Tracing the Roots and Common Beliefs of the Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR)

John L. Crow

“Americans want the fruit of religion, but not its obligations.”
 – George Gallup, Jr.

It is hard to deny that one of the primary changes in American religiosity is the shift from institutional religion to one that is more personal, or “spiritual” as many of the participants describe it. This kind of religiosity is difficult to track because there is no organization keeping account of the numbers of members or the participation of individuals. That, in many ways, is the point. The spiritual but not religious (SBNR) are not interested in being counted. They don’t want to belong. They, instead, want to use their own personal preferences to construct their own spirituality, without the administrative or doctrinal constraints of organized religion, and self-define what it means to be spiritual, or even enlightened.

Two recent books take a look at this segment of society, one looking at its roots and the other its contemporary underlying set of beliefs. In American Gurus: from Transcendentalism to New Age Religion, Arthur Versluis suggests the term “immediatism” to describe the way many of the SBNR practitioners approach their spirituality. He writes, “Immediatism refers to a religious assertion of spontaneous, direct, unmediated spiritual insight into reality (typically with little or no prior training), which some term ‘enlightenment.’ Strictly speaking, immediatism refers to a claim of a ‘pathless path,’ to religious enlightenment—the immediatist says ‘away with all ritual and practices!’ and claims that direct spiritual awakening or enlightenment is possible all at once” (2). 

I spoke to him this weekend about his book and the connection to the SBNR segment in America and he noted that while the trend is relatively recent, emerging in the in the latter part of the 20th century, it is not without its precedents, nor is it just an American phenomenon. Nevertheless, he sees there were a number of important persons establishing the foundation upon which the SBNR manifest their immediatism. His book traces these people who were precedents to the modern SBNR religious trend. He looks at Emerson and Whitman, William James, the Beats, Bernadette Roberts, Franklin Jones, Andrew Cohen, and many more. While he is cognizant that the trend crossed both the Atlantic and Pacific, the book still has a focus on the American aspect of this history, while acknowledging non-American’s participation; individuals such as Alan Watts.

Happy 7th Birthday (+ 1 week) to RiAH!

Paul Harvey

Hey, a week ago today was the 7th birthday for this blog, and the fact that I forgot about it entirely should give you youngsters a little clue about life in your 50s. Wait, where are my glasses? It's true that this blog began as a self-promotional lark, but somehow it has grown into a wonderfully enriching professional community, and my thanks to all who have been a part of that.

So, happy birthday to us! (and happy 6th birthday as well to John Fea's blog, the first-born child of our blog here). We have some changes ongoing right now which will be fully implemented in the fall. As you can see from our masthead, Cara Burnidge (just named a new assistant professor at University of Northern Iowa !!!!) and Michael Hammond are moving into the roles of co-blogmeisters, while I settle into the balcony chairs of Statler and Waldorf. My thanks to Cara and Michael for transitioning the blog into a new era, while I just try to remember where I put my keys and my glasses.

As you have seen as well, we have a couple of new bloggers coming on board. For those interested in writing for the blog, please contact Cara and let her know your interests. Our facebook and twitter followings have both exceeded 1,500 and are going strong, and my thanks to our team of social media gurus for keeping that going -- that would be Carol Faulkner and Trevor Burrows on the facebook side, and Paul Putz and Michael Hammond on the Twitter side.

I'll stick around for a few months for the transition, but hope to be settled into my retirement home sometime this fall. Until then, thanks for reading, blogging, commenting, facebooking and tweeting our posts. And for those who wish to write directly to me, please do so in large print.

Onward, Philadelphia (and SHEAR 2014)

Philadelphia postcard, 1900s (via SHEAR website)
Monica L. Mercado

The lazy, hazy days of summer aren't too lazy for those of us in the middle of moving boxes! I'm getting settled into Philadelphia this weekend, where I'll begin a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship in Academic Libraries as Director of The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women's Education at Bryn Mawr College, on July 1. There's a rich history of Catholic women's education in and around Philly, and I'm also excited to look into the history of Catholic women at the Seven Sisters while I'm exploring Bryn Mawr's College Archives and working on my book manuscript.

The move is especially well-timed for a summer conference of interest to many of us on this blog. SHEAR, the Society for Historians of the Early Republic, will hold its 36th Annual Meeting at the Doubletree Philadelphia July 17-20, 2014. For historians of American religion, there's much to recommend.

Know Your Archive: National Archives at College Park

Michael Graziano

Today's guest contributor is Michael Graziano, a Ph.D. Candidate at Florida State University. His dissertation explores the relationship between American religious institutions and U.S. intelligence services during the Cold War. You can find him on Twitter @grazmike.

