Me the People: A Roundup on the Rally

Paul Harvey

Our contributor and uber-blogger over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, John Fea, has a great op-ed piece in today's New York Daily News. He concludes:

What we saw on Saturday was a group of anti-big government Tea Party libertarians trying to reclaim the civil rights movement - an initiative whose success ultimately required one of the most forceful and moral acts of federal power in American history.

In the On Faith section of the Washington Post, a reporter analyzes the varied reactions to Beck from conservative Christians. Richard Land, the well-known conservative Southern Baptist leader and (evidently) an enthusiastic participant in the picnic on the Mall (even though he finds Beck's Mormonism to be, at best, a "fourth Abrahamic faith" rather than Christianity), gives some interesting commentary on this issue in an interview on NPR.

Finally, Joanna Brooks synthesizes all the commentary on Beck and the march and concludes that Beck is America's first Mormon televangelist, while Alex McNeill's " 'Me' the People" gives his very charitable and sympathetic impressions after wandering among the crowd at the Mall Saturday, and analyzes how and why the individualism of the "me" became defined as Christian (just as Richard Land does in his NPR interview) while the "we" is somehow defined outside the fold.

After all this, Colbert had it right from the start: this was all about restoring the civil rights movement to its white, conservative roots.

Wading Back in the Troubled Waters

Paul Harvey

A few notes on Katrina, religion, and the weird trifecta coincidence of Katrina, MLK’s speech in 1963, and Glenn Beck’s picnic on the mall.

First, the NYT has an interesting piece on the Katrina and black churches in New Orleans, focusing specifically on the Lower 9th. Of some 75 churches there before the storm, a great number have closed down, many likely for good. About a dozen struggle to remain, their tenuous hold a symbol for the tenuous hold of the recovery outside the touristed zones. Amid the more chipper pieces the paper ran on various pieces of good news about the recovery, this gives a piece of reality on the other side. The article chronicles the efforts of one pastor who is trying to fire up his congregation again, an uphill battle for sure. This article makes a nice accompaniment to the special issue of the Journal of Southern Religion, on religion through the storm. The issue includes (among many other goodies) Tulane professor Randy Sparks’s piece on religion and recovery in post-Katrina New Orleans. And it gave me a nice reminder about perhaps the single most compelling video production I’ve seen on Katrina, Trouble the Waters, which we’ve blogged about here before. And I mean no disrespect to Spike Lee’s outstanding efforts there in When the Levees Broke and, more recently, his revisit to New Orleans, timed for the Saints to march in and BP to spill its guts out. When the Levees Broke is a great film, but for total immersion viewing it’s hard to beat Trouble the Waters (plus it’s giving me the title for a book I hope to start to work on next year).

On Katrina, politics, and religion, my thunder has been stolen by Tenured Radical’s post today Five Years After Hurricane Katrina, What Would Jesus Do?, which comes with the added bonus of a Johnny Cash clip from YouTube (always a good thing). “Looking back over the last five years,” she concludes, “we need less God and more politics: by that I mean not less faith, and all the forms of ethical community that faith can provide, but we need to end the lie that you can substitute faith for politics.” This and much else at the post is so much better than what I was struggling to come up with that I’ll just point you there. To her post, I would only add the point that the most effective use of religious rhetoric in twentieth-century America has been to provide the spiritual inspiration necessary to move recalcitrant political institutions (hence the connection between the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Bill; or social Catholicism and the New Deal). But presumably that is what she means by “all the forms of ethical community that faith can provide.”

I was thinking along these lines today as I’m in the midst of reading Alison Greene’s excellent dissertation “No Depression in Heaven” (recently completed at Yale, under Glenda Gilmore), a searching history of religion and politics in Memphis and the Delta through the Depression years. The hapless rhetoric of evangelicals through that era was especially resonant given the same vapid speechifying at the Glenn Beck picnic this weekend. Also fascinating in her work is to see the churches basically cede authority to NGO’s (the Red Cross in particular) and, as the New Deal progressed, governmental agencies. The evangelicals basically said 1) the Depression just shows that we need a revival – that the nation needs to “turn back to God”; 2) in the meantime, don’t look to us for relief, because we ain’t got any; if you need food, go someplace else, because there’s too many of you to serve; 3) only God, not politics, can save us; 4) but Jesus is coming soon anyway. Obviously this applies to only part of the diverse religious formations through that time period, not (for example) to the religious left, and actually not to some of the premillennialist Pentecostals who had another agenda going on. But at the very least, these evangelicals implicitly understood that, for all their rhetoric about turning back to God, ultimately governing authorities might have answers, not to mention indispensable resources, that they just didn’t have. Perhaps they might have even given an ear to Tenured Radical’s conclusion:

What would Jesus do? Throw Glenn Beck and every money changer like him out of the temple, that's what, and get back to what government is supposed to do: help people take care of themselves, make politics a vehicle for loving one's neighbor (not blaming him, or seeing if she needs to be deported) and protecting Americans from those who prey on the simple, the weak and the vulnerable. Until we do, the waters will keep on rising.

Martin Luther King on Barry Goldwater: Surprising or Otherwise Interesting Primary Sources, Part IX

Randall Stephens

Martin Luther King, Jr., reflected on the career and influence of Barry Goldwater several years after LBJ's landslide victory. (With all the media attention to King's legacy and uses of the past, a look at King's own views might shed some much needed light.)

King observed the rightward turn of the Republican Party in 1964, the intense anti-government polices of Goldwater, and the Radical Right presence at the GOP convention. "It was both unfortunate and disastrous that the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater as its candidate for President of the United States," lamented King. "In foreign policy Mr. Goldwater advocated a narrow nationalism, a crippling isolationism, and a trigger-happy attitude that could plunge the whole world into the dark abyss of annihilation."

