Review of God Bless America (2015)
Review: Karen Stollznow. 2013. God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States. Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing. 256 pp.
Karen Stollznow’s God Bless America is certainly true to its lengthy subtitle, Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States. From this breezily informative book readers will learn quite a bit about fundamentalist Mormonism, Amish and Mennonite Protestantism, Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity, Afro-Caribbean religions, exorcism and Satanism, Scientology, New Age spirituality, and Quakerism. It also makes some important critical points—for example, about the Amish practice of Rumspringa and the Amish ideal of forgiveness—that I shall discuss below in section 1. But the book has countless flaws—substantive, stylistic, and even grammatical—that I review in section 2. God Bless America is not in the same league as Stephen Prothero’s much more scholarly and better written God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), which has a chapter on Afro-Caribbean religion but primarily covers the better-known world religions.
Stollznow identifies several goals that she intends God Bless America to serve. First, it “attempts a sensitive but factual portrayal of these people who believe they have found ‘the truth’,” offering critical commentary when necessary (p. 11). Second, it shows that even seemingly “old-fashioned or obsolete” practices “are … still found in the United States today” (p. 11; oddly enough she calls this minor theme “the point of this book”). Third, the book discusses how insiders and outsiders view these religions (p. 13). Finally, and relatedly, it “is also about participation,” that is, about Stollznow’s personal observations of the services and activities of the relevant religions and her conversations with members (p. 13). As I will explain, I have serious doubts about her success in achieving the first goal.
1. Virtues of the Book
I am certainly in Stollznow’s debt for some of the information she provides, including intriguing tidbits that were quite surprising. For instance, I was astonished to learn that 17th-century Quaker founder George Fox and his followers used to disrupt Anglican church services in order to preach their new faith, and that “a few brazen [followers] stripped off their clothes in public to demonstrate their lack of desire for material things” (p. 210). As someone who occasionally attended Quaker meetings in New York, Texas, and Illinois from 1986 to 1992 (though without ever becoming a member), I can honestly say that this sort of behavior is about the last thing that I would expect from any sane Quaker.
Moreover, Stollznow’s disturbing discussion of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Ch. 1) is leavened with the following priceless account by former FLDS member Debbie Palmer of her head-spinning family tree:
My father has six wives and I have 47 brothers and sisters. My oldest daughter is my aunt and I am her grandmother. When I was assigned to marry my 1st husband, I became my own step-grandmother since my father was already married to two daughters of my new husband…. Several of my stepsons were assigned to marry my sisters, so I also became a sister-in-law to my own stepchildren. After my mother’s father was assigned to marry one of my second husband’s daughters as a second wife, I became my own great-grandmother. This stepdaughter became my step-grandmother and I her step-mother, so when I gave birth to two sons with her father, my own sons became my great-uncles and I was their great-great grandmother. (p. 25)
Stollznow offers some incisive criticism of the much-romanticized Amish communities in the United States. Take, for example, the tradition of Rumspringa, the so-called “running-around time” for Amish youth to decide whether or not to be baptized into the faith. It sounds admirable in principle, or at any rate much superior to infant baptism in respecting individual autonomy. But Stollznow points out:
Rumspringa releases these kids into the big bad world, naïve and unprepared. In some ways, this shock exposure is designed to drive them back to the safe bosom of the church. It is just too difficult for them to make the transition to the “English” world alone. They … have no social security number, and more conservative orders do not issue their members with [sic] birth certificates. They have no money, support system, or real-world experience. With an eighth grade education and gaps in the curriculum, they are undereducated. An Amish education only qualifies them to be Amish. (pp. 52-53)
If they do choose to leave the fold, “they are excommunicated and shunned” even by family and friends (p. 53). It would be a travesty to speak here, without serious qualification, of autonomous choice.
Another feature of Amish life for which the Amish are often admired is their capacity for forgiveness. Yet in practice, as Stollznow indicates, this often involves criminals—including child abusers and rapists—not being reported to the authorities and being allowed to resume normal life as long as they offer public repentance (pp. 54-56). “The Amish ethos protects the abuser rather [more?] than the abused” (p. 55). Even if Stollznow overstates the point, she is right that this sort of forgiveness does not merit our respect.
