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Perseverance in the Parish?:
Religious Attitudes from a Black Catholic Perspective

by darren w. davis and donald b. pope-davis
cambridge, 198 pages, $99.99

Perseverance in the Parish? details the findings of the largest and most methodologically rigorous study of the three million African-American Catholics in the United States. Researchers Darren Davis and Donald Pope-Davis found that more than 40 percent of African-American Catholics report having had at least one negative race-related experience at their parish, such as hostility from parishioners. A majority report dissatisfaction with how the Church responds to racial issues and think that the Church does not do enough to promote vocations among black Catholics. Nevertheless, African-American Catholics who experience racism at church are no less likely to attend church or practice their faith than those who do not, and they report higher levels of creedal assent, church attendance, and spiritual engagement than white Catholics.

Davis and Pope-Davis contextualize their findings with a helpful overview of the history of Catholicism among African Americans, which includes scandals such as slavery and refusal of the sacraments at the hands of white Catholics. Scholars and faithful Catholics alike will find Perseverance in the Parish? a timely book in the present political moment.

—Audra Nakas Dugandzic is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Notre Dame.

What Are We Doing Here?
by marilynne robinson
farrar, straus and giroux, 336 pages, $27

Marilynne Robinson treats her intellectual influences just as she did an Iowa preacher in her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Gilead: with an unapologetic preference, bordering on unconditional love.

Her latest essay collection, What Are We Doing Here?, attempts to rewrite American history through the eyes of her favorite thinkers, notably theologian Jonathan Edwards. By studying Puritan thought, reclaiming democratic ideals, and reviving the humanities, Robinson believes we can rekindle the guiding light of progressive colonial thought that defined—and still defines—America. And so the matron of American liberal Protestantism turns her magisterial eloquence toward familiar topics (science, education, bipartisan politics, Calvinism, the Midwest). She aims to straighten warped interpretations of the Puritans and their legacy, which she considers “voids” in our shared memory that threaten to engulf the whole, constituting “a vast ignorance of early American history.”

Robinson’s book is largely a reevaluation of Puritanism, which, contrary to popular misconceptions, developed in England and gave birth to the founding principles she reveres: democracy, individualism, progressivism, tolerance, liberalism. But while sometimes beautiful, this fundamentally idealistic view of American politics often leads her into vague sentimentalisms, such as a hyperbolic—and much-hyped—appreciation for Barack Obama: “a philosopher, perhaps a theologian.”

Like Edwards, Robinson excels at bringing the ideal down into creation, which, both in the sciences and art, confronts man with the glory of God; her theology infuses her poetry. Yet her grand, glorious world seems, in terms of intellectual influence, narrow. Edwards blazes, leaving the rest of colonial American religion and philosophy as untended embers. While effective in her fiction, where focus is synonymous with artful attention, in history, Robinson’s Puritan-centrism is myopic. There is more to American political and religious thought.

—Hannah Niemeier is Hilton Kramer Fellow at the New Criterion.