Religion and American Politics and Culture — An Interview with Mark Hulsether

“McCain’s apparent hypocrisy when he mouths religious rhetoric is also fascinating. And we could say something similar about Ronald Reagan. Both of the Clintons, and of course also Jimmy Carter, are far more serious and thoughtful about religion than either Reagan or McCain, yet often our common wisdom screens this out.”—Mark Hulsether

The following is an interview with Mark Hulsether, author of Religion, Culture, and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States.

Q: Your book came out at a good time to throw light on the religious politics of the 2008 election. Did you plan it that way?

Mark Hulsether: I wish! This book was a long time coming; it was supposed to be finished for the 2004 election. But it worked out all right; elections with interesting religious-political dynamics come along all the time. It seems like only yesterday when the media frenzy was about conservative Catholic bishops trying to keep John Kerry from taking communion. In 2000 conservative religious folks were still in an uproar about Bill Clinton lying about sex, and George W. Bush was making a hard sell about Jesus saving him from drug abuse problems and ordaining him to be a global leader.

Of course this year’s election had fascinating religious dimensions—especially for anyone who knows the history of bad blood between John McCain and the Christian Right, the forms of Pentecostalism that shaped Sarah Palin’s worldview, intersections between end-times prophecy and conservative stances toward Israel, and many other such things. Barack Obama’s Chicago church is very interesting. Parts of its family tree reach back to the Puritans, parts to the invisible institution under slavery, and parts to Reinhold Niebuhr’s branch of German Calvinism. The “United” in Trinity United Church of Christ has to do with a merger between the main branch of New England Puritans (those who did not become Unitarians) and German Calvinist churches—with a few predominantly black congregations inspired by traditions like Martin Luther King, Jrs.’ sprinkled in.

McCain’s apparent hypocrisy when he mouths religious rhetoric is also fascinating. And we could say something similar about Ronald Reagan. Both of the Clintons, and of course also Jimmy Carter, are far more serious and thoughtful about religion than either Reagan or McCain, yet often our common wisdom screens this out.

Q: But your book is not primarily about recent electoral politics, right?

MH: That’s right. Let’s not mislead anyone—the book defines both religion and politics broadly. It even defines twentieth century US history broadly. The first quarter of the book fast-forwards to the years around 1900; it introduces a full set of themes and key players that readers need for understanding the religious landscape at this time. And the book’s middle section covers a whole half-century centered on the year 1900; for example, I could not deal with Catholic and Jewish immigrants without picking up the story earlier. Readers will gain a broad synthetic analysis of how religious actors and trends have interacted with developments throughout US history; it is simply weighted toward the past last hundred years. So it gives a context for understanding recent issues, but not in a narrow way. It is not going to seem dated in 2010 or 2012.

Q: Many books line up on one side or another on “culture war” divides between secularists on one side and the religious right on the other. Do you take a stand?

MH: I try to be fair to both sides; many of my students are white evangelicals who think that the Clintons are far too liberal (or even that Obama might be the Anti-Christ) and I want them to see me as a straight-shooting fair referee. Who knows if that’s possible? I suppose if we posit a pure culture war, complete with a free-fire zone between two camps shooting at each other, most of the bullets would be coming at me from the right.

It is useful to compare my book with another that might be considered a competitor. George Marsden’s Religion and American Culture structures its narrative largely as a culture war analysis.

Especially in its twentieth century sections, it pays a great deal of attention to rising secularism and responses to it by conservatives. I agree that the issue is important, but I see it as just one divide alongside many others that are equally important. There are so many issues that cut across culture war divides—race, class, gender, region, and responses to militarism are just a few. And there are so many “non-combatants” in the culture war that it is better to think about it as a bell curve than as two camps shooting at each other across a free-fire zone.

Thus I stress using multiple maps and critical tools to analyze US religion. I think it is crucial not to get carried away by a common wisdom that imagines a binary struggle between “real religious values” on one side, versus either a purely “naked” public square or a religious liberalism that is just a halfway house to secularism.

Q: So is yours an argument like Amy Sullivan’s in The Party Faithful

MH: I appreciate what Sullivan has been trying to do—pressing journalists and Democratic politicians to pay attention to centrist evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Although my book ranges more widely, it dovetails with Sullivan in that regard. I don’t agree with every aspect of her argument about abortion, and I wish she had been less dismissive of liberal Protestants (as opposed to moderate evangelicals). If your readers want to know more about this, I wrote about her argument here.

Q: What about the recent interest in new atheists like Sam Harris, and related popular phenomena like Bill Maher’s film, Religulous. Do you touch on that?

MH: I sympathize with the ways that people like Harris and Maher attack religious anti-intellectualism. Readers who enjoy those guys will probably like my book too—they can find a lot of snappy examples and historical analysis that will further amuse them and give them useful ammunition, as well as sharpen their analysis of where their religious enemies are coming from.

However, at the end of the day I am more critical of new atheists than sympathetic. It is crucial to recognize how narrowly they define religion—they mainly have in mind cognitive layers (amid other layers) of conservative Biblical religions. But the religious world is so much larger than this. I agree with what Brent Plate recently wrote—they could barely pass a Religious Studies 101 class.

They spend too much time knocking down straw targets, and doing so in ways that are not constructive, even if judged according to their own goals. Of course they say that religious liberals are mere enablers for types of religion that are more purely malignant. This position is just true enough to be plausible, because there is a real problem of religious moderates who are too wishy-washy to critique other religions that really are dangerous. But it is mainly misleading.

We need to test the assumption that religion is irrational case by case. Of course, some religions make claims that are not backed by evidence that a secularist would accept; for example, some fundamentalists base their teachings about the origins of the world on a literal reading of Genesis. However, many self-professed religious people, especially from liberal traditions, interpret their practices and build their arguments (whether about science or other issues) using the same analytical categories and standards of evidence as secularists. Even in cases where religious claims contradict secular ones, religious people may try to persuade secularists that their beliefs—their forms of “cultural difference” to invoke the academic buzzword—deserve as much respect as differences based on race, ethnicity, or sexuality. This does not deny that, as we move from case to case, we may encounter religious ideas that are unpersuasive or dangerous. The point is that we cannot make blanket judgments about this matter before concrete investigations.

The whole framework of the book is based on the idea that religious practices can be more or less intellectually credible, more or less constructive and persuasive in how they respond to events around them, and more or less hegemonic as opposed to counter-hegemonic from issue to issue. I dedicated the book to my students in American religion, with these words: “May you choose wisely which traditions to leave behind, and which to hold onto and improve.”

Q: Do you have any last thoughts?

MH: Read the book! It treats fascinating case studies, and it can deepen almost anyone’s understanding of US culture and history. Whether you mainly care about religion and want to map it into larger debates in American Studies and cultural studies—empire, the politics of media, debates about sexuality, the rise and fall of social movements—or whether you mainly know about general US history and want to think more deeply about where religion fits, the book makes connections that can help you.

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