New Contributing Editor on The Wire

Welcome to new contributing editor Darren Grem! Darren is working on a PhD in History from the University of Georgia. His dissertation: ""The Blessings of Business: Christian Entrepreneurs and the Politics and Culture of Sunbelt America." Darren also has extensive interests in religion and music and religion and popular culture generally. His first contribution concerns HBO's much-acclaimed series The Wire. The show hasn't captured the same national obsession as, say, The Sopranos, but some have argued that this may go down as the best dramatic series in television history. Anyway, welcome to Darren, and we look foward to more provocative contributions such as his thoughts on The Wire, and religion, below.


“Way Down in the Hole”: Finding Religion in The Wire’s America

Darren E. Grem
University of Georgia

At first glance, HBO’s cop/crime drama The Wire seems to have nothing to do with religion. Created and produced by David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun beat reporter, the show explores the political, economic, and cultural landscape of the contemporary American metropolis. This isn’t new territory for Simon. He has dealt with the subject throughout most of his career and repeatedly used the city of Baltimore to do it. Simon’s 1991 book Homicide showed Baltimore from the perspective of the city’s homicide unit, as did the ‘90s network television series of the same name. His 1997 book The Corner – which he co-wrote with Ed Burns, another of the show’s producers – looked at everyday life among the users and dealers of West Baltimore and inspired an Emmy-winning miniseries that aired in 2000.

The Wire revisits many of the themes raised by Simon’s previous work, but it dramatizes them, one at a time, season by season. Season one examines the complexities of the much-touted “war on drugs.” Season two, according to Simon, serves as "a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class." Looking at city hall politics and drug legalization, season three reflects “on the nature of reform and reformers, and whether there is any possibility that political processes, long calcified, can mitigate against the forces currently arrayed against individuals."[1] All in all, the result is one of the most tightly written and thematically mature shows on television.

Fundamentally, The Wire is about failing institutions. As such, religious institutions seem only tangentially important, if at all, in the lives depicted onscreen.[2] Places of worship are rarely shown and, when shown, they are like fossils, providing hints of one-time vibrant religious communities, now extinguished by the urban crisis (or, more likely, exported to the suburbs along with everything else). For instance, in season one a detective unit uses an abandoned church tower to conduct surveillance on a West Baltimore drug organization. Young black dealers, some no more than eleven or twelve years old, sling heroin and cocaine in the courtyard, completely unaware that the church’s spire might have once been of importance in their community.

In season two, a dockworkers’ union chief donates a new set of stained glass windows – depicting diligent stevedores – to the neighborhood church. This sets off a personal and petulant feud with an east-side major, who wanted his own stained glass tribute to the city’s Polish police officers installed. Though both men exhibit a certain loyalty to the church, it would be a stretch to call it devotion. They want their life’s work monumentalized by their generosity, and their religion is a means to that end. In season three, Cutty, an ex-con just out of the joint, turns to a black minister for help. Cutty had tried to make ends meet as a day laborer but became disillusioned about his long-term prospects. When the minister informs Cutty that the church has little to offer him other than help with getting a GED, Cutty walks out on the minister and heads back to the street life. Eventually, Cutty leaves both the drug trade and day labor behind and finds direction in trying to set up a boxing gym for youth in the neighborhood. His salvation, however, comes only after dedicating himself to his mission (and after getting the minister’s assistance in pushing the paperwork past the downtown bureaucracy and persuading his former drug boss to donate equipment to the gym). The institution of the church, struggling itself in a community changed, can help only those who help themselves. Even then, that’s often a dicey affair.

Other religious and quasi-religious sentiments cameo at various points in the show. The dealers respect a weekly Sunday morning truce, on the principle that violence should not be done while people are trying to pray. A stick-up artist named Omar lives by a strict code of ethics, vowing never to hurt “civilians.” Still, he stands at the ready with his trademark shotgun for those in “the game” who need “to get got.” Brother Mouzone is a feared hit man from New York City, a devout Muslim who acknowledges that he is “at peace with my God,” despite his history of brutality. An addict named Bubbles finds brief solace with Narcotics Anonymous, until the wiles of heroin and the winds of circumstance lure him back to the shooting galleries. Aside from these allusions, however, religion has little obvious role in the drama at hand. It is in the background, often peripheral and fleeting. For the most part, all that’s left in West Baltimore, is “the game,” where as Omar observes, “It's play or get played. That simple.”

According to Simon, The Wire explores “the very simple idea that, in this Postmodern world of ours, human beings – all of us – are worth less.”[3] Since religious institutions have historically provided answers to human inquiries about value and worth, it’s not surprising that in The Wire’s landscape religious institutions do not bring straight answers any more readily than the other institutions of urban life. Yet, it’s not because religious institutions have been beaten out by in a freewheeling religious market, where the privilege of preference directs how much religion you want in your life (maybe that’s the case in the other-world of suburban Baltimore). Rather, in the Baltimore of detectives, dealers, and dope fiends, the course of history has left people to their own devices to maintain faith and find meaning.

And, as the show’s theme song implies, that’s often an uphill battle:[4]

When you walk through the garden
You gotta watch your back
Well I beg your pardon
Walk the straight and narrow track
If you walk with Jesus
He's gonna save your soul
You gotta keep the devil
Way down in the hole

He's got the fire and the fury at his command
Well you don't have to worry
If you hold on to Jesus hand
We'll all be safe from Satan
When the thunder rolls
Just gotta help me keep the devil
Way down in the hole

All the angels sing about Jesus' mighty sword
And they'll shield you with their wings
And keep you close to the Lord
Don't pay heed to temptation
For his hands are so cold
You gotta help me keep the devil
Way down in the hole

I think shows like The Wire are necessary viewing for those interested in contemporary religious life because they remind us that, despite the seeming secularity of it all, the post-modern, post-industrial American metropolis is still a religious landscape. Religious cultures and institutions are created, maintained, and killed off every day in a manufactured environment that thrives off the untidy ironies of modern American history. As The Wire quietly and effectively demonstrates, the view from way down in the hole teaches us that the presence – and absence – of religious cultures and institutions are symptoms of deeper shifts in American life, shifts that determine who ultimately has value in our society and who does not.

During one particularly memorable scene, Bubbles rides along with detective Jimmy McNulty to the suburbs beyond the city limits. They go to a soccer game, where McNulty introduces Bubbles to his ex-wife (who, out of disgust and bewilderment at McNulty’s choice in associates, refuses to shake Bubbles’s hand). Later, as McNulty drives them both back to West Baltimore, Bubbles peers out their unmarked cruiser at the boarded-up storefronts, the darkened alleys, the teenage slingers, and the homeless addicts. Bubbles comments off-hand, “Thin line between heaven and here.”

Those “thin lines” are the story of modern America, from New York City and Chicago to the Sunbelt booster-lands of Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston. They exist in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Baltimore, and countless other cities and small towns in between. As Simon illustrates, the lines have been drawn in terms of race and class but also in terms of value and worth. How religious institutions and cultures help to draw, confirm, and challenge those lines should direct our looks at the world that The Wire portrays, a world far too like our own.


[2] I have yet to watch season four, but I hear it uses Baltimore’s public schools as a setting for examining the role of education in the contemporary city. When asked about the fourth season’s thematic focus, co-producer Ed Burns replied, “it's not about education as you're thinking about education. Everybody is going to get educated. It's just a question of where. Some people get educated in the classroom, some people get educated in a boxing gym; some people get educated on a corner.” The season may or may not have anything to say about how churches or other religious institutions are educational as well, but I’ll have to wait until it comes out on Netflix to see. Read the interview with Burns at
[4] Written by Tom Waits. The Blind Boys of Alabama performs the tune during season one, Waits during season two, and The Neville Brothers during season three. DoMaJe – a vocal group composed of five Baltimore teenagers – sings season four’s version of it.

Randall Stephens, Creationism and ID at Home and Abroad


"Creationism and Intelligent Design in America and Abroad," by Randall Stephens

Are creationism and intelligent design unique to America?" That's what I asked Kenneth R. Miller, renowned author and Brown University professor of Biology, after he delivered a spectacular multi-media presentation on intelligent design (ID) at the Open Theology and Science conference here at my college in July. Miller, along with Anna Case Winters, and Karl Giberson, participated in a forum on "God, Darwin, & Design: The Struggle for America's Soul."

