"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

12.08.2005

holy smoke and mirrors

Something that really perplexes me in the social conservative movement is this idea that the United States is a "Christian nation." Why do people have this idea that seems so directly in contradiction to the facts we know about the early days of America and the founders of the republic, who were at best Deists and were certainly not evangelical fundamentalists by any stretch of the imagination? Where did this view that the U.S.A. is special not because of liberty and democracy, but because it's meant to be the dominion of God, come from? And why does this mean that Christmas should be even more thoroughly commercialized? (This week's most brilliant satires on that are from The Daily Show and John Kelso.)

Who knows? But right now I am reading the most fascinating book that adresses those and other questions. I initially picked up American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon because its cover features the Jesus balloon that is a big joke in my family (It's Jesus in a cloud, returning for the rapture. People are clinging to the cloud as they rise to meet him in the air. EVERYONE else has seen this - mom and daddy at the festival in Albuquerque and my sister at college. I am jealous beyond all words. Our favorite appearance (pictured) was when the balloon was launched in front of the Largest Cross in the Western Hemisphere, which happens to be in my mom's hometown. We missed it, but my great aunt sent a picture. That Christian Hot-Air Balloon Glow made Texas Monthly's Bum Steer Awards a few years back.).

But I digress. American Jesus was written by Boston University religion department chair Stephen Prothero, who also wrote a history of cremation in America. Sounds like a fun guy. Anyway, American Jesus is essentially a cultural history that traces the changing role of Jesus in American churches and popular culture. And it is so interesting. He starts by discussing Thomas Jefferson's cut-and-paste Bible, compares him with the Jesus Seminar, and then launches into this discussion of everything from the Puritans to the Mormons. More interestingly, it gets at this question of whether America is a Christian nation by pointing out that American Christians have never agreed over what makes Christians Christian, much less that there's something inherently faith-based about our country.

Prothero refuses to let liberals or conservatives win the day - he points out that a good history on the topic requires balancing the multireligious character of our country with the demographic predominance of Christians in our national landscape. The argument is much more compelling (and not at all circular) than those in some other books on the subject I've tried to read. He also touches on so many other interesting issues -- like the fact that early American churches were much more focused on God than Jesus, and how the image of Jesus became this pop culture icon to the point that people sell WWJD items of all types and say things like "Christ on a bike."

I haven't finished it yet, but so far I highly recommend this as a good read for anyone interested in American history, religion, or the politics of faith.

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