I recently had the chance to spend an extended period of time working at the National Archives at College Park (or Archives II, as it is sometimes known). My experience was fantastic. I came away with oodles of quality material, and the archivists and support staff were wonderful. Yet, in talking with other ARH scholars about working at College Park, I’ve been surprised by how many assume it offers little beyond military or diplomatic records. While it certainly has those items, it also offers a great deal more. I thought that a post highlighting the strengths of the archive would be of use to those who may be considering a trip.

What’s the strength of College Park? Quite simply: if your topic involves the American state, they probably have a record of it. If you are researching anything that intersects with someone employed by the government or laws designed or enforced by the government, College Park has something for your project. The holdings are vast. One way to get a sense of what is available would be to scroll through the Archives’ blog, “The Text Message.” It provides a useful window into the types of records housed at different branches of the National Archives. To take one example, here’s an interesting post (illustrated with the actual documents) which offers a window into what is available in the records of the Office of the Chief of Chaplains.

Religion and US Foreign Relations: A Roundtable Recap

The following is a guest review by Dan Hummel of a roundtable that took place on June 20th at the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR).  Dan is a PhD Candidate at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He studies American religious history and the history of American foreign relations, with special focus on American evangelicals and the state of Israel in the postwar period.  Many thanks to him for this wonderful report!

The panel was entitled “Religion and U.S. Foreign Relations: A Roundtable on the State of the Study.” There were an unusually large number of people on the stage familiar to RIAH. Molly Worthen (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill) chaired, while presenters included Cara Burnidge (Florida State University), Will Inboden (University of Texas-Austin), Emily Conroy-Krutz (Michigan State University), Edward Blum (San Diego State University), and Leo Ribuffo (George Washington University).  Cara, Ed, and Emily are also members of the religion and U. S. Empire Group, which Sylvester Johnson recently posted about. Rather than provide a blow-by-blow account, the following paragraphs will simply include some of my loosely organized impressions as a graduate student studying religion and foreign affairs.

It seems fitting, however, to start at the beginning with Molly Worthen’s brief remarks that set a sort of agenda for the roundtable. As she and other panelists reiterated, the very fact that there has been a “religious turn” in the history of American foreign affairs was evident all around us at the SHAFR conference. Many panels had religious themes in their titles, and many more papers incorporated religious sources and perspectives. The roundtable itself was evidence of religion assuming the mantle as the newest “fad” (a wry designation by the estimable Leo Ribuffo) of new scholarship, and especially among younger historians and grad students. To my mind, the book displays just outside the meeting room reinforced this reality. Recent offerings from Ussama Makdisi’s Artillery of Heaven (2008) to Axel Schäfer’s Piety and Public Funding (2012) show the thematic and chronological breadth of the religious turn.

The Secularization of American Foreign Policy


Mark Edwards

The following is a revised version of a conference paper given last Saturday at the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) annual meeting.  It represents unfinished thinking about a work-in-progress, tentatively entitled God in the Think Tank: Faith and Foreign Affairs in the American Century.  Besides some excellent presentations by friends-of-the-blog Lauren Turek and Dan Hummel, and many more I wish I could have heard, the highlight of this conference for me was a roundtable on the state of the study of religion and American foreign relations, which included Leo Ribuffo, Molly Worthen, William Inboden, Emily Conroy-Krutz, and RIAH’s own Ed Blum and Cara Burnidge.  Dan will have more to say about that session tomorrow.

SHAFR Annual Meeting, June 21 2014, Lexington, KY
Panel: Finding Religion in American Foreign Policy
Chair: Michaela Hoenicke-Moore
Presenters: Gene Zubovich, Caitlin Carenen, Mark Edwards
Edwards Paper: The Secularization of American Foreign Policy

We may debate when and how the “religious turn” in diplomatic history occurred, but there can be little doubt that it has occurred.  Thanks to the work of Dianne Kirby, Andrew Rotter, William Inboden, Andrew Preston, and so many others, scholars now understand sacred matters as constitutive as well as constituted elements of American globalism.  Religion is not epiphenomenal; it is not merely a mask for realpolitik.  As Preston writes in Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith (2012):

Aside from the personal faith of individual policymakers, religion has been integral to American politics and culture, and to America’s sense of itself, and thus also to the products of politics and culture, such as foreign policy. . . . In times of war, religious liberals and conservatives, militants and pacifists have all called upon God to sanctify their cause, and all have viewed America as God’s chosen land.  As a result, U. S. foreign policy has often acquired the tenor of a moral crusade (1).

