It may be an off-year for elections, but it's another on-year for books about religion and politics. Dozens of fall titles come at it from right, left and a variety of angles. Some try to divine what America's founding fathers really believed, a timely question given the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court and its relevance for church-state relations. Some dig deep, aiming for thoughtful readers interested in big-picture questions about religion in history. "You see denominational, commercial and academic publishers diving head first into religion and politics in a way that you really didn't decades ago," says Richard Brown, director of Georgetown University Press, which is publishing a scholarly book with the eye-catching title Uncompromising Positions: God, Sex, and the U.S. House of Representatives by political scientist Elizabeth Anne Oldmixon (Dec.).
Fall's book menu features—no surprise—red meat for pundits and partisans. In the right corner of the ring is The ACLU vs. America: Exposing the Agenda to Redefine Moral Values by Alan Sears and Craig Osten (Broadman & Holman, Sept.). Sears is president and Osten a v-p of the Alliance Defense Fund, which litigates causes favored by religious conservatives. The book excavates the eight-decade history of the American Civil Liberties Union to paint a picture of a group more interested in libertinism than liberty. Robin Patterson, trade marketing manager at Broadman & Holman, anticipates ABA interest in the title, with media exposure expected through a number of conservative outlets, including Fox News's Bill O'Reilly, who blurbed the book. A Washington, D.C.-area PR firm is developing a media campaign, and the Alliance Defense Fund will also be courting media exposure.
"I'm mad as hell," writes Bill Press, and that's just for openers in How the Republicans Stole Christmas: The Republican Party's Declared Monopoly on Religion and What Democrats Can Do to Take It Back (Doubleday, Oct.). Press, a former seminarian who has been a cohost of the TV talk show Crossfire, urges liberals to reclaim a moral high ground that includes tolerance for the "most intolerant, selfish, unforgiving bunch that ever wore the name 'American,'" words Press uses to describe religious conservatives.
Books from definite right and left have their readers, as politically divergent authors Ann Coulter and Al Franken can attest. If the slogan "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" didn't win the presidency for Republican candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, it's at home today among extreme screeds in book form. Like politicians, publishers know where to find partisan bases.
"From a publisher's point of view, it's easier to market books from right or left," says Julianna Gustafson, religion and spirituality editor at Jossey-Bass. That may be in part due to the absence of voices from the middle ground. "I don't see a lot in the middle in politics in general," Gustafson says. Next May J-B will bring out Why the Christian Right Is Wrong: A Minister's Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, and Your Future, a call to the progressive left from an unlikely spot on America's map—the red state of Oklahoma—written by Robin Meyers, a United Church of Christ minister whose post-2004 election speech criticizing the religious Right spread like wildfire on the Internet.
Both Press's and Meyers's books exemplify another trend in publishing that echoes public discourse. In the wake of Jim Wallis's bestselling God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It (Harper San Francisco, Jan.) some progressive religious activists are calling on Catholics and mainline Protestants, as well as Jews, Muslims and other people of faith, to reclaim religious and moral values and associate them with work for justice rather than work against homosexuality and abortion. "Because the political right has appropriated the language of values and morality and Christianity, there are so many Christians who feel disenfranchised," says Gustafson.
The success of the religious Right in identifying certain political positions with a conservative brand of Christianity has theologians, social scientists and historians, as well as pundits and lawyers, busily bringing their own lenses to religion to see what kind of politics Christianity does, or doesn't, justify. Some publishers are trying to capture readers whom they describe as "thoughtful Christians," with a laundry list of topics to be treated in depth: war, terrorism, evangelicalism in America, what the founding fathers really intended. Some see room for new analyses that challenge big assumptions of secularism and postmodernism because the market for religion-related books is so big and so hot. Old cultural labels—liberal, traditional, evangelical—are in flux. Older understandings of evangelical religion in America ask for updating in light of the political ascendancy of religious conservatives. It's no longer quietist, pietist evangelicalism that shuns this world and awaits the next, nor is it monolithic. If left-of-center Christians are rethinking their language, right-of-center Christians are exploring their moment in history.
"There's a sense where it seems to be a convergence of factors, a hearing opportunity for evangelicals in the current political conversation," says Bob Hosack, senior acquisitions editor at Baker Academic and Baker Books. Thoughtful explication of evangelicalism is the stock in trade of Baker. The Evangelical Moment: The Promise of an American Religion by Kenneth J. Collins (Mar., 2005) and Toward an Evangelical Public Policy: Political Strategies for the Health of the Nation, edited by Ronald J. Sider and Diane Knippers (Feb., 2005) offer serious historical and political analysis. The book by Collins, who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary, unpacks the historical diversity within American evangelicalism. Social activist Sider and Knippers, president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy until her death earlier this year, led an evangelical effort to produce a consensus declaration on civic responsibility. Tantalizing title notwithstanding, Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers by Alan Storkey (Mar., 2005) has nothing to do with marching on Washington to challenge policy. The book, by a British theologian, looks at the Gospels and the history of Jesus' time to answer today's question "what would Jesus do?" by looking at what Jesus did.
Such books are intended to add nuance to what it means to be a Christian involved in politics. "What we'd like to see is more thoughtful reflection on evangelical involvement, so it isn't such a partisan, right-versus-left thing as we hear daily in the news," Hosack says.
