Phoenix Bound?


I hope to get some time soon to work up a response to this meme on teaching American religious history. But in the meantime, is there anyone who needs a place to stay in Phoenix for the Super Bowl?

Why I Teach, Entry # 4


My reasons for teaching and studying American religious overlap with those mentioned by Ed, Kelly, and Kathryn: I want to know what's going on underneath the surface of sainthood; I'm sometimes frustrated by historians who ignore the obvious centrality of religion in various aspects of American history; and simply because it's fascinating! For both drama and colorful detail, it's hard to top the formation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for instance.

However, to be more honest and less academic about this meme (and that's the first time I've ever employed that designation), I became interested in American religious history through my own Christian faith. As a child, I was fascinated by the historical narratives of the Bible. I would sit in church, not terribly interested in the service, and read the pew Bible, especially the historical books of the Old Testament (we didn’t call it the Hebrew Scriptures), the Gospels, and Acts.

Although I wouldn't have articulated it at the time, I wanted to understand how the church (and ultimately, my church) got from Acts to the suburbs outside of Rochester, New York. So at some point in high school, I started reading church history, focusing especially on the Reformation. Roland Bainton's biography of Martin Luther remains one of my favorite history books. The reformers, especially Luther, became my historical heroes.

At some point, I realized it would be too expensive and difficult to travel to Europe to do research, so I switched to American religious history. In a nutshell, then, I'm cheap! More academically, I was fascinated with evangelicalism's role in contemporary American politics and wanted to understand the historical developments that had shaped American evangelicalism. I started graduate school intending to study Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening. [Fortunately, I wasn't wedded to that notion since my advisor, George Marsden, was just completing his biography of Edwards and one of his other students was laying the groundwork for a refreshing new overview of the Great Awakening]. Instead, I ended up studying Campus Crusade for Christ, probably because parachurch groups like InterVarsity and Young Life had been so formative in my own spiritual life and because my sister had been heavily involved in Campus Crusade and had met her husband on a Crusade mission trip to Estonia.

I am relieved to be at least temporarily done studying my own tradition, partly for the some of the issues that Kathryn raised. Now I'm satisfying my curiosity about other traditions, feeling out of my depth but enjoying the journey!

Why I Teach Religious History, Entry # 3


Why do I teach American religious history? It begins with what I cannot or will not do. John Cusack put it best in the 1980s cinematic marvel Say Anything: “I don't wanna sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't wanna sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed, you know, as a career, I don't wanna do that.” Cusack’s character chose instead to spend time with a beautiful woman and to practice kickboxing. Both of those are marvelous, but American religious history is pretty fantastic too.

I was drawn to teaching American religious history because I am fascinated by the fact that even today – amid modernity and postmodernity, amid industrialization and de-industrialization, amid colonialism and postcolonialism – the sacred continues to invade the perceptions, choices, and worldviews of so many humans. It is there in rituals – from baptisms and funerals to weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Religion is there when people make choices to vote, choices to date, choices for a career, choices to spend their time. And religion is even there in places we often miss – like pop music from the 1980s or novels about the Great Depression. I am drawn to American religious history because it touches every element of our world, our society, our economics, our politics, our sense of selves and community. Of all the disciplines, moreover, it is one (and not the only one) where the individuals under study looked for something more than this world. They looked for realities beyond what we can see or touch or taste; they looked for more than oppression or enslavement; they looked for more than power or might. Sure, many of them ended up, in their search for the more, oppressing others, disempowering others, attacking others. But that is what tragedy is all about – good intentions gone wrong; beautiful concepts dirtied and sullen in their application.

So, if I refuse to buy anything bought or processed or process anything bought or sold, then it’s American religious history teaching for me.

Who are the Puritans? Or Why I Teach American Religious History



As I sit at my desk between classes, this meme preoccupies my thoughts. Unlike Katie, people don't often ask why I picked (as if from a hat) religious history as a field of specialization, but rather I usually get the deseperate "why?" with furrowed brows and quizzical mouthes. Perhaps, this is because I am surrounded by scientists and mathematicians, deep materialists, who cannot sometimes fathom why the realm of the immaterial, the intangible, holds such appeal. We function in different realms of knowledge (eigensolvers and C++ versus sacred texts, theologies, and devotional practice), and I feel that I must appear to something of a novelty, a strange changeling, who does not quite fit classification. A historian of people motivated by the immaterial. The study of religious Americans. What does that mean anyway? (see Katie's previous post.)

What the furrowed brows don't understand is I can't help myself. Religious peoples, ideas, and practices are fascinating. I am loathe to admit that I took one "Religion in the U.S." class, and it was love. From Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures to Puritan sages to devotional Catholicism to the Social Gospel to the contemporary white supremacist movement, I was hooked. My fascination drove my study. The novelty and ingenuity of ideas and people made we want to know more. Yet fascination is not enough. The warm, fuzzy glow eventually tempered some. Then, I was confronted with students, sometimes seventy or thirty, who looked at me as to why they were taking my class. Glazed, bright, and indifferent eyes watching my every clumsy move and my attempts to explain the centrality of American religious history.

The reason I teach American religious history is that I am committed to the study of the place of religion in American history. For many of my students, religion has been conveniently excised from their history courses, and some don't even know the Puritans, much less about immigration of Jews and Catholics in various times and places or the religious arguments for and against slavery. I am committed to injecting religious opinion, practice, and ideals in our history, so that students can see the power, positive, negative or ambivalent (I prefer ambivalent), on American life. Awareness of religion in lives of Americans seems to be crucially important, especially as the presidential election rolls around (as the many posts on this blog attest).

Additionally, the history of religious encounter proves complicated and fraught with tension, and often violence. This reveals larger currents in our history, which have weight on our present, and I cajole students into this study to get them to understand motivations and actions (contradictory and seamless) of these encounters. I want these students to examine narrativity and why some stories are told and others occluded. In my own research, I question why certain historical actors have greater impact in our narratives, and with fervish hope, I analyze whether students ferret this out themselves Perhaps, I am activist or just naive, but this is why American religious history matters to me, and why I teach it with such devotion, fascination, and purpose.

Why I Teach Religious (Not Environmental Or Naval Or Actuarial) History


Waylaid for a later moment is my planned report on LDS film shorts, Sundance festival fun wear, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ living genius. Obama’s latest push toward hope and Gordon Hinckley’s sad demise lead one to the bigger questions, questions asked by this latest meme. The very frame of the question tempts long rambles into anecdote and personal reference. After all, exceptionalist narratives aren’t just needed by nations. Academic disciplines, too, rely on an exclusivity of import. Most military historians believe military history means most, most economic historians imagine theirs is the insight that matters. Everyone who writes or thinks about something (thinking about something perhaps more than healthy, more than makes any logical sense at all) must eventually create a tale that elects their humble isolation to global consequence.

Religion makes easy such subject sainthood. I used to say that I became a historian of religions (rather than a history of legislation, battleground, or plumbing principles) because it was the only subject that actively hated its observer (I’ll leave the question of the observers’ taste for the subject to other commentators). Although it would be delusion to presume that presidents savor their biographies or that unions love their labor histories, in an analytic loathe-off religions would win as those objects most inherently irritated by the sheer observation. The act of making history (placing in some sort of chronologic process the layers of human activity) is a heresy, making archival plot of divine dreams. We historicize against their immanent imminence, ritual presence, iconographic earnestness, and faith in the propositional constancy (it is as it shall be as it was) that our subjects assert. We offend them even as we footnote, even as we fly.