I was surprised by Miller's answer. He said: no, in fact, it is not uniquely American. Creationists of various degrees populate the European continent, the U. K., and, most significantly, the Muslim world. That seemed fascinating. I had tended to think American evangelicals and conservative fundamentalists were exceptionally belligerent on the issue of human origins. What of the court cases in Kansas, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and Georgia, pitting fundamentalist against "godless" textbook writers? Creation "scientist" Ken Ham recently built a $27 million creationist museum in Kentucky. Match that, Luxembourg!

Isn't this strident theo-science peculiarly American? Apparently not. A recent piece in the New York Times, "Islamic Creationist and a Book Sent Round the World," was confirmation enough that I was off the mark: "In the United States, opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schools has largely been fueled by the religious right, particularly Protestant fundamentalism. Now another voice is entering the debate, in dramatic fashion. It is the voice of Adnan Oktar of Turkey [aka] Harun Yahya." Yahya has mailed a beautifully illustrated creation science textbook to leaders in the field at top universities across the United States. Darwinian evolution is a demonic plot of the West, so goes the argument. Those who have found this massive tome in their mail box have commented on how visually stunning it is. The recipients, nonetheless, were unconvinced.

Yet this development in the East could pose new challenges to public schools in the US and abroad. Will American Muslims buy the religion-dressed-as-science Yahya is hawking? Less likely, but no less interesting, might Christian conseravtives and Muslims find common ground on the issue?

According to Miller, the influence of creationism and ID extends far beyond religious right groups. A January 2006 survey conducted by the BBC showed that quite a few Britons are "unconvinced on evolution." Surveys are often flat of foot and leave as many questions as they offer answers. This survey, however, of over 2,000 participants, "asked what best described their view of the origin and development of life," is a little startling. It showed that "22% chose creationism, 17% opted for intelligent design, 48% selected evolution theory, and the rest did not know." That last bit speaks volumes. How much do English men and women care about the subject?

The survey was conducted for an installement of the BBC's Horizon - A War on Science. It can be watched in full on Google video. The 2006 documentary examines the roots of ID and exposes its all-too-close resemblence to creationism. As a pundit once put it, ID is creationism dressed in a cheap tuxedo.

The film is a superb introduction to the subject. Its coverage of the now-famous Dover, PA, trial is especially interesting. Interviews with Michael Behe, William Dembski, Richard Dawkins, and Kenneth Miller provide excellent context. The film is, though, quite heavy-handed at times. It's over-the-top score reminds me of the ridiculously grim music playing behind the Daily Show's faux-news magazine interviews. Minus that and some unecessary grandstanding on both sides (Dawkins calls Darwin's doubters "yapping terriers of ignorance"), this is the best treatment I've seen. I plan to use selections from it for my American Religion and Culture course. The film's setting, America's Bible Belt, presents the subject in stark relief.

Prius Envy

The following comes to us from my old friend on Valparaiso University's intramural basketball courts, Jon Pahl, now professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

Prius Envy, By Jon Pahl

I succumbed to Prius envy. I’ve been tempted for a long time. But I wasn’t aware how tantalizing this auto-seduction had become in American history until I drove the car home and stood staring at it, for minutes on end, sitting in my driveway. I wanted to bow down to it. It was like the proverbial golden calf of biblical lore. Except it’s red. And it’s a car.

Several of my colleagues owned the economical and environmentally-friendly hybrid autos before me. When I was considering buying a new vehicle, I asked them about their experiences with the Prius. They each replied, independently: “I love it.”

Now, I know that love is a many, splendored thing. But what does it mean about the state of a culture—about our collective unconscious as a historical by-product, when people resort to “loving” their automobiles? I can’t say that I love my Prius, yet. I like it a lot. I’m fond of it. And I probably even felt lust in my heart in the days leading up to my acquisition.

But how did it come about that the word “love” so easily became attached to a commodity—a ton or so of steel and plastic and rubber? This is a historical question of considerable significance. Is “love” in a market economy merely a reflection of something’s economic value? Perhaps this book has already been written. Call it—Auto-Love: How We Learned to Love Our Cars, and To Hell with Everyone Else.

And, yes, there is a webpage: It’s worth a visit, and will not be blocked by your porn spamfilter. Katharine T. Alvord’s suggestion: Divorce your Car! (it’s on Amazon), seems a little extreme. But in an effort to purify my soul, I’ve been finding things not to like about the Prius. I need to keep it in its place.

For starters, the push button starter strikes all the wrong erotic notes, for me. I’ve taken to actually inserting my “smart key” into the slot in the dash where it can go, but doesn’t have to. Part of this is practical: that way I don’t lose the key. Part of it, though, feels like a more spiritual thing: the idea of riding around with the key for a car in my pocket, rather then securely cocooned in its slot, seems positively a waste of energy.

Then, the navigation system is creepy. I’ve never owned a car with a global positioning system before. It’s an eerie experience, to me anyway, knowing that as I drive down Chester Road here in Swarthmore, there’s a satellite somewhere in the sky with its eye upon me.
I picture this satellite as a Cyclops-God hybrid. When I was in Sunday School, we sang a song that recently came to mind as I was driving: “Oh, be careful, little hands, what you touch,” I sang, “There’s a Savior up above, and He’s looking down with love, so be careful, little hands, what you touch.” I never could figure out why I had to be careful if the Savior was so loving, but that’s another column, at least.

And now, four decades after Sunday School, the suspicion is ingrained in me, and there really is a Thing in the sky looking down on me. I hope the satellite is loving. I fear it’s just indifferent.

And when I’m really paranoid, I imagine it as Dick Cheney.

Another spiritual feature of the Prius that I hadn’t reckoned with is that it fosters self-righteousness. I felt this acutely shortly after I drove the car off the dealer’s lot. A big SUV drove by, and I positively gloated, as I glanced down at the touchscreen display and noted that I was getting 39.7 miles per gallon. “Sucker,” I thought to myself. Probably I could get a bumper sticker to advertise my spiritual superiority: “What Would Jesus Drive?” The answer would be implicit in my own choice, which, conveniently, would incarnate the automotive preferences of the Eternal One.

And then there’s the nagging question about just how eco-friendly the car really is. It was made in Japan, which meant it took tons of carbon dioxide, spewing from an ocean-going cargo-container vessel’s smokestacks, to get it to me here in Pennsylvania. It contains batteries laced with bad chemicals and metals. What will happen to them when I’m done with it?

All in all, then, I’ve managed so far to keep from loving my Prius. I’m pretty much in synch, I think, with Jane Holtz Kay, who in Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back, suggested that when we love our cars we love a “sealed chamber of isolation.”

But the Prius does have a killer sound system, and I do love hearing Diane Schuur’s silken voice singing “Just the Thought of You” through its speakers, as I silently, and carbon-dioxide emissions-free, slip my way through Swarthmore.

Jon Pahl is Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and he teaches at Temple University and Princeton. He’s the author of Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces.

Studying the Religious Lives of Children in Jesus Camp

Below is Kelly Baker's post on the film Jesus Camp. Just a pre-script -- besides the film itself, I highly recommend the directors' commentary included with the DVD of the film. They provide a fascinating window into the making of the documentary, and have some interesting things to say also about Ted Haggard, who appears briefly (and not very likably) in the film. Anyway, Kelly provides some good thoughts below on studying the religious lives of children, so enjoy!

Kelly Baker -- “Don’t be a promise breaker, be a history maker”

The documentary, Jesus Camp, explores the evangelical camp, “Kids on Fire,” and the lives of some of the participants. Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal children’s minister, runs the camp because of her belief that children are so “open and usable” in Christianity. Throughout the documentary, Fischer’s dictum about children seems to play out (sometimes painfully). We also follow Levi, Rachel, and Tory in their experiences of camp as well as their renderings of both their faith and their nation. Levi, who wants to be a preacher, is home schooled. His mother is his teacher and proponent of Creationism. Rachel shows the most enthusiasm for evangelizing and bowling, and she combines the two when witnessing to a young woman at the bowling alley. Tory listens to Christian heavy metal and dances for God rather than the flesh. Throughout their journeys at camp, the children embrace Fischer’s opinion on sin, abortion, and the decline of America. Levi preaches a sermon in which he tells the other children that they are the “key” generation to bring about the Second Coming of Christ, and Tory sobs when the camp counselors discuss the need to break the power of the enemy -- I suppose these are non-evangelicals, or the American government. What was most striking about the documentary was the reaction of children as they were being trained to be an army of God. Children sobbed over their supposed hypocrisies, raised their hands quickly to give their lives for God, and confessed while weeping how hard belief really is.

