Stephen Cox, American Christianity (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014), 258pp.
We often hear that America is a Christian nation, and in some important ways that's true. But what does that mean? In this social history, Stephen Cox, professor of literature at UC San Diego, shows how wildly divergent, complex, and unpredictable is our nation's religious landscape. It's not something that can be adequately explained by the quantitative methods of social science. That's because "the individual [and the choices they make] is the wild card in American religious history." In Cox's view, no general theory can fully capture or predict American religiosity.
How, for example, do you explain the success of a blind Fanny Crosby or an illiterate Sojourner Truth? Who would have predicted the success of Mormons, Christian Science, Jehovah's Witnesses, Aimee Semple McPherson, Harold Camping, Billy Sunday, the two Great Awakenings or modern mega-churches? How people and movements bottle the lightning without extinguishing the fire or shattering the glass, how they experience the inspiration of the Spirit and translate it into the institutions of religion, are mysteries that transcend social scientific categories.
In successive chapters Cox explores conversion and revival, the relationship between church and state in the abolition of slavery and the prohibition movement, and millenarianism (cf. the Seventh Day Adventists with 16 million members). Another chapter considers how marginal Catholics and Episcopalians became mainstream. My favorite chapters explore church architecture ("Sermons in Stone") and music ("a primary means of constructing religious experience"). Cox never condescends to his subject; it's too fascinating. American Christianity, says Cox, is a never-ending revolution of reinvention.