Bear Bryant V. God


Southern Baptists Step Aside -- John Fea

I know that I am a bit out of my league here with all the Southerners and Southern religious historians who read and contribute to this blog, but I think Wright Thompson at may have identified the real Southern religion.

Religious (Il)Literacy

Religious Literacy
Kelly Baker

Since this is the first week of classes for me, my mind is a jumble of syllabi, additional readings, and learning names that are attached to new faces in my classrooms. To begin the semester for my World Religions course, I decided to give the religious literacy quiz from Stephen Prothero’s newest book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't. I did this last semester as well to allow my students to gauge their own literacy. Bald Blogger used this quiz in his American Religious History course, and he commented:

Having recently read Stephen Prothero's newest book on religious literacy, and being more or less convinced of his arguments, I set out to (unscientifically) test his thesis by giving my students the first night of class his suggested religious literacy quiz. Students seemed to know more than I expected, but some of the things I thought they'd know they didn't. It was an interesting exercise, and prompted much fruitful discussion. Before taking the quiz, I had students read his Christian Science Monitor essay and then I spoke briefly about the book.

This quiz also serves as a sneaky way to sell the value of the course by demonstrating to students that they need this literacy. Thus, they should take the course to gain valuable understanding, not just because they need to fill the ever-elusive humanities credit. It seems to work, and it is helpful to figure how much base knowledge the students bring with them.

My “other hat” (the cranky historian), however, remains curious about how folks who “do” religion in American history feel about the text. Susan Jacoby, the author of Free Thinkers: The Rise of American Secularism, has an interesting review in the Washington Post in which she confirms the rise of religious illiteracy but questions his description of religion’s influence in schooling in the nineteenth century and seeming lack of explanation of how the shift from print to video culture in the mid-twentieth century impacted religious literacy. (Jacoby noted this shift is known to have eroded cultural literacy.) She is most critical of his solution to this illiteracy. She writes:

The weakest part of this otherwise excellent book is Prothero's proposed remedy: high school and college courses dealing with the historical and cultural role of religion. As the author rightly notes, teaching about religion -- as distinct from preaching religion -- is not prohibited by the First Amendment's ban on "an establishment of religion." But given the failure of so many schools to inculcate the most elementary facts about American history, it is hard to imagine that most teachers would be up to the task of explaining, say, the subtleties of biblical arguments for and against slavery. Furthermore, a curriculum that would meet with the approval of Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and nonreligious parents would probably be a worthless set of platitudes.

I guess I am wondering how historians have received the book as well as the thoughts from our readers about their view of the work. Any commentary or links would be much appreciated as I continue to mull the applicability of this book for my teaching and the larger field.

The Roots of Perfidy

As noted below, Harold Fickett writes of Henry Ward Beecher that "we are left to conclude—as did many of Beecher's contemporaries—that his liberalism and his perfidy went hand in hand." Liberalism made him do it.

Would you care to comment, Larry Craig? Or Ted Haggard? How about you, Congressman Foley, a response? And now back to you, Cardinal Law.

Turkish Family Values

An American(ist) in Turkey
By Jon Pahl, Ph.D.

III. Turkish Family Values

Americans, and Christians, hardly have a corner on “family values.” On two consecutive evenings during my recent visit to Turkey I learned how a few Muslims in Turkey—at least those affiliated with the Gülen movement, both articulate and put into practice love and respect for family as among their highest earthly values.

The first occasion was a dinner with a group of Turkish businessmen and women in Izmir (see the photo of part of the group, attached). As anyone familiar with intercultural dialogue knows, sometimes conversation can lag when people are strangers, especially when translators are necessary. In such situations, I’ve found that family photos can create conversations and affirmations that transcend words—while also focusing them.

I always carry with me photos of my children—Justin (21), Nathan (19), and Rheanne (14). I’ve written about each of them at some length in my previous book (Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces). In Izmir, when conversation over dinner dragged, I passed my photos around the table.

The businessman directly to my right—Osman Gültekin, who builds luxury homes, first commented kindly that I looked too young to have such mature children. Then he quickly pulled out his cell phone. There he had downloaded pictures of his two daughters, aged 4 and 8. We nodded in agreement, and enjoyed the moment.

Later, the businesswoman in our group—who owned and operated a retail-clothing store and whose name I was unable to catch, introduced us to her two teenaged daughters, who had joined us for dessert. She stated, in response to a question about her “life philosophy,” that it involved “commitment to family and children.” She then hastily added: “and my husband,” who sat across the table from her, smiling. We all laughed.

The next night we shared a dinner in the home of an Izmir furniture dealer—Sedat Buzoğlu. Once again, I passed my family photos around the group.

One of the conversations to ensue was with Sedat’s son, a 14 year old also named Sedat. His father had introduced him, proudly, as a member of Turkey’s 15 and under national soccer team. So I asked Sedat why he thought David Beckham had gone to the U.S. “For fame and money,” the youth replied.

Later that night, in a warm gesture, the younger Sedat offered me a gift of a blue soccer ball. He said that he had owned the ball for five years. That was nearly half of his life. I accepted it with gratitude—and carried it with me home on the plane. The gift was more than a token of a mutual bond over sports. I read it as a gift from one son to the father of others—across cultures.

Sedat’s daughter—Fatima, spoke with us about her preparations for the upcoming college entrance exam. This is like the SAT—but is held only once per year. A passing score earns full tuition for four years. A low score keeps one out of college altogether. The exam has been a consistent source of anxiety for Turkish youth—and a source of some recent controversy.

But it was in the obvious care of parents for their children, and vice-versa, that Turkish family values became clearest to me. Over dinner, I asked both Sedat-the-younger and Fatima whether they would be interested in studying at a college in the U.S.. Sedat said “maybe.” His mother, to whom I quickly turned, opened her eyes widely and spoke quickly to express regret over—not condemnation of, that prospect. It would be hard, she intimated, to have her son so far away.

And then Fatima answered my question by saying that her father had already paid for private schooling on her behalf at a Gulen movement high school. “I would not want to burden him further,” she answered.

Such concerns—parental pride in children, concern about letting go, youthful anxiety about exams, and youth’s generosity and willingness to sacrifice, reveal a core of Turkish family values that unite everyday lives across the oceans.

As Gülen—the spiritual inspiration for the movement to which the businesspersons and families belonged, puts it: “In the family, elders should treat those younger with compassion, and the young should show respect for their elders.”(75) Those teachings transcend cultures, and are the preserve of no single faith tradition.

NEXT: Sacred Space in Modern Turkey

Anti-Catholicism: The Key to All Mythologies?

Reading John Fea's review of The King's Three Faces below (scroll down to the next blog entry), and thinking of this in conjunction with Philip Hamburger's Separation of Church and State and works which analyze "cultural anti-Catholicism" (of which there are many indeed, Jenny Franchot's Roads to Rome coming immediately to mind), leads me to a brief query: is the history and historical effects of anti-Catholicism becoming a new defining theme in colonial and antebellum American religious/legal/constitutional/political history? Doubtless this is overstating the case, but it's remarkable how many roads are leading away from Rome, as it were, at the same time.

I might add that anti-Catholicism as a defining trope in these and other works is coming in for its share of criticism: see Mark McGarvie's takedown on Hamburger's thesis, and Eric Hinderaker's appreciative but skeptical look at The King's Three Faces in a recent Reviews in American History. Nonetheless, this convergence of work has made me think more deeply about what Robert Orsi and others have called the deeply Protestant assumptions (acknowledged or unconscious) which have informed the discipline of religious studies as well as the practice of American religious history.

Just a few thoughts from ruminating on John Fea's last post, as well as on my ongoing attempt to construct a social history of what "religious freedom" has meant in American history.

Anti-Catholicism Strikes Again!


