Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession


Where else but America do people ask: What Would Jesus Do?
What Would Jesus Drive?
What Would Jesus Eat?

"This book is for believers and non-believers alike. It is not a book about whether one should believe in Jesus, but about how Americans have believed in and portrayed him."—from the Introduction

Jesus in America is a comprehensive exploration of the vital role that the figure of Jesus has played ...

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Jesus in America

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Where else but America do people ask: What Would Jesus Do?
What Would Jesus Drive?
What Would Jesus Eat?

"This book is for believers and non-believers alike. It is not a book about whether one should believe in Jesus, but about how Americans have believed in and portrayed him."—from the Introduction

Jesus in America is a comprehensive exploration of the vital role that the figure of Jesus has played throughout American history. Written by one of our most distinguished historians, Richard Wightman Fox, this book provides a brilliant cultural history of Jesus in America from its origins to today, demonstrating how Jesus is the most influential symbolic figure in our history.

Benjamin Franklin understood Jesus as a wise man worthy of imitation. Thomas Jefferson regarded him as a moral teacher. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which occurred on Good Friday, was popularly interpreted as paralleling the crucifixion of Jesus . . . as one preacher put it, "Jesus Christ died for the world, Abraham Lincoln died for his country." Elizabeth Cady Stanton appropriated Jesus' message to champion women's rights. George W. Bush named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher—and several other GOP candidates followed suit—during the last presidential race. As we have seen in recent presidential elections, the name of Jesus is often thrust into the center of political debates, and many Americans regularly enlist Jesus, their ultimate arbiter of value, as the standard-bearer for their views and causes.

Fox shows how Jesus influenced such major turning points in American history as:

  • Columbus's voyage of discovery
  • The arrival of the English puritans and Spanish missionaries
  • The American Revolution
  • The abolition of slavery and the Civil War
  • Labor movements
  • Social and cultural revolutions of the sixties and beyond
  • The swelling tide of Christian voices in the politics and entertainment of today

Fox gives an expert, lively account of all the ways that Jesus is portrayed and understood in American culture. Extensively illustrated with images representing the multitude of American views of Jesus, Jesus in America reveals how fully and deeply Jesus is ingrained in the American experience.

