There’s plenty of discord to go around these days. Arguments about gun control, racial violence, climate change, and other headline-grabbing issues have been the subject of numerous books. But looking into 2019, it is the overarching topic of division in American religion and culture that has spawned some of the most notable titles in the religion category.
Wrestling with Religious Freedom
Evolving ideas about which civil rights should be protected by law are increasingly clashing with what some see as the principles and practices of their religious groups. A baker in Colorado who refused to make cakes for gay weddings and a retail chain that refused to cover birth control for its employees took their cases to the Supreme Court. Some Christians argue that they should not be compelled to support behavior they believe is against Christian principles and that religious freedom itself is under attack.
In Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom (HarperOne, May), Steven Waldman reminds readers that conflicts over religious practices and principles are not new. Since early in its history, America has wrestled with integrating the different faiths of its citizens—first Jews, Catholics, African slaves, and Native Americans; later Mormons; and now Muslims. “The more successful American paradigm has emerged over many years, shaped through civil disobedience, elections, lawsuits, coalition building, and bloodshed,” Waldman writes. “Won through great struggle, religious freedom achieved an exalted status as a core element of our national identity.” The author also wrote Founding Faith and is a Wall Street Journal columnist.
An attorney who specializes in religious freedom cases offers his point of view in Free to Believe: The Battle over Religious Liberty in America (WaterBrook, Oct.). Luke Goodrich has represented many clients in religious freedom court cases; he says that now many Christians see their beliefs being characterized as bigotry. He writes, “We’ve long lived in a country where religious freedom was secure, and we didn’t need to give it much thought. Now we’re realizing that the country is changing, and we might not enjoy the same degree of religious freedom forever.” He adds, “You don’t have to care about the Bible to care about religious freedom. Religious freedom is worth protecting because it benefits society, protects our other rights, and is a fundamental human right.”
In Faith in American Public Life (Baylor, Oct.), Melissa Rogers refutes the idea that government and the law prohibit religious participation in public life. Instead, she argues that the law bars government-backed religion while protecting the rights of religious bodies and individuals to promote their faith in the public square. “Religious liberty has been central to our country’s history and still matters greatly today,” she writes. “The government has no say in decisions about the organization or membership of congregations. And the right to speak out on public issues belongs to religious speakers as much as secular ones.” Rogers served as special assistant to President Obama and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The Enemy Is Us
In addition to discord between religions and conflicts between religions and American laws and culture, there are squabbling factions within faith groups. Brazos executive acquisitions editor Robert Hosack says, “Most of the church’s enemies today have actually been drawn from within Christianity itself.”
In The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom from a Faith that Feeds on Making Enemies (Brazos, July), David E. Fitch writes, “Because we [Christians] have been so used to power, we take positions against other churches on the Bible, salvation or even justice.... Christianity becomes a set of belief statements we either argue for or against other Christians. And the actual practice of following Jesus becomes lost in the fray.” Fitch is the author of The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies, which PW called “a searing but loving insider critique of the individualism that marks North American evangelicals.”
Presbyterian minister Layton E. Williams thinks division is not always a bad thing. In Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us (WJK, Oct.), she writes, “Disunity doesn’t have to mean destruction. In the arguments and protests born from our disunified state, we hear hard but important truths that push back on our assumptions and our hubris.” Williams cautions against unity at all costs, writing that “disunity may not be so much a problem to be solved as a holy opportunity for growth and transformation,” noting that disunity provides a chance to engage those with whom we disagree.
Disillusioned Americans have backed away from politics, with disastrous results, argues Peter Wehner in The Death Of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump (HarperOne, June). The New York Times opinion writer, media commentator, outspoken Republican, and Christian critic of the Trump presidency defends the crucial role of politics in preserving democracy. A veteran of three Republican administrations, Wehner says that participation in politics is essential. “We have lost sight of who we are as a people and as a nation,” he writes. “We need to relearn what American politics ought to be about, and we need to realize that as citizens we have the power and ability to repair the fraying we have witnessed.”
Jake Meador’s forthcoming book addresses the decline in the sense of community, the worsening economic inequity, and the poisonous turn public discourse has taken in the country. In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World (IVP, June) offers Meador’s vision of a renewed common life, with Christians focused on faith rather than the economy or politics. Meador is v-p of the evangelical Davenant Institute think tank and editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy, an online magazine about Christian faith in the public sphere.
“Americans are living in a unique moment, one of those pivot-points in history that textbooks will ponder over for decades to come,” says David Dobson, associate publisher of Westminster John Knox. WJK’s mission, he says, is “to provide people of faith with the resources to help them live out that faith in their everyday lives.” He adds, “That might mean talking with their neighbors who hold different political views, or with a fellow churchgoer who has misunderstandings or fears about other religions. Or it may mean helping them understand what it means to be privileged in contemporary North American society.”
In his 2005 book, The Gospel According to America, David Dark warned Christians not to conflate love of country with love of God. His new book, The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend Our God-Blessed, God-Forsaken Land (Westminster, Apr.), applies theological, cultural, and political analysis to today’s political landscape, addressing the rise of white supremacy, the surrender of evangelical principles in favor of expediency, and other Trump-era issues. “When confronted with the fact that our government has tortured terrorist suspects, confiscated rosaries, or forcibly separated children from their asylum-seeking parents on our behalf, appeals to an earlier state of righteousness don’t cut it,” he writes. “ ‘This isn’t who we are’ or ‘We’re better than this’ might work as a late step in a season of repentance, but it fails on delivery in light of our history, a crime scene of carnage, captivity, and seizure consistently undertaken in the name of freedom and security and God.”
