Tag Archives: Religion in America

Roberts, “Voodoo and Power”

In November, the Louisiana State University Press will release “Voodoo and Power: The Politics of Religion in New Orleans, 1881-1940,” by Kodi A. Roberts (Louisiana State University).  The publisher’s description follows:

The racialized and exoticized cult of Voodoo occupies a central place in the popular image of the Crescent City. But as Kodi A. Roberts argues in Voodoo and Power, the religion was not a monolithic tradition handed down from African ancestors to their American-born descendants. Instead, a much more complicated patchwork of influences created New Orleans Voodoo, allowing it to move across boundaries of race, class, and gender. By employing late nineteenth and early twentieth-century first-hand accounts of Voodoo practitioners and their rituals, Roberts provides a nuanced understanding of who practiced Voodoo and why.

Voodoo in New Orleans, a mélange of religion, entrepreneurship, and business networks, stretched across the color line in intriguing ways. Roberts’s analysis demonstrates that what united professional practitioners, or “workers,” with those who sought their services was not a racially uniform folk culture, but rather the power and influence that Voodoo promised. Recognizing that social immobility proved a common barrier for their patrons, workers claimed that their rituals could overcome racial and gendered disadvantages and create new opportunities for their clients.

Voodoo rituals and institutions also drew inspiration from the surrounding milieu, including the privations of the Great Depression, the city’s complex racial history, and the free-market economy. Money, employment, and business became central concerns for the religion’s practitioners: to validate their work, some began operating from recently organized “Spiritual Churches,” entities that were tax exempt and thus legitimate in the eyes of the state of Louisiana. Practitioners even leveraged local figures like the mythohistoric Marie Laveau for spiritual purposes and entrepreneurial gain. All the while, they contributed to the cultural legacy that fueled New Orleans’s tourist industry and drew visitors and their money to the Crescent City.

Smith, “Religious Persecution and Political Order in the United States”

In October, Cambridge University Press will release “Religious Persecution and Political Order in the United States,” by David T. Smith (University of Sydney). The publisher’s description follows:

Religious freedom is a foundational value of the United States, but not all religious minorities have been shielded from religious persecution in America. This book examines why the state has acted to protect some religious minorities while allowing others to be persecuted or actively persecuting them. It details the persecution experiences of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, Jews, the Nation of Islam, and orthodox Muslims in America, developing a theory for why the state intervened to protect some but not others. The book argues that the state will persecute religious minorities if state actors consider them a threat to political order, but they will protect religious minorities if they believe persecution is a greater threat to political order. From the beginning of the republic to after 9/11, religious freedom in America has depended on the state’s perception of political threats.

Sutto, “Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists”

In November, the University of Virginia Press will release “Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists: Maryland and the Politics of Religion in the English Atlantic, 1630-1690,” by Antoinette Sutto (University of Mississippi).  The publisher’s description follows:

Loyal Protestants and Dangerous Papists analyzes the vibrant and often violent political culture of seventeenth-century America, exploring the relationship between early American and early modern British politics through a detailed study of colonial Maryland. Seventeenth-century Maryland was repeatedly wracked by disputes over the legitimacy of the colony’s Catholic proprietorship. The proprietors’ strange policy of religious liberty was part of the controversy, but colonists also voiced fears of proprietary conspiracies with Native Americans and claimed the colony’s ruling circle aimed to crush their liberties as English subjects. Conflicts like these became wrapped up in disputes less obviously political, such as disagreements over how to manage the tobacco trade, without which Maryland’s economy would falter.

Antoinette Sutto argues that the best way to understand this strange mix of religious, economic, and political controversies is to view it with regard to the disputes over the role of the English church, the power of the state, and the ideal relationship between the two—disputes that tore apart the English-speaking world twice over in the 1600s. Sutto contends that the turbulent political history of early Maryland makes most sense when seen in an imperial as well as an American context. Such an understanding of political culture and conflict in this colony offers a window not only into the processes of seventeenth-century American politics but also into the construction of the early modern state. Examining the dramatic rise and fall of Maryland’s Catholic proprietorship through this lens, Loyal Protestants and Dangerous Papists offers a unique glimpse into the ambiguities and possibilities of the early English colonial world.

Richard, “Not a Catholic Nation”

In November, the University of Massachusetts Press will release “Not a Catholic Nation: The Ku Klux Klan Confronts New England in the 1920s,” by Mark Paul Richard (State University of New York at Plattsburgh).  The publisher’s description follows:

During the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan experienced a remarkable resurgence, drawing millions of American men and women into its ranks. In Not a Catholic Nation, Mark Paul Richard examines the KKK’s largely ignored growth in the six states of New England—Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont—and details the reactions of the region’s Catholic population, the Klan’s primary targets.

