Jesus in America

Richard Wightman Fox has written a scholarly and entertaining panorama of Christianity in America, describing the impact of belief in Jesus on both believers and society from colonial times to the present. Jesus, according to Fox, is the most important religious leader and cultural icon in American history; America’s collective devotion or “yearning for Jesus”—in all its diverse and often, contradictory, manifestations—has shaped national patriotism, important trends and changes in society, and the way that every American, from early childhood, defines himself in relation to the world. There have been many images of Jesus over time and he has no single identity, but Jesus transcends culture, with a remarkable appeal to people of every persuasion in America.

Beginning with images of Jesus preached by the early European settlers, Fox details differences between Catholics and Protestants as they proselytized the Indians (who looked to Jesus to save them from the white man’s diseases). He contrasts the world view and beliefs of the Puritans with those held today. He describes the “awakenings” of the 1730’s; the appeal of Methodism in the eighteenth century; and the split between northern America (where love of reason secularized Jesus or led to modernism, a social gospel, and the rejection of miracles and doctrines) and southern America (where the defense of “the old- time religion” and fundamentalism prevailed). He discusses how both sides of the Civil War produced a Jesus who sided with them. He details current political developments, such as the conscious effort of evangelical Protestants to form a voting block, and the prominent role played by Jesus in Republican politics.

Fox is able to make key figures from every era come alive and to present opposing views of rival movements in a fair-handed manner. The introduction, notes, and illustrations reveal his deep personal commitment to his subject. Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession is a great book.