Synopses & Reviews
When Pope Francis recently answered andldquo;Who am I to judge?andrdquo; when asked about homosexuality, he ushered in a new era for the Catholic church. A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for a pope to express tolerance for homosexuality. Yet shifts of this kind are actually common in the history of Christian groups. Within the United States, Christian leaders have regularly revised their teachings to match the beliefs and opinions gaining support among their members and larger society.
Mark A. Smith provocatively argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is. In fact, in the long run, religion is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them. Smith makes his case by charting five contentious issues in Americaandrsquo;s history: slavery, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, and womenandrsquo;s rights. For each, he shows how the political views of even the most conservative Christians evolved in the same direction as the rest of societyandmdash;perhaps not as swiftly, but always on the same arc. During periods of cultural transition, Christian leaders do resist prevailing values and behaviors, but those same leaders inevitably acquiesceandmdash;often by reinterpreting the Bibleandmdash;if their positions become no longer tenable. Secular ideas and influences thereby shape the ways Christians read and interpret their scriptures.
So powerful are the cultural and societal norms surrounding us that Christians in America today hold more in common morally and politically with their atheist neighbors than with the Christians of earlier centuries. In fact, the strongest predictors of peopleandrsquo;s moral beliefs are not their religious commitments or lack thereof but rather when and where they were born. A thoroughly researched and ultimately hopeful book on the prospects for political harmony, Secular Faith demonstrates how, over the long run, boundaries of secular and religious cultures converge.
andldquo;A beautifully written and richly substantive book that convincingly explodes conventional wisdom. On an array of issues, from slavery to divorce, homosexuality, and womenandrsquo;s rights, Smithandrsquo;s exhaustive research clearly shows that the doctrines of Americaandrsquo;s major religious traditions have shifted to conform with contemporary societal norms. Readers will learn much from this bookandmdash;even those who already consider themselves familiar with one or more of the issues it explores.andrdquo;
andquot;Far from holding fast to traditions and principles, religion, like everything else, changes to meet the times. Smith adds to our understanding of Americaand#39;s presumed culture wars by showing how often this has happened in our history.andquot;
Most people believe that large corporations wield enormous political power when they lobby for policies as a cohesive bloc. With this controversial book, Mark A. Smith sets conventional wisdom on its head. In a systematic analysis of postwar lawmaking, Smith reveals that business loses in legislative battles unless it has public backing. This surprising conclusion holds because the types of issues that lead businesses to band together—such as tax rates, air pollution, and product liability—also receive the most media attention. The ensuing debates give citizens the information they need to hold their representatives accountable and make elections a choice between contrasting policy programs.
Rather than succumbing to corporate America, Smith argues, representatives paradoxically become more responsive to their constituents when facing a united corporate front. Corporations gain the most influence over legislation when they work with organizations such as think tanks to shape Americans' beliefs about what government should and should not do.
One of the unquestioned assumptions of the culture wars gripping our country is the gulf between the social and moral values of each side. And since those valuesand#151;on at least one sideand#151;are often rooted in religious beliefs and doctrines, the chances of finding lasting common ground are thought to be slim. Mark A. Smithand#8217;s timely book provocatively takes a contrary view: religion is not nearly the unchanging, conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is. In fact, in the long run, religion is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them. To make his case, Smith explores five contentious issues in Americaand#8217;s history:and#160; slavery, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, and womenand#8217;s rights. In every instance he shows how the political views of even very conservative Christians have evolved in the same direction as the rest of society. Over time, the doctrines and policies of Americaand#8217;s Christian religious traditions shift to conform to contemporary societal norms and culture. He also uncovers the various coping strategies Americaand#8217;s churches and clergy have adopted when their doctrines are no longer in step with the views of their congregations. While it is true that during periods of cultural transition religious leaders often will resist prevailing values and behaviors, those same leaders just as often acquiesce once their positions become no longer tenable. And when they do, secular ideas and influences often shape how they revise their biblical interpretations. Ultimately, the strongest predictors of peopleand#8217;s moral beliefs are not their religious convictions, or lack of them, but rather when and where they were born. Christians in America today hold more in common morally and politically with their atheist neighbors than with the Christians of earlier centuries.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 223-235) and index.
About the Author
Mark A. Smith is professor of political science and adjunct professor of comparative religions at the University of Washington. He is the author of two books: The Right Talk: How Conservatives Transformed the Great Society into the Economic Society and American Business and Political Power: Public Opinion, Elections, and Democracy.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160; Strategies of Adaptation
Chapter 2and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160; Slavery
Chapter 3and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160; Divorce
Chapter 4and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160; Homosexuality
Chapter 5and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160; Abortion
Chapter 6and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160; Womenandrsquo;s Rights
Chapter 7and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160; Religion, Politics, and Morality