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A. Mark Noll, God and Race in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008. 16.50 cloth). Pp xii + 173. ISBN 978-0-691-12536-7.


Based on a series of public lectures delivered at Princeton University in 2006, “Race, Religion, and American Politics from Nat Turner to George W. Bush,” the book approaches the interplay between religion and race as pivotal issues that have indelibly shaped American history from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement and beyond. Premised on the thesis that interfaith and interracial differences have proved the two most influential factors in the political history of the United States, the study engages race and religion as the primary moral and political dividers across different eras. Noll touches upon the complexities at play in America’s racial history from the perspective of the historian of religion, with a view to trace the imbricated dynamics of US regional and national politics. In a methodical and highly systematic manner, he sifts through a vast body of historiographical material in an effort to thematise the patterns of continuity and change to which common evangelical heritage and Calvinistic theology gave rise in American culture politics. The race-religion connection is thus observed in light of “the irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces”[i] and the engendering political stratification.

          In a comprehensive survey perusing racial and religious conflict between 1830 to present, Noll distinguishes the defining formative stages in the emergence and manifestation of the various currents of belief and political action, placing special emphasis on dominants such as popular black religions and elite religious thought. The result is an edifying panoramic vision over the perennial ingredients and modifiers of political identity responsible for the age-long history of segregation marking the relationships between African American and the white majority culture before and after the Civil Rights movement:


In other words, rather than any specific configuration of race and religion, it has been the general interweaving of race and religion, along with a discernibly religious mode of public argument, that have pervaded the nation’s political history. The religious note in American political discourse has been a source of foreign comment from before de Tocqueville to the present. It is rooted in the United States style of public discourse that continues to exert great influence, even for many who have passed far beyond the religious convictions of earlier Americans. (2)


It is the latter point Noll makes above that is of the deeper relevance, certainly the more effective at the level of eliciting US specificity. For if the proposition that religious sentiment and racial difference are ineluctably linked can be regarded as a truism of cultural identity, the notion that they should unrelentingly act in non-secular contexts, continuing to inform state discourse and political practice, congressional and presidential rhetoric alike, sheds the most light on American sensibility indeed the American political unconscious. In this sense, one of the most significant statements the book formulates is on US’s atavistic propensity for biblical legitimation, what Noll aptly describes as the “compulsion to sermonize about the duties of the citizen and the state and a frequent recourse to Scriptures for grounding or galvanizing positions” (2).

          The examination of the nexus of race, religion and politics from the vantage point of their embedded political realignments enables the author to distinguish between the core constituencies of the democratic and the Republican parties at various points in history, and provide a cogent overview of the bearing of religious denominations on variables in partisanships and political allegiances.

          Overall God and Race in American Politics contributes an enlightening historical analysis of the part played by Christian morality, racial and religious argument in American political tradition from the 1830 slave revolt of Nat Turner through Reconstruction and ‘the long Jim Crow era’, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to the ‘values voting’ of recent presidential elections. It is written with forceful yet well-balanced argument fully achieving its main objective, that of mapping out a historical-political geography of the US. It evinces a sound and consistent structure, even if at times – especially in the preliminary chapters – the descriptive mode outweighs the critical-analytical perspective. Shunning for the larger part from positioning with respect to how beneficent or pernicious, oppressive or emancipating the role of Christian doctrine in American history, the study is of the highest currency, certain to make its mark and contribute to a more profound understanding of what is configuring, with the historic victory of Barrack Obama in the in the 2008 elections, as a new paradigm in American politics. It serves as a generous, informative guide for a wide readership, finding an audience in the general public as well as culture and religion historians and political scientists.



Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca


[i] Henry Stewart Seward, “On the Irrepressible Conflict,” a speech delivered at Rochester, NY, October 25, 1858. printedbooksNew/index.cfm?textID=62727_O_5 >, 4 April 2009.



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