In fact, Preston is so successful at tracking religious presence in U. S. statecraft that he has led me to ask a new question: Why is there so much secularism in American foreign relations?  Why did we need a religious turn if religion's always been there?  For some time now, historians of religion and politics have been trying to debunk the myth of the naturally secular public square—a significant project, indeed.  But perhaps it is time we confess that, in America at least, secularism was something that had to be constructed deliberately within, against, and even on behalf of a normative Protestant culture and politics.
This paper will explore the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) as just such a site of “religio-secularism” (I learned of this term from Karen DeVries, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, who has offered it as an alternative to Habermas’s “postsecular”).  The CFR was begun in 1918 by a group of New York swells sweet on the business ends of Wilsonianism-corporate lawyers and bankers mainly.  The CFR’s swing to secular statecraft came in 1921, when it joined with the fledgling Institute for International Affairs (IIA).  The IIA was the offshoot of Wilson’s "scientific peace" planning group known as “ the Inquiry."  The new Council’s members willfully tried to build discursive spaces free from religious outlooks and agendas.  Secularization, as they witnessed AND championed it, entailed the transfer of cultural authority from religious to non-religious actors and institutions.  We should take their common-sense definition of secularization seriously yet critically.  Indeed, current writing on religion and the secular view them both as dynamic, inter-related projects in pursuit of public power.  There are no pure religious nor singular secular realms, but rather there are multiple secularisms produced in relation to multiple religions. 

If historiography be our guide, the CFR’s relationship to Protestantism is the perfect place to explore this confluence of religion and secularism in American foreign policy.  The best survey of the Council, Robert Schulzinger’s Wise Men of Foreign Affairs (1984) barely mentions religion at all.  Martin Eerdman’s Building the Kingdom of God on Earth (2005), however, sees CFR members as heralds of faith-based world government—a global City of God.  Who is right?

The "Beecherite Synthesis" and the Fabric of American Religious History

Charles McCrary

In his new book, Missionaries of Republicanism, John Pinheiro identifies what he calls the “Beecherite Synthesis”: “In the early 1830s [Lyman] Beecher synthesized into one argument American anxieties about westward settlement, economic uncertainty, and immigration by joining them to a theological commentary on what Divine Providence had in store for the future of liberty” (6). This thesis, laid out most clearly and thoroughly in A Plea for the West (1835), was systematically anti-Catholic. Pinheiro demonstrates persuasively how anti-Catholicism informed arguments both for and against the Mexican-American War, and how its rhetoric and logic permeated Protestant and Catholic Americans’ experiences of the War, from policy-makers to foot soldiers. The term “Beecherite Synthesis” is useful because it emphasizes how, in the mind of nineteenth-century Americans, categories (especially categories of otherness) reinforced each other and melded together. We should see, then, for example, “the connection between religion and race, and the degree to which they are indelibly tied together in American history” (9), Pinheiro writes, with a nod to Ed Blum and Tracy Fessenden. We could write similarly of other pairings—religion and gender, religion and politics, politics and region, region and economics, and so on and so on. Given the, well, synthetic nature of the Beecherite Synthesis, should we find it odd that Pinheiro's book is subtitled “A Religious History of the Mexican-American War”? Isn’t it also a political, racial, diplomatic, military, cultural history? Yes—and, even better, it’s a book that doesn’t seem to be very interested in the unnecessary lines demarcating these sub(sub)genres. This is not really a criticism of Pinheiro or his book, and for all I know it could have been the publishers’ decision and not his anyway. But the label “religious history” on this book, combined with the idea of a "synthesis," prompts historical and historiographical reflection.

New Book on Quakers & Abolition

By Carol Faulkner

Edited by Brycchan Carey and Geoffrey Plank, the goal of  Quakers & Abolition is to show "the complexity and diversity of Quaker antislavery attitudes across three centuries." The introduction is an elegant analysis of the history and historiography of Quaker antislavery, and, in my opinion, a must read. Carey and Plank observe the central tension in Quaker antislavery: "The Quakers are celebrated as leaders in the campaign against slavery in the eighteenth century but they came to that position, only because, for generations, many of them were slaveholders" (1). Into the nineteenth century, this complex history shaped different Quaker perspectives on the abolitionist movement and racial equality. Despite the tendency to celebrate Quakers as an antislavery vanguard, the editors note that outside of specialist (mostly Friends) circles, "the Quakers' involvement in debates over slavery is underappreciated" (5). This interdisciplinary volume offers an essential correction to this public and professional slight, with Gary B. Nash's lively "The Hidden Story of Quakers and Slavery," examining portrayals (or lack thereof) in twentieth-century textbooks.