But what bothered King more was Goldwater's domestic policies. He offered a stinging critique of what he considered the Arizona Senator's antiquated, out-of-touch ideology:

On social and economic issues, Mr. Goldwater represented an unrealistic conservatism that was totally out of touch with the realities of the twentieth century. The issue of poverty compelled the attention of all citizens of our country. Senator Goldwater had neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty in the fashion that the historical moment dictated. On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represented a philosophy that was morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.*

*From The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, ed., Clayborne Carson (Time Warner, 1998), 247. See also, Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Harper & Row, 1967).


By Chris Beneke

A Friday post on the New York Review of Books site by the distinguished Notre Dame scholars John T. McGreevy and R. Scott Appleby looks at the "Ground Zero mosque" controversy through the lens of American Catholic history. The duo offer several important insights. Among them: "the American acceptance and encouragement of Catholic parishes and schools once seen as threatening reshaped an international religious institution [the Catholic Church]" and that "if the Catholic experience in the United States holds any lesson it is that becoming American also means asserting one's constitutional rights, fully and forcefully, even if that assertion is occasionally taken to be insulting." McGreevy and Appleby concede that the analogy between nineteenth-century Catholics and modern Muslims is imperfect. Nonetheless, it is illuminating, and should inspire at least a glimmer of hope.

At least four additional points might be added to McGreevy and Appleby's analysis:

1) Muslims (particularly Sunnis) lack the centralized direction that bound nineteenth-century Catholic clergy and laity to a non-democratic foreign agenda--American Muslims are not constrained by the pronouncements of distant authorities, and certainly not by al Qaeda.

2) American Muslims are supported by a large constituency of civil rights advocates. More importantly, they are protected by a federal government with much broader powers than its nineteenth-century counterpart (nor should we forget the support and protections offered by the mayor, the Governor, and state and local law.) Nineteenth-century Catholics had many allies and sympathizers among Protestants. They also benefited from an already vibrant tradition of religious liberty and mutual respect. Still, their position vis-a-vis both state authority and public opinion was probably more precarious than that of modern Muslims.

3) American Catholics arrived in massive numbers during the mid-nineteenth century. Today, U.S. Muslim population growth is robust, but it pales in relative terms to the hundreds of thousands of Irish Catholics who landed in U.S. cities during the 1840s and 1850s. As much as the growing Muslim community will contribute to American society, its social and political footprint is likely to be less conspicuous than the one left by mid-nineteenth-century Irish Catholics.

4) Particularly in the last decades,the United State has prided itself on a tradition of religious diversity and religious inclusion. We have also gained a sharper appreciation for our previous failings in this regard. Appleby and McGreevy are not just champions of this formidable tradition; they are illustrations of it.

In sum, our history--especially our recent history--bodes well for our future. We have seen the same sort of reaction before, and it passed. Hackles were raised, distant authorities were cited, and brutal violence was invoked, yet our better natures prevailed and our tradition of equal rights was enriched. There will have to be accommodation and there will have to be time for healing. But if we take history as our guide, there is reason for optimism.

SNCC, Faith, and Social Justice

Paul Harvey

A few notes on the anniversary of the March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

I blogged a bit before about the Glenn Beck/Sarah Palin event tomorrow on the anniversary (whether by Coincidence or by Providence has been left ambiguous), and swore afterwards to ignore it. Life's too short. (And anyway, you can read about it at the NYT here, and get Julie Ingersoll's informed analysis here).

So I've done so, more or less, until the eve of the anniversary which brings two must-read reflections. First is Eugene Robinson's quick takedown of Beck's perversion of the history and theology of King. Second, for a softer-edged but powerful remembrance and appreciation, I recommend Randal Jelks's piece today at Black Bottom. Randal concludes with some good words about that era's movement of social and economic justice:

What made that one-day event so successful was that in every city and community in the country civil rights protest had been taking place. March organizers did not call people to organize on the grassroots level because that was occurring everywhere through local leaders. What the organizers needed to do was to get those local leaders to bring their people from their towns and hamlets to Washington. The hard work was getting all these people to cooperate and come together around the common themes of “Jobs and Freedoms.” Dr. King’s “I Have Dream Speech” was the topping on the cake. He voiced the collective aspirations of a country and a people who had been denied both full employment and civic liberties. However, the real work as King knew so well had been done on the grassroots level and without that organizing that speech would not be remembered today.

Back in 1963, what the March organizers accomplished outlasted the Dodgers’ pennant win. And it will surely out last the tomfoolery of the latest conservative media spectacle. Let us not be distracted by romanticization of the past or angered by this momentary nonsense of reactionary conservatism. Rather, let us commit ourselves to organizing and building on the legacy that made that very special day forty-seven years ago possible.

And finally, CNN has put together a nice history of SNCC video today, featuring my dear friend Maria Varela:

Her work is relatively little known to the general public, and appears infrequently even in studies of this era, but she took some of the most interesting, "in the action" photographs I've seen from that era, and has gone on to a lifetime of community organizing (and a MacArthur award) since then. "My 60s wasn't sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll," she likes to say, a favorite chestnut that I like to use when students start repeating tired cliches about the 60s, or older folks repeat even tireder cliches about the same period.

Maria came at this era from a Catholic social justice perspective, complementary to but very different from the Protestant underpinnings of most of her black (and white) SNCC compatriots. My students hugely enjoyed the couple of times I've been able to have Maria around the classroom for dialogues about the history of SNCC -- our interpretations of the period are quite different, and clash at some points, including on the relationship of SNCC to religious faith. I'll always treasure that dialogue.

