It is fitting as the inauguration of the first African-American president approaches that we highlight some history in a theological context. Remarkably, a newly published book helps us do this. The book is Mark Noll's God and Race in American Politics: A Short History.
Mark and I graduated together from Wheaton in 1968. He was my Resident Assistant during my senior year. I admired him then; I admire him today.
With an eye for concrete (incarnational) stories, and meticulous historical detail, Noll is above all a seer of Both-And. Or call it paradox. Or historical conundrum. There are no simple explanations of anything. If you have to have situations and people be only good or only bad, you won’t like this book.
The thesis of the book is: “Together, race and religion make up, not only the nation’s deepest and most enduring moral problem, but also its broadest and most enduring political influence” (1).
That is provocative enough. But his working out of how race and religion are interwoven is where the puzzles come. For example, “Before the Civil War, religion drove abolitionist assaults upon slavery even as it undergirded influential defenses of slavery in both the North and the South.” Not Either-Or. Both-And. Agonizingly Both-And.
Tomorrow I will tell you one of the heart-breaking stories of how this Both-And really worked in 1863.