Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

By Edward L. Queen II, Stephen R. Prothero, and Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr.

In Brief: November 01, 1996

Facts On File

2 vols. 800 pp.; $99

Reference books in American religion have become big business in recent years--big, that is, by the monetarily modest standards of academic publishing. During the past decade alone a veritable spate of them has appeared, virtually flooding our shelves with names, dates, and other forgettable religious data. Since the publication of Scribner's massive Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience (3 vols. 1988), several other major works have been released. To name only the most well known requires the mention of at least half a dozen, including the Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (1988), the third and fourth editions of the Encyclopedia of American Religions (1989, 1993), the Dictionary of Christianity in America (1990), a second edition of the Dictionary of American Religious Biography (1993), the Dictionary of Baptists in America (1994), and, last but not least, the award-winning Concise Dictionary of Christianity in America (1995).

Religion, it seems, has resurfe. And often, as newsmakers, poll takers, and a growing number of opinion shapers reawaken to its utter relevance to their work, they rub their otherwise well-trained eyes in a dreamlike state of disbelief at the enormous complexity of the religious scene they have too long ignored. Gone are the days when the well-informed could count themselves au courant with a basic knowledge of Murray, Weigel, and the brothers Niebuhr. Today one needs a scorecard to keep track of the myriad players whose public performances make the headlines every week.

While one might question, then, the need for yet another reference work in a market that seems to be so clearly overcrowded, The Encyclopedia of American Religious History has actually filled an important niche by providing the most panoramic survey of the field to date. Its three primary authors and a small cadre of other experts have contributed terse, reliable summaries of subjects from Lyman Abbot to Louis Farrakhan to Zionism. And while few of these writers have yet become seasoned veterans in their field, they cover a wider range of religious topics than any of their predecessors. Indeed, as even a cursory look at this work's synoptic index will attest, theirs is not primarily a sourcebook on mainstream Protestantism. For example, while the "Methodists" and "Presbyterians/ Reformed" receive a total of 25 separate entries, "Eastern Religions" alone receive a full 24. "African-American Religion" receives a healthy sum of 35. "Judaism" gets 29. "Harmonial Religion," 19.

In all honesty, it would be more accurate to call this work an encyclopedia of U.S. religious history, for those outside the United States are generally neglected. Specialists might also quibble over some of the interpretations in these articles for, alas, not even encyclopedists can be purely objective (this specialist, for example, was disappointed with the entry on Yale's Nathaniel William Taylor, whose evangelical Calvinism is all-too-often mislabeled Arminian). To their credit, the primary authors rightfully disclaim responsibility for covering all the latest interpretive disputes. The general reader will approach these volumes hoping to be "caught up" on topics of interest, not to be bogged down or confused by the incessant wrangling of academics. While in many cases, however, a dose of conventional or accepted wisdom serves us better than the recitation of recent revisionary points of view, caveat emptor: the very practice of historical revision suggests that encyclopedias, while very useful, are no more than time-bound efforts in synthetic interpretation.

Despite the inevitable (though often overlooked) limitations of all such reference works, The Encyclopedia of American Religious History should be widely used. Its more than 700 entries and 150 black-and-white illustrations-along with two indexes and a system of hundreds of helpful cross-references-offers "American" spectators an attractive guide to the various sights and sounds they are sure to encounter at the religious ballpark. In short, while one can find better reference works on various parts of American religion, one can do no better than this if seeking a handy program to the entire whole.

-Douglas Sweeney

Religion and American Culture: A Reader

Edited by David G. Hackett


518 pp.; $65, hardcover; $24.95, paper

David Hackett, who teaches at the University of Florida, is a leading scholar among a distinguished cohort of younger students of American religion. The designation is important, for what Hackett studies is precisely religion as a shared universal phenomenon, rather than the particular beliefs, practices, or truth claims of any particular religion, like Christianity. Thus, this noteworthy collection of articles that were individually published between 1978 and 1996 contains careful studies of how Pueblo religion functioned; why symbols for the American nation divided the citizens of Albany, New York, when those symbols were put to use in a religious way; whether Mormonism should be considered a variant of previously existing forms of Christian faith or its own new religion; how myths of early California society exerted a long-term influence on standards of religious practice west of the Rockies; why Southern civil religion after the Civil War combined military, evangelical, and cultural values the way it did; how disputes over seating men and women in American synagogues led to differences within Judaism that resembled denominational divisions among Christians; and twenty other similar subjects.