The Protestant American Revolution: A Brief Review of Brendan McConville’s The King’s Three Faces --

by John Fea

After taking on Disney in my last post, it is time to turn back to what is, at least for me, safer ground. The topic is the American Revolution and Brendan McConville’s brave and provocative new interpretation, The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776 (UNC Press/Omohundro Institute, 2006). McConville offers a devastating critique of the so-called ‘Whig” interpretation of early American history. He argues that the narrative of eighteenth-century life we have come to embrace is too “forward looking,” too “liberal-capitalist,” too “democratizing,” and too driven by the American Revolution. McConville describes the latter as the “scholarly vortex that sucks all that came before it into its deterministic bowels.” His gripe is with a form of teleological history that fails to interpret colonial America on its own terms. If we forget that the American Revolution happened we can see the thirteen colonies for what they truly were—strong bastions of British royalism where most ordinary people held a deep affection for the monarch well into the 1770s. (Many believed that the Hanovers were “semi-divine.”).

The actual American Revolution was not the inevitable result of decades of Enlightenment-inspired anti-British sentiment. It was rather a sudden, abrupt, heart-wrenching break with England that was driven more by anti-Catholicism than ancient or contemporary ideas about politics. This view of the American Revolution makes sense despite the fact that it might frustrate and infuriate many. Rhys Isaac’s endorsement of the book is telling: “Here is a work so controversial that some will barely be able to sit still as they turn the pages.”

According to McConville, the people of the American colonies loved their king and they displayed this love through a host of rituals and public celebrations. As might be expected, most of these celebrations had an anti-Catholic flavor to them, particularly during times of war with France or in the wake of the Quebec Act of 1774. This devotion to the Hanover King was rooted in his identity as a defender of Protestantism, so when it appeared that George III would not defend the colonists against what they perceived to be a violation of their (Protestant) rights, they reacted with fury, not unlike a scorned lover. As McConville notes, “This understanding of the conspiracy suggests that the idea of a secular political culture at all as we would experience it is anachronistic.”(p.262).

Anyone who teaches the United States survey course needs to read this book. It makes for a wonderful foil to the Whig view of the American Revolution that most of our students bring with them to the classroom. It just came out in paperback, so I hope to assign it in my “Age of the American Revolution” course. It is also worth noting that McConville is an “early American historian,” meaning he would not define himself as an “American religious historian” in the way some of those who read this blog might define themselves. I have found that much of the best scholarship on religion in early America is often embedded in books like McConville’s--works that treat religion as one of several factors informing seventeenth and eighteenth-century life and events. These books, because of their subject matter and titles, are unlikely to catch the eye of so-called “American religious historians.” This is unfortunate since The King’s Three Faces is a major contribution to the study of Protestantism in eighteenth-century America.

If interested, HNN has published my extended review of the book. I should also add that McConville is co-organizing a major conference on anti-Catholicism in early America in conjunction with the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at Penn. The call for papers is open until Sept. 15, 2007.

Spirituality, Smirituality

Below I posted a portion of a rather unsuccessfully snippy review of Deborah Applegate's biography of Henry Ward Beecher. Here is, to my mind, a much better example of a tough-minded review: Kathryn Lofton on Gregory C. Stanczak's Engaged Spirituality: Social Change and American Religion. This is from H-AMSTDY and was crossposted on H-AMREL, but it doesn't appear to be up yet on the H-AMSTDY reviews page -- presumably it will be sometime. At any rate, anyone understanding of but by now impatient with spirituality talk will appreciate Lofton's skeptical take. I'll post the link to the full review when it's up -- or send a link to me if it's up somewhere.

Disengaging Spirituality

It is perhaps time to declare a scholarly moratorium on "spirituality." This is not to say that we should cease its analysis: no matter what an elite cadre argues, seekers will continue to deploy "spiritual" and"spirituality" with self-diagnostic glee, and it remains our task to catalogue and assess such talk for its cultural and epistemic content. However, it may be time to give up the descriptive seduction of this category; it may be time to relinquish our spiritual pursuit of spirituality. If our primary labor is one of comparison and classification, then it seems increasingly apparent that whatever"spirituality" may offer, it rarely produces anything generative to humanist inquiry, instead reducing the analytic observer to a dreamy-eyed gaze.

Students of religion must expect more of themselves than the mere portraiture of best practice. It should also demand the deconstruction of a subject's (and an author's) own "spiritual"self-impressions. I write this after the conclusion of a carefully narrated and often quite moving work, _Engaged Spirituality: Social Change and AmericanReligion_, written by Gregory C. Stanczak. _Engaged Spirituality_ is the product of considerable research through the Center for Religion and Civic Culture atthe University of Southern California. From there, Stanczak conducted seventy-six interviews with "exemplary individuals who articulated aconnection between spiritual practice and a commitment to social justice"(p. xiv). Although the majority of his conversation partners were based in southern California, Stanczak added interviewees from New York and Washington, D.C., introducing the reader to a sectarian sampler of spiritual laborers, cultural preservationists, and managers of social ministries.

The driving inquiry of his work was aspirant: What sustains ongoing social action? Quickly Stanczak decides that the most interesting answers to him might be found in religion "and more specifically the subjective elements of spirituality" (p. ix). Later,Stanczak restates his inquiry in more specifically religious terms: "Once the pilgrim returns from Hajj or after the vivid vision evaporates or the sense of clarity and connection recedes into the day-to-day pressures of life, how are these newfound perspectives on the world implemented or turned into strategies for effecting meaningful change?"(p. 50). For Stanczak, then, then, spirituality is a "social resource" (p. xx). It is the "spark" culled from religious ritual, the frisson which presses men and women to labor against odds for betterment (p. 18). [snip] . . . .

An evidentiary force in the erosion of spirituality as a mystical force will be Leigh Eric Schmidt's _Restless Souls: The Making of AmericanSpirituality_ (2005). Unfortunately for Stanczak, the nearness of their publication dates prohibited his usage of Schmidt's meaty historical profile of "spirituality," one which masterfully demonstrates the ways in which spirituality has always been a discursive term by leading political agents. To this end, _Restless Souls_ includes no small amount of scholarly pleasure at the liberal politics of spirituality's most robust American progenitors. However, for every biographical or topical endorsement, Schmidt offers a tough categorical anatomy, pointing out the habitual rituals and organizational mantras deployed by those believing themselves to be escaping the religious through talk of the spiritual. Schmidt reveals the "mixed blessings" of such identity markers, suggesting in his own conclusion that if a "Spiritual Left" is to produce "democratic freedom and cosmopolitan progressivism," it must resuscitate the communitarian, religious habitude that served as its intellectual and practical point of origin for American spirituality.[1]

The engaged spirituality so celebrated by Stanczak and his subjects will only be made purposeful with consciousness of a social presence, moderated by common, occasionally disciplinary tactics. However, students of religion in American culture frequently obscure such structures of religious power in favor of the self-celebrating terminological lacquer used by believers to situate themselves in a dizzying religious landscape. The gauntlet of religious research is to resist these propagandistic titillations of spirituality talk. Until we are able to turn against the sirens of spiritual selfhood, until we are able to resist the ambivalent chat of spirituality, we might be better off leaving such talk to those who do it best, who use it best: the seekers themselves. Otherwise, our texts will begin to read more as manuals to such seeking, rather than critical guides to a complex cultural topography. . . .

He's Lost That Loving Feeling

Harold Fickett has posted a somewhat contrarian review of Debby Applegate's Pulitzer-winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher, in the most recent Books and Culture. While appreciative in parts, the salient points are biting (if, to me, unpersuasive, to put it mildly!):

Much against Applegate's intent, we are left to conclude—as did many of Beecher's contemporaries—that his liberalism and his perfidy went hand in hand. E.L. Godkin, who wrote for The Nation, commented on Beecher's theology: "As his God is wholly love and is no respecter of persons, attempts to imitate Him result simply in the deliberate and systematic suppression of all discrimination touching character and conduct, and the cultivation of a purely emotional theology, made up, not of opinions, but of sights and tears and aspirations and unlimited good-nature. As God loves and forgives the sinner, why should not we?"

