Early in Mark Noll’s brief, smoothly paced exploration of “how religion interacted with race in shaping the nation’s political course,” Noll shares an observational nugget from André Siegfried. Nearly a century after his countryman Alexis de Tocqueville took a note-taking tour of the United States, Siegfried paid a similar visit to these shores. Whereas Tocqueville detected the underpinnings of a cult of individualism and a potential tyranny of the majority, Siegfried saw a nation of Calvinist pulpit pounders. “Every American is at heart an evangelist,” he wrote, “be he a Wilson, a Bryan, or a Rockefeller. He cannot leave people alone, and he constantly feels the urge to preach.”
If Americans were ever as zealous—about either faith or politics—as Siegfried suggested, it’s hard to imagine similarly widespread fervor today. Sure, many contemporary voters may be motivated and influenced by religious concerns, but the very fact of their voting makes them atypical. Most of their nonvoting counterparts are more enthused about celebrity antics, reality TV, and blue-light specials than about elections or the fate of their immortal souls. So it’s not Noll’s fault that much of the history he describes in God and Race in America seems unavoidably quaint. In his telling, Americans in the era before the Civil War had a far greater sense of religious engagement. In 1845, for example, “the statistically ‘average’ American in the course of a year probably heard more sermons from a Methodist minister than received pieces of mail.”
The ubiquity of religion (with a decidedly Calvinistic flavor, according to Noll) helps explain why the moral discourse of the early republic did not long trouble itself over slavery and the rights of blacks—and not just in the slaveholding South. “Throughout the South and in many places of the North,” Noll writes, “it was widely assumed that since Scripture did not condemn the institution as such, it thereby sanctioned the form of black-only slavery that prevailed in the United States.”
The gist of Noll’s point here seems to support the idea that a nation that prays together stays together. Um, no: As important as personal salvation might have been, there were other things to argue about, such as states’ rights and those pesky Africans toiling in the fields and kitchens. In the Civil War, Noll suggests, faith was a lesser but still significant point of contention. He writes that the war “was also fundamentally a religious war fought over how to interpret the Bible and how to promote moral norms in national public life.” For some, I suppose. For others (like my enslaved ancestors), I suspect, the stakes were less philosophical and more life-or-death.
Following Reconstruction and the revival of the South’s systematic racism, the Bible lost its central (albeit ambiguous) role in American culture, Noll argues—to be “replaced by heightened commitments to a national civil religion and to the authority of scientific expertise.” As a result, most mainline churches receded further on the race question, either supporting actively or greeting with indifference the decades of racial injustice under postbellum segregationist order.
Much of this is well-traveled ground, and Noll gives due credit to other historians of race relations, such as Eric Foner and David W. Blight, as he draws on their work. His own contributions are most convincing when he examines the diverse changes and developments in black churches from the end of the Civil War to the onset of the civil rights movement. From African slaves’ earliest (often compulsory) encounters with Christianity, black Americans’ practice of the faith has been largely if not intensely syncretic. He shows how black spiritual practices in the 1950s and early ’60s gained strength from being fluid, evolving, and surprisingly open-minded. In the ’60s, for instance, “during a period when only exotic margins of white Christianity had any interest in the Hindu pacifism of Gandhi or the democratic socialism of A. Philip Randolph, these and other disparate teachings were easily folded into the generally Christian framework of civil rights reform.”
Noll does a terrific job tracking such changes. Still, I would have preferred to know his thoughts regarding the impact on black religious philosophy when nonviolent protest gave way to the more strident demands of Black Power. How did the black church move from Martin Luther King Jr.’s style of faith-based activism to that more militant form of prophetic Christianity espoused by clergymen like Albert Cleage and Jeremiah Wright? What role does tradition play in black churches’ shift from the fiery intellectualism of James Cone to the “gospel of prosperity” popularized by the likes of Creflo Dollar? What do such moves mean to the future of civil rights?
But Noll has, after all, produced a short history, and in making sense of the latter-day configurations of the religion-and-race question, he had to devote some of it to the pro-Republican evangelical mobilization of the past three decades. That movement, he points out, bears an ironic connection to the civil rights struggle, which could have not succeeded without an unprecedented expansion of federal authority. The resulting image of big government helped motivate the right’s resurgence. “Race has not been the all-encompassing factor” in that mobilization, Noll writes, “yet national attention to race and civil rights was the doorway through which evangelicals marched in their determination to rescue the nation.” That they considered their country in need of rescue is a provocative notion—and a fitting subject for another short history, perhaps.
Jabari Asim is editor in chief of The Crisis magazine and author of What Obama Means, forthcoming next year from William Morrow.