RELIGION IN AMERICAN PUBLIC LIFE by A. James Reichley

RELIGION IN AMERICAN PUBLIC LIFE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Reichley, a senior fellow at Brookings, here offers a laborious, detailed study of the uneasy relationship between American democracy and institutional religion. Even in an age that revels in Secular Chic (remember John Lennon's gutsy claim that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus?), over one hundred million Americans attend church each Sunday morning. But what role should spiritual beliefs play in the political arena? This question rears up repeatedly these days, thanks to hot debates over abortion, prayer in the schools, tax-exempt status for churches, liberation theology, the Moral Majority, and more allied controversies than an angel could fit on a truckload of pinheads. Before suggesting an answer to his conundrum, Reichley takes us on an informative tour of American history, pointing out the theological bedrock upon which the nation was built. From the Puritans, who wished to establish a ""Holy Community"" on the eastern seaboard, to the Mormons who sought a new Jerusalem on Great Salt Lake, religious idealists have long dominated American public life. The Revolutionary War itself was seen by many colonists as a sacred struggle, fought by the New World on behalf of the God of Liberty. This religio-political impulse continued unabated through the crusade against slavery, the apocalyptic millennialism of the 1800s, the Social Gospel, the evangelical triumph of Prohibition, and many other state-church interactions. As often as not, the First Amendment, which prohibits the ""establishment of religion,"" is hauled out by one side or another in these bitter conflicts. Reichley finds the Amendment's language to be ambiguous, and its interpretation by the Supreme Court erratic and contradictory (although often morally correct). Reichley wraps up his hefty study by presenting his own ideas about the marriage of religion and politics. Alas, he comes up with a bland prescription worthy of a high-school textbook: religion's role is ""to nurture moral values that help humanize capitalism and give direction to democracy."" A dull conclusion to a well-informed but unexceptional historical analysis.

Pub Date: Oct. 17th, 1985
ISBN: 0815773773
Publisher: Brookings Institution