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Editorial Reviews

Robert Orsi
“An elegant and powerful history by one of the great scholars of American culture, deeply researched and deeply felt.”
Edwin S. Gaustad
“Utilizing a unique angle of vision, Richard Fox has presented a highly personal, highly competent portrait of American religion.”
Leigh E. Schmidt
“Fox delivers a grand history of the multiple incarnations of Jesus in American culture.”
“Entertaining, well-researched, and compelling ... Run out and buy this book.”
New Republic
“An extrordinary blend of historical sophistication, theological discrimination and and fluent in the complexities of religious life.”
From The Critics
An extrordinary blend of historical sophistication, theological discrimination and spiritual understanding ... rich and fluent in the complexities of religious life.
Publishers Weekly
Jesus has been an astonishingly mutable figure in American culture, lauded by presidents from Thomas Jefferson to George W. Bush, pressed into service by both abolitionists and slaveholders and marketed by Broadway producers and T-shirt makers. USC professor Fox undertakes the daunting task of telling a roughly chronological story of how Jesus or the many versions of Jesus has animated American life from the days of Cotton Mather to the days of Mel Gibson. Precisely because of Jesus' evergreen popularity, some readers may find Fox's book an inviting entr e to the personalities and controversies that have shaped Christianity in America. Fox's scholarship is dependable, and he does a fine job of distilling the essence of figures ranging from Jonathan Edwards to Aimee Semple McPherson. But Fox's net is so broadly cast that the book ends up contributing little to a story that has been exceedingly well told, and more persuasively interpreted, by historians like Mark Noll (America's God). This book will undoubtedly be compared to, and confused with, Stephen Prothero's American Jesus, but the text lacks Prothero's deftness with historical sources and his interpretive boldness there is little here to challenge historians' conventional wisdom or mainstream readers' assumptions. Nor does Fox, unlike Prothero, give much attention to non-Christian encounters with Jesus. But Fox still does a very serviceable job of explaining why pollsters say Americans rank Jesus as the "thirteenth greatest American of all time." (Feb. 17) Forecast: With the release of Mel Gibson's movie The Passion scheduled for Ash Wednesday (February 25), this book is poised to hit bookstores at a time when Jesus will be fodder for many a dinner conversation. First print run: 40,000. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Two scholars of American religious culture-and former colleagues at Boston University-Fox and Stephen Prothero have long been interested in exploring the same topic. This current volume and Prothero's American Jesus are the very successful results of their co-inquiry and are harbingers of a new century of religious openness. They've been so successful that U.S. News & World Report reviewed their books, along with Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, in the December 22, 2003, cover story. And with good reason. Fox's exciting book complements Prothero's by filling in the theological gap left by Prothero's more easily read discussion of popular art, music, literature, and film. Fox fleshes out questions Prothero's book may have raised in readers' minds, discussing topics ranging from the conversions of Native Americans by "highfalutin hairsplitting Puritans" to Mel Gibson's forthcoming controversial film The Passion of Christ. Fox, who has taught American intellectual and cultural history at Yale, Reed, Boston University, and the University of Southern California, has written a fresh history that will likely be influential for years to come. Highly recommended.-Gary P. Gillum, Brigham Young Univ., Provo, UT Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060628741
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/3/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 528
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Wightman Fox, Ph.D., has taught American intellectual and cultural history, with an emphasis on religion, at Yale, Reed, and Boston University. He recently returned home to Los Angeles to a prestigious teaching position in the history department of the University of Southern California. He is the author of Trials of Intimacy and Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Fruit of Thy Womb 1
1 The Name of Jesus Christ Has Been Spoken (Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries) 29
2 I Was a Christless Creature (Seventeenth Century) 69
3 Brimful of a Sweet Feeling Within (Eighteenth Century) 111
4 When Shall I See Jesus? (Early Nineteenth Century) 159
5 The Real Presence of Distress (Mid-Nineteenth Century) 201
6 He Tells Me I Am His Own (Late Nineteenth Century) 251
7 Jesus Was Certainly Not a Christian (Early Twentieth Century) 307
8 For All You Care, This Wine Could Be My Blood (Late Twentieth Century) 351
Epilogue: Just Tell the Love of Jesus 405
Notes 413
Acknowledgments 465
Index 469
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First Chapter

Jesus in America
Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession

Chapter One

The Name of Jesus Christ Has Been Spoken

Jesus of Nazareth came into the world around the year 4 BCE, and word of him reached what Europeans called the "New World" fifteen hundred years later. But how did Jesus enter that world, and what kind of Jesus was he? He arrived in the minds, prayer books, and Bibles, on the crosses, holy cards, and rosaries, of European traders, explorers, and adventurers at the end of the fifteenth century. Spanish Catholic missionaries and settlers took him into Florida, New Mexico, and other parts of the Americas in the sixteenth century. In the early seventeenth century, French Catholics and English Protestants brought him to their settlements along the St. Lawrence River and the Atlantic seaboard. If we limit our attention to these Europeans, we immediately note the gap between Catholic and Protestant Christs. The Catholic Jesus was visible, material, and portable. Packed wooden ships carried sculptures, paintings, and crucifixes in their holds, along with other necessities. Jesus was represented in those religious objects and embodied physically in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. Images showed him embedded in his Holy Family -- Mary and Joseph -- and surrounded by the saints (see figs. 1–3). He was the fleshy, wounded, bleeding, suffering Son of God whose sacrificial life was the model for each Christian's pilgrimage through the human vale of tears.

The early New England Protestants, like the Calvinists on the Continent, were in full rebellion against this Catholic love of "externals" -- all the trinkets and visible symbols of faith. For them Jesus was present mainly in the Word read and preached, not in the sacrament shared. They banished images of Jesus not to downplay his importance but to respect his divinity. They kept him under his transcendent Father's wing, safe from idolatrous manipulation by human admirers. Like the Catholics, these Protestants centered their theology upon his redemptive sacrifice and his union with the Father and Holy Ghost in the Trinity. They felt his invisible spirit blow through their inmost hearts but were dismayed at the Catholic contemplation of his body and horrified at the Catholic consumption of his flesh. They thought Catholics were too complacent about their natural, unaided ability to imitate Christ's virtue, too liable to reduce faith to the pursuit of good works. Catholics, meanwhile, thought the Protestants had lost direct historic touch with Jesus by breaking the line of apostolic succession in the church he founded. By elevating the Bible over church tradition and the individual conscience over ecclesiastical authority, they had severed contact with the incarnate Christ. For all the Protestants' talk about finding Jesus in their hearts, they diminished his humanity by neglecting his pierced body. Spiritualizing him to safeguard his purity, they gave up the daily bread of his succor.

