Lewis Carroll’s novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There contains a famous snippet of dialogue between a maddeningly vague Humpty Dumpty and an increasingly puzzled Alice. Humpty insists that by the word glory he means a powerful argument, and Alice counters that glory doesn’t mean that. Carroll describes what happens next:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty, “which is to be master—that is all.”
In Christian: The Politics of a Word in America, historian Matthew Bowman looks to tease out how religious groups in American history have defined, used, and even wielded the word Christian as a means of understanding themselves and pressing for their own idiosyncratic visions of genuine faith and healthy democracy. Like Humpty Dumpty, Bowman does not think there is a fixed definition of Christian to be right or wrong about. There are only different groups attempting to master the term for their own purposes.
Bowman wisely acknowledges that he is not attempting a comprehensive history of Christian or American Christianity more broadly, but rather a selective and indeed eclectic account of several distinct groups. His case studies make for an interesting ride through some familiar and forgotten terrain in American religious history. Bowman begins his narrative after the Civil War by contrasting radical feminist and provocateur Victoria Woodhall’s Christianity with that of the Radical Republicans and Ulysses S. Grant. Suffice it to say that while Woodhall and figures like Horace Greeley and Henry Ward Beecher each claimed the mantle of Christianity, their understandings of the teachings of Christ differed significantly.
Bowman’s chapters basically follow that model. Drawing from the writings of elites, he describes how a particular group, movement, or campaign claimed for itself the name of Christian; then he juxtaposes such groups with other noteworthy figures or movements who also claim to be Christian, but have wildly divergent views as to what that means. There is a chapter detailing how the Columbia University history department in the 1920s “created” Western Civilization and gave liberal Protestants assurance that their ideals supplied the true undergirding of American democracy. Another chapter details how African American professors at Howard University wrestled with the tension between their affinity for some aspects of liberal Protestantism and their commitment to a nascent Christian Afrocentrism.
Bowman highlights several important and perhaps neglected corners of the American story: intra-Catholic debates about faith and economics, Protestant concerns about cults and communism, and the three-part shift of the American religious consensus—from Protestant hegemony to sociologist Will Herberg’s “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” model to the current kaleidoscope of churches and cults, pastors and priests, establishment icons and charismatic outliers.
It is difficult to describe the overarching argument of the book, but that is primarily because there is no overarching argument. To be sure, there are some themes, such as the ubiquity of Christian as a marker and political weapon or the concept of “materialism,” another term so definitionally flexible that it has been invoked to describe racism, cults, secular humanism, and a host of other threats to American Christianity and democracy. The book is a collection of narrative gazes and sketches, painting more and less plausible pictures of groups who referred to themselves as Christians but viewed many of their neighbors’ claims to the same label as ridiculous, if not blasphemous.
To say that the book does not have an overarching argument is not to say that it lacks conviction. In the introduction, Bowman acknowledges his guiding premise by claiming that there is no orthodox understanding of what it means to be a Christian. From this vantage point, anyone claiming to be Christian has just as valid a claim to that designation as anyone else. This is why the book flits back and forth seamlessly between various and sundry “Christians,” like Billy Graham and Sun Myung Moon. Or Martin Luther King Jr. and self-proclaimed messiah and black Christian nationalist Kwame Nkrumah. Or William Jennings Bryan and the Ku Klux Klan.
Just beneath the surface, every history book operates on a certain philosophy of what it means to do history. One of Bowman’s core assumptions seems to be that contested terms necessarily indicate the absence of actual substance. Because the term Christian has been used by a variety of groups to mean different and incompatible things, Bowman writes, this malleability means that “it has no essential, normative meaning,” a conclusion he affirms by approving William James’s characterization of the debate about naturalism as aesthetic rather than substantive. On this understanding, the word secular also lacks a definite meaning.
This philosophical position is a premise of the book, not, it should be pointed out, the conclusion of any philosophical reasoning found within it. It also rests on what philosophers call a non sequitur, in that the conclusion does not follow from the premise. The fact that people differ about a contested concept is no proof that the concept lacks an essential or correct definition. It would, perhaps, be worth exploring the ramifications of this position for other concepts that people claim and define in diverse and incommensurable ways, such as Mormonism, feminism, justice, and, well, history.
This is not so much a complaint as a caution for those who would read the book. It is sometimes helpful to read about how one’s faith appears from an outside perspective, and Bowman can certainly offer that perspective. Christians—and I suppose I must clarify that I mean those with a Trinitarian, broadly orthodox understanding—will learn a great deal about American political and religious history by reading this book. But they should not expect it to capture anything close to their internal point of view—nor, for that matter, the view of any devout believer of any faith. One doesn’t have to agree with how a religious people understand themselves in order to tell their story, but it helps to know what they actually believe.
Here’s an example that shows the vulnerability of Bowman’s approach: He attributes evangelical opposition to cults primarily to racist fears about the “East” and threats to American democracy. No doubt racial bias and political concerns were and are realities any historian must consider. But it is telling that Bowman nowhere wonders if evangelicals—for whom the spread of a saving gospel is central—might also be concerned about the growth of cults because they care about the eternal destiny of their neighbors. I can have a fruitful argument with a critic who claims such concerns are peripheral covers for more fundamental motives. I’m not sure what to do with an observer who ignores entirely the most distinguishing characteristic of one of the country’s most prominent religious groups.
You Can’t Be Wrong—Unless You Think You’re Right
There is another significant consequence to Bowman’s seemingly even-handed characterization of anyone claiming the Christian label. If his framing is accurate, then no one can be wrong about the essential nature of Christianity—unless, of course, they claim to understand and embody the Christian religion correctly and exclusively. And that is what nearly everyone described in this book does.
Ironically, then, Bowman portrays American religious history as a cacophony of competing religious voices advancing irreconcilable arguments about what it means to be a Christian, but these voices are united against Bowman’s presupposition that there is nothing “there” to fight over. What seems at first to be a cool and detached approach to the religious convictions of others turns out to depend upon a highly contestable and dogmatic commitment to the essential emptiness of the word Christian—and, by extension, the belief that one can see, even if imperfectly, what it means to be a follower of Christ.
Readers will do well to follow Alice’s example and question the underlying claim to mastery in this book, even as they benefit from the many good things they can learn in its pages.
Micah Watson teaches political science at Calvin College. He is the co-author, with Justin Dyer, of C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law (Cambridge University Press).