Picturing Faith at the AAR

Paul Harvey

I'm live-blogging the AAR! Not really. More like, on the train from O'Hare into Chicago for the American Academy of Religion, I had the good fortune to run into my colleague Colleen McDannell, of the University of Utah. As I wrote in a blog entry below, Colleen was a mentor in teaching me more successfully to integrate the visual into my thinking and teaching on American religious history, which I've tried to incorporate into my upcoming Lamar lectures.

Some years ago, I brought to my campus Colleen's wonderful exhibition Picturing Faith, an exhibit of Farm Security Administration photographs from 1935-1943 which accompanies her book Picturing Faith: Photography and the Great Depression. She introduced me to some photographs that I included in my book Freedom's Coming. She also showed me some ways to think about the relationship of the religious and the visual, both in her work Material Christianity and in the book on photography.

A nice web compilation of photographs that are included in Picturing Faith may be found here. A review of Colleen's exhibition is here. The reviewer states:

The exhibit's multiple functions speak not only to McDannell's skill in the integration of material objects and texts but also to the broader issues in historical method she has been pursuing for some time. There is a palpable tension between observing the photographs on their own terms and reading them along with McDannell. Just entering the exhibit presents one with the dilemma of what to do first—read or look? In this way the exhibit serves to break up our casual habits of historical thinking and asks us to reconsider our assumptions about the disparities between reading and looking.

Coming Home to Outsider Religious Art

Paul Harvey

Preparing my Lamar Lectures has brought me back to a little project I was involved with a few years ago, mainly just to write a short introduction for one chapter in Coming Home: Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South. I've been going through this work again looking for images to go along with one of the lectures, "Jesus of the South." Of course there are many; one of my favorites, "There is Only One King," is to the right. These artists are eccentrics and visionaries; one of them, Anderson Johnson (1907-1998), now has his own gallery of work he did while running a Faith Mission Church in Newport News, Virginia, over several decades.

Some well-known names, especially Howard Finster, are in this work. Many others you will not have heard of. The book is a wonderful catalog of the exhibition that traveled the country a few years back, reviewed here in the New York Times when it appeared at the Museum of Biblical Art (the article comes with a very nice slide show of some of the works, too).

Scholars such as Colleen McDannell, among others, have led the way in showing how religious historians may incorporate the visual into their work. I'm but a novice at this, but plan to try my hand a bit at it in these lectures. We'll see how it goes. David Morgan's Protestants and Pictures is a classic in analyzing how an allegedly "pure" church free of Romish superstititions of images and icons in fact created an entire world of their own imagery. And, just as anyone can read the Bible, the (mostly) Protestants in this collection freely interpreted biblical passages through their wildly diverse and often apocalyptic imagery. Moreover, the black artists exhibited here weren't waiting around for the advent of "black theology" to experiment with images of Jesuses of color. Black crucified Christs appear frequently in the exhibition and range through the course of the twentieth century.

Here's a description of Coming Home.

In the works of many famous self-taught artists, such as Howard Finster and Sister Gertrude Morgan, Biblical themes and imagery abound. How has the Bible inspired these southern creators?

Examining 125 works of art by seventy contemporary folk artists, Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South accompanies a traveling exhibition organized by the Art Museum of the University of Memphis. The exhibition features painters and sculptors of wide acclaim, including Finster, Sister Morgan, William Edmondson, Clementine Hunter, Joe Minter, Elijah Pierce, Robert Roberg, William Thomas Thompson, and Myrtice West.

In the South, Evangelical Christianity is predominant. Essays in this catalog explore this particular religious influence on the work of southern self-taught artists. The artwork is considered within the context of contemporary American art and history, literature, and music.

Also included are brief essays on thirty-two of the artists along with biographical sketches of each, identifying denominational ties and providing relevant religious information.

Coming Home! offers new ways of understanding the rich meaning, theology, and history of this art and its stylistic approaches and various purposes. Essayists also forward a fresh appreciation of the cultural influence of Evangelical Christianity. They include Carol Crown, Erika Lee Doss, Hal Fulmer, Norman Girardot, Paul Harvey, Babatunde Lawal, Leslie Luebbers, Cheryl Rivers, and Charles Reagan Wilson.

Fires That Would Not Go Out, and Unutterable Separations

Paul Harvey

Going to Macon, Georgia soon for the Lamar Lectures at Mercer University, and corresponding with my esteemed colleague in southern history at Macon State, Andrew Manis, has reminded me to put up a post about Manis's fine work, which has not received the full attention that it deserves, IMHO. So here's a little primer for you on the work of Andrew Manis, essential for anyone interested in race/religion/civil rights history.

Several years ago, Manis's A Fire You Can't Put Out: the Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth gave us a compelling study of this remarkable man. The link takes you to one review of the work, from the Journal of Southern Religion. Another review states,

Shuttlesworth, by contrast [with King], had all the bridging qualities of a sharp stick. He won a reputation in the movement for absolute fearlessness, for reckless and unattractive egotism, for dictatorial leadership. He and Bull Connor seemed made for each other. Yet Shuttlesworth, in his own way, was indispensable to the movement. Without his working-class following, and without Shuttlesworth's insistence on confrontation, the SCLC and King would never have tackled Birmingham.

Shuttlesworth remains a fascinating figure of the movement, and Manis's biography does him justice without engaging in hagiography, always a tenuous balance.

More recently Andy has published Macon Black And White. This was a commissioned book, and the focus on one city could have made this a less compelling work. Instead, the focus drives the work and shows how the general narrative of southern history can look when based on a local history. This is, really, a moral history of a southern city. Below is my review of the work from the Journal of Southern History. Manis's works should be on anybody's reading list for race/civil rights/religion. I look forward to further reflections on Macon after I return!

Macon Black And White: An Unutterable Separation in the American Century. By Andrew M. Manis. (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University and the Tubman African American Museum, 2004. Pp. xvi, 432. Paper, $20.00, ISBN 0-86554-958-3; cloth, $45.00, ISBN 0-86554-761-0.)

Surprisingly enough, few volumes in southern history follow the course of black and white life, separations, and interactions in a single community over an extended period of time; Manis’s work will serve as a template for those that may follow. Home at various times to the black Reconstruction legislator and AME bishop Henry McNeal Turner, a dazzling array of black musical talent, Elijah Poole (the future Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X’s mentor), and to a variety of white leaders ranging from the most reactionary to the most progressive, Macon turns out to be nearly an archetypical southern city in terms of the complexity of race, violence, economics, and political power. Manis moves his story beyond prototype by following the flesh-and-blood stories of myriad figures from Macon’s past, ranging from local Klansmen in the 1920s, to pastors of local churches, to Sam Oni (an African student who desegregated Mercer University in the 1960s), to the recent and controversial black mayor C. Jack Ellis.

From the standpoint of white Maconians for much of the twentieth century, white supremacy was “unutterable,” in the sense of “unuttered because of its taken-for-granted status and its sacred inviolability” (7). . . In more recent years, segregation is an unutterable part of a shameful past, but the existence and reality of “white privilege” remains the unacknowledged reality indelibly shaping the exercise of economic and political power. Finally, “unutterable” refers to “unspeakably evil or tragic” (8). In all these ways, An Unutterable Separation is both a social and a moral history.

Most of the major themes in southern historiography appear here, from progressivism “for whites only,” to the rise and fall and reappearance of the Klan, to the frustrations of black accommodationists, to tentative efforts at interracial cooperation, to the “days of hope” during the New Deal and civil rights awakening during the World War Two era, to civil rights struggles from desegregation to black power, and finally to continued separations and inequalities down to the present day. The patterns of southern racism painfully evident at all points in Macon’s history were moderated and “leavened” at points by the impressive activism of the local NAACP branch, by the presence of a relatively moderate local newspaper (the Telegraph), by the presence of local interracial efforts, and by the influence exercised by white moderates at local educational institutions such as Mercer.

