Religious Myths and Visions of America: How Minority Faiths Redefined America's World Role
Author: Christopher Buck
Published by Praeger Publishers, Westport CT, 2009
Review by Richard Kyle
Review published in Journal of American History, June 2011, pp. 279-280
Christopher Buck is a practicing attorney and independent scholar with a Ph.D. and a J.D. He has written several other books related to minority religions. The book's claim to originality is that it presents a novel view of America, namely, from the perspective of minority religions. Because these minority religions have modified the vision of America, the author claims that his book can be summarized in this phrase: "religions re-mythologize and re-envision America." By this he means that minority faiths have helped shape how the world perceives America.
Buck defends his thesis by selecting ten religious groups, eight of which can be regarded as minority faiths in America. The primary criterion for those chosen is that they "have something to say about America, whether positive or negative" (p. 3). Because America is not mentioned in most holy books, many religions have been left out.
Each of these selected religions defines America's global role differently. Native Americans see America as promoting "environmental ethics and ecological sustainability" throughout the world (p. 207). Protestantism promotes the original "Puritan values of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire" (p. 225). Catholicism hopes America will promote "religious liberty as a basic civil right" (ibid.). Judaism sees America promoting "unity and pluralism" (ibid.). Mormonism, which has a varied but mostly positive view of the United States, sees America focusing on "liberty and equal rights" (p. 213); this is to be done by strengthening family values.
Christian Identity has a largely negative view of America but desires it to preserve "the purity of the white race" (ibid.). The Nation of Islam also has a negative perspective of America. While this view has been modified in recent years, it rejects integration and advocates separation "from former slave-masters" (p. 214). Contemporary Islam has no uniform view of America. Th e radicals regard it as the great Satan. Progressive Islam sees no definite "world role for America" (p. 216). Buddhism desires America to bring "fundamental rights and freedoms" to people living in dictatorial regimes and thus set the "world straight" (p. 225). The Bahá'í Faith hopes America will "unify the world by leading all nations spiritually" (ibid.).
Religious Myths and Visions of America has many strengths. The author has defended his thesis with solid research. He has also made an original contribution to American studies. Even so, I have two criticisms. The first relates to style. Buck resorts to quote after quote and most are lengthy and offset. This hinders the readability of the book. The second criticism pertains to substance. The author correctly notes the Puritan impact on the Protestant view of America, namely, setting the tone. He also rightly mentions the influence of civil religion. However, he limits the impact largely to mainline Protestantism. Currently, the greatest influence of Puritanism may be on evangelical Protestantism, especially the religious Right. Evangelicals evidence a conflicting view of America. On one hand, they push American "exceptionalism" and have "sacralized" many aspects of American culture (for example, its political and economic systems). On the other hand, they lament the loss of "Christian America" largely because of the nation's permissive attitude toward sexual openness, homosexuality, and abortion.