Some highlights from the Table of Contents, with essays of special interest to readers of this blog:

George Fox
Ellen M. Ross, "'Liberation is Coming soon': The Radical Reformation of Joshua Evans (1731-1798)"

J. William Frost, "Why Quakers and Slavery? Why Not More Quakers?"

Thomas D. Hamm, "George F. White and Hicksite Opposition to the Abolitionist Movement"

Nancy A. Hewitt, "The Spiritual Journeys of an Abolitionist: Amy Kirby Post, 1802-1889"

Kristen Block, "Quaker Evangelization in Early Barbadoes, Forging a Path toward the Unknowable"

Christopher Densmore, "Aim for a Free State and Settle Among the Quakers: African American and Quaker Parallel Communities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey"

Andrew Diemer," The Quaker and the Colonist: Moses Sheppard, Samuel Ford McGill, and Transatlantic Antislavery across the Color Line"

Religion and US Empire Part 2

Today's guest post comes from Sylvester A. Johnson. Professor Johnson and Professor Tracy Leavelle are leading the Religion and US Empire Seminar, which includes both a working group and an AAR Seminar. Johnson's first post discussed the role of Christian fundamentalism in promoting a populist, mainstream embrace of US empire. In this post, he explains the linkage and resonance between US government approaches to engaging Communism and the broader religious imaginary of Christian nationalism.

The Refashioning of Christian Nationalism
Sylvester A. Johnson

In mainstream US media and the public imaginary, the specter of Communism was a fundamental threat that bore directly on national security, the prospect of whose annihilation seemed palpatable and immanent both on a mass scale and individually. During the Cold War years, the perceived threat of Communism exceeded all others in importance and uniqueness on a scale comparable to that commanded by terrorism in the twenty-first century. The grammar of theology, moreover, was at work in the discursive rendering of Communism among even secular US state officials and institutions. In its historic report to President Harry S Truman in April of 1950, for example, the National Security Council (NSC) argued that the Soviet Union, in contrast to any previous aspiring state hegemon, was rooted in "a new fanatic faith, anti-thetical to our own..." The Council insisted that the uniqueness of Communism lay prinicipally in an act of idolatry because the Kremlin deployed a perverted "faith" that rejected "submission to the will of God" in favor of "submission to the will of the system." As a result, "the system becomes God." In this way, the NSC proffered a theological rationale as part of its larger argument for a forward-deployed US military and an arms build-up that might dwarf the very aspirations of the Soviet Union. [1]

One should note that the NSC did not identify a specifically "Christian" or "fundamentalist" nature of US religion. Rather, the Council's theological claims presumed that freedom itself--as embodied by Western civilization and the US nation preeminently--was constitutive of American religious fidelity and genuine submission to god--"the God"--whose exclusive claim to the complete loyalties of humankind the Council set in juxtaposition to the Kremlin's putative ambitions for an unbound totalitarian regime. This was a cosmic, Manichean struggle. It is important to appreciate the full implications of this point. Once should not be led to think, in other words, that Protestant Christian fundamentalism or even Christian nationalism was the provenance of the anti-Communist "faith" espoused by secular institutions of the state. This was not at all the case. The issue, rather is resonance and intersection.

One might keep in mind, for instance, that during the height of the Cold War, the US Department of Justice viewed the Roman Catholic Church as an essential ally in the preservation of national security, depsite the strident anti-Catholicism that dominated public sentiment. [2] Since the summer of 1949, in fact, the papal office of the Catholic Church had repeatedly excommunicated Catholic parishioners (eventually excommunicating Fidel Castro) for supporting Communism, sympathizing with its ideals, or at times simply for reading periodicals like the Daily Worker.  This drew high praise from federal officials, who emphasized the religious implications of Communism. As one representative of New York City's St. Peter's Cathedral emphasized in the wake of the excommunications, Communism was no mere "philosophy" but "a practical religion--a religion without God." [3] In this context, mainstream US media companies even found positive regard for Islam in the Soviet Union. It was impossible, opined one editorial, for one to be a "good" Muslim and a "good Marxist," since Muslims were "not half-believers nor lip servers." Muslims, supposedly, were almost "uniformly devout" because Islam was no mere "profession of faith" but a "mode of life." [4]

Transcendental Meditation in the Midwest

Paul Putz

When I was making my "Year in Preview" list of books back in January, Joseph Weber's Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa caught my eye, mainly due to the juxtaposition of "Transcendental Meditation" (TM) and "small town in Iowa" (Fairfield, population 9,400).

Although the subject matter of the book falls outside of my primary research areas, I wanted to highlight it here at the blog because 1) it's interesting and 2) I'd like to provide attention to recent efforts to bring "renewed scholarly attention to the study of the Midwest." 

Jon Lauck's The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History (University of Iowa Press, 2013), seems to be the manifesto of sorts for the Midwestern history renewal movement. Along with his book, there's also the forthcoming launch of the interdisciplinary digital journal, the Middle West Review (RiAH veteran Chris Cantwell is one of the journal's editorial reviewers). And there's the Midwestern History Working Group, whose members have been taking part in a number of panel discussions this year at a variety of history conferences across the Midwest (you can view video of the panel that was held at the 2014 Missouri Valley History Conference here)Later this year, a formal decision will be made about whether or not the Midwestern History Working Group will transition into a more formal scholarly organization. 

