Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century
by Mark Tooley
Bristol House, 406 pages, $27.95
Perhaps Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, has set out to provide the story of Methodism’s political engagement in the twentieth century. His thesis (which only appears in the last paragraph) is that American Methodism in 1900 was growing, confident, unified, and politically formidable, while because of its political activism, one hundred years later it was experiencing steep membership decline, disunity, and political marginalization.
Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century is less a story than a log, however; less a history than a chronicle. Instead of a cohesive narrative, it offers a cascade of events, pronouncements, and individual responses, without an appraisal of their place within the whole. The chapter on the Great Depression and the New Deal, for instance, includes in rapid sequence statements by a General Conference, two regional conferences, three meetings of bishops, four individual bishops, eight ministers, a denominational official, a professor, a conference newspaper, and the president of the United States—all in the space of six pages.
Readers should also be alerted to the absence of all but one of America’s African Methodist denominations. Are they not part of Methodism? No connections are made to the political engagement of “other mainline Protestant churches.” Is the United Methodist story unique or does it offer a lesson for the other mainline denominations?
The strength of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century lies in its treasury of statements by bishops and ministers, denominational officials and professors, regional conferences and newsletters. Drawn primarily from daily newspapers, these voices give character and resonance to the flat official pronouncements that too often shape denominational histories.
—Joseph D. Small served as director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Theology and Worship from 1989 to 2011.
The Kingdom Suffereth Violence: The Machiavelli/Erasmus/More Correspondence and Other Unpublished Documents
by Philippe Bénéton, trans. by Paul J. Archambault
St. Augustine’s Press, 304 pages, $30
This book consists largely of an imagined correspondence between Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More, and Niccolo Machiavelli. Most of the imagined material takes the form of letters (including a postmortem letter from Machiavelli to More from “Downstairs,” and a reply from More, “Upstairs” at the vestibule of Heaven, awaiting St. Peter’s summons to enter).
There are also two parts of a fictional treatise that “Machiavelli” wrote to a young disciple, sometimes explaining and sometimes refusing to explain the (deliberate) obscurities and contradictions in The Prince; an imagined addition to More’s Utopia in which “More” attacks Machiavelli’s ideas about successful rulership; and two letters that “Erasmus” wrote to a young disciple at the very end of his life about the art of writing, and, in particular, when to write clearly and when obscurely.
Bénéton is a contemporary French political theorist, but his Machiavelli is largely the Machiavelli of Leo Strauss and Harvey Mansfield, intent on freeing “statecraft” from the constraints of philosophy and morality, and perhaps a covert religious skeptic. His Erasmus, less controversially, is the Christian humanist scholar and rhetorician intent on promoting by his work a moral reform of Christendom. More, whom Bénéton considers the first European public intellectual, is painted as the complete disciple of Erasmus, but one who, unlike his “master,” became actively involved in English government and politics.
The purpose of all this fictionalization is, I suppose, to explain the ideas of these three dissimilar Renaissance humanists, or Bénéton’s ideas about them, to lay readers. To me, the book ultimately resembled a scholarly “Renaissance Fayre.” The characters dress up for their parts, but they make their declamations in a kind of pastiche that owes at least as much to contemporary concerns, and even language and idiom, as it does to the circumstances of its supposed historical setting, 1517–1536.
The book is blemished by numerous, if minor, historical errors (making Pius XII the pope who canonized Thomas More in 1935, or Jeroboam the heir and successor of King Solomon, for example), and its translation from French is marred by some strange infelicities. “Reunions” is the cognate chosen for “meetings,” and the name of Pope Julius II or Cardinal Giulio de Medici is rendered most often as “Jules,” the French form of the name, rather than “Julius.” Readers who enjoy works of historical imagination may well find this book worth their while; less so, those whose aim is to try to apprehend something of the realities of these three great figures over the gaps of time and culture that separate us from them.
—William Tighe is associate professor of history at Muhlenberg College.