A Judeo-Islamic Nation: The Evolution of America’s Political Theology, by Thomas Mates (Minneapolis: Mill City Press, 2011, ISBN13 978-1-936780-76-1) 239 pp. Paper, $14.95.
Now and then a self-published book demands inclusion in Free Inquiry’s review section, even though we can’t find space to consider all the deserving works from mainstream publishers. With A Judeo-Islamic Nation, materials scientist and occasional FI contributor Thomas Mates offers an elegantly written account of America’s fevered religious history and the state of faith on today’s political scene. Drawing from a variety of academic sources, he assembles a compelling narrative that brings clarity to such questions as: Why did the First Great Awakening fizzle, while the Second enduringly changed the nation? Whatever happened to the once-zealously held (and indubitably biblical) Christian doctrine of predestination? How have conservatives convinced themselves that America is a Christian nation, when the religion Jesus preached was an ethereal creed for dwellers in the last days that made a virtue of political powerlessness?
As Mates unfolds the tale, America is far less a Christian nation than it is a Judeo-Islamic one. Of the Abrahamic religions, it is Judaism and Islam, not the passive and pacifistic Christianity, whose teachings offer blueprints for governing. (Though the Massachusetts Puritans considered themselves the truest Christians in all history, they patterned their theocratic community almost entirely after Old Testament Israel.) Indeed, Mates suggests, one reason American society secularized as it did was that Christianity was so ill-fitted to the challenge of wielding worldly power. Others have told this story, but Mates expounds it with extraordinary clarity and vigor.
In the early days of the Republic, church membership was low. Roger Finke and Rodney Stark documented this, but Mates sets it into a narrative. The biblical doctrine of predestination—which most churches of the Revolutionary era still embraced—was ill-suited to the young nation. A God who arbitrarily determined from the beginning of the world who would be saved and who would burn was far too kingly for a people who had done away with kings. And a nation with a frontier to conquer valorized grovelers before God less than hardy citizens who reshaped their surroundings with their own hands. With the Second Great Awakening, new sects arose that discarded predestination and taught the profoundly unChristian doctrine of salvation through one’s own efforts. They grew so precipitously that by the mid-nineteenth century, church membership had for the first time become part of the American norm. Mates makes the irony inescapably clear: Christianity attained its dominant social position only by jettisoning most of the teachings that had made it recognizably Christian.
Space permits me to quote just one brief summary that captures how many threads of American history Mates succeeds in tying together. “Protestantism made itself popular . . . two centuries ago by stripping God of His biblical freedom to decide our futures, and . . . became anti-intellectual in the process. Finally . . . our frontier heritage helped to make our religion especially political, moralistic, and anti-socialistic. These are understandable uses of religion but they remain gross misconstructions of Christianity” (138).
Mates is a moderate humanist, more interested in helping believers and nonbelievers live together than in atheist victories over faith. He closes with thoughtful recommendations. A few of them may have little shelf life after the 2012 presidential campaign, but most reflect real wisdom. However, I find Mates far too sanguine regarding American Muslims. He hopes that “politicized Christians” might come to see Muslim militants as “people just like themselves, save for their possession of scriptures that actually support their theocratic leanings” (214). But that’s exactly the problem: unlike Christianity, Islam is built on the expectation of temporal power. Its scriptures and traditions overflow with harsh but unquestionably pragmatic guidance for autocratic rulers. I think it’s still an open question whether truly zealous Muslims can live comfortably and peaceably in Western-style democracies.
That caveat aside, A Judeo-Islamic Nation is a lucid and sagacious book that offers a coherent alternative interpretation of America’s religio-political history. Highly recommended.