Books and Religion without Evangelicalism: Thoughts on Stephen Prothero’s God the Bestseller
Forget about politically motivated churches, practices and creeds. Instead, you can learn a lot about religion in North America by the popular books it publishes.
I’ve worked in commercial religious publishing for most of my career and can tell you it’s all about popular books, and there is a lot of power and money in it. Just look at the early 2000s, when the big publishers were buying up evangelical publishers or starting new ones.
As Brown University religion professor Daniel Vaca argues in Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America, evangelical publishers historically provided the cultural and social container for a fluid, fractious religious identity in America. These publishers and their “Christian” bookstores reached such a critical mass of capital, infrastructure and content that you’d even find mainline churches using Beth Moore Bible studies and celebrities like Matthew McConaughey reading Lee Strobel’s armchair apologetics.
Outside of evangelical publishing, the businesses around and popularity of books in religion generally pale by comparison. There are publishers representing other religions in the U.S., but even the combined revenue of publishers representing mainline Protestantism does not come close to the evangelical book business.
An exception to the rule
That said, one publisher is a key exception.
Written by Boston University professor of religion Stephen Prothero, God the Bestseller: How One Editor Transformed American Religion a Book at a Time tells the story of Eugene Exman who, after studying religion at the University of Chicago, found a job working as the religion editor for Harper. Through the 1920s to the 1960s, Exman published or helped publish a compendium of notables such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, Dorothy Day, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson, each warranting a chapter in the Prothero’s book.
The stories Prothero uncovers about Exman are the result of a chance Cape Cod encounter between Prothero and one of Exman’s elderly children, an encounter that led to years of extraordinary archival work that could not have come at any small expense. To varying degrees, each of the figures mentioned above, and others Exman published like Howard Thurman, Aldous Huxley, D.T. Suzuki and Mircea Eliade, represent a quest to publish an anthology of experiential rather than creedal, fundamentalist religion.