This review has been a long, long time in coming. I’ve been distracted by too many things, and I kick myself now noting that the research of the subject has itself proved to be a distraction from the project which launched it — the drafting of a novel set in a future American cold war — but in any case, I felt in September that I needed more background on the intersection of religion and politics in America, and the book has served as inspiration in some ways, frustrating as it has been in others.
Bloom’s text is not so much a survey of American religion, or a “criticism” of extant religions in America, as it is his own project of “religious criticism” in a vein comparable to literary criticism of literary texts.
The long and the short of Bloom’s view is that The American Religion is not truly Christianity of any type, but a kind of Gnostic religion that masquerades as Christianity.
… the American Religion, which is so prevalent among us, masks itself as Protestant Christianity yet has ceased to be Christian. It has kept the figure of Jesus, a very solitary and personal American Jesus, who is also the resurrected Jesus rather than the crucified Jesus or the Jesus who ascended again to the Father. I do not think that the Christian God has been retained by us, though he is invoked endlessly by our leaders, and by our flag-waving President [Bush Sr.] in particularm with especial fervor in the context of war. But this invoked force appears to be the American destiny, the God of our national faith. The most Gnostic element in the American Religion is an astonishing reversal of ancient Gnosticism: we worship the Demiurge as God, more often than not under the name of manifest Necessity. As for the alien God of the Gnostics, he has vanished, except for his fragments or sparks scattered among our few elitists of the spirit, or for his shadow in the solitary figure of the American Jesus.
On the face of it, this is a strange assertion, but the closer he looks at certain religions in America — especially the Mormons and the Southern Baptists — the more convinced I am that he is actually onto something interesting. I’m not sure that American Religion is actually as Gnostic as Bloom, a self-professed Gnostic, thinks; however, he’s certainly onto something in his assertion that some of the very essential aspects of Christianity have been gutted in the practice of religion in America. American Religion is very surely different from anything that was practiced back in Europe, and it’s also true what Bloom notes about America being not only a more fervent, but also a more successful exporter of religion than Europe.
I suppose his sympathy for, and interest in, the Mormons is understandable given Bloom’s own self-distancing from all of the various versions of The American Religion discussed in his book… but on some level, I couldn’t quite grasp what made him devote so very much of the text to the Mormons, and so very little to major movements like the Southern Baptists, African-American religion, and Californian New Age. Certainly, viewed through Bloom’s own criticism, the Mormons took on — and this is the best thing I can say about the religion — a kind of fascinating air of being not just zany, but some kind of authentic return to a theomorphic, ancient cultic style of worship. But in reality, I cannot see Mormonism as anything but outright insane, and I have to wonder whether the insanity of it was not part of the attraction for Bloom. Then again, the burgeoning numbers of the religion which he mentions time and time again, and the relationship between the Mormons and various branches of American government also seem to be his own explicit justifications, along of course with his very close interest in the “religious imagination” of Joseph Smith and other founders of Mormonism.
Still, the extended discussion of the Mormons and the very weak coverage assigned to far more interesting groups like African-American Baptists, New Agers, and even Southern Baptists are certainly the major flaws of this text, which seems more than anything like a warm-up exercise for a longer discussion by Bloom of subterranean Gnosticism in American culture in general.
The strengths of the book seem to me to be in the way Bloom takes cross-sections of American religion and philosophy and subjects them to scrutiny from a variety of angles. He’s astute enough to note not only the rising relationship between religion and politics, but the direct link from this relationship to wars, especially wars on foreign soil. One cannot help but sense an eerie, dark premonition of George W. Bush’s time, still a decade away at the time when Bloom wrote this book, when one reads a passage like this:
If Woodrow Wilson was right and [America was] intended to be a spirit among the nations of the world, then the twenty-first century will mark a full-scale return to the wars of religion.
While the text has not turned out to be as useful for my novelistic researches as I had hoped — and some use, of course, it has been, in bringing the continually swelling ranks and growing political power of the Mormons and the bewildering mess of the Southern Baptist Convention to my range of vision — I have also gained a rather significantly transformed sense of American nineteenth-century life as a kind of hotbed of wild religious diversification. This, in turn, has suggested to me many things of interest, which I had previously not taken into account, in my reading of American literature of the time. That this truly was the birthing time of Theosophy, of the Christian Scientists and the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, means a great deal. That Emerson and Transcendantalism mattered so much not just in the countryside but among the educated in the cities of America, means a great deal to the literature of the age. I daresay it even impacts upon how I read Ezra Pound, now.
In any case, if you are looking for history, you’ll find interesting tidbits such as the descriptions of Cane Ridge, but you’d be better off looking for a more grounded historical survey. If you want to know more about the American peculiarities of more mainstream European-based religions, such as Episcopalian and Catholic and Lutheran Churches, and in the American practice (or non-practice) of Judaism, you will find almost nothing about them here. If you are interested in Black Muslim, Indigenous American, and other religious, I cannot warn you away from this book more strongly.
But if you are willing to take the book for what it is, a rather curious exploration of American religion by a man with a deeply unorthodox, and rather idiosyncratic view, a man willing to make audacious pronouncements whilst engaged in the study of other audacious pronouncements, you will enjoy it, and gain a kind of peculiar set of insights which, as far off as they may well be from reality, are nonetheless quite thoroughly fascinating.