The era of Donald Trump has shaken the country and revived activism on the left on a scale not seen since the 1960s. America has unfinished business—Black Lives Matter demands that the promises of the civil rights movement be kept, and #MeToo lays claim to the autonomy and equality the women’s movement fought for. The country’s shift to the right in the 2016 election has reinvigorated social activism around these and other causes, including gun control, immigration, and protecting the environment.
Religions can be the cause of oppression and injustice, but they also will be part of the solution. Many authors have diagnosed religion’s ills and offered cures, in books from religion publishers on topics such as the conflicts over Trump’s agenda, urgent social problems, the fragmenting of American churches, and the continuing decline of commitment to traditional faiths.
The Meaning of Trump
Much has been made of the purported 80% of evangelical Christians who voted for Trump and continue to support him. But evangelicals are a varied bunch, and many did not support Trump and reject any association with his victory.
“Evangelicals can do better than Donald Trump,” writes evangelical historian John Fea in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Eerdmans, June). “His campaign and presidency have drawn on a troubling pattern of American evangelicalism that is willing to yield to old habits grounded in fear, nostalgia, and the search for power... [they have] traded their Christian witness for a mess of political pottage and a few federal judges.”
German pastor Detrich Bonhoeffer, martyred during WWII for standing up to the Nazis, has become an evangelical icon, and in The Battle for Bonhoeffer (Eerdmans, Sept.), Stephen R. Haynes holds him up for Christians to emulate, writing, “Those who have come to regard Bonhoeffer as a model of resistance in Trump’s America have looked to him not to justify anti-tyrannical violence, but to help discern how citizens of a civilized nation should behave when established cultural norms seem no longer to apply.” Evangelicals have failed their first “Bonhoeffer moment,” Haynes writes, but there will be other chances to repudiate “a man who did not deserve the support of a serious Christian.”
Many Catholics voted for Trump and still support his agenda. In Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump (Liturgical, May), Steven P. Millies asks why Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and attempts to close the borders did not trouble American Catholics who are descended from immigrants. Like evangelicals, conservative Catholics see the Church as besieged by the forces of liberalism and threatened by different points of view, Millies writes. “That tendency is found chiefly among the descendants of 19th-century Catholic immigrants who have a memory of the long struggle for acceptance.” Trump’s appeal to Catholics is that he “promised an unquestioning view of American power, the return to a rigid and simple patriotism, and a clear sense of American identity against new groups of immigrants who sought to enter the United States.”
Ever heard of political magic? No, it’s not charisma, and it’s not new, according to Michael M. Hughes, author of Spellbook for the Resistance: Magical Rituals for Radicals and Revolutionaries (Llewellyn, Oct.). Hughes writes that English magicians used weather curses against the Spanish Armada, occultists and witches cast spells against the Nazis, and in the 1960s feminist collective WITCH hexed the patriarchy and Yippies levitated the Pentagon. Hughes proposes that kind of “magical activism” to oppose the Trump regime; in February 2017 he led thousands of people around the world in casting the “Spell to Bind Donald Trump and All Those Who Abet Him.”
One of Trump’s promises was immigration reform, and he turned up the heat by barring travelers from certain predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. and by accusing American Muslim communities of harboring terrorists. But in Presumed Guilty: Why We Shouldn’t Ask Muslims to Condemn Terrorism (Fortress, Sept.), Todd H. Green argues that asking Muslims to condemn terrorism assumes that Islam is the driving force behind terrorism and ignores the ways in which Muslims already condemn terrorism, such as working with the authorities to help track down suspected terrorists. Green is a former U.S. State Department adviser on Islamophobia.
