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At the Crossroads

Where Religion Meets Social Change

America’s mix of a fervent religious impulse with modern secular society is a volatile one, but throughout the nation’s history, people of faith have joined hands across the religious divide in powerful movements for social change. The books featured below offer a wide-ranging, and often surprising, look at the many ways that religious belief has inspired and motivated the work of crafting a fair, just, and compassionate nation.

Seen from afar, Christian evangelicals may appear to be a homogeneous group of social and religious conservatives, but as recently as the mid-twentieth century, large numbers of them were avid supporters of social justice, peace, and environmental stewardship—issues usually associated with the liberal end of the political spectrum. In Countercultural Conservatives: American Evangelicalism from the Postwar Revival to the New Christian Right (University of Wisconsin Press, 978-0-299-28524-1), Axel Schäfer, the director of the David Bruce Centre for American Studies at Keele University, UK, and the author of American Progressives and German Social Reform, 1875-1920, traces the politics of the evangelical movement from the early 1940s through the late 1900s to reveal a complex and diverse web of backgrounds, beliefs, and ideals that evolved into what is now known as the Christian Right.

Schäfer describes the coexistence of orthodox forms of religion and sociocultural modernity in the US as “one of the most vexing issues framing discussions about religion in American society,” adding that no other nation “has so trumpeted the cause of individual freedom while simultaneously seeking to control individual moral behavior” through tens of thousands of federal, state, and local laws. Moreover, the Religious Right has taken advantage of the radical critique and absorbed it, disguised, into its own methodology: “its anti-elitist and anti-establishmentarian rhetoric, though redolent of more radical impulses, has ended up being an instrument of shoring up existing power relations,” says Schäfer, who warns that America’s impulse toward religious revivalism is still one of the most dynamic, volatile, and unpredictable elements in American politics.

Those who see religion as hopelessly mired in conservatism will find Dan McKanan’s Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition (Beacon Press, 978-0-8070-1315-1) filled with startling revelations about the extent to which religion and radical movements for change have partnered throughout this country’s 236-year history. From Frederick Douglass and his African Methodist Episcopal Church, to Dorothy Day’s Catholicism, to Starhawk’s Neopaganism, many radical activists of the past have been moved by profound religious convictions, and those holding the torch today will be inspired and encouraged by this knowledge as they face the challenges of the twenty-first century.

“We are still living in the age that began in 1776, still trying to discern whether new institutions would better serve the core values that are cherished by all Americans,” says McKanan, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association senior lecturer at Harvard Divinity School and author of several books. New challenges, he suggests, including the effects of rampant climate change and decreasing supplies of fossil fuels and fresh water, may demand that humanity accept a “steady-state” culture over one characterized by never-ending growth, and people of faith may once again rise up and join hands across doctrinal divides to envision and create that sustainable future.

As today’s radicals work together in urban community gardens, shop at farmer’s markets, occupy Wall Street, or engage in group cyber-activism, they are seeing God in each other, whether they identify themselves as members of mainstream churches, as humanists, or as people who are “spiritual, but not religious.” McKanan believes that this coming together of people of faith can once again unleash prophetic power to call out and denounce those who, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, would “grind the faces of the poor into the dust.”

Timothy Matovina, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, discusses the serious cultural, political, and class divisions in US Catholicism, and how the face of the US Catholic Church, and that of American society, is being changed by a growing Latino majority. His book Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church (Princeton University Press, 978-0-691-13979-1) suggests that, while trying to understand this transformation by grouping all Latinos into one bloc may be convenient, the picture it gives of this demographic is unrealistic, since Spanish is a primary language in twenty-two different countries. But no matter their country of origin, Latinos bring a new and refreshing vitality to American culture and religion, including a devotional life that encourages embodied prayer, a history of service to their communities, faith-based involvement in community organizing, and grassroots participation in civil society, all of which could serve as models for the future of the American Catholic Church.

In Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God (Brazos Press, 978-1-58743-250-7), Christian Scharen examines why popular culture is often disdained by the Christian church and suggests that by entering this paradoxical world, the church will find God’s mercy and grace in rich supply. Scharen explores the blues, folk, rock, jazz, hip-hop, and avant-garde music genres; plus the work of inspired musicians like Leonard Cohen, Billie Holiday, rapper Kanye West, and the group Arcade Fire; and the writings of C.S. Lewis and scripture to discover how pop culture is striving to find faith-filled expression deep and substantial enough for the demands of our time.

Scharen holds a PhD from Emory University and is the author of several books; he is also assistant professor of worship and theology and co-director of the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project at Luther Seminary. His theology of popular culture is written in a minor key, as is his theology of the cross, and both are ultimately hopeful. Pop culture stands just enough outside orthodoxy that it can ask the hard questions about America’s relentless wars, corporate greed, lack of concern for the poor and suffering, and other topics absent in mainline churches of a Sunday, and sound a greater and more insistent wake-up call than could come from the pulpit.

Finally, the inner spiritual adventure igniting esteemed author Huston Smith’s life for over six decades is captured in The Huston Smith Reader (University of California Press, 978-0-520-27022-0), a lively and informative compilation of his scholarly writing, interviews, and memoirs. Born in 1919 to parents who were missionaries in China, Smith, author of The World’s Religions, imbibed Judeo-Christianity as if it were the only religion that existed until, as a young man, he met a devout Hindu swami and was moved to a decade-long practice of Hinduism. In his middle years, Smith discovered Buddhism; his ten years as an earnest practitioner saw him living in a Zen monastery seeking enlightenment. Then came a study of the Koran, and he joined a secret Muslim fraternity, prayed toward Mecca five times a day, and experienced a deep, personal relationship with Allah. Smith’s intimate closing chapter speaks of his life at ninety, nearly deaf and living in an assisted living facility. In luminous prose, he tells of how he has once again encountered God, offering the rare and wise perspective of one who knows each of the world’s major faiths “by heart,” and the assurance that it is possible to search for, find, and rejoice in the points of agreement between them.