Religion & race: New book by Mark A. Noll helps make historical sense of this volatile topic

Historians in the News

The University of Notre Dame's Mark A. Noll is one of our leading historians of religion, specializing in the history of evangelicalism. Never dull or predictable, he has consistently presented a face of evangelicalism that I hope more of the public can meet, showing its constituencies to be far more diverse than most news-media comment suggests.

Now Noll has given us God and Race in American Politics: A Short History, a book not about the 2008 presidential election, but one that — surprisingly and profitably — tells us a lot about how we talk about God in politics, yesterday and today. As he does so often, Noll here writes serenely about volatile subjects, to inform a nation and provide perspective.

When I first began to write about religious history 50 years ago, fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and Pentecostalism were seen as fringe elements. As evangelicalism has since prospered, it has attracted first-rate scholars, many of them influential professors at first-rate universities and writers published by the most prestigious presses.

Despite its title, this book is not a broad view of race — American Indians and Asian-Americans, for instance, are not even mentioned — but only about African-Americans, who have always been on stage in the drama of race and politics. A quote from a character in the Walker Percy novel Love in the Ruins shockingly frames a question that haunts Noll's history: "Was it the nigger business from the beginning? What a bad joke: God saying, here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you're the apple of my eye. … And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child's play for you had already passed the big one. One little test: Here's a helpless man in Africa, all you have to do is not violate him. That's all.

"One little test: You flunk!"

Noll's terse history is crammed with statistical data, legislative history, references to revealing events, and more critical comment than one expects in narrative histories. There are also jolting quotations to show how both supporters and opponents of slavery and segregation turned to biblical truth to justify their opinions, increasingly forging a shared, yet still different, evangelical tradition. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln noted that both sides "read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other"; so do preachers on all "sides" in Noll's story. But how they prayed and spoke differed....

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