I watched most of this in a strange state of awe and discomfort. I was fascinated by the raw emotions of the children at the same time I had empathy for their self-loathing and tears. They were just kids after all. Yet as an American religious historian, I could not help but wonder if this film actually provided an accurate portrayal of the lived religion of these evangelical kids. Were these boys and girls always committed to becoming soldiers? Did they understand the red “LIFE” stickers adults placed over their mouths? Were these kids always so serious and committed? There were occasional glimpses of the children having fun from dancing exuberantly to Christian rap to boys scaring the wits out of each other with ghost stories. (The boys were reprimanded by adult, who suggested ghost stories were not quite holy).

Moreover, this film made me think about the religious lives of children. In his Between Heaven and Earth, Robert Orsi examined the religious lives of Catholic children among many other topics, and he argued that “[c]hildren are uniquely available to stand for the interiority of a culture and to offer embodied access to the inchoate possibilities of the culture’s imaginary futures” (78). Children, then, are often the place markers for a culture to present the future. To repeat Becky Fischer, children are “usable.” The counselors and the parents strived to create foot soldiers for the evangelical movement to take back what “rightfully” was a Christian nation. Yet with our great hopes for children also comes the possibility of failure. They might raise their hands, but they still want to tell ghost stories. For American religious historians, children pose an interesting problem. We have to realize how they represent the “interiority of the culture” while also seeing the children for themselves. How do we differentiate between the expectations of Fischer and the child’s own desires and needs?

For me, Jesus Camp was more an interesting exploration of the lives of evangelical children. Many were shocked and awed not only by the children’s behaviors but also the political message. The political message was not necessarily shocking, and I think it was handled (slightly) better by Michelle Goldberg in Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. The more confounding puzzle is still how to study the religious lives of American children because as Fischer rightly noted children are future “history makers.”

(Interestingly, Fischer has closed the “Kids on Fire” camp due to the negative response associated with the documentary.)

Blum(ing) Around with DuBois


Some good weekend reading: BaldBlogger's interview with author Ed Blum, and a chapter-by-chapter summary and analysis of Ed's book W. E. B. DuBois: American Prophet. A little snippet from the interview:

I decided to write on Du Bois after that for a number of reasons. He was the great critic of the white supremacist America of the nineteenth century; religious historians ignored him basically; scholars on him, like David Lewis and Arnold Rampersad, had ignored religion. Finally, I found as I was reading Du Bois that I was learning so much about religion and society. I found that Du Bois seemed to understand the joys and the pains, the hopes and the disappointments that had come from faith and religious ideas in the American experiment. So I wanted to join his journey.

Photo from UMass Digital Archive.]

Billy Graham Channels Jonathan Edwards


John Fea, Billy Graham’s Rendition of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”

The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale has a fascinating on-line exhibit on Billy Graham’s preaching of Edwards’s famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Graham preached the sermon during his 1949 Los Angeles Crusade, the same crusade that made the evangelist a national figure when William Randolph Hearst urged his newspaper editors to “puff Graham.”

The exhibit includes several audio excerpts from the Graham’s version of the sermon, a video analysis of the sermon by Ken Minkema and Harry Stout, a transcript of Graham’s version, and an excellent paper on the 1949 crusade by Andrew Finstuen, one of Valparaiso University’s current Lilly Fellows in Arts and Humanities. Minkema’s comparison between the way Edwards and Graham preached the sermon is particularly interesting. Both he and Stout also make some astute observations as to why this sermon by one of the founders of American evangelicalism would probably not work very well among today’s evangelicals.

H-AMSTDY Reviews


KELLY BAKER, H-Amstdy and American Religions (or read the reviews from my h-net network)

As a book review editor for H-Amstdy, I thought it might be nice to post snippets of recent reviews in the realm of Religion in American History. This is also a way for me to shamelessly promote our network and highlight our reviewers.

LEADING OFF: Amanda Porterfield on David Holmes, The Faith of the Founders

Porterfield examines Holmes’s attempt to discredit scholarship that suggests the founders were Christian. To do this, Holmes tracks church attendance and membership as indicators of religiosity. While some might find fault with this method, Porterfield strives to understand what this means in this contentious battle over the founding. She writes:

Responding to recent claims about the deep commitment to Christianity among America's Founding Fathers, David L. Holmes sets the record straight in this comprehensive examination of the Founders' religious beliefs and behaviors. The men who conducted the American Revolution, ratified the U.S. Constitution, and served as president during the nation's early years espoused a variety of different beliefs, grouped by Holmes into three main types--non-Christian Deism, Christian Deism, and Christian orthodoxy. Holmes shows that only Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinot, and John Jay anticipated salvation through Christ, embraced the Trinity of the Godhead, and engaged regularly in prayer and Bible devotion. Most of America's early leaders were Deists of one form or the other whose religious beliefs and practices do not match the claims about them advanced by Tim LaHaye, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other evangelical myth-makers.

NEXT UP: Tracy Neal Leavelle on Todd Kerstetter, God's Country, Uncle Sam's Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West.

Leavelle explores Kerstetter’s work, which relies on three case studies: Mormons, Lakota Ghost Dance, and Branch Davidians. Leavelle aptly renders Kerstetter’s denial of religious tolerance in the West. He writes:

The U.S. government was the primary sponsor of Western settlement and development, but its experiments in the region helped create and reinforce the power of the government through the extension of federal authority and bureaucracy. As for religion in the West, a subject of considerable and unfortunate neglect, Kerstetter contends that tolerance remained a dominant feature of interreligious engagement with a few notable exceptions. A surprisingly brief review of American religious history leads him to conclude that the emergence of a Protestant-dominated "religious mainstream" in the East set limits on Western religious groups like the Mormons and American Indians. The federal government expressed these mainstream religious values in its battle against Mormon polygamy and the Ghost Dance movement in the nineteenth century. Kerstetter asserts that the destruction of the Branch Davidian compound a century later "shows that remarkably little had changed since the 1890s when it came to attitudes about religion" (p. 32). The West may not have been the region of tolerance and openness that has attracted so much support and commentary in American mythology.

And last, but not least, the clean-up hitter: Sylvester Johnson on David Howard-Pitney, The African American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America.

Johnson deftly analyzes Howard-Pitney’s understanding of the function of jeremiad by African American leaders to call for racial as well as gender equality. The work also highlights contemporary usage of jeremiad by Jesse Jackson and Alan Keyes to demonstrate that this rhetorical form is still alive and well in American culture. Johnson writes:

David Howard-Pitney contributes finely to understanding the cultural history of African American protest and accommodation in his African American Jeremiad. The role of propaganda in strategies of moral suasion is plainly visible in this study of the jeremiad as performed by African Americans. The term "jeremiad," of course, derives from the laments of Jeremiah in early Judaism, urging Judeans to view their God as one who punishes sin and rewards righteousness. Sacvan Bercovitch firmly established the jeremiad as a key category in interpretations of Euro-American religious history in The American Jeremiad (1978). Wilson Moses Jeremiah, in Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms (1982), also developed a rich assessment of this phenomenon among African Americans. Both works inform Howard-Pitney's volume. Howard-Pitney includes in his study the works of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Ida Barnett-Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. This second edition of Howard-Pitney's text expands upon the first by featuring a concluding chapter that examines the rhetorical styles and representational strategies of Jesse Jackson and Alan Keyes. Keyes, particularly, has garnered considerable acclaim for his renowned conservatism on social and public policy issues, which is viewed as atypical for African Americans.

