Saturday, August 06, 2016

Book Notes: God and Race in American Politics (A Short History) by Mark Noll

Mark Noll is an insightful historian, with a special in American religious thought and history, who is always worth reading. His, "God and Race in American Politics: A Short Introduction" is no exception to that, but is an excellent summary of a vast, complex topic. This book is the written form of a series of lectures Noll was invited to give at Princeton University a decade ago, subsequently published by Princeton University Press. As such, the form is different from his most of his works, in that it is not primarily a piece of original research supported by rafts of references; but rather an idiosyncratic review of the subject.

Going back into the antebellum period, Noll explores the way in which both sides in the conflict, which would escalate into Civil War in the 1860s, sought to bolster their ideological cause with reference to the Christian Bible. In Noll's account, the Bible's seeming toleration of slave-holding (much disputed though this was), was completely mishandled by both sides; who failed to reckon with the Bible's indisputable anti-racism. The fact that nothing like American plantation slavery was discussed in the Bible, and that virtually every slave in the New Testament was white, was an unacceptable truth avoided by racist Unionists and Confederates alike. Noll then observes a shift in the conflagration of the 1860s however, in which cultural authority shifted from the biblical text, to a more general form of civic religion - a significant departure from the America of the pilgrim fathers.

Roaming through the the Reconstruction and so-called 'Redemption' eras with some skill, Noll focuses on the way in which the foundations for later gains were made in the internal organisation of the African-American churches. Furthermore Noll makes the following unusual observation about the types of religion which were successfully then harnessed by the Civil Rights movement. He notes that progressives, temperance advocates and proclaimers of Raushenbusch's social gospel avoided the glaring sins of racism, to focus on urban development and alcohol. While he notes that many Civil Rights leaders were exponents of Liberal-leaning theology (notable Martin Luther King Jr's leaning towards Tillich), that was not the case for vast swathes of the African American believers who joined the great crusades for liberty in the 1950s and 60s:
Formal religious thought from elites was always complemented in the civil rights movement by a less cerebral, more visceral version of the Christian faith that remained closer to the ardent supernaturalism and straightforward biblicism of the autonomous black denominations and, beyond that, to slave religion....... 

To be sure, this faith had been severely censured by W.E.B. Du Bois and other reformers who castigated its adherents as drugged by an opiate that disabled them from effective action in the here and now. But Charles Payne, who has written perceptively about the life-and-death struggles of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, understood things better when he described the strongly supernaturalist and otherworldly faith practised in tight black community churches, usually with females predominating: "A more flexible model [then thinking of this religion as an opiate] might hold that involvement in such communities ordinarily militates against involvement in social movements, but once any one person in the network becomes politically involved, the strength of the social ties within the network is likely to draw other members in."

Payne's own research substantiated his theoretical analysis when he followed the civil rights activities of those who read the Bible simplistically, looked for immediate consolation from an active God, and held precritical views of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as acting directly in the everyday world for redemptive purposes. He found that such ones, once they had been galvanised into social action, were able to exert the same force in the public square as they had experienced in the private religious lives. (p114-5)
Noll presents helpful, and revealing analysis like this across the range of eras and issues which constitute the critical junctures in the convoluted story of Race/Religion and Politics in American History. His controlling idea is that when the forces of politics and religion have been made to coalesce around key issues - their joint influence becomes a decisive factor in shaping American history. He defends this notion admirably throughout the book too, as he ranges through the political realignment of the South, the ructions of the 1960s, and on through the rise of the Right and Reagan and the religious right to more contemporary issues.

Finally, Noll's conclusion is highly critical of the American Christian Church. In his assessment, Christianity has provided untold benefits to the USA over the centuries of its existence he notes. "And yet.... and yet.... The American Political system and the American practice of Christianity, which have provided so much good for so many people for so many years, have never been able to overcome race." (p178)

Noll's "short history", is two hundred pages long! But it is shrewd, fast-paced and lively; and engaging throughout. There are (obviously) great swathes of material in the book which have not been mentioned here. This review has sought only to highlight some of the most significant ones, and to give a short sample of the writing. Nevertheless, it is hoped that this is sufficient to give a flavour of the book, which is a highly engaging introduction to the field.

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