Weber's book, as part of a series launched by the University of Iowa Press intending to "make Midwestern history more accessible to the general public," fits in with this larger push for a "rediscovery" of Midwestern history. Hopefully as new publishing platforms devoted to Midwestern history emerge, scholars of religion will follow in Weber's footsteps and claim a place at the table.

But I digress. Onto the book.

Postmodern Campbellites?

Elesha Coffman

On page 21 of their new book The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford), Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel wrote, "Many observers date the origins of the ECM [Emerging Church Movement] to the early 1990s when the movement became most visible in North America." This periodization was not what I expected under the subheading, "The ECM in Historical Perspective." For one thing, I was not quite ready to think of my own high school years as an era about which one might have "historical perspective." But mostly, I was encountering that familiar disciplinary rift between history and the social sciences. I simply don't know what to do with a narrative that starts so recently, so I found myself inventing a back-story, constantly noting what the authors' depiction of emerging Christianity reminded me of. The margins of my copy of the book (thanks, Paul Harvey!) quickly filled up with notations of S-C, for "Stone-Campbell."

Let me be clear, Marti and Ganiel did not posit this connection. They located the roots of emerging Christianity in late 20th century evangelicalism, more specifically a group of young church and parachurch leaders concerned that Christianity had become irrelevant to American youth. (That part reminded me of "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" but the rest of the book didn't, and the authors argued on pages 168-170 that emerging Christianity is dissimilar from Protestant liberalism.) Marti and Ganiel also referenced Doug Gay's 2011 book Remixing the Church: Towards an Emerging Ecclesiology, which traced emergence in the UK back to low-church traditions, the ecumenical movement, and Vatican II. But that history is still in or near living memory. If not antecedents, what parallels might be found deeper in time?

Dispatch from Valpo: Still Exiles from Eden?

Heath Carter

Earlier this month a host of former Lilly Postdoctoral Fellows, as well as supporters and friends of the Lilly Fellows Program in the Humanities and the Arts, gathered at Valparaiso University for a reunion and conference devoted to a reconsideration of outgoing VU Provost Mark Schwehn's 1993 book, Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America.  Both the Fellows program and the book have had significant impacts on the world of church-related higher education.  After the conference I asked two of the American religious historians in attendance, Bob Elder (who will be returning to Valpo as assistant professor of history this autumn) and Matt Hedstrom, to reflect a bit on those legacies.  You'll find what they had to say below the fold.

H-Southern-Religion in Need of Editors

Calling scholars of southern religion! H-Southern-Religion has been kind of dormant for a while now and is in need of some TLC. I hope that someone takes up the mantle--plus it would be a good line on the CV. Here are the details:

My name is Patrick Cox, H-NET Vice-President of Networks. I’m writing on behalf of two H-Net Networks that need some help: H-South and H-Southern-Religion.
The editors of H-South have been participants in H-Net since the early 1990's and board members can date themselves to the beginning of the organization.  They are excited about the potential the Commons presents and look forward to the new Commons H-South environment.  The first step is changing what it means to be an editor of H-South.  The new model will include many editors who will serve as project oriented content creators.  
There is new capacity for multi-media content which seems well suited to Southern studies. Maps, images, TV or film clips can all be posted, archived as resources or collections, and discussed. Podcasts are possible. Multimedia book reviews can be created. H-South can host blogs or crowdsource and store documents—a collection of relevant syllabi, reading lists, listings of useful archives, museums and other resources. We might also solicit and publish content in something like an “Occasional Papers” series, even host online "events". There is also capability for unique online collaborations between H-Net's several Southern Studies themed networks.
The H-South editors are looking for scholars active in the study of the American South who want to raise their exposure, work collaboratively, and contribute excellent content to the new H-South.  H-NET will provide the technical training and support.
Editing H-NET networks provides valuable service to your field and a unique line to your CV!
If you're interested in joining the team at H-South, let current H-South Editor David Herr know and he can tell you more.
If you have a specific interest in the study of religion in the Southern states, H-Southern-Religion has been quiet for 4 years, but if anyone is interested in taking the network on as editor we’d be happy to see it rejuvenated. This might include all the features mentioned above, plus publication of H-Southern-Religion’s own line of Book Reviews in the H-Net system. The Commons is also designed to facilitate collaborative online projects that our old listserve set up could never do; the powerful content building potential among the many Southern Studies and specific southern state networks on H-Net would likely prove valuable to the sustainability of H-Southern-Studies. If interested in holding a revival at H-Southern-Religion, let me know at
Thanks, and all the best!
Patrick Cox, H-Net VP for Networks

Jews and Judaism in the American World of “Difference”

Laura Arnold Leibman

This week's American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) Biennial Scholars Conference on "Jews and Judaism in the American World of 'Difference'” marks an important shift in the field towards thinking about American Judaism as a relational identity.  Held the same three days as Brandeis University's conference on "Blacks, Jews, and Social Justice in America," both conferences attest to Jewish studies response to a broader trend in American studies to think beyond "national" boundaries and to see ethnicity as something created through social structures and interactions with other groups.

