Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Wisdom of Mark Noll

I had some familiarity with the first edition of Religion and American Politics, a volume of essays edited and introduced by Mark Noll. I enjoyed the apology for the continued scholarly interest in the interplay between American religious and political life. Yet, as Noll points out in his introduction to the second edition, such an apology has become unnecessary in the years since the book's initial publication. Americans are not thoroughly aware of the substantial, if not dominant, role of religion in American politics. In an effort to reorient the book, Noll suggests that a new argument must be made to the American people:

[Contemporary Americans need] to incorporate a little bit of historical distance when tempted to extremes of approbation, condemnation, or bewilderment in the face of current events. The religious-political agitations of the recent past are, in fact, far from novel. Beginning with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and going on to the rise of politically conservative evangelical Protestantism, American politics has returned to the normative situation that prevailed for most of American history...

Against the fuller sweep of American history, the political-religious interactions of the last few decades represent no new thing. From arguments over religious freedom during the Constitutional Convention and antebellum sectional division accompanied by learned public debates from Scripture about the morality of slavery, through religion-infused experiences on the home front and with armies during the Civil War, and imposition of racial segregation after the end of Reconstruction, the rise of populism, the national campaign for prohibition, and the arguments used for entrance into World War I (and against entering that war), to the presidential election of 1928, when the Catholic faith of Democratic candidate Al Smith loomed large, religion was an ever-present if also constantly evolving fixture in American politics.

Attention to this wider history shows, for instance, that religious vitriol was spread around more widely during the Thomas Jefferson-John Adams presidential race of 1800 than with Bush versus Kerry in 2004; that public debate over the morality of slavery reached a depth of intensity beyond what has been experienced in debates over, first, African-American civil rights and then abortion and gay marriage; and that Jews and Catholics experienced levels of discrimination into the twentieth century that far exceed discrimination against Muslims that has been documented for the early twenty-first century.

Noll's purpose is obviously not to trivialize the seriousness of modern religiously infused debates, particularly not, for example, civil rights or religious discrimination. His is simply a plea to contextualize these discussions historically and to resist the urge to particularize the modern mindset. Americans are, unfortunately and by no means uniquely, a people who delight in bringing their religion to bear on statecraft.

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