Review: American Christianities
Catherine A. Brekus and W. Clark Gilpin, eds. American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. 544 pp. ISBN 978-0-8078-7213-0.
Fifteen years ago, Thomas Tweed suggested that the time had come for Retelling U.S. Religious History (1997) in ways that decentered Christianity and proposed new narrative approaches grounded in the realities of cultural complexity and diversity. Yet Catherine Brekus and W. Clark Gilpin of the University of Chicago remind us in their introduction to American Christianities that Christianity remains at the center of most books on U.S. religious history, a reality only thinly cloaked by titles that use the generic term “religion.” Sparked initially by Tweed and handful of other leading religion scholars, Brekus and Gilpin attempt to advance the decentering process by relocating American Christianity’s dominance in this new framework. Their hefty anthology acknowledges Christianity’s ascendancy but exposes its enormous diversity and complexity and examines how the nation’s web of Christian traditions and practices have operated in its intricate cultural, social, and political matrix.
Two key arguments frame the book: that Christianity has shaped American life through “diversity and debate” rather than through a single unified message (2); and that American Christians have influenced the nation’s identity through informal coalitions and strategic alliances that have given them the appearance of acting as a unified bloc. Any appearance or assumption of unity not only represents an oversimplification but effectively mystifies Christianity’s place in our national life by obscuring these complex realities. Brekus and Gilpin propose an unpacking and demystification of a Christian presence that has been at once “omnipresent and invisible” (1).
The book’s twenty-two essays by scholars in history, religious studies, and American studies represent a wide range of topical and methodological lenses that the editors arrange under four broad headings. They begin with essays examining the dynamics and driving mechanisms of “Christian Diversity in America.” Catherine Albanese’s opening piece sketches a narrative in which a colonial era diversity of Christianities unfold while subjected to disestablishment, voluntarism, and “combinativeness” (41–42). Michael McNally suggests that different Native communities, in a process of religious “change” rather than “conversion,” improvised locally on a range of missionary traditions to generate the nation’s many Native American Christianities. Timothy Lee traces a trajectory “from the coercive to the liberative” among Asian and Latino Christians who, in the process, “help[ed] to de-Europeanize American Christianity” (84). Curtis Evans uncovers the doctrinal, denominational, class, cultural, and geographic fault lines that define the diversity of African American Christianities despite pressures toward uniformity imposed by the “burden of race.” Jonathan Sarna, arguing that state power has favored Christianity in the marketplace of American religion, advises that non-Christian religions “have enriched American Christianity” most fruitfully when competition has been truly free (129). And James Bennett, honing in on Puritan New England, the Second Great Awakening, the modernist-fundamentalist controversy of the early twentieth century, and mid- to late-twentieth century ecumenism, explores how American Christians have constantly renegotiated their relationships with one another, in ways ranging from violence to cooperation to compassion, amid an ever-expanding variety of Christian expression.
Part two, “Practicing Christianity in America,” considers change and diversity in the symbols, rituals, and texts that have made up Christian practice. W. Clark Gilpin observes Protestant and Catholic theologians varying widely and sometimes clashing dramatically as they approach issues of modernity from different intellectual perspectives and denominational traditions. Sally Promey looks past the simple notion of binary difference between Protestant and Catholic visual and material cultures to reveal more finely grained similarities and differences within and across individuals and groups. David Kling considers appropriations of the biblical Exodus theme, debates over the Bible in public education, and controversies over English translations of Bible to expose cultural tensions about identity, status, and power in a nation of competing Christianities and religious pluralism. Jeanne Halgren Kilde illustrates the variety of American Christianities by delineating differing practices of baptism, communion, and the sermon. Edith Blumhofer identifies in the historical process of competitive evangelizing among Catholics, Mormons, and initially dominant Protestants a mechanism by which American Christians have sharpened their own beliefs, tested the limits of religious freedom, clarified religious rights, and helped fashion a public space where religious discourse could flourish.
