A few brief reviews on three recent and noteworthy books:
First is the Oxford Handbook of Mormonism (Oxford University Press: Terryl Givens, Philip Barlow, eds.). This 650-page volume gathers Mormon experts from across the spectrum of belief and expertise. The authors represent a wish-list: Jim Faulconer on temple and ritual, Jana Riess on popular culture, Claudia Bushman on women, Margaret Young and Darius Gray on race, Grant Hardy on the Book of Mormon, Tona Hangen on lived religion, Sam Brown and Kate Holbrook on embodiment and sexuality, and on and on. The essays are thoughtful and reasoned, and by and large aim to provide an overall academic explanation of Mormonism to outsiders. There are chapter notes, but not extensive bibliographies. There are some notable gaps in the topics, most especially pertaining to biologic science, the Book of Abraham, and politics. While not a replacement for original sources or even secondary sources, the book is an interesting and representative collection of current Mormon thought on a very broad range of issues. The primary downside is cost: $150 is an expensive book for casual readers. I believe it is worth the expense (if only on a pages-per-dollar basis); I am not aware of a similar collection of absolutely qualified authors.
Next up is One Nation, Under Gods by Peter Manseau (Little, Brown). Manseau, who curates an exhibit on religious diversity at the Smithsonian museum of American history, reviews critical phases of American history from Columbus to the 60s. But Manseau’s conceit is that behind the major religious movements of the day are many unstated and unseen religious undercurrents. John Winthrop could speak of the City on a Hill while around him were varied beliefs of the Narragansett indians and the challenging views of Anne Hutchinson; as Manseau writes, the city upon a hill “turned out to be built on a veritable volcano… from the very start filled with heterodox religious practices, idiosyncratic beliefs, and doubts about the reigning doctrinal assumptions”. The very notion of America as a Christian nation is constantly informed, undercut and redefined by outsiders and iconoclasts. Some of the stories in the book are stronger than others; his chapter on Joseph Smith attempts to tie the Mormon prophet to the Seneca visionary Handsome Lake, which is not exactly convincing or weighty as a matter of historical or doctrinal comparison. Nevertheless, the book does show that seemingly homogeneous religious movements are actually composed of individuals with diverse backgrounds, histories and agendas. American history — especially American religious history — is a narrative of intersection and continual cross-pollination, and Manseau explores this narrative with artistic flourish and a talent for humanizing people and ideas that are foreign and distant.
Lastly is We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics by Neil J. Young (Oxford University Press). Young’s book is a straightforward history of the rise (and fall, and rise, and fall, and…) of the religious right in American politics. Covering a time period from around 1970 to the present day, Young traces the genesis of Christian ecumenical political movements on key topics from school prayer to abortion and the ERA all the way to Prop 8 and the Romney presidential campaigns. Young’s work is gripping and informative. Underneath each instance of inter-religious cooperation are tremendous forces of doctrinal and cultural opposition and mistrust; evangelicals can scarcely hold their tongue long enough to work with Catholics against abortion. And nobody likes the Mormons much until they’re needed. The book shows the origins of powerful individuals such as Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Mike Huckabee, Phyllis Schafly and others as the nation’s various religious movements repeatedly are faced with the choice of testifying against each other doctrinally or uniting for common moral causes. Understandably, Young is at times unable to explain the aloofness of Mormons amidst these debates: why does the LDS Church continually show disinterest in ecumenical politics until suddenly it rises like a leviathan against the ERA or the MX Missile? Young’s depictions of LDS political views are apt and informed by a solid understanding of Mormon doctrines, though he does not adequately delve into the origins of Prop 8 (he misses, for example, the Hawaii suit, and the Proclamation on the Family is scarcely noted despite its irresistible weight in current LDS politics). The interplay between Catholics, Mormons and evangelicals is fascinating and juicy stuff. Given the decades of mistrust and open hostility between the sects, the importance of more recent work by Richard Mouw, Cardinal Francis George and a few key bridge-builders (including LDS leaders such as President Eyring) cannot be overstated. I highly recommend the book to those who look at our political bedfellows and wonder how we came to this point in history.