From 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' to "I Have a Dream"
God and Race in American Politics: A Short History
by Mark Noll
Princeton University Press (2008)
232 pages, $22.95
American political history is marked by four great transformative periods, says American religious historian Mark Noll in his new book, God and Race in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton University Press). And in three of the four periods, "potent combinations of race and religion were the engines that drove political change."
The three periods when race and religion worked together so powerfully were (1) the decades leading up to the Civil War (1830-60), when slavery came to overwhelm all other issues on the political landscape; (2) the years after the Civil War (1865-1900), "when the nation gave up on the project of equal rights for all and left African Americans unprotected"; and (3) the recent past (from the 1950s on), "when the battle for civil rights was finally won … with ironic consequences."
So what was the exception? The 1930s, when the economic forces that flowed from the Great Depression radically altered the American political landscape with little reference to race and religion.
You may already know about the Abolitionist movement and great Christian activists like Charles Finney and Harriet Beecher Stowe. You may already know about the Reconstruction period and the efforts to resist the new legal realities through repressive Jim Crow laws. You already know about Martin Luther King Jr., and perhaps you can even recite whole paragraphs from his "I Have a Dream" speech.
But until you read Noll's new book, you probably won't be aware of the degree to which the combustive combination of race and religion drove the major political currents ...