The interest here is not in any new schema of southern history being offered, but rather in the sheer human interest and drama in watching how diverse struggling individuals lived out these themes in politics, culture, economics, and social life over the course of a century. Manis’s work reminds us that even if people do not make history just as they please, they nevertheless make history. And, in a deliberately sermonic epilogue directed particularly at local readers, Manis reminds us that people can still remake history, in this case simply by remembering that “efforts towards reconciliation must go beyond dialogue between individuals to address unequal power relationships” (352). His outstanding work ultimately serves both as a compelling social history as well as an inquiry into the “moral demands of justice” (362).

Passing the Plate


Paul Harvey

A quick new-Monday-of-the-economic-crisis note on a new book of interest from Oxford University Press, about Americans' relatively low church and charitable giving. It comes from the eminent sociologists of religion Michael Emerson, Christian Smith, and Patricia Snell:

Passing the Plate shows that few American Christians donate generously to religious and charitable causes -- a parsimony that seriously undermines the work of churches and ministries. Far from the 10 percent of one's income that tithing requires, American Christians' financial giving typically amounts, by some measures, to less than one percent of annual earnings. And a startling one out of five self-identified Christians gives nothing at all.This eye-opening book explores the reasons behind such ungenerous giving, the potential world-changing benefits of greater financial giving, and what can be done to improve matters. If American Christians gave more generously, say the authors, any number of worthy projects -- from the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS to the promotion of inter-religious understanding to the upgrading of world missions -- could be funded at astounding levels. Analyzing a wide range of social surveys and government and denominational statistical datasets and drawing on in-depth interviews with Christian pastors and church members in seven different states, the book identifies a crucial set of factors that appear to depress religious financial support -- among them the powerful allure of a mass-consumerist culture and its impact on Americans' priorities, parishioners' suspicions of waste and abuse by nonprofit administrators, clergy's hesitations to boldly ask for money, and the lack of structure and routine in the way most American Christians give away money. In their conclusion, the authors suggest practical steps that clergy and lay leaders might take to counteract these tendencies and better educate their congregations about the transformative effects of generous giving.

By illuminating the social and psychological forces that shape charitable giving, Passing the Plate is sure to spark a much-needed debate on a critical issue that is of much interest to church-goers, religious leaders, philanthropists, and social scientists.
Ron Sider has recently recommended the book is Books and Culture, and the book comes with positive responses from Robert Wuthnow and Mark Noll as well. Anyone who has examined the book, feel free to respond here.

Lamar Lecture Announcement


October 23, 2008

Prominent Historian to Deliver Lamar Lectures on Religion in The South

MACON — Paul Harvey, Ph.D., will present the 2008 Lamar Memorial Lecture Series of Mercer University, on Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 3 and 4, on the University’s Macon campus. Harvey, a history professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, will present three lectures around the theme: “Moses, Jesus and the Trickster in the Evangelical South.” All lectures are free and open to the public.

At 10 a.m. on Nov. 3 in the Medical School Auditorium, Harvey will present a lecture titled “Jesus of the South."

He will give two evening presentations – “Moses, Jesus, Absalom, and the Trickster: Southern Evangelical Culture in History and Literature” on Nov. 3; and “Religion, Race, and Southern Ideas of Freedom,” on Nov. 4 – each of which will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the Medical School Auditorium.

In its 51 years, the Lamar Lecture Series has become one of the most prominent Lectures series on Southern Culture and History, and has included presentations by renowned historians, sociologists and literary scholars.

“Harvey continues this legacy of engaging Southern culture with an intriguing series of lectures that center on religious experiences in the American South,” said lecture series director Sarah Gardner, Ph.D., associate professor of History at Mercer. “Harvey is the first scholar to address the religious experience of the South since Sam Hill gave the lectures in 1979.”

Dr. Harvey is the author of two books, including: “Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities Among Southern Baptists, 1865-1925” and “Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era.” Harvey has two books that are under contract to be published as well: “Jesus in Red, White and Black” (co-authored with Edward J. Blum), and the book “Moses, Jesus and the Trickster in the Evangelical South” based on his Lamar Lectures.

Dr. Harvey has also edited several works, including: “Themes in Religion and American Culture,” “The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America since 1945” and “The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History.”

Dr. Harvey has published numerous papers, articles and book chapters in the areas of Southern history, culture and religion. He earned his Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley, 1992.

About the Lamar Lecture Series:

Made possible by the bequest of the late Eugenia Dorothy Blount Lamar, began in 1957. The series promotes the permanent preservation of Southern culture, history and literature. Given each fall, it is recognized as the most important lecture series on Southern history and literature in the United States. Speakers have included nationally and internationally known scholars, such as Cleanth Brooks, James C. Cobb and Eugene Genovese. All lectures are original and are published as books following the lectures.

About Mercer University:

Founded in 1833, Mercer University is a dynamic and comprehensive center of undergraduate, graduate and professional education. The University has more than 7,500 students; 11 schools and colleges – liberal arts, law, pharmacy, medicine, business, engineering, education, theology, music, nursing and continuing and professional studies; major campuses in Macon, Atlanta and Savannah; three regional academic centers across the state; a university press; two teaching hospitals — Memorial University Medical Center and the Medical Center of Central Georgia; educational partnerships with Warner Robins Air Logistics Center in Warner Robins and Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta; an engineering research center in Warner Robins; a performing arts center in Macon; and a NCAA Division I athletic program. For more information, visit http://www.mercer.edu/.

For More Information:
Media Contact: Mark Vanderhoek (478) 301-4037
Lecture Contact: Bobbie Shipley (478) 301-2357

Ali vs. Patterson: I'm An American Too!


Art Remillard

Muhammad Ali rose to prominence at a time when, similar to now, boxing was a dying sport. Its brutality and disreputable undercurrent offended the senses many. More than this, no boxer really stood out. But Ali stood out—way out. He was brash, boastful, critical of the U.S. government, and, of course, Muslim. The excitement generated by Ali cannot be overstated. He was, as Michael Novak proclaimed, the "redeemer of the boxing world."

Among Ali's most (in)famous moments was his 1965 bout with former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, a recent Catholic convert. The fight assumed posture of a "holy war," not only between Christian and Muslim, but also between "patriotic" America and "un-patriotic" America. Indeed, Patterson pledged to "win back" the title "for America."

Alas, Ali pummeled Patterson, drawing out the match for twelve humiliating rounds. With each blow, Ali crushed the hopes of his detractors and and elevated the hopes of his fans. Among those in the former group was Eldridge Cleaver, who afterward interpreted the broader symbolic quality of the match.

Muhammad Ali is the first "free" black champion ever to confront white America. In the context of boxing, he is a genuine revolutionary, the black Fidel Castro of boxing. To the mind of "white" white America, and "white" black America, the heavyweight crown has fallen into enemy hands, usurped by a pretender to the throne. Muhammad Ali is conceived as "occupying" the heavyweight kingdom in the name of a dark, alien power, in much the same way as Castro was conceived as a temporary interloper, "occupying" Cuba. It made no difference that, when Patterson announced that he would beat Ali and return the crown to America, Ali protested vigorously, asking "What does he mean? I’m an American too!" Floyd Patterson was the symbolic spearhead of a counterrevolutionary host, leader of the mythical legions of faithful darkies who inhabit the white imagination, whose assigned task it was to liberate the crown and restore it to its proper "place" in the Free World. Muhammad Ali, in crushing the Rabbit in twelve—after punishing him at will so there could be no doubt, so that the sport writers could not rob him of his victory on paper—inflicted a psychological chastisement on "white" white America similar in shock value to Fidel Castro's at the Bay of Pigs. If the Bay of Pigs can be seen as a straight right hand to the psychological jaw of white America, then Las Vegas was a perfect left hook to the gut.

