God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States by Karen Stollznow (2013)

A very well written book about a fascinating topic: or rather, a variety of topics with an important underlying theme.  Since I have done a good bit of reading on the various topics myself, I didn’t expect all that much that was new.  I’m delighted to find that I was wrong.  The Australian transplant to America has a keen eye for the details we might have taken for granted.

The “strange and unusual” religions covered are Fundamentalist Mormons (i.e., polygamists), Anabaptists (Amish and Mennonites), charismatic and pentecostal Christians, “Hoodoo, Voodoo and Juju” (Afro-Caribbean), Exorcism, Satanism, Scientology, New Age Spirituality, and Quakers.  The reasons for choosing these and not others may be a little obscure until you get to the chapter on Quakers.

Because the underlying theme is that all this is really unnecessary, and often harmful.  By the time we get to the Quakers, we see that they may or may not be dangerous, but then are they even religions at all?  And if so, do they serve any positive purpose?

As a member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, I was of course most at home in the chapter on the Quakers, and so lulled into the very state of mind the author clearly intended:  at what point are organizations such as ours, or the Society of Friends, really religion at all?  Perhaps it is only the IRS that cares.

That religion can cause great harm, even horrible deaths, is well documented here.  And those sensational stories are indeed entertaining, not to mention inspiring to those of us who would fight the legal and social battles necessary to end the abuses.  But a lot of it is really about the fact that these abuses, because they hide behind the First Amendment freedom of religion we all enjoy, can go undetected and unreported for too many people for far too long.  Still, it is well-established law that religion does not confer a right to break the law.

I’ve done a lot of reading, and more than a little experimenting, with a variety of religions, traditional and non-traditional.  I used to live in Pennsylvania Dutch country where Amish were part of the culture.  My mother was a pretty fundamentalist Christian, although I don’t think she ever spoke in tongues.  Plenty of the people I knew and loved in California were involved in many of the stranger beliefs and practices discussed here.  And I almost joined a Quaker meeting when I lived in Philadelphia and was involved in the anti-war movement in the late 1960s.  So I know a lot of what she reports is true even without reviewing the extensive references at the end of the book.

I would recommend this book to anyone for whom religion in America is a topic of interest.  And especially for all freethinkers of any type.

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.