Applegate wants to maintain Beecher's status as a liberal hero. She defends him on the grounds that the great strength of his emotional candor—the driving force behind his spellbinding powers as an orator—unhappily had its dark side in his inability to resist having sex with his friends' wives:

"One cannot view Beecher's career without thinking of the many charismatic men
who were driven to heady heights by their unquenchable longing for approbation
and who risked their legacies by letting this longing shade into lust—men of
indisputable stature such as Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Bill
Clinton. Like them, what made Beecher larger than life was his ability to
transform his flaws into a powerful force of empathy and ambition."

. . . . If Applegate would have paid more attention to the "cruel, convoluted logic" of original sin, she might have discovered its explanatory power for the tale she's telling. If anything does, original sin accounts for the behavior of Beecher, his paramours, their conflicted husbands, and the complicit church committees. . . .
Most of us are grateful that the joyless manners of some Christians have given way to Jesus' embrace of life and what he taught about his loving heavenly Father. But this was always the core of orthodoxy. Methodism and Moody had much more to do with its proper re-emphasis in Protestant circles than Beecher. The followers of Beecher ended up preaching little but self-improvement. A loving God soon became extraneous, and the Plymouth Churches of the world emptied.

I won't bother with the ridiculous railing about liberalism and perfidy; but it is interesting to me to think about how evangelical writers define the "core of orthodoxy," surely a historical variable if there ever was one!

Love Jihad


An American(ist) in Turkey
By Jon Pahl, Ph.D.

II. Love Jihad?

One of the most misunderstood concepts in Islam is the Arabic term jihad, literally, “struggle.” Usually in the Western media, based on a very limited sampling of Islamist thought, the term is translated as “holy war,” or used to refer to armed warfare by Muslims against infidels.

This is clearly the primary meaning ascribed to it by Christiane Amanpour in her interesting, informative, but unfortunate series of pieces on “God’s Warriors” currently airing on CNN (Go to: [Editor's note: scroll down for a separate blog entry on the CNN series]. Like so many journalists, Amanpour likes to give attention to extremists. This highly selective attention to religion’s public presence can alarm viewers, stoke stereotypes, and replicate policies that treat people of faith (notably those who disagree with one’s own ultimate concerns—whether articulated or not) as crazy or needing to be contained by force.

On a recent trip to Turkey, I encountered a number of Muslims who are struggling (pun intended) to offer a more balanced understanding of jihad. For these people of faith, the primary meaning of jihad is the internal effort of individuals and communities to live out lives of responsibility before God, and in relationship to neighbors and all creation. Call it the love jihad.

My hosts for this trip were members of a grass-roots movement inspired by Turkish Muslim scholar M. Fethullah Gülen. According to Gülen, “jihad means using all one’s strength, as well as moving toward an objective with all one’s power . . . and resisting every difficulty.”(62) Far from being a “holy war,” the “greater jihad” is an internal process. Gülen defines it as “the effort to attain one’s essence.”(62) The objective of jihad is not dominance, but peace. It is about “overcoming obstacles between oneself and his or her essence, and the soul’s reaching knowledge and eventually divine knowledge, divine love, and spiritual bliss.”(62)

The primary obstacles to be overcome by jihad are not infidels or enemies, but internal dispositions and habits. “Malice and hatred are the seeds of hell scattered among people by evil,” Gülen contends. (51)

Gülen recognizes that conflict is part of history: “There are always going to be battles.”(98) He cites as examples of just conflicts the Turks’ defense of their territory as the Ottoman empire declined, in battles such as at Canakkale and Tablusgarp—where Mustafa Kemal established his reputation. To clarify his realism, Gülen turns to satire: “You have come to make us civilized. That’s good of you. Welcome. Look, you’ve brought soldiers!”(98)

But defensive war is the “lesser jihad.” Only Westerners who are “consumed with hatred,” and “immature Muslims” mistake “holy war” as the primary meaning of jihad.

Thus, self-styled “jihadis” like Osama bin Laden and other terrorists receive direct criticism from Gülen. “The rules of Islam are clear. Individuals cannot declare war. A group or an organization cannot declare war. War is declared by the state.”(129) More directly: “A Muslim cannot say, ‘I will kill a person and then go to Heaven.’ God’s approval cannot be won by killing people.”(129) And on Bin Laden: “[He] has sullied the bright face of Islam. He has created a contaminated image. . . [and] replaced Islamic logic with his own feelings and desires. He is a monster.”(132)

Such criticism is founded, by Gülen, upon a verse from the Qur’an that he cites repeatedly: “If one person kills another unjustly, it is the same as if he or she has killed all of humanity; if one saves another, it is the same as if he or she has saved all of humanity.”(5:32)

The central means of jihad, in contrast to those who imagine it being violent, is love. “Whoever has the greatest . . . love is humanity’s greatest hero, one who has uprooted any personal feelings of hatred and rancor. . . . These lofty souls, who daily light a new torch of love in their inner world and make their hearts a source of love and altruism, are welcomed and loved by people. . . . Love, the most direct way to someone’s heart, is the Prophet’s way.”(49)

This love is theological, as well as psychological and social: “God created the whole of creation out of love and Islam has embroidered the delicate lacework of this love. . . . Love is the raison d’etre for the existence of creation.”(99)

Success at this love jihad—which begins by recognizing with gratitude the gift of life, leads not to violence, but to altruism. “People consciously participate in [God’s] symphony of love in existence, and developing the love in their true nature, they investigate the ways to demonstrate it in a human way. Therefore, without neglecting the love in their spirit and for the sake of the love in their own nature, every person should offer real help and support to others. They should protect the general harmony.”(124)

A love jihad, in short, leads to peace and all the other virtues. About their attainment in history Gülen is relentlessly hopeful: “Goodness, beauty, truthfulness, and being virtuous are the essence of the world and humanity. Whatever happens, the world will one day find this essence. No one can prevent this.”(54)

For the love jihad is, finally, for the vast majority of Muslims like those who hosted me in Turkey, and who will not be profiled on CNN, God’s own struggle for peace and justice, through the fragile vessels of human beings.

All quotes are from M. Fethullah Gülen, Essays-Perspectives-Opinions (Somerset, NJ: The Light, 2006).

Photo credit: Statue of Arete (Virtue), Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey, by the Author

quick query

A friend has written with the following query: "do you have any references concerning child evangelists and itinerant evangelists at the turn of last century"? (turn of the 19th/20th century, he means). Anybody have any leads or references? I remember corresponding on email several years ago with someone who was doing some large project precisely on that topic, but of course I can't find that email now that I need it. If you don't want to bother with the comments section, references can be sent to me at pharvey *AT* uccs *DOT* edu.

Disney Religion -- by John Fea


John Fea, Disney Religion: The “High School Musical 2” Phenomenon

OK—some of you might be wondering what a review of the Disney Channel’s original movie “High School Musical 2” has to do with the subject of this blog. Some of you have probably never watched the Disney Channel or are not aware of the “High School Musical” phenomenon. Allow me, as a father of a nine-year-old and a six-year-old daughter, to get you up to speed.

On Friday over 17 million people, many of them preteen girls, tuned in to the most anticipated original movie to ever appear on cable television. (Yes, you read that correctly). The sequel to the surprise January 2006 hit “High School Musical” was the most watched show in the history of cable television and was the second highest rated television show of all time among children between the ages of 9 and 14 (only the 2004 Super Bowl had a higher rating in this demographic). And these numbers are probably low, since many kids watched the movie with friends. Unlike some of their classmates, my girls did not go to one of these “High School Musical” parties, but my oldest daughter did invite a friend over to the house to watch with her. Needless to say, it was a night of pajamas, pizza, ice-cream sundaes, and, of course, the Disney entertainment juggernaut.

