For a variety of reasons, religious issues were dominant in my books of the summer just passed, possibly because our religious heritage informs so much of our thinking about the conflicting issues of the day.
I was drawn to Against the World for the World: The Hartford Appeal and the Future of American Religion, by an article in the magazine First Things by one of its co-editors, Richard John Neuhaus. The Appeal is essentially the manifesto of January 1975, written as a series of essays by prominent theologians and lay leaders from across the ideological spectrum, intended to counter the then fashionable “secular Christianity” and “death of God” thinkers, and send out a call for theological affirmation. In so doing, it poses thirteen themes that are consistent with the sentiments of these thinkers and proceeds to counter each with reasoned rebuttal. Substantially all of these themes remain with us today in their various manifestations, and this treatment of them is every bit as relevant and controversial as it was then.
American Gospel, by Jon Meacham. This is an excellent treatment of the role of religion in the founding and history of our country, written in “user friendly” style, but heavily footnoted and referenced. At a time when we are a nation full of seekers of meaning for our country and ourselves, this book is a well-balanced explanation of how our unique experiment in liberty of conscience in tension with a religiously informed moral order came to be the miracle of exceptionalism that it is.
Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in an interview conducted in 1996 with Peter Seewald. In this book length interview, the man who is now Pope Benedict XVI comments on a wide ranging spectrum of issues confronting the world and the future of his church, as well as Christendom itself. The issues range from the problems of the Catholic Church to its many mistakes to current controversies in theology and practice to world religions to world affairs. He is very open about all of this and this is a much more candid treatment of these issues than I would have expected.
Nature and History in American Political Development, by James W. Ceaser. This may be the best overview of the development of American political philosophy from the founding to the present that I have ever read. The author, who is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a frequent contributor to several periodicals, couches his narrative in the context of the search for “foundational”, as opposed to “non-foundational” grounding in American political philosophy, and I found it to be a fascinating approach. The book is a spinoff of a lecture series and includes penetrating responses and rebuttals to Ceaser’s points by several equally qualified political scientists.