Drawing on a wide range of previously untapped sources—French-language newspapers in the New England–Canadian borderlands; KKK documents scattered in local, university, and Catholic repositories; and previously undiscovered copies of the Maine Klansmen—Richard demonstrates that the Klan was far more active in the Northeast than previously thought. He also challenges the increasingly prevalent view that the Ku Klux Klan became a mass movement during this period largely because it functioned as a social, fraternal, or civic organization for many Protestants. While Richard concedes that some Protestants in New England may have joined the KKK for those reasons, he shows that the politics of ethnicity and labor played a more significant role in the Klan’s growth in the region.

The most comprehensive analysis of the Ku Klux Klan’s antagonism toward Catholics in the 1920s, this book is also distinctive in its consideration of the history of the Canada–U.S. borderlands, particularly the role of Canadian immigrants as both proponents and victims of the Klan movement in the United States.

Thompson, “For God and Globe”

In November, the Cornell University Press will release “For God and Globe: Christian Internationalism in the United States between the Great War and the Cold War,” by Michael G. Thompson (University of Sydney). The publisher’s description follows:

For God and Globe recovers the history of an important yet largely forgotten intellectual movement in interwar America. Michael G. Thompson explores the way radical-left and ecumenical Protestant internationalists articulated new understandings of the ethics of international relations between the 1920s and the 1940s. Missionary leaders such as Sherwood Eddy and journalists such as Kirby Page, as well as realist theologians including Reinhold Niebuhr, developed new kinds of religious enterprises devoted to producing knowledge on international relations for public consumption. For God and Globe centers on the excavation of two such efforts—the leading left-wing Protestant interwar periodical, The World Tomorrow, and the landmark Oxford 1937 ecumenical world conference. Thompson charts the simultaneous peak and decline of the movement in John Foster Dulles’s ambitious efforts to link Christian internationalism to the cause of international organization after World War II.

Concerned with far more than foreign policy, Christian internationalists developed critiques of racism, imperialism, and nationalism in world affairs. They rejected exceptionalist frameworks and eschewed the dominant “Christian nation” imaginary as a lens through which to view U.S. foreign relations. In the intellectual history of religion and American foreign relations, Protestantism most commonly appears as an ideological ancillary to expansionism and nationalism. For God and Globe challenges this account by recovering a movement that held Christian universalism to be a check against nationalism rather than a boon to it.

McMullen, “The Bahá’ís of America”

In November, NYU Press will release “The Bahá’ís of America: The Growth of a Religious Movement” by Mike McMullen (University of Houston). The publisher’s description follows:

The Bahá’í Faith had its origins in nineteenth century Shi’ite Islam, but embraces Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad—among others—as prophets, each seen as a divine messenger uniquely suited to the needs of his time. The Bahá’í community has spread to become the second most geographically widespread religion in the world. It has a 120 year history in the United States, where members have promoted their core belief that all people are created equal.

American Bahá’ís have been remarkably successful in attracting a diverse membership. They instituted efforts to promote racial unity in the deep South decades before the modern civil rights movement, and despite lip service to fostering multi racial congregations among Christian churches, over half of American Bahá’í congregations today are multiracial, in comparison to just 5 to 7 percent of U.S. Christian churches. This level of diversity is unique among all religious groups in the United States.

As the story of a relatively new religious movement, the history of the Bahá’ís in America in the 20th and early 21st centuries offers a case study of institutional maturation, showcasing the community’s efforts to weather conflict and achieve steady growth. While much scholarly attention has been paid to extremist religious movements, this book highlights a religious movement that promotes the idea of the unity of all religions. Mike McMullen traces the hard work of the Bahá’ís’ leadership and congregants to achieve their high level of diversity and manage to grow so successfully in America.

Scribes and Holidays

Thanks to Marc and Mark for asking me to blog with them for the next few weeks. As I am just a law-and-religion amateur, being able to exchange thoughts with scholars of their caliber is a real honor.

To get things started, I haven’t seen much about this dissent a couple of weeks ago by a group of five Tenth Circuit judges from a denial of an en banc hearing in cases involving the contraceptive mandate as applied to non-profits.  The tenth Circuit, sua sponte, considered whether to rehear the cases en banc; the plaintiffs, who were challenging the mandate, had lost before the initial panel. The full court denied rehearing en banc , but five judges were sufficiently disturbed to write a strongly-worded dissent. The core of their argument is as follows:

Put another way, the panel majority may be saying that it is the court’s prerogative to determine whether requiring the plaintiffs to execute the documents substantially burdens their core religious belief, regardless of whether the plaintiffs have a “derivative” religious belief that executing the documents is sinful. This is a dangerous approach to religious liberty. Could we really tolerate letting courts examine the reasoning behind a religious practice or belief and decide what is core and what is derivative?

This is the real danger, I think. You have what John McGinnis calls a “scribal” caste without much (as Mark rightly notes) personal connection to traditional religious thought or concepts determining what is “really” important to the religion of the litigants.  It is no surprise that in such cases, the judges favor the state, because how serious could religious people actually be about matters the scribes see as unimportant?