Which makes it seem all the more important to do it, and do it well. What other field of inquiry fights harder within stormy currents of counter-narrative and co-narrative, with scriptures, canons, and sacred histories outpacing our every interpretive hiccup. What we do is so obviously invasive as to be perverse, telling people time and again how the magic of the sacred was man-made, and how the miracle of divine encounter might be mere meteorology. These nitty gritty hermeneutics (as Anthony Pinn has termed them) are not so antithetical to religious experience. But they are (we must accede) a wicked posture from which to begin. The act of connecting the categories (“religious” and “history”) is just profane enough to keep us all (even as we do sin the subjects) fighting for our dignity, fighting for our professional practice, fighting for our analytic lives.

Sex and Religion



Besides being my two favorite subjects, they are also the heading for Tracy Fessenden's analysis at Immanent Frame of the campaign to canonize, but also completely depoliticize, the message of Dorothy Day. This also answers, in part, Art's query below about the presence, or not, of Catholics in progressive public politics. The post begins:

The current campaign within the Archdiocese of New York to canonize the radical activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980) offers a good example of what Elizabeth Povinelli in her December 13 post (“Can Sex be a Minor Form of Spitting?”) calls the “mutual conditions and secret agreements” that tie the sexual revolution and Catholic teaching together behind the scenes. It isn’t simply that the candor with which Cardinal O’Connor and now Cardinal Egan have described Day’s sexual agency, single motherhood, and presumed abortion signals the Church’s accommodation to new, post-1960s norms of frankness. Nor that the hagiographical plotline of Day’s renunciation of sex on her way to becoming a Catholic nicely embodies the paradox familiar to any schoolchild catechized in the sanctity of virginity— the sexual knowledge required of those being schooled to avoid it. Rather, by promoting Dorothy Day as a penitent Magdalen first and foremost—and not, say, a blistering critic of a war-making government and the depredations of capital— the Church furthers the ideological shift by which sexuality, with its attendant possibilities and dangers, comes to trump every other way that human flourishing might be imagined or pursued. In the case put forward by both O’Connor and Egan for her sainthood, Dorothy Day is upheld as the patroness of all who would (or should) repent of sexual quests gone gravely awry, with the result that the militarism and corporate greed that Day was relentless in calling to account are reduced to comparatively lesser infractions—as it were, to minor forms of spitting.

Later she asks:

Surely the Catholic Church learned something from the Reformers—surely they have had much to teach each other—about the ways institutional power might be augmented in the appearance of being relinquished. . . . . If “religion” no longer serves to define the reigning regime of modernity, then “morality”—sexuality—will have to do. And where sex is, can religion be far behind?

Read the rest here.

History Meme -- Why I teach Religious History


Dear Blog readers and Contributing Editors: We've been tagged! And tagged again! This history meme started here, at Free Exchange on Campus, where academic bloggers were invited to respond to the query "Why Do You Teach, and Why Does it Matter?" Or more specifically:

So I am challenging faculty to tell us why they teach and do the work they do and why academic freedom is critical to that effort.

Several historians have taken this up, including Historiann, History and Education (linked above), Tenured Radical, and Clio Bluestocking.

The above (and more) have answered the more general question: why do I teach history? I'd like to invite you all -- readers, religious historians, my contributing editors - to take a stab at the question: why do I teach American religious history (or religious studies, if that's your thing)? And hey, you Young Scholars in American Religion out there, from the present class or any of the previous ones -- give me your responses!

I'll put up something in the near future, but here's your opportunity to respond. Contributing editors can post their own responses, but I'm inviting anyone else who's interested to send me their response, and I'll consider posting it -- send to pharvey AT mail DOT uccs DOT edu.

Poor Richard and God's Profits



Sarah Posner, author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, follows the machinations of the "Word of Faith" theologians -- James Hagee, Kenneth Copeland, et al. -- whose over-the-top fundraising techniques and other questionable practices have drawn scrutiny from Congress. An excerpt from the book can be found here (showing that "Word of Faith preachers often give lip service to their church's community service projects yet worship at the altar of hyperindividualism and unregulated capitalism" -- sound familiar?).

Unlike Ted Haggard, gay sex scandals from some insiders have not been able to bring these guys down. Why? Health and wealth theology is just too deeply interwwined with the American religious fabric. Every evangelical generation throws its heroes up the pop charts.

While listening to Posner being interviewed on the radio, I was, conveniently for thinking about blog entries, reading Jill Lepore's latest essay in the New Yorker: "The Creed: What Poor Richard cost Benjamin Franklin." Franklin's irrepressibly punning and scatological humor fed right into the health and wealth gospel of future generations. Americans missed the joke and took the moral. Lepore writes:

Franklin finished his little essay ["The Way to Wealth"} at sea, on July 7, 1757. When he reached England, he sent it back on the first westbound vessel. It was published as the Preface to “Poor Richard Improved, 1758,” although it was soon reprinted, in at least a hundred and forty-five editions and six languages even before the eighteenth century was over, usually with the title “The Way to Wealth.” “It long ago passed from literature into the general human speech,” Carl Van Doren wrote in 1938, in an extraordinarily elegant biography of Franklin. This year marks the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of “The Way to Wealth,” among the most famous pieces of American writing ever, and one of the most willfully misunderstood. A lay sermon about how industry begets riches (No Gains, without Pains), “The Way to Wealth” has been taken for Benjamin Franklin’s—and even America’s—creed, and there’s a line or two of truth in that, but not a whole page. “The Way to Wealth” is also a parody, stitched and bound between the covers of a sham.

How's this for a TBN Special: A Frankin re-enactor delivering Franklin's iconic, and ironic, morals to an audience just divested of wallets.

He could start with: Serving God is Doing good to Man, but Praying is thought an easier Service, and therefore more generally chosen.

Or: He that lives upon Hope, dies farting (or "fasting," depending on whether you think it was a printer's error -- either one will do).

Spiritual Politics



The Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life has a new blog for discussion of religion and the 2008 election (what K. Lofton called here before the "spastic clatter" of politics -- what junkie can resist?). Today's entry, for example, features a discussion of Focus on the Family's candidate guide:

Focus on the Family's new online candidate guide is must-see for anyone following religion and the campaign. As Michael Scherer points out on Time Magazine's Swampcast blog, the thing amounts to a kick in the rear for Mike Huckabee and a covert endorsement of Mitt Romney . . .

To go along with that, the Center's latest Religion in the News newsletter features a number of pieces on religion (including "Men in Green," on faith-based environmentalism), and the (rapidly dwindling number of) candidates.