Cleaver's provocative words indicate, among other things, that there were competing definitions of America both between and within the races. To be sure, Ali's image transformed over time from a national sinner to national saint. In 1996, Americans of all colors cheered as "the greatest" lit the flame at the Atlanta Olympics. Still, as Ali left the ring that evening in 1965, he became the standard-bearer for a population who stood tall and shouted, "I'm an American too!"

A Religio-Sociological Survey in the Quad Cities Area

A Survey Experiment: Race, Religion, Politics, and Other Comfortable Topics
by Everett Hamner

A few weeks ago I took off my customary literary critic hat and spent nine hours wearing a sociologist costume. During the early stages of an interdisciplinary undergraduate seminar entitled “Ethnic Literatures of the United States: Race, Religion, and Election ’08,” I took my ten students to a weekend multicultural festival in the Quad Cities (IL/IA) and spent an afternoon and evening surveying attendees on Gallup questions ranging from likely choices for president to assessments of local race relations to beliefs about evolution and creation. This is not my usual gig, but after reading autobiographies by Obama and McCain, and before launching into novels about civil rights and Vietnam, I wanted my students to get outside the classroom and into conversations with others of very different racial backgrounds, political persuasions, and religious traditions. 252 such discussions later, we ended up with data that is suggestive if not conclusive, a number of eye-opening personal encounters, a broader appreciation of each other as human beings, and—to my knowledge—not a single sunburn.

I would emphasize up front that our data was drawn entirely from voluntary attendees of a multicultural festival, one which required either a $2 admission fee or two cans of food for donation to a local food bank. Bastion of red-blooded conservatism this was not, so we certainly expected the crowd to favor Obama. Even so, the actual numbers were surprisingly lopsided: 80% for Obama, 13% for McCain, and 7% other/undecided. Granted, the crowd was one-third African American and over half Democratic, but the survey was administered before the stock market lost a couple thousand points over the last few weeks. Curious about factors associated with voters’ choices, I queried our data with the help of a generous sociologist colleague, Dr. David Rohall (also of Western Illinois University).

In the end, the following categories appeared to have the most significant correlations with choice for president:

**gender (Obama drew 62% of his voters from women and 38% from men, while McCain drew 39% of his voters from women and 61% from men);

**educational attainment (McCain drew 36% of his voters from those with a high school degree or less, while only 18% of Obama’s voters fit these categories; conversely, 56% of Obama’s voters had a BA or more, while only 36% of McCain’s voters held college degrees or more); and

**attitudes toward job opportunities available to racial minorities (when asked, “do you feel that racial minorities in this country have equal job opportunities?”, 21% of Obama supporters said yes and 68% said no, but 63% of McCain supporters said yes and only 25% said no). (By comparison, in a national Gallup poll asking the same question this summer, 53% answered yes and 46% said no.)

Enough with the basics. Personally, the answers I found juiciest were those engaging attitudes toward biblical interpretation and evolutionary theory. Here the broader Gallup information is crucial for setting the context. As is regularly lamented by scholars of biology and religion alike, over the last quarter-century, anywhere between 43-47% of Americans have steadily chosen a survey response stating, “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,” rather than other answers accepting evolutionary theory (one of which even allows for God’s “guidance” of that process). With this in mind, our survey’s lower measurement of only 28% identifying with young earth creationism might seem a significant drop, at least before one considers the liberal-leaning demographics of our sample. However, what fascinates me is the fact that in a crowd that was only 9% Republican, three times that percentage still denied the validity of evolution, a claim upon which modern biology places as much weight as modern physics does the notion of gravity. Not coincidentally, when asked about their views of scripture, a similar 32% of our respondents chose “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” rather than “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally” or “The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man.”

What do these numbers mean? Admittedly, in terms of “quantitative proof,” our survey is rather humble. Nonetheless, as much as I may be “reading into” the data (rather than pretending the strictly neutral, absolutely objective posture that often seems the sacred cow of quantitative analysis), a key insight seems buried beneath these figures. As Katie Lofton emphasized at an ASA panel on fundamentalism we shared last fall, academia desperately needs to counter rather than exacerbate our culture’s all-too-common equations of political conservatism with religious fundamentalism, and vice versa. Recent months have brought greater visibility to relatively liberal Christians like Sojourners founder Jim Wallis and Saddleback Church pastor and author Rick Warren (whose August presidential forum featured questions about environmental stewardship and global poverty, not just abortion and homosexuality), so this error may have become less tempting of late, but one election does not an entrenched assumption erase. Indeed in all of our disciplines, might we not do well to explore the growing number—one in five, this survey would suggest—of Americans who are not necessarily Republican, not necessarily politically conservative, but who still assume the first eleven chapters of Genesis should be read as the introduction to a scientific textbook? Rather than a culturally-mediated ancient Near Eastern effort to interpret reality in light of a God who daringly claimed superiority above all others, the flannel-board image of Genesis is amazingly tenacious. Instead of dividing people into religious believers and enlightened atheists—categories themselves highly dependent on traditional Western, monotheistic assumptions about the nature of “religion”—perhaps we need to spend more energy asking how American culture continues to transmit fundamentalist assumptions, even when individuals and groups appear untouched by groups like Focus on the Family.

A last note about the pedagogical impact of this kind of project: very time-consuming, but very rewarding. Because my students were involved at all stages of the project, from choosing the site and questions to administering surveys and analyzing responses, I think they became more thoughtful critics of the “hard data” and “fast facts” that contemporary media constantly offer. Equally importantly, they got to know me and each other in a setting where we were quite clearly all on the same team, working together toward a common goal and without a large gap between “professor” and “student.” Approximately half of my students observed in their project write-ups that the excuse of completing a survey enabled more extensive and personal conversations with members of other ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious groups than they had ever before experienced, and several even said that these experiences strongly challenged stereotypes they had unconsciously maintained. For these reasons alone—and whether our data “proves” anything or not—I’ll be attempting this kind of project again, and I’d be glad to share more with anyone interested in trying something similar.

Subject to Debate: Creation v. Evolution

Randall J. Stephens

My colleague and co-author Karl Giberson is participating in a beliefnet debate with Ken Ham, creationist entrepreneur and voice of protest for millions of conservative Christians. Karl begins the debate with "Why I am not a creationist." Ham, the founder of a multimillion dollar creation museum and a media empire, follows this with "The Bible Teaches Creationism," his rumination on literalism, evidence, and the perils of secular science.

If you've ever wondered why this 19th-century fossil--that is, creationism--has not been buried yet, now's your chance to find out more. As is evident from the exchange, representatives from the two sides speak different languages. Still, this is a useful and illuminating exercise. The PR machine at Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis website is already revving up.

Kelly's Daughter Born!

Congratulations to my esteemed co-editor Kelly Baker, whose daughter Kara was born early on Friday, October 17, weighing in at 6 lbs., 8 oz., 20 inches long. Mother and daughter are doing fine and adjusting to a new sleeping schedule. She hopes to see everyone back here at the blog down the road just a bit. Congratulations to Kelly!

Raboteau's Slave Religion -- 30th Anniversary Session at AAR

Here's a big event at this year's AAR that I hope you all going to the meeting or in the Chicago area may be able to attend:

North American Religions Section and Afro-American Religious History Group

Theme: Albert Raboteau's No-Longer-"Invisible Institution": An Anniversary Retrospective

Saturday - 9:00 am-11:30 am, CHT-International Ballroom South (that's in the Hilton International Towers, S. Michigan Ave in Chicago, near to the ARt Institute)

Philip K. Goff, Indiana University and Purdue University, Indianapolis, Presiding

Theme: Albert Raboteau's No-Longer-"Invisible Institution": An Anniversary Retrospective

Thirty years ago Albert Raboteau’s Slave Religion appeared to great critical praise. Employing such sources as slave narratives, folklore, autobiographies, missionary accounts, and diaries of whites, Raboteau both broadened and deepened our understanding of black antebellum religion. Engaged in the debates surrounding the extent of Africanisms, group formation and behavior, and the relationship between conjure and Christianity, the book’s influence extended into many fields of inquiry and methods of study. In this session, several generations of scholars will assess the influence of Slave Religion and use the opportunity to consider the directions of the study of African American religions in the coming years. Ample time will be dedicated to audience participation as we critically reflect on the significance, influence, and promise of this work thirty years into its life.