I have now watched both the original “High School Musical” and the sequel with my daughters, but I am still not sure what to make of this craze. A good part of me is tempted to take the responsible academic route and criticize Disney Corporation for the way it tries to suck my kids into its web of toys, CDs, DVDs, and other “High School Musical” paraphernalia. I could also criticize the movie for its glorification of suburban values and upper-middle class life. (My kids need to know that not everyone lives like the students of Disney’s fictional East High School). This kind of analysis would be easy for me to do—perhaps too easy. (For an entertaining and provocative, though not very scholarly or balanced critique of Disney consumerism see What Would Jesus Buy, the new book by Reverend Billy, the pastor of Manhattan’s Church of Stop Shopping).

There is another part of me—the parent—who would rather have my girls watching a Disney movie than some of the other stuff on television these days. I must admit, as corny or sentimental as this might sound, that I actually liked the message of the movie—that true human happiness comes not in ambition or the pursuit of personal fame and glory, but through relationships with others. In other words, I do not think my daughters were permanently damaged and they may have even learned something about how to live.

Then there is my role as a historian and observer of American religious culture. Is there such a thing, as journalist Mark Pinsky argues, as “Disney Religion?” Can traditional religion ever compete with Disney for the hearts of American kids or has the faithful already been blinded by Tinkerbell’s pixie dust? I am intrigued (and perhaps a bit bothered) by the popular evangelical approach to all of this—if you can’t beat Disney, at least try to use them for a higher purpose. Bethany House, an evangelical publisher, has recently released Wildcats in the House: Spiritual Stuff You Can Get from High School Musical.

Please help this critic, parent, and historian make sense of all of this, for I hear that “High School Musical 3” is coming soon!

Political Theology

“Political Theology and the Substance of Civil Religion,” by Art Remillard

In 1989, sociologist James Mathisen argued that the discussion of American civil religion peaked in the early 1980s, and sharply declined thereafter. He suspected that it would soon be a relic, fondly remembered but rarely used. After all, Robert Bellah’s 1985 Habits of the Heart lacked any direct mention of civil religion. Bellah responded to Mathisen, explaining that he stopped using the term because he was tired of quibbling over definitions. He insisted that his recent scholarship had remained “very much concerned with the same substantive issues as my writings on civil religion” (Sociological Analysis 50.2).

Indeed, the discussion of civil religion is alive and well today, despite prognostications to the contrary. In recent years, some scholars have employed the term (see: Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation), while others have concentrated on its “substance.” In the latter group, we find Mark Lilla’s forthcoming, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West. An essay adapted from the book appears in a recent edition of the New York Times Magazine. Lilla gives a philosophical history of “political theology,” then explains how the “Great Separation” of politics and religion as imagined by Enlightenment philosophers has failed to materialize. He elaborates,

“The revival of political theology in the modern West is a humbling story. It reminds us that this way of thinking is not the preserve of any one culture or religion, nor does it belong solely to the past. It is an age-old habit of mind that can be reacquired by anyone who begins looking to the divine nexus of God, man and world to reveal the legitimate political order. This story also reminds us how political theology can be adapted to circumstances and reassert itself, even in the face of seemingly irresistible forces like modernization, secularization and democratization.”

This is a very compelling article, well worth the read. It will likely make readers think about current political dilemmas, and the religious “substance” therein.

God's Warriors


God’s Warriors
Kelly Baker

CNN is airing a special, entitled God's Warriors, starting this Tuesday, Aug. 21st at 9 pm ET. The special, hosted by Christiane Amanpour, documents supposed warriors for God in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. For a preview, the CNN website contains various video clips for each religious tradition that provides a sample of what the larger documentary is like. For Judaism, Amanpour reports on Jewish settlements in Gaza that pit settlers against soldiers. For Islam, there is a riveting video on the importance of martyrdom in Iran as dedication to both religious faith and nation. For Americanists, the information of Judaism and Islam is more global, but I think this might still be helpful for understanding the current fascination among the media with violent “tendencies” within religious traditions. (I field questions from students all the time about whether Islam is inherently violent or not, and I am not sure whether this documentary will prove to be a resource for educators or add more fuel to the fire for my students at least.)

The segment on Christianity, at least from the previews, seems to focus on American evangelicals. This should not be surprising because of the popularity of Jesus Camp. There is a great video about Battlecry, which is a ministry for teens to help them survive in our “secular” society. The ministry also has fantastic Christian merchandise, which is a combination of punk and skater aesthetic. This is a ministry that strives to be “hip” while encouraging teens to embrace faith rather than the immorality of American culture.

Amanpour also has an interview with the late Jerry Fallwell, a week before his death, about his role in the anti-abortion movement in which Fallwell sticks by his assessment that 9/11 signaled God’s disfavor with the American nation. Overall, the God’s Warriors might prove to be interesting with the comparison between the Abrahamic faiths, and it might prove to be a provocative resource in the classroom.

Religion and the Law in American History -- Recent Reviews

The Legal History Blog calls attention to some bracing reviews and critiques of recent books on American religion and the law. First up:

Allen K. Rostron, University of Missouri, Kansas City, School of Law, has just posted a review essay, Demythologizing the Legal History of the Jehovah's Witnesses and the First Amendment. The essay takes up Shawn Francis Peters, Judging Jehovah's Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution. While the book appeared in 2000, and the essay in 2004 (Quinnipiac Law Review), the essay makes a point that will be of interest beyond its examination of Peters' book. A particularly interesting criticism, which we could think of in the context of litigation involving other groups, is that Peters addresses the impact of the Witnesses on the law, but does not adequately turn his lens around, and explore the way involvement in litigation affected the Witnesses.

Here's Rostron's abstract, from the Social Science Research Network.

Next up, also courtesy of Mary Dudziak:

To follow up on the last post, Shawn Francis Peters has another, more recent book: The Yoder Case: Religious Freedom, Education, and Parental Rights (2003). This is in the series: Landmark Law Cases and American Society from the University Press of Kansas. These books are often terrific for course adoption.

Click here for a fuller discussion of the book and this seminal case.

I'm working currently on a long-term project (a book presently called Religion, Race, and American Ideas of Freedom) that deals with what I call the "social history of religious freedom," looking especially at the history of religious freedom from the standpoint of ethno-religious communities -- or, to put it another way, the history of religious freedom from the standpoint of those who, for much of American history, didn't have it. More on that in future posts.

Precision Tune Your Religion

But As For Me and My Precision Tune… -- by Darren Grem
My wife, son, and I recently returned to Georgia from a weeklong trip to the Carolinas and Virginia. The A/C in our car wasn’t working for the first leg of our trip, so I had the Freon refilled at a Precision Tune while we were visiting my folks in Rock Hill, S.C. After handing the keys over, I noticed that this particular Precision Tune was a privately owned, Christian business. The ichthys decals over the front door and service counter marked it as such.

I started thinking about the cultural messages conveyed by those decals because, on the record, I’m currently writing the part of my dissertation that concerns another Christian business, Chick Fil-A. Off the record, there was little else to do in the waiting room. It was either ruminating on Jesus Fish or reruns of Judge Judy.

