John Locke, Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration (Classic Books International). You can’t understand the American experiment apart from John Locke. Although Locke’s Christianity was a mixed bag, there’s no question he took his faith seriously and his writings show extensive interaction with Scripture. Greg Forster is right: “Locke’s political theory is a Christian natural-law theory” (The Contested Public Square). Two Treatises argues that government exists by and for the consent of the government. His Letter Concerning Toleration maintains that the magistrate may not infringe upon the conscience of a private individual. It’s not hard to see echoes of Locke in this country’s Founding Fathers and relevance for today.
Nicholas P. Miller, The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separating of Church and State (Oxford). Miller makes a strong case that the idea of religious liberty in America was owing as much to Protestant sensibilities (sometimes latent, but growing over time) as to Enlightenment ideals. I thought he was a bit uncharitable toward Calvinism at times and his last several pages of contemporary application were a stretch, but overall he makes an important case that theological convictions played a central role in the establishment of religious liberty in this country, and in our Constitution. I especially appreciated Miller’s interaction with John Witherspoon and Elisha Williams.
Gerald F. De Jong, The Dutch Reformed Church in the American Colonies (Eerdmans). A very fine scholarly work, evenhanded and interesting. One of themes that plays out over and over, especially in the 18th century, is the tension between pietist Reformed types who were more evangelical and more open to Americanization, and the old school Reformed traditionalists who prized continuity with the homeland and their past. On the one hand, evangelists like Theodorus Frelinghuysen could be real hotheads. The way he talked about his brothers was inappropriate. He made unilateral church discipline decisions and didn’t care much about the official church order at times. On the other hand, his opponents constantly harped about doing things the “Dutch way.” They seem to value the church order and the liturgy above all else. They didn’t like the emotionalism, pietism, or conversionism of the more American wing of the church. These same tensions play out again and again in church history. From the vantage point of 300 years it’s easier to see where both sides went wrong; it’s much harder to discern in your own day.
Scott Maze, Theodorus Frelinghuysen’s Evangelism: Catalyst to the First Great Awakening (Reformation Heritage Books). As a converted doctoral dissertation (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), this book is stronger on content than style. But Maze provides a detailed look at one of evangelicalism’s most neglected fathers. Frelinghuysen was a Dutch pastor who served in New Jersey in the first half of the 18 century. His fiery preaching, forceful personality, and fruitful ministry made him as a forerunner to the Great Awakening. Maze’s analysis is sympathetic to Frelinghuysen, without glossing over his weaknesses (which were severe at times). The strength of the dissertation lies in Maze’s ability to place Frelinghuysen within the context of the Dutch Second Reformation and its emphasis on classification, holy living, and church discipline.
Duncan Watts, Everything is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us (Crown Business). Like a lot of secular books, this one does better with diagnosis than prescription. I found the first half of the book riveting and the second half unconvincing. But thankfully, the first half is good enough to make up for the second. Watts main contention is that while common sense is helpful on a personal level, it often fails miserably on a macro scale. His most helpful point is the reminder that most of our “common sense” only makes sense in the rear view mirror. That is to say, we explain history as if it is the product of obvious steps and decisions, but really we don’t often know why things happened, let alone what will happen in the future. Fans of Malcolm Gladwell will find much food for thought in this book, as Watts frequently takes issue with the Gladwell’s logic and not-so-spot-on insights.