Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II by Mark Silk (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 192 pages)
The genius of American democracy is its ability to accommodate many peoples and many faiths without the kind of sectarian violence that still plagues Northern Ireland, Lebanon and a hundred other places around the world. Even if our history discloses episodes of bigotry and oppression toward certain religious expressions--the Catholics, for instance, and the Mormons--the fact remains that we have elected a Catholic President, and the Mormons have flourished in America. Most amazing of all, America is a spectacularly materialistic culture that believes itself to be profoundly religious: "In God We Trust" is the credo that we proclaim, appropriately enough, on our money.
Mark Silk ponders the curious phenomenon of religion in American culture in "Spiritual Politics," a brief but weighty treatise on the interplay between our religious beliefs, our politics and our conception of ourselves and our destiny. "Though Americans may have decided to forgo a national religion, they do not lack a spiritual politics; nor does this politics represent some small action taking place in a remote theater of the nation's life," Silk writes. "Whatever one thinks of it, religion remains an integral part of the American cultural system; for good or ill, it is one of the principle means by which Americans conduct their cultural business."
The touchstone of religion in the American democracy, according to Silk, is "adhesional Americanism"--that is, 'the desire for a common religious cause as well as for quasi-spiritual allegiance to the religiously impartial state." The shorthand expression of our longing to see commonalities between Protestant, Catholic and Jew, Silk points out, is the "Judeo-Christian tradition," which implies a happy convocation of believers in God who struggle side by side for social progress and spiritual growth. The durable (and, to my mind, praiseworthy) notion is still current: Jerry Falwell, Silk points out, "reached out to Catholics and Orthodox Jews for support on issues like abortion, homosexual rights and pornography." . . . "If the Judeo-Christian tradition had earlier been a witness for civil rights, it now served the cause of 'traditional values.' "
Its Own Contradictions
The very idea of "the Judeo-Christian tradition" carries its own contradictions, of course, and Silk is sensitive to the frictions between--and among--Protestants, Catholics and Jews in America. In fact, "Spiritual Politics" is at its best when Silk explains the arcane theological disputes and exquisite political gamesmanship of rival ideologies within the religious communities of America. Thus, for example, Silk gives us a fascinating account of the '50s-era schism between Archbishop Richard Cushing of Boston, an ecumenical churchman who subscribed to "adhesional Americanism," and a renegade Jesuit priest named Leonard Feeney, who took on both the church and the Harvard academic establishment in his crusade for doctrinal and intellectual purity. Cushing, of course, became the confessor to our first Catholic President; Feeney ended up as the pathetic avatar of his own cult, the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and a propagandist whose only forum was the public park.
Silk, a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution, is also a scholar with Harvard credentials, and I'm afraid that his book suffers from a kind of intellectual archness that must derive more from Harvard Yard than Peachtree Plaza.
Indeed, I could almost hear some of Silk's phrasemaking as clever, laugh-provoking repartee at a campus sherry hour or a wine-and-cheese reception for a political candidate.
Changes in Moral Norms
For example, Silk points out that the "mainline" Protestant churches have been "surrendering 'market share' " to the conservative evangelical movement, "whose practice it was to charge the establishment with selling its birthright for a mess of feminist, Third World and homosexual pottage." And, Silk cracks, while communism remains "the principal foreign bogey" in "the ecumenical cosmology of the Christian right," it is " 'secular humanism' on whose shoulders reposed responsibility for all the changes in moral norms that had come upon American society since the '60s."
But Silk is no kinder to the "Christian left," although he does not use the phrase. Silk's coldly sarcastic chapter on the late Episcopal Bishop James Pike, in contrast to his treatment of Cushing and Feeney, is a study in the deft use of language as character assassination: "A publicity hound . . . and a paradigm of postwar spiritual politics. . . . If Pike was a liberal, he was the churchiest of the breed."
Silk seems to suggest that theology is no longer the task of theologians, the debate over God and religion being now conducted in court opinions, sociological studies and political discourse. And Silk suggests that, "in the spiritual variety show of the late 20th Century," we may be witnessing the emergence of a kind of polytheism that William James "considered to have 'always been the real religion of the common people.' "
"What if no single spiritual umbrella needed to be placed over the Rajneeshees of Rajneeshpuram and the Mormons of Salt Lake, the Hasidim of Williamsburg and the fundamentalists of Lynchburg, the presidential candidate who claimed to control the weather with prayer and the 'channelers' who claimed to be in touch with prehistoric and alien beings?" Silk muses. "What if a simple polytheistic conclusion were inferred from the 'flat anarchy' which in his day Emerson decried in the country's 'ecclesiastical realms'? Would the world as Americans knew it come to an end?"