Mark Silk and company (who previously directed the 8-volume Religion by Region series, which we've blogged about before) run the newsletter and the blog; here's Mark explanation for liveblogging religion and the election:

These days, when the going gets tough, the tough go blogging, so that’s what we’ve decided to do. Since the beginning of December, a Greenberg Center blog, Spiritual Politics, has been following religion and the campaign. For those of you who wish to check it out—and we hope you do—it can be found at

The idea is to provide daily tracking of the way religion seems to be enhancing, disturbing, and otherwise interacting with the 2008 election cycle. As is our wont, we are trying to do this in a reasonably non-partisan way, though not without attitude. Most of the posts are by your editor, aided and abetted by trusty undergraduate fellow Reid Vineis.

From time to time, however—and we hope more frequently as time goes on—there will be posts from such learned commentators on religion in American public life as John Green, Jan Shipps, Gary Dorrien, Richard Wood, and Jerome Chanes. With any luck, Spiritual Politics will become must-read commentary on the state of religious play in the campaign, and perhaps beyond.

Providence and the Invention of the United States



Last June thousands of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists gathered together in Virginia for an event called the Jamestown Quadricentennial: A Celebration of America’s Providential History, 1607-2007, sponsored by an organization called Vision Forum Ministries. The eight day celebration included “Faith and Freedom Tours” of Williamsburg and Jamestown, seminars on America’s providential history, worship services, children’s programs, and a host of other patriotic commemorations. It was a showcase of the 400th anniversary of the first English colony in America--Christian Right style.

I am assuming that most of the readers of this blog would agree that this event is disturbing on so many levels. I have blogged on topics like this before and will probably blog on topics like this again. But one cannot deny that the folks at Vision Forum Ministries, in their promotion of the providence of God in history, have tapped into a longstanding tradition in American politics and intellectual life. This is the theme of Nicholas Guyatt’s great new book, Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1865 (Cambridge UP, 2007).

In historicizing the notion of providence, Guyatt shows that this idea “played a leading role in the invention of an American national identity before 1865." The depth of his research and the breadth of his scope are quite impressive. He packs this book with so much information that at times it became a burden to work through it all. But Guyatt writes well, and as a result this will be the standard text on the topic for many years to come. Even if you never get around to reading all 300+ pages it is a book worth having on your shelf as a reference tool for when one of David Barton's young and eager disciples takes that front row seat in your lecture hall.

For Guyatt, providentialism is more than just a “belief that God intervenes in human history.” It is a rather complex system of theological ideas that have manifested themselves in a variety of different ways in our nation's past. Throughout American history providence has been promoted in terms of the covenantal belief that nations rise and fall based upon their obedience to God, the idea that some nations—like the United States-- are chosen to play a special role in human history, and the practice of interpreting current events through the grid of biblical prophecy. Throughout the period between Jamestown and the Civil War, providence was used over and over again as a tool to achieve political ends. Guyatt explores the role that providence played in European colonization, the English Civil War, the American Revolution, the British response to the American Revolution, early national historiography, anti-slavery movements, pro-slavery ideology, Indian removal, the rise of nationalism in the early republic, the American Civil War, and Reconstruction.

Guyatt does not have an axe to grind. As tempting as it might be to draw contemporary lessons from the history of providentialism in early America, he remains a true historian, leaving it up to us to tease out the implications of his work. Yet the implications are there, and they are easily discovered. One cannot read this book without seeing the serious problems that providentialism has caused in America. With this in mind, the argument of Guyatt’s entire study is probably best summed by a quote he uses from Ambrose Bierce’s 1911 satire, The Devil’s Dictionary. Bierce defines “providence” as an idea that is “unexpectedly and conspicuously beneficial to the person so describing it.” At least that is how it has usually played out in United States history.

The Contemporary Catholic Left? or, Will the Catholic Jim Wallis Please Get Noticed?


When people picked up Time magazine’s December 12, 1960 edition, they saw the penetrating eyes of Jesuit John Courtney Murray looking back at them. The feature article, “U.S. Catholics and the State,” centered on his book, We Hold These Truths. “In months to come,” the article’s author predicted, “serious Americans of all sorts of conditions—in pin-stripes and laboratory gowns, space suits and housecoats—will be discussing [Murray’s] hopes and fears for American democracy.” Murray was one of a handful of highly visible American Catholics—such as Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Fulton Sheen—who helped bring the faithful from margins to the mainstream. Murray in particular was, indeed, a thinker and theologian who “serious Americans” took seriously.

This leads me to Randall’s mention of Jim Wallis. For the sake of argument, let me suggest that Wallis is something of a current evangelical version of John Courtney Murray. In their respective times, both earned fame and attention for their ability to clearly articulate their faith and relate it to prominent political concerns. But I wonder: Is there a Catholic version of Murray today? Sociologist, author, and political commentator Andrew Greeley may fit the mold. Consider his recent book, A Stupid, Unjust and Criminal War: Iraq, 2001-2007 (“Now tell us what you really think, Father?”). While I haven’t read it, the book appears to be a timely rebuke of the war and a challenge to Catholics to forthrightly oppose it. Despite his prolific writings, I don’t know that Greeley is as recognizable as Wallis, or for that matter, his conservative counterparts Pat Robertson and James Dobson. Do presidential candidates court Greeley in an attempt to secure the “Catholic vote”? Perhaps they do. But I haven’t seen it. The only other examples I have come from the realm of popular culture. In a Frontline documentary on the AIDS crisis, U2 front-man Bono discussed the relationship between his faith and activism. “I put Catholic guilt to work,” he quipped. Speaking to Rolling Stone, however, Bono called himself a “Christian,” but offered the following qualifier. “I don't use the label, because it is so very hard to live up to. I feel like I'm the worst example of it, so I just kinda keep my mouth shut.” His humility is refreshing. But unlike many noteworthy religious figures, Bono isn’t tossing tons of theology into the public mix. How about Martin Sheen? Having been arrested over 60 times at various protests, the actor often expresses admiration for Catholic social teaching. He once speculated, “I don't think you can be Catholic and not have some frame of reference for social justice.” I suspect, though, that more people know Sheen for his acting than his activism. So I’m going to withhold his “J.C. Murray Trophy” for the time being.

From Newsweek to Comedy Central to this blog, Jim Wallis et al. are hard to avoid. Yet, the Catholic equivalent is nowhere in sight. I’ll admit that I don’t closely follow trends in contemporary Catholicism. So I might simply be out of the loop. But I also don’t spend prodigious amounts of time following the evangelicals either. So please, dear blog readers, educate and correct me. Who is the current John Courtney Murray and/or Catholic version of Jim Wallis? And if there isn’t one, what does this say about American Catholicism today?

Jim Wallis on Jon Stewart



On Tuesday night, January 22nd, Jim Wallis, evangelical author and editor of Sojourners, appeared on "A" Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Wallis plugged his new book The Great Awakening. He emphasized the role of social ethics in forming a new moral consensus. "God's Politics called on people to take back their faith after it had been 'hijacked' by the Religious Right" writes Wallis. "Millions of Christ­ians have done just that, and now the question is what are we going to do with our faith, now that we have it back? My new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, addresses that question."

The bubbling up of a new Christian politics is not just the wishful thinking of a few blue-state evangelicals. It's evident in the emerging church movement, the recent pronouncements of Rick Warren, and in publications geared toward born again twenty somethings like Relevant Magazine. The politics of personal and sexual morality are not exciting the masses like they used to.

