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Book Reviews: Books on American Religion, Religious History, Beliefs

Religion plays an important role in American society, just as it does in most societies. Religion in America is not, however, quite like religion in other countries. It has it's own unique history and it's own understanding of the nature of religion, of Christianity, and of civil society. Learn here about some of the best recent books published about religion in America.

The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang, edited by Grant
Social groups and professions often acquire specialized terminology and unique words with particular meanings just for that group. Since politics can be way of life that is so disconnected from the reality which everyone else deals with, it's no surprise the it has its own language as well - but the breadth and depth of political slang might not be fully realized by most, even those who use it on a regular basis. What this slang is and how it's used reveals something about political culture.

'Ye Will Say I Am No Christian': Thomas Jefferson / John Adams Correspondence
There is a strong political movement in modern America that asserts that America was originally founded as a Christian Nation. This is meant not as a description of America's original demographics, but a statement of America's original political philosophy and moral ideology. When we examine some of the writings of America's political founders,...

Faiths of the Founding Fathers, by David L. Holmes
Debates about the role of religion in contemporary American politics and law invariably turn to questions about the beliefs and intentions of the 'Founding Fathers' - the political and social leaders of early America who led the revolution against Britain and constructed a new system of government. What did the authors of America's government...

Born Amish, by Ruth Irene Garrett
Many Americans have encountered the Amish on the roads or at farmers' markets. Even more have seen them depicted in the movies or at least heard of them. People know that the Amish are religious, lead a simple lifestyle, and avoid owning modern conveniences, but that's about it. The Amish lifestyle may be simple, but the culture is complex..

The Church Enslaved: A Spirituality For Racial Reconciliation
One of the most significant aspects of American Christianity which no one wants to talk about, much less seriously engage, is the legacy of racism, slavery, and segregation. Too often people act as though it was simply a part of American culture and politics, detached from the Christian experience...

The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country
Unlike most nations, America isn't defined by any particular ethnicity or religion; instead, it is defined by particular ideals and ideas - creeds, if you will, that state what America is supposed to be and stand for. The nature of these ideals can change, depending upon whom you ask, because there isn't any one definitive list which all Americans are supposed to agree to.

Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun
Anyone who has flipped through the cable channels over the past couple of decades has probably come across Mother Angelica's Eternal World Television Network. A cloistered Franciscan nun, Mother Angelica expressed an unapologetic and uncensored Catholic traditionalism which rankled not only liberal Catholics in America, but quite a few Catholic...

Who Shall Lead Them? The Future of Ministry in America
For decades the social status of clergy has been in decline: whereas before they were among the educated elite, today they appear almost irrelevant at times. As America becomes increasingly secular and religious Americans turn away from organized religion in favor of more personalized spiritualities, what is the future for American clergy?

Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America
Conservative evangelical Christians are an important part of American culture, yet they are a part of culture which the rest of society often doesn't pay much attention to; this forms a basis for their complaints that despite their power and numbers, they are a persecuted minority. The one thing they can point to positively, however, are the...

One Nation Under God, by Vincent M. Wales
The Christian Right in America has a deliberate agenda that involves remaking the nation into a far more religious society. They would like to transform culture, government, and family life on a fundamental level which would not be entirely consistent with democratic standards. What might be the consequences if they were actually successful?

Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation
Opponents of gay marriage rely heavily on the argument that marriage has been defined in a particular way for hundreds and thousands of years; thus, altering the legal definition to include unions between members of the same sex is an unacceptable breach with the past. Such arguments are devoid of historical reality...

American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon
Jesus appears to be alive and well in America. Many people seek to discover the 'historical' Jesus who gave rise to the Christian religion, but at least as interesting is the 'cultural' Jesus which has given rise to all sorts of modern religious movements, political developments, and cultural progress...

Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism
Most people realize that one of the central features of modern American fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism is a distinctive vision of gender roles both in society at large and in the family in particular. When fundamentalists are criticized, it is often on the basis of their perceived reactionary ideas about women, sex, and gender.