Islam in America in Newsweek

The Civil Religion of Keith Ellison
By Art Remillard

In this week’s Newsweek, Lisa Miller’s feature article examines the role of Muslims in the U.S., past and present. In one segment, Miller cites Minnesota Democratic congressman, Keith Ellison, a Muslim convert. “For all our criticisms,” Ellison remarked, “the idea of America is an amazing thing—a society organized around a set of principles instead of around racial or cultural identity.” Thus stirs the ghost of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who coined the term “civil religion.” The philosopher explained how a diverse nation could maintain stability by adhering to a minimum set of secular “positive dogmas.” In the 1960s, Robert Bellah revived the phrase. The “central tradition” of American civil religion, according to the sociologist, has been “the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it.”

Ellison seems to suggest that American Muslims can be both committed citizens and committed faith practitioners, provided that they adhere to the nations most cherished “ethical principles.” Not everyone agrees. Recall that Ellison placed his hand on the Koran when taking his oath of office. That this particularly copy had belonged to Thomas Jefferson was of little concern to critics like radio talk show host Dennis Prager.

Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress. In your personal life, we will fight for your right to prefer any other book. We will even fight for your right to publish cartoons mocking our Bible. But, Mr. Ellison, America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath.

Then there was Virginia Representative Virgil H. Goode, who warned his constituents:

The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.

It’s difficult to understand why Goode mentioned immigration, since Ellison’s family has lived in America since 1742. Nevertheless, the Virginian appeared to be making a statement that Islam simply isn’t American, and that “American citizens” should guard against Koran-using politicians. Instead of launching a vitriolic counterattack, Ellison remained coolheaded. Soon after his swearing in, Ellison located Goode on the congress floor. The two shook hands and reportedly went out for a cup of coffee. Perhaps Ellison has been building bridges between himself and the likes of Goode. In doing so, he may be carving out space for Muslims in America’s civil religious landscape—an admirable venture, indeed. But I still wonder whether some will ever accept Ellison’s definition of Muslim-American citizenship.

Mormon Pioneer Day


It's July 25th, and the new San Diegans Ed Blum (via Joanna Brooks, author of the oustanding book American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of Native American and African American Literature, reviewed here) remind me that yesterday, July 24th, was Pioneer Day, commemorating the Mormon trek and settlement in Salt Lake City. I'll be putting it on the annual blog calendar. With the documentary recently on PBS (reviewed by the New York Times here, HT to Art in the comments section, and by a Mormon blogger here), the presidential address at the American Society of Church History by Jan Shipps (a true pioneer in scholarship on the history of the LDS church), and of course Mitt Romney's candidacy, it's time for American religious historians to incorporate Mormonism more carefully into the narratives and scholarship, beyond recounting the nineteenth-century originating events of the church.

In his review of the book that Philip Goff and I edited, Themes in Religion and American Culture, Douglas Winiarski surveyed the "winners" and "losers" in the market economy of American religious history as it's being written now. Based on the essays in our volume, he pronounced Mormonism a "winner" (mainline Protestantism, not surprisingly, was a "loser," in both cases referring to the amount of discussion each respective group got in the essays). Although I co-edited the book, I hadn't realized how extensive the discussion of Mormonism was throughout the text, and was surprised when I skimmed the text again after the review and realized that Winarski's parsing of the winners and losers in the current historiographical economy was pretty dead-on.

Jan Shipp's presidential address to the ASCH on the changing meanings of Mormonism is not online (and if you're reading this, you need to be a member of the American Society of Church History -- you can do so online, so click on the link and just do it, and you'll receive the excellent journal Church History). However, Shipps has a nice piece "A Religious Ritual Wrapped in a Civic Event," which discusses the changing meanings of Pioneer Day. Here's a quick summary; click above for the link.

In the mountain West, Pioneer Day long had the effect of sustaining an unofficial pattern of stratification within Mormon culture that placed the members of families who came to the region during the early decades of LDS settlement in the area above those who came later. This pattern is gradually being altered, and one reason may be that Pioneer Day is undergoing a transformation.

The agent of change is an expansion of the idea of what being a Mormon pioneer means. Instead of simply honoring long-deceased pioneer heroes and heroines, today’s Saints in the mountain West and outside it are being asked to be pioneers themselves by doing something special to build up Mormonism in these latter days--perhaps being the first member of one’s family to go on a mission, being a leader of a branch of the church in an area where the church has not before had an organized unit, or serving the church in some other way that demands sacrifice and courage.

Looking at it this way reveals that the hoopla is not all there is to Pioneer Day. A closer look at this celebration reveals a larger truth about the Latter-day Saints: nowadays all sorts of things are changing within Mormonism. The transformation of the idea of what it means to be a pioneer will surely help dissolve what amounted to a caste system within the Mormon community. But as the meaning of being a pioneer is being transformed rather than de-emphasized or discarded, Pioneer Day is likely to retain its significance as both a holy day and a holiday.

Review of Prothero, ed., The Politics of Pluralism in MultiReligious America

Sylvie Grenet of the French Ministry of Culture has an interesting review of Stephen Prothero, ed., A Nation of Religions: The Politics of Pluralism in MultiReligious America -- particularly interesting for taking the lessons from the essays in the book and applying them to religion and public life in France.

A little excerpt below, click here for the full review:

The main asset of Prothero's book is to show how the religious diversity of migrating communities is being transformed by American society, while, at the same time, slowly changing American values and beliefs. Together, these transformations contribute to the construction of a new nation, much more complex than could be thought at first sight. This book opened a new perspective for me, regarding the re-shaping of French nationality. We, in France, consider religion to be a private matter. But what if we, as in the United States, eventually had the courage to put them in the public sphere? Would it not bring a solution to our problems, once we had admitted that relegating religion in the private sphere, far from uniting people, may well pull them apart and shatter the very idea of nation?

Maundy Monday and The Load


In my graduate school days at Berkeley, when asked if I went to church, I often responded "Yes, at Yoshi's just down the street." Yoshi's was then a jazz spot (restaurant, too, but that was immaterial) on Claremont Avenue in Oakland, nicely situated about a 10-minute walk from my rented room, and it hosted pretty much every name jazz musician coming through town (often on their way to LA or Japan).

This being the 80s and jazz in a post-Miles pre-Wynton doldrum, great musicians -- like the majestic bop saxophonist Joe Henderson, not to mention Phil Woods, Tony Williams, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Abby Lincoln, Betty Carter (ohmygod, was she great, even better for her tempestuous relationship with her hapless pianist, whom she didn't seem to think could keep time properly, requiring her to wap out the rhythm on top of the beautiful instrument), Joe Pass, and on and on-- would swing through, and on my student ID ticket for the opening nights of their gigs (usually Wednesday) I'd pay $5 to see the masters at work.

Ok, there was a pretty awful Archie Shepp show (it was either too avant-garde for me, or it was just bad), but most of the time I felt cleansed, restored, renewed -- all the catharsis one hopes for in a religious experience. Plus I got to see the gods in person, and talk to a few of them.

It didn't even have to be Yoshi's; I remember transcendent chamber music at the Presbyterian Church one block from me, the invigorating Zulu Spear South African troupe at Ashkenaz, and the ethereal Bulgarian State Women's Choir at Zellerbach Hall.

More recently, one of my premier musical experiences was Old Crow Medicine Show (OCMS) opening for Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at the now defunct 32 Bleu in Colorado Springs. I went to see Welch, but was astounded by OCMS from the moment I set foot in the door for their too-brief opening act. Punk buskers in an "old-time" string band format, I immediately thought.

Feeling the blues on this stormy Monday, uninspired by any of the myriad tasks awaiting me, I alighted on that concert again (about two years ago now), clicked around a bit, and found this beautiful performance of The Band's classic song "The Weight." The first link is to someone's recording of a live version of OCMS together with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings doing a soulful string rendition of the tune. For a moment midway through, I felt a little bit -- not the same, but a hint anyway -- of that cleansing that an erapturing live performance brings. The second link is a wonderfully obsessive exploration of the lyrics, ranging from slang references to the clap to the weight of sin and redemption.

Here's a favorite quote from Peter Viney's lyrics analysis -- he's referring to the staging of the song with the Staples Singers in the concert film The Last Waltz:

The biggest thing was the religious connotation of the song. I remember there was this huge argument between Marty (Martin Scorsese, the director) and Michael Chapman about the mood and the lighting for ‘The Weight’. Marty was insistiting that it was a very Catholic vision, it had to be. And Michael was saying ‘No, this is a very Protestant story, it’s Baptist, Marty.’ He was explaining to Marty the gospel music connotations.

