Faith, Politics, and American Culture [Review of the Books Letter to a Christian Nation, Pity and Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom, Faith and Politics: How the “Moral Values” Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together, The Compassionate Community: Ten Values to Unite America, Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement, and Believers: A Journey into Evangelical America]
[Excerpt] In January 2004, before a black church congregation in New Orleans, President George W. Bush commemorated Martin Luther King's birthday with a spirited promotion of his faith-based initiatives. Appropriating the slain Civil Rights leader's profession of faith, Bush proclaimed his ultimate purpose was to change "America one heart, one soul, one conscience at a time." He emphasized voluntary action by citizens (four times he extolled them as "the social entrepreneurs") and he consistency denigrated the role of government but for one critical function: providing "billions of dollars" to faith-based social-service groups. Proclaiming the values of the Christian Bible as a "universal handbook," the president preached — for he was in the pulpit that day — that "faith-based programs only conform to one set of rules," and do not take "inspiration ... from bureaucracy." Insisting that this policy was no threat to the Constitutional separation of church and state, Bush criticized Congress for its "fear [of] faith-based programs that interface and save lives." The task, he acknowledged, was enormous: "we're changing a culture," he exclaimed, by harnessing "the great strength of our country, which is the love of our citizens.“
The President's language that day has worried many Americans, religious or not. Bush's evangelical approach to public policy, to change (did he mean save?) hearts, souls, and consciences, and his disdain for governmental regulation in favor of a faith-guided oversight, led many to conclude that democracy's Constitutional protections had been undermined. Following Bush's re-election this concern intensified, reaching a crescendo in the months preceding the 2006 midterm elections. During that period at least twelve books appeared, written by non-academics for a popular audience, on the theme of contemporary religion and American political culture. Many received considerable attention, as the authors traveled the nation, signing books as they garnered local media coverage. These books, six of which are discussed in this essay, reveal the major contours of America's debate over religion in political life.