Held in Atlanta from June 10-12, the AJHS conference sought to think about Jewish identity and difference beyond a Jewish - Black binary.  Although questions about how race was defined in the U.S. were a hot topic at the conference, panels explored Jewish identity in relationship to a wide range of groups and factors including Asian Americans, Native Americans, the Irish, Christianity, Zionism, regionalism, urbanism, the economy, and questions of gender and sexuality.  In keeping with the preceding AJHS conference (NY 2014), the conference was explicitly more diverse in its understanding of history, and included a wide range of presentations on music, dance, theater, literature, art, photography, and film. In embracing the trend in American studies to think of identity as relational and transnational, the conference confronted one of the main challenges for scholars of Jewish studies more generally: to what extent is Jewishness defined as ethnic, racial, or cultural rather than religion, and what implications do our definitions have for the way we study American Judaism?  For scholars of American religion this question is particularly poignant since invokes a larger divide in the field of Jewish studies between scholars who are primarily interested in religion and those primarily interested in identity.  Some of the more exciting papers at the conference dealt with the intersection of religion and difference head-on, including a wonderful panel on "Bio-Ethics: American Jews and the Body" featuring Melissa Klapper, Sarah Imhoff, David Koffman, and Rachel Kranson, a panel on "Revisiting Jewish Religion in the Nineteenth Century" with Dianne Ashton, Shari Rabin, Zev Eleff, and Laura Shaw Frank, and a panel on "Jews Confront a 'Christian Nation'" composed of Ellie Schainker, Rachel Gordan, Adam Jortner, and Caitlin Carenen.

Leo Franks, courtesy Wikipedia
A second exciting aspect of the conference was its dual attention to the larger narrative of American Jews and Judaism on the national level and the competing importance of regional variation and microhistories.  In part because of demographics, much of Jewish American studies has focused on the large Jewish communities of northeastern seaboard.  Yet one area of difference highlighted by the conference was the experience of Southern Jews, particularly those living in Atlanta.  Plenary sessions focused not only on the influence of Gary Gerstle's work on liberty and coercion on the making of American Jews, but also highlighted the history of discrimination in Emory's dental school and the depiction of the Leo Frank lynching in film and television (watch trailer for documentary).  These depictions included African American filmmaker Oscar Devereaux Micheaux's "race film," Murder in Harlem (1935) based on the Franks case.  Interestingly, both of the discussion of the dental school and the Franks case reflected a key theme raised by Gerstle, namely that the process of becoming American was based upon both liberty and coercion, and that the process of being becoming American was neither quick and nor easy.  Crucially in both the Leo Frank and the dental school cases, Atlanta's Jewish community (as well as non-Jewish Atlantans) felt a pressure to keep silent about discrimination, and actively discouraged speaking out about problems.

Sightseeing with Historical Fiction

Seth Dowland

I am writing this month's blog post on a flight from Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Bangkok. I just finished 2 days of sightseeing at the temples of Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument. Since this blog isn't titled "What I did on my summer vacation" or "Religion in Cambodian History" (for which I'd be terribly underqualified to write), I'll do my best to connect with our normal fare here at RiAH! 

In preparation for the trip, I read a piece of historical fiction, Temple of a Thousand Faces. The novel culminates with a massive naval battle on the Great Lake, near Angkor Wat, which resulted in the defeat of Cham (Vietnamese) invaders and the resumption of the throne by the Khmer king, Jayavarman VII. The book was enjoyable enough, and it offered lengthy descriptions of many of the temples I visited. It was helpful to imagine places like Banteay Srei and Bayon Temple in my mind before seeing them in person. But even as a non-expert, I spotted a number of anachronisms in the book: a cross-cultural love story results in the defection of a top Cham official when he falls in love with a Khmer woman! A blind peasant boy concocts the battle strategy for the Khmer naval attack! The book made sure to valorize the unequivocally good Khmer while demonizing the Cham -- but of course, only the Cham leaders were bad; most of the Cham people "just wanted peace." I'm pretty sure most of these characters bore more resemblance to 21st c. Americans than to 12th c. Khmer people. And I'm also pretty sure that I learned relatively little about 12th c. Cambodian culture from the novel. 

And yet: I know a lot more than I did two months ago. 

These thoughts brought to mind the use of historical fiction in my own classes. What are the perils and the potential of teaching historical fiction to our non-expert students? Historical fiction brings alive stories and characters for some of my students. In my class on Islam in America, I have taught The Submission, which imagines a media firestorm after a Muslim architect wins a blind competition for the 9/11 memorial. Even after teaching the wildly engaging Autobiography of Malcolm X, I find some students want to talk more about the characters in The Submission -- who aren't real. A similar thing happened to me in Cambodia: I read the marvelously illustrated Ancient Angkor--a quasi-academic text about the "real" history of the temples--but I kept finding my imagination drawn back to the fictional heroes and villains of Temple of a Thousand Faces. 