Dennis C. Dickerson, Vanderbilt University
Mark Noll, University of Notre Dame
Jalane D. Schmidt, University of Virginia
Curtis Evans, University of Chicago
Paul W. Harvey, University of Colorado

Albert J. Raboteau, Princeton University

Business Meeting:
Philip K. Goff, Indiana University and Purdue University, Indianapolis
Kathleen Flake, Vanderbilt University

Don’t Fear the Pistol-Packing Pentecostal (For Being a Pistol-Packing Pentecostal)

By Matt Sutton

It is true. I have been unfaithful. While my ultimate loyalties are to this blog, I have been on occasion posting elsewhere. Here is what I promise will be my last word on Sarah Palin (unless she and McCain actually win).

Sarah Palin has problems. A lot of them. Nevertheless, we have nothing to fear from her faith. Ever since John McCain announced that the pistol-packing, moose-dressing, beehive-sporting hockey mom from Alaska was his vice presidential nominee, journalists, bloggers, Democrats and even the cast of Saturday Night Live have all been in a fury. Does Palin speak in tongues? Does she believe that the battle of Armageddon is imminent? Does she believe in casting out demons? Does she talk to God? Does she believe the Rapture is coming?

The answer to all of these questions is probably yes. But so what?

The rest of the article is here, over at the History News Network.

Your Spirits Walk Beside Us


Paul Harvey

Congratulations to my friend Barbara Savage for the publication of her new book, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion. This promises to be an important work in African American religion, not least because of the nuanced and complicated relationship it explores of black churches (plural) and public life, as well as the history of blistering criticism of black intellectuals and social activists directed towards the same churches that they knew were instrumental to their community -- a delicate balancing act that she traces through figures such as DuBois, Benjamin Mays, and many others. Here's a bit from the book's website:

From the 1920s on, some of the best African American minds—W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Benjamin Mays, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Mary McLeod Bethune, Charles S. Johnson, and others—argued tirelessly about the churches’ responsibility in the quest for racial justice. Could they be a liberal force, or would they be a constraint on progress? There was no single, unified black church but rather many churches marked by enormous intellectual, theological, and political differences and independence. Yet, confronted by racial discrimination and poverty, churches were called upon again and again to come together as savior institutions for black communities. The tension between faith and political activism in black churches testifies to the difficult and unpredictable project of coupling religion and politics in the twentieth century.

Savage's work is similar in some respects (different in others) as Curtis Evans's recent The Burden of Black Religion
. Evans covers a longer time span, but the latter part focuses on some of the same intellectuals and activsts as does Savage, and provides a complementary perspective towards their conflicted relationship with black religious thought and expression in American culture.

The publication of both is great news for African American religious history, as the field is advancing into new and provocative arguments. Next year's collection of essays The Souls of W. E. B. DuBois, edited by Ed Blum and Jason Young, will be another landmark -- more on that when the book's publication comes closer.

A Tale of Two Mavericks: Huey Long, Aimee Semple McPherson, and What Azusa Has To Do With Washington

Paul Harvey

Matt Sutton follows the tale of the two mavericks -- the Senator, and the celebrity Pentecostal woman -- from another era at the Immanent Frame. His conclusion: I've known Aimee Semple McPherson. And Governor, you're no Aimee Semple McPherson. The opening lines, just for a teaser:

Long before field dressing moose and shooting wolves from helicopters became part of American political parlance, a United States senator with White House ambitions sat down in his Washington D.C. office with the most powerful pentecostal woman in the country. The nation was facing an unprecedented economic crisis and tremendous social unrest. The senator probably hoped that the pentecostal maverick might strengthen his ticket by helping him win votes in the west and among women. The senator was not John McCain and the woman was not Sarah Palin.

No, this was a chance meeting between two of the greatest personalities of the twentieth century—Louisiana senator Huey Long and Los Angeles preacher Aimee Semple McPherson.
. . .

Meanwhile, Randall Stephens asks, "What Does Azusa Have to Do With Washington," traces the Pentecostal rise to respectability since World War Two, examines the restorationism behind much conservative Christianity, and concludes that religious identity politics is alive and well.

Our Turn to Prosper

Paul Harvey

Matt Sutton's review of It's a New Day, Race and Gender in the Modern Charismatic Movement was just featured as the Book of the Week review at Books and Culture. The book focuses especially on African American and female ministers who have become prominent in Pentecostal-charismatic movements. Billingsley aims to portray these people mostly through their own words and stories, Sutton says, and succeeds in doing so. Sutton raises some important questions that naturally arise from this survey:

Billingsley has done an admirable job of identifying many of the key players in the charismatic movement, but he never sufficiently addresses the more interesting question of why so many of the most influential African American and female ministers in the United States have embraced the prosperity gospel. What does it mean that these ministers would move from a traditionally world-denying creed to one that not only tolerates the accumulation of wealth but actually celebrates consumption? What does this illustrate about religion in the United States?

. . . Neither the civil rights nor the feminist movements explain the success of the Word of Faith gospel. Instead, these leaders' promotion of conspicuous consumption and the pursuit of wealth as divinely mandated, rather than devilishly inspired, may illuminate better than anything else what is driving the success of their movement. Against all odds, they have created a faith that affirms rather than challenges the materialism and extravagances of American culture. Indeed, it is a new day.

Summer Seminar: Nineteenth-Century Mormon Thought

Crossposted from The Juvenile Instructor

Joseph Smith Summer Seminar: Call for Applications

“Parley and Orson Pratt and Nineteenth-Century Mormon Thought”
Brigham Young University May 26-July 3, 2009

In the summer of 2009, Brigham Young University will sponsor a summer seminar for graduate students and advanced undergraduates on the theme of Parley and Orson Pratt and Nineteenth-Century Mormon Thought. The seminar will be held on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, from May 26 to July 3. Admitted participants will receive a stipend of $3000 plus a housing subsidy if needed. The seminar continues the series of seminars on Joseph Smith begun in the summer of 1997.

The seminar will be conducted by Terryl Givens, Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond, and Matthew Grow, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana, under the direction of Richard Bushman.

The aim of the seminar will be to investigate the writings of Parley and Orson Pratt, and their influence on the development of nineteenth-century Mormon thought. After Joseph Smith, the Pratts were the most important figures in developing, systematizing, and promulgating the doctrines of early Mormonism. A major focus will be establishing what was original in their thought and what was borrowed or derivative. We will explore the theological, intellectual, and cultural contexts behind the Pratts’ work, and ask what was lasting and what was ephemeral in their influence on subsequent Mormonism. Each participant will prepare a paper for presentation in a public symposium in the final week and for later publication.

Applications are welcomed from students of history, literature, anthropology, sociology, religious studies, philosophy and other humanistic and social scientific fields. Preference will be given to those with knowledge of Latter-day Saint history and experience in analyzing texts. Advanced undergraduates and graduate students at any level of preparation are eligible.

Applications should be submitted by February 15, 2009. Notifications will be sent by March 15, 2009.

For application materials, write to the Neal A. Maxwell Institute by surface or email.

Summer Seminar on Joseph Smith, 200 WAIH, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 84602

Who Are You -- Ethically? A Philosopher's Blog Test

Paul Harvey

Eric Schwitzgebel (a philosopher at U.C. Riverside) and Fiery Cushman (a psychologist at Harvard) have designed a "Moral Sense Test" that asks respondents for their takes on various moral dilemmas. They're looking to compare the responses of philosophers and non-philosophers, so they've asked me to post a link to their test from this blog. They say that people who have taken other versions of this test have found it interesting to ponder the moral dilemmas they ask about. The test should take about 15-20 minutes.

