The sound of publishers' envelopes and boxes dropping onto the office floor is a steady reminder that there is no end to the writing of books, including books about religion. So many words; so little time to ingest and savor. But I do my best to skim and sometimes even to peruse.
In a time of increased fascination with matters political, it is hardly surprising that books on religion and politics command immediate attention. Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown University, couldn't be more timely with his wittily titled warning to presidential wannabes, Thumpin' It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today's Presidential Politics. The message here is that Oval Office hopefuls, all of whom are prone to quoting from the Good Book to support their positions, need to be more careful about those slippery, contradictory, and sometimes even nonexistent passages from the Bible. Try as one might, it's hard to make a compelling case against stem cell research from anything contained in the Old or New Testaments. But try pols most certainly will, on this and other matters, and the results of their efforts should come, Berlinerblau tongue-in-cheekishly suggests, with a candidate's disclaimer that his (or her) use of a particular passage may be subject to radically different readings.
A useful if not particularly revealing reminder of how religion got to be such a powerful factor in presidential politics during the past 45 years is Randall Balmer's God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency From John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. A professor of history at Barnard College, Balmer is most interesting on matters such as the ideological shift within the Southern Baptist leadership. In his vocal crusade against John F. Kennedy, for example, the prominent Dallas pastor W. A. Criswell repeatedly invoked the traditional Baptist position "that church and state must be, in this nation, forever separate and free." Yet this same pastor, praising Ronald Reagan at the 1984 Republican National Convention, declared that "this notion of the separation of church and state was the figment of some infidel's imagination." Some about-face, Pastor Criswell. But one wishes that Balmer had gone more into how this major revision occurred and was justified. And certain omissions in Balmer's book are glaring. Failing to mention James Dobson and his influential Focus on the Family organization is to leave out a powerful political player whom Republican hopefuls could ignore only at their peril, at least until very recently.
Anyone who hopes that the days of the Religious Right have peaked will find solace and encouragement in E. J. Dionne's Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith & Politics After the Religious Right. The noted syndicated columnist confidently declares that millions of Americans are taking religion back from those who have been using it for narrow ideological purposes. Not only have liberals and progressives (re)learned the proper use of religion in advancing their own causes; they have also come to respect appropriate expressions of religiosity in the public sphere. And even within the large house of evangelical Christianity, changes are happening, Dionne says, with leaders like Rick Warren and Richard Cizek expanding the conservative Christian agenda beyond abortion and gay marriage to include environmental protection and the struggle against poverty and AIDS in Africa. A devout Catholic and liberal, Dionne is most interesting in his discussion of what he calls the agony of liberal Catholicism: "What was true across so many dimensions of American public life during the Bush years was true of the Catholic Church: a period of aggressive conservative assertion and ideological belligerence called forth both a progressive reaction and a rejection of ideology and partisanship....The hierarchy might have become, on the whole, more conservative than it had been two decades earlier, but this, in turn, led many moderate and progressive Catholics to act."
For an intelligent, first-person tour through the large American evangelical landscape, readers could not do much better than John Marks's Reasons to Believe: One Man's Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind. Marks, a former journalist (at one time for U.S. News) and producer for 60 Minutes, knows the evangelical world intimately, having been "born again" at age 16. Though he later lost his faith, one strength of his writing is his empathy with the inner lives of the people he met and wrote about. It also helps that he has a fine sense of humor, as is apparent in his account of his own conversion story. He begins it with a joke that he heard at a Christian bloggers conference in California:
Lady walks into a movie theater and sees a free seat next to another woman.
"Is that seat saved?" she asks.
"No," the other woman replies, "but it's under heavy conviction."
For those not in the know, Marks explains that being under heavy conviction means being in a state of "dread, sorrow, and shame at your own human condition." He then proceeds to tell how becoming a "bastard" and "psychological bully" in his early teen years drove him to the recognition of his own convicted condition. That awareness soon led him to a full born-again experience, a conversion so radical that it alarmed his own mainline Christian parents.
The struggle against Islamic jihadism seems far away from the world Marks talks about. But in Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, theologian and biographer George Weigel reminds American readers that they need to keep their eyes on the ongoing ideological and theological struggle within Islam. He also offers sensible, if very broad, advice on how America should take a leading role in opposing the extremist strain. One wishes, though, that Weigel had talked a little more about resources within Islam for combating the ideological zealotry of the jihadists—and also about those brave figures (and they are out there, in the predominantly Muslim world as well as in the West) who champion a moderate, traditionalist Islam. The problem, as Weigel passingly notes, is that American public diplomacy under a succession of woefully incapable leaders has done very little to identify and support the voices of moderation. It is a failure at least as bad as the mishandling of the Iraq war.
There is no more timely reminder of the positive achievements of Islamic civilization—and of its deep interconnections with European Christendom—than David Levering Lewis's God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215. Known for his prize-winning two-volume biography of W. E. B. Du Bois, the New York University historian depicts in rich detail a 700-year period in which the Muslim expansion throughout the Mediterranean world helped lay the foundations not for Europe's defeat but for its eventual revival. "Indeed," Levering Lewis writes, "much of the Muslim world stands in relationship to Europe and the United States today as much of a ramshackle Christian world once stood in relationship to a highly advanced Islamic one." This book makes the powerful case that Islamic civilization at its best is not different from the West but a vital component of it.