A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Book Review

god bless america cover

God Bless America

Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States

by Karen Stollznow

Pitchstone Publishing 2013

A search of Amazon.com for "god bless america" yields over 18,000 results. Add "stollznow" to the search and Karen Stollznow's new book rises to the top of the page. The author has selected a title and topic that strikes a resonant chord with many Americans and which raises eyebrows in more progressive parts of the world. I measure progress in civilization by the waning of religious fervor. In the U.S. only about 35% of adults consider religion unimportant in their daily lives. In Denmark and Sweden, the figure is 80%. The Gallup folks couldn't find anybody in Niger or Bangladesh who was willing to say that religion isn't important in his or her daily life. I suppose it could be worse in the U.S. We could all be made to follow one religion.

Two features that characterized this nation when it was born are still dominant: a hatred of taxes and a love of religion. These aren't the only features that distinguish our 237-year-old body politic, but they keep showing themselves like facial tumors, demanding our attention whether we like it or not. It was clear that the Founders did not want to establish a Church of America to replace the Church of England. Many of the groups who ventured west from Europe to set up shop in the colonies were seeking to get away from religious persecution. As Stollznow notes, that is not the same thing as being religiously tolerant. The colonists persecuted one another from north to south, east to west. In the beginning, there were only a handful of religions in this country. Now there are over 300. Stollsznow had to be selective in her choice of what "strange and unusual religious practices" she would cover or her book would have been unmanageably large and of interest to a few scholars but probably not of much interest to the general public. As religious as Americans are, we seem very uninterested in other people's religious beliefs and practices except insofar as they conflict with our own.

I don't know how Stollznow decided to cover the groups she selected, but one guiding criterion seems to have been the ability to get inside, if not to attend an actual service, then at least to talk directly to a practitioner to get an insider's view. These first-hand accounts are what sets Stollznow's book apart. As with her work on hauntings, she goes out into the field and investigates first-hand what she reports on.

She begins with the Mormons and some of their weirdest and criminal offshoots. She provides a nice history of the Amish and the Mennonites, as well as a detailed look into some of their "modern" practices like vaccinating cattle but not children. The charismatics and pentacostals get an entire chapter, entertaining for those who like to watch people dribble all over themselves in ecstatic reverie while babbling in tongues, waxing wildly poetic over miracles and prophecies, and generally working themselves into a lather over 2,000-year-old stories. Voodoo gets its own chapter, as does Scientology. Is Scientology a religion? This question, too, is part of U.S. history. Our Constitution forbids Congress from making laws "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." When the First Amendment was written, there was little if any discussion over what constitutes a religion. Things have changed. In America, something's a religion if the Supreme Court or the Internal Revenue Service says it is. The IRS gets a say here because we give tax-exempt status to religious groups and the IRS gives tax-exempt status to the Church of Scientology. If we were a progressive nation, we would not give tax-exempt status to churches or religions. Some other countries--Germany and France for example--do not recognize Scientology as a religion.

Satan gets two chapters, one for those who make a living out of exorcising demons, entities, and other spiritual flotsam; and the other for so-called Satanism. Readers looking for the sex in religion should jump right to chapter 6 "Sympathy for the Devil - Satanism." This chapter has more sex in it than the Bible does. Keep both away from the children.

If you counted every New Age fad as a religious cult, there'd be more than 300, I'm sure. I didn't count how many of these diverse beliefs and practices Stollznow covers in her chapter on these fine people seeking to maximize their potential and materialize their dream reality by the power of thought and will. She devotes at least a sentence or two to many dozens in this incoherent hodgepodge we call New Age spirituality. After the noisy cacophony of the New Agers, comes the quiet, not-always-peaceful, Quakers, perhaps the least superstitious of the religions she covers. I knew that Richard Nixon was a Quaker, but I did not know that the Quakers have nothing to do with Quaker Oats or Quaker State Motor Oil. Oh, and Satanists don't eat babies.

more book reviews by R. T. Carroll

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