Stewart questioned Wallis on the prospects of the "religious Left." There may be some who fear that a hegemonic religious Left will be as off-putting as the much pilloried Christian Right is now. (This is a point that historian Stephen Prothero has recently made.) With so much attention being paid to the evangelical crackup, the future of evangelicalism, Left and Right, seems surprisingly uncertain.

Culture and Redemption Reviewed


When the right book meets the right reviewer, intellects spark. Case in point: Kathryn Lofton's review of Tracy Fessenden's Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (the link may or may not work, depending on whether you have library access) -- published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. A key passage to chew on:

. . . . if by the end you have not learned to read again (to think again) about such lofty suspects as democratization, feminization, and, yes, even that old warthog, secularization, then you have missed an opportunity to read, to read intensely, something that truly earns such reading. . . .

Fessenden's tough task is to show where and how this process of entrenchment takes place over and against increasing squeals of secularity. Social scientists and political observers have made easy mush of the secularization thesis, using twentieth-century fundamentalisms and new religious movements to mock the anticipated apocalypse of religion in the wake of science and social freedom. Students of history have had a harder fight with secularization, noting again and again that the success of orthodox religions within modernity is no trump to the postulated end of public practice. Any description of the post-industrial world requires an awareness of religion's uninterrupted endurance alongside (and within) the astounding cornucopia of competing ideologies, capitalist consumer practices, and celebrations of radically atomized selfhood that early modern observers would have rendered positively pagan. "Secularization" did not happen, precisely, but it also did not
not happen, as talk of a spiritually divested public sphere lingered in political debates and sociological prognostications.

Deg's Uncoverage Course, Part III

Dispatches from LeConte Hall 323 – Part III
Darren Grem

This week we studied “Religious Encounters.” To start us off, I dropped the students into the middle of Black Robe, a film that details the fictional journey of a French Jesuit priest to a Huron mission in the 1630s. Aside from certain inaccuracies and oversimplifications, this Hollywood portrayal does a decent job of presenting both the complete and incomplete conversions that often resulted in the “middle ground” of post-contact America. Hence, I asked the students to take “field notes” of what they saw, listing the specific beliefs and practices of the Jesuit missionaries and the Algonquin, Iroquois, and Huron. Then, they had to explain why conversions did or did not take place.

Documents from Gaustad and Noll’s A Documentary History of Religion in America complicated matters further, but also, I think, offered more perspective. The tendency (honestly come by, to be sure) to see the result of religious encounters as a historical given faded for most students after reading these documents, each of which presents a more complicated – but no less disturbing – portrayal of religious encounters in New France and New Spain. Their papers on the documents showed a greater willingness to consider why religious encounters unfolded as they did, instead of merely restating their initial reactions to Black Robe, which mostly simplified those encounters into a one-way history of inevitable conquest.

After our discussion of these documents, I reiterated their conclusions via a lecture and slideshow, but also reminded students that going overboard with some of their conclusions wasn’t advisable either. Just because we noted that “religious encounters” were often unpredictable and messy didn’t make the history under study any less unsettling. We must strive, I reminded them, both to understand why religious encounters in colonial American unfolded as they did, but also why they resulted in more religious deletions than religious accommodations and adaptations. Given that our next section will deal with all sorts of religious conflicts and collusions between colonial Christianities, I stressed the point more than I initially intended, and I believe they grasped it. I suppose I’ll find out next week and down the road when they’re working on their final assignments.

This was the first “graded” week of classes, as well as the first week where students encountered the “uncoverage” pedagogy in full force. Fortunately, I was able to speak with a few students as the week went on and gather some initial impressions from them. One described the class as “interesting,” while another assured me that the pedagogy was a “refreshing” way to look at history. I had a longer discussion with another student, however, who wanted more context for the documents we studied. Her concerns were apt and well placed, and, frankly, I sympathize with them. Historians often start with documents first and use them to form conclusions about the economic, cultural, and/or political context second. But is that the best way to teach history? Admittedly, it gets students to “do history” as we do it, with all the fun and frustration thrown in. But should we grant more context up front, or let them come to their own conclusions – within appropriate limits – about that context via the “raw” history under study? That’s an issue I’m glad the student raised for me, and one that I will no doubt continue to consider.

MLK the Preacher


Jenny McBride reviews the latest volume of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project here. A brief excerpt:

In addition to such diverse documents as sermon outlines, full drafts, seminary papers, facsimiles, and photographs, Volume 6 also includes transcripts of tape recordings of King's most famous sermons, documents from King's file "Sermons Not Preached," a chronology of sermons preached through 1959, a sermon file inventory listing all the folders discovered in 1997, a list of selected works relevant to King's sermon preparation, letters received after King's 1958 stabbing, and a calendar of documents including materials not printed in this volume. While the scope of the volume may seem daunting, the accessibility of the documents invites scholars and lay readers alike to benefit from this remarkable discovery. As a volume dedicated to King's preaching, Volume 6 arguably best conveys the life and work of the man who said of himself in 1965, "I am many things to many people but in the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher. This is my being and my heritage, for I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher."

For more on the denuding of King into a meaningless saint-for all, and an attempt to recapture his prophetic message, also check out
Baldblogger on "A King for Our Times," and Christopher Phelps, "The Prophet Reconsidered," which in addition to the Vol VI of the Papers also discusses the following books:

From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice
, by Thomas F. Jackson (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007)

Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign, by Michael K. Honey (Norton, 2007)

Vernon Johns Day



On this MLK day, it's high time to high-five Vernon Johns, courtesy of Civil War Memory and Ralph Luker. From Ralph's introductory essay:

There was a time when John the Baptist was better known than the obscure man of Gallilee who came after him and there was a time when Vernon Johns was better known than Martin Luther King, Jr. When King became the pastor of Montgomery, Alabama’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he identified himself as Vernon Johns’ successor. Subsequent events made it inevitable that Johns would ever thereafter be known as Martin Luther King’s predecessor.

Vernon Johns and Martin Luther King differed in remarkable ways. Johns was born in the rural South and found city life distasteful; King was born in the urban South and won his greatest victories in its cities. Johns was of the generation of King’s father and died in the midst of the civil rights crusade; King’s generation gave the movement its leadership in large numbers and some historians date its end at his death. Johns was an enthusiastic spokesman for black capitalism; King was a critic of capitalism’s economic disparities. Johns advocated armed self-defense of communities of color in the South; King hoped the South could become a peaceable kingdom via aggressive nonviolent protest. Vernon Johns’ congregations sometimes drove him from their pulpit, only subsequently to rehire him; either of Martin Luther King’s congregations would happily have made him their pastor into eternity. . . .

Read the rest here.

Welcome, Historiann



A hearty welcome to my fellow Coloradoan and newish blogger Historiann, author of Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England (the link goes to a discussion of reviews of the work -- the book on Amazon is here). She adds to our discussion of Drew Faust's Republic of Suffering here -- previously discussed on our blog here.

From the description of Abraham in Arms:

In 1678, the Puritan minister Samuel Nowell preached a sermon he called "Abraham in Arms," in which he urged his listeners to remember that "Hence it is no wayes unbecoming a Christian to learn to be a Souldier." The title of Nowell's sermon was well chosen. Abraham of the Old Testament resonated deeply with New England men, as he embodied the ideal of the householder-patriarch, at once obedient to God and the unquestioned leader of his family and his people in war and peace. Yet enemies challenged Abraham's authority in New England: Indians threatened the safety of his household, subordinates in his own family threatened his status, and wives and daughters taken into captivity became baptized Catholics, married French or Indian men, and refused to return to New England.