Getting to know the so-called other is a time-tested way to dispel prejudice—a story that is told in Once We Were Strangers: What Friendship with a Syrian Refugee Taught Me About Loving My Neighbor (Revell, Oct.). Author Shawn Smucker befriended Mohammad, a Syrian refugee, and his family, and learned lessons about shared humanity across cultural, religious, and political divides. Smucker writes, “There are days when I wonder if this world can continue to exist under the current load of hate and misunderstanding and evil, when I wonder if the hearts of all people can somehow find a vaccination from racism and virulent nationalism and a concern only for ourselves. My friendship with Mohammad has been both the diagnosis and the beginning of a cure in me.”
The Sins of the Church
There’s a stain on American Christianity, Jemar Tisby writes in The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Zondervan, Dec.). “Church policies designed to discriminate against people of color were not passively absorbed from the surrounding society,” Tisby writes. “Rather they were intentionally crafted by Christians to create the inequality and separation we see in congregations today.” Slaves were taught a different kind of Christianity than white people: “European missionaries tried to calm the fears of slave owners who feared rebellion by spreading a version of Christianity that emphasized spiritual deliverance but not immediate liberation.”
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, author of Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion (IVP, out now), came to recognize that truth—that the Christianity he experienced growing up a churchgoing white Christian in the South was not good news for everyone, but had been corrupted to serve the purposes of slaveholders. “I am a man torn in two,” Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “and the Gospel I inherited is divided.” In a starred review, PW called the book “a must-read for Christians interested in how race-infused politics and religion undermine the American democratic dream.” Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, and a New Way Forward by Skot Welch and Rick Wilson, with Andi Cumbo-Floyd (Herald, May), also urges Christians to learn this troubling history and confront the church’s racism.
IVP senior editor Al Hsu says, “For us, Christianity is not just an abstract faith of private devotion, but is embedded and embodied in society with real social consequences.” Publisher Jeff Crosby adds that “beyond the calling, it also makes good business sense to publish these books. As the demographics of North America shift radically in the decades to come, religion publishers need to be on the forefront of addressing issues of concern to the new neighbors we are called to welcome.”
The damage caused by racism must be repaired, Jodie Geddes and Thomas Norman DeWolf write in The Little Book of Restorative Justice and Racial Healing (Skyhorse, Dec.). Their prescription for reconciliation is relationships and dialogue. Through Coming to the Table, an organization they founded, Geddes and DeWolf bring together descendants of slaves and of slaveholders to realize a vision of racial harmony.
Other books on racism take the form of memoirs. In 13 Days in Ferguson (Tyndale Momentum, Aug.), Ron Johnson—an African-American captain in the Missouri Highway Patrol, and a 30-year law enforcement veteran—writes (with Alan Eisenstock) of being charged with restoring peace in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown was killed by police. Johnson took off his bulletproof vest and walked into a crowd of protesters, inspired by his Christian faith and belief that reconciliation between African-Americans and the police is possible.
A Sojourner’s Truth: Choosing Freedom and Courage in a Divided World (IVP, Nov.) is Natasha Sistrunk Robinson’s memoir of growing up a young African-American girl from South Carolina and entering the United States Naval Academy. “There I was immediately exposed to privilege and noticed the difference in access and opportunity between me and many of my white classmates,” she writes. After graduation, Robinson served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and then as a civilian at the Department of Homeland Security.
In I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (Convergent, May), Austin Channing Brown describes her alienation as a female African-American in majority-white schools, organizations, and churches. She had to figure out where she fit, and writes, “I had to learn what it means to love blackness” and to be a black person living in a white world. Brown is a writer and speaker who helps schools, nonprofits, and religious organizations learn to practice inclusion.
Amy Julia Becker grew up in a South still trying to find its footing after the civil rights movement, and in White Picket Fences (NavPress, Oct.) she encourages anxious white Christians to come out from behind their white picket bunkers and get to know their neighbors across racial, religious, and economic divides.
One of the most powerful tools to combat racism is preaching, according to Carolyn B. Helsel, a Presbyterian pastor and professor of preaching at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Anxious to Preach About Racism: A Guide for White Pastors (Chalice, Nov.) offers guidance for ministers who want to preach about racism to primarily to white congregations. The book follows her Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism (Chalice, out now), which PW called “a powerful book [that] will be of most use to white readers looking for a way to have honest conversations about race.”
