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Book Review

Examining the interworkings of slavery and scripture

By Rich Barlow
September 3, 2008
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God and Race in American Politics: A Short History
By Mark A. Noll
Princeton University, 224 pp.,$22.95

Harriet Beecher Stowe is famous as the abolitionist author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Less well known is that she became a white supremacist later in life, reflecting the nation's shameful backpedaling on civil rights after the War Between the States.

Stowe's conversion, noted in "God and Race in American Politics," reflects something else, too: the conflicting, Jekyll-and-Hyde impulses of our religious tradition and believers. Before the Civil War, Notre Dame historian Mark Noll recalls, Christians played endless rounds of dueling scriptures, as both advocates and opponents of slavery claimed biblical justification for their views. (If Southerners were discomforted by the fact that the slavery tolerated in the good book was white, Noll notes, abolitionists had to be queasy that it tolerated slavery at all.) After the war, white and African-American Christianity diverged in their development and, often, their approach to the race issue.

In another interesting observation, Noll attributes the rise of the religious right to the progressive civil rights movement. "Stripped of racist overtones, southern evangelical religion . . . became much easier to export throughout the country."

One feels guilty at breaking this book into its most intriguing nuggets, since its author has taken such trouble to assemble a synthesis, a coherent theme by which to understand American history. But that theme isn't exactly a great news flash.

"First, race has always been among the most influential elements in American political history, and in many periods absolutely the most influential," Noll writes in his opening paragraph. "Second, religion has always been crucial for the workings of race in American politics. Together, race and religion make up, not only the nation's deepest and most enduring moral problem, but also its broadest and most enduring political influence." Anyone surprised by any of that probably isn't reading this newspaper.

As a historian, Noll is distinguished for his scholarship and distinctive for his evangelical Christian faith. It's not every academic who would append a "Theological Conclusion" to his book, in which he provocatively declares that not just American politics but American Christian practice as well "have never been able to overcome race." Rarer still for a historian to see in Christian doctrine a historically useful model: "Ultimately, because the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ is, at the same time, so thoroughly human and so thoroughly divine, so completely infinite and so completely finite, the heart of the Christian faith offers the hint of an explanation for how the commingling of contradictions, antinomies, and paradoxes can occur in other spheres of life."

The argument that the Civil War was intrinsically a debate about religion as much as about slavery is interesting, but Noll and others have said it before. Elsewhere, he offers a history of black American Christianity in the 60 years after the war, saying that that story is a crucial but unexamined key to understanding the civil rights movement. Another intriguing info-nugget: Barack Obama's condemning absentee black fathers as much as white racism is nothing new, since any number of African-American leaders have said their community must alter some of its behavior to exploit the gains of the civil rights movement.

Alas, Noll hides these candles of insight under a bushel of dryly academic prose. That, and the lack of a wow factor in his general theme, render "God and Race in American Politics" less than the sum of its most informative parts.

Contact Rich Barlow at barlow81@gmail.com.

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