The Catholic-Protestant split in theology and piety has remained the central fault line in American incarnations of Jesus ever since the seventeenth century. Yet the basic divergence between seventeenth-century Catholics and New England Puritans did not prevent them from finding common ground on some of Christ's cultural meanings. If we focus on the two groups' interactions with Native Americans, some intriguing convergences come into view. Spanish and French Catholics and English Protestants all saw Christ as a gift they could bestow upon the Indians. All of the Europeans thought Jesus stood for and effected salvation from sin. The Catholics took him, in addition, as an agent of deliverance from a primitive social outlook. In their view he was both the incarnate God who transcended culture -- who lifted faithful human beings into a placeless eternity of souls -- and an agent of cultural progress. Jesus helped Catholics and Protestants alike to justify their American overtures. Both groups could see their American adventures as part of God's plan to liberate native souls from the devil's chains. Catholics went further and identified Jesus explicitly with the campaign to alter Indian social behavior. Yet it is an error to view the early American Jesus as primarily a servant of European imperial expansion. Surely many statesmen, explorers, and even clergymen would happily have confined him to that role. But Jesus was not so easily contained. As a symbol of everlasting love he occasionally offered resistance to the barbarities committed by Europeans in their practice of civilization. Christians in America as in Europe sometimes rose up to challenge worldliness, exploitation, and cruelty.

In their meetings with the Indians, the Europeans all settled on two basic identities for Jesus. He was the healer and the martyr. The Catholics in New Spain and New France added a third identity: the civilizer who combated dissolute habits. He taught the Indians to see those habits as offenses against God. Puritans resisted this civilizing use of Jesus. It made Jesus too cultural, too instrumental, too easy and undemanding a gift. Catholics gave Jesus away in their Eucharist with too few strings attached. He had to be held in reserve until Indians could actually read and experience his Word. But the Puritans joined the Catholics in preaching Christ's healing powers and his selfless martyrdom. Christ allowed Europeans and Indians alike to greet their own earthly end with equanimity. For the Catholics a select cohort of gifted souls could move beyond the usual achievement of Christian virtue to a direct imitation of Jesus, in which they could anticipate a suffering, perhaps even a martyrdom, like his.

Newly arrived Europeans wanted things from Native Americans, and the Indians they met wanted things from them. Europeans wanted to know where the furs, gold, and silver were. They wanted land and food. They wanted knowledge of topography and waterways. Indians wanted iron goods and weapons, clothes and tobacco, barrels of peas and beans, and novel objects of all kinds, including brass crosses and porcelain rosary beads. Sometimes both parties wanted the same things, like land, although Europeans and Indians had very different conceptions of what it meant to "own" land. The biggest difference between the two sides may have been that only the Europeans had something they urgently wished the Indians to want: their religion. The Europeans wanted Jesus ultimately to be everyone's exclusive savior. For some of them Jesus was the inspiration and justification for their entire enterprise, the symbolic junction of their worldly and otherworldly commitments. These pious newcomers wanted Indians to know him and love him because they could not imagine living or dying without him. They believed that his ultimate sacrifice on the cross had changed human history, reopened the gates of heaven, and allowed men and women to transcend sinful passion and consecrate themselves to God's service.

Jesus in America
Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession
. Copyright © by Richard Fox. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2004

    Jesus as Legacy

    As animated as it is informative, Jesus in America does a fine job of following this figure and his progress as a part of the American psyche. There's a lot of history in here, but it serves well to remind of just how much this man (or God) has shaped the creation and proceedings of our country. If you are a follower of Christ or not, I think it's still good to know a little more about the figure who a supposed 80% of our nation claims as 'Savior.' This book is a good place to start.

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