In a bold reinterpretation of the years between 1620 and 1763, Ann M. Little reveals how ideas about gender and family life were central to the ways people in colonial New England, and their neighbors in New France and Indian Country, described their experiences in cross-cultural warfare. Little argues that English, French, and Indian people had broadly similar ideas about gender and authority. Because they understood both warfare and political power to be intertwined expressions of manhood, colonial warfare may be understood as a contest of different styles of masculinity. For New England men, what had once been a masculinity based on household headship, Christian piety, and the duty to protect family and faith became one built around the more abstract notions of British nationalism, anti-Catholicism, and soldiering for the Empire.

National Religious History Week -- Not



Quite possibly much ado about nothing, likely an election-year stunt to fire up the base rather than some grave evidence of the theocrats on the march. But still -- courtesy of Tenured Radical, here's a discussion of a House Resolution to establish a National Religious History Week -- aka "America is a Christian Nation" week. Here's an excerpt from the resolution:

"Whereas political scientists have documented that the most frequently-cited source in the political period known as The Founding Era was the Bible" and "Whereas the United States Supreme Court has declared throughout the course of our Nation's history that the United States is 'a Christian country', 'a Christian nation', 'a Christian people', 'a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being' and that 'we cannot read into the Bill of Rights a philosophy of hostility to religion....'"

Apparently the bill's sponsors have not talked to John Fea, among others.

Here's the best portion from The Radical's take:

The bill clips a fistful of historical "facts" that link American political institutions to Christianity, including the presence of a Gutenberg Bible in the Library of Congress. These facts are stripped of their historical context, and strung together in chronological order, to "prove" that the United States is, and was intended to be by its founders, a Christian nation . . . Curiously, it also suggests that religion really has no history as such -- only a timeless present that can be used to re-order a political past in the interests of a contemporary interest group, a charge often aimed at leftist academics by cultural conservatives who want to minimize the importance of race and gender to national history.

Another History Blog looks under the hood of the "facts" stated in the resolution, briefly; Chris Rodda does so, more extensively, here. Truthiness reigns in this regiment of the right.

One presumes this will collapse of its own absurdity.

You Know You’re The Only One That Can Really Help


I stopped getting into scraps after a fourth-grade tussle regarding Potawatomi Indians. So it was surprising when I found myself getting heated recently on the California coast, sparring with a reasonably genteel gent about vocabulary. Not because I don’t make fetish of word (clearly) but because Midwestern pleasantry has, over the slow advance to adulthood, trumped cracker instinct. Save the squabble for righteous spaces, I tell myself. Funnel the fight into better productions.

Yet there I was, raging about the use of the word “cult.” “Why can’t we use it?” my interlocutor gently (genteel, after all) pressed. “I mean: they are cults.” He deployed the usage card, pointing to excellent ongoing application by observers intent upon venerated saints and ancient Gnostics. Moreover (he pressed) some things just are clandestine and weird, like Shakers and Henry Jaglom films. My resistance to the word “cult” is, under such a preponderance of cheery evidence, a well-intentioned but patronizing cling to political correctness, parallel to my relinquishing of “retarded” and “gay guy.” C’mon, already, (my discussant cajoled) the word is useful.

There are days when the words are on your side, and there are days when you sound like Porky Pig. This day, this important day of argument and defense, was a Porky day. I couldn’t lasso together what I wanted, which was, of course, a rehearsal of the history of this category, the way academicians eschewed its deployment because they realized, simultaneously, that it (a) wasn’t generative to classification, (b) relies on an antagonistic relationship between a (presumed to be) minority faction against a (presumed to be) dominant mainstream, (c) expects an exclusive spiritual adherence amidst sociological reality of the buffet believers and (d) was being enjoyed as an epithet—to truly destructive ends—by way too many people. (Note: For a recent rehearsal of this history and the nouveau resuscitation of “cult”, see the 2006 JSSR review essay by Marion Goldman, "Cults, New Religions, and the Spiritual Landscape.")

But my words weren’t with me, so I came off tinny and small (a perpetual condition for liberals and word whiners). If only I’d had patience. If only I’d merely say, “hey friend, let’s save the argument. Bide our time. And wait for the release of Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography.”

Then, I would have experienced the pleasure of non-argument exhibition. Anyone who thinks we can reclaim “cult” (like those who thought, hipster-like in the mid-nineties, that “Negro” would be fun to revive), do take a break and check out the responses to Morton’s religious history of Cruise, as well as the frightening replies to Cruise’s commitment video spinning throughout the web.

Don’t get me wrong: the video is something to see. (And something to use: religionists never had it so good). The man knows his way around onomatopoeias and crazed laughter. But, after all the chuckles at his gauntlet glee (“You’re either in, or you’re out.”) and the frets about Ms. Holmes’ captivity narrative, one does just have to say: “He believes.” Or, as the wise observers at Slate have it, this is only “moderately strange.” We’ve seen this all before. Impassioned faith should hardly be new to anyone awake on this here planet Earth yet off the bloggers soar, screaming and laughing and shaking with pleasure that this obviously “gay guy” is such a total “cult freak.” So now I, post-Pork, have my words to face my cultic foe: “we are the authorities,” and we say "no" to cults. Save that sort of devotion for (the oh-so-deserving) Dr. Frank-N-Furter.


Our contributing editor John Turner's "The Christian Woodstock," appearing in today's Wall Street Journal, takes on the question "How did Mr. Huckabee become a hip evangelical politician." His answer takes us back to "Explo '72." Check it out here. A brief excerpt:

Looking back, it is hard to appreciate just how revolutionary these steps were for evangelicals in 1972. Crusade's Mr. Bright, one of the most influential evangelicals of the post-World War II generation, had long rejected rock music -- along with long hair and dancing. Less than a year before Explo, he told a reporter that rock 'n' roll "wasn't for us . . . because of the complaints of ex-addicts." At the time, conservative evangelicals strongly associated rock music with drug abuse. Mr. Bright's son Zachary remembers telling his father: "You can have a conservative view of music and keep what worked for you, or you can win [young people to Christ]." "I'd rather win," Campus Crusade's president responded.

Dirt, Order, and HGH


“Dirt offends against order,” wrote the recently deceased anthropologist Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger. “Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organize the environment.” Douglas’s complex book makes a simple point. For the sake of social order, societies enact various means to purge their symbolic pollutants.

With this in mind, consider the current swirl of attention surrounding the “dirty athlete,” the great American Pigpen guilty of using performance enhancing drugs. Recently, leaders in Washington performed a civic cleansing ritual known as the congressional hearing. Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, was among those called before the committee. Blame and shame were in no short supply. In his opening remarks, the committee chairman remarked, “everyone in baseball is responsible: the owners, the commissioner, the union and the players.” The hearing went on to confirm what we already know, that players are taking performance enhancers and have been for at least a decade. The political spectacle was ultimately a demand (plea?) to MLB to bleach this stain. The question of “how” remains. Blood tests, suspensions, and heavy fines may work. One sportswriter called for Selig’s resignation, labeling him “the guy who brought us better baseball through chemistry” and made the sport “a toxic waste dump” filled with “polluted record books.” The commissioner, the author concluded, could not be trusted to “clean up” baseball.

