Controversy over statements made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright – Barack Obama's former pastor – have shed light on the “prophetic tradition” in African American religion. Prophetic rhetoric has long been used to call the nation's racial attitudes and policies into question – not to condemn America, but to correct its path. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an exemplar of the tradition, which is reflected in both his sermons and speeches.
The University of Massachusetts Press book, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective by Bruce T. Murray, shows how prophetic rhetoric intersects with another American tradition, civil religion – a belief system that binds the nation’s deepest-held values with transcendent meaning.
“Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to ‘the judgments of the Lord,’ or King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech without reference to ‘all of God’s children?’” Murray quotes Barack Obama from Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope (a title lifted from one of Wright’s sermons.)
On close analysis, King’s (and Obama's) rhetoric falls squarely within the long tradition of civil religion, as enunciated by the nation’s founders, and further defined by Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and even pop culture figures such as Bruce Springsteen. These leaders and artists have expressed deep devotion to America – under a divine authority – while also calling the nation to account for its shortcomings.
Murray takes an in-depth look at civil religion and all of its permutations – from colonial times to the present. He also reviews the history religious diversity in America for the past 400 years – from early conflicts between Protestants and Catholics to the current state of religious pluralism. Throughout his discussion, Murray keeps a close eye on current issues, such as battles over religious symbols in the public square, recent Supreme Court decisions, the “culture wars,” and immigration.
“Bruce Murray seeks to lay out historically and conceptually the issues behind the two religious liberty clauses in the First Amendment. In doing so, he introduces and traces such significant topics as the development of religious pluralism and its ironic counterpart, civil religion. Nowhere is there such a clear and concise explanation of the issues as Murray offers in this book.”
– Philip Goff, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.
Find out more about the author here.