Part three turns attention to Christianity’s interactions with American cultural forms and institutions. Adapting to a modernizing, capitalist, and individualistic culture, American Christians generated an expanding diversity of interpretations by engaging in cultural debates and staking out their respective interests. After reflecting on how eighteenth-century evangelicals, Catholics at the turn of the twentieth century, and the late twentieth-century Word of Faith movement responded to the individualism, self-interest, and material emphasis of consumer culture, Catherine Brekus proposes that capitalism has driven the vitality and variety of American Christianities. Kristina Bross surveys a diverse captivity narrative tradition ranging from popular frontier tales of physical prowess that celebrate dominant groups to tentative and hesitant personal accounts of regeneration through affliction that make “Christian heroism possible for the relatively powerless” (319). Jon Roberts examines how the scientific community’s commitment to naturalistic method and detachment from biblical considerations during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries triggered new divisions within American Christianity as mainline Protestants, conservative evangelicals, Christian Scientists, Holiness and Pentecostal churches, neo-Orthodox Protestants, and neo-scholastic Catholics responded differently to its cultural authority. Rebecca Davis uses Norman Vincent Peale as a window into the diversity and complexity of mid-twentieth-century Protestant heteronormativity, seeing in Peale’s therapeutic method a liberal shift away from sin-based understandings of homosexuality and a model eventually adapted by conservative Protestants. Stewart Hoover outlines a transformation from an institutionalized and limited religious media presence that tacitly assumed a Protestant establishment to a fully blown, technologically driven media marketplace, pioneered by televangelists, that is catering to new generations of media-oriented religious seekers, leveling the cultural playing field, destabilizing religious authority, and radically rebalancing power relations. And Mark Noll suggests that New World conditions generated different American “distinctives” in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada (387).
The final section of the book, “Christianity and the American Nation,” focuses on how American Christians have contributed to national conversations about key social and political issues. Behind colonists’ responses to Quebec Act, mid nineteenth-century conflicts between Protestants and Catholics over education, and the activities of the Christian Right, Tracy Fessenden perceives an ongoing pattern of pluralism that emphasizes individual rights and has thus privileged Protestant Christianity as pluralism’s “accommodating frame” (422). Dan McKanan exhibits the diversity and hybrid character of Christian social reform through case studies of abolitionism, the Catholic Worker movement, and Saul Alinksy’s congregation-based community organizing—all of which have been freed by the First Amendment to blend in their activism the broad concern of the ‘church’ with the zeal of the ‘sect.’ Jon Pahl uses the Pequot War, Civil War, world wars, Cold War, and war on terror to argue that a state-sanctioned religion of patriotism has diffused the logic of Christian sacrifice across American cultural institutions and practices, underwriting war and discouraging hard policy questions, while also recognizing countervailing efforts to disentangle Christianity from American militarism. Ann Braude uses Methodist, Catholic, and Mormon positions in the woman suffrage and ERA campaigns to explore the complicated interplay between religiously based assertions about women’s nature and evolving concepts of equality informing definitions of U.S. citizenship. And Kathleen Flake closes with an examination of state approaches to religious life from the informal Protestant establishment of the nineteenth century, within which non-Protestant groups secured First Amendment protection only by acting Protestant through an increasing state emphasis on “procedural fairness and substantive neutrality” that challenged Protestant power during the twentieth century, to a “final disestablishment” in which American Christianities are, at least in the federal courts, becoming generalized with all other American religions and their legal status is becoming equated with that of other social institutions (501).
This effort to relocate American Christianities culturally, socially, politically, and legally covers a lot of ground. It gives the topic the “fresh, rigorous, serious attention” the editors want and will no doubt succeed in its goal “to stimulate a new conversation about America’s dominant religious tradition” (4). “Conversations” might be more accurate, however, since, at least in the near future, attempting a single conversation might unavoidably generate a din. Indeed, the essays in this collection themselves suggest as much, for one can hardly glean from them a single “history of dominance and diversity.” All of them point to the enormous diversity of American Christianities, but only some explore strategic alliances among different Christians and few carry their analyses to conclusions about the dynamics of Christian dominance. In many cases, readers looking for links between diversity and wider issues of power will have to settle for hints rather than finding explicit proposals. Nor, with only scant exception, does the collection pay as much attention to Christianity’s engagement with non-Christian religions as a “history of dominance” demands. Most of the treatments of Christianity are decidedly insular, intended largely to reveal internal diversity and debate. But these observations are intended less as critiques than as indications of where this book points – as useful and perhaps necessary results of the editors’ efforts, which after all are about moving the retelling process along rather than completing it, and about providing “not comprehensiveness but texture” (21). Importantly, they are up front about the volume’s focus on Christianity—an essential phase in the development of the discussion. The ambitious project of recasting the history of American Christianities has just begun; we should be grateful to Brekus, Gilpin, and their many collaborators for so effectively mapping a path and taking the first steps.