Crossing Over: One Woman's Escape from Amish Life
Just about everyone in America is familiar with the Amish. Their simple lifestyle has been immortalized in several movies and many visit Amish areas to buy quilts and other homemade items. But just how many Americans are familiar with what the Amish, especially the Old Order Amish, really believe?

Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South
Religion played an important role in the Civil War - far more important than most people realize. Both sides viewed the conflict in explicitly Christian terms and claimed that God was on their side such that their victories or defeats were signs of God's preferences. Even less well known is the role played by religion in the South after the...

Dream Catchers
America is host to a bewildering array of religions, religious beliefs, and spiritualities. Among the most misunderstood and misused are probably the religious beliefs of Native Americans. At different times vilified and lauded, Native American beliefs have played a serious, if often unseen, role in America’s religious landscape.

American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon
What’s the difference between authentic and inauthentic scripture? Is it age? Historical accuracy? Correct prophecies? These and many more criteria have been used to justify including writings in scriptural canons while excluding others, but perhaps these are all rationalizations for something else: 'real' scriptures are those that produce...

Women and the Conquest of California, 1542-1840
The Spanish missions in California are an important part of the state's history - important enough that many want the government to pay for restoring the missions, even if they continue to be used as active churches. At the same time, though, people aren't being completely honest about many of the awful things that religious leaders did to...

The Politics of American Religious Identity
For all of America’s 200+ years of history, religion and politics have played an intricate and interesting dance. Where does one stop and the other begin? That’s not always easy to discern - although they should ideally be separate, many individuals don’t distinguish between them. This has led to a number of unfortunate episodes, including a...

Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church
One of the most fundamental and indispensable doctrines of Mormonism is the idea that ancient Israelites traveled from the Middle East and settled in the New World. Their history is what constitutes the text of the Book of Mormon, primary scripture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Theology in America: Christian Thought from Puritans to Civil War
It can be argued that understanding American history and politics requires understanding Christianity as well, but the connection between America and Christianity goes farther than that. For a long time theological language, imagery, and ideas were pervasive in American political and cultural discourse - Christian theology was the common language of Americans in all walks of life.

Priests: A Calling in Crisis
The year 2002 was one of profound crisis and crisis management for the Roman Catholic Church in America. This was the year that the stories of priests sexually abusing children - and the church hierarchy covering up for them - really broke out into the open and captivated the media’s attention. What, though, were the causes of the abuse?

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race
Both religion and race have played important - and sometimes deeply interconnected - roles in American history. Religion was used to justify both slavery and abolition; likewise it was used to justify both segregation and desegregation. Today even conservative Christians support equality between the races, but that doesn’t mean that everything is settled or peaceful...

America Right Or Wrong: An Anatomy Of American Nationalism
America is arguably both the most modern and the most traditionalist society in the world today. This contradiction lies at the heart of the various problems America has had with its foreign policy. Every nation has some form of nationalism, but American nationalism consists of both strongly forward-looking and strongly backwards-looking elements.

Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery
The history of slavery in America may not be hidden, but widely unknown is the degree to which Christianity was used to defend not only slavery but also later segregation and discrimination. This secret alliance between religion and bigotry is a largely untold story which more people need to learn about in order to dispel the notion that...

Desert Patriarchy: Mormon and Mennonite Communities
Is there any connection between harsh desert environments and harsh patriarchal family forms? We can certainly see a correlation among the ancient Hebrews and in modern Saudi Arabia, but a similar convergence is located more accessibly in the Mexican desert region of Chihuahua.

Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America
In theory, Americans pride themselves and their country on the tolerance shown towards outsiders and religious minorities. This ideal of tolerance is exalted even further by those who advocate multiculturalism. This is a nation of immigrants, after all, and many of those came here seeking religious freedom. Reality, however, is a different story...

A History of Philosophy in America 1720-2000
When people think of philosophy, they tend to think of great minds from Europe - Aristotle, Nietzsche or Sartre. What about American philosophy? Hasn't America produced any viable and interesting philosophical perspectives? Is there even such a thing as "American" philosophy, distinct from philosophy elsewhere in the world?

