Seeds of intrigue about religious politics, firmly planted in 2004 when Republicans traced their victories to impassioned support from "values voters," are blossoming this spring in a bumper crop of new books on the topic.
Authors writing from a range of vantage points, including more than a few evangelicals, aim to decipher the meaning of today's cozy relationship between the ruling GOP and its church-going Christian base.
At the heart of many new releases lies a "let's get back to basics" project. Mindful of the success of evangelical Jim Wallis's bestseller God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It (Harper San Francisco, 2005), several titles search the Christian scriptures for themes and find them to be decidedly at odds with what Republicans have accomplished over the past decade in Washington, D.C. Others seek the heart of American evangelicalism by probing the tradition's not-always-conservative history. In the process, scribes of varied political stripes lament how the misuse of religion in the American politics of recent years has fanned flames of discord and made the world a more dangerous place.
"People love going back to the original sources and the original texts and the original political contexts," says Andrew Corbin, senior editor at Doubleday Religious, which releases The Politics of Jesus by Obery Hendricks Jr. in August. "They love to get to the roots of things."
By offering new takes on some age-old issues, publishers aim to strike a chord as resonant as any pipe organ's. But will the ones hearing the ka-ching of cash registers be from the long-ignored religious left? Or the camp of contrarian evangelicals? Will they be from the ranks of public authority figures who've never much entered the taboo territory of religious politics before now? Perhaps only God knows, but publicists are doing their best to make sure these writers aren't just preaching to their usual choirs.
Big Names, Big Books
Arguably the biggest eye-catcher of the season comes from former secretary of state Madeleine Albright. Now a professor of foreign affairs at Georgetown University, in The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs she responds at length to persistent questions posed since 2001 about the proper role of religion in international affairs. Pragmatic in approach, Albright scolds the Bush administration for galvanizing America's enemies by cloaking foreign policy in inflammatory religious rhetoric and by creating situations that would justify jihad in the eyes of Muslims. HarperCollins hopes her household name and hot topic will justify an initial printing of 200,000 copies. An eight-city author tour coincides with the book's May release.
Says HC executive editor Tim Duggan, "We're marketing it as a book with wide appeal to people of all religions and political persuasions."
Other observers also are pondering the stakes in religion-charged politics. Former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips shines a light on apocalyptic policy-making in American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (Viking, Mar.). His wide-angle analysis aims to explain the meaning of the nation's falling into the hands of "the first religious party in U.S. history," first in 2000 and then again in 2004. The book has received wide media exposure and climbed several national bestsellers lists, including PW's.
Viking made sure to release American Theocracy early in 2006 because "we all believed the midterm elections would be hotly contested," says v-p of marketing Nancy Sheppard, "and [Phillips] wanted to fire the first salvo."
Quick to follow the opening shots are the peacemakers. In April, Random House released Newsweek managing editor Jon Meacham's case for harmony over polarization in American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, which also has become a national bestseller. Recalling moments of great ferment and crisis in American history, Meacham finds reason to hope for another "victory over excessive religious influence and excessive secularism." In September, Missouri Republican and former U.S. senator John C. Danforth will make a similar plea. His Faith and Politics: How the "Moral Values" Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together (Viking) argues that those who use religion to drive wedges between Americans, especially in his party, are damaging the nation's fabric.
Meanwhile, the dispassionately written The Politics of Apocalypse: The History and Influence of Christian Zionism (Oneworld Publications, June) by Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok, a Welsh scholar of Judaism, lets the high stakes of "Armageddon theology" in world politics speak for themselves in his extraordinarily comprehensive primer on Christian Zionism.
