Reviewed by Paul Harvey
Liberation and Oppression, All Tangled Up
As one of the foremost American religious and intellectual historians of the last generation, Mark Noll is known most recently for his magisterial work of synthesis America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, and a shorter series of lectures published recently as The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. This newest work, God and Race in American Politics: A Short History, comes from a series of lectures given at Princeton in 2006. Here Noll addresses a topic that has long been implicit, and sometimes explicit, in his previous work: the role of race in American religion and, by extension American politics. Here, Noll takes on that devilishly difficult subject head-on. In the process, he has produced yet another admirable synthesis of a huge body of American history and historiography.
Race and slavery, Noll suggests, came to the forefront of American religion and politics in the 19th century. The nation's founders certainly did not foresee this. They believed slavery could be compromised away enough to forge a constitution, and the resulting political fallout could be dealt with later. Moreover, while "moderate and conservative Founders hoped for the continual influence" of established (Congregational and Episcopalian) and quasi-established (Presbyterian) churches to establish "order, decorum, and social control" in the New Republic, and while radical Founders (Thomas Jefferson and others) assumed that an enlightened religion of rationalism would spread through the nation, the facts on the ground emerged very differently: "Instead, religion in America was coming to be dominated by evangelical sects that featured supernatural faith, precritical reading of the Bible, and an aggressive exploitation of the democratic deeds and rhetoric of the American Revolution."
Moreover, as commonsense evangelical readings of the Bible spread during the age of the Second Great Awakening, many Americans found that "the defenders of slavery could quote many more texts that simply took the institution for granted, or even regulated its operation, than there were passages that, even by implication, questioned its propriety." As the Civil War approached, sectional ideas took on an increasingly millennialist cast, allowing both sides, North and South, to set aside "republican scruples" and praise their armies as doing the work of the Lord. The irrepressible conflict thus became a religious one as well.
The Civil War solved the problem of slavery but not of race, Noll emphasizes, leaving a harvest of grapes of wrath for future American generations. African American churches—and what Noll refers to as "African American religious agency"—created new religious formations after the Civil War. Noll parallels the story of evangelical Protestantism from 1789 to 1865 with the story of black religion from the Civil War to the 1960s. In both cases, "small beginnings" created "active and self-controlled institutions," followed by a period of consolidation and a tentatively growing public presence (from about 1920-45, for black churches), and finally a period of "widespread public influence" during the civil rights years.
The confluence of religion and race vitally influenced American politics during three critical periods of political realignment: the antebellum years (1830 to 1860), when "slavery came to overwhelm all other issues on the political landscape"; the postbellum years (1865 to 1900), when the nation "left African Americans unprotected in the civil sphere"; and from the 1950s to the early 21st century, when the civil rights movement ,and the reaction against it, again shook up and reconstituted American political coalitions. Indeed, Noll points out, of the four major periods of political realignment since the antebellum era, only one—the New Deal—lacked a strong element of religion and race. In the New Deal era, economic crisis fostered political realignment, with religion and race playing only a marginal role. In all the other cases, religion, most especially combined with race, was key to political transformations, and "the successive combinations have constituted a single continuous narrative" from Nat Turner's revolt in 1831 to George W. Bush's re-election in 2004.
Noll's argument is strongest for the antebellum years and the civil rights generation. The evidence is a bit sketchier for the postbellum period of Redemption—when, as Noll himself acknowledges, secular notions of citizenship and free labor were dominant and religious voices more muted than in the enthusiasms of antebellum America. In the civil rights years, by contrast, the pattern of transformation Noll identifies is clear and compelling, as the freedom movement for black Americans "precipitated a thorough realignment in national political power and a dramatic alteration in the nation's public ethos." In particular, the African American religion that propelled the civil rights movement was "rooted in the activist religion of nineteenth-century revivalistic evangelicalism," even while it was also imbued with progressive religious thought from the likes of Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays. Unlike white evangelicalism, black religious thought built a tent big enough to accommodate conservative, liberal, and radical Christians; the civil rights agenda provided plenty for all of them to do. Noll compares white evangelical activism in the antebellum era with the civil rights religion of African Americans; both decisively shaped the nation's life in their respective eras. Their respective failings also developed in parallel: antebellum evangelical activism faltered before the moral dilemma of slavery, while the civil rights movement "has not yet successfully addressed the economic, social, moral, and educational problems of a society persistently divided between black and white."
In the end, Noll concludes in some theologically based reflections, "reliance on the Bible" has produced "spectacular liberation alongside spectacular oppression." Thus, properly understood in all its complexity, "historic Christian faith," Noll suggests, offers the best standpoint "from which it is possible to see how much believers themselves have done to promote the evils of racism in American politics while at the same time recognizing how often they have offered hints of redemption as well."
God and Race in American Politics is more reliant on secondary literature (including, most notably, David Chappell's Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow) than some of Noll's other work; for that reason, scholars in the field may find much of this book a helpful summary of notions already well-woven into the literature. But thoughtful Christian readers will find this work indispensable in understanding the big picture of race, religion, and politics in American history.
Paul Harvey is professor of history at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and the author of Freedom's Coming: Religious Cultures and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (Univ. of North Carolina Press).
Copyright © 2008 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.
See all comments