The Rise of Secular Americans
By David Niose
Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pp.., $27
The rise of the Religious Right has been a disaster for this country, says David Niose, not because there’s anything wrong with being religious or conservative, but because of the effect our “descent into religious pandering” has on our politics and policy-making. In this passionate, occasionally incendiary call for a secular response to the swelling influence of Christian conservatives, Niose (president of the American Humanist Association) writes that an intense intermingling of religion and politics has “dragged down the discourse and distracted politicians and voters from rational consideration of issues that are truly important.” As an example, he points to the energy expended by the Congressional Prayer Caucus in advocating for more religion in governmental, as well as groups pushing for “the placement of plaques reading ‘In God We Trust’ in all public schools, a move that would cost millions of dollars in the midst of a budget crisis.”
Beyond such merely symbolic conflicts, Niose argues that non-religious Americans need to counter anti-intellectual tendencies he sees as hallmarks of the Religious Right. Niose is scathing on the link between religious fundamentalism and our young people’s plunging status when it comes to scientific literacy, and he paints a frightening prospect of environmental and energy policy being decided by people who feel that belief in global warming is “antibiblical” and “blasphemous.” Many secular Americans, whether atheist, agnostic, or merely non-religious, hide their lack of belief, whether because of the canard that only religion can bestow morality or because of the notion that America is a nation of believers; “this closeted secularity,” Niose writes, “only serves to validate and legitimize the Religious Right, because it suggests that there is something wrong with a nonreligious worldview.”
SHINE SHINE SHINE
By Lydia Netzer
St. Martin’s, 312 pp., $24.99
Sunny Mann’s neighbors think she’s a natural: a blonde dynamo, master of bake sales and holiday decorations, perfectly suited to her beautiful suburban home and scientist husband. The illusion begins to crumble when a fender bender knocks her wig off, revealing her smooth, bald head. Lydia Netzer’s luminous debut novel concerns what lies beneath society’s pretty surfaces — Sunny’s congenital hairlessness, her husband’s remoteness, their son’s autism. What makes it unexpectedly moving is how skillfully Netzer then peels back those layers, finding heartbreaking depth even in characters who lack ordinary social skills.
Maxon Mann, Sunny’s husband, is floating in a spaceship when Sunny loses her wig; the only civilian on a lunar mission, his preoccupations include figuring out what a human can do that a robot can’t (yet). So far, he’s narrowed it down to: “Show preference without reason (LOVE),” “Doubt rational decisions (REGRET),” and “Trust data from a previously unreliable source (FORGIVE).” Back on earth, Sunny awaits the birth of her second child while tending to the needs of four-year-old Bubber, whose brilliance and deficits are inextricably entwined. Moving back and forth in time, Netzer sketches a narrative both realistic and lyrical. Sunny and Maxon’s love story is deeply strange yet utterly convincing. Like so much in this lovely book, it’s the weirdness that makes it feel real.
OSCEOLA AND THE GREAT SEMINOLE WAR:
A Struggle for Justice and Freedom
By Thom Hatch
St. Martin’s, 322 pp., $27.99
Lionized in his time as a champion of his people, the Seminole warrior Osceola is less well-known today than he should be, according to veteran western historian Thom Hatch. In this book, Hatch tells the story of Osceola’s transformation from a youthful refugee to a legendary freedom fighter in “the longest, most expensive, and deadliest war ever fought by Americans against Native Americans.” It’s a fascinating history, touching on the complex relationships among white, black, and Native Americans in the contested territory we now know as Florida. And it’s a dismal one, in which whites coerced, bribed, or duped Indians into signing bogus treaties, and bent the rules of war to capture Osceola while he was waving the white flag.
Hatch’s meticulous research is evident in his depiction of Seminole village life and his detailed descriptions of conferences and battles. Scenes in which a captured Osceola poses for portraits by a series of painters reflect just how long celebrity culture has always been with us. Sadly, the prose here often fails to rise to its subject’s level of charm, rendering a fascinating story less captivating than it might have been.