Of course, God and the workaday world go hand in hand in many corners of starched-shirt and stained-shirt America. Whether they’re manning a keyboard or a Craftsman, folks define themselves (and others) by their work in this country. If they’re religious, their religious sentiments often grant additional meaning to their work (and others’). Given that, I wonder how such dynamics play out in the specific work environment of a Christian business. How does an officially sanctioned set of religious sentiments inform the value employees and employers place on their work? Does the “official religion” of the workplace create a sense of common purpose? Do the folks working under the hood share their boss’s sentiments? Why or why not?
I also wonder about the various images that these businesses want to convey. I don’t want to be a cynic and believe that a well-placed ichthys decal is merely an underhanded way to get suckers to PTL (in my hometown’s vernacular, that’s shorthand for “Pass the Loot”). Still, I think that there’s also a distinct difference between the message sent by, say, “God’s Glory Auto Sales” and “Jesus Is Lord at Bargain Shoes.” Both, of course, relate that there’s a higher purpose above the bottom line. The Lord, rather than the logic of capitalism, supposedly informs mission statements, manager/labor relations, and customer service. But car dealers and mechanics also have a reputation for hoodwinking. Shoe sellers, as far as I know, do not. Hence, noting that they are selling used Hondas for God’s glory signals that you’re going to get a good deal rather than the runaround. The ichthys decals at Precision Tune say the same thing: “Hey, we’re not going to screw you.”

I can see how this would have appeal. Folks want and need to know who to trust, especially in our transitory society. But how exactly do Christian symbols and verbiage help them do that? Do such symbols have greater pull in predominantly Christian communities or in more pluralist ones? Or do they appeal for different reasons to folks of various religious backgrounds? Do non-religious or unaffiliated customers even care about a business’s religious affiliation? Do self-professing Christians care? In other words, is there a bit of The Passion of the Christ-like consumption going on here? Do Christian customers see these Christian businessmen and women as needing or deserving their support? By “buying Christian,” do they see themselves as helping spread a capitalism that seemingly shares their values?

R. Laurence Moore, Colleen McDannell, and many others have shown that there’s been a lucrative market for religious wares in America for some time. But I wonder about those businesses that don’t have blatantly “religious” products for sale on the shelves. I’d be curious to find out if all this religious self-identifying actually creates more business. Depending on which stats you trust, between 60-90% of businesses fail in the first five years or so (interestingly enough, the rates of failure are roughly the same for most startup churches, but that’s a dog for another day). Do Christian sellers of Freon or Fila have greater success than unaffiliated sellers? Why or why not? If or when they fail, how do Christian business owners process that?

Thousands of small businesses and a goodly number of the most prominent and powerful outfits in America today have some sort of Christian affiliation in their distant past or in their daily routine (e.g. Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, Hobby Lobby, Days Inn, Thinking about the factors behind their successes and failures might be a rewarding way to map out the economic and religious landscape of everyday America. If nothing else, it certainly makes trips to Precision Tune more meaningful, whether you’re running the books, rotating the tires, or thanking sweet Jesus that your A/C’s up and running for another August in Georgia.

New Mexican Spirituality

There’s something “spiritual” about this place
Kelly Baker

As a newly implanted New Mexican, I discovered early on that when I told any one (on a plane, at a conference, or in my office) that I was moving to the Land of Enchantment that she/he would close her/his eyes and whisper, “It is so spiritual there.” I am not sure if it is the incredible blue skies or the seemingly harsh red and brown landscape, but New Mexico seems to mark tourists as an intensely spiritual place to be. Maybe it’s the stark contrast from anywhere that is green (especially from my native Florida) or possibly the view of mountains over the city. I must admit that my skepticism often gets the better of me, and when looking at awestruck companions, I have to withhold the urge to roll my eyes. I usually allow them to have their moment, but it is intriguing that this landscape, for some, seems to be spiritual in an ambiguous way that one cannot put their finger on.

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly explored this claim in a recent report on the ‘Religions of New Mexico” in particular those movements that are drawn to the Valley of the Shining Stone. New Mexico contains Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, Catholics, the Pueblo, and various Protestant denominations. Some find the landscape to harsh, but others have been inspired by the natural beauty. Lucky Severson, the anchor of this particular program, noted:

There's a feeling among many people of faith that certain geographic places have
about them a spiritual power. Sometimes it's their natural beauty or simplicity.
They are sometimes called "thin" places, where the barrier between the material
and spiritual worlds seems porous.

Landscapes become sacred spaces in which religious people hope to connect with the divine, and New Mexico inspires hope for those who often claim the “spiritual not religious” mantle. In American Sacred Space, David Chidester and Edward Linenthal note that sacred space is space that can be defiled, so perhaps the spiritual landscape represents a certain purity that appears untouched by human hands. The high desert appears unmolested (except for the occasional casino in the middle of nowhere), wild, and slightly dangerous. Possibly, the appeal lies in lack of present humanity that suggests something more ultimate. The terrain, which still strikes me as alien no matter how many times I drive past it, is desolate while simultaneously inspiring awe. Why exactly does this landscape lead to these reactions and emotions?

This claimed spirituality of landscape is a bit disconcerting to this native Floridian because no one ever visits Florida and returns with a sense of the spiritual (maybe if Disney World is a pilgrimage for you, but that is all together a different sort of post). This landscape inspires, and I am curious if other regions of the Southwest are approached in such a way. Do tourists, or inhabitants, find west Texas or Arizona soul-stirring? What about other regions of the US? Are Oregon or North Carolina also spiritual states? Is New Mexico really that unique because of its high desert vistas? The program, “Religions of New Mexico,” might prove interesting to any one working on issues of sacred space or who has an intense fascination with this state anyway.

Young Scholars Last Chance -- Apply, the End is Near!

Just a reminder: the deadline for applying for the Young Scholars in American Religion Program is due August 20. Click on the link for details. I was a participant in the 1994-96 "class" of this program, and that experience continues to yield dividends to this day. For those who applied before -- apply again! This is the first of a new series of this program, there will be another "class" or two in the future so if you try this time and don't succeed, there will be time to try, try again. Good luck to all. Apply, the end is near!

Sister Aimee Strikes Again

Teaching Sister Aimee,” by Art Remillard

Aimee Semple McPherson was the subject of this past week’s NPR program, “Speaking of Faith.” [Editor's Note: The host of the show, Krista Tippett, keeps an online journal about the shows, well worth reading]. Along with original audio and film archives from the revivalist, the program highlights interviews with Anthea Butler (University of Rochester) and Arlene Sanchez Walsh (Azusa Pacific University). For a fifty minute program, this is an excellent introduction to Sister Aimee, a charismatic, charming, and controversial figure in American religious history. As such, I will probably assign it the next time I teach Religion in the U.S. I have used “Speaking of Faith” shows in other classes, such as World Religions and Bioethics. Most programs come with full transcripts, from which I pilfer provocative statements, and include them in a discussion guide along with some open ended questions. While I generally like the programs, student reactions have been mixed. Some find the content compelling. Others appreciate not having to read. And there are those who find the shows downright boring. Ah the imperfect science of teaching! In spite of the protestations, I will continue using the programs. Overall, I have found them a welcome addition to my teaching arsenal.

Puff the Magic Graham -- John Fea


John Fea

Did anyone get a chance to see the special edition of ABC’s 20/20 devoted to Billy Graham and the presidency? I am eager to hear what the “Religion in American History” blog community thought about it. Here are a few of my own thoughts to get the ball rolling.

1). While the documentary was generally favorable toward Graham, I was pleased that Charlie Gibson asked some of the tough questions about a Christian minister’s responsibility to speak truth to power. (I should add here that he never asked this question to Graham himself. This line of questioning was most evident in his interview with Charles Colson about the anti-Semitic remarks Graham uttered during a taped conversation in the oval office with Richard Nixon.

2). Was Graham a spiritual counselor or a prophet? Can we separate the two? If he was a counselor (as seems to have been the case with the Clintons), then I do not have as much of a problem with him hanging out in the corridors of power. Even presidents have spiritual needs. If he was a prophet, however, then I think he was definitely seduced by power. The Washington Post reporters who wrote the book that inspired the ABC documentary suggested that the presidents and Graham benefited from each other, but much of the focus in the show was on the way the presidents benefited from Graham and not the other way around. (With the exception of a brief commentary on how Graham used his fame to open doors for the preaching of the gospel in communist countries). Whatever the case, Graham seemed to thoroughly enjoy hobnobbing with presidents at the White House, on the golf course, and at a host of presidential vacation homes. In this sense, he was certainly no John the Baptist. (I might add here that Truman thought Graham, with his pistachio-colored suits, was a publicity hound. Carter, a strict Baptist, thought a relationship with Graham during his presidency would violate the principles of separation of church and state).