For those inclined to see world events as part of a still-unfolding drama foretold in scripture, Multnomah Publishers is positioned to satisfy. Iran: The Coming Crisis—Radical Islam, Oil and the Nuclear Threat, due out in July, equips prophecy fans with tools to understand Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a figure on the fast track to bring about a predicted showdown with the West. The book interprets the biblical meaning of Iran's emergent nuclear capabilities, then tells individuals what to do: "It offers practical biblical application for how one should live in light of Christ's coming," says author Mark Hitchcock, a former Oklahoma judge turned preacher with an "end-times" focus.
Some evangelicals, meanwhile, are warning that their faith has been corrupted by drivers of an agenda that would make Jesus squirm. Among the most forceful is Randall Balmer, a lifelong evangelical and expert on evangelical history at Barnard College. In Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America—An Evangelical's Lament (Perseus, July), Balmer writes in first-person voice "as a jilted lover," accusing "right wing zealots" of defaulting on "the noble legacy of nineteenth-century activism." Example: he shames today's proponents of home schooling and school vouchers by comparing them to prior generations of evangelicals who championed public schooling and universal literacy.
"It'll be controversial because he's taking on [his own] very tight-knit community," says Lara Heimert, executive editor for religion at Basic Books. The book echoes themes in God's Politics, she says, adding that "the success of Jim Wallis's book is indicating there's a very large group of evangelicals who aren't at all happy" with Christian allegiance to today's GOP. But Balmer, in her opinion, "is a whole lot angrier than Wallis is."
A lighter-hearted argument along similar lines comes from another evangelical professor, George G. Hunter III, who teaches church growth and evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. In Christian, Evangelical &... Democrat? (Abingdon, May), Hunter combines humor and historical perspective to make the case that evangelicals need to be "salt and light," a loaf-leavening influence in all areas of society—including the Democratic Party.
Books like Balmer's and Hunter's might have a chance at doing well if trends evidenced in Jay Weygandt's Logos Bookstore in Springfield, Ohio, are at all representative.
"I hear people saying, 'we're coming back to our roots' " by renewing Christian concern to craft public policy with society's most vulnerable in mind, Weygandt says. "I'm very excited about the rising up that I'm seeing."
Evangelicalism, however, has long wavered between one compulsion—to engage a sinful world with hopes of redeeming it—and a second one: to withdraw from a corrupted society, lest it claim the faithful among its despairing victims. This latter tendency gets a fresh voice in May from Zondervan, an evangelical publishing powerhouse. Gregory Boyd's The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church (In Profile, page S13) aims to strike a chord with believers who liked their spiritual leaders better when they weren't determined to maintain a tight grip on Congress, the White House and the federal bench. Boyd, a Minnesota pastor, laments that his fellow "American evangelicals have allowed our understanding of the kingdom of God to be polluted with political ideals, agendas and issues."
Readers eager to grasp evangelicalism as a tradition with political overtones have a few new options. Richard Kyle, a professor of history and religion at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., brings some of Boyd's as well as Balmer's concerns to bear in Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity (Transaction, Apr.). His chapter "God Is a Conservative" explains how evangelical viewpoints on sin, women and private enterprise, among other things, have given rise to support for today's GOP platform.
For a glimpse of the tradition's political breadth, readers can turn to Evangelicals in the Public Square: Four Formative Voices on Political Thought and Action (Baker Academic, June). Author J. Budziszewski, a professor of philosophy and government at the University of Texas at Austin, looks at the careers and thinking of four Christian activists: Carl F.H. Henry, Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer and John Howard Yoder. Budziszewski suggests evangelicals would enhance their clout even further if they could learn to draw on the broader lexicon of natural law to justify their public policy proposals.
And readers who don't want to think too much have an option, too: Brad Stine's Live from Middle America: Rants of a Red-State Comedian (Hudson Street Press, Mar.). This Christian funnyman, who's been entertaining men at Promise Keepers events since 2003, spends chapter after chapter mocking peace-loving liberal stereotypes. Among the one-liners strung together, a reader gets a taste of the underlying sensibilities of a certain brand of Christianity that may have helped Republicans keep a lock on the South for more than a quarter century.