2. Substantive Flaws of the Book
Let me start with what I take to be fallacies, factual errors, and other questionable claims made in the book (though some of my examples might be classified instead as writing errors). Below is a partial list ordered by page number and with brief annotations:
- “[All] of these belief systems offer profound insights into the human condition” (p. 11). Stollznow does not even try to substantiate this claim in her accounts of these belief systems, let alone succeed in doing so.
- FLDS leader Warren Jeffs “was a pedophile, as he had at least twenty-four wives under the age of seventeen” (p. 30). This is a non sequitur; perhaps Stollznow does not know the meaning of the term “pedophile.” But she does go on to provide evidence that Jeffs did sexually abuse preadolescent children (p. 31).
- Compared to other Anabaptists such as the Amish, “moderate Mennonites are little more than Protestants” (p. 41). Well, no: all Anabaptists are Protestants. Perhaps she means that moderate Mennonites differ little from mainstream Protestants.
- “With some 500 million adherents worldwide, Charismatics are by no means a minority religion” (p. 67, emphasis). This is yet another apparent non sequitur.
- Since “[s]tartling cases of pedophilia, incest, and physical and sexual abuse have emerged from within several Amish communities,” Amish communities in general “are being revealed to be oppressive, abusive environments for women and children” (p. 54, emphasis added; see also p. 10). This is surely a very rash generalization, at least without further argument.
- According to Stollznow, antipsychiatry psychiatrist Thomas Szasz was a Scientologist (p. 168). But Szasz explicitly rejected Scientology, though he did work with Scientologists in setting up the Citizens Commission on Human Rights in order to fight involuntary psychiatric treatment (Australian Broadcasting Corporation interview: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/thomas-szasz-speaks-part-2-of-2/3138880).
- “Dr. Phil” (i.e., psychologist and TV-show host Dr. Philip McGraw) is described as a “spiritual leader” of New Age spirituality (p. 190). Seriously?
- “A Quaker meeting might be attended by those who identify as Buddhist, Pagan, Muslim, Jewish, Humanist, and nontheist, as much as those who see themselves as Christian. Quakerism is uniquely compatible with other beliefs and even nonbelief.” (pp. 214-215, emphasis added) Stollznow appears to be oblivious to the existence of Unitarian Universalism, and to have forgotten her own reference in the very next paragraph to “secular Judaism and nontheistic Buddhism” (p. 215).
Worthy of mention, too, are Stollznow’s debatable criticisms of liberal Quakerism:
- “There is a thin vein [veil?] of hypocrisy in [liberal Quaker] ideology and actions. Quakers promote peace, equality, and unity, yet they haven’t achieved these…. The fundamental differences [between conservative and liberal traditions] have created severe tensions between the traditions. Across the wildly conflicting beliefs and practices that exist under the Quaker label, Quakers are less like Friends and more like rivals.” (p. 225, emphasis added)
- “Liberal Quakerism operates within a religious framework, but there is little about it that is religious. Older Quakers seem to believe in something akin to God, while younger generations are reinventing Quakerism as atheism, where ‘God in everyone’ and the ‘[inner] Light’ are metaphors for humanity and human thought” (p. 225), and are interested in New Age spirituality (p. 223). “[I]f [liberal Quakerism] had more skeptical elements, [its adherents might] question some of their New Age beliefs and mystical practices out of existence.” (pp. 225-226)
- Relatedly, “Liberal Quakers…. demonstrate purpose, compassion, community, ethics, and morality, mostly without the impetus of religion and without theistic trappings…. So why have the semblance of religion?” Why not “perform their good works in the name of humanity, rather than religion”? (p. 226, emphasis added; see also p. 215)
The charge of hypocrisy in the first criticism seems to me unduly harsh, at least without further argument. A group’s failure to live up fully to its ideals, like an individual’s failure, is hardly proof of hypocrisy. Or if it is, then all ideal-based groups and all individuals are hypocritical, and liberal Quakers should not be singled out in this connection. (But in fairness to Stollznow, she does also say that Liberal Quakers “practice what they preach” about compassion, community, and morals. Whether this concession is consistent with the charge of hypocrisy is a question I will not pursue.)