3). There seems to be a larger issue here about evangelicals and power. Pundits and commentators like to date the return of American evangelicals into public life sometime around the mid-1970s when Jerry Falwell started the Moral Majority and Newsweek declared 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical.” But well before these developments, evangelicals (they called themselves “neo-evangelicals”) had made serious attempts to break away from the separatism of fundamentalism and engage the world. Graham, with his inclusive and ecumenical crusades, represented this shift. But so did a host of neo-evangelical scholars such as Carl F.H. Henry, E.J. Carnell, and others who joined the faculty of the newly established Fuller Theological Seminary. (See George Marsden’s excellent account of Fuller’s early years in Reforming Fundamentalism).

Today when we think of evangelicals in positions of power, we think about politics. But the neo-evangelicals of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s also set the stage for theologically conservative Protestants to gain influence in the academy. (And, I might add, they have done quite well—especially in our field of American religious history). If any of us were put off by the way Graham may have been seduced by the power of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I wonder if we can say the same thing about evangelical scholars and their relationship to the academy? (And I will confess that I am getting a bit autobiographical here). Is it really possible for evangelical academics to be “in the world, but not of it?” As we all know, success in the academic world requires ambition, a good bit of self-promotion, and the ever present temptation to write primarily for the approval of others. Can an evangelical be a good academic citizen without compromising her or his faith? I wonder.

4). Did anyone notice that the sole American religious historian on the show, Randall Balmer, got very little air time?

5). I still think that if you want to really understand what Billy Graham was all about, you have to watch his 1969 appearance on the short-lived Woody Allen Show. Check it out.

O God of Movies -- Kelly Baker


O God Of Movies
Kelly Baker

My dear colleague and one of our contributing editors, Art Remillard, alerted me to this story today. For those of you who believed that American religious historians produced monographs of topics that might not be the most interesting to the general public, think again. Julie Byrne’s O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs is being turned into a movie. Bryne’s work traced the lives of the Immaculata Macs, basketball players, at Immaculata College, a Catholic women’s college located outside of Philadelphia. The Macs won the first national championship that they attended, and this is a great sports story that is ripe for film.

Mark Herrman writes for
It is sort of a women's version of "Hoosiers," captured neatly by Byrne in her 2003 work, "O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs." The book, published by Columbia University Press, was a scholar's tale of how some people live their faith and Catholic culture in daily lives - a view of religion from the ground up.

Producer/Director Tim Chambers contacted Byrne, who became a consultant for “Our Lady of Victory.” The film stars Ellen Burstyn, David Boreanaz, and Carla Gugino. The film centers on Carla Gugino, who plays Cathy Rush, the Protestant basketball coach. In "Hoop Dreams" , Kathy Matheson talked with Rush. Matheson writes:
Rush, now 60 and semiretired, describes the film as part “Sister Act,” part “Hoosiers” and part “A League of Their Own.” Maybe toss in “Rocky,” the movie of the fictional boxer who was perhaps Philadelphia’s most famous underdog since, well, the Mighty Macs.

Now, my word of caution for the day would be for most of us not to give up our day jobs as academics to enter into the world of film. As I daydream about my dissertation on the 1920s Klan being turned into a feature-length film, I also realize that I am not as lucky as Byrne to have found a fantastic story (no sports, for me!) that works both as a monograph and in celluloid. My work might be a harder sell! And really, how many other historians of American religion have films? What a unique way for our field to gain recognition by popular audiences, so maybe it won’t be so tedious for me to explain what I do.

The Google of African American History

A great new resource on African American History, including religious history -- from the AHA: – An Online Gateway to African American History
By Elisabeth Grant, led by University of Washington Professor and former AHA Council member Quintard Taylor, contains an abundance of resources on African American history. This site features an online encyclopedia containing 800 plus entries, transcripts of speeches from 1789 to 2004, collections of links and info on hundreds of other resources, and so much more.

Peruse the
Digital Archives and find links, separated by state, to sites like the Library of Congress exhibition "Voices of Civil Rights;" the Booker T. Washington papers from University of Illinois Press; and Indiana University’s Archives of African American Music & Culture. Visit the Timeline section of the site for breakdowns of African American history for each century. And check out the Perspectives on African American History for personal accounts and articles on events like the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the rise of hip hop in Eastern Europe, and a lynching in Obion County, Tennessee.

Jon Pahl, An Americanist in Turkey


Welcome to our new contributing editor, Jon Pahl of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Jon has been introduced below, with his first guest post "Prius Envy," and now has agreed to come on the blog board. So without further adieu, here's the first in what will be a periodic series of posts on an Americanist in Turkey. Postcript: I also recommend Pahl's review of the film 8-Mile from a few years back (from the journal Religion and Film), as well as his recent book Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Places.

I'm glad Jon has forgiven me for kicking his butt so consistently ( :) ) on the Valpo noontime basketball courts and joined our blog band. Here's the first in his reflections on his experiences in Turkey.

An American(ist) in Turkey

By Jon Pahl, Ph.D.

I. Beyond Competing Fundamentalisms

Turkey is the United States’ best friend in the Middle East. But we share more than military might. After a recent trip to Turkey, the central religious commonality between the two nations became clear to me. In both Turkey and the U.S., a vast majority of peaceful and thoughtful people of faith is struggling to free their society from the grip of competing fundamentalisms—one “religious,” the other “secular.” Together, these competing fundamentalisms have produced massive injustice and grotesque violence. Perhaps the U.S. and Turkey can learn from one another?

In the U.S., religious fundamentalists are evident enough—one is in the White House. Their apocalyptic “democratic” messianism—which masks American imperialism and nuclear proliferation that is far more dangerous than anything found in Iran, produced the fiasco in Iraq. Secular fundamentalists have also made a lot of noise, lately. Authors like Sam Harris, perhaps the best-selling name, bash religion in the name of supposedly superior scientific “reason.” They conveniently ignore that this “reason” has produced a century of genocide and environmental degradation. Doesn’t sound too rational to me.

In Turkey, the religious fundamentalists are evident primarily in neighboring Iran, where they form a specter of where Turkey ought not to go. Secular fundamentalists, so dubbed by Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol (with whom we met), are represented historically by the military. They dominate Turkey’s various appointed ministries, and suppress any hint of religion not under control of the State. As in the U.S., the vast majority of people of faith who are NOT fundamentalist—who want instead to turn faith toward peacemaking, are having a hard time finding a voice.

My trip was sponsored, in part, by members of the Gülen movement. I was one of ten Americans on a group tour, and our group was one of roughly five hundred such delegations from the U.S. to travel in Turkey over the past few summers.

The Gülen movement takes its name from M. Fetullah Gülen. Gülen was born in 1938 in Erzurum, in eastern Turkey. In 1958 he received his state preacher’s license, and for many years served as imam in Izmir, Turkey’s third largest province. In 1981, Gülen turned his attention to writing, educating, and activism. Since then, his followers have built dozens of private schools inspired by his Islamic humanism in Turkey, Pakistan, the U.S., and around the globe. In 2000 Gülen was charged by a Turkish state security court with plotting to overthrow Turkey’s secular government. He denies the charges, but is currently living in the U.S., where he is under medical care.

I find little in Gulen’s writings hostile to secular reason, and very little that might be called “fundamentalist.” He is committed to nonviolence. “True Muslims,” he writes, “are those who harm no one with their words and actions.” (M. Fetullah Gulen, Essays-Perspectives-Opinions, p. 42).