The problem of performance enhancers extends far beyond baseball, into practically every sport to include—oddly enough—professional golf. If sport is a reflection of society, what does this say about contemporary America? Obviously, as the congressional hearing indicates, we take our games seriously. But this is nothing new in history. In his classic Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga argued that the “play element” in any society provides inspiration for civilization, and is therefore anything but frivolous. “The player can abandon himself body and soul into the game, and the consciousness of its being ‘merely’ a game can be thrust into the background.” He continued, noting that true play demands true purity, and cheating “spoils it altogether, because for us the essence of play is that the rules be kept.”

In professional sports, the rules have clearly been broken (many times over). Like many, I’m upset with dirty athletes and blame them and the corrupt system they belong to. I also blame myself. No, I didn’t inject players with HGH. But I love watching brutish batters bash a few dingers. And what a great story it makes when an aging pitcher rediscovers his 90-plus mile-per-hour fastball. Put simply: I want superhuman performances. But I also want virgin-like athletic purity. It seems I can’t have them both. Perhaps I should take a step back and assess both why I love sports, and how I love it. Without checking the latter, the dirt will continue to fly.

Doc Watch and Secularism in America



I've gotta confess. I'm a documentary junky. Youtube's staple of obscure clips and Netflix's ever-expanding catalog have only fed my habit. (I enjoyed reading about the Jewish Americans doc here on the blog and caught most of one episode last week.)

Two films recently came to my attention. Though, I have seen neither of them. The first was a big hit at the 2007 Sundance Festival. The second should be in theaters this spring.

For the Bible Tells Me So:

Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival, Dan Karslake's provocative, entertaining documentary brilliantly reconciles homosexuality and Biblical scripture, and in the process reveals that Church-sanctioned anti-gay bias is based almost solely upon a significant (and often malicious) misinterpretation of the Bible.

Praying With My Legs The Radically Amazing Life and Legacy of Abraham Joshua Heschel

Filmmaker Steven Brand and Rabbi David Lieber, President Emeritus of the University of Judaism, will view 30 minutes of the proposed 90-minute documentary. “Praying With My legs” is about the life, times, and teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who counted the UJ’s esteemed Dr. Lieber among his students.

(Several weeks ago Paul wrote an entry on Heschel here.

Another fairly recent item of interest: Wilfred McClay's Pew-sponsored lecture in December 2007 on religion and secularism:

Religion and Secularism: The American Experience:

Some of the nation's leading journalists gathered in Key West, Fla., in December 2007, for the Pew Forum's biannual conference on religion, politics and public life. Given the recent popularity of several high-profile books on atheism, the Pew Forum invited Wilfred McClay, a distinguished professor of intellectual history, to speak on the historical relationship between religion and secularism in America.

Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition



Here's a book that should be appearing in about a month or two, keep your eye out for it: Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition: Black Christian Nationalism in the Age of Jim Crow. I first became interested in this as a Ph.D. dissertation from Columbia some years back. It's now coming out as a book focusing on the world of black Christians in Savannah from the 1890s through the Depression. It's one of the richest local studies of African American religion that I've read, full of fascinating detail but also productive of big (and sometimes controversial) ideas about the role of the church in the community. I'll blog about this more in the future once it's available. Here's some more on it:

Using Savannah, Georgia, as a case study, Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition tells the story of the rise and decline of Black Christian Nationalism. This nationalism emerged from the experiences of segregation, as an intersection between the sacred (religion and church life) and the secular world of business. The premise of Black Christian Nationalism was a belief in a dual understanding of redemption, at the same time earthly and otherworldly, and the conviction that black Christians, once delivered from psychic, spiritual, and material want, would release all of America from the suffering that prevented it from achieving its noble ideals. The study’s use of local sources in Savannah, especially behind the-scenes church records, provides a rare glimpse into church life and ritual, depicting scenes never before described. Blending history, ethnography, and Geertzian dramaturgy, it traces the
evolution of black southern society from a communitarian, nationalist system of hierarchy, patriarchy, and interclass fellowship to an individualistic one that accompanied the
appearance of a new black civil society.

Although not a study of the civil rights movement, Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition advances a bold, revisionist interpretation of black religion at the eve of the movement. It
shows the institutional primacy of the churches giving way to a more diversified secular sphere before an overtly politicized struggle for freedom could take place. The unambiguously political movement of the 1950s and 1960s that drew on black Christianity and radiated from many black churches was possible only when the churches came to exert less control
over members’ quotidian lives.

“Oltman’s recovery of a fascinating union of business and religion, in rise and decline, illuminates the history of Savannah and underscores the complexities, opportunities, and tensions that typified early twentieth-century African American communities across the nation. Clearly written and skillfully researched, Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition leaves indelible impressions of struggles that mattered to communities and individuals alike.”—Jon Butler, author of Awash in a Sea of Faith

Republic of Suffering


Paul Harvey

Drew Gilpin Faust's new book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War is drawing much interest and comment. Jon Wiener's appreciative review is reprinted here. He begins: lists more than 36,000 books on the American Civil War, and my guess is that most of them depict battles and heroes, and describe wartime deaths as noble and tragic. Drew Gilpin Faust's "This Republic of Suffering" does something different. It's a shattering history of the war, focusing exclusively on death and dying -- how Americans prepared for death, imagined it, risked it, endured it and worked to understand it.

Here's a brief roundup of other reviews, with thanks to Ralph Luker: Edward Ayers, "Dead Reckoning," CHE, 11 January (subscriber only); Richard Wightman Fox, "National Life After Death," Slate, 7 January; Adam Kirsch, "Among the Dead," NY Sun, 9 January. Also, Terry Gross interviews Faust about her book for NPR's "Fresh Air."

UPDATE: In the comments section, Bland Whiteley mentions Eric Foner's review of the work in The Nation. And I will add Adam Gopnik's in the New Yorker.

Foner has the most critical words:

Like Faust's book, Upon the Altar of the Nation (2006), a work by the Yale scholar of religious history Harry Stout, condemns the Civil War clergy for justifying slaughter. It is hard not to see the shadow of Iraq--a prime example of senseless carnage cynically overlaid with exalted rhetoric--hovering over these books. And at a time of the increasing militarization of our society and politics, any reminder of the true costs of war is certainly welcome.

Yet on the question of whether the Civil War had any larger meaning, This Republic of Suffering is oddly agnostic. At one point, Faust does refer to "a war about slavery." But overall, the war's meaning for her lies in death, not life; in destruction and suffering, not any other outcome. The Civil War was, indeed, a terrible tragedy. But because of her unrelenting preoccupation with death, Faust strips the war of political meaning. She never steps back to ask what the price of avoiding war might have been.