I liked everything they were saying because I had never thought of any of it, though I was brought up Catholic. I thought it was quite brilliant the credit they were giving me. For me it was a combination of Catholocism and gospel music. The story told in the song is about the guilt of relationships, not being able to give what’s being asked of you. Someone is stumbling through life, going from one situation to another, with different characters. In going through these catacombs of experience. you’re trying to do what’s right, but it seems that with all the places you have to go, it’s just not possible. In the song, all this is ‘the load.'"

If you like the above, here's Old Crow's version of the old standard "Gospel Plow," an old-time string band version of a tune you will recognize from "keep your eyes on the prize, hold on"; and then this version of "Fall on My Knees", where we learn in the rousing refrain that "you'll never get to heaven when you die, little girl."

P.S.: The Last Waltz is worth watching just to see the great Mavis Staples tear into her verse on "The Weight," including "I picked up my bags, and went looking for a place to hide/When I saw old Carmen and the devil, walking side by side" -- and by the way you absolutely must hear Mavis Staple's new CD We'll Never Turn Back, especially for her original tune "My Own Eyes," in which she brings down fire and brimstone wrath on some contemporary Pharaohs, notably including those in Washington who fiddled while New Orleans drowned.

On Catholics and Pundits

On Catholics and Pundits, by Kelly Baker

On Tuesday, July 10th, the Vatican issued a sixteen-page document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which described Orthodox and Protestant denominations as “wounded” for not recognizing the primacy of the pope. While this might not seem particularly surprising, Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had issued a similar document in 2000. What has been interesting to this American religious historian is how pundits have reacted to this statement.

In my own New Mexico, the Albuquerque Journal found this story riveting and interviewed several Protestant leaders in the community. Here’s a blurb from the article:

The Rev. James M. Collie, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Santa Fe, said Pope Benedict's return to traditional language that denies the unity of the church and embraces artificial barriers is "regrettable."

"But, let me tell you, Roman Catholics are not going to get away from the Presbyterians that easily," Collie said. "We've worked too hard and too long with our Catholic colleagues in New Mexico. We know that we always do better when we bring our strengths together— rather than remain weak and divided."

Suddenly, it seems (to some) that Catholics are drawing lines where none previously existed, and that this somehow jeopardizes interreligious dialogue at the local scene as well as the larger global community. Yet, I would probably differ with this assessment. I think most will probably react like the Rev. James Collie and not allow this statement to damage ecumenical relationships.

What is more interesting to me is the reaction of CNN correspondent, who declared the pope “irrelevant” to non-Catholics. A previous Catholic and now devout Protestant, the correspondent takes up historical American Protestant critiques of the Catholic Church from lack of knowledge of scripture to lack of autonomy for laity to Catholic Church’s ownership of Jesus. This begs the questions: What is at stake in Benedict’s pronouncement? And will it really affect the relations between American Catholics and American Protestants? How much is the everyday practice of religion by both impacted by a statement from the Vatican?

More interestingly, I wonder if there could ever be a “Christian” history of America that wiped away denominational differences. Yet, I think this would erase valuable differences that make the story rich and, well, complicated.

The Curse of Bonds, or, Is This Blog on Human Growth Hormone?!


Is this blog on HGH? We've already sprouted some more muscle in the form of a new contributing editor, Art Remillard. Art edits the Journal of Southern Religion and so writes about the South, of course, but he's got a side interest as well in religion and sports, hence his first post below! Here's a quick bio, then his post!

Art Remillard teaches at St. Francis University (Loretto, PA) and directs their study abroad program. His scholarship focuses on religion in the American South and religion and sports. Recently, Art composed an article, “From Muscular Christianity to Divine Madness: Sports and/as Religion in America,” for Chuck Lippy’s three volume series entitled, Faith in America.

Cursing in the Church (of Baseball)
By Art Remillard

There’s trouble afoot in Church of Baseball. A heretic is poised to inscribe his name on the immortal tablets of the game. His name: Barry Bonds. His sin: steroid use. The threat: the imminent possibility that the “sinner” Bonds will eclipse Hank Aaron’s career homerun record. From my admittedly under-informed perspective, it seems that journalists, purists, players, and fans (outside of San Francisco) simply don’t like Bonds. They root against him with delight. They find him arrogant, unapproachable, and unrepentant for his pharmaceutical pitfalls. None of this matters, though. Bonds is confidently poised to break the record.

“But,” wonders the baseball faithful, “what if he could be stopped”?

If nature takes its course, the slugger will no doubt find solid contact with many more fastballs. Until Thursday (July 19), however, Bonds was riding a hitless streak, causing Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle to wonder…

Bonds announced on the fifth of this month, a Thursday, that he would not participate in the Home Run Derby. Snap went Peter Magowan, the Giants’ managing general partner. Imagine if your only daughter is getting married, you’re planning a lavish and extravagant event, and her fiance announces that he will attend the marriage ceremony but he won’t participate in the reception. “I’m tired,” he explains wearily. “It’s been a long courtship, and I need to save my energy for the honeymoon.” Bonds singled July 5. His no-Derby announcement hit the papers the next day. Since then: Zip. Seven games played, no hits, no homers, thanks for stopping by. Magowan probably didn’t want to resort to a curse, but his options were limited. How else could he properly express his sense of outrage at the betrayal of his loyalty and generosity?

So Bonds has been cursed—of course! I wonder whether others are also cursing Bonds. I haven’t followed baseball closely since the Pittsburgh Pirates were actually good (in the early 1990s). Then, Bonds was a Pirate, and notably skinnier. Living near Pittsburgh once again, I sense Steel City fans still ruefully recall Bonds’s sub-standard playoff performances, epitomized by his failure to throw out a limping Atlanta base runner (Sid Bream) at home plate during a critical playoff game in 1992. There are those fans who still reason that Bonds alone had cost the team the National League Championship that year. And that his tainted spirit infected the Pirates like a virus, a team that has stunk up the league ever since he left. What if, then, Pittsburghers are joining Magowan, projecting their collective curse derived from a bitter memory? Oh poor Barry—so many curses to endure.

The strange intermingling of athletics and religious language never ceases to grab my attention. It forces me to think about what religion is, and where I may find it. In some settings, cursing is a decidedly religious act, wherein a spiritual specialist conjures unfavorable forces against an assigned foe for some perceived wrongdoing. Can we properly call a baseball curse a religious act?

In his Authentic Fakes, David Chidester argues that “the traces of transcendence, the sacred, and the ultimate” exist throughout American popular culture, baseball included. My friend and colleague Joe Price, author of Rounding the Bases, has also examined the intersection of religion and baseball. In an article about curses, he concludes that “the culture of curses [in baseball] thrives because of the larger system of superstitions from which it draws its energy and support.” In other words, the act of cursing is part of a tendency to favor superstition, as demonstrated when players and fans describe events not simply as products of dumb luck, but rather as moments when divine forces have intervened, for better or worse. Perhaps Price is correct, and the example of cursing in baseball represents a “trace” of religion. Or perhaps I need to stop considering such matters, and instead join my fellow Western Pennsylvanians in sending malevolent wishes to San Francisco.

New Blog Editor: Evangelical Novels and Civil Rights Nuns

And on the 7th day, He got tired of a blog without form and void, and he lent out his rib to create a group blog. And so it goes!

I'm pleased to introduce Religion and American History as a group blog, with our first permanent co-editor, Kelly Baker, a doctoral candidate at Florida State University, whose vita is here (pdf document). Kelly joins with our contributing editors John Fea and Randall Stephens. Kelly is particularly interested in print and material culture and other American Studies type topics, which nicely complements the interests of others on this blog. Kelly describes her work as follows:

My current work focuses upon the Ku Klux Klan from the 1920s as a Protestant movement, and I rely primarily on Klan print culture and material culture to show how embedded religion was in the movement. I also boldly hope to show connections between Protestantism and definitions of America in this time period. Particularly, how do faith and nation coalesce within this movement? And what does this say about the nature of nationalism?

My other scholarly interests include religion and the visual arts, which was the primary focus of my M.A. thesis, ethnography, and cultural theory. I am particularly interested in using ethnographic method in historical work to open up the worldviews of historical actors and recreate their understandings of their lives and their religious beliefs.

