Journalist Christine Wicker can easily identify the most common form of magic in America. It's what she calls "parking place magic," when someone always seems able to find a perfect spot, no matter how congested the lot or street.
Wicker, author of Not in Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic Is Transforming America (Harper San Francisco, Oct.), journeyed far beyond the parking lot for her book, which chronicles a national uptick in belief in everything from fairies to vampires to good old-fashioned witches.
A founding staff writer of the acclaimed Dallas Morning News religion section, Wicker has lived with her husband "in a very Republican suburb" outside of Milwaukee since 1999. She began to notice that in the course of neighborly conversations, "magical ideas" were casually tossed about.
"It wasn't meant to happen" is among the most common of these. Others include everything from "It'll all turn out for the best" to "Whenever I really need to know something, I see a hawk." Soon after she started to notice these comments, Wicker found herself in Salem, Mass., researching an article on Wicca. A woman she was interviewing used the term, "the magical community," and something clicked.
From there, Wicker's research took her everywhere from voodoo temples in New Orleans to a graveyard in north Florida, and she found herself in the company of self-professed elves as well as those who levitate, sacrifice animals and participate in any number of other magical activities.
Wicker observes that there is something fundamentally misunderstood about those who practice and believe in magic. That not one of the subjects she interviewed accepted the term New Age to describe themselves told her that magical believers are not adherents of an amorphous, flaky spirituality, but are simply believers in their own experience.
"Experience is at the core of religion," Wicker says, citing a trend toward more experiential worship even in mainstream and evangelical Christian communities. In religion in general, she sees "less reliance on intellect and rules and more reliance on what you experience and what you feel has happened." It does not surprise her, then, that a growing number of people believe in magic.
But Wicker, who was raised in the Southwest as a Southern Baptist, has not surrendered her journalistic skepticism. "I'm really not a believer," she says. "I'm not a person whose life is changed easily."
That skepticism, combined with Wicker's trademark sense of humor, is what makes her books accessible and enjoyable, yet always respectful toward her subjects, says Mark Tauber, v-p and deputy publisher for Harper San Francisco.
Wicker's 2003 book, Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead, was a critically acclaimed national bestseller in part because of her ability to combine a journalistic approach with a sensitively framed humor that doesn't alienate those she writes about.
"She's a journalist, so she does the investigative reporting," says Tauber. Still, "she has this really rare quality of poking fun so you laugh with her, but never disrespectfully," he says.
Tauber says that HSF plans a major national media campaign for Not in Kansas Anymore, including radio interviews and advertising in the New York Times. Wicker will also embark on a multicity book tour and make appearances at bookseller meetings this fall.
Wicker's next book, which Tauber says the house will publish in 2007, is definitely a departure from her current topic. It will examine the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's second-largest religious group. —Holly Lebowitz Rossi
Mad As Hell
These days, politics has a way of getting people to talk about religion—even when the subject is well outside their usual orbit.
Such is the case with radio political commentator and columnist Bill Press, whose new book, How the Republicans Stole Christmas: The Republican Party's Declared Monopoly on Religion and What Democrats Can Do to Take It Back, is due out in October from Doubleday. "The toughest question facing us as a nation today is the proper intersection between faith and politics," Press tells PW.
After seeing the outcome of the 2004 election and hearing one too many comments from religious Righters such as Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and Pat Robertson, Press decided to fire up his computer and get to work. "I thought, 'I'm tired of them speaking for all Christians. I know as much as these jokers, if not more,' " he says.
Press isn't kidding. Although people might recognize him from his stint as co-host of CNN's Crossfire and The Spin Room or from his books, SpinThis! (Atria, 2001) and Bush Must Go (Dutton, 2004), they might be surprised to learn that he spent 10 years in seminary and earned a degree in theology from the University of Friborg, Switzerland.
Still, this is the first time Press—who sandwiched more than two decades of work in California politics between seminary and his media career—has talked so candidly and so publicly about religion. "I wrote this book for people on the Left, to reassure them that they still have moral values and they are not to be considered ungodly or immoral because they don't happen to agree with George W. Bush," he says. "And for those on the religious Right to recognize that what they've been saying about the gospels is not true."
Press doesn't mince words when it comes to the religious Right. "I wonder sometimes if they've read the New Testament. They paint Jesus Christ as very mean, judgmental, demanding. They totally turn it upside down. I finally decided, enough's enough." Press remains a practicing Catholic, but, he says, "I don't buy that you have to agree with everything the pope says to be a Catholic, like you don't have to agree with everything the president says to be an American."