One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church
Mormonism is one of the fastest growing religious groups in the United States. Some time in the future, it may become a dominant religion in this country and it is widely considered the first genuinely American religion. It is also the first world religion to emerge since Islam came out of Arabia. But what exactly is Mormonism?

New Faiths, Old Fears: Muslims and Other Asian Immigrants
America has traditionally been "Christian" in character, in the sense that most citizens have been members of one or another Christian denomination. Since 1965, however, the fastest growing religious communities have been Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh. In what ways have they been changed by American culture, and how are they in turn...

Preacher: Billy Sunday and Big-Time American Evangelism
When televangelists came upon the American scene in the 1980s, they had an enormous impact upon not only American culture, but also upon the wider public perception of Christianity. This was not, however, the fist time religion appeared on television, but it was the beginning of evangelistic revivalism broadcast across the nation and around the...

New Religions: A Guide - New Religious Movements, Sects, Spirituality
The religious diversity of modern America is obvious to anyone who takes a look around, yet knowing that diversity exists and understanding what it means for society is another matter entirely. A first step towards that is a better understanding of how some of these new religions and new religious groups relate to one another and what they...

John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father
One of the more obscure figures in American history, John Winthrop may be one of the least famous people every American should know something about. Winthrop was part of the transition from the Old World to the New. With religious worldviews rooted in the more radical wing of the English Reformation, he came to embody attitudes which would be...

United by Faith: Multiracial Congregations
Christianity is ostensibly a religion committed to peace, love, and the brotherhood of humanity. Why is it, then, that a country like the United States, where Christianity has always played a dominant role in culture and politics, has also been plagued by racial discrimination and strife through most of its history? Does the fault lie with Christianity, with Christians, or elsewhere?

Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: A History of Church & State
The principle that church and state are both best served when they remain separated has long been a guiding principle in American public and political life - or has it? In fact, the separating of church and state was a long and difficult process, and it hasn't quite been achieved even today. It is important to understand what has come before in order to better grasp the problems that face us now.

Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns
When you think of nuns, what comes to mind? Stern, older women characterized by lethal rulers and the watchful eyes of hawks? Comical, even clownish women as depicted in movies like "Sister Act"? There are many different prejudices and assumptions made about nuns and there always have been - and most of them are probably wrong.

Religion in the Modern American West
The American West has never been merely a geographical space. Instead, it has long played a nearly sacred role in the American imagination and sense of national identity. Because of the worldwide reach of American media, it even plays a role in the imaginations of others around the globe - very often, the American West becomes a symbol for America itself.

A Rebel to His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism
Just who was Joseph McCabe? Many freethinkers and atheists are familiar with the name, and quite a few have read at least a couple of his many works. But how many really know anything about him - where he came from, what his views were like, etc.? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is "not many," but this recent book by Bill Cooke...

Son of a Preacher Man
It seems likely that just about everyone has heard of Jim Bakker, the televangelist. However, does everyone remember what exactly he did? More importantly, perhaps, does anyone know just what his transgressions and his punishment did to his family? Indeed, does anyone even think about his family?

Fire and Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834
The United States of America likes to pride itself on its religious tolerance; although that is often true, such assumptions should not be made in a context of historical ignorance. It has been a long road to get to where we are, and a long road lies ahead of us yet. Nancy Schultz brings to life one particularly violent and hateful stop along our historical path...

Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying
What role and influence did Christian women have in 17th and 18th century America? Most answers to this question would be colored by the image of Puritan women, who practiced a religion which idealized female submission to men in both this world and the next. These were not the only Christian women in America - there were also Quaker women who...

Christianity Incorporated: How Big Business Is Buying the Church
Are capitalism and Christianity compatible, or do they represent fundamentally different and opposing value systems? For many Americans, Christianity and capitalism go hand-in-hand; indeed, Christianity is sometimes portrayed as something which validates capitalism. Others, however, argue for a very different conception of Christianity.