Welcome to Kelly Baker!! Here's her first post:

Nuns and Romance Novels: Women in American Religion

Along with Catherine Brekus, ed., The Religious History of American Women, American religious historians are turning their powers of analysis to categories of women who are underrepresented in narratives or missing altogether. Two recent books that deserve notice are Lynn S. Neal’s Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction and Amy Koehlinger’s The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s.

Neal’s Romancing God explores how evangelical women relate to evangelical romance novels (yes, they exist!) and why they read them. The volume was published by University of North Carolina Press, and here’s a description from the press:

In the world of the evangelical romance novel, sex and desire are mitigated by an omnipresent third party--the divine. Thus romance is not just an encounter between lovers, but a triangle of affection: man, woman, and God. Although this literature is often disparaged by scholars and pastors alike, inspirational fiction plays a unique and important role in the religious lives of many evangelical women. In an engaging study of why women read evangelical romance novels, Lynn S. Neal interviews writers and readers of the genre and finds a complex religious piety among ordinary people.

Neal’s work highlights the lived religion of these romance novel readers to present with clarity the lives of (some) evangelical women. Koehlinger’s New Nuns also centers on the everyday religious expression of nuns. She approaches the lives of women religious in the 1960s, particularly the work of white women religious in African American communities. Harvard University Press published the volume, and the description follows:

Engaging with issues of race and justice allowed the sisters to see themselves, their vocation, and the Church in dramatically different terms. In this book, Koehlinger captures the confusion and frustration, as well as the exuberance and delight, they experienced in their new Christian mission. Their increasing autonomy and frequent critiques of institutional misogyny shaped reforms within their institute and sharpened a post-Vatican II crisis of authority.

What is fascinating about both books is the attempt to present how these women practice their religious beliefs from avid reading to teaching at historically African American colleges. This reader glimpsed how evangelical fiction affirms the values of these women and how women religious were elated and frustrated by their work. Moreover, both Neal and Koehlinger tackle historiographical issues of how these women were presented stereotypically (the nuns) or were derided (romance readers).

Marsh Redux: The Gospel and Politics

Recommended reading: a give-and-take between John Wilson of the journal Books and Culture and the blog Fire and Rose, from their different readings of Charles Marsh's new book on religion and politics -- part of the possible resuscitation of the religious center/left which I've discussed further below. In "The Gospel and Politics: A Response to John Wilson," Fire and Rose summarizes and gives the links, here's a snippet:
Yesterday, John Wilson posted a response to my blog post of last week which was itself a (rather hastily written) response to his review of the new book by Charles Marsh on the partisanship of contemporary American Christianity. I have to admit: I am flattered that of all the responses John Wilson (editor of the consistently excellent Books & Culture) received, he chose to respond to mine in his
latest column
. Wilson calls Fire & Rose a “thoughtful blog,” and from such a well-read and intelligent person, this is high praise indeed. I am grateful to Wilson for taking the time to read these random musings of mine.

Good Vibrations from HBO


I'm pleased to post a contribution by our newest contributing editor, Randall Stephens, who teaches at Eastern Nazarene College and is the author of a fine book that should be out very soon, The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South. Randall is also the editor of the Journal of Southern Religion and associate editor of Historically Speaking.

I'm especially pleased because Randall is THE MAN on new music, film, television, and other forms of popular culture.

Good Vibrations from HBO, by Randall Stephens

John from Cincinnati, the new HBO series created by David Milch (profanity-riddled Deadwood) and surf-noir master Kem Nunn, is only partially about a California surfing dynasty, the Yost family. On the surface the show chronicles their unraveling. The paterfamilias, Mitch, is a jaded, anti-establishment baby-boomer, whose yin for eastern religion is, maybe, a little too obvious. Mitch's son is a washed-out addict, itchy, twitchy, and full of rage. Though he was once an unparalleled star of the sport, he now gets elevated on horse, not on waves. Grandson, Sean, is a natural, innocent and full of promise. Sean's grandmother, Cissy, is a control freak. She spends her life "busting balls" and trying to maintain some semblance of order. Enter John from Cincinnati, an oddball twenty-something, half prophet, half telepathic alien. JC, get it?

The otherworldly adventure starts in episode one when Mitch levitates about a foot off the ground after surfing. It's a prelude of things supernatural to come. John shows up out of the blue, wearing chic summer attire and sporting a confused grin. He is regularly around the Yost family and their acquaintances (a pothead Vietnam vet, gangsters from Hawaii, a spunky surf shop clerk, a lecherous agent, and a man who speaks to his parakeets). John has a habit of repeating what others say, and, more recently, reading minds and speaking inner thoughts out loud. The echolalic prophet acts as narrator. Hard to believe something like this could actually be on TV and win any kind of audience, but it has, and the formula actually works.

I find the show's comment on American religion in the 21st especially intriguing. Characters take their beliefs cafeteria-style, a little Zen here a dash of Catholicism, a heaping helping of new millennium Gnosticism, and a dollop of conspiracy theory. Perhaps Diana L. Eck, Harvey Cox, and Elaine Pagels are on the mark about Americans new doctrine-free religion. It may be that many, those on the left coast in particular, care little for dogma and creeds. The characters on J from C are all damaged, some, seemingly, beyond repair or redemption. It's hard to imagine them getting right with God by going Southern Baptist or Orthodox. But in cherub-faced John, they seem to find some solace, regardless of whether they can make sense of him or not. For me the series occasionally evokes the meandering spirituality of Freeman Dyson. At other times it brings to mind the dark apocalypticism of Philip K. Dick.

My favorite episode thus far was the most recent, "His Visit: Day Five." John appears in visions to the characters, speaks obscure wisdom, travels over space and time (like the post-Easter Christ), and transforms his "disciples." In the most clearly biblical scene yet, JC appears to the entire cast at a barbeque at a run-down motel. The characters, though, appear to be only aware of his presence on a subconscious level. He speaks in unmistakable Johanine terms: "my Father" will right wrongs, heal wounds, and set the world straight.It is a powerful sequence. Few programs deal so explicitly and capably with religion or belief. HBO's Six Feet Under, one of the best programs on TV in the last decade, did so with panache. But the unconventionality of J from C and the bizarre, captivating California religiosity of the program stands out. I just wish the series'creators had used Brian Wilson's sprawling pocket symphony, "Good Vibrations," as the theme song.

Barack DuBois

And those DuBois hits just keep on coming -- Edward J. Blum asks What Barack Obama (and the Democratic Party) Can Learn About Religion From W. E. B. DuBois? Ed's answer: more than you think! Here's a snippet, click on the link for the full piece:

Barack Obama and W. E. B. Du Bois have a lot in common. Both had absent
fathers whom they likened to dreamers; both relied on their mothers; both earned
advanced degrees from Harvard University; both traveled extensively throughout
the world; both ran for United States Senate (Du Bois lost his bid as a labor
candidate from New York in 1950); both elicited questions of racial
authenticity, of whether they could represent African Americans since they had
mixed-ancestries and were highly educated; and both shared a desire to wrestle
religious ideas and language away from conservatives. Perhaps, as Barack Obama
and more broadly the Democratic Party attempt to engage religious issues, it
will behoove them not only to look back to what Du Bois had to say about faith,
but also to create a pantheon of spiritual liberals to revere as part of the
quest to demonstrate historical and religious legitimacy.

Son of: Is America A Christian Nation? Fea's Thoughts Continued

John Fea continues the discussion (see the previous post on Friday, July 13) from the comments received on "Is America a Christian Nation." Before posting, I'll recommend again the Religion by Region series of books edited by Mark Silk. Since the discussion below is specifically about the South, let me mention the extensive discussion of this question found in vol. 5 of this series: Charles Reagan Wilson and Mark Silk, eds., Religion and Public Life in the South: In the Evangelical Mode (the link takes you to a nice review of the book by Darren Grem, who contributes to this blog in the comments section below). I have a chapter in this book, but as Darren writes, historian Ted Ownby "offers perhaps the most informative piece in the volume, using data from the North American Religion Atlas (NARA) and American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) to look at the current state of religious affiliation in each southern state. Conducted in 2000, the NARA counted adherents as those listed on the rolls of specific religious groups. Conducted in 2001, the ARIS counted as adherents those who self-identified with a certain religious tradition. From the NARA and ARIS, Ownby interpolates that 'the statistics offer rich confirmation of the image of the South as the country's evangelical heartland' (39). But large numbers of 'unaffiliated,' as well as the strong presence of Catholics, Pentecostals, and non-Baptist Protestants, show that other groups seem to be reshaping the South's public character." Ownby includes some great maps.

