The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken eds. Jeffrey W. Robbins and Neal Magee

Religion, like politics, is often in the hands of the translator, and when that translation is in the interest of the person instead of the prophecy, something is amiss.

The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken

Publisher: Continuum
Subtitle: The New Politics of Religion in the United States
Author: Neal Magee
Price: $19.95
Display Artist: eds. Jeffrey W. Robbins, Neal Magee
Length: 237
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0826429696
US publication date: 2008-04

When George W. Bush cited Jesus Christ as being the most influential political philosopher that he identified with in a 1999 Republican primary debate, a significant turn in media attention to religious matters took place. To question how far religion and politics has ever truly been separated in America is too much a stretch for this—or any—single book. Yet with pre-millennial blues and, subsequently, 9/11 dominating our press, the role religion plays in the US (and, by extension, the world) has been broadcast widely and loudly over the last nine years.

The sleeping giant that has awoken is, of course, religion, here focused on the Christian right and evangelical movements. Yet this collection of essays is not necessarily “for” or “against” our religious choices; most of the authors do an excellent job at playing both scholar and devil’s advocate when taking into consideration the society-at-large, and how we are meant to prosper or suffer by the politics of religion (and vice-versa). As is made out early in the text, this is not a book that has been split by the usual media coverage of religion, taking the sides of the fundamentalist factions or the burgeoning atheism movement that has grown in its wake.

In fact, Sam Harris is only mentioned once in passing, while authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens do not appear. To the contrary, documentaries like Jesus Camp and other critiques of fundamentalist fury pass unmentioned, while megachurch pastors like Joel Osteen are barely discussed. Instead we have weighty looks at consumerist capitalism and prophetic evangelicalism, the history of the Civil War, and how the theories of Jacques Lacan can accurately describe the current situation from an early childhood developmental perspective.

Using Thomas Paine’s ironic rise and fall from public grace as a steppingstone to show why democracy is a process and not a manufactured product, pressed and ready for wearing, Jeffrey W. Robbins submits an elucidating essay that considers how the democratic struggle that began with the Revolutionary War continues today. He calls to our attention that religion, like politics, is often in the hands of the translator, and when that translation is in the interest of the person instead of the prophecy, something is amiss. This sentiment is echoed throughout the pages of this collection in various forms.

Peter Goodwin Heltzel follows this idea when putting forth the idea of “prophetic evangelicalism”, citing how progressive evangelicals need to take up the arms of the race struggle in ordering a more harmonious society, something which the better members of the creed have done in the past. Using a piece of a letter by Martin Luther King Jr.—where King calls out the citizen “who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice”—Heltzel calls for evangelicals of all races to embody the latter. While it is a refreshing look at a religion that is often discussed only negatively (with the George W. connection), Heltzel himself seems to give too much credence to this faith as being the one that “really matters” in American politics.

The exploitation of Christian power becomes a standard meeting place for many of these authors, who all warn against the dangers of overusing their beliefs as territorial prowess. As Anna Mercedes writes, “Theologies asserting unyielding power too often reiterate a paradigm of violence.” Mercedes contributes one of the most heartfelt pieces here (hinted at in the title, “A Christian Politics of Vulnerability”), concluding that such a politics must “be gleaned from our gospel heritage”—that is, as cognizant of the history and presence of suffering in our world as the prosperity of a certain few.

In general, the first half of this collection looks back, while the second really feels progressive. Ben Stahlberg’s “Theocratic America?” asks one of the most important, yet often unasked questions regarding the state of American religion: “What needs critical consideration is why we tend to think of religion, in both our personal and political deliberations, as a distinct matter of individual belief or intention at all.” As he points out, this form of psychology is begotten by Christian influence.

Why do we make such a big deal over whether or not God exists? Why are atheists outcast for not believing, or do you feel an affinity toward someone who says he or she believes? Is this really an important question, considering the amount of other issues we have to contend with on our planet? If that’s our starting point in social relations—that God exists—what does that say about our moral, ethical, and political foundation as a human community?

This is where this book excels, especially between those two poles most of the media focuses on—the fundamentalists who claim that God exists, no further questions please, and the atheists (or non-theists, as one friend puts it), who correctly state that that question is irrelevant but then go on to offer absolutely no spiritual or social guidance to the confused individual.

