God and Race in American Politics
God and Race in American Politics is a revised and expanded version of the Stafford Little Lectures, which Mark Noll delivered at Princeton University in 2006. He begins his book by announcing a broad two-pronged thesis: “Together, race and religion make up, not only the nation’s deepest and most enduring moral problem, but also its broadest and most enduring political influence.” In actuality, Noll proposes an additional thesis, which is clearly stated: “The history of American race, religion, and politics from Nat Turner to George W. Bush is a narrative in which contradictions, antimonies, and paradoxes abound.” Despite this broad reference to “race,” however, Noll’s book is almost entirely devoted to the historical relationships between African Americans and European Americans, and it contains almost no material about Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. A serious scholar, Noll has been teaching, writing, and thinking about the topics of the book for many years, and he is obviously very familiar with the large literatureboth original and secondary sourcesdevoted to the field. Both scholars and curious readers will find that his seventeen pages of endnotes provide an excellent guide to the best books and articles that deal with aspects of the interconnections among religion, race, and politics in U.S. history.
The year 2008 was an auspicious time for the appearance of Noll’s book. In addition to Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s first African American president, questions of race and religion were often center stage during both the primaries and the general election. All of the major candidates firmly identified with some faith-based tradition. Obama’s twenty-year membership in an Afrocentric church led by Jeremiah Wright, Jr., an outspoken minister committed to black liberation theology, shocked and confused many voters, especially some white conservatives. Obama’s selection of Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate was widely interpreted as an attempt to attract the support of moderate Catholics. On the Republican side, Senator John McCain received a great deal of criticism for his initial acceptance of John Hagee, a fundamentalist minister who made statements highly offensive to Catholics and Jewish voters. Finally, McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin, who had ties to fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches, was highly praised by religious conservatives and ridiculed by secular progressives.
Certainly there have been many other times in American history when combinations of religious and racial concerns have had great political significance. By the time of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, American churches were taking fundamentally different positions over the issue of slavery, usually depending on their geographical location. The growing slavery controversy always overlapped in political matters, such as federalism and Manifest Destiny. From Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 until the end of Southern Reconstruction in 1877, the churches in the North and the South disagreed about whether the federal government should support the rights and interests of the former slaves. Following the 1880’s, however, when a conservative Supreme Court supported the right of states to practice Jim Crow segregation, most religious leaders and politicians in the North tended to ignore the existence of white racism, whereas those in the South either endorsed or implicitly accepted the status quo in race relations. From the presidential election of 1948, when the Democratic Party endorsed a civil rights platform, until the achievements of the Great Society in the 1960’s, arguments both for and against civil rights legislation were often based on religious morality, and this has also been true concerning more recent issues, such as court-ordered busing and affirmative action programs.
Noll might have given greater weight to the sociological distinction between churches and sects. Whereas the former have often emphasized engagement in secular politics, the latter have been much more likely to focus almost exclusively on individual salvation and nonsecular concerns. Because of his own bias as well as the book’s theme, Noll tends to focus on politically active churches. It is true that those groups that claim to avoid political engagement tend to indirectly reinforce the cultural and legal status quo, just as Martin Luther King, Jr., declared in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (1963). Historically, it has been relatively rare for religious groups to support viewpoints that are highly unpopular in the areas where they live. Reflecting his support for liberal activism, Noll emphasizes the social Gospel tradition to an extent that is disproportionate to its historical influence. He might have included more material about the politically engaged churches that have often promoted conservative, reactionary, and sometimes intolerant policies, a tradition that goes back to the Puritans’ support for the massacres of Indians and the...
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