Faith Traditions

One Nation Under God?by Marjorie Garber and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, (eds.);Foreword by Cornel WestRoutledge. 324p $19.95 (paper); $75 (library binding)

The co-editors of this sleek volume in CultureWork: A Book Series from the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Harvard are Marjorie Garber (William R. Kenan Jr., professor of English at Harvard), and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate. Professor Garber also directs the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies. Cultural studies is an intersection through which pass methods, texts and ideas from a variety of fields. Essayists in One Nation Under God? bring competence from religious studies, English, religion and literature, psychology and religion, African-American studies, women’s studies, law and modern Jewish and holocaust studies to bear on religion and American culture.

Their 16 essays, ordered under "Civility," "Law," "Practice" and "Conversion," probe themes ranging from "The Multireligious Public Square" (Diana L. Eck, director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard) through "Losing Faith in the Secular and the Culture of International Governance" (David Kennedy, Henry Shattuck Professor of Law in Harvard Law School), "From Monticello to Graceland" (Robert Kiely, Loker Professor of English at Harvard), "Practicing Christian Rock" (Barbara Claire Freeman, associate professor of English, Harvard) to "Two-Point Conversion" (Marjorie Garber).

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Cultural studies blurs the traditional distinction between high or elite and low or popular culture. So the essays do not concentrate on the high side of either religion (e.g. scriptures, creeds, liturgy, landmark theologies) or American culture (e.g. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Miller, Cage). The introduction explains that focus on "Graceland, praying football players, Jewish ritual in the Capitol Rotunda, cremation and Christian rock," among other things, "describe the landscape of American religion and mark the continuing fellowship of national identity and religious practice." Fluid prose style, appeal to life framed in terms of the mass media, and mischievous resonances between popular culture and religious solemnity also make this book a natural for undergraduate courses on religion and American culture.

For the most part, cultural studies has ignored religious studies. One Nation Under God? begins to redress that by addressing the "many styles of religion in contemporary American life." It would be more accurate had those words from the introduction said "some styles," because many religious communities in America are all but invisible. Still, granting admittance to the topic of religion is a bold step for cultural studies.

Whether this actually allows the reality of religion into the book is another question. Much depends on the controversial extent to which religion remains religious when mediated through frameworks (philosophical, social-scientific, scientific study of religion, psychological, historical, etc.) limited to reason alone. Judaism, Christianity and Islam in America do not understand themselves as particular instances of a generic religion. Each invokes truth and moral commands received from God in faith; and all, including Judaism, see themselves as uniquely charged to serve divine purpose for the whole of creation. All exist in multiple cultures. It is reductionistic to describe them primarily in terms of their cultural manifestations at any given time, and to interpret them simply in categories drawn from neo-Marxist, Freudian or literary-critical and philosophical sources.

Nonetheless, the single most intriguing sentence in the book, from the foreword by Cornel West, asks, "Why is the United States the most market-driven and religious nation of modern times?" A few essays touch on economic issues here and there, but cultural studies without connections to issues of underemployment, globalization, rural and inner-city poverty, welfare reform, unions, etc. leaves a lot of everyday life outside "culture."

One Nation Under God? indicates, perhaps, that cultural studies is coming out of the shell of an Enlightenment critique of religion. If so, David L. Kennedy’s doubt about the adequacy of compartmentalization in "Losing Faith in the Secular and the Culture of International Governance" represents a pervasive orientation in the book. If so, it’s not all the way out. Are the essays affected by the work of Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade, by contributions from sociologists of religion like Peter Berger, Robert Wuthnow, Andrew Greeley, Robert Bellah and Jose Casanova, by the impact from theological sources like Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Bultmann, Barth, Rahner, Moltmann, Vatican II or the World Council of Churches? It was surprising not to come across any reference to Wuthnow’s Producing the Sacred or Casanova’s Public Religions in the Modern World. The demise of a full-blown secularization hypothesis is not news.

Many essays contain implied or specific reference to the historical experiences of communities of faith, particularly Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s "Jewish Denominationalism Meets the Open Society," Azizah Y. al-Hibri’s "Islamic Law and Muslim Women in Americü," Deborah E. Lipstadt’s "Yom Hashoah in the Capital Rotunda," Cheryl Townsend Oakes’s "Plenty Good Room...’ in a Changing Black Church" and William R. Handley’s "Mormonism and Other Narratives of the Living Dead." Azizah Y. al-Hibri remarks that, "The West, and in particular America, needs to rediscover Islam itself not as a threatening Other’ but as part of the original civilizational and spiritual heritage of the West." Still, the book as a whole does not resonate with historical consciousness.

Negative space in sculpture has a correlate in what a book omits to cover on a given topic. It means something, and can be interpreted. Where are Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Mennonite or native American experience, community and perspectives? Where are Hispanics and Asian-Americans?

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