Five Years and an Oil Spill Later

[Emily Clark is a Ph.D. Student in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. She is also the new managing editor of the Journal of Southern Religion. You can expect great things from Emily in the not-too-distant future!]
Five Years and an Oil Spill Later
Emily Clark

This upcoming Sunday marks the 5 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the American gulf coast. The aftermath of the storm–the outrage, the rising death toll, the fundraising, the widespread donations of time and money to rebuild, and the levee investigations–largely languished in the national media as time passed. Interest would perk up again when Brad Pitt finished another house, and with the recent interest in the HBO show Tremé, the public eye will incline towards the Crescent City that Care Forgot in the approaching days.

In addition to its Tremé style jazz, New Orleans is also famous for its historical haunting and ghost stories. A former New Orleans resident–the folk artist, musician, and street preacher Sister Gertrude Morgan who died in 1980–remains today in the city she evangelized in a ghostly form. According to sociologist Avery Gordon, “to write stories concerning exclusions and invisibilities is to write ghost stories,” and the scholar’s investigation of these social ghosts leads “to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life.” As the floodwaters receded from the Lower Ninth Ward (her former neighborhood), they resurrected a Sister Gertrude Morgan specter. Created and propagated largely by current Preservation Hall owner and creative director Benjamin Jaffe, the spectral Gertrude Morgan exists in a specific cultural context: post-Katrina New Orleans. Jaffe’s initial uncertainty about staying in his hometown and the city’s subsequent rebuilding efforts, particularly his artistic contribution to the city’s cultural revival, swirl about his spectral evangelist. For him, she became a symbol for the enduring love, acceptance, and creativity he reveres about his beloved city. She is an icon for authentic New Orleans culture in the post-Katrina world–a symbol for the city she viewed as sinful and most in need of her didactic message (click here for more on Morgan and Katrina).

In 2009, the Journal of Southern Religion released two issues of its typically annual periodical. One of these installments was a special issue entitled “After the Storm,” an exposé on religion in the American South in light of and responding to Katrina. Including articles, poetry, and the visual arts, this particular edition of JSR demonstrated, in the words of guest co-editor Tracy Fessenden, that “New Orleans isn’t going away.” The editors of the JSR encourage you to revisit or explore for the first time this special issue. Five years after the storm and one oil disaster later, religion in the gulf continues to raise difficult questions about power, identity, and social forces. Not only that, the South furthermore remains key to our constantly-developing and ever-nuancing picture of American religion.

From the Record Bin: Your Gonna Love Your New Life

Randall Stephens

So here's a find a got from an Emporia, Kansas, thrift shop back in 1995. I've held on to this record, called John 15:13, by the Christian Sons, for ages now. It's perfect pitch early 1970s, evangelical awesomeness. (If I remember right, the Christian Sons were an Assemblies of God, soft rock group from Colorado that didn't want to push it into full-throttle Jesus People freakiness.)

Back when I picked the album up and dusted it off it further confirmed what I thought about a certain strain of evangelical pop music from the 70s and 80s. It seems that many evangelicals were seriously into the Carpenters, John Denver, Bread, Captain and Tennille, and a few other icons of the shag carpet and pleather years. The Nazarene church I attended in Olathe, Kansas, featured gospel quartets and more college-friendly stuff, what passed as "young people's music," I guess. The Christians Sons fit into the latter category. They were really small time when compared to contemporary Christian soft rock icons like Honeytree, 2nd Chapter of Acts, or the Archers. But still, they had their charms.

Hear song here.

The song, "Your Gonna Love Your New Life," written by one Phil Johnson, is a greeting to a new convert. "Let me be the first to shake your hand," croon the Christian Sons, "and tell you that this life is really grand." Stilted, yes. Weird, you betcha. Fascinating, without a doubt.

People will hear a song like this today as nothing more than Christian kitsch. Like something piled on to that mountain of Jesus junk that Colleen McDannell scaled in her amazing Material Christianity. But I have to remind myself that music like this really did speak to believers of a certain frame of mind in a certain era. It was exciting, new, and cheery. It thrilled the youngsters in churches who were stoked to see and hear drums in church. Born-again Christians could have fun, and, sorta, rock out, too.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a Franciscan

Linford D. Fisher

It used to be a bad word. “Franciscan.” Well, for colonial historians, at least. I mean, really, with a full-out colonial missions program to American Indians that was inescapably ethnocentric at best (even if well intended) or disturbingly malevolent at worst, Franciscans have usually been at the religious center of the so-called Black Legend with their forced labor and corporeal punishment of Natives in Florida, New Mexico, and California. This is particularly true vis-à-vis the typical scholarly praise concerning the relatively tolerant, culturally sensitive missionizing undertaken by the Jesuits in the colonial period. The classic, “recent” touchstone on the depredations of the Franciscans in the New Mexico context is, of course, Ramon Gutierrez’s When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away (1991). Despite the various criticisms that have subsequently emerged, this text is seemingly here to stay. It is a gripping narrative, to be sure. Who couldn’t help but cringe at his lengthy recounting of the eighty years of Franciscan evangelization prior to the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 that included overt sexual exploitation and humiliation?

When David J. Weber—the leading scholar in borderland studies—sadly passed away earlier this week, I pulled out his classic, The Spanish Frontier in North America (1992) to remind myself of what Weber contributed to all of this. Surprisingly, his account is comparatively even-keeled, even though he did label Franciscan missions as “but one of the oppressive frontier institutions of the Spanish state” (121).

