Monthly Archives: January 2016

Paul Putz’ List of New Books in AmRel History is Out


Over at Religion in American History, Paul Putz has given us his first of three updates on new books in American religious history for 2016. His first post of the year covers books that will be released from January to April of this year. There are a lot of exciting new titles forthcoming, such as:

Stephen Prothero, Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): The Battles That Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage (HarperOne, January)

Matthew Avery Sutton and Darren Dochuk, eds., Faith in the New Millennium: The Future of Religion and American Politics (Oxford University Press, January) 

Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (Oxford University Press, January) 

Michael S. Evans, Seeking Good Debate: Religion, Science, and Conflict in American Public Life (University of California Press, February)

Peter Randolph, Sketches of Slave Life and From and From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit, ed. Katherine Clay Bassard (West Virginia University Press, February)

George Marsden, C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography (Princeton University Press, March)

Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake, eds., The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class (University of Illinois Press, March)

John Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, March)

These few merely scratch the surface. Paul’s lists at RiAH are an invaluable resource for anyone interested in keeping abreast of the field of American religious history. Not only does he include the titles of forthcoming works, he also includes a link and short description–either a blurb, or the publisher’s summary.

See the entire list for January-April here.


Thomas Kidd on Why He Agreed to Counsel Marco Rubio on Religious Liberty


Thomas Kidd’s recent biography of George Whitefield

Many of you have probably heard by now that Baylor historian Thomas Kidd joined GOP hopeful Marco Rubio’s team as an advisor to him on religious liberty issues. Rubio is smart to call on Kidd, an evangelical Christian, respected historian, and prolific writer on American religious history.

Kidd has doubtless taken some heat from his admirers and colleagues for agreeing to serve on Rubio’s advisory board. He is a thoughtful person, and I’m sure he carefully considered the invitation before agreeing to accept it. Rubio will certainly be well served by Kidd, and I am more than certain that Kidd will help Rubio to appreciate the liberal arts a bit more than when he made his infamous disparaging statement about philosophy this past November.

Here’s a portion of what Kidd had to say about joining Rubio in his Anxious Bench column today–

I can imagine some readers asking, why would I join such a board for a presidential campaign? I have written often about how politics is not ultimately the answer to much of anything, and how Christians in particular should not be searching for a political messiah.

Nevertheless, politics matters. We have some exquisitely bad candidates in the 2016 field who need challenging. So when Eric Teetsel, Rubio’s Director of Faith Outreach, asked me to serve on the board, I was intrigued.

Why did I say yes? 3 reasons:

Read his entire post here.

I have always respected Kidd as a Christian, a family man, and a scholar–and benefited tremendously from his writings, as many, many of us have. He continues to demonstrate his circumspection and care as he starts down this path.

Marco Rubio, “The Most Boring Man in America,” and America’s Great Commission


John Foster Dulles (1888-1959) served Dwight D. Eisenhower as Secretary of State from 1953 until his death from cancer in 1959. When he died in May of that year, he was one of the most respected men in the world. Many Americans–including President Eisenhower himself–believed they had lost their best hope at winning the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

Dulles’ New York Times obituary from May 25, 1959 had this to say:

But when Mr. Dulles had to withdraw from the international scene one word was heard over and over among the diplomats of Europe and Asia: “Indispensable.”

When President Eisenhower announced Mr. Dulles’ resignation he had tears in his eyes. The moment was so moving that no one could bring himself to ask a question. With mixed pity and consternation some remembered a remark attributed to the President several years ago:

“If anything happened to Foster, where could I find a man able to replace him?”

Still, during his long career of public service, Dulles did not make an admirer out of everyone he met. William Inboden, in his book Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945-1960: The Soul of Containment, wrote that Winston Churchill described him as a “dour Puritan, a great white bespectacled face with a smudge of a mouth.” He was also popularly known during the 1950s as “the most boring man in America.”

And yet this was a man who sincerely believed that America possessed a God-given responsibility to defeat Soviet Communism and spread American style democracy everywhere in the world. Dulles’ deeply held conviction on America’s “Great Commission” helped inform US foreign policy until the end of the Cold War.

I wrote an op-ed for History News Network which appeared last evening discussing Dulles’ conviction–and his legacy, especially as seen in the candidacy of GOP hopeful Marco Rubio.

Here is a portion–

Dulles gave a speech entitled “The Power of Moral Forces” in 1953 in which he said “[our forebears] created here a society of material, intellectual, and spiritual richness the like of which the world had never known.” In contrast, the Soviets were atheistic, ontologically materialistic, and thus, “as a result the Soviet institutions treat human beings as primarily important from the standpoint of how much they can be made to produce for the glorification of the state.” Ultimately, the difference between the United States and the Soviet Union was the difference between a religious people committed to neighbor-love and an atheistic statist system in which people were compelled to obey through the constant threat of force.

Still, because America was founded on the basis of an active, rather than a passive, religious faith, its ultimate victory over godless Communism was assured. For Dulles, America’s spiritual heritage was three-fold. In a 1947 speech entitled “Our Spiritual Heritage,” Dulles said that first, Americans’ experiment in freedom was carried out by a religious people; second, Americans historically believed that “there are eternal principles of truth and righteousness which are reflected in a moral law.” Third—and most importantly—Americans’ religious faith was fueled by a transcendent obligation to serve others. Furthermore, this commitment to look beyond themselves and to the freedom of everyone in the world was essential to the survival of the American republic. Dulles said: “our society would quickly succumb if we renounced a sense of mission in the world.”

