History professor Matthew Bowman observes in his wise and absorbing new book...that the term 'Christian' in American history 'always resists collapse into a single definition' ... In deeply-researched chapters ranging across the whole of American history but concentrating on the last 100 years, Bowman takes readers through an impressively wide-ranging examination of the many roles Christianity has played in society. The major phases of Catholic and Protestant interaction with local and national politics are described in lean, accessible prose (needless to say, a book on this subject could easily be four times the length of the 300 pages it gets here), and the narrative's tension always derives from the constant fluctuations of public reaction to the presence of organized religion on the national stage—particularly in the 21st century.
Bowman navigates...contradictions and oppositions with clarity and concision. Bowman’s book is not merely for those curious about American history. The definition of Christian is more pressing than ever, with mainstream evangelicals aligning with President Donald Trump, himself a notorious hedonist who some have improbably labeled a champion of Christianity ... Bowman does not take sides in this debate ... Rather, his approach is to illustrate that there has always been intense public debate over the word. The result is a fascinating examination of the twists and turns in American Christianity, showing that the current state of political/religious alignment was not necessarily inevitable, nor even probable.
The first chapter nicely captures the futility of assuming there to be a single genuinely 'Christian' viewpoint on a phenomenon as complex and multifaceted as a national election ... Mr. Bowman’s book illuminates one contemporary mystery—at least for liberals in the Northeast and on the West Coast: the support of evangelical leaders for Donald Trump. How could people who care about personal faith and upright moral behavior plump for Trump? To them, Mr. Bowman writes, 'Trump’s belief or lack thereof in Christian orthodoxy mattered less than his commitment to Christian civilization as they imagined it.'
The gospel of prosperity credits 'biblical promises of abundance and healing through Christ' with a believer's 'economic and social success.' Bowman diminishes its role in the Religious Right; he cites Jerry Falwall's dismissal of this Pentecostal perspective which exalts desire and pleasure. However, more here on the 'prosperity gospel' would have been welcome. These issues continue to vex many Christians. Bowman provides a dutiful if rather too clinical examination of how Americans have clashed or convened as to what Christianity encompasses and how this concept alters as the nation debates itself.
Starting with the Election of 1872 and continuing up to the present, Bowman examines Christian republicanism, liberal Protestantism, Cold War Christianity, the civil rights movement, the Unification Church, and the religious right, among a number of additional viewpoints ... This fascinating book will appeal to readers interested in understanding the historical complexities of a ubiquitous word in American politics that is deceptively difficult to pin down.
It is difficult to describe the overarching argument of the book, but that is primarily because there is no overarching argument. To be sure, there are some themes, such as the ubiquity of Christian as a marker and political weapon or the concept of 'materialism,' another term so definitionally flexible that it has been invoked to describe racism, cults, secular humanism, and a host of other threats to American Christianity and democracy. The book is a collection of narrative gazes and sketches, painting more and less plausible pictures of groups who referred to themselves as Christians but viewed many of their neighbors’ claims to the same label as ridiculous, if not blasphemous ... It is sometimes helpful to read about how one’s faith appears from an outside perspective, and Bowman can certainly offer that perspective. Christians—and I suppose I must clarify that I mean those with a Trinitarian, broadly orthodox understanding—will learn a great deal about American political and religious history by reading this book. But they should not expect it to capture anything close to their internal point of view—nor, for that matter, the view of any devout believer of any faith ... Readers will do well to...question the underlying claim to mastery in this book, even as they benefit from the many good things they can learn in its pages.
Most striking for our current political moment may be Bowman’s attention to the ways the politically powerful have used Christianity to claim a divine right to govern, derived—as they saw it—from the superiority of a racialized white Christian cultural heritage. Bowman, in this rigorous study, persuasively argues that Christianity has shaped a collective understanding of the national past and continues to lend spiritual weight to competing visions for America’s future.