Other tests like these usually show that religion has no more than a random statistical effect on ethical behavior or responses to moral problems. I'll report back later on what these philosophers have found on this -- in the meantime, click over there and take a look.

The philosophers promised to link to us in return, so it's a win-win! No ethical dilemma there.

Turn Me On, Professor

Randall J. Stephens

All things come back in style, given time. Ratt reminded us long ago, in the lyrics of their radio scorcher "Round and Round": "What comes around goes around." Look around your campus or local mall and you'll see undergrads wearing stove pipe jeans, skinny ties, checkered shoes, and ill-fitting jackets as if they're on their way to see Dwight Twilley, the Jam, XTC, the Squeeze, or the Romantics. (I'm waiting for a bollo tie revival.) Even the economy has been struck with retro fever. It's the 1970s all over again. Sit down on a shag carpet and enjoy some fondu next to a roaring fire.

So, too, the pharmacological religious experiments of yesteryear are again being sponsored by a major research university. Minus Tim Leary, and minus the religious compound for the young and hopeless.

In Baltimore's Citypaper Michael M. Hughes reports on an interesting study William "Bill" Richards, psychiatrist and scholar of comparative religion, is conducting on the Bayview campus of Johns Hopkins University:

[I]n a room affectionately referred to by both the scientists and the volunteers as the "psilocybin room, [a participant is] taking part in the first study of its kind since the early '70s--a rigorous, scientific attempt to determine if drugs like psilocybin and LSD, demonized and driven underground for more than three decades, can facilitate life-changing, transformative mystical experiences.

The study, which took place from 2001 to 2005, and was published in 2006 in the journal Psychopharmacology with a follow-up in 2008 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, made news around the globe and was greeted by nearly unanimous praise by both the scientific community and the mainstream press. Flying in the face of both government policy and conventional wisdom, its conclusion--that psychedelic drugs offer the potential for profound, transformative, and long-lasting positive changes in properly prepared individuals--may herald a revival in the study of altered states of consciousness.

The trippy religious narratives of participants would make for good fodder in a religious studies course. I can only imagine what sorts of conversations might occur around the seminar table after reading this:

"And then, immediately, I was in a parade [said a woman dosed for the study]. But this time it was Jesus. Coming down the street. And just wiped...totally wiped...dragging the cross. Beaten up badly. And the crowd had gathered." She pauses. "Now I don't have a religious background. I don't know the Bible stories. I don't know any of this stuff. And yet...I was right in the crowd, right at the moment when he turns and says, `Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.'"

Another remarked:

"It's so hard to put into words. It's like you truly understand oneness--that everything is one, everything is God. And you know that in your mind, and in your heart, but to feel it in your entire being, and to have no boundaries, to be part of everything that is beautiful and loving...there are no adequate words to explain it."


For more, see:

Robert C. Fuller, Stairways to Heaven: Drugs in American Religious History (Westview, 2000); Marcus Boon, The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs (Harvard, 2005); Huston Smith, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemical (Sentient, 2003).

Religulous and the Problem of Belief


Kelly Baker

Over at Religion Dispatches, S. Brent Plate has a thoughtful opinion piece on Bill Maher's documentary, Religulous, and the "antiquated" definition of religion that Maher uses to ostracize religious people. (Also, check out his newest book, Blasphemy Art that Offends.) Plate argues that Maher's belief-centered vision of religion ignores how practice defines religious life and presents religion as an individually centered enterprise. By parodying and ostracizing what people believe, Maher misses the communal and ritual aspects of religion and how both define why religious people believe and act in the ways that they do. Plate questions why Maher sticks to such a definition, and he concludes that Maher would probably garner a "C" in his Intro to Religious Studies Course. Here's an excerpt:

Bill gets this low grade because his definition of religion appears to have been culled solely from Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary in which religion is essentially defined, in solid US-Protestant style, along the lines of a set of beliefs in God. (To give credit where credit is due, the problem also lies with the director Larry Charles and whatever half-baked research team they assembled; and while Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are all susceptible to the same critique, in these pages I’ll confine myself to Religulous.) This is the kind of thing a fair number of my students, raised in the Protestant-dominated United States (even Catholics and Jews have assimilated this definition), come to university thinking about religion; the two key components of which are “belief” and “God.” Religion is some cryptic interior, individual thing that exists in one’s own head, and is only understood in relation to a God. I don’t blame my students for the deficiencies in their cultural upbringing; rather, I see a chance to expand their horizons, to get them, as my wise colleague Andy Fort says, to “mentally migrate,” to come to terms with the radical diversity of religions as they historically and presently occur around the world. ... It's somewhat unfortunate, given the film's title, that Maher and Charles never offer a working definition of religion. But the mode of questioning lays bare the thinking that went into Religulous. Except for an early scene at the “Truckers Church,” Maher interviews individuals, alone, as if he’s on his HBO talk show (but even there, there’s a panel . . .). It’s a great strategy for TV but that’s not the way life, to say nothing of religious life, operates. This is the first key problem with the modus operandi for the film: it functions like a talk show, imagining that religious life can be reduced to a few sound bites, told via spoken words, by a single person, in an artificially constructed environment. Maher’s question to the “ex-Jew for Jesus” about suicide (“If heaven’s so great, why not kill yourself now?”) only underscores the individualistic framework of the film: religion is about solitary individuals and their own pleasures and desires. No traditional rituals are shown—almost no communal gatherings at all in fact—nor do many of the realities of religion, either good or ill, make much of an appearance.
So, here’s the thing: Maher mocks people for their antiquated beliefs though he never moves beyond an antiquated definition of religion himself. He borrows the same viewpoints of religion that all the way-out interviewees have. He is indignant that people actually believe in an existing Adam and Eve and the attendant talking snake, or in a man (Jonah) swallowed by a whale (or, really a “big fish”). These are the problems he keeps seeing: conservative religious people actually believe the myths of their traditions. But then Religulous splices in images of explosions, violent street demonstrations, and other aggressive activities. So, what’s the relationship between people who actually believe that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and suicide bombings? The film doesn’t really make those connections, nor could it, because they don’t connect. The broader connections between belief and violence could have (and, I’d say, should have) been made, but it would have taken some much more careful consideration of the topic at hand.

What Maher and filmmaking cohorts don’t appear to understand is that a person can be a Jew, have an enjoyable evening around the Sabbath table, and not believe that God actually created the world in seven days; that a Christian can stand up with her community, recite the 1700-year-old Nicene Creed, not believe a word of it, but still be moved by the experience of collective recitation; that a Muslim can make the pilgrimage to Mecca, touch the Kaaba, and still realize that at its base it is, indeed, a meteorite and not a holy rock from God. Maher even goes so far as to claim that “Christians believe” they are drinking the blood of a man who lived 2000 years ago. But he never asks anyone if they believe that. It’s a straw man argument. Even if this theological idea of “transubstantiation” has been written into Catholic dogma for centuries, I’ve yet to meet a Catholic who believes what Maher claims they believe (though I’m sure he could find a couple if he just kept throwing money at the film).

Funny thing is, had he watched Tim Burton’s Big Fish, he could have garnered some insight about how stories operate within human life. Here’s a hint, Bill: The big fish doesn’t have to be real! It’s a great story.