How do we see the continuation of Dulles’s legacy in contemporary times? Certainly we can see it in manifold ways, but let us consider that legacy through the lens of the presidential candidacy of GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. Rubio has made American exceptionalism the centerpiece of his personal narrative, and by extension, his entire campaign.

Read the entire piece here. And read a more extensive historical and theological analysis of Dulles and America’s “Great Commission” in American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.


A Conversation With Jonathan Den Hartog about American Exceptionalism


At the risk of shamelessly self promoting my book (!) allow me to direct your path over to the venerable Religion in American History blog for a conversation about American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. RiAH is a fantastic resource, and I was extremely thrilled to be invited to respond to an author interview. I was especially excited to join Jonathan Den Hartog, Associate Professor of History at the University of Northwestern. By the way, check out Den Hartog’s excellent book, Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (UVA Press, 2015). He argues that American religious patterns were shaped largely by the Federalists in the first decades of the 19th century, after John Adams was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election.

Here is a portion of our conversation:

3. To clarify your ideas, what is the relationship of “Exceptionalism” to “Civil Religion?” Also, you differentiate an “Open Exceptionalism” from a “Closed Exceptionalism.” What sets them apart?

I define civil religion as “a set of practices, symbols, and beliefs distinct from traditional religion, yet providing a transcendent paradigm around which the citizenry can unite” (20). In his recent book American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred (Oxford, 2014), Peter Gardella emphasized that civil religion is meant to unify members of a political community around “monuments, texts, and images, along with the behaviors and values associated with them.

So civil religion is a broad term describing what amounts to a real religion, complete with liturgies, traditions, symbols, sacred texts, and even individuals who minister in its name. American exceptionalism is a doctrine of civil religion, and is made up of sub-doctrines. The sub-doctrines, which comprise American exceptionalism are those I mentioned above: national chosenness, divine commission, innocence, sacred land, and glorious past.

American civil religion and exceptionalism are thus exclusive, at least if they are understood in these terms. Exceptionalism is philosophically exclusive in that it divides people into two groups, the Chosen and the Other. And historically, exceptionalism has been articulated in exclusivist terms over the years, to exclude African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans to name a few examples. Furthermore, exceptionalism hijacks its tenets from Christian theology. Election, divine commission, moral regeneracy, theology of place, and historical thinking are all either specific Christian doctrines or they have an important place in the Christian tradition. American exceptionalism often counterfeits these beliefs and practices for nationalistic purposes. Thus, in my historical and theological discussions, I classify this exclusivist, nationalist, and religious brand of exceptionalism as “closed exceptionalism.”

But I also argue that it is not necessary for civil religion and exceptionalism to be rigidly exclusivist, or to hijack Christian tradition or theology. Civil religion and exceptionalism can indeed exist in a way that is not inconsistent with Christianity. This is done through observance in the ideas expressed in the founding documents, particularly the Declaration of Independence. In the final chapter of the book, I juxtapose Justin Martyr with W. E. B. Du Bois to make this argument and to propose a model for open exceptionalist civic engagement.

Read the whole interview here.

The Tamir Rice Case and American Exceptionalism


This week, I contributed a post at Then and Now on how the Tamir Rice case flies in the face of closed American exceptionalism, particularly the notion of American innocence. As I wrote in American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion, American innocence is one of several key religious commitments in closed American exceptionalism. American innocence–the notion that America has no social ills like the rest of the nations of the world, that American is an inherently good nation–is clearly called in question when it comes to race prejudice. In the post, I try to think historically about the idea of American innocence as well as racial injustice. And in a related development, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has gone on record supporting #BlackLivesMatter at its huge Urbana missions conference, as Religion News Service was first to report. This is noteworthy–a major evangelical para-church organization has come forward without ambiguity to urge Christians to take a stand in solidarity with the movement. We’ll see what impact this development makes in the new year.

Here is a short segment of my piece at Then and Now.

The notion that America is normatively different than other nations, that America does not suffer social ills like everyone else, is not new. The idea can be traced back to the first colonial efforts of the European kingdoms in the 16th and 17th centuries. European imaginations were moved by the western hemisphere’s stark newness to them. Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, contrasting the “new world” with overpopulated and degenerate Europe. In the excellent book The Intellectual Construction of America, Jack Greene wrote, “By associating Utopia with the New World, More . . . effectively directed attention not just to Europe’s own internal social, moral, and political problems but also to the as yet unknown potential of the immense New World.”

But racial prejudice is also found at the roots of North American civilization. If we sound the deepest parts of our identity as Americans, we find white supremacy along with the many forms of social ills that attend it as they have appeared over the four centuries since the first slaver in Jamestown. The tragedy Tamir Rice suffered—along with his community—is one manifestation of race prejudice’s degradation of American civilization.

W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1896 monograph The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America: 1638-1870 was based on his Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard. The work is, as Du Bois described it, “a small contribution to the scientific study of slavery and the American Negro.”

Du Bois closed with a short section he called “A Lesson for Americans.” There he reminded readers that as great as the founders were, they were flawed human beings seeking to achieve union of the colonies at the expense of leaving the monster of slavery in its cradle to thrive, flourish, and grow to ultimately turn on the new nation and tear it apart.