But is this view changing? Of course. It has to. This is the historical profession, after all, and many tenure cases are hanging on the successful revisioning of the minutiae of every field. A book I just finished while on a research vacation (an oxy-moron if there ever was one) with the family reminds me that the historical view of Franciscans is slowly changing: Joseph M. Hall, Jr., Zamumo’s Gifts: Indian-European Exchange in the Colonial Southeast (2009). To be sure, the book is really about the importance of Native conceptions of exchange in trumping and shaping European notions of commercial trade well into the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, the Franciscans take center stage in at least one chapter, since their missions among the Apalachees in the 1600s open up avenues for Spanish exchange and trade with inland Natives. Hall seems to almost minimize the effect of the Franciscans, essentially arguing that the missionaries had little control over the Timicuan and Guales as a whole: “The simple fact remained that Indians in and beyond the missions remained in control of the region. Although missionaries introduced a host of new coercive forms into Guale and Timicuan life during the early seventeenth century, including restrictions on their movements, a greater regimentation of diet, and more frequent corporal punishment, such impositions weighed relatively lightly on most of their charges” (61). This was in part due to the enormous numerical differential that often gets overlooked: in 1630 there were 27 missionaries for 50,000 Timicuans and Guales. For myself, I wonder if his assessment does not take into account the practical, on the ground imperial weight and presence the missionaries and their regional military and trade counterparts represented. In the end, however, Hall still agrees with archaeologist Jerald Milanich that “missions were colonization” (53).

Nonetheless, Hall is not alone. Franciscan pacification/colonization is looking far different in various geographical regions. Steven W. Hackel in Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis (2005) was surprised to find that Indians in southern California had far more autonomy in Franciscan mission towns than he expected—even producing surplus crops for their own economic benefit. Another study that will be soon forthcoming by my colleague at Brown, Amy Remensnyder, on the various uses of the Madonna in late medieval and early modern conquests in the Old World and New, also highlights the Franciscans in the New World context. And, somewhat similarly, she is more interested in what Franciscans and the Spanish do and how they operate than she is in taking them to task, once again, for the many injustices that historians have rightly pointed out.

Then again, perhaps the Jesuits’ fortunes are changing, too, but for the worse. Emma Anderson’s The Betrayal of Faith (featured here on this blog) turns historiographical wisdom concerning the Jesuits on its head. In her retelling, the Jesuits (and Paul LeJeune in particular) come across as just as intolerant and demanding as their Franciscan/Recollet counterparts.

These developments, of course, are part of a much larger re-casting of missionaries among Native Americans in the wake of earlier and important ethnohistorians like Francis Jennings and James Axtell. David Silverman, Rachel Wheeler, and Richard Cogley are just a few examples of the ways in which historians have increasingly asked different, native-centered questions to provide a more nuanced emphasis on Natives’ creative agency instead of cataloguing the sins of the European evangelists. A terrific-looking book that is due out in a month will likely add to this ongoing conversation: Joel Martin and Mark A. Nicholas, eds., Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape (UNC, Sept. 2010).

All of this simply serves as a reminder that history is, first and foremost, an interpretive enterprise, and that how we view things, people, movements, and events can—and must—change over time. In the meantime, thanks for a terrific corpus of scholarship, David J. Weber. RIP.

Liberalism Without Illusions

Paul Harvey

Here's a review of a
new book about religious liberalism through the 20th century, by the author of a very fine biography of Walter Rauschenbusch (The Kingdom is Always But Coming). It should be of interest to some.

Evans, Christopher H.
Liberalism without illusions: renewing an American Christian tradition. Baylor, 2010. 207p bibl index afp; ISBN 9781602582088 pbk, $24.95. Reviewed in 2010sep CHOICE.

Evans (Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School) offers a careful, nuanced book about American theological liberalism. As a professor at a school "identified with the heritage of theological liberalism" and as "someone who has spent years in parish ministry," Evans believes that "there is much in the liberal tradition that is critical to the future of American Christianity" and that "the tradition is in need of critique." Following chapter 1, "Why Do Americans Distrust Liberals?" Evans narrates the progress of liberalism from the 19th century through the social gospel of the early 20th century and into the heyday of liberalism before and immediately after WW II. He then discusses its "diffusion" and even decline in the last half of the 20th century. In the face of negative numerical indicators (mainline denominational size, etc.), Evans argues that liberal theology still matters. He urges liberals to focus less on the academy and more on the local congregation and to discover ways of fueling a grassroots movement, as evangelical theology has been so successful at doing. This is a valuable work for anyone interested in the past and future of Protestant theology in the United States. Summing Up:Recommended. Upper-level undergraduates and above. -- I. Birdwhistell, Georgetown College

The Past is Never Dead . . . Religious Leaders in Virginia on Local Tribes

Randall Stephens

I was just thinking about a new idea for the blog. Maybe a series of posts? "The Past is Never Dead . . ." It could entail news items or books that deal with contemporaries who are wrestling with history. To paraphrase Carl Becker "everyman/woman his/her own religious historian." Many Americans come to grips with the nation's religious identity be resorting to the past. (Isn't this Glenn Beck's big campaign?) Perhaps history has a greater resonance right now. Some questions: How do believers and non-believers use history to describe what America is or has been? Who owns American religious history? Why is it so important for citizens to put religious history, or just American history in general, to use for the present?

Robert Dilday, "Baptist executives urge federal recognition of Virginia tribes," Associated Baptist Press, 19 August 2010.

RICHMOND, Va. (ABP) -- The top executives of two Virginia Baptist groups have joined other religious leaders in calling for federal recognition of six Native American tribes in the state.

In an open letter released Aug. 17, about 30 Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders asked Virginia’s Republican governor and two Democratic senators to support congressional legislation giving to Virginia’s tribes the same status held by more than 560 other Native American tribes across the United States.

Among the signers were John Upton, executive director of the predominantly white Baptist General Association of Virginia, who also was recently elected president of the Baptist World Alliance, and Cessar Scott, executive minister of the historically black Baptist General Convention of Virginia. . . .

History erased by racist official

Walter Plecker, registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912-1946, replaced “Indian” with “black” on every birth and death certificate in his office. Plecker, a white supremacist, said Native Americans had become a “mongrel” mixture. >>>

Dangerous Religion--It isn't who you think.