Gopnik has this fascinating take:

Faust is tracing a true fault line in modern consciousness. In these years, and despite much conventional religious piety, there’s a nascent sense that the deaths of the young men will never be justified in the eyes of a good God, and never compensated for by a meeting in another world. Their deaths can be made meaningful only through a vague idea of Providence and through the persistence of a living nation. Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, through the dignity of near-Biblical expression, elevated sordid nationalism to a shimmering ideal of popular government; and it resonated because it said what a lot of people already felt. Fewer people found comfort in the promise of eternal life; more found it in the idea of a new world worth making.

It wasn’t a small shift. For most of history, ordinary people lived their lives vertically, with reference to a Heaven above and a Hell below. Now we live our lives horizontally, with reference to a past that we can repair or extend, and to future generations for whom our sacrifices and examples may make a better life. (We live horizontally, too, in the knowledge of sex and death as shaping principles.) The Civil War was one place in which this change got made. At the end of the war, the rituals that Faust catalogues were not merely secular but in their quiet way anti-religious, grounding the meaning of the war entirely in the sublunary realm of gains and losses. It is as if the scale of death and suffering had vitiated the idea of a good God not so much by outright rejection as by forcing another rhetoric and language of explanation.

Dating and the Synagogue



In my earliest years of graduate school, I was absent from one problem that many of my colleagues were not: dating. I got married to my spouse before we entered graduate school, so I did not have balance the dating scene with the crushing schedule of classes, reading, and researching. For many of my colleagues, this was a nightmare. For others, they found novel ways to date by their own terms. One colleague signed up for JDate, a website for Jewish singles. At the time, I was surprised that such a site existed, much less survived against dating giants, like, but this site filled a particular niche. It provided Jewish singles with the ability to meet other Jewish singles, so they could possibly avoid intermarriage. A subscription to JDate also held the appeal of other forms of internet dating, one could screen potential dates from the confines of one's home.

In his aptly titled, "Sex and the Synagogue," Newsweek reporter Tony Dokoupil points the sensitivity that many American Jews have to the rise of interfaith marriage. Thus, JDate has now partnered with rabbis to face the challenge. JDate now offers a bulk membership for rabbis for their congregants. Dokoupil writes:
According to Gail Laguna, JDate's vice president of communications, singles who sign up through their congregation get a slight discount on the site's $149 six-month subscription fee. "This is a way for us to break down the walls of the synagogue," said Rabbi Michael Cahana, who leads the Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, Ore. "We should use all the technological tools that are available to us."

Technology that might lead to more Jewish marriages. Interestingly, some rabbis are paying from their own pockets to secure subscriptions for congregants, and some synagogues are using their discretionary funds for the expense of JDate. Dokoupil continued:
The rabbis say they felt compelled to act because of the gradual dilution of the faith through marriage. Almost half of American Jews marry non-Jews, a rate of exodus that has more than tripled since 1970. "This is about creating an opportunity," says Cahana. Sometimes even Cupid needs a nudge.

Internet dating becomes another supposedly secular, technological tool to be absorbed in the religious realm. Rabbis can help their congregants find love, but also perpetuate Jewish instead of interfaith marriages. So, how can we understand how internet dating can fit into religious practice? Dating is already fraught with various tensions, and religious belief and practice can often be one of these. Thus, JDate diffuses this tension for subscribers, but I wonder how different this dating site is from any way? Are there surveys that allow one to proclaim undying devotion to long walks on the beach? How are the logistics similar to more secular sites? Does allow someone to screen by religious preference? Has anyone explored the place of internet dating in the religious lives of Americans? Am I the only one interested? (Any suggestions would be more than welcome in the comments section.) I never found out if my colleague found love on JDate, but I wonder if her rabbi subsidized her subscription.

Darren's UnCoverage Course, Part II


Dispatches from LeConte Hall 323 – Part II, BY DARREN GREM

The first week’s set of classes focused on two questions: 1) What is religion? and 2) How should we go about doing religious history? Since our answers to both of those questions shape how we approach America’s religious past, I thought it pertinent to begin with them.

Regarding the first question, I asked my students to list reasons for why UGA football should or shouldn’t be considered a religion. I was pleased with the results from both the morning and afternoon classes. They thought hard about the matter and presented apt reasons for both sides of the matter. UGA football, most concluded, had both qualities of a religion and of more “secular” enterprises. It didn’t have a central deity, but it certainly deified legendary running back Herschel Walker, head coach Mark Richt, Uga VI, and Larry Munson (the radio “Voice of the Dawgs” for over four decades now). It didn’t encourage “worship” of a supernatural figure or appreciation for supernatural events, but it had venerated spaces, icons, rituals, and rites of passage. Its sense of ethics was fuzzy at best (or temperamental, depending on like or dislike of particular referees, plays, coaches, etc.), but it taught what was anathema and taboo (Steve Spurrier, the Florida Gators, all things Georgia Tech).

All in all, the students seemed reluctant to call UGA football a “religion” in any definitive sense, primarily because it didn’t deal in metaphysics (what one student called “the big questions of life”) or in the supernatural, inexplicable, eternal, and divine. When I pushed my first class to reflect on how, say, a Christian or post-Enlightenment view of certain notions – like “the eternal” and “the inexplicable” – shaped their perspective on religion proper, I had to lead the class a bit more. As such, I’m not sure how well I illustrated my points about how a Huron’s or Buddhist’s definition of religion might result in a different narrative about religious history (they seemed confused), so I dropped the points for the second afternoon class, seemingly with no harm done.

Regardless, I think they enjoyed the exercise and were especially attentive when I suggested how we define “religion” shapes what we study as religious historians. Should UGA football – or sports in general – be included in a text on American religious history? Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to deal with this question as much as I would have liked, but they got it in their notes.

If the first question drew the students in, the way I taught the second one – how do we do religious history? – seemed to leave a few behind. I wanted us to focus on how historians write about the “unseen,” and I thought a provocative essay would help (Grant Wacker’s “Understanding the Past, Using the Past,” in Bruce Kuklick and D. G. Hart, eds., Religious Advocacy and American History, Eerdmans, 1997). The essay isn’t an easy read, but it’s an important one, providing models for writing religious history as well as suggestions on how to interpret sources, recreate historical settings, and draw moral meanings from the past. To prep for this class, the students wrote short paragraphs (ungraded) about what they envisioned the discipline of religious history to be about. They also had to take some guesses about the types of challenges historians face in the archives and afterwards. In general, they saw our jobs as a mix of the following: categorizing religions, describing the development of religions, explaining denominational splits, detailing theological conflicts, and showing how religious groups shape politics and popular culture. Most of the challenges they detailed would make any post-modernist proud. How to know if a subject actually had religious experiences? How to determine bias in documents? In the researcher’s methods? What if the documents provided don’t tell the whole story? Can any history of religion be objective? I was impressed. I never knew they carried so much existential baggage.

They were along for the ride as we worked through their results. But when we turned to Wacker’s essay, I undoubtedly lost a few of them. It didn’t help in the first class that I myself mixed up Wacker’s categorizations and suggestions (it was a light moment as we all laughed at my fumbling of the ball, but still a bit embarrassing). But more importantly, the lines between Wacker’s concerns and our own were not drawn clearly enough by either the students or, frankly, by me. The end result, I think, was a more conceptual than concrete set of conclusions about how we should and shouldn’t “do religious history.”