Two elder statesmen of the civil rights movement have new books this year. Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing by William Barber II, with Liz Theoharis and Rick Lowery (Beacon, Dec.), collects Barber’s sermons and speeches, along with response essays by prominent public intellectuals, activists, and faith leaders that address such issues as the activism of Black Lives Matter, the struggle to protect voting rights, and the push for women’s rights. Another civil rights pioneer, John Perkins, also is a preacher; he grew up in a Mississippi sharecropping family and has dedicated his life to achieving racial equality. He calls One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race (Moody, Apr.) his crowning book; in it, Perkins charges the church with advancing racial reconciliation and justice.
Rabbi Evan Moffic reminds readers of the centuries-long suffering of the Jewish people in First the Jews: Combatting the World’s Longest-Running Hate Campaign (Abingdon, Dec.). With anti-Semitism again on the rise, Moffic reviews its history and calls on people of all faiths to fight it. He speaks frequently in churches, teaching Christians about Jewish heritage and history.
Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up by Kathy Khang (IVP, July) encourages readers to speak up when they see injustice, instead of being silenced by fear and power dynamics. Khang teaches Christians they have a responsibility to speak truth to power and to denounce injustice wherever they see it.
Time’s Up for Patriarchy
The #MeToo movement is a reminder that women’s bodies often are a battleground in the struggle for power, and that women cannot be free without physical autonomy. That autonomy is threatened in various ways, including violence: In Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women (IVP, out now), Elaine Storkey offers a shocking fact: acts of violence against women around the world cause more death, disability, and mutilation than cancer, malaria, and traffic accidents combined. Storkey provides an overview of this global pandemic and calls on Christians to be part of the solution.
With Republicans back in power and conservative Christian values dominating the conversation about abortion, women’s reproductive rights are once again threatened. One book is sure to be controversial, even with some progressives: Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice by Rebecca Todd Peters (Beacon, Apr.), which argues that unplanned pregnancy and abortion are a normal part of many women’s reproductive lives, and that shaming women who have abortions is another way to control women’s bodies and curtail their choices. (Peters cites statistics showing that about a third of women in the U.S. will have an abortion by age 45, and 50%–60% of the women who have abortions were using birth control when they got pregnant.)
Beacon publisher Amy Caldwell notes that in 1983 Beacon published Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion by Beverly Wildung Harrison, “the first feminist book on abortion to make a moral rather than a legal argument, based on the assertion that women are rational moral agents.” Caldwell adds, “Trust Women is in many ways the heir to Harrison’s work, and it highlights Beacon’s strong commitment to justice, to women’s voices and concerns, to moral and political thinking based on who is actually helped and who is hurt.”
Religions also have dictated how women should dress. In The Beauty Suit: How My Year of Religious Modesty Made Me a Better Feminist (Beacon, May), Lauren Shields looks at the modesty practices of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity and what they show about attitudes toward women. Inspired by American Muslimahs who wear the hijab for feminist reasons, Shields decided to try a modesty practice of her own, giving up her stylish hair, makeup, and clothes for nine months. Her experience led her to wonder, who is truly liberated or oppressed? Is being attractive to men still the closest to power women can get?
Finally, in Resist and Persist: Faith and the Fight for Equality (WJK, Apr.), Erin Wathen warns the worst could be yet to come. “In many ways, sexism has only gotten more brash and repulsive as women have gained power and voice in the mainstream culture,” she contends. “Because the patriarchy dies hard, it has to find new and artful ways to function in the civilized world, and those new ways are often even uglier than the old ones.” Women and their male allies must resist the sexism of the Trump agenda, Wathen writes, not only in politics and government but also in the church.