John Fea sends the following:

In the comments section Darren Grem asks whether or not we can legitimately use Heclo’s categories to call the present-day and/or historic South a "Christian region." I will leave the answer to that question to those of you who know the South far, far better than I do. (Heck, this Jersey boy just visited Oklahoma for the first time in his life last fall!).I am curious, however, just how helpful Heclo’s categories might be for thinking about the historical South or, for that matter, the history of the nation as a whole. What is our responsibility as historians in judging whether or not the nation or the South is indeed “Christian?” By taking Heclo’s categories and using them to interpret the past are we dabbling in the historical sin of presentism? For example, I have been reading Harry Stout’s book Upon the Altar of the Nation. In that book Stout points out that the leaders of the Confederacy understood themselves to be part of a “Christian nation.” Now if we use Heclo’s fourth category (behavior), the Confederacy could not be considered a “Christian nation” because of its commitment to slavery. If we use his first category (demographics) we would have to say that the Confederacy was absolutely a “Christian nation.” I thus wonder if the entire project of trying to solve the problem of whether or not America (or the South) is a “Christian nation/society” is outside the scope of what we as historians do. I am not suggesting here that we cannot make the kind of judgments that Heclo is suggesting we make, but if and when we do, do we somehow cease being historians and begin to take on the role of cultural or moral critics? I am quite eager to hear what you all think about this since I am wrestling with this question myself.

He's Back!

PhD In History, a formerly anonymous blogger whose blog suddenly disappeared last week, is back (note to self: fix blogroll), this time revealing his identity and still full of interesting and thoughtful posts about being a graduate student, the profession of history, how the faculty hierarchy breaks down, who's getting jobs where, and much more. I'm glad to see PhD in History back, sort of like the blogosphere's answer to AHA Today. Both are worth reading, especially in dialogue.

John Fea: Is America a Christian Nation?

Below (scroll down or click here), I introduced to you our first contributing editor, John Fea of Messiah College, whose first blog entry concerns civic humanism, religion, and the eighteenth-century republican tradition. Here's John's next entry, on that much politicized question, "Is America A Christian Nation"?

John Fea: Is America a Christian Nation?

Most of us are no doubt tired of this politically charged question. I know I am. But there is also a part of me that just can’t stay away from it. As someone who teaches at a church-related college in the evangelical tradition, I get this question all the time from prospective students and their parents.

This is why I was intrigued when I saw Hugh Heclo’s article, “Is America a Christian Nation?” in the most recent issue of Political Science Quarterly. In one of the more thoughtful treatments of this topic I have seen of late, Heclo concludes that the answer to this question is much more complicated than both the Christian Right and the secular left tend to make it. (Of course it is!!). Is America a Christian nation? Heclo says that the answer is “yes--no--no--no--sort of--sort of--and no way.”

Here is how he breaks down his answer:
1). America is a Christian nation if “Christian” is defined demographically.
2). America is not a Christian nation in terms of the way Americans regard the “relevance of Christianity to their everyday lives.”
3). America is not a Christian nation in terms of how Americans uphold Christian creedal commitments.
4). America is not a Christian nation in terms of how they behave.
5). America is “sort of” a Christian nation in terms of its legal and institutional structures.
6). America is “sort of” a Christian nation in terms of its moral/republican ethos.
7). America is definitely not (“no way”) a Christian nation in terms of “Christianity’s view of the question.”

Some of us may be disappointed with Heclo’s lack of deep historical thinking and use of poll data to support his conclusions (after all, he is a political scientist), but his article is worth reading. I wonder how American religious life in the late eighteenth-century would fare under Heclo’s criteria for what makes a nation “Christian?”

If you do not have access to Political Science Quarterly (the article is not on-line), the essay stems from a 2004 lecture that Heclo gave at Boston College. You can watch that lecture here.

Religion and the Early Republic

From my H-SOUTH digest:

"The summer 2007 issue of the Journal of the Early Republic is off thepresses! The Journal is available through most university libraries or through online aggregators such as EBSCO." More information here.

A couple of pieces draw the attention of American religious historians:

Adam Jortner, "Cholera, Christ, and Jackson: The Epidemic of 1832 and the Origins ofChristian Politics in Antebellum America."

Daniel D. Blinka, "Roots of the Modern Trial: Greenleaf's Testimony to the Harmony ofChristianity, Science, and the Law in Antebellum America."

Shameless but Non-Self-Promotional Promotion, or, Why You Should Join the Southern Historical Association


I've recently been appointed to head up the Membership Committee of the Southern Historical Association. While it doesn't start, technically, until November's annual meeting, I'm busy recruiting folks to be on the committee. So far, five folks I've successfully recruited as committee members indicated to me they had let their membership lapse, so they needed to rejoin in order to serve on the committee--and all of these have been good folks in the field of Southern History.

So this blog space will periodically be used to plug our little organization. For anyone with any interest in the history/literature/culture of the South, the SHA is the least expensive, most friendly organization going. Its annual meetings, usually the first week of November, are a treat, large enough to offer diverse intellectual experience but small enough to be welcoming (in contrast to the behemoth gatherings of the AHA or the AAR!). Also, since you're reading this blog probably for religious history rather than southern history content, I'll add that the Southern has become an excellent forum for panels, articles, and discussions on the history of religion in the South. Anyone who reads the Journal of Southern Religion should be in the SHA.

It's $40 to join, and you can do so online, and you'll get the Journal of Southern History. Oh, and for your graduate students, it's $10 -- there's stuff at Starbucks now that costs more than than that, so just give up a couple of of your double shot lite soy mochas and join.

End of pitch -- but you'll hear about this again periodically. Incidentally, the 2008 meeting is scheduled to be in New Orleans, and will feature the recently retired Berkeley historian Leon Litwack (full disclosure: my graduate advisor) giving the presidential address.
Update: In the comments section, The Historianess reminds me that "you needn't be exclusively an historian of the south to join--you can be an historian 'whose research is salient to key issues and themes in the history of the American South . . . ' "

Culture and Redemption -- New Book!

Tracy Fessenden, Professor of Religion at Arizona State and one of the sharpest people I know in the field, has published her much-anticipated new book -- actually it came out last year and somehow I missed it! Anyway, one theme of this blog will be to publicize new books (as well as classics such as Alan Heimert, the reprint of which is discussed below) that deserve widespread attention, so let me recommend to you:

Tracy Fessenden, Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature

From the book description on Princeton's website:

Many Americans wish to believe that the United States, founded in religious tolerance, has gradually and naturally established a secular public sphere that is equally tolerant of all religions--or none. Culture and Redemption suggests otherwise. Tracy Fessenden contends that the uneven separation of church and state in America, far from safeguarding an arena for democratic flourishing, has functioned instead to promote particular forms of religious possibility while containing, suppressing, or excluding others. At a moment when questions about the appropriate role of religion in public life have become trenchant as never before, Culture and Redemption radically challenges conventional depictions--celebratory or damning--of America's "secular" public sphere.

Examining American legal cases, children's books, sermons, and polemics together with popular and classic works of literature from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, Culture and Redemption shows how the vaunted secularization of American culture proceeds not as an inevitable by-product of modernity, but instead through concerted attempts to render dominant forms of Protestant identity continuous with democratic, civil identity. Fessenden shows this process to be thoroughly implicated, moreover, in practices of often-violent exclusion that go to the making of national culture: Indian removals, forced acculturations of religious and other minorities, internal and external colonizations, and exacting constructions of sex and gender. Her new readings of Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Stowe, Twain, Gilman, Fitzgerald, and others who address themselves to these dynamics in intricate and often unexpected ways advance a major reinterpretation of American writing.