This week we’re going to study religious encounters in New Spain and New France, and hopefully some of the past week’s lessons carry over. I’m editing the course as we go along, and I’ve decided that, for as much as I like Wacker’s article, I’ll probably exchange it in future go-rounds for something that teaches the interests and challenges of the field in more direct ways (making sense of religion in this election season, perhaps?) For now, however, I was pleased with the first week’s set of classes. Despite some bumps and bruises here and there, I think we made our way through a conceptual forest that has lost a few students – and even a few of us – along the way.

National Museum of American Jewish History



Alongside some of the most historic landmarks in the United States, a building is rising that will tell the story of the national immigration experience through the life of the Jewish people.

The new National Museum of American Jewish History, scheduled to open on July 4, 2010, is an effort to add to the historical narrative traced by the cultural icons of Independence Mall: Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed; the Liberty Bell, which was rung on July 8, 1776, to summon the people of Philadelphia for the reading of the Declaration; and nearby , the National Constitution Center, housing a permanent exhibition on the Constitution.

The $170 million building under construction will trace the lives of American Jews since their first arrival in New Amsterdam from Brazil in 1654, focusing on how they influenced, and were influenced by, their new home.

The full story is here.

A Tale of Two Randalls


Editor's Note: Ed Blum is back in the house again -- this time as our newest permanent contributing editor! I assured him he wouldn't have to learn html, and he agreed to contribute periodically as the spirit moves -- we'll call that a bargain, the best we ever had (with apologies to Pete Townshend). He begins with a comparative reflection on two seemingly dissimilar recent books, including one by our contributing editor Randall Stephens.

A Tale of Two Randalls

It is hard not to love a good pair. Two socks are always better than one; I still hope that Sonny and Cher will reunite in the afterlife; and who can imagine Clyde without Bonny. I guess this makes me a little like Noah; not the last righteous man or drunk and naked under a vine, but having a propensity for twos. So today I want to draw your attention to two Randalls: Stephens and Balmer. Both have recently published incredible books in American religious history – one on presidents, the other on Pentecostals; one of friends in high places, the other, well, with friends that traffic with Garth Brooks. Interestingly, Stephens’s The Fire Spreads and Balmer’s God in the White House may have more in common than at first glance.

Randall Balmer is a name we all know. I first encountered him in the summer of 1999; I was babysitting at the pool and reading Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. It was great vacation reading then, and is still today. His sensitivity and insight for religious people often misunderstood is amazing. Balmer fashioned himself then as the grand critic and insider of evangelical America, and everyone seemed to agree he was ideal for the role. Now, with God in the White House, Balmer has taken up a prescient task – explaining the relationship between religion and the American presidency over the past four decades.

God in the White House is a book we desperately need. Balmer has studied and thought deeply about what is on everyone’s mind: religion and the modern presidency. Whether we’re trying to figure out Romney’s chances as a Mormon or Obama’s connection to African American Christianity, God in the White House helps us to understand the possibilities and perils of linking religion and politics. Balmer shows, hilariously at times, sadly on other occasions, a sweeping change over the past four decades. In 1960, John F. Kennedy urged Americans to disregard a politician’s faith when making a choice. By 2008, personal faith is ubiquitous in American politics. Balmer narrates how this happened. He takes the reader through the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush; through the streets of Dallas, the hallways of Watergate, the tax status of Bob Jones University, and the prayer meetings of Bill Clinton. This is a remarkable book. It is much about the American present as it is the past.

It’s also funny. I laughed riotously when Jacqueline Kennedy faulted John’s critics about his faith when she commented, “I think it’s so unfair of people to be against Jack because he’s Catholic, … He’s such a poor Catholic.” There are bunches of quotes just like this.

Those vying for the White House should rush off, buy God in the White House, and read it immediately (or at least they should have an aide look into it). Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert should line up Balmer (and heck, other political news anchors, such as Tim Russert, should court Balmer’s time too). This is certainly the type of religious literacy we need far more than knowledge about the New England Primer. Balmer has an outrageous idea that Americans should consider, one that might make politicians shudder: we, the people, should hold our politicians accountable for the religious rhetoric they use. Say Jesus inspired you most, for example, then you better prize the humble, the poor, and the downtrodden. If not, then expect the wrath of the people.

Some scholars may dislike Balmer’s penchant for moral criticism, especially of conservative politics and politicians. It is true, Balmer tends to believe Bill Clinton while distrusting George W. Bush. Dissenters might say that Balmer is too political, too much of a presentist. But I think this type of criticism is misguided. Howard Zinn shouldn’t have had to tell us almost forty years ago, nor now, that history is political. There is no getting around it. And Balmer shouldn’t have to remind us, as Sydney Ahlstrom always said (so I’m told, I never met him) that one of the offices of the religious historian is to look at the moral world she sees and to tell the narrative of how we arrived there. Rather than lambast Balmer for being too political, his opponents should write honest moral histories of the Bush clan, of Ronald Reagan, and of Richard Nixon. Show Balmer, prove to him and others, that these men led Christian lives that translated into policies that supported Christian aims of love, mercy, forgiveness, honesty, compassion, and caring.

In 2008, it is almost impossible to stand aloof from politics. It would have even been hard for the people discussed in Randall Stephens’s The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South. But I’m sure they would have managed. The Fire Spreads isn’t as funny as Balmer’s book, but it contains its share of chuckles. Remember John Ashcroft’s “Let the Eagle Soar” song (if not, check it out on youtube; uproarious)? Who would have known that it stemmed, in part, from his Pentecostal roots? Or how about when those who think they have the gift of speaking in foreign tongues trek out to those foreign lands. Surprise, surprise, they really couldn’t speak Swahili. Stephens, too, narrates a story of how religious ideas moved from outside of the political realm into the mainstream. But instead of focusing on elite figures, he focuses on the grassroots. This is truly history from the bottom-up, and done at its best.

The Fire Spreads tells the tale of how first the holiness crusade crept into the South and then the Pentecostal movement swept in. Both, he suggests, were imports. Holiness descended from the North, while Pentecostalism went against the grain, moving West to East. Stephens is at his best when discussing holiness/Pentecostal battles with established Protestant denominations. He finds, for instance, that theological battles with the mainstream led holiness adherents to adopt pessimistic worldviews and premillennialism. Perhaps their internal church battles led Pentecostals to avoid politics, Stephens conjectures. In his final chapter, Stephens shows how a coterie of white Pentecostals joined the American mainstream by hitching their wagon to conservative politics. These may be some of the people with whom Randall Balmer is so upset.

I was fascinated by the role of holiness in sectional reconciliation after the Civil War. As Stephens shows brilliantly, holiness advocates and Pentecostals in the South really didn’t care about the Lost Cause or issues of race or making a whole lot of money. Their apolitical stance – toward the Civil War and toward southern identity – may have aided in the process of national reconciliation, at least by not stirring up the pot. Stephens directs us to spend more time thinking about the relationship between religion and regional relationships.

These two Randalls not only deserve our congratulations, but they merit our attention. Both books speak to the importance of religion in American politics. Both books teach us so much about the state of our world. Maybe they’ll help us pick a better president. Maybe they’ll help us understand the worlds we inhabit both politically and spiritually. I know they did for me.
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