Celebrating the "Cosmic Breed"

Art Remillard
At the dawn of the seventh century, Gregory the Great exhorted missionary monk to "baptize" the pagan customs of the countryside. Destroy the idols, he advised, but leave the temples. This sort of symbolic assimilation has continued to influence Christian religious practices. Believers appropriate potentially objectionable items and refashion them to their own liking. Consider how Latin Americans seem to have baptized Columbus Day. On his Washington Post blog, “Catholic America,” Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo explains…

Columbus Day is now "contested" - as current terminology would have it. Some
view with joy the anniversary of the navigator's historic landing in part of the
Bahamas. Others see October 12 as a day to mark the beginning of oppression,
enslavement and genocide. Both sides claim Catholic America as their

I rest with the Latin American version of Columbus Day: Día de la Raza. We celebrate not so much the event as its result:-- a "new breed" within the human family. ("Raza" doesn't mean "race" in quite the same way as in English.) Whatever Columbus' intentions or mistakes, Latin America under Spain began to tolerate, legalize and eventually encourage racial intermarriage. Centuries later, the Mexican philosopher, José Vasconcelos, described us as "La Raza Cósmica" (The Cosmic Breed), because we have virtually all of the world's skin colors in our demographic rainbow: white, black, red and yellow.

Racial mixture is what we Latinos and Latinas celebrate on October 12th. As the Puerto Rican patriot Pedro Albizu Campos proclaimed, there is a distinctive Catholic pride in this holiday. Unlike so much of Protestant North America where racial mixing was looked down upon, Catholic Latin America officially recognized the equality of races at the dawn of modern history. I am happy to celebrate Columbus Day by thanking God for my Puerto Rican-Italian nephews and nieces. Let's make October 12 a day for the living, not for the dead.

Seeing Visions, Hearing Things, and Having Fits

John G. Turner

Thanks for the proclaimed respite, Paul. It will do us all good.

My first week in graduate school, one of my professors assigned The Social History of Truth by Steven Shapin. I spent an entire weekend carefully reading it, underlining furiously, and taking copious notes. By the time my seminar met, I realized I knew absolutely nothing about the book beyond its title. Its entire content had mysteriously eluded me.

It can be tough to visit foreign historiographical territory, even within the field of American religious history. I've been trying to get up to speed on religion in the antebellum United States to provide me with some context in my grapple with Mormonism. Therefore, I'm reading some new books and reviewing some I too loosely perused in graduate school. I found I absorbed Nathan Hatch's Democratization much more than Jon Buter's Awash in a Sea of Faith, for instance, so I've reread Butler. I love his characterization of the antebellum "spiritual hothouse."

Having mostly concentrated on evangelicalism, I find myself challenged by Catherine Albanese's insistence on the "role of metaphysics as a major player in the evolution of the national religiosity." (A Republic of Mind and Spirit) Moreover, although I've encountered histories of the occult in Butler and in various works on Mormonism, I'm staggered at Albanese's detailed and complex accounts of hermeticism, alchemy, and other forms of the occult in the United States. Unlike Butler, she doesn't think magic and the occult became relegated to the "folk" by the end of the eighteenth century. I also found her sections on Spiritualism and Theosophy very illuminating.

In seeking to further understanding these and related topics, I've turned to Ann Taves's Fits, Trances, & Visions, which traces religious and scientific accounts of involuntary movements from the awakenings of the 1740s through William James. As much a contribution to Religious Studies as history, Taves highlights the role of Methodism in American society in ways new to me, such as John Wesley's relatively open stance toward the supernatural, the development of "shouting Methodism," and the beginning healing revivals at the end of the nineteenth century. I found myself taking away insights about everything ranging from Jonathan Edwards to Joseph Smith to clairvoyant somnambules. [If there isn't a recent scholarly biography of Ellen G. White (the adventist prophetess), it needs to be written!]

I'm also very impressed with Leigh Schmidt's Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion and the American Enlightenment. Intrigued by Joseph Smith pronouncing Brigham Young's glossolalia "the pure Adamic language," I learned from Schmidt that disciples of Swedenborg, among others, sought the pure tongue of angels in nineteenth-century America.

Unfortunately, my encounter with Albanese, Taves, and Schmidt -- all very erudite monographs -- leaves me feeling slightly akin to my reading of The Social History of Truth. Although I now have some sense of Swedenborg, Spiritualism, and Theosophy, I've realized not only how influential some of these "alternative" (i.e., not strictly Protestant) movements were but also how difficult they are to understand (at least for me). Perhaps I should have stuck with what Albanese terms the "evangelical thesis." I hadn't been planning on spending time on spiritualism in my American Religious History class this spring but now feel it's essential, so I'm going to have to spend more time digesting these topics. [I'm going to read Larry Moore's book on spiritualism, which I have hitherto neglected -- his Religious Outsiders is one of my all-time favorites, not least for his chapter on Mormonism]. Any suggestions for further reading on these subjects?

In a Different Voice of God

Editor's note: If you're like me, you're feeling exhausted after an awful week of financial meltdown, bogus political accusations about who's patriotic and who isn't, fatuous punditry on talk radio, George Wallace-like hate rallies, and the like. So, I'm giving everyone an extended weekend away from this dispiriting stupidity by keeping the next several posts on other subjects more at the heart of this blog's raison d'etre. We'll start with Ed's reflections on music, gender, teaching, and scholarship below. Ya'll have a good weekend, and take some time off from punditry and chatter and enjoy the beautiful fall. Listen to some good new music while you're at it.

In a Different Voice of God: Reflections on Music, Faith, Teaching, and Scholarship

by Ed Blum

If you are reading this, then you already know: I have terrible taste in music. My undergraduate students have become fully aware of this. When discussing Matt Sutton’s biography of Aimee Semple McPherson, one of them mentioned Sister Aimee’s opposition to “science.” I, of course, blurted out “she blinded with me science… SCIENCE!” Someone from the class should have echoed me with “SCIENCE,” but instead I got silence. Unnerving silence. Not a whisper; not a chuckle. Nothing.

Perhaps this is what Simon and Garfunkel meant. I asked if any knew the song, and a few sheepishly informed me that they had no idea what I was doing or talking about. They seemed embarrassed to know me. But if the courage to teach results primarily from sharing ourselves with our students (as Parker Palmer would have us believe), then my students need to know that I love terrible 80s music, that I watch youtube videos of other people playing World of Warcraft, that I’m tired of talking politics, and that if another writer for the History News Network plays politico, rather than historian, I might try to get the NSA involved (or at least the beautiful cryptographer from Dan Brown’s fictional Digital Fortress; and yes Gil Troy, I’m angry-blogging in your direction).

My students may also want to know that I’m going through a spiritual renaissance. The fingers and voice of a man who once professed that he “hated Christianity” is helping to change my soul. He’s a white boy who sings gospel and the blues. He’s a kid from North Dakota who sounds like he’s a son of the South. His name is Jon Gordon Langseth, Jr., (or at least that’s what wikipedia tells me) but he goes by Jonny Lang. I was turned on to Lang by a woman who (get this fun combination) served in the navy, works as a financial planner, and plays competitive Dodgeball (and yes, I implore her and her teammates to remember the five Ds of Dodgeball: “dodge, dip, duck, dive, and dodge”). Born in 1981, Lang released his first album in 1995. He played with “The Big Bang,” who selected their name either from scientific theory or from a really great hook up.

Lang’s combination of blues, rustic country, Motown funk, and jazzy funk (this description is almost completely stolen from his webpage has won him enormous praise. In 2007, he won the Grammy for best Rock or Rap Gospel Album. That album was titled “Turn Around,” and it’s the album that is speaking to my religious core.

One song in particular has called to me. “Only a Man” is much more than only a song for my soul. It is a beautiful evocation of the transformation many faiths promise to believers. Lang begins by wailing about how he “used to live” his “life in fear,” that he was “worried all the time.” In need perhaps of the serenity prayer (whether written by Reinhold Niebuhr or not), Lang continues, “I had no peace of mind.” This angst, this dissatisfaction, this trepidation – all of it leads Lang to realize that he is “only a man.” The solution is faith in God and Jesus. Lang “fell down and cried, Dear Jesus, rescue me again.”

At this point you may be asking yourself (not, as the Talking Heads sang in “Once In a Lifetime, “Where is that large automobile?” or “Where does that highway go to?” or “My God, what have I done”), why is Blum posting about this song? Is Blum such a narcissist that he merely writes about the songs he’s listening to and expects us to read about them on this public blog? Who the hell does Blum think he is? But wait, there’s an intellectual message here.