The former take a passive stance, one probably handed down which they take at face value; the latter generally critiquing the hypocrisies of religion lucidly, yet forget what thinkers like Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith have pointed out: that people need religion at some primary, fundamental level. To abolish it is as senseless as saying that this or that particular faith is the only way.

Andrew Saldino looks at the question of faith from the viewpoint of money and trade, considering the possibility that we have reduced our entire political body to economics, much in line with Socrates. “We have taken the best element of our animal nature and unconsciously elevated it to the highest intellectual and spiritual possibility of our republic.”

He goes on to state that Americans are not only addicted to oil, but that they also crave “cheap imported merchandise in general.” The connection between the religion and the political can be summated in Karen Armstrong’s idea that it is our behavior, and not our beliefs, that truly define our religious practice. A compassionate and worldly religious philosophy would not make other nations suffer at the cost of us consuming without considering the economic consequences behind our purchases.

Rocco Gangle continues this line of thought through the theories of Spinoza, Hobbes, and Locke, pointing toward the trinity of Western religions as being the ones that have come to view God as a kind of king (or, I would propose nowadays, CEO). Our behavior toward this deity—one of passive subservience, of denoting his “otherworldly” manner—reflects our spiritual outlook and can, at our worst, further reflect how we treat the rest of the world. Gangle offers tangible steps towards a more thoughtful democracy, reminding us that what really matters in churches, synagogues, and mosques is the human bonding that occurs there, not the transcendent rituals.

Taking cues from Thoreau and asking when has “there ever been times that have not been troubled?” J. Heath Atchley provides a philosophical edge that leans on metaphysics when contemplating the space between an idea and an experience: “An idea is something to be thought, and an experience is something lived; thinking and living are not the same, or thinking is an emaciated version of living.” This, of course, ties in to Armstrong’s behavior/belief paradigm. Co-editor Neal E. Magee continues the introspective gaze by asking how our religious and political choices are today helping us in “worlding our world” (reminding one of Alan Watts’s claim that people do not inhabit the planet, but that the planet peoples).

Magee offers perhaps the most lucid essay of this bunch, precisely because it is so worldly in scope. Maybe it’s because of his privileged position of having read all the other essays in the book, making his final contribution a sort of compendium. Still, his insights are powerful, and important in the consideration of the marriage of religion and politics in America today. He cites Marx’s idea of “misrecognition” as evidence of how in our interactions with products, we misrecognize them as our “primary social relation—a relation between things—rather than one’s relations with other people.”

This trend can readily be witnessed while watching a person of any faith who holds such a strong conviction that their faith is the only way that they immediately discredit arguments or appeals from persons of other religions. When this happens, we become talking heads instead of the intelligent and compassionate creatures we are capable of being. It further reminds us that listening is much more a skill than speaking, for it listening that we hear what others say, and not only hear what we want to hear.

Magee also reminds us that a person in control of their inner life must recognize the role they are playing. He uses George W. Bush as an example. Whatever one’s feelings concerning the current president are, Magee states that he must self-identify with the role of the President of the United States in order to pull off what he does.

This is true for each of us; neuroses occur when there is a rift between who we are and who we think we are. Self-identification with the divine is a common practice in many primal societies, as well as yogic practices, where one imagines him- or herself as embodying all the attributes and qualities as the figure they have faith in. Then the distance between the divine and the human closes, and the individual literally “embodies” the divinity.

This is a challenging concept to a country whose God is often treated as a king, or CEO. Yet Magee’s call, like many others in this excellent collection, is that the realization that we are the only ones responsible for our choices, and that we cannot necessarily count on our media or political and religious leaders, is of primary concern for any of us wishing to witness a harmonious globalization of ideas and faiths. And at this point in time, that means all of us.

“‘I do not believe in it; it is just part of my culture’ effectively seems to be the predominant mode of disavowed/displaced belief characteristic of our times,” writes Slavoj Žižek in the Postface. Anyone who has ever seen the Slovene philosoher and social critic speak live, or the insightful documentary Zizek: The Reality of the Virtual, knows that this man’s great gift is oration.

Still, his writing is powerful due to the imagery it invokes in each word, like he painfully exorcises every syllable from some demonic labyrinth hidden deep in the bowels of the planet. Those bowels are always political in his eyes, when he concludes that, quoting Robert Bork, “There is an eager and growing market for depravity, and profitable industries [are] devoted to supplying it.” America’s Sleeping Giant is feeding from this depravity, and this collection of essays does an exceptional job of shining a light on some of the more hidden aspects in our culture today.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.