Walter Russell Mead starts his
serious book with a joke, and it's a funny one, not
to mention smart, which bodes well for the book
itself, as it shows Mead taking us into his
confidence: a writer telling witty tales that assume
intelligence in his readers.
God and Gold is engaging in the extreme, which you can't say of most books spanning more than 350 years of history with an emphasis on religion, politics and money. This is a weighty book with both historical and contemporary import, starting with Oliver Cromwell and ending with George W. Bush.
In Part I Mead makes his case for the dominance of England and America since both became nations, indeed empires, in their own unique and intimately connected ways. He engages the reader with a technique journalists call the 'Wall Street Journal lead,' beginning each chapter with the story of a person which illustrates the theme of the chapter.
Having established a thread that connects Cromwell and Ronald Reagan in Part I, part II is a linked conversation through time delineating events that show Britain and the U.S. achieving the dominance Mead claims. Each chapter begins with an anecdote to capture our interest as Mead humorously expounds on what, in lesser hands, could be a dreary litany-compendium of financial and ecclesiastical data.
Part III is about the resources, personal, financial and religious, that the two nations used to dominate, which leads into Part IV which explores how, time after time in the aftermath of every triumph, these two nation-friends have confidently announced that "things have been taken care of" – and how they have consistently been proven spectacularly wrong. In conclusion, Mead rounds everything up with a look at what all this means for today and for the future.
Throughout, Mead demonstrates a love of paradox, demonstrating the union of cynicism with faith and pragmatic common sense with religious devotion, in the political and economic behavior of both Britain and the USA. As Mead puts, "To Pepsi from Pepys" — "countervailing forces and values must contend."
Mead shows that these forces, while huge, are also human. Just as an Anglo-American historical juggernaut never quite conquers as much as it thinks it has, we must beware the danger of making too much of it all. This history is not an inexorable result of nations but of men. The connections exist because there is, truly, nothing new under the sun.
But we keep living it out in every generation, and it all seems so very new to us. This book — about history, but not a history book — reminds us, engagingly, that actions matter.
God and gold … religion and money … four centuries of politics and statecraft: polite company excludes talk of such things, but you can take this book's ideas to a dinner party without fear. You can even start with Mead's opening joke:
"In Colonial Virginia a
wealthy and well-connected planter's son once asked
his Anglican rector if it was possible to find
salvation outside the Church of England. The rector
struggled with his conscience; he could hardly claim
that only Anglicans get to Heaven — but he didn't
want to encourage this well-born young parishioner
to associate with the dissenting riffraff and
wandering evangelists of the region. After a few
minutes of thought he was able to give the young man
an answer. "Sir," said the divine, "the possibility
about which you enquire exists. But no gentleman
would avail himself of it."
Many Americans feel a little bit like that rector when confronted with discussions of American power. We know it's there and we know it's important — but the subject makes us uncomfortable. No gentleman — or, for that matter, no lady — would bring it up."
This review was originally published in November 2007, and has been updated for the October 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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