At the midpoint of Lang’s “Only a Man,” it gets emotionally and intellectually fascinating. God sings back to Lang. God – identified as “He” – chimes in: “What will it be now? / Will you choose me or keep swimming up stream now? / I’ve been in side your head hearing you scream out. / Well here I am, just take my hand and I’ll take out / All of the pain and all of the fear.” Pretty traditional Protestant Christian stuff here.

But if you listen to the track, the voice of God is a woman. It is a female presence that comes to save the day, to utter the words of God. Lang’s partner – Hailey – sings to him with the sweet and comforting words of God. And here we have another powerful paradox of American religious history, the gender bending, mixing and matching understanding of God. American religious patriarchy has functioned with a God who’s referred to as a “mother hen.” Protestant churches dominated numerically by women have praised pretty much all-male characters.

What we find with Lang’s “Just a Man” is God “in another voice.” Just as psychologist Carol Gilligan revised Freudian theory by showing that if we include women’s voices, then the paradigms of human development are distinctly different, Lang undermines religious patriarchy with God singing as a woman. And this is part of my own spiritual renaissance, the reckoning with the ways patriarchal thinking invades my scholarship, my teaching, my work, and my life.

Readers of my work will know that, just as Lang hated a form of Christianity, I hate the white God. I detest the ways modern society has racialized God, the divine, Jesus, and angels. The conflation of whiteness and godliness, I think, is one of the West’s worst sins. My first spiritual questions at the university, however, revolved around questions of gender and religion. It was Susan Juster who taught me to listen in religious history for different voices, particularly for gendered voices. So when I heard “Only a Man,” my misogynistic core was once again shaken, just as it had been by the powerful female voices in my undergraduate years (Michigan was the place to be in the 1990s if you wanted a change in your gendered worldview: Carol Karlsen, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Maria Montoya, and a host of others were there).

So back to the original question, how does my own spiritual journey impact my career? How would hearing God in a female voice in my own religious life change my teaching and scholarship? Perhaps it would lead me to acknowledge openly and honestly that I pay far more attention to race than I do gender and in so doing privilege a masculinist approach to scholarship and education. Perhaps it would lead me to admit that I minimized some of the gendered aspects of W. E. B. Du Bois’s life (his marital infidelity and his silencing of Ida B. Wells at moments) because it presents Du Bois as an imperfect prophet.

Perhaps I would have to acknowledge that I am more sensitive to cultural destructivity of some religious forms in the United States and not to others, and perhaps this bespeaks a latent form of inequality that creates a gendered hierarchy that has men on top and women on bottom (no sexual pun meant here, Paul Harvey; get your mind out of the gutter). Mostly, perhaps it means that I still need to be aware of how my cultural and social background and position continues to influence my teaching and my scholarship. Was this too much information? Perhaps. But it’s all part of my own efforts to, as Jonny Lang sang it and named Grammy-award winning album, “Turn Around.”

Pentecostal Palin

By John Turner

TIME has a profile of Sarah Palin's religious roots with a brief primer on Pentecostalism. It's a good piece of journalism (I'm impressed with the distinction between the charismatic movement and Pentecostalism), though they should of course have interviewed our Matt Sutton and Randall Stephens.

Perhaps Palin could exorcise whatever is bewitching the financial markets?

U.S. Catholic Intellectual History and the Election

Paul Harvey

At U.S. Intellectual History, Tim Lacy has initiated a conversation that I wanted to note here:

No matter your politics either this election year or in the past, Pepperdine Professor Douglas Kmiec's recent book, Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Question About Barack Obama, is a game changer. I have read the book. My bold prediction is that it permanently modifies the debate about abortion politics and Catholicism for future elections.

You may join the conversation there, or in comments here. To me, the question is whether this is a peculiarity of one election, given the nature of the candidates and the recent overwhelming focus on economic realities rather than the usual stuff of values voters. But perhaps, there is something going on that is deeper than that.

Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness


"Roosevelt made the progressive era possible," writes Joshua Hawley in Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness (Yale Univ. Press, 2008). "His spirit became its ethos. His politics of virtue, his warrior republicanism, was a gauntlet thrown down to an entire country and to himself, a challenge to be better, to be more, to be righteous. It was a challenge that defined his life and his time."

The word "overstatement" comes to mind when reading this. Yes, TR was influential. But crediting him with generating the progressive era's ethos seems a bit much. Alas, I have not read the book and will reserve final judgment until then. Meanwhile, I'm eager to see how Hawley (a former clerk for Chief Justice John G. Roberts) notes the influences of the social gospel and muscular Christianity on TR. George Will's description of the book suggests these ideas were quite prominent in his ideological foundation.

Roosevelt was an individualist who considered the individualism of others an impediment to the social unity required for national greatness. Having read Darwin's The Origin of Species at age 14 and having strenuously transforme himself from an asthmatic child into a robust adult, he advocated "warrior republicanism" (Hawley's phrase). TR saw virtue emerging from struggle, especially violent struggle, between nations and between the "Anglo-Saxon" race and lesser races. Blending "muscular Christianity," the "social gospel" -- which sanctified the state as an instrument of moral reclamation -- and Darwinian theory, TR believed that human nature evolved toward improvement through conflict.

Aimee, Evangelical Maverick

Paul Harvey

At Religion Dispatches, our own Matt Sutton (Matt's high school yearbook photo is pictured at right) answers ten questions about Aimee Semple McPherson, Evangelical Maverick. Here's one:

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Probably that so many of the issues that frustrate and/or inspire people today have a long and complicated past. Efforts by religious activists to use the state to promote their values, the marriage of mass media and evangelism, the creation of celebrity ministers, and debates over gender roles in the church have happened before and they will happen again. McPherson both tapped into a deep history and foreshadowed the direction that modern evangelicalism would take.

No God But Country

Paul Harvey

At Religion Dispatches, Katie Lofton provides an analysis of religious rhetoric and the election singlehandedly worth more than an entire year's stack of controversy-of-the-day political commentary. Dispensing with (while also explaining) the surface trivia of this or that campaign controversy flareup, Katie explores the strikingly areligious yet highly pietistic world of John McCain. So, turn off the TV and get busy with this substantive analysis instead. A brief excerpt here:

It matters very little to me (as a voter, as a thinker, and as a believer) that John McCain doesn’t articulate a deity familiar to any available denomination of Christianity (or Judaism or Hinduism or Islam). John McCain is, indisputably, a man of courage and intelligence. To suggest that he is not recognizably Baptist (nor ostensibly Episcopalian) is merely to demonstrate that our enterprise of discerning religion from political candidates misses, precisely, the realities of religion. In some contrast to the pursuits of journalism, the religionist does not anticipate the craven, presuming that all words of faith are pandering rhetoric meant to appease men with guns and girls with God(s). Rather, our job is to collect the available artifacts of religion (words and acts supplied in archive or public record) and render an analysis of the subject. For students of religion, this analysis is not an inherently apolitical exercise, but it is, at its best, one disentangled from theological prescription. Somehow, without a God (but not, as we will see, without a powerful creed) John McCain has forged for himself a moral mode, a discourse, a rhetoric of righteousness. What, then, ought it matter whether he is or is not, technically speaking, Christian?

Palin and the Pastors

by Matt Sutton

For those of you who missed it, Sarah Palin has (in my mind) done the unthinkable. She has resurrected the Jeremiah Wright debate, telling Bill Kristol (in this morning's New York Times):

“To tell you the truth, Bill, I don’t know why that association [Obama-Wright] isn’t discussed more, because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country, and to have sat in the pews for 20 years and listened to that — with, I don’t know, a sense of condoning it, I guess, because he didn’t get up and leave — to me, that does say something about character. But, you know, I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up.”

