Read with Three Other Books (Or My Reviews of All Four),
This book over all an extraodinarily balanced and vital perspective on the good of religion in American life. It puts extremist ideologies in historical context, and concludes in the final chapter that whenever religions become extremist and exclusive, as have both the extreme right Christian evangelicals in America and the radicalized Muslims around the world; they become a tyranny, and must be fought down at all costs.
This is a history book, but it is vibrant with clear and direct quotations showing how successive Presidents used religion to make important points. The books begins with an explosive characterization of liberty and democracy in relation to freedom of religion, and this sets the stage for the entire book which ends by denouncing religious extremism of any sort.
Page 16. “…the Founders understood the dangers of mixing religious passion with the ambitions of politics.”
Page 17. “If totalitarianism was the great problem of the twentieth century, then extremism is, so far, the great problem of the twenty-first.”
The author, while documenting the need for a separation of church and state, is also careful to note that a shared acceptance of public religion and religiosity in all its forms is very helpful to democracy and essential for civil domestic solidarity.
Two books that are unique and distinct from this one, that I recommend be read in addition to this book and “The End of Faith,” are The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right and Faith-Based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik The four together frame the power of religion in this century, for both good and bad.
The author is quite clear in stating that religions become a problem when their practitioners demand conversion to their own faith, or denigrate all who are not of their faith as unbelievers subject to genocide, confiscation of goods or–as the more rabid Jews taught me in college, full licenses to rape and dishonor, since “chicksas” or gentile girls are “free game.”
This book is the single best authoritative documentation for the hard fact that America was founded as a secular Nation providing for religious tolerance, and it is especially strong in pointing out that Judaism and other religions, including Islam, were present in the early years and America is NOT, per se, a Christian Nation in its founding roots.
The author documents how the Constitution and the intent of the Founders specifically forbade any religious requirements or qualification for holding public office.
On page 93 the author discusses how the Founding Father explicitly favored and sought a diversity of churches and faiths to reduce the possibility of any one faith “coming to play too large a role in politics,” (something I believe we can all see has hurt America gravely as the extremist religious right has trashed civil liberties at home and the Nation of Iraq as a whole–never mind global rendition and torture and a refusal to respect the Geneva Convention.
The author concludes that the USA and radicalized Islam are indeed on a collision course, of pluralism versus monotheism, but a careful reading of the book suggests that we must first heal ourselves internally and stamp down the extremist religious right (I am a moderate Republican who segued from Catholicism to high Episcopal to Methodist via two marriages).
The book includes ten extraordinary appendices and one excellent compilation of Presidential scripture citations up through President Eisenhower (I recommend the DVD on “Why We Fight” to better understand the pernicious effects of faith-based decisions to go to war that ignore all facts and evidence).
This is a serious book. Religion is going to be, as the author documents, a key factor in whether we prosper or implode in the 21st Century. For that reason alone, I strongly recommend all four of the books I have cited above, including this one.