Gustav Niebuhr: Beyond Tolerance

Gustav Niebuhr: Beyond ToleranceSo when, exactly, is tolerance a bad, or at the very least counterproductive, thing? Former New York Times religion writer (and current Syracuse professor) Gustav Niebuhr sets out to answer that question in Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America , a far-ranging overview of the work that’s gone on in our recent past toward fostering religious understanding and cooperation.

At some point early in our education, we’re told that the United States was founded in no small part by religious dissidents, and on the basis of religious freedom. What this manages to overlook–though Niebuhr, thankfully, does not–is that this freedom was most likely to be extended to one’s own, but not as much to those who believed and worshipped in a way that was different from the rest of the community. As with other freedoms we cherish (see last week’s reviews of Commager and Lewis on the First Amendment), our religious freedom has long been a work in progress.

Somewhere amid all this research and development, among all the intramural squabbles among the various Christianities that flourished in the new soil of the New World, and between the fits and starts of schisms within schisms, a Christian consensus of sorts started to emerge. That consensus didn’t often–well, to be honest, didn’t usually–take in other religions. Beyond Tolerance is driven by the efforts, from America’s earliest days, to rectify that error. Continue reading “Gustav Niebuhr: Beyond Tolerance”

Book Reivew: Freedom, Like it or Not

Henry Steele Commager: Freedom, Loyalty, DissentAnthony Lewis: Freedom for the Thought That We Hate With the inauguration of Barack Obama looming, and soon-to-be ex-president Bush embarking on a round of image rehabilitation and retroactive whitewashing, it seems as good a time as any to look back over the Bush legacy and look ahead–create a wishlist, if you will–to what one might hope from the Obama administration. Thousands, if not millions, of words have been written over both the past eight years, and America’s prospects for the future. While it’s true that only the passage of time will provide sufficient perspective on all that we’ve experienced since November of 2000, we still have to live in the present with the consequences of all that’s been done since.

The aftermath of the Bush presidency, for the short term, has been an evisceration of the Constitution, of our rights, and of our civil liberties. Those on the Right seem to have been concerned with the Second Amendment, but precious little else; we’ve seen the Bill of Rights otherwise consigned to the shredder. The NSA and the government’s wiretapping programs have given the lie to the Fourth Amendment; the holding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay without the right to trial, and without access even to counsel, makes a mockery of both the Fifth and Sixth Amendments; and the First Amendment–the “first freedom,” as Nat Hentoff once dubbed it–has been honored more in the breach.

It’s against this backdrop–a dismal near past, and what one would hope would be a brighter future–that we take up two books published half a century apart. The first, Henry Steele Commager’s Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent, was published at the height of McCarthy-inspired hysteria and anticommunist witch-hunts; the second, Anthony Lewis’s Freedom for the Thought We Hate, appeared just shy of two years ago. Continue reading “Book Reivew: Freedom, Like it or Not”

William Least Heat Moon’s Long and Winding “Roads”

William Least Heat-Moon: Roads To QuozWilliam Least Heat-Moon’s Roads to Quoz is subtitled “An American Mosey.” While that’s appropriate enough, it’s equally applicable to his previous offerings, Blue Highways, PrairyErth, and River Horse. And therein lies, or doesn’t lie, the problem, depending on your particular take on the author’s meanderings, and his equally peripatetic prose.

Because of that, this isn’t the kind of book that’ll have Scott Turow calling it a “Gripping page-turner!” on the dust jacket. Most books are concerned with getting you somewhere. Fiction relies on its narrative tricks and tropes to create the sense of pacing and urgency that the author hopes will lead to his book being optioned by a Hollywood studio; memoir attempts to tidily tie together its subject’s life with a cohesiveness it didn’t have when it happened the first time, sometimes for a didactic purpose, but generally because this will lead to her book being optioned by a Hollywood studio; and nonfiction concerns itself as much, it seems, with settling scores as with accuracy. What’s left tends to be more inductive than deductive or (God forbid) discursive.

But then, I’ll admit from the beginning that I’m biased. Continue reading “William Least Heat Moon’s Long and Winding “Roads””

Book Review: History Repeating?

Susan Quinn: Furious ImprovisationNick Taylor: American MadeOdds are better than even that neither Susan Quinn nor Nick Taylor thought, much less knew, that their respective books on the WPA and the Great Depression would end up being quite so topical. Inadvertently or not, though, neither Taylor’s American Made: When FDR Put The Nation to Work nor Quinn’s Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times could have been timelier.

In the latter part of last year, Wall Street posted losses the likes of which had not been seen in nearly 80 years. This has led to no small amount of talk and speculation about Depression 2.0, and whether the United States, and the world, are headed down the same long, dark road last travelled in the early 1930’s. Similarly, programs promising jobs and economic stimuli have nearly invaribly drawn comparison to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s litany of “alphabet soup” agencies–the NRA, AAA, CCC, and especially the WPA–formed to fight the poverty, joblessness, and despair that the 1929 crash left in its wake. Reams have been written trying to study, debate, and make sense of what happened, and (more recently) whether it might happen again, so neither Taylor nor Quinn are exactly covering new ground; but given the overall shape of recent events, both books are uncanny in their timing. Continue reading “Book Review: History Repeating?”