The Common Good

In the Stacks, October 9, 2012

Among my must reads are the Sunday New York Times Book Review and other book reviews I come across in various media outlets. There are too many books being published that I would love to read, but just don’t have the time. So, I rely on reading book reviews as one way of keeping in touch with what’s being written. 

Photo by Tischenko Irina/Shutterstock.com
Photo by Tischenko Irina/Shutterstock.com

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Here are my picks of this week’s books.

The Obama White House and the Supreme Court

By Jeffrey Toobin, reviewed by Garrett Epps

Jeffrey Toobin examines the ideological battles between President Obama and the Supreme Court.

In “The Oath,” Jeffrey Toobin recounts the last four years of the court as a duel between the chief justice and the president. As Toobin notes, they make near-­perfect antagonists: “Both were products of Chicago and its environs, and both were graduates of Harvard Law School. Both even served on the Harvard Law Review, the student-run scholarly magazine.” Needless to say, their political philosophies differ. Toobin calls Roberts an “apostle of change,” seeking to move the law dramatically to the right, and Obama a “conservative” who wants the courts to leave politics alone.

Our Divided Political Heart

By E. J. Dionne Jr.,  reviewed by Geoffrey Kabaservice

The tension between individualism and community as an enduring theme in American history.

The topic Dionne has set for himself in “Our Divided Political Heart” seems to be something like this: “Pundits predicted that Barack Obama’s 2008 election would trigger a new cycle of progressivism and prosperity, yet instead it has brought political gridlock, Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street protests, and continued public unhappiness. Discuss.” Dionne offers familiar explanations, including the severity of the financial crisis; widespread fears of national decline; Republican obstruction; and Obama’s mishandling of the economic stimulus program and health care reform. But far more ambitiously, he situates our current divisions in the full sweep of American history, going back to the founders — since, as he observes, “Americans disagree about who we are because we can’t agree about who we’ve been.”

Dionne posits that American history has always been characterized by tension between the core values of individualism and community. Americans have cherished liberty, individual opportunity and self-expression while also upholding the importance of community obligation and civic virtue. The founders referred to these values as liberalism and republicanism, and the effort to balance and reconcile them has shaped the American character.

Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism

By David R. Swartz, reviewed by Molly Worthen

Before there was a religious right, there was a religious left.

In 1968, Mark Hatfield, one of America’s most prominent evangelical politicians, wanted to abolish the draft and clandestinely wore a Eugene McCarthy pin under his lapel. A Republican senator from Oregon, Hatfield had fans in evangelical churches around the country. When organizers of the 1973 National Prayer Breakfast invited him to address Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and other conservative luminaries (the Vietnam War was a “national sin and disgrace,” he told them), he based his remarks on a text written by a renegade seminarian named Jim Wallis — a former member of Students for a Democratic Society who believed that being “pro-life” meant hating war and poverty as much as abortion.

If the historian David R. Swartz is right, Hatfield, Wallis and their supporters were not just forgettable anomalies in the inexorable rise of the Christian right. The early 1970s were not “the ­Reagan ­Revolution-in-waiting,” he contends, but an unsettled era when evangelicals’ ambivalent political impulses had not yet hardened and left-leaning activists had prospects nearly as bright as their peers on the right. Today, in the midst of Capitol Hill gridlock and the slugging matches of partisan super PACs, “Moral Minority” jogs our historical memory and challenges our imagination: not so long ago, the American political landscape was very different.

Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History

By John Fabian Witt, reviewed by Gary J. Bass

The Lincoln administration’s battleground regulations have reached far beyond American shores.

“Lincoln’s Code” is both a celebratory chronicle of American lawmaking and a gruesome record of American wartime cruelty, from William Tecumseh Sherman’s rampage through Georgia and South Carolina to the Indian wars. In an effort to make sense of what animates the “world’s only military superpower” today, Witt looks backward: “From the Revolution forward, the United States’ long history of leadership in creating the laws of war stands cheek by jowl with a destructive style of warfare.”

Witt argues that Americans have been torn between “two powerful but competing ideals”: humanitarianism, which seeks to make war less awful through gentler rules; and justice, which demands victory in a righteous cause. Americans, he writes, have seen military law not just as an obstacle to effective fighting, but also “a tool for vindicating the destiny of the nation.”

 

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