Students of history who, like myself, are much more interested in the particularities of a particular religion (e.g., Christianity) face a decision in how to use work such as Hackett assembles. A temptation is to dismiss it as irrelevant for specifically Christian purposes because of its preference for anthropologists over the apostles, and for structures of religious practice over questions of religious truth. To follow that temptation would be a mistake. Particularly where studies of "religion" are presented with the care, honesty, and objectivity that Hackett and his colleagues display in these essays, they can function as a valuable assist for the light they shed, sometimes even inadvertently, on the particularities and distinctives of individual religious traditions. To employ terms made famous by Augustine more than 1,500 years ago, it would be a foolish "Israelite" who scorned the rich spoils offered so abundantly by the sort of "Egyptians" whose work David Hackett has enlisted for this outstanding anthology.

-Mark Noll

Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996

By Ronald Radosh

Free Press

298 pp; $25

With rumors of Clinton's political death sinking in the wake of a double-digit poll lead over Republican Bob Dole, Ronald Radosh presents a counterintuitive assessment of the Democratic Party: It is no longer the majority party, and--here's the kicker--this owes nothing to the Republican sweep in 1994. The culprit? A "New Politics" movement once relegated to the margins of a "New Deal liberal-labor coalition" but now firmly in control of the party's apparatus and agenda in favor of "demographic representation," that is, identity politics.

Radosh, a bête noire of the American Left, is best known as coauthor of The Rosenberg File, which established that there really was Communist infiltration of the federal government during the McCarthy era. Here, through amply documented original and secondary sources, he chronicles the leftward lurch of the Democratic Party from 1964 to 1996. Reviewing pivotal events such as the anti-Vietnam War movement, the 1968 Chicago convention, and the rules and delegate-selection reforms of the 1972 Democratic convention (which culminated in the nomination of George McGovern over segregationist George Wallace and New Dealer Henry "Scoop" Jackson), he offers a primer on key figures and organizations that set the Democrats on their course to irrelevancy.

Given Radosh's thesis that the party succumbed to "a dangerous overreaction and takeover by guilty white liberals and race-conscious black militants," one suspects overstatement. While Radosh offers a compelling revisionist history of the 1960s civil-rights movement, especially its communist leanings, can anyone really believe that Stokely Carmichael or the radicalized Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee ever held sway, even in part, over the Democratic Party?

More important, is there no connection between the divisive interest-group politics Radosh deplores and the progressive philosophy of FDR's New Deal he praises? As redefined by Roosevelt, government--instead of limiting itself to protecting the natural rights that citizens possess in common--exists precisely to supply the needs and wants of supplicant constituencies.

Divided They Fell, while recounting in riveting detail the inner tensions and fragmentation of a party that has sought to be all things to all interests during the last 32 years, fails to trace these woes to their source, 32 years earlier, at the birth of the New Deal.

-Lucas Morel

The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement, 1945-1995

By Robert J. Samuelson

Times Books/Random House

293 pp.; $25

As a columnist for the Washington Post and Newsweek, Robert Samuelson has written about national affairs--chiefly through the window of economics--with lucid intelligence and uncommon sense. In The Good Life and Its Discontents, his first book, Samuelson brings those virtues to an ambitious account of postwar American life. "The paradox of our time," he writes, "is that Americans are feeling bad about doing well." Yes, he concedes, there are problems in our society, some of them seemingly intractable, but nonetheless, "Americans have achieved unprecedented levels of material prosperity and personal freedom." Why then our "almost permanent state of public grumpiness"?

In a word, entitlement. "Increasingly, we have come to believe that certain things are (or ought to be) guaranteed to us. We feel entitled." As a society, we have expectations that are impossible to fulfill. No matter what we achieve, it is bound to be unsatisfactory when measured against utopia. In the postwar boom, Samuelson shows, the entitlement mentality took root and flourished; now the dream is coming up hard against reality.

The Good Life and Its Discontents is one of the best books you are likely to read this year. Written with exceptional clarity, it is full of epigrammatic wisdom. To an unusual degree, Samuelson combines an up-to-the-minute grasp of current scholarship with a refreshing realism about the limits of our knowledge. Why, for instance, has income inequality increased? Samuelson's answer--a frequent one in these pages--is that no one really knows.

In one important respect, however, Samuelson's book is a failure, for it ignores a crucial dimension of the story it sets out to tell: what we might call the inscape of postwar American life. The problem begins with the bold sleight-of-hand at the outset, when Samuelson asserts that any sense of malaise in our fin-de-siècle is attributable to unrealistic expectations, and it runs right through to the concluding pitch for "responsibility" (which has all the sensible impotence of the bestsellers marketing virtue without God).

By all means, then, read Samuelson--but follow it up with something like Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch for a reminder of all that is missing from this curiously bloodless history of our time.


Lucas Morel is assistant professor of political science and history at John Brown University.

Douglas Sweeney is assistant editor on The Works of Jonathan Edwards project at Yale Divinity School.

Copyright(c) 1996 by Christianity Today, Inc/BOOKS & CULTURE, journal

November/December 1996, Vol. 2, No. 6, Page 38


Most ReadMost Shared