Kelly Baker

In the media storm about the Lower Manhattan mosque, Gary Laderman, at Religion Dispatches, offers an interesting take on "dangerous religion" in the U.S. His assessment of dangerous religion might surprise some, but probably not those familiar with Laderman's other work. His target is white (Anglo-Saxon) Protestant men.

Here's a snippet:
“Christianity” of course is a meaningless label, as I’ve written before. Like “Islam” it is too broad a category to cover the radically diverse practices, beliefs, and interpretive communities associated with it. So let me be even bolder and say that Protestants, and even more specifically, Anglo-European Protestant men, would appear to be the most dangerous religious individuals in American history. Without question white Protestant males from the colonial era to the dawn of the twenty-first century have inflicted more pain, more suffering, more terror than any other individuals in this so-called “city on a hill.” >>>

While Laderman admits no one really wants to answer the question about "dangerous religion", it is a question that is asked by the general public and often our students. Even working on what I do, I avoid this question and focus more on ambiguity. Yet, I can't help but wonder about the function of the label "dangerous" in tandem with religion. What do we gain analytically by declaring danger? How does it relate to legitimacy (or so-called illegitimacy) of religious movements?

Blog editors, contributors and readers, what do you think about this assessment? How does Laderman's perspective further the discussion of what is at stake in the current media portrayals of Islam in the debate about Park51? Does applying the label to a group that most assume is innocuous help our understanding of the current controversy or does it muddy the analytical waters?

New Scholarship: Opposition to Polygamy in the Postbellum South

by Edward J. Blum

For those of you still living in the present, I know this is a hard and confusing time. Reports of President Obama as a Muslim, debates over Ground Zero, and the start of the semester can trouble our souls. Perhaps you need an intellectual refuge. If you do, grab the current edition of the Journal of Southern History and read Patrick Q. Mason’s fantastic article on anti-Mormonism in the South <“Opposition to Polygamy in the Postbellum South,” Journal of Southern History 76, no. 3 (August 2010): 541-578)>. It’s a terrific study of how white southerners rallied against polygamy from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the twentieth century. Sure, it’s not a fun story (it involves murder and mayhem just like most aspects of American history), but the essay offers a lot to think about from the past.

Latest Research Shows Whig View of American Religious History A Little More Problematic Than I Thought

Paul Harvey

Still clinging to that Whig interpretation of history? You know the one -- we go through tough times, but things get better, people improve, perceptions shift, intolerance gives way to pluralism, falsehoods are put away, stocks go up in the long run, bigotries have to go into hiding, people cultivate their own gardens and don't try to burn other ones down, we learn from our mistakes, enemies reconcile, etc. Full disclosure: that's stuff I basically believe in my heart of hearts.

Here's a little cold water on that rosy-hued view:

Now comes fresh evidence of misperceptions about the president taking root in the public mind: a new poll by the Pew Research Center finds a substantial rise in the percentage of Americans who believe, incorrectly, that Mr. Obama is Muslim. The president is Christian, but 18 percent now believe he is Muslim, up from 12 percent when he ran for the presidency and 11 percent after he was inaugurated. [note: this poll was taken BEFORE the recent ground zero mosque pseudo-event].

Moreover, according to the poll, about 1/4th of Americans are certified "birthers," and who knows how many others kinda sorta think that way. I realize 10% of people will believe just about anything. I realize a lot of people, including a large number of U.S. Senators, perpetrated the death panel myth, and well over 50% don't understand or "believe in" some pretty basic scientific concepts, starting with evolution and going on from there. But still, the 1/4th figure on something like this was in the category of things that make you go hmmm.

The article considers the possibility that the increasing number of people who believe this complete horsesh(BEEP) is because because Mr. Obama is doing a poor job of communicating who he is and what he believes.

Possibly true that, to a certain degree. Or maybe people are just getting stupider. I report, you decide.

Just a little more seriously: I recently concluded an essay for a forthcoming publication with a very smiley-face happy set of paragraphs on the rise of religious pluralism in very recent American history, throwing some props George W. Bush's way for some of his strongly affirming statements about Islam after 09/11 in contrast to events in the past (internment of Japanese Americans, etc.). The peer reviewers for that particular piece pointed out some obvious evidence to the contrary -- Guantanamo, attacks on mosques and people who looked vaguely Middle Eastern even though they were actually Sikhs, and so on and on. All true, all disheartening, and I could have written an essay concluding with the opposite point from what I argued easily enough. But, I was speaking from a comparative historical perspective -- compared to the past, things were not perfect, but they were better.

The recent spasm of hyperbolic bigotry, and stories like the above, leave me a little more sour than the Whiggish end to my essay (it's in press, so can't change it now!). So I'll try to improve my mood by surveying the recent edited collection of essays
African Immigrant Religions in America, which we've noted on the blog before -- and so far, it's an extremely informative collection of essays which covers everything from Ethiopian Orthodoxy to Nigerian Muslims to Ghanian Pentecostalism.

More immediately, though, I have to celebrate the advent of a true miracle, something you don't see every day:
Colorado Springs' first Ethiopian restaurant! And (by all accounts) a great one. Even better, the name of the place is Uchenna, which means "God's Will."

Having spent my first two years of grad. school, a million years ago, living about a 2 minute walk to three fantastic outposts (and several other pretty good if not quite fantastic outposts) of East African cuisine, I got a little spoiled, admittedly. Even more spoiling, the owner of one of those places used to give me her leftovers (bottom of the stew pot, all that stuff simmering for 24 hours -- possibly the best food I've ever eaten in my life), all nicely packaged in a styrofoam box. I think she thought I was a homeless drifter, when in fact I was a graduate student. What's the difference, you ask? Well, let's just say, I didn't really visit the laundry mat all that often in those days. I saved those quarters for a treat of tibbsi, alicha wat, and some honey wine.

