founders' warnings against sectarian religion as a divisive force in public affairs: "they knew that, given the country's pluralist culture, any expression of religion offered as a guide to national policy would be labeled sectarian and would be contested as such. Two hundred and twenty years after the new republic's birth, critics of both the Religious Right and the Religious Left think the delegates were wise to keep religion out of national politics" (250). The founders, Lambert implies, were wise to make the Constitution a "godless" one and let citizens work out their religious quests on their own.

Protestants remain at the center of the story throughout, with Lambert defending that choice by insisting that Protestants in fact have been in power for much of American history, and in earlier periods represented the vast majority of the population of the country. While this choice is defensible in some regards, it also means that the deep Catholic tradition of thinking about religion and politics is almost completely ignored here, an unfortunate exclusion especially when dealing with the anti-Catholicism that went into nineteenth-century notions of "separation of church and state," as well as the major influence of Catholic social gospelers and New Dealers on twentieth-century social legislation. Except for the civil rights chapter, African Americans make virtually no appearance, and Native peoples are given one paragraph briefly mentioning the ghost dance. In other words, for alternative visions of religion and politics, and alternative ways of defining the category of "religion" itself, readers will have to look elsewhere. This book achieves what it intends: a fair survey of mainstream Protestant conflicts of the relation of religion and politics from the founding to the present.


Christopher said…
Thanks for posting the review here, Paul. Looks like a good read.
Anonymous said…
Great review, Paul.

Seems like Lambert's thesis (that "any expression of religion offered as a guide to national policy would be labeled sectarian and would be contested as such") would be further supported by the story about D.C.'s C Street "Church" making the rounds today:
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Unknown said…
This book touches on a subject we reviewed this semester in my Historian's Craft course. It seems like it covers some of the similar topics that John Fea wrote about in his book "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?". Fea also didn't seem to mention anything about Catholics either. And just like Lambert, Fea only discusses a paragraph of material on MLK Jr. but doesn't discuss any other aspects of minorities. Seems to be a recurring theme with some writers on this subject.

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