If there has been an upside to America’s current angst, it’s the resulting surge in activism. Benedictine nun Joan Chittister (Radical Spirit) invites readers disgusted with today’s political and cultural climate to join her in opposition to Trump’s policies and the direction of the country; her latest, The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage (Crown, Mar.), is both a call to arms and a faith-based guide for activists. “Our world waits for you and me, for spiritual people everywhere,” Chittister writes, “to refuse to be the pawns in the destruction of a global world for the sake of national self-centeredness.” The author of dozens of books, Chittister has advocated for women’s rights for more than 50 years; PW has called her “one of the most well-known and trusted contemporary spiritual authors.”
Longtime evangelical activist Jim Wallis offers his own guide for perplexed Christians in What About Jesus? Finding a Place to Stand in a Time of Crisis (HarperOne, Sept.), proposing an activism that is grounded in the teachings of Jesus. Wallis is the author of America’s Original Sin, The Great Awakening, and God’s Politics and served on Obama’s White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
It’s never too early to shape the next generation of activists. And Social Justice for All: Empowering Churches, Families, and Schools to Make a Difference in God’s World by Lisa Van Engen (Kregel, Mar.) aims to help adults teach children about issues like poverty, immigration, and environmental threats and to give them ways to respond. “As I wrote this manuscript, the United States experienced discord,” Van Engen writes. “Kindness disappeared into the background, and the need for justice seekers became even more pronounced. Sometimes I desperately wanted to give up.” But, she adds, “each time I wanted to quit... I would be left stunned again by each young person’s thoughtful response, wise insight, and simple profundity.”
The temptation to give up is part of the battle, writes pastor Timothy Charles Murphy in Sustaining Hope in an Unjust World: How to Keep Going When You Want to Give Up (Chalice, May). The problems seem intractable, and failure comes with the process of change. “If evil often wins, how can we faithfully respond in hope of a better day?” he writes. “How have people endured across generations, and how can we learn from them today? If we can give compelling answers to these questions, then we just might have a shot at a better future after all.” Murphy is former executive director of the faith and social justice organization Progressive Christians Uniting and the author of Counter-Imperial Churching for a Planetary Gospel.
Is prayer activism? Your Life Is Your Prayer: Wake Up to the Spiritual Power in Everything You by BJ Gallagher and Sam Beasley (Mango, Apr.) contends it is, defining prayer not only as a private conversation with God but also as a way for people to live out their beliefs by helping others. “In times like these, people turn to religion and spiritual practices as rudders for navigating the turbulence,” says Mango acquisitions chief Brenda Knight. “Everything is cyclical, and in many ways we are experiencing a cycle familiar to us from the late 1960s and early ’70s.”
Fearing the Other
An American society that grows ever more diverse can spark anxiety. Some evangelical Christians fear the encroachment of Islam and the imposition of sharia law—a fear reflected in The Third Jihad: Overcoming Radical Islam’s Plan for the West by Michael Youssef (Tyndale Momentum, Mar.). Pastor and evangelist Youssef warns Western Christians that a third jihad is underway and that its goal is to take over the West.
Charles A. Kimball counters that view in Truth over Fear: Combatting the Lies About Islam: A Guide for Christians Working Together (WJK, Aug.). He points to the ways politicians and religious leaders promote Islamophobia to achieve their own objectives, writing, “Wittingly or unwittingly, they add an explosive component in the 21st century world where many turbulent forces and events are already in the mix.” The book encourages readers to teach family and friends the facts about Muslim beliefs. “Simplistic stereotypes of Islam, Muslims, and ‘core’ teachings in the Qur’an abound,” he notes. “The result is a caricature of Islam and Muslims that reflects the highly visible actions of extremists and revolutionaries.”
Physician Ayaz Virji confronted Islamophobia while practicing medicine in a small town in Minnesota, a story he tells in Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America (Crown, June). After Trump won in his country in 2016, Virji’s children were harassed and some of his patients questioned whether the family belonged in their community. Virji planned to leave, until a local pastor invited him to speak at her church and address misconceptions about what Muslims practice and believe. That grew into lectures he delivers in schools, libraries, community centers, churches, and colleges and universities throughout the country.
Embracing the Stranger
As waves of migrants flee poverty and persecution in their home countries, fear has fueled conflicts over immigration policies around the world. Exclusion and Embrace (revised edition) by Miroslav Volf (Abingdon, Aug.) tackles the illusion that otherness is inherently evil. Using the New Testament metaphor of salvation as reconciliation, Volf proposes the idea of embrace as a theological response to the problem of exclusion. Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale University Divinity School, won the 2002 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for the first edition of Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Croatian by birth, Volf analyzed civil war and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Now, he has revised the book to take a second, post-9/11 look at today’s interethnic and international strife.
The Bible describes God’s people as strangers in this world who are called to show grace and hospitality to others. Jesus, King of Strangers: What the Bible Really Says About Immigration by Mark Hamilton (Eerdmans, Apr.) applies the Bible’s teachings to human movement and to how host countries should treat migrants. He aims to save the church from nationalism and demagoguery and to show that the way we treat strangers has political, economic, and religious implications. Hamilton’s other books include Slavery’s Long Shadow: Race and Reconciliation in American Christianity.
Immigration advocate and writer Karen Gonzalez journeyed with her family from Guatemala to Los Angeles and Florida in search of safety and stability, a story she tells in The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong (Herald, May). Comparing her odyssey to those of Hagar, Joseph, Ruth, and Jesus, who also experienced loss and displacement, Gonzalez suggests ways to welcome immigrants and to work for a more fair and compassionate immigration system.
One solution to all this strife is simple but not easy. In A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution (HarperOne, Apr.), bestselling author Marianne Williamson (Tears to Triumph) writes that love is the only way to mend the fractures in American society, envisioning a new politics of both head and heart.