All Together Now
Along with issue-focused books, there are sweeping critiques of American culture. Michael Gecan’s People’s Institutions in Decline: Causes, Consequences, Cures (Acta, out now) sounds the alarm about the decline of social institutions—including churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, as well as unions, ethnic and neighborhood organizations, small businesses, schools, and healthcare facilities—and how that decline has led to isolation and indifference. He urges people of faith to use the “relational power” of communities, where people know and trust one another, to work for change.
Gecan’s publisher, Greg Pierce, president of Acta, notes, “Religion is not an escape or flight from the world as it is. What people want to know is not, ‘Don’t bother me about what is going on in the world,’ but rather, ‘How do my religious and spiritual beliefs and practices inform and determine how I act in the world?’ ”
America is a Christian nation, a melting pot; all men are created equal; American is exceptional—right? Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive: And the Truth That Sets Us Free by Jonathan Walton (IVP, Dec.) debunks the myths many tell about the United States. And Bruce Ashford asks in Letters to an American Christian (B&H, June), what does it mean to be an American and a Christian? Ashford explores the relationship between Christianity and politics and urges readers to take seriously “both their heavenly and earthly citizenships.”
A too-close alignment of Christianity and politics has created disunity, Allen Hilton argues in A House United: How the Church Can Save the World (Fortress, Apr.). By marrying stances on politics and issues, like tax reform and the size of government, to moral ones, like abortion rights and homosexuality, the church has deepened the rift between left and right and created even more polarization. That contentious atmosphere is the subject of Christians in the Age of Outrage (Tyndale Momentum, Oct.), in which author Ed Stetzer decries the conflict and argues that “Christians are not defined by the crazy and caustic representatives we see on cable news. All over the world, the majority of Christians are already bringing their best in building the Kingdom of God.”
Books that address the divisions in the church and society at large and call for unity include Designed for More: Unleashing Christ’s Vision for Unity in a Deeply Divided World by Lucas Ramirez, with Mike DeVito (FaithWords, June), which promotes increased collective action to tackle social problems. Soul Force: Seven Pivots Toward Courage, Community, and Change by Reesheda Graham-Washington and Shawn Casselberry (Herald, June) also stresses collective action by Christians to create change in a hostile world. And in God of Tomorrow: How to Overcome the Fears of Today and Renew Your Hope for the Future (WaterBrook, May), Caleb Kaltenbach points to Jesus, Paul, and Peter as models for following the Bible’s directive to be in the world, but not of it—to make peace with those who have different beliefs, not to shut themselves away from the wider culture, but not to fully embrace its values either.
Ana Levy Lyons proposes a back-to-basics approach in No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments (FaithWords, out now), arguing that the Commandments are as relevant today as they were in Old Testament times and can serve as guideposts for navigating such current issues as school shootings, immigration, and #MeToo. “The Ten Commandments are a resource for resistance,” Levy-Lyons writes. “They are a politically and spiritually brazen prescription—one which, if actually followed, would turn our world upside down.”
That Old Testament approach aligns with Path of the Prophets: The Ethics-Driven Life by Barry L. Schwartz (Jewish Publication Society, out now), a rabbi and activist who endorses civil disobedience and applies ancient wisdom to the advancement of freedom, equality, and compassion, as well as to spiritual disciplines such as faith, prayer, and humility.
The spiritual leaders of the future will look very different from the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament disciples, according to Alison Sher, author of The Millennial’s Guide to Changing the World (Skyhorse, Nov.). Sher interviewed 150 millennials about their attitudes toward sex, racism, protecting the environment, and religion. She concludes, “Millennials care so deeply about finding meaning and purpose, but they are also rejecting religion. We’re a create-your-own-way generation.”
Do traditional religions have a future in this DIY era? Will they be replaced by individual searches for spiritual transformation? Writers like Sher might say yes, but despite the sins of religion, faiths that have survived for thousands of years can’t be counted out.