The Religious Left?
Perhaps no group of writers has higher hopes, however, than the self-described religious progressives with a hungry eye on the same vein Jim Wallis struck in the aftermath of election 2004.
In February, Harper San Francisco rolled out Rabbi Michael Lerner's case for a progressive politics that speaks to America's "spiritual crisis" in The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. Now Christian progressives are piling on to ride his and Wallis's momentum in speaking primarily to two audiences: Christians who reject the religious right's interpretations of their faith, and secular leftists considering how spiritual themes can help their side start winning national elections again.
Bluntly titled, Why the Christian Right Is Wrong: A Minister's Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, Your Future (Jossey-Bass, June) grew out of a speech that author Robin Meyers, an Oklahoma pastor in the liberal United Church of Christ, gave after the 2004 election. Its themes aren't new. The argument ponders the paradox that political leaders would "start wars" or ignore global warming trends while professing to be both Christian and pro-life. But as a voice crying in the wilderness of conservative Oklahoma, the book carries a tone of urgency that helps distinguish it from its ideological kin.
Encouraged by the early success of The Left Hand of God, Jossey-Bass will promote Meyers's book heavily in America's "bastions of liberalism" (e.g., Boston, Seattle, San Francisco) as well as among national news outlets, according to editor Julianna Gustafson.
Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel (Beacon Press, Apr.) is as cerebral in approach as Meyers is emotional. What passes for the Christian right's gospel—from rugged individualism to free markets—has little or no basis in scripture, according to these 14 ultrarational essays edited by the Rev. Peter Laarman, a United Church of Christ pastor in Los Angeles. Roman Catholic Sister Joan Chittister, environmentalist Bill McKibben and Unitarian Universalist Association president Bill Sinkford are among those who consider one issue each and parse why the Christian right's position on it marks a betrayal of Christian tradition.
"Moderate and liberal religious folks are realizing they need to step into the public arena and fight for their vision of America," says Beacon Press senior editor Amy Caldwell. "We're saying, 'if you really want to go back to the Bible, this is what you need to look at.' "
And in May, theologians launch their own pronouncement against today's worldly powers in The American Empire and the Commonwealth of God: A Political, Economic, Religious Statement (Westminster John Knox). Three professors of theology team up with a scholar of law to denounce what they regard as an expanding American empire and offer a religiously grounded vision for saving the planet and the disenfranchised.
One last category of new books on religion and politics stands apart from all the rest for one reason: its authors are searching for a politics that transcends all that the mainstream religious right and left seem to be offering. In Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (Jossey-Bass, Apr.), satirist Becky Garrison bemoans the lonely challenge of finding a church that doesn't drench her in either Republican or Democratic ideology from the pulpit, albeit often cloaked in religious terms. She finds alternatives to be few and far between, but she does discover a few hope-inspiring small congregations that don't administer a de facto test to ascertain whether newcomers bring an acceptable political ideology.
Obery M. Hendricks Jr. yearns for a Christian politics that dares to reflect Jesus' true convictions. In The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of What Jesus Believed and How It Was Corrupted (Doubleday, Aug.), this professor of biblical interpretation at New York Theological Seminary challenges Gregory Boyd's apolitical rendering of Jesus. On the contrary, Hendricks argues, Jesus' message was inherently political, always opposed to the (Roman) empire of his time and always demanding new systems to free the oppressed. Yet in mainstream Christianity today, as in the Christianity of the fourth-century emperor Constantine, "when you go past the realm of individual piety and say that [Jesus] actively opposed the oppressive political structures of his day—and counseled others to do the same—you've gone too far. The result of this perspective is that the crucial guiding implications of Jesus' actions for confronting the political issues of today's world are lost."
Over the next year, interested readers will have no shortage of new fare to keep them chewing on the significance of the 21st century's peculiar blending of religion and politics. And publishers trust there's plenty of hunger for fresh thinking to go around.