Robin Dale Jacobson Co-edits "Faith and Race in American Political Life"

May 5, 2012

A revealing look at how faith and race define and recreate U.S. politics

TACOMA, Wash. – It was a potent moment in Americans’ lives when in 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama was “accused” of being a Muslim. One of only a handful of African Americans ever to run for U.S. president was on the stage, and suddenly it was not his race, but his faith, that was riling the nerves of some Americans and causing a media firestorm.

It was a moment, says the new book Faith and Race in American Political Life (University of Virginia Press, February 2012), that “pulled back the curtain on a complex drama about faith and race in American political life that has not been well understood.” Faith and race, the book argues, are not such separate elements as many like to think.

Faith and Race in American Political Life, co-edited by Robin Dale Jacobson, assistant professor of politics and government at University of Puget Sound, and Nancy D. Wadsworth, assistant professor of political science at University of Denver, addresses this important gap in our understanding of ourselves and our politics. Including essays from scholars in an array of disciplines, it probes the intertwining of race and faith, and the impact this has on America’s foundational moments, on the country’s political behavior, and on American public opinion.

The book’s insights are often striking. In the case of Obama, the editors point out, the erroneous claim that he is Muslim can in part be explained by the historical reality that the dominant American religion, Protestant Christianity, “was, from the start, partnered with the dominant racial category, whiteness.”

Yet many Americans remain blind to this fusing of a preferred religion with a preferred race. This works to their benefit. “Both whiteness and Christianity have drawn their political power partly from their invisibility to those who most benefit from the privileges accorded to them,” the editors write. Nonwhites, they say, “are named as different, marked as other and therefore inferior, often through the vehicle of religious ideology.”

The book’s 16 authors walk the reader through matters such as America’s Constitution, Quakerism, Jewish immigration, debates over the Confederate battle flag, Latino religion, the Christian political right wing, the nation of Islam, South Asians in a post-9/11 world, and liberalism. The movements and issues are newly revealed in the light of deeply meshed perceptions of race and faith.

“This volume exhibits remarkable breadth and diversity of subjects, methodologies, and conclusions, as well as a broad perspective on racial politics that moves well beyond the binaries (white-black, sacred-secular, liberal-conservative) that have typically framed discussions of this sort,” wrote Darren Dochuk, associate professor of history at Purdue University and author of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.

As co-editors Jacobson and Wadsworth sum up, “Racial politics cannot be understood apart from their religious dimensions and roots.” They see this book as the start of a scholarly pathway that aims to clarify our understanding of events, people, and ideas by analyzing these in the context of the “intersection” of race and religion. Without this broader context, power and identity can be misunderstood. With it, we stand to gain valuable insights into our hierarchies, political institutions, and behavior.

Robin Dale Jacobson, assistant professor of politics and government at University of Puget Sound, is the author of The New Nativism: Proposition 187 and the Debate Over Immigration.
Nancy D. Wadsworth is assistant professor of political science at University of Denver. Her articles have appeared in Religion and PoliticsPolitical Research Quarterly, and Politics and Society.

Faith and Race in American Political Life is available on the Amazon books website.

Press photos of the book jacket can be downloaded from:
Photos on page: Top right: book jacket; Above left: Co-editor Robin Dale Jacobson. Above right: Co-editor Nancy Wadsworth.

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