Indeed, like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, and other advocates of religious social change, Gülen contends that “love is the most essential element in every being, a most radiant light, a great power that can resist and overcome every force.”(p. 49).

Gülen stresses critical humanistic and scientific education, along with interfaith dialogue, as crucial to nonviolent religious faith. Much as John Dewey envisioned a common faith to link science and religion, so does Gülen: “Religion reconciles opposites that seem to be mutually exclusive.” (34) Among them are faith-reason, science-revelation, matter and the spirit. And, we might hope—a modern society and religious faith.

We met with dozens of members of the movement during eight days in Turkey. I now see them as very much in the mode of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. They are committed to creating societies—and indeed to reshaping the globe, around the power of love. They stand in the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr’s vision of the “beloved community.” Citizens of Turkey, the U.S., and elsewhere, would do well to pay attention. I tried my best to do so on our whirlwind tour, and will report on my impressions in a series of columns over the coming weeks. Tentative titles are below.

II. Love Jihad? Try Jihad of Love
III. Turkish Family Values
IV. Sacred Space in Modern Turkey
V. No More Scapegoats: The Gülen Movement and Sacrifice
VI. A Common Faith: The Gülen Movement and John Dewey
VII. Youth Will Serve: The Coming Religious Peace in Turkey

Southern Religious History After Katrina -- Professional Opportunity

The following comes to us from two editorial board members of the Journal of Southern Religion, and represents a significant professional opportunity on a defining issue of the day. Please forward to anyone you know who would be interested.



Current events often shape the way historians think about the past. The civil rights and women’s rights movements, for example, redirected the historian’s gaze toward previously marginalized groups and the historian’s craft toward social and cultural studies. For historians of the Gulf South, the weight of the present has come ineluctably to bear on our telling of the past as libraries and archives have been damaged, institutions and neighborhoods destroyed, and lives lost or violently uprooted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

As recovery efforts haltingly enter a third year, the editors of the Journal of Southern Religion invite scholarly reflection on the ways that Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath impinge on the religious history in the U.S. South. We encourage contributions that consider religion in any period or region and from any methodological vantage point, as long as they engage in a rethinking of religious history in the wake of Katrina. What might look different to us now? Which historical trajectories have been illuminated, which rendered less helpful or telling, which thrown into unexpected curves and angles?

We particularly welcome fresh attention to religion and place as these have made themselves felt in Gulf residents’ experiences of loss, exile, and return. How, for example, might the federal response to Katrina shed light on the vexed role of New Orleans and the Gulf South within the national imaginary? How might the very American myth of self-recreation—of packing up and starting over elsewhere, seemingly without loss—impede recovery projects on the scale of those undertaken in Europe (the rebuilding of bombed-out cities after WWII, or the massive construction of the Dutch levee system after the flood of Amsterdam in1953)? How might the American narrative of manifest destiny, and the concomitant policy of Indian removal, give credence to suspicions of a de facto policy of “Negro removal” in New Orleans to clear space for new projects of U.S. expansion? How does a hemispheric narrative of colonialism and slavery, to which the Gulf South more centrally belongs, trouble a national narrative of freedom and progress, to which it has never entirely been assimilated? What can now be said—or no longer be said—about the unifying power of “civil religion” in moments of national crisis? How has religion, however construed, come to aid or to obstruct the rebuilding of the Gulf South? In short, what new questions about religion and the South have come into view since Katrina? What new methods for addressing them need to be devised?

We encourage contributions in a range of formats: original scholarly essays, retrospectives on previously published work (one’s own or others’), review essays, thought pieces, poetry, photography and photo essays, first-person narratives, and reports on research in progress. We especially invite scholars of the Gulf South who confront a damaged or diminished archive to reflect on the ways these material exigencies have reshaped their historical project and the questions that guide it.

Potential contributors may direct inquiries and submissions to Tracy Fessenden (tracyf *at* asu *dot* edu) and Michael Pasquier (mtpo2 *at* fsu *dot* edu). We wish to receive final submissions for peer review no later than December 15, 2007.

Blum Interviews on DuBois, continued


Baldblogger has posted part 2 and part 3 of his interviews with Ed Blum on his book W. E. B. DuBois: American Prophet. He also includes his own chapter-by-chapter summaries and analyses (scroll down for all four parts).

The interviews provide some interesting reflections on how we come to the topics we come to in our work, and how much chance and serendipity play into scholarly endeavors-- a little excerpt:

Baldblogger (BB): Your previous book
Reforging the White Republic, chronicled the reasons for sectional reunion following the Civil War and the central role Christianity played in the process. In many ways W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet is in very deep conversation with this work, as you recount the multiple and inventive, creative ways Du Bois responded to the history you traced in Reforging. Can you discuss how, in your own mind, these books relate?

Ed Blum (EB): I first decided to write about Du Bois and religion when I was finishing my dissertation and had an interview at the Harvard Divinity School. The position was in African American religion and so I thought – who better to talk about at Harvard than Du Bois (since Du Bois was a student there in the late nineteenth century and was the first black man to receive a PhD from Harvard). And wouldn’t you know, I was looking through a box of “used” books at the local bookstore and they had a copy of Phil Zuckerman’s edited Du Bois on Religion. Talk about serendipitous or providence or dumb luck. The documents that Zuckerman edited, along with my dissertation research, were the core of my Harvard job talk. I didn’t get the job, but that’s another story.

One fascinating outcome of not getting the Harvard job is that half of my Du Bois book was written in the basement of house (when I was a fellow) and I reveled in writing a subversive book from underground. It made me think a little of the beginning of Ellison’s Invisible Man.

It seemed to me that Du Bois understood what few other scholars had: that religion sat at the base of American notions of its nationhood, which tended to privilege being white and being Protestant. And this was the story I wrote about in my first book. In it, I looked at how religious ideas and leaders reconciled northern and southern whites after the Civil War. The tragedy of this was not their reunion, but rather its white supremacist form. By 1900, northern and southern whites seemed to agree on one thing – they were equally invested in subordinating African Americans. And both sections did it in the name of Christianity. After writing a book about how Protestant Christianity played a role in reconciling whites and legitimating Jim Crow, lynchings, and racial imperialism, I thought it would be neat to write on those who challenged that world. And Du Bois was the man. So the Du Bois book is kind of a sequel to my first book, or perhaps its an anti-sequel.

Richard Bushman, Mormon History, and Evangelical Historians -- John Fea


John Fea, Is There a Mormon View of the American Revolution?

The New York Times had an interesting piece last Sunday on Richard Lyman Bushman, a Mormon and prominent historian of early American history, who, in light of the Romney presidential candidacy, has found himself as the media’s “chief explainer” of Mormonism. (See, for example, his response to Damon Linker’s January 2007 New Republic essay on Romney).

I have always been a big fan of Bushman’s work. My copies of The Refinement of America and From Puritan to Yankee are well worn, as is my edition of his primary source reader on the First Great Awakening. I only met Bushman once. He responded to a paper I delivered at an Omohundro Institute conference in the mid-1990s. As a graduate student I will never forget the graciousness and encouragement that characterized his comments.

I have not yet read Rough Stone Rolling, Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, but I did hear him speak on the topic a couple of years ago at the ASCH winter conference. Most of the questions Bushman fielded that day had to do with the relationship between his Mormonism and his scholarship. This leads to my question—which is an old one but still worthy of discussion. Is personal faith a help or a hindrance to the study of American religious history? As the Times article notes, Bushman has been criticized (by Jan Shipps and others) for being too sympathetic to Smith. Bushman has never been shy about his beliefs. His book Believing History is a collection of essays about how he, as a Mormon, studies Mormonism. There is even an essay entitled “The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution.”

