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Christian: The politics of a word in America, by Matthew Bowman

27 July 2018

David Martin considers the political significance of US religious identity

MATTHEW BOWMAN is fast establishing a reputation as a significant commentator on the culture and politics of the United States, beginning with his book on the changing part played by Mormonism, his own faith community. This was followed by The Urban Pulpit, charting the changes in Evangelicalism in New York with mass migration and urbanisation, as it split into conservatives and liberal social activists. That book, charting some of the larger churches on the New York scene and giving one some idea of their extraordinary influence, might well introduce Bowman’s latest book, on rival interpretations of the political implications of Christianity.

Bowman sets out the problem in stark contemporary terms. For many Christians, such as Jerry Falwell, Jnr, son of the founder of the Moral Majority, the moral failings of Donald Trump, such as his aggressive treatment of women, have not been the crucial consideration. What matters is his understanding of the link between Christianity and American democracy. To Christians of Mr Falwell’s stamp, President Trump’s personal behaviour pales before his willingness to defend a notion of Christian civilisation identified with the West: not Latin American (neither white nor Protestant) and not Muslim (neither white nor Christian). This “trumped” Hillary Clinton’s clear Methodist commitment.

Such an identification of the word “Christian” with cultural conservatism and ethno-nationalism is for Bowman entirely contingent. He maintains that the associations of the word “Christian”, however often invoked, have no essential normative meaning. They are foundational for the American imagination, but endlessly contestable.

Others worked hard to reject support for Mr Trump: Jim Wallis, a Methodist minister associated with the Sojourners, called for resistance to misogyny and racism in the name of inclusion and equality. For the young age group, “Christian” had come to mean judgemental and hypocritical, and many active churchgoers agreed. Bowman, in successive analyses, traces how Roman Catholics, whose faith prized community and institution, related only precariously to the Protestant emphasis on individual liberty. The black freedom movement rejected any identification with a Western heritage that had embraced African slavery. New religious movements emerging in the 1960s drew on Asian Christianity and the counter-culture to dismiss any Christian identification with capitalism, the cultural status quo, and Cold War militarism.

A movement of academics, most notably the sociologist Robert Bellah, promoted “civil religion” to avoid commitments to explicit Christian theology. For Bellah, civil religion referred not to Christianity, but to institutionalised “sacred beliefs about the American nation” linking American democracy to the transcendent through (for example) rituals such as inaugurations, and allusions to the divinity on the currency. It expressed a generalised religiosity appropriate to growing religious diversity, and as such was promoted by Jimmy Carter.

What it did not encompass was a much wider movement that rejected a narrative based on America in favour of very different and opposed narratives based on Africa: for example, Ethiopianism in North-East Africa, and the ideology embraced by Nkrumah as part of the achievement of independence in the West African state of Ghana. Another version of this opposed narrative was promoted by Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Barack Obama’s church, who embarrassed Mr Obama by fiercely rejecting America’s benign role and so undermining Mr Obama’s attempts to assert unequivocally his Christian commitment.

And, of course, conservative Evangelicals engendered the “Religious Right”. If the nebulous word “Christian” signified what was valued by American Christians, its potential corruption was indicated by the word “materialism”. Bowman points out that the vague word “materialism” means what Christians fear. “As long as American Christians have been convinced that the preservation of those things they deem Christian is essential to maintaining American democracy, materialism becomes to them the threat of democracy’s collapse.”

The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

Christian: The politics of a word in America
Matthew Bowman
Harvard University Press £21.95
Church Times Bookshop £19.75

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