I will be briefer with the other criticisms. The second one seems to treat New Age beliefs and practices as central to liberal Quakerism; but Stollznow provides no evidence for this assumption. The third criticism is based on a (theistic?) conception of religion that she scarcely troubles to articulate, much less to defend. Nor does she consider the possibility that religion and humanity work together inseparably in motivating liberal Quakers to do good works.
3. Stylistic and Other Writing Flaws
Others have noted that Stollznow’s writing style is often snarky; here’s a sample from her short account of Mormonism and polygamy: “Even God felt uncomfortable about polygamy”; he “still couldn’t make up his mind”; he was “sneaky” and “two-faced” (pp. 15-16). What readers make of this style will vary. Richard Dawkins—whose critics may see him as the King of Irreligious Snark—speaks of Stollznow’s “lively good humour” when she “parades [freakish religious] specimens and trophies for our amazement” (quoted in a back-cover blurb). Other readers, even nonreligious ones, may find (as I do) that the snarkiness eventually becomes annoying; at the very least, it undermines Stollznow’s claim to provide a “sensitive portrayal” of the groups that she examines.
Similar stylistic questions arise about Stollznow’s choice of chapter and section names, such as: “Baby You Can Drive My Car” (p. 44), “Take It With a Grain of Salt” (p. 193), “Pull a Fast One” (p. 195), “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” (p. 198), “Every Little Thing We Do Is Magic” (p. 204), and “Quaking in Your Boots” (p. 219).
What is most troubling, perhaps, is the lack of qualifying phrases when they are clearly called for. For example:
- In Rumspringa, Stollznow tells us, “[Amish] youths simply go on a few dates and play volleyball” (p. 52). Surely she means that “most” of them do, or that they “typically” do, especially since on the previous page she speaks in this context of “experiment[ation] with sex, drugs, and alcohol”? How could the author—and her editor, who seems to be missing in action throughout the book—fail to notice this apparent inconsistency?
- “[Most?] Quakers oppose war and are against the use of weapons…. Many Quaker men fought in World War I and II.” (p. 216) Again, how could Stollznow miss the apparent inconsistency here?
- “Much vocal ministry [at ‘unprogrammed’ Quaker meetings] seems to consist of ‘a funny thing happened on my way to the Quaker meeting’ style of revelations…. [Many?] Quakers are critical of this kind of ministry and say that it is not led by the spirit.” (p. 224)
- “Liberal Quakers [among others?] have shown that people can be good without God” (p. 226).
What is most surprising is the plethora of straightforward writing mistakes involving bad grammar and diction. For example, Stollznow seems to think that “increasing contact” can serve as the subject term for the modifying phrase “traditionally a closed society” (p. 40), that the transitional word “alternatively” means “moreover” (p. 55), and that “these Quakers” is parallel to “secular Judaism and nontheistic Buddhism” (p. 215). Again, it is puzzling how the editor could miss these mistakes—or how a Ph.D. in linguistics could make them.
4. Concluding Remarks
Earlier I noted that I had grave doubts about whether Stollznow achieves her goal of providing a “sensitive,” “factual,” and appropriately critical account of the religious groups that she covers in God Bless America. In section 3 I gave reason to question the sensitivity of that account, and in section 1 I provided grounds to question its factual and critical reliability. Moreover, as I indicated in section 3, Stollznow often writes poorly. This is a seriously flawed book! But it remains informative enough, interesting enough, and occasionally perceptive enough to be worth reading.
 This should come as no surprise: Prothero is an eminent professor of religion at Boston University, while Stollznow has a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of New England in Australia, is a paranormal investigator, and appears to have no formal training in the study of religion. In fairness to Stollznow, she never explicitly claims to be a religion scholar.
Copyright ©2015 by Stephen Sullivan. The electronic version is copyright ©2015 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Stephen Sullivan. All rights reserved.