Gendered Baptists

Reading through Catherine Brekus, ed., The Religious History of American Women, discussed further below, reminded me of the case of Sheri Klouda, recently fired from her position as professor of Hebrew at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The irony of it is that this may be the straw, or at least one straw, that broke the back of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leadership; in a remarkable series of posts, Oklahoma conservative Baptist Wade Burleson blogged about this case and kept it in the news last winter and spring. The orthodox SBC conservatives (including Burleson, who remains proud of driving "liberalism"--his term for what religious historians would refer to as "moderately conservative and mainstream evangelicalism" -- out of the SBC over the last twenty years) appear to be splintering in a pattern remarkably parallel to the (possible) fracturing of the national conservative political coalition.

Paige Patterson, president of the seminary, apparently stirred up quite a storm on this one -- but a storm from his erstwhile allies in the so-called "conservative resurgence." They were quiet when Molly Marshall and others were purged from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, perhaps because the victims in this case could be tagged and and thus exiled as "liberals," but the combination of Klouda's orthodox views and the straitened circumstances of her family made this purge look especially Stalinist.

The story received widespread coverage last winter/spring (back in my halycon pre-blog days). This latest ideological purge in the SBC is out of the news now, but readers of the blog can pick back up on the story from the standpoint of an outraged insider conservative.

In the latter portion of my book Freedom's Coming, I suggested that "gender has supplanted race as a defining principle of god-ordained hierarchy." If I did not feel so badly for Professor Klouda, I might thank President Patterson for so nicely exemplifying my thesis.

Religion and the Revolution

We've been lately on the subject of religion, civic humanism, and contemporary politics. Here's an older take, from an older book resurrected with a new reprint.

Alan Heimert's Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution, a classic in the field from the 1960s, has just been reprinted. Jeff Weddington of Westminister Theological Seminary gives the old book a new going-over, courtesy of the Jonathan Edwards Center blog. Here's a quick excerpt:

If one can believe the foreword and back cover blurbs of this reprint of the late Alan Heimert’s Religion and the American Mind, the reappearance of his seminal study of the relationship between religion and politics in eighteenth-century America may just prove to be one more piece of evidence demonstrating that resurrections do in fact happen. This book shook the scholarly world when it made its first appearance in 1966. It was panned by many within the historical studies community because it challenged the reigning paradigm of the day. And that paradigm was that the rise of American democracy was fueled inter alia by the “Liberal” clergy of the day. Heimert argued that American democracy arose with the assistance of Evangelical clergy as religion was central to American life at the time. It appears then that Heimert demolished the facile coupling of “Liberal” religion and liberal politics (see Andrew Delbanco’s Foreword).

07/11: Phil from BaldBlogger sends along the following update in the comments section: "In that light, interested readers should know that Baylor historian Thomas Kidd has a forthcoming work on the Great Awakening, _The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America_ (Yale, Nov. 2007) and a book under contract with Basic, _A Christian Sparta: Evangelicals, Deists, and the Creation of the American Republic_, that in many ways should compliment the republication of Heimert's work and continue to add new life to the debate."

Democratic God-Talk

John Fea's further thoughts on religion, civic humanism, and presidential politics have been posted here. Fea cheers the Democratic attempt to incorporate religious values rhetoric, with the following caveat:

"Of course, civic humanism and religious faith must always remain in tension in American life. Faith can easily get co-opted by civic humanism, resulting in the loss of religion's prophetic voice in society. Or civic humanism can be co-opted by faith, resulting in the kind of "Christian America" that many of today's Republicans attempt to defend."

At the same time, he suggests that "Civic humanism and the extension of faith to the problems facing all members of the national community just may be what the Democratic Party, and the United States, need at an hour like this."

Religion and the Common Good

The RELIGION AND AMERICAN HISTORY blog welcomes its first contribution by our first contributing editor, John Fea of Messiah College. John is an historian of early American history whose best-known work thus far is a fine piece: "The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian's Rural Enlightenment." The Journal of American History (September, 2003), 462-490. He's completing a book for the University of Pennsylania Press about Philip Vickers and the Enlightenment in rural America, and is also working on an edited volume entitled Christian Faith and the Historian's Vocation for Notre Dame University Press. John was in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts from 2000-2002; I'm an alum of the same program, 1993-95. In 2002 he joined the History Department of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. John has also been very active in public presentations, op-ed pieces, and speaking engagements, listed here. Most recently we spent an enjoyable weekend together at the Lilly Fellows Program reunion, held in Indianapolis, where John gave a presentation about the relationship of the evangelical scholar to the academy.

John will be sending along contributions as the spirit moves--and I hope it will move often! His first post concerns an issue I took up a few days ago, and that is current discussions of religion and the common good, especially those coming from a possibly (big IF there) renascent evangelical center/left.


7-7-07: Our lucky day!

Religion and the Common Good

I want to thank Paul H. for inviting me to contribute to his blog. I look forward to the conversation.

I have noticed of late that the “common good” seems to be making a comeback in American political discourse, especially among Democratic presidential candidates. Edwards, Obama, and Clinton are calling people to sacrifice their interests for the larger national community and they are using religious discourse to do it. This was certainly evident among all three candidates last month at the CNN/Sojourners “Presidential Forum on Faith, Values, and Poverty” and it has been a staple of the Obama campaign ever since he announced he was running.

A few weeks ago I made a modest case in an op-ed piece that the Democrats are tapping into the longstanding relationship between Christianity and civic humanism in American history. They were returning to the “small r” republicanism of the revolutionary era and doing a better job than their Republican rivals of reflecting the Founders’ understanding of the relationship between religion and the citizen’s role in public life.

This idea has been developed in Lew Daly’s excellent essay in the recent Boston Review, “In Search of the Common Good: The Catholic Roots of American Liberalism.” Daly makes a compelling case that New Deal liberalism was the product of Catholic social teaching, particularly the views of Leo XIII as channeled through the Catholic progressivism of Father John Ryan. Catholics of Ryan’s stripe, Daly reminds us, were responsible for bringing immigrant Catholics into Democratic fold, a shift in loyalty that began with the populism of William Jennings Bryan and reached its height, of course, with Franklin D. Roosevelt. His essay is worth a look.

None of the current Democratic frontrunners are Catholic, but it seems that Father Ryan’s understanding of a “common good” rooted in the dignity of workers, a critique of what John Paul II used to call “savage capitalism,” the defense of the family, and the importance of the “moral law” as a check to autonomous individualism just might resonate with values voters in 2008 and provide a much needed theological and intellectual boost to their religious rhetoric.

DuBois Carnival!

Postcript to DuBois: A miniature history carnival on Blum's book on Du Bois, as well as some reflections on authorial blogs, may be found here, courtesy of Ralph Luker and History News Network.

Reconciliation Blues

Du Bois week continues with a nod to Ed Gilbreath's Reconciliation Blog, which the younger DuBois surely would have appreciated. Gilbreath's book, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity, is well worth reading, as is his very interesting interview with Jerry Falwell. Ed Gilbreath points the way to a good further discussion of Race, Presidential Forums, and Evangelicals, from "A Man from Issachar," an African American Baptist theologian. Thanks again to Bald Blogger for linking me up to this discussion.

Apropos of Christianity and race, here is a salient quote from the introduction to Ed Blum's book W. E. B. Du Bois: American Prophet:

If one looks for religion in W. E. B. Du Bois's life and times, it seems ubiquitous. It is there in his childhood at the Sunday school he loved so much. It is there in his first written works as he unveiled black souls in a culture that denied their existence. It is there in the prayers he wrote for his students, in his attacks on church segregation, in his jeremiads against war and unbridled capitalism, and in his literary creations of black Christs and dark princesses. It is there in his friendships with white ministers, in his lectures in churches and synagogues, and in his conception of Communism. Du Bois never hid his assessments and feelings on religion behind codes or riddles or anagrams. They were too vital then. And they are too vital now. Du Bois was, in his self characterizations and in the hearts of thousands, a prophet with sacred insight. He could see past the myths of the present age and reveal worlds beyond what lies on the surface.Du Bois was an American prophet; he was a moral historian, a visionary sociologist, a literary theologian, and a mythological hero with a black face. In a world marked by white supremacy, capitalistic exploitation, grotesque materialism, and wicked militancy, Du Bois became a rogue saint and a dark monk to preach the good news of racial brotherhood, economic cooperation, and peace on earth."

Finally, a hopeful recommendation: People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States.

Peace, Out till next week.
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