A second, non-legal topic. My wife and I have three grade-school children, and for the first time this year, I heard multiple conversations over the summer about the multitude of school holidays that need to be accommodated into the schedule. Not just Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Christmas and Easter, but also Eid and the Lunar New Year are now recognized in the New York public schools; the Hindu festival Diwali is also being considered. So on the one hand, legal scribes reject accommodation for beliefs not considered “core,” yet other arms of the state are increasingly conceding the centrality of expression of religious beliefs in a very public way. Since as a general matter, I believe culture eventually prevails over formal legal doctrine, this kind of contrast is something to watch.

Mislin, “Saving Faith”

In October, the Cornell University Press will release “Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age,” by David Mislin (Temple University).  The publisher’s description follows:

In Saving Faith, David Mislin chronicles the transformative historical moment when Americans began to reimagine their nation as one strengthened by the diverse faiths of its peoples. Between 1875 and 1925, liberal Protestant leaders abandoned religious exclusivism and leveraged their considerable cultural influence to push others to do the same. This reorientation came about as an ever-growing group of Americans found their religious faith under attack on social, intellectual, and political fronts. A new generation of outspoken agnostics assailed the very foundation of belief, while noted intellectuals embraced novel spiritual practices and claimed that Protestant Christianity had outlived its usefulness.

Faced with these grave challenges, Protestant clergy and their allies realized that the successful defense of religion against secularism required a defense of all religious traditions. They affirmed the social value—and ultimately the religious truth—of Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. They also came to view doubt and uncertainty as expressions of faith. Ultimately, the reexamination of religious difference paved the way for Protestant elites to reconsider ethnic, racial, and cultural difference. Using the manuscript collections and correspondence of leading American Protestants, as well the institutional records of various churches and religious organizations, Mislin offers insight into the historical constructions of faith and doubt, the interconnected relationship of secularism and pluralism, and the enormous influence of liberal Protestant thought on the political, cultural, and spiritual values of the twentieth-century United States.

“The Polygamy Question” (eds. Bennion and Joffe)

In November, the Utah State University Press will release “The Polygamy Question,” edited by Janet Bennion (Lyndon State College) and Lisa Fishbayn Joffe (Brandeis University).  The publisher’s description follows:

The practice of polygamy occupies a unique place in North American history and has had a profound effect on its legal and social development. The Polygamy Question explores the ways in which indigenous and immigrant polygamy have shaped the lives of individuals, communities, and the broader societies that have engaged with it. The book also considers how polygamy challenges our traditional notions of gender and marriage and how it might be effectively regulated to comport with contemporary notions of justice.

The contributors to this volume—scholars of law, anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, and religious studies—disentangle diverse forms of polygamy and polyamory practiced among a range of religious and national backgrounds including Mormon and Muslim. They chart the harms and benefits these models have on practicing women, children, and men, whether they are independent families or members of coherent religious groups. Contributors also address the complexities of evaluating this form of marriage and the ethical and legal issues surrounding regulation of the practice, including the pros and cons of legalization.

Plural marriage is the next frontier of North American marriage law and possibly the next civil rights battlefield. Students and scholars interested in polygamy, marriage, and family will find much of interest in The Polygamy Question.

Danforth, “The Relevance of Religion”

Next month, Penguin Random House will release “The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics” by John Danforth (former attorney general of Missouri, United States senator from Missouri, and United States representative to the United Nations). The publisher’s description follows:

Former United States senator and ambassador to the United Nations John Danforth offers a fascinating, thoughtful, and deeply personal look at the state of American politics today—and how religion can be a bridge over our bitter partisan divide.

In an era of extreme partisanship, when running for office has become a zero-sum game in which candidates play exclusively to their ideological bases, Americans on both sides of the political aisle hunger for the return of a commitment to the common good. Too often, it seems, religion has been used as a wedge to divide us in these battles. But is it also the key to restoring our civic virtue?

For more than a decade, John Danforth, who is also an ordained Episcopal priest, has written extensively on the negative use of religion as a divisive force in American politics. Now he turns to the positive, constructive impact faithful religious believers have and can have on our public life. The Relevance of Religion is the product of that period of reflection.

In the calm and wise voice of the pastor he once aspired to be, Senator Danforth argues that our shared religious values can lead us out of the embittered, entrenched state of politics today. A lifelong Republican, he calls his own party to task for its part in creating a political system in which the loudest opinions and the most polarizing personalities hold sway. And he suggests that such a system is not only unsustainable but unfaithful to our essential nature. We are built to care about other people, and this inherent altruism—which science says we crave because of our neurobiological wiring, and the Bible says is part of our created nature—is a crucial aspect of good government.

Our willingness to serve more than our self-interest is religion’s gift to politics, John Danforth asserts. In an era when 75 percent of Americans say they cannot trust their elected leaders, The Relevance of Religion is a heartfelt plea for more compassionate government—and a rousing call to arms for those wishing to follow the better angels of our nature.