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Posts Tagged ‘civil religion and the literary imaginations’

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Jonathan Edwards and Civil Religion

Carole Lynn Stewart, Strange Jeremiahs: Civil Religion and the Literary Imaginations of Jonathan Edwards, Herman Melville, and W. E. B. Du Bois, Religions of the Americas (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010)

This is a book about civil religion that uses Edwards to promote more democratic and inclusive forms of American public life. All three of its “strange Jeremiahs” (Edwards, Melville, and Du Bois) are viewed as masters of the prophetic art of “jeremiadic” speech, speech that calls its listeners out of sin—in the manner of the ancient Hebrew prophet, Jeremiah–to new and liberating beginnings. Edwards employed this art to call his listeners publicly to conversion, preparing a way, according to Stewart, for the American Revolution. Melville used it to question the culture and language of optimism in a youthful nation that had yet to rid itself of the evils of slavery. And Du Bois used it to call America upward after a bloody Civil War and Reconstruction, redeeming the promise of his nation as a people shaped by a longing for revolutionary democracy.

Stewart interprets Edwards himself in view of these larger cultural ends and with the help of Hannah Arendt and Du Bois, in particular. “For Edwards, she writes, “the enjoyment and glorification of God were the first and last ends of the human being. Through such glorification,” however, “the plural diversity rooted in original sin could reveal the beauty and inclusive nature of human community.” Thus her “chapters on Edwards are an extended discussion of how he bases the formation of a ‘secular’ heterogeneous community on the acknowledgment of a revealed God of transcendence” (20).

As this quotation indicates, Stewart abstracts from Edwards’ work for her own, more secular public purposes, making Edwards speak the civil religion she hopes can breathe new life, once again, into pluralistic America. Specialists in Edwards will not discover a great deal here that is helpful to their work. But those who seek to retrieve a usable Edwards for late-modern America will find in Stewart a thoughtful, hopeful, generous interlocutor.

If I could make but one change to Stewart’s overall analysis, I would include the work of Edward Blum in her treatment of Du Bois as a strange Jeremiah (full as it is of hope regarding Du Bois’ prophetic religiosity). Still, I highly recommended this book for graduate students and others who are interested in the roles that civil religion might yet play in the formation of an American national culture and identity that celebrates the pluribus in its unum.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS