Review: Strange Jeremiahs
Stewart, Carole Lynn. Strange Jeremiahs: Civil Religion and the Literary Imagination of Jonathan Edwards, Herman Melville, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010. xiv + 376 pp. ISBN 978-0-8263-4679-7.
Carole Lynn Stewart’s Strange Jeremiahs is a powerful defense of civil religion as a rhetorical and epistemic device for exploring the countering and overlapping public accounts of democracy. With clarity and depth, Stewart offers the reader a rich landscape of the origins of civil religion and its relationship to the American jeremiad. Turning to Hannah Arendt, Stewart develops the political theorist’s account of revolution as a “religious event” to explore the cultural contexts in and through which America attempted to transgress familiar political borders as it struggled to realize the ideal of democracy in general and liberty in particular.
Turning to Jonathan Edwards, Herman Melville, and W. E. B. Du Bois, Stewart relies on these “Jeremiahs” to shed light on the nature of religious rhetoric in establishing what she calls revolutionary democracy. Stewart grounds her understanding of revolutionary democracy within two major historical events: the American Revolution and the Civil War. Stewart is not so much concerned about discovering a particular moment or event to illustrate a decisive rupture from a tragic and violent past, as she is with locating conceptual spaces that reflect both the link to, and rupture from, the horrific legacy of subjugation and slavery in America. She argues that “within this space, there is the experience of a hiatus, discontinuity, an undefined temporal order in which fragments, residues, and novelties may be realized as the ne forms of freedom” (13).
In Edwards, Stewart discovers an articulation of the public self that undermined the era’s theological insistence on adhering to the covenant as a central component of salvation. For Stewart, Edwards’s focus on conversion through the Holy Spirit signifies an effort to disrupt the narrow public by expanding the range of persons with access and the ability to transform public spheres.
Stewart retrieves Melville’s writings to underscore the cultural and theological emphasis of “moral regeneration” within the Second Great Awakening. Unlike Edwards, who focused on conversion as it related to public space and the public self, the theological backdrop for Melville dictated a different approach: salvation as a private, familial affair. With Melville, “there was also a moment away from the idea of original sin as an ontologically defined theological limit, a limit in the context of public space and diversity” (149).
Du Bois emerges in the text as what Cornel West calls a “towering” figure, one in whom Stewart finds a descriptive account of, and constructive response to, the nation’s distorted understanding of itself in relation to the ideal and unrealized promises of democracy. In a rather provocative way, Stewart identifies the tension between the self and community within Du Bois writings as signifying the moment of rupture from the subjugated self to a liberated soul—or what Du Bois calls in The Souls of Black Folk “soul-life.” The insightful move by Stewart allows the reader to imagine the possibility of freedom within the bounds of the double self and the double aims of the country; i.e., liberty on the one hand, and slavery on the other.
Stewart offers a lucid account of the nature of civil religion and revolutionary democracy within the particular literary historical tradition of the jeremiad. She expands the discussion of civil religion, by emphasizing the political implications of religious conversion, the privatization of salvation, and the moral justification of slavery and subjugation. As Stewart aptly asserts, revolutionary democracy will be found in a variety of places, including the imaginations of a people placed behind the veil, where resistance created the fragments from which blacks established literary, religious, and political traditions of American democracy.