Should this matter -- should we worry about fiction's power over imagination when we teach? If you teach historical fiction, what books do you teach? Does it matter if your students take away more from novels than from lectures? And if you don't teach historical fiction, why not? 

Reading Content for a Course on American Evangelicalism

Heather Curtis

The following is a guest post from Heather Curtis, associate professor of history at Tufts University.  Heather is the author of Faith in the Great Physician: Suffering and Divine Healing in American Culture, 1860-1900 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), which won the Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer prize from the American Society of Church History for the best first book in the History of Christianity. Her current project is titled Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid (under contract with Harvard University Press).

This coming fall I'll be teaching an upper-level undergraduate research seminar: Evangelicalism in America.  The course will meet weekly for two and half hours throughout the semester (13 sessions total), and is open to experienced students who have taken at least one previous class in the history of religion in America or the history of Christianity (most of them have taken these prerequisites with me since our department is so small).  All students should therefore have some familiarity with the history of evangelicalism, with analyzing primary source materials, and with the discipline of religious studies and/or history.  Here is the description:

This course explores the history of evangelical Christianity in and beyond North America from the seventeenth-century to the present. We will consider how and why evangelical traditions emerged in continental Europe and Great Britain, spread to the American colonies, flourished in the fledgling United States during the early national period, fractured and diversified around the turn of the twentieth century, and have continued to transform and expand into new global contexts over the last one hundred years. Throughout, we will pay attention to the ways in which evangelicalism has influenced American culture, politics, gender norms, constructions of racial identities, and class dynamics. We will also ask how cultural, political, and social forces have shaped evangelical theology and practice. Students will develop a command of the scholarly debates that animate the study of evangelicalism, and undertake independent, semester-long research projects grounded in primary source materials.

Some questions I've been mulling over: What books and articles should I assign? I have many ideas - so many great works have come out over the past several years that I'd love to read more closely--it's hard to make choices!  I'm also considering integrating scholarly works on the evangelical tradition with substantive primary sources--especially novels like Uncle Tom's Cabin, or the Damnation of Theron Ware.

I look forward to any recommendations!  Many thanks in advance.

Beyond Double Secret Probation: Christians in College Student Development

by Michael Hammond

Scholars of religion in the United States often tend toward studying Christianity, especially the evangelical type that has typically been at the center of political and cultural turning points throughout American history. Very fine studies of political groups, religious leaders, commercial ventures, and parachurch organizations help to interpret the ongoing story of Christianity in America. Christian colleges have produced many of the leaders of these organizations, and much has been written on the growth and development of those schools.

Yet one of the most influential groups in this story, Christian college student affairs professionals, has been largely overlooked. Last week, on the campus of Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, college staff from around the country met for the annual meeting of the Association for Christians in Student Development (ACSD). The organization’s mission is to “to equip and challenge members to infuse their Christian faith into student development practice and scholarship.” Workshops at the conference included:

·         “Reducing Marginalization of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Same Sex Attracted Students at Christian Colleges and Universities”
·         “Is It Manly to Say You’re in Love with Jesus? A Study of Masculinity and Spirituality”
·         “Ernest Boyer’s Legacy and Implications for the Future of Student Development”
·         “Surviving Tragedy as a Resident Director: How to Heal Personally, Guide Students, and Maintain Professional Focus and Direction”

ACSD members focus on the holistic development of college students, pairing their work outside the classroom with the learning outcomes that are the focus of most faculty members. Most—not all—ACSD members work at higher education institutions that are affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The organization publishes a peer-reviewed journal, Growth, elects officers and committees, and gives annual awards for outstanding service.

Rich Churches and the Social Gospel

Janine Giordano Drake

In my first graduate research seminar, many years ago, the professor explained the ground rules of the course. "You can study almost any group of people you want," the senior scholar said, "as long as they're poor and working people. No rich people." People laughed. I was confused. I knew I had enrolled in a social history course, but this was still surprising to me.

Numerous, huge, substantial, ornate churches built in the early twentieth century occupied street corner after street corner in my town of Urbana, Illinois (like the one from my former neighborhood, pictured here). I wanted to know how these churches got there and how they were still around, but nobody seemed to find that an interesting topic of conversation (inside or outside of the graduate classroom). I lacked a lot of knowledge on the social history of rich people, especially Protestant rich people in the early twentieth century, yet it seemed taboo to ask questions about them. How are we going to understand battles over wealth distribution in the United States, I wondered, if we refuse to study the rich?

