The election of Donald Trump—whose victory was reportedly boosted by 81% of the votes of white evangelicals—was the talk of the American Academy of Religion’s 2016 meeting. A year later, the response to Trump and his triumph permeates new books on religion and stirs renewed interest in the concept of religious freedom in American history, politics, and today’s society.
Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump (Orbis, out now), edited by Miguel De La Torre—professor of social ethics and Latinx studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver—is a collection of 25 essays by scholars, clergy, and activists. The book spontaneously came together in the halls of the 2016 AAR/SBL conference and was written within a month of Trump’s inauguration. Orbis publisher Robert Ellsberg says the book’s central question is, Who is the God we worship—a god of tribalism, nationalism, force, and violence? Ellsberg adds, “Orbis is making a stand to face the dangers posed by Trump to people of faith.”
Another postelection collection is cautiously optimistic. The theologians, professors, leaders of religious institutions, and activists who contributed to Still Evangelical? Ten Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning (IVP, Jan. 2018) answer the title question with a qualified yes. The volume is edited by Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. InterVarsity Press associate publisher Cindy Bunch says the authors of Still Evangelical? are “asking readers, in particular white evangelicals, to change their behavior.” She cites an essay by Soong-Chan Rah, professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, who writes, “Evangelicals of color are or will be leaving the movement if white believers don’t change and speak out against a ‘hostile environment.’ ”
Resistance is a central theme in Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity (Baylor Univ., out now) by Curtis W. Freeman, research professor of theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. Freeman traces the global impact of John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, and William Blake, “the holy trinity of spiritual, social, economic, and apocalyptic dissent outside the body politic,” according to press director Carey Newman, who adds, “without dissent, you don’t have democracy—what you have is freaking King George.”
In Awaiting the King (Baker Academic, Nov.), James K.A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., observes that evangelicals who are out to reform the electoral, economic, and institutional world might not recognize themselves in the aphorism “you are what you love”—whether that’s success, money, possessions, or God. Baker Academic executive editor Robert N. Hosack says, “Smith is trying to get us to think ‘Christianly’ about politics. His ‘waiting’ is waiting with a sense of respect and awareness of the Gospel truth that the king is coming and will reign.”
But who gets to decide what thinking “Christianly” means? Tisa Wenger, associate professor of American religious history at Yale University and author of Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (Univ. North Carolina, out now), traces how minority and marginalized groups have reshaped their spiritual lives to align with white Protestant Christianity and attain status in the dominant political and social culture.
The author of Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom (Oxford Univ., Dec.), Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, suspects that many calls for religious freedom are a Trojan horse—a disguised effort to de-secularize states, and to privilege, if not legally impose, particular sectarian values. Copson asserts that secularism is the finest and fairest approach to ordering communal life in increasingly diverse societies. Andrea Keegan, an Oxford senior commissioning editor, says secularism “can make a real contribution to the public debate when questions of religion and politics have never been more prominent worldwide.”
In the time of Trump (whose name appears 27 times in the 2017 AAR/SBL conference program), Keegan says that the U.S.—where religious freedom is enshrined—“is still part of a wider and longer story of religious thought.”
Cathy Lynn Grossman created the religion beat for USA Today and is former senior national reporter for Religion News Service.