And yes, every other civilized place got their nice Ethiopian restaurants ten or twenty or thirty years ago, and in reality it wasn't all that far to drive to Denver's versions of doro wat and kitfo. Nonetheless, just thinking about having to drive just a few minutes to get my fix of homemade injera cheers me up. Things will work out soon, things will come round again. Keep hope alive, peoples.

Stuff that Makes Jesus Tap (Or Just Cry)

Art Remillard

I feel like an impostor posting this--it seems so, well, Randall-esque. Alas, here I am, alerting readers to a fine collection of images at The Huffington Post entitled, "The Most Ridiculous Record Covers Of All Time." Indeed, some covers are from Christian musicians. I think it's safe to assume that if Jesus saw these, he would tap--repeatedly. Here's a sample...

More on the Lower Manhattan Mosque

Randall Stephens

Following up on Paul's post . . . (and apologies for more on a topic that many readers here are probably sick to death of) I paste below some recent comments on the lower Manhattan Mosque debate. There seems to be as much ranting and raving out there as actual calm, reasoned discussion. (Watch the overheated Aug 16 debate on PBS's NewsHour.) Obviously for some politicians the whole issue is a tar baby. Others hope to score big cultural cognition points by sounding off on it.

I've been wondering why more pundits have not been asking some basic questions, like . . . why are so many Americans--60% to 70% polled--so easily equating all of Islam with terror and with the 9-11 attacks? Every Southern Baptist is certainly not an abortion clinic bomber.

Weighing in:

"Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the holocaust museum in Washington"* - Newt Gingrich

"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as everyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."* - Barack Obama

"The First Amendment protects freedom of religion. Senator Reid respects that but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else."* - Office of Senator Harry Reid

"Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate."* - Sarah Palin

"In every religious community, one of the things that has happened over the course of immigration is that people get settled and eventually build something that says, 'We're here! We're not just camping.'"* - Diana Eck

"You can study Islam at virtually any American university, but you can’t even build a one-room church in Saudi Arabia. That resistance to diversity, though, is not something we want to emulate, which is why I’m glad the mosque was approved on Tuesday."* - Thomas L. Friedman

The New York Dolls Gentlemen's Club Says: Refudiate the Casbah! Refudiate the Casbah!

Paul Harvey

We've got another post or two underway about the current predictable response to the proposed Cordoba Center (no, not a "mosque at Ground Zero") in lower Manhattan. I found this video tour most instructive -- a photo collage of some of the other establishments which currently reside on the "hallowed ground." Maybe Newt Gingrich has visited some of these, who knows?

[A side note: nothing in this blog post should be taken as a criticism, in the slightest, of the great 1970s glam-punk band the New York Dolls, whose work paved the way for one of my all-time favorite film musicals: Hedwig and the Angry Inch. If you haven't seen it -- do. Right now. The
last song on the film/soundtrack, "Midnight Radio," is a glorious religious statement about the power of music to help one rise above the circumstances].

More seriously, amidst the avalanche of web material on this tiresome, ginned-up pseudo-controversy, the single best analytical/historical piece I've seen comes from Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, up at Religion Dispatches; click here for it. The author puts this controversy properly in the historical context of the hysterical anti-Catholicism in the 19th century and other like episodes, traces some of the history of Muslim institutions in America, and ends optimistically:

It suggests that the proposed mosque and community center, which is modeled after the New York YMCA and Jewish Community Center, is a continuation of century-old efforts at community building and an attempt to represent Islam in lower Manhattan as American Muslims have understood and experienced it rather than through the actions of terrorists. The decision to allow the building of the mosques and community center is yet another episode in American history that moves us closer to the realization of our nation’s founding ideal of religious pluralism and freedom amidst a din of protests.

Ghaneabassiri, who teaches at Reed College, is the author of A History of Islam in America: From the New World to the New World Order (Cambridge, 2010) -- I had not seen or even heard of this text, but definitely looking forward to checking it out now.

Ghaneabassiri ends more optimistically than I would: the "founding ideal of religious pluralism" referred to was a lot more contested than that. And the incredible string of hateful commentary that has followed posts by Stephen Prothero and others over at CNN Belief Blog and other like places suggests something about the extent of religious hatreds prevalent today.

On the other hand, as Prothero points out in his latest post, Presidents Bush and Obama and Mayor Bloomberg have all rejected throwing out the politically expedient red meat of Islamophobia even when given the chance to do so. Some of Bush's statements were pretty remarkable in this regard, coming in close proximity to the 9/11 event.

Some other blog contributors here have more to say about this, so I'll turn it over to them. In the meantime, take that video tour, it's a nice respite from hallowed ground hyperbole.

Divided by Faith: Conference Schedule

Paul Harvey

Earlier we posted an announcement on the conference "Divided by Faith," a symposium at Indiana Wesleyan University about Michael Emerson's and Christian Smith's book of that title. Below is the conference schedule; as you will see, blog contributors Philip Luke Sinitiere and Edward J. Blum, and friend of the blog Charles Irons, are among the participants. Click here for more conference information, registration, etc.