His book dissects religious conservatives' arguments about hot-button topics such as the death penalty, abortion, stem-cell research, homosexuality and religion in the classroom. "He makes his arguments concisely and with great readability," says Trace Murphy, editorial director of Doubleday Religion. "I'm sure it'll get passed along very quickly."
Press already has a substantial following because of his radio show and column, but Murphy says the book (which Doubleday bought before the election, and which has an initial print run of 35,000) is bound to attract more readers because of its message, not just its messenger. "Bill put his finger on something that was sort of obvious, but that no one had pointed out in such a way before. I liked the fresh perspective he has. It'll tap into the ongoing dialogue between religion and politics."
Although Press doesn't consider himself an expert, he says he wants the record set straight about liberals, morality and religion. "Hopefully, I can encourage other people with credentials better than mine [to speak up]."
The dearth of progressive voices talking about religion began to be remedied with the publications of Jim Wallis's bestselling God's Politics (Harper San Francisco, Jan. 2005). Press, who was writing his own book at the time, read it immediately and includes it in his bibliography. "Wallis is one of the strongest voices out there on the religious Left, but we need a lot more." —Heather Grennan Gary
The timing couldn't have been better for Robert Wuthnow's latest book. Since he began his research in 1998, the United States suffered through 9/11, witnessed a backlash of antagonism against Muslims and a flurry of activity from interreligious and community groups to ease it, battled fears of terrorism by religious extremists and has been led by a born-again Christian who peppers his speech with frequent references to God and the Bible.
With next week's release of America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity (Princeton University Press, Sept.), Wuthnow zeros in on one of the most significant issues facing the country today.
"Obviously, it's a time when questions about religious diversity—how well we're handling it, and whether it creates social unrest and anxiety—are very much in the news," says Ian Malcolm, the Princeton editor who worked with Wuthnow on the book.
But it wasn't the news that started Wuthnow thinking about the topic. "It was really inspired by the sense that the U.S. was becoming much more religiously diverse, through immigration especially," says Wuthnow, professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of American Religion at Princeton University, "and that this is a kind of diversity that other social scientists had pretty well ignored by focusing on ethnic and racial diversity."
Over the past three decades Wuthnow has covered a range of topics largely missed by his fellow social scientists, primarily because he's focused on issues of religion and faith that they've steered clear of. As author of more than 20 books and editor of nine more (including The Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion, Congressional Quarterly Books, 1998), Wuthnow has studied everything from the changing patterns in institutional religion and personal spirituality to the role of support groups and voluntary organizations and the relationships between faith and economics, and religion and the arts.
His new book examines how American Christians view the Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and adherents of other non-Western religions who now have a significant presence in the United States, as well as how Americans historically have adapted to religious diversity.
"The message is both interesting and important," Malcolm says. "It's that Americans greatly value religious diversity, or say they do, but know very little about religions other than their own."
Wuthnow conducted a national survey of almost 3,000 people and interviewed more than 300 for the project. "On the one hand, there's this kind of easy acceptance: 'Oh sure, you believe what you want and we'll all get along,' " says Wuthnow. "But on another level, there's the theological tradition from Christianity that Christianity is true, and there's the cultural understanding that America is a Christian nation. So do we really accept Muslims and Buddhists on equal terms, or not?"
Wuthnow discovered a lot of "elevator behavior": "People pretend nobody else exists. It was really quite striking and quite disturbing," he says.
While people's responses weren't driven "in a significant way" by 9/11 and all that followed (although "people did become more aware of Muslims," he says), one of the findings in talking with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists was the desire not for respect—a term used frequently by native-born American Christians to explain their attitude toward other faiths—but for understanding. "As a society that claims to be pluralistic, we're just missing out by not understanding different religious traditions more than we do," Wuthnow notes.
Those who do embrace the new diversity, he says, are often just ordinary people who are interested enough to get acquainted with their "different" neighbors. "They work together on projects, build trust and end up with a stronger appreciation for their own faith," Wuthnow says. "They're not tempted to convert, and they don't become syncretists."
In addition to sociology and religion scholars, Wuthnow says he hopes the book will appeal to community and religious leaders and others who deal with issues of multiculturalism and social diversity. —Heather Grennan Gary