18 January 2014


Karen Stollznow. God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious beliefs and Practices in the United States. Pitchstone, 2013.

When I previewed details of this book on the Magonia Book News website, I commented “Only in America? Probably not”. Having read the book, I’m inclined to drop the qualifier (although I'm keeping the question-mark in the title of this review!) and admit that most of the religious practices and communities described here seem to be exclusively American.
For instance, I doubt that even in the remotest parts of Norfolk there are entire towns which are totally inhabited by a fundamentalist religious sect which practices polygamy, child marriage and incest.

Rejecting the mainstream Mormon’s decision to forbid polygamy as a condition of Utah gaining US statehood in 1896, a variety of fundamentalist groups set up enclosed communities in isolated areas in places spread across America’s ‘Empty Quarter’, from Canada to Mexico.

One that Stollznow looks at in particular, set up by The Fundamentalist Church Of Jesus Christ of the Later Day Saints (all these splinter groups, like their political counterparts, seem to have extremely long names), are the twin communities of Colorado City and Hildale which spread across the border between Arizona and Utah. She says that these are “totalitarian towns whose administration and police departments are governed entirely by the Church”. The Church also owns the schools, and imposes strict dress codes on all residents. Anyone who objects to this is deemed an “Apostate” and evicted from the town.

In the early fifties an attempt by the Governor of Arizona to take action against the towns was handled badly and became politically toxic. Since then they have been left pretty much to themselves, although recently moves have been made to ensure the safety of women and children in these towns, and prosecute community ‘leaders’ responsible for massive levels of domestic violence, sexual offences and fraud. The main source of income for these towns is the welfare payments to the 'elders' multiple ‘wives’ who for legal purposes are registered as ‘unmarried mothers' and receive food-stamps and other benefits on that basis.

Because of the level of incest and intermarriage in these towns they have the world’s greatest concentration of Fumarase Disease, which causes epileptic-type symptoms, speech impediment and mental retardation.

How different this all sounds from the home life of the Amish, who seem to bask in a nostalgic American dream of the simple life and apple pie. Although their communities are nothing like the Fundamentalist Mormon strongholds, they are still inward looking and strictly controlled, although there is a considerable degree of variation between the different sects. Their distinctive dress codes are familiar through film and TV documentaries and dramas, as well their prohibition any form of motorised transport, although even these are not consistent within the bewildering number of sects and offshoots that comprise the Amish.

Even here, the narrow, in-bred nature of the various groups has led to a number of genetic disorders within the tightly-knit communities, including Troyer Syndrome, which causes learning difficulties and paralysis, and is only found within one ‘Old Order’ community. There have also been examples of violence and abuse amongst the Amish themselves: one being a rogue group which attacked rivals, shaving the men’s beards and cutting their hair. The leader of this group was, perhaps appropriately, called Mullet.

Stollznow gives an account of her visit to a service by one of the more moderate Mennonite branches - they even allow padded pews in their church instead of plain wooden benches! - which perhaps corresponds rather more closely to the outsider’s image of the Amish.

The Charismatics and Pentecostalists which Stollznow describes in another chapter are perhaps most familiar to us through portrayals of wild-eyed TV evangelists and healers calling down fire and brimstone. This is the land of mega-churches, one in Texas with a regular congregation of over 30,000. And some churches are looking for even larger congregations; beside the tele-evangelists, we are seeing the rise of the on-line miracle ministries, where the healing power of God can be sent through your Internet connection. Holy Modem!

The author looks at the rise and survival of the ‘voodoo’ faiths based ostensibly on African religions brought to the New World through slavery and later immigration from Latin America. They have since become so overlaid by later folk beliefs, mystical occultism, Catholicism and other influences that they have little resemblance to any indigenous African faiths.

The prevalence of exorcism and belief in demonic possession also seems to be a particularly American phenomenon. Although there have been Satanic panics and some tragic examples of ’exorcism’ in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, they do not seem to have entered mainstream belief to the extent they have in the USA where exorcism has developed into ‘Deliverance’ Ministries, which as described here seem to have more in common with the film Deliverance than any recognisable form of Christianity.

But Satanism can be seen in a positive way too, and Stollznow looks at the by now well known story of Sandor LaVey and the invention of modern American Satanism. This chapter also looks at Satanic abuse scares, along with claims of hidden Satanic messages in everything from Heavy Metal records to soap wrappers. She links Satanism as actually practiced in the USA to individualistic and libertarian thought, concluding that Satanists can be charged with “selfishness, greed, hedonism, egotism and misanthropy, but these are charges that they won’t deny”.

The chapter on Scientology mostly covers familiar ground, although the author’s account of her attendance as the only member of the congregation in a service which consisted of readings from L. Ron Hubbard’s science fiction stories is amusing, as is the casual way in which her guide shows her the office which is kept ready for Big Ron’s return.

Amongst this collection of weirdness it might seem strange that her final chapter deals with the Quakers, which most people view as a very well-established and respectable religious tradition. But even here all is not as it seems, with divisions between conservative Quakers who adopt a generally Christian set of beliefs and others, ‘Liberal Quakers’ who hardly see Quakerism as a religion at all, being simply a ‘religious society’.

Throughout this book Stollznow makes a point of attending the meetings, ceremonies and services of the groups she encounters (although she seems to have taken a rain-check on the Satanic orgies), and describes her experience of a Quaker meeting. At first she is unimpressed, likening the silent assembly in the sparsely decorated Meeting House as “like a doctor’s waiting room or a branch of the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles], without the despair”. After 45 minutes of silence a woman quoted some song lyrics, and the rest of the meeting continued without another word being spoken until it concluded with announcements of forthcoming events. She sees Quakerism as eventually dropping any connection with established religion altogether.

Although there is a chapter on various ‘New Age’ practices, I was surprised that there was nothing in the book about Wicca and modern Paganism which is now quite widespread in America, but perhaps this could be seen more as an imported religion than something inherently American, having originated in England. The same might be said about the Quakers, but their beliefs are far more woven into American tradition and history from the time of William Penn and the earliest settlers.

This book is a very readable, interesting, often amusing, sometimes rather alarming, account of a strange, and very American, collection of beliefs, societies and lifestyles. -- John Rimmer.

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