Divided by Faith: A Decade Retrospective
October 15-16, 2010
Indiana Wesleyan University Student Center
Sponsored by the John Wesley Honors College

4:00-5:30 pm

Session 1: “Historical Realities”

* Dr. Miles Mullin, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
“‘Are Negroes Cursed?’ The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelical Attitudes towards the Problem of Race in America”

* Dr. Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Sam Houston State University
“To Act Justly, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly: Historical Reflections on Divided by Faith”

* Ryon Cobb, Florida State University
“The Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever? White Evangelical Racial Attitudes Across Time, 1977-2008”

* Dr. Peter Slade (Chair), Ashland University

6:00-7:00 pm
Welcome Dinner

7:15-8:30 pm
Opening Plenary
* Dr. Wayne Schmidt, Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University (moderator)
* Dr. Michael Emerson, Rice University

8:30-10:00 am
Session 2: “Historical Alternatives”

* Dr. Charles Irons, Elon University
“Reconstruction, the Segregation of Southern Churches, and Divided by Faith”

* Dr. Edward Blum, San Diego State University
“When Jesus Crossed the Color Line: Interracial Exchanges at the Nadir of American Race Relations”

* Dr. Curtis Evans, University of Chicago Divinity School
“Demonstrating the Sufficiency of Christianity to Solve the Race Problem”

Bedford, Jones, and Leedy Banquet Room

10:00-10:30 am
Coffee Break
Hallway outside Bedford, Jones, and Leedy Banquet Room

10:30-12:00 pm

Session 3: “Glimmers of Hope”

* Dr. Brantley Gassaway, Bucknell University
“‘Glimmers of Hope’: Progressive Evangelical Leaders and Racism, 1970-2000”

* Paul Grant, University of Wisconsin
“Race, Memory, and the Evangelical Missions Movement: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship 1967-1973 and 1997-2003”

* Dr. Paul Rumrill, Liberty University
“Promoting Change: Transitioning from Uniracial to Multiethnic Corporate Worship”

* Dr. Julie Park (chair), Miami University

12:00-1:30 pm

1:30-3:00 pm
Session 4: “Challenges Ahead"

* Dr. Erica Wong, Research Affiliate, Rice University
“Knotted Together: Congregational Mission and Racial Integration”

* Dr. Darryl Scriven, Tuskegee University
“The Call to Blackness in American Christianity”

* Dr. Korie Edwards, Ohio State University
“‘Much A-do about Nothing’?: A Discussion of Multiracial Churches in American Race Relations”

* Dr. Bruce Fields, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (chair)

3:00-3:30 pm
Coffee Break

3:30-4:30 pm
Closing Plenary: Dr. Michael Emerson

Black Preaching and African-American History

Randall Stephens

Listen to Sunday's All Things Considered (NPR) for a feature on black preaching from the 18th century to the present. Guy Raz speaks with Martha Simmons about her new edited volume, Preaching with Sacred Fire. The story includes audio clips of 20th-century sermons and some insight on how black preaching through the centuries opens a window onto the African-American experience.

For African-Americans, social movements tend to start in the pulpit. From slavery to civil rights to the election of the first African-American president, preachers have given sermons that moved black Americans to tears and to action. >>>

See also,

Edward Macknight Brawley, ed, The Negro Baptist Pulpit: A Collection of Sermons and Papers . . . (Philadelphia, 1890).

"Reminiscence of a Negro Preacher," Georgia Writer's Project, Library of Congress, November 7, 1939.

"A Holiness Preacher," South Carolina Writer's Project, Library of Congress, January 20, 1939.

Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux & Congregation, YouTube, late 1930s(?)

T. D. Jakes, "How to Fight with the Devil," YouTube, 2007.

Martin Luther King, "But if Not," Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, November, 1967, Internet Archive.

Colonial Church, Dig It

An interesting article from a couple weeks back. Note religious historian Charles Hambrick-Stowe's involvement.

"Archaeologist will probe ground for old churches," The Ridgefield Press, 1 August 2010.

Connecticut State Archivist Nicholas Bellantoni will use a radar device to search for the exact location of the original meeting houses of the First Congregational Church of Ridgefield.

The project is part of the church’s preparation to celebrate its 300th anniversary in 2012. . . .

Dr. Charles Hambrick-Stowe, senior minister, and David Hein of the church’s 300th anniversary committee studied old photographs and maps with him at the site, on Main Street in front of Jesse Lee United Methodist Church. >>>


Chris Beneke

I just finished Steven K. Green's The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford 2010). My hunch is that the book will end up on the shelves of Supreme Court justices and their clerks, not to mention religious historians (who will probably use the library's copy) and constitutional law scholars (who can probably afford to buy their own). We needed a comprehensive account of the relationship between civil government and religion from the founding period through the early twentieth century. Now we have it.

The Second Disestablishment's title and subtitle are misleading. The first quarter of this thick volume is devoted to late eighteenth-century America, the era of what Green calls the “First Disestablishment.” It lasted from 1775 through 1833, though most of the critical work was accomplished by 1790. (Massachusetts, with its town-centered system of church support, was the chief laggard, stretching the national story of constitutional disestablishment out until 1833.)

Green takes the interpretive fight directly to those (generally called "Accommodationists") who maintain that the early federal system was designed to preserve existing, nonpreferential state establishments of religion. He makes a persuasive case that instead of buttressing publicly supported religion in the states, the Constitution and the religious clauses of the First Amendment actually sustained the states' momentum toward disestablishment.

Historians use the term "disestablishment" to describe the end of state support for churches and state-enforced religious doctrine. Green has a broader conception (a forthcoming book by David Sehat may take a comparably broad view). For Green, disestablishment also included the de-Christianization of the common law and the secularizaton of educational policy. The story is generally progressive: there was more evidence of disestablishment at the end of the nineteenth century than there had been in the late eighteenth or mid-nineteenth century. Still, what he calls "legal" and "cultural" disestablishment--the Second Disestablishment--followed a less direct trajectory than the First, constitutional disestablishment. In fact, the notion that Christianity was integral to the common law did not reach its apex until the antebellum period. As a consequence, anti-Christian remarks were still prosecuted and non-Christians still barred from serving as witnesses through the Civil War era.

A major turning point occurred in the middle decades of the nineteenth century when judges began to demand that prosecutions for blasphemy, Sabbath violations, and profane swearing be shown to constitute a discernible public “nuisance." For their part, Sabbath laws themselves were increasingly treated as contributions to public health and welfare, rather than divine injunctions. (When else would laborers rest, and how else were you going to keep them out of the pubs on Sunday?) At the same time, Bible reading in the schools was given secular justifications (Where else would children be taught morality?) and gradually abandoned. Law and culture were both de-sanctified.

