Robert K. VischerAugust 04, 2008
Book cover
Religion in American Politicsby By Frank LambertPrinceton Univ. Press. 304p $24.95

Writing a history of religion in American politics, much less a “short” history, is tricky business. Potential pitfalls include the seemingly infinite breadth of the subject, the subtle waxing and waning of religion’s influence on various issues in various eras and the temptation to portray past disputes through the partisan lens of today’s disputes. Frank Lambert has succeeded, for the most part, in his project.

In reality, Religion in American Politics is not as narrow as the title suggests. It is practically impossible to focus simply on religion’s role in politics; more accurately, Lambert explores the public dimension of religion in American history. He knows that one slim volume will never be the last word on such an expansive subject, and he does not pretend that it is. Instead, he picks insightful episodes from our nation’s history to paint a picture of religion’s relevance. The episodes range from the familiar (the Scopes trial, the civil rights movement) to hidden gems (early debates over Sunday mail service). Lambert’s succinct writing gets to the heart of each episode while ably placing it in the broader socioreligious context of the era.

Often books in this genre appear to be aimed at reassuring a particular religious/secularist audience of the correctness of its existing views. They are written in polemical tones and build caricatures of opposing viewpoints that can easily be torn down. Lambert, a professor of history at Purdue University, avoids this tendency, for most of his narrative is painstakingly evenhanded. But by setting the bar of dispassionate analysis relatively high, he brings attention to the few instances where he falls short.

One example is his portrayal of the faith-based initiative, which he dismisses as a product of President George W. Bush’s “determination to direct federal funds to conservative causes.” Federal funds, we are told, had flowed previously to “liberal religious groups” and their social services agencies, including Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army, and Bush saw an opportunity to level the political playing field. Given that funding restrictions on religious organizations were initially loosened by President Clinton, and that the Catholic Church and Salvation Army can hardly be called “liberal religious groups,” this is an area where greater nuance would have been welcome.

Or consider this indictment couched as neutral observation: “Some opponents of religious correctness object to the ungenerous, sanctimonious attitude of the Religious Right toward people they label sinful.” It reminded me of the classic conclusion-assuming query, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” We are to take as a given that “the Religious Right” (an entity, apparently) is ungenerous and sanctimonious, but for some reason only some opponents have objected to that fact. The Religious Right’s successes, moreover, are due largely to human weakness, as Lambert informs us that “conservatives are revivalists” who “appeal to audiences’ emotional needs.” Liberal Christians are less popular because of their “sedate, rational approach,” which recognizes “the complexity of modernity.” The tone is evenhanded, but one gets a sense that a thumb is on the scale.

Lambert devotes the bulk of his book to telling the stories of religion’s role at various points in American history, and it is worth reading because of these stories. But he understandably aims to impart lessons with his storytelling, and while those lessons for the most part do not obfuscate the value of the overall project, they left me with more questions than answers.

In his introduction, Lambert explains that a primary argument of the book is “that religious coalitions seek by political means what the Constitution prohibits, namely, a national religious establishment, or, more specifically, a Christian establishment.” He claims, in fact, that “[w]hatever the grievance, politically active religious groups are inspired by a particular vision of America as a Christian nation.” These sweeping introductory assertions are belied by the history he so ably recounts.

He explains, for example, that Christian groups pushed both sides of an intense debate over the decision to drop atomic bombs on civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Just after the bombs were dropped, 85 percent of Americans approved of the decision, but over the next two years that percentage dropped to a bare majority. The debate, in Lambert’s recounting, “triggered a broader discussion of American morals and values.” The question is, how exactly does a religious coalition formed to challenge (or affirm) the moral propriety of dropping the atomic bomb amount to the seeking of a “religious establishment”? And on what basis can we conclude that participants in such a coalition are motivated by their belief that America is a “Christian nation”?

Of course, there are many Christians in American history who have leapt into the public square in order to reclaim our nation’s purportedly Christian heritage or to more closely align state power with Christian identity. (Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who erected a Ten Commandments monument in the state courthouse, then defied a federal court order to remove it, comes immediately to mind.) But to suggest that politically engaged Christians are, by definition, inspired by a vision of the “Christian nation” is silly. Politically engaged Americans of all religious and ideological stripes are inspired by the worldviews that shape their moral convictions and commitments. As a Christian, my criticism of the decision to drop the atomic bomb is inescapably shaped by the teachings of Christ. But I do not offer my criticism in order to bring the nation under the authority of Christ’s teaching; I offer it because I want to contribute to the common good.

This may seem like an obvious point, but it is an important one. If we are serious about welcoming all citizens into the public square, we need to ensure that the debate centers on the substance of their claims, not the source of their convictions. Lambert is far from the worst offender on this score, as a spate of recent books seems to gleefully blur any distinction between politically engaged religion and theocratic power grabs. But the thoughtfulness of Lambert’s overall work makes his oversight more glaring.

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