I did not think that it was fair to critique Palin (or Obama) for past associations. But if she is going to go after Obama over Wright, let the games begin. I suspect that things are about to get pretty ugly.

Comrade Paul

Randall J. Stephens

[Nota bene: I don't mean our Paul (Harvey), but, rather, the Saint. Not that Harvey isn't both a saint and a comrade.]

The latest NYRB includes a wonderful essay on the apostle Paul. Columbia's Mark Lilla reviews books by Garry Wills, Jacob Taubes, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Éric Marty, and Slavoj Zizek. Though he’s still widely criticized in some circles as misogynistic, a Hellenizer, a gnostic, a prude, and a tool of the state, others now find him to be a venerable revolutionary. Looks like he has some new, unlikely friends on the left. Lilla has written a very funny piece, which reminds me of Tom Wolfe's famous savaging of the antediluvian lit-crit crowd in Harper's. Lilla takes on muddle-headed Mandarins and Rococo post-Marxists with flair. There are some terrific passages:

Oddly, there is a lot of thought being given to Paul these days by inhabitants of the foggy academic archipelago encompassing critical theory, deconstruction, post-modernism, postcolonial studies, and the like. When the wretched of the faculty club gathered twenty-five years ago, conversation would naturally drift to Michel Foucault's views on corporal punishment; today you are more likely to hear a debate on the Epistle to the Romans as it bears on globalization and the war on terror. . . .

The worst [of the new books on Paul], for my money, is Giorgio Agamben's The Time That Remains. Agamben is the very model of the baffling postmodernist: obscure, pretentious, humorless. He is capable of writing that "the messianic pleroma of the law is an Aufhebung of the state of exception, an absolutizing of the katargesis " and of littering nearly every page with passages quoted in the original German, French, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Spanish, Danish, Provençal, even (I'm not kidding) Hopi. Ezra Pound had nothing on Professor Agamben.

The essay on the web is for subscribers only. Yet it is available through many college, university, and public libraries.

Society Without God: Pretty Hobbesian, or Pretty Cool?

Paul Harvey

Here's a post on a new book of interest: Phil Zuckerman, Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment.

A description of the work, from the press webpage:

Before he began his recent travels, it seemed to Phil Zuckerman as if humans all over the globe were “getting religion” — praising deities, performing holy rites, and soberly defending the world from sin. But most residents of Denmark and Sweden, he found, don’t worship any god at all, don’t pray, and don’t give much credence to religious dogma of any kind. Instead of being bastions of sin and corruption, however, as the Christian Right has suggested a godless society would be, these countries are filled with residents who score at the very top of the “happiness index” and enjoy their healthy societies, which boast some of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world (along with some of the lowest levels of corruption), excellent educational systems, strong economies, well-supported arts, free health care, egalitarian social policies, outstanding bike paths, and great beer.

Zuckerman formally interviewed nearly 150 Danes and Swedes of all ages and educational backgrounds over the course of fourteen months, beginning in 2005. He was particularly interested in the worldviews of people who live their lives without religious orientation. How do they think about and cope with death? Are they worried about an afterlife? What he found is that nearly all of his interviewees live their lives without much fear of the Grim Reaper or worries about the hereafter. This led him to wonder how and why it is that certain societies are nonreligious in a world that seems to be marked by increasing religiosity. Drawing on prominent sociological theories and his own extensive research, Zuckerman ventures some interesting answers.

This fascinating approach directly counters the claims of outspoken, conservative American Christians who argue that a society without God would be hell on earth. It is crucial, Zuckerman believes, for Americans to know that “society without God is not only possible, but it can be quite civil and pleasant.”

I haven't seen this book, so will offer no particular opinion here; rather, just a couple of thoughts. First, I'm definitely in favor of great bike paths and quality beer. Second, there would not appear to be any evidence locally, here in Colorado Springs, that religiosity leads to any particular virtue, personal or societal (just the opposite, I'd say, based on how our local politicans operate in the state legislature and in Congress), so to that extent I could be favorable to this argument. Evangelical fervor didn't stop southerners from lynching thousands of people; indeed, it may even have encouraged it.

On the other hand, whether a "society without God" is civil and pleasant, or hell on earth, may be unrelated to whether God is there or not, but to a host of other factors. Atheism didn't prevent Mao from creating policies that led to the greatest famine in twentieth century history. And, I'm guessing Denmark and Sweden would still be perfectly nice places even if a lot of folks still found their way to the Lutheran church. Also, I wonder whether the "cultural capital" derived (in part) from the religious heritage of these places has operated like principal that has produced interest that people can draw down on now. In other words, what is it that produces the cultural capital of work, delay of self-gratification (something I could use a little more of), and a communal concern for our neighbors? What are the cultural origins of virtues that make for better societies? There are, of course, socio-evolutionary explanations for this, as well as religious and other ones. And, this also returns us to the debates on the Weber thesis, and the meanings of the transformation of the "Protestant ethic" into the "work ethic" that Daniel Rogers traced in his book on that subject.

Anyway, this appeared to be an intriguing title that would interest some of you. Zuckerman is also the editor of DuBois on Religion, a volume of DuBois's writings on religion put out a few years ago by Rowman & Littlefield.

Is the Mortgage Crisis a Spiritual One?


Kelly Baker

Time has an interesting article today on how the Prosperity Gospel has led some followers into the subprime mortgage mess. Jonathon Walter (University of California at Riverside) and Anthea Butler weigh in on how this theological focus on prosperity led many to believe that religious reasons were paramount in the approval of their risky mortgages. God, it seems, wanted them to have these homes despite their individual economic situations. The reaction from churches that promote the Prosperity Gospel will prove interesting as the financial tumult continues. Here's an excerpt:

Has the so-called Prosperity Gospel turned its followers into some of the most willing participants — and hence, victims — of the current financial crisis? That's what a scholar of the fast-growing brand of pentecostal Christianity believes. While researching a book on black televangelism, says Jonathan Walton, a religion professor at the University of California Riverside, he realized that Prosperity's central promise — that God would "make a way" for poor people to enjoy the better things in life — had developed an additional, toxic expression during sub-prime boom. Walton says that this encouraged congregants who got dicey mortgages to believe "God caused the bank to ignore my credit score and blessed me with my first house." The results, he says, "were disastrous, because they pretty much turned parishioners into prey for greedy brokers."

Others think he may be right. Says Anthea Butler, an expert in pentecostalism at the University of Rochester in New York state, "The pastor's not gonna say 'go down to Wachovia and get a loan' but I have heard, 'even if you have a poor credit rating God can still bless you — if you put some faith out there [that is, make a big donation to the church], you'll get that house, or that car or that apartment.'" Adds J. Lee Grady, editor of the magazine Charisma, "It definitely goes on, that a preacher might say, 'if you give this offering, God will give you a house. And if they did get the house, people did think that it was an answer to prayer, when in fact it was really bad banking policy." If so, the situation offers a look at how an native-born faith built partially on American econoic optimism entered into a toxic symbiosis with a pathological market. ...

But Walton suggests that a decade's worth of ever-easier credit acted like drug in Prosperity's bloodstream. "The economic boom 90's and financial over-extensions of the new millennium contributed to the success of the prosperity message," he wrote recently. And not positively. "Narratives of how 'God blessed me with my first house despite my credit' were common. Sermons declaring 'it's your season to overflow' supplanted messages of economic sobriety," and "little attention was paid to.. the dangers of using one's home equity as an ATM to subsidize cars, clothes and vacations."

With the bubble burst, Walton and Butler assume that prosperity congregants have taken a disproportionate hit, and are curious as to how their churches will respond. Butler thinks that some of the flashier ministries will shrink along with their congregants' fortunes. Says Walton, "You would think that the current economic conditions would undercut their theology." But he predicts they will persevere [sic], since God's earthly largess [sic] is just as attractive when one is behind the economic eight ball.

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