Michael West, editor-in-chief at the Lutheran house Fortress Press, says he's publishing books about current topics so that thoughtful readers can consult their religious consciences about what their faith requires. "People feel now that there is a real realignment of religious forces going on in the U.S., if not worldwide, and there's a challenge about sorting out what real religious commitments dictate," West says. Religion, Politics and the Christian Right: Post 9/11 Powers in American Empire by Princeton theologian Mark Lewis Taylor (Oct.) takes a hard look at what has come to be the Christian nationalism that underpins an American empire. "There's a real consensus among a lot of theologians that we live in an age where there are real temptations to be an empire and act like an empire," West says.
Beyond warring jabs and thoughtful tomes, other books look a little more globally and historically at religion's influence on people and cultures. A conventional view of religion as a dogma-bound inhibitor of socioeconomic progress is boldly challenged by religion sociologist Rodney Stark. The magisterial title of The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, Dec.) telegraphs that this is a "big book, big author, big idea," says editor Will Murphy. Stark, who now teaches social sciences at Baylor University after many years at the University of Washington, has the authority—and the bibliography—to advance an idea that is both old-fashioned in its rationalist appeal and novel in its critique of conventional wisdom. Drawing on the classic roots of Christian thought, Stark argues that Christianity's compatibility with ideas of reason and progress made it the vehicle for the eventual economic triumph of the West. "There's a sort of 'humbug' to this book," says Murphy of Stark's ambitious and contrarian alternative to a postmodern secular analysis of Western history. "It will make people who dismiss the role of religion think twice."
The vividness of religion's relationship to both violence and hope is explored by bestselling author Bruce Feiler in his latest hybrid adventure story and Bible commentary Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion (Morrow, Sept.). In his newest chronicle of travels in the Middle East, the birthplace of monotheism, Feiler again uses archeology and history to understand present-day religious strife. But the funny and itinerant storyteller isn't trying to negotiate a Mideast peace settlement. Instead, he draws conclusions about peaceful coexistence amid differences, lessons that can be applied in people's dining rooms, where far too many conversations, Feiler says, have devolved into family-feuding arguments. "If you go back to the beginning of the story—the Bible—you're going to see that different religions, different cultures are in dialogue with one another," Feiler says. "Take the Bible's word for it."
Like a number of others writing now, Feiler wants to reclaim larger, even universal wisdom from scripture and also use religion itself to combat religious extremism. While he originally intended to take the Bible's stories out of their black covers and gilt-edged pages and plant them in the ground, his Middle East journeys have taught him unexpected lessons about the realistic wisdom of religion and its ability to address impulses in human hearts. "I am an unlikely messenger for the message. I don't have a long beard," says Feiler, 40, and the new father of twin girls. "I set out looking for science and came back with meaning, and I'm still sort of surprised by that."
Roots and Branches: Rereading History
Feiler's new book also reflects a currently popular approach in books about religion and politics: digging out roots. A number of fall titles ask how it really was: does religion really justify violence? what did Jesus really do politically? what did America's founding fathers really mean? Divining the intentions of the architects of church and state relations in America is especially fertile ground.
"There are all kinds of books out there and organizations trying to tell people what the founding fathers believed," says Bruce Braden, who edited 'Ye Will Say I Am No Christian': The Thomas Jefferson/John Adams Correspondence on Religion, Morals, and Values (Prometheus, Nov.). "I wanted to find out from primary sources what the founding fathers said." The book is a compilation of a dozen years of correspondence between the two American founders. Braden, a letter-carrier in Indianapolis with a master's degree in personality theory and religion, says that Jefferson faced accusations in the 1800 presidential election that he was an atheist, yet defeated Adams in a controversial election.
A number of other titles offer their own takes and evidence of the intentions of America's founders about liberty, religious life and church-state relationships. Washington's God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of the Country by conservative thinker Michael Novak and Jana Novak (Basic, Feb. 2006) focuses on the first president, while The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations by Library of Congress historian James H. Hutson (Princeton Univ. Press, Nov.) provides original source material. Faiths of Our Fathers: What America's Founders Really Believed by historian Alf Mapp Jr. (Rowman & Littlefield, Nov.) finds diverse religious beliefs among 11 American founders.
Such material may benefit from the timeliness of John Roberts's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court and the public discussion of church, state and the courts. But not every timely book idea succeeds, as publishers ruefully know. Sometimes it's timing, sometimes it's distribution, sometimes it's a mismatch between author and readers. A well-known political scientist may not sell at chain bookstores. "The religion and politics world is getting more sophisticated, but there's also a danger, because you can misread the market," says Brown of Georgetown. "It's a differentiated market."
Just in case you find politics depressing, journalist Becky Garrison brings nonpartisan humor to the red and blue states' uncivil war. In Red and Blue Church: Eyewitness Accounts of How American Churches Are Hijacking Jesus, Bagging the Beatitudes, and Worshipping the Almighty Dollar(Jossey-Bass, Apr. 2006),Garrison, who writes for the satirical magazine The Door, tips sacred cows on both sides of the fence. "She's reacting to the polarization that religion brings to politics," says her J-B editor Gustafson. Humor can offer a nonthreatening approach to a subject people feel strongly about, and for some readers it beats harangues and footnotes. "It can be a release as much as it can be a tool for change," Gustafson says.
While pundits, sociologists, political scientists and theologians are having a field day, others see an overcorrection from too little appreciation of religion's role in public affairs. Political scientist Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and a coauthor of Is There a Culture War? A Dialogue on Values and American Public Life (Brookings Institution Press, Jan. 2006), is delighted that his field has attracted so much attention, but "we're overcompensating," he says. "Right now we tend to see religion in everything. Someday we'll get the balance." Still, next year is an election year.