Many evangelical historians (Mark Noll and George Marsden jump to mind) have argued that their personal faith aids them in understanding the evangelical tradition in America (at least this is the argument that Marsden makes in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship). Of course these evangelicals have had their critics—Penn’s Bruce Kuklick has been the most vocal—who claim that personal faith commitments have nothing to do with good scholarship in American religious history. If evangelicals are serious about doing a uniquely “Christian” brand of history, Kuklick and others argue, then they should not pull their punches in order to win acceptance by the secular academy. Would an evangelical historian ever argue in a scholarly forum that the First Great Awakening happened because a transcendent and sovereign and real God decided to intervene in history for the purpose of drawing eighteenth-century Americans to a greater reliance on Him in their everyday lives? I doubt it, even though some might believe this. (Is the fact that I just capitalized the word “Him” too revealing of my own religious beliefs?).

I think most of the readers of this blog have heard these kinds of questions before, but as a person of faith and a historian I am still looking for new ways to think about all of this.

Mysteries of the Sacred Disease

Mysteries of the “Sacred Disease,” by Art Remillard

When I was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2000, I asked my neurologist about the cause of my seizures. His answer: “It’s a mystery.” Sister Mary Catherine employed this phrase when I inquired about the Holy Trinity; but I never expected to hear it from a neurologist. Alas, the various tests he ordered revealed nothing. And like so many others in my situation, the doctor explained that I would probably never know the cause.

Indeed, epilepsy is a mystery. Moreover, seizures are downright mysterious, causing many to use religious language to describe their attacks, claiming to have encountered divinity in their moments of neurological chaos. Perhaps this is why Hippocrates called epilepsy, “The Sacred Disease” (actually, it’s a brain “disorder”). Karen Armstrong, historian of religions and epileptic, explained that in the brief time preceding her seizures, “everything comes together in a moment—everything adds up, and you’re flooded with a sense of joy, and you’re just about to grasp it, and then you lose it and you crawl into an attack.” I can only echo Armstrong. Often, I see “something” that I can’t recognize or describe, but desperately want to. While in this state, I think that knowing “it” will bring about enlightenment and/or contentment. Then everything fades away, and the rest is history.

After his recent hospital stay, Chief Justice John Roberts still doesn’t know the source of his seizures. He too will likely contend with the mystery of epilepsy, and the mysterious quality of his seizures. According to one AM talk radio host, however, there may be no mystery at all. Just prior to Roberts’s episode, New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer reportedly vowed that he would never confirm a judicial appointment made by President Bush. This led the radio host to speculate, “Am I to believe there's no connection between Charles Schumer on Friday saying he would never . . . approve another Bush appointment to the court, to any court? And then the chief justice suffers a so-called seizure two days later? You're telling me there's no possibility of a conspiracy by the Democrats to have caused this seizure in some manner?”
If memory serves, I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 instead of Al Gore. I was living in Florida too. So perhaps “they” went after me! And to think, all this time I thought my epilepsy was the result of an angel, demon, genetic disorder, or bump on the head.

Kelly Baker, Lived Irreligion


Is Atheism Hip? or Lived Irreligion in America
Kelly Baker

An interesting trend has been presenting itself in American news magazines in recent months: attention to atheism in America. Most of this can be attributed to books written by the so-called “New Atheists.” These “new” atheists, for the most part, include at least one “old” atheist Richard Dawkins, whose new book The God Delusion much lives up to its title. The rest of the gang include Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell). This books have caused a little bit of a sensation and have left many wondering “how many atheists are there in a nation know for its religiosity?” Nation contributor Ronald Aronson wrote a piece, entitled “The New Atheists”, pondering this very question. He writes:

We commonly hear that only a tiny percentage of Americans don't believe in God and that, as a Newsweek poll claimed this spring, 91 percent do. In fact, this is not true. How many unbelievers are there? The question is difficult to assess accurately because of the challenges of constructing survey questions that do not tap into the prevailing biases about religion. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, which interviewed more than 50,000 people, more than 29 million adults--one in seven Americans--declare themselves to be without religion. The more recent Baylor Religion Survey ("American Piety in the 21st Century") of more than 1,700 people, which bills itself as "the most extensive and sensitive study of religion ever conducted," calls for adjusting this number downward to exclude those who believe in a God but do not belong to a religion. Fair enough. But Baylor's own Gallup survey is a bit shaky for at least two reasons. It counts anyone who believes in a "higher power" but not God as believing in God--casting a vast net over adherents of everything from spirit to history to love. Yet the study allows unbelievers only one option: to not believe in "anything beyond the physical world," leaving no space for those who regard themselves as agnostics or skeptics, secularists or humanists. Contrast this with a more recent and more nuanced Financial Times/Harris poll of Europeans and Americans that allowed respondents to declare agnosticism as well as atheism: 18 percent of the more than 2,000 American respondents chose one or the other, while 73 percent affirmed belief in God or a supreme being.

Aronson notes that part of the problem with determining numerically how many atheists are present in America is the “social desirability effect,” which means that folks generally want to give a popular rather than unpopular answer when polled. If America is known for her religiosity, who really wants to be described as “non-religious”? Interestingly, Aronson believes that the non-believing population is being to become unhappy with their marginalization and protest their treatment, which is why these “New Atheists” are so popular.

Additionally, Newsweek highlighted a new parenting book for atheist parents, who are not quite comfortable using “higher power” justifications for why the goldfish has to be flushed. Parenting Beyond Belief strives to provide guidance to parents, who consider themselves “free thinkers” on a variety of moral and ethical questions. In March of this year, Rep. Stark, a Democrat from California, declared his belief in no higher power, much to the pleasure of American Humanist Association. Atheism might appear to be in vogue.

Yet Joseph Gerteis, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, published a paper with Penny Edgell and Doug Hartmann in the American Sociological Review called "Atheists As ‘Other': Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society," which has provoked some controversy. In "Atheism, Morality and Belonging in American Life," he writes that atheists received a larger portion of rejection from the general public than any other group he researched. Gerteis attributes this to a common understanding that morality is tied to a belief in God, and that atheists, with an avowed disbelief, are judged to be immoral. The term has also become a catch-all that includes other “unsavory” types from Communists to homosexuals (again, for the general public). Gerteis, of course, asserts that atheists can be and often are moral individuals in spite of the assumption (with parenting books to guide one on the subject). What I find fascinating is that atheists are seen as an anomaly because of America’s fervent religiosity. The question becomes how do atheists, then, fit into larger tropes of patriotism and nationalism without a belief in a higher power. The better question, I think, is how do individual atheists understand their place in American culture. A study into the lived irreligion of atheists could highlight how religion and nationalism are melded together in American life, and it would provide insight into how the non-religious negotiate a supposed society of believers. Is anyone out there working on such questions?

And Now, For Something Completely Different -- Kelly Baker on Scientology

“For the Love of Xenu," by Kelly Baker

While I really wish I could attribute the above title to my own creativity, this is title of an article by Mark Oppenheimer on Scientology. I, like many, know relatively little about the faith founded by L. Ron Hubbard except for the occasional controversy, my own personal loathing of Tom Cruise, and (as much as I hate to admit this) South Park. Oppenheimer’s article explores the controversy surrounding this religion (not cult) and points out that the similarities between mainstream religions, Christianity and Judaism, perhaps making people a bit nervous. Additionally, he opens up about the criticism he received from other religion writers because of an article on Milton Katselas, an acting teacher and Scientologist, for the New York Times Magazine, New York Times Magazine, which is only available through subscription.

Oppenheimer was raked over hot coals because he did not attack the religious tradition in his article or in a podcast with John Carmichael, the president of the Church of Scientology of New York. The podcast is a fascinating and candid interview with a member of the faithful, which is exceedingly rare among Scientologists. Oppenheimer brings up an interesting point about how religion writers are critical of certain traditions and not of others, and he admits that Scientology can seem odd but still needs to be understood, not just degraded.
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