American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty
Have you ever considered that you might be possessed by demonic forces? Has Satan visited you lately? Perhaps these seems like an odd questions, but if they are then it is even odder that so many Americans will answer "yes" to both questions. You may not realize it, but there is a booming industry in exorcisms in the United States.

Awakening of a Jehovah's Witness
Most people have had the experience of Jehovah's Witnesses coming to the door and offering to share their religious beliefs, but just who are these Jehovah's Witnesses, really? Are they simply another Protestant denomination of Christianity? Are they a dangerous cult? What is the truth about their organization and doctrines?

Religion in the Modern American West
The American West has never been merely a geographical space. Instead, it has long played a nearly sacred role in the American imagination and sense of national identity. Very often, the American West becomes a symbol for America itself. But what role, if any, has religion played in the development and identity of the West?

Spiritual but not Religious: Unchurched America
Spiritual but not Religious: A figure commonly cited in atheist circles is that around ten percent of the population in the United States are nonbelievers. The resulting assumption, understandably enough, seems to be that if ten percent are nonreligious, then the remaining ninety percent must be religious, right?

Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir
What would Charles Darwin have thought about the infamous "Scopes Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925? We'll never know - but we can learn something from the perspective of Matthew Chapman, Darwin's great-great-grandson. He takes us on a tour of Dayton in 1925, Dayton in 2000, and even his own life.

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial
The infamous "Scopes Monkey Trial" occupies a pivotal position in American mythology and the evolution debate. On one side was fundamentalist Christianity: narrow minded, dogmatic and intolerant. On the other side was modern science: skeptical, progressive and liberal. In an epic battle, the latter defeated the former and the way was paved for a better future.

Species of Origins: America's Search for a Creation Story
Why is there such rancorous conflict in America over creationism and evolution? Other countries don't suffer form this, so why does the United States? Is it simply a question about religion? Is it because of Christian fundamentalism?

Jews and the American Public Square: Debating Religion
Jews in America have played a crucial role in the development of the American understanding of the separation of church and state. They have been involved in test-case litigation, filing amicus curiae briefs, and influencing legal scholarship. How and why has this role developed, and how do Jews themselves perceive it?

Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt
What is the "Bible Belt" and how did it originate? Why is it that the location of the most conservative strains of Christianity moved from New England down to the South? Much has been written about Southern evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity in America, some of it positive and some of it negative.

In Search of an American Catholicism: A History
Catholics have lived in America since 1634, when the colony ships Dove and Ark arrived. Although there have been many changes in the circumstances for Catholics here, there has been one constant: a struggle to reconcile American and Catholic identities. How has this struggle manifested itself and how successful has it been?

Catholic Power vs. American Freedom
The role of Catholicism in American society has long been a matter of some debate. Catholicism developed in a Europe controlled by monarchial and even dictatorial political systems, and the Roman Catholic Church adopted many of the principles underlying those systems. America, on the other hand, was conceived as a new political experiment where republican and democratic principles would hold.

The New Buddhism: Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition
Buddhism has become very popular in the West over the past couple of decades, but to what degree has Buddhism been changing the West, and to what degree has Buddhism itself undergone change? According to William Coleman, Buddhism has changed a lot, yet nevertheless, it is fundamentally the same as it has always been. But how can this be?

By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture
Just what is the Book of Mormon and what has been the source of its appeal to the millions of Mormon believers? How did it launch not only the first major new American religion, but perhaps the first major world religion since Islam came out of the deserts of Arabia?

Transformation of American Religion
Religion in America has been changing over the past few decades - and the change is one which reflects similar changes in previous centuries. Earlier changes were called 'Great Awakenings' - mass movements of people reaching radical new understandings of their religion, their spirituality, and the place religion had in their lives. According to...

Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith
Atheists tend to live removed from religious communities; because of this, we never get a chance to see some of the conflicts, controversies, and problems which arise within the life of a church. Occasionally, books and articles appear which give us an opportunity to do so, and Nora Gallagher's 'Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith'...

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