The Second Disestablishment is judicious in its use of evidence, with only a few excursions into polemics. The argument flows easily from Green's detailed study of legal opinion and court decisions (more than 400 cases apparently). Along the way, he takes aim at another distinguished legal historian, Philip Hamburger, whose Separation of Church and State should be read in conjunction with this one. The debate over the history of church and state in America won't end with this book. But it just might be more interesting, and better informed.

Owned by the White People

Paul Harvey

Don't miss our contributor Christopher Jones's piece over at Juvenile Instructor: " 'Owned by the White People': America and Native Americans in Church History Sunday School Lessons, 1934." Going through some boxes of old material while packing and moving, Chris reflects on Mormon providentialist interpretations, as communicated in Sunday School lessons, on the founding of America, and on relations with Native peoples. Some of it is kind of standard-issue stuff for that period: heroic and virtuous Pilgrims, God preparing the way for the coming of our Christian civilization, and so on. I say "for that period" -- I should say, for that period, but of course for a lot of folks still standard stuff (see Barton, David and Marshall, Peter). Some of it is more LDS specific, explaining what events prepared the way for Joseph Smith. All fascinating stuff.

I have been interested in Native theological responses to all of this history, and how they have dealt with the issues inherent in this kind of Providentalism. One really helpful source, by way of introduction, is James Treat, ed., Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada, where a variety of Native authors grapple with the contested identities of Indian and Christian, and the meanings of biblical myths as applied to their communities. An overview and response to the collection may be found here. In the book, the authors debate the question of what use can be made of sacred texts once those texts have been made into stories that explain, and usually justify, conquest and dispossession. Can those stories be reclaimed?

Well, I was going to blog more about this, but I don't want this to be the "spoiler" for some fairly extensive discussion of these issues (including nineteenth-century Protestant and Mormon providential explanations of the history of America) that Ed Blum and I are working on for our book Jesus in Red, White, and Black, which we're in the home stretches of now. For now, I was curious as to whether anyone had investigated mainstream Protestant (or Catholic) lessons/sermons from that era. I was wondering when these kind of Providentialist interpretations received more critical scrutiny in religious literature, whether that was something that came out of the 1960s and after, or perhaps emerged earlier with the innovations of the Indian New Deal and the rethinking of the "missionary enterprise" that was going on in the 1930s. Has there been a close study of that? Probably, but I can't think of it offhand.

Education for Liberation: The American Missionary Association from Reconstruction through Civil Rights

Paul Harvey

We've had a number of posts here in the past where folks have reflected on their experiences researching in various archives. One of my most enjoyable was a couple of weeks years ago at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane, where I dipped a bit into the massive archives of the American Missionary Association, the Congregationalist enterprise which after the Civil War was heavily involved in education for the freedpeople. At the time of this research, I was thinking of a good deal of the literature on postwar black education, leading to "industrial" schools; that literature focused on missionary paternalism. The postwar letters I read in the AMA archives gave me a much more sympathetic view.

The scholar Joe Martin Richardson has spent a career going through the entire AMA archives. In 1986, he published the first of his two volumes on the subject of the AMA and black education after the war, Christian Reconstruction: The American Missionary Association and Southern Blacks, 1861-1890. I used that book extensively in my own work. It's the kind of meticulous, old-fashioned scholarship that we sometimes ignore as it generates little or no "buzz," but we all use in our own work, because we appreciate it when people have logged in the butt time at the archives, going through all those scrawled letters and slowly composing a portrait of the people who left those records.

Most recently, and just reviewed at H-Education and H-Law, Richardson has teamed with another scholar for a sequel. At H-Law, Adam Laats reviews Joe Martin Richardson and Maxine Deloris Jones, Education for Liberation: The American Missionary Association and African Americans, 1890 to the Civil Rights Movement (University of Alabama Press, 2009).

Laats writes:

A first read through the leading works of educational history could leave students with a decidedly negative image of what might be called the missionary tradition in U.S. education. Books such as James Anderson's _Education of Blacks in the South_ (1988) and David Wallace Adams's _Education for Extinction_ (1995) paint a convincingly dark portrait of missionary educators. Ignorant and condescending at best, aggressively genocidal at worst, these well-intentioned busybodies come off as a lesson for today's teachers of what _not _to do. Joe M. Richardson and Maxine D. Jones offer another perspective in _Education for Liberation: The American Missionary Association and African Americans, 1890 to the Civil Rights Movement_. The book picks up where Richardson's _Christian Reconstruction_ (1986) left off. Like Richardson's earlier work, it is notably sympathetic to the black and white educators behind the American Missionary Association's (AMA) long career in African American education.

The reviewer continues:

By the time Japan invaded Pearl Harbor, the AMA had decisively changed its approach to African American education in the South. In 1942 it officially shifted its focus to its colleges and its civil rights activism. That activism, centered in a new Race Relations Department, became an important tool in the formation of the civil rights movement. For example, starting in 1944, the AMA hosted institutes at Fisk University that brought together church, labor, academic, and legal experts to discuss interracial democracy and activism. The institutes, as the authors describe them, tended to the dry, academic side. And, as the authors note, it can be difficult to assess the impact of such institutes on the fledgling civil rights movement. However, with hundreds of participants over the twenty-five years of their existence, including such luminaries as Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, it is not a stretch to assert, as the authors do, that these institutes contributed a great deal to the developing ideology of the movement. If nothing else, as Richardson and Jones argue, bringing together a group of white and black men and women for weeks of living, eating, and working together in an aggressively white supremacist southern city made an important statement.

Read the rest here.
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