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

Stallznow, an Australian living in the U.S., has a linguistics PhD and a background in history and anthropology. She treats odd-sounding beliefs with respect but doesn’t hesitate to condemn -- quite rightly, I’d say -- groups that exploit or mistreat their members.

Possibly the worst of these is a fundamentalist Mormon sect headed by the now-imprisoned Warren Jeffs, which is little more than a front for pedophilia and exploitation of women, who are indoctrinated from childhood to accept what amounts to slavery.

Even Scientology isn’t quite that bad, though it does exploit its victims, some of them to the point of working very long hours in poor conditions for minimal pay. Stallznow suggests Scientology is on the decline, and when she attended what amounted to a Church of Scientology worship service, she was the only person in the congregation. In fact there seemed to be very few people in the whole building, despite their efforts to create an impression of greater activity.

Several denominations, notably the Amish, turn out to be quite a lot more diverse in beliefs and practices than I’d realized. You’ve probably heard of the group of extremist Amish who forcibly cut the beards of other Amish they consider insufficiently zealous, but that’s apparently a conflict within one Amish subgroup. Others differ fairly widely in terms of, for example, how much modern technology they tolerate.

Even Quakers (who are of course nothing at all like the Amish despite what some people think based on the guy on the Quaker Oats box) turn out to have conservative and liberal offshoots, with some younger Quakers amounting to religious atheists.

Stallznow also spends some time on Afro-Caribbean beliefs, New Age spiritualism, and similar woo-woo, a lot of which turns out to be rather fuzzy and hard to pin down. You get the impression that most Satanists are kidding.

This is more a quick, fairly breezy tour than a serious study, and as other people have said, it seems incomplete and leaves the reader wanting more. For example, I’d be interested in additional details on the theology of these groups, but of course few practitioners of any faith, including more mainstream religions, have more than a superficial notion of their theology anyway.

A positive review led me to order this book, and I was surprised to see that it was released by a small publisher here in Durham.

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