Apparently I was not the only person wondering this in the last ten years. The field of Labor and Working Class History has always included within it a consortium of scholars more interested in the "History of Capitalism," but this conversation has largely grown into its own field over the last several years. One might say that the excellent work of historians Bethany Moreton, Darren Grem, and Darren Dochuk are all in this conversation. Social histories of the poor are still alive, but more labor historians are admitting that studies of the rich are useable--even if do they present dangerous temptations to overemphasize the rich in discussing causality within grand narratives of American past.

Thomas Rzeznik's 2013 Church and Estate: Religion and Wealth in Industrial Philadelphia is an excellent example of how much we can learn about class relationships--anxieties, goals, aspirations, and jockeying for social and economic position--from a study focused entirely upon the rich. Rzeznik reads between the lines of denominational records in Philadelphia and teaches us about how denominations can serve as a source of social cohesion and consolidation of social capital.

Upcoming Conference on the Bible in American Life

By Chris Cantwell

The Bible in American Life Conference
August 6-8, 2014
IUPUI's Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture
Indianapolis, IN

Many of you may have seen this announcement come across the wire last month, but for those who haven't IUPUI's Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture is hosting a conference in early August on the Bible in American Life. The gathering is the culmination of a three-year study the Center undertook to document how Americans encounter and use the Bible in their daily lives. In March the Center released the results of one of the first large-scale surveys of American Bible usage. The conference is intended to build upon the report by contextualizing its results with contemporary and historical scholarship.

The Center just released the program for the conference, and it looks like it will be a fascinating series of conversations. The programs is admirably diverse, featuring scholars from a number of disciplines as well as other communities who are invested in this discussion. Historians and sociologists will be presenting alongside theologians and even representatives of the American Bible Society. The whole thing will be capped off with a plenary address by Mark Noll.

More information, as well as registration rates, can be found here. Hope to see you there!

Conference Recap: Religion, Health, and the Body in North America, May 15-17, 2014

Samira K. Mehta

I am writing this blog entry from 30,000 feet, on my way home from the highly successful Religion, Health, and the Body in North America conference, co-sponsored by Amy DeRogatis of Michigan State University, Shreena Gandhi of Kalamazoo College, and Brian Wilson of Western Michigan University.* (Full disclosure: I went to both college and divinity school with Shreena and was her houseguest for the conference.) From May 15 to May 17th, the week after the medievalists’ annual Kalamazoo meeting, about 23 scholars of North American religion and/or religion in the Americas converged on the city, a little worried that the medievalists had drunk all of the alcohol in town, but eager for three days of conversation.

The conference opened with a keynote presentation by Pamela Klassen of the University of
Toronto with a talk entitled “Healing Publics: Why the Study of Religion, Health, and the Body is not a Case of Mind over Matter.” Klassen called for moving beyond the cognitive turn in the study of religion, in which religious practice is interrogated in terms of its biomedical effect (and efficacy) to a robust engagement with the idea of science as both politically and historically situated.

Father Fabian Flynn, Omaha Beach on D-Day

For the 70th anniversary of D-Day, I thought it would be appropriate to bring in another voice to honor the event. Today’s guest post comes from Sean Brennan, associate professor of history at the University of Scranton.  He specializes in the history of 20th Century Europe, especially in the 1940s and 1950s.  His first book was The Politics of Religion in Soviet-Occupied Germany: The Case of Berlin-Brandenburg 1945-1949.  He is currently working on a biography of Father Fabian Flynn, an American priest from the Passionist order who spent the years of 1943 to 1962 in Europe. The book will be entitled The Life of Father Fabian Flynn: A Catholic Warrior of the Second World War and the Cold War, to be published in 2016. On top of that, Sean is a dynamic academic and a great guy. -Jonathan Den Hartog

Sean Brennan

The famous historian of the “citizen soldiers” of the Second World War, Stephen Ambrose, described Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944 as possibly the most dangerous place in the entire world on that moment.  Spearheading the assault on Omaha Beach, one of the five beaches designated for the landing of the Allied Expeditionary Force at Normandy, France, was  the most battle-hardened of the divisions of the American Army, the “Big Red One,” the First Infantry Division.  Despite the fact that the soldiers of the First Infantry Division fought at the front lines throughout the Second World War, June 6, 1944 was perhaps their most difficult day.  Due to the facts that an Allied bombing run completely missed the German positions the night before the invasion and that the German defenders were conducting a training assignment with live ammunition when the American soldiers arrived, the soldiers of the First Infantry Division encountered, in the words of one of their Catholic chaplains, Father Fabian Flynn, “Hell let loose!”

One might ask what kind of religious experience could exist on a beach filled with dead American soldiers, the survivors clinging to life with what little shelter they could find, as increasingly desperate German defenders rained down machine gun fire and artillery on top of them.  Yet looking after the spiritual life of the soldiers under fire was the task of the various Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic Army chaplains on the beaches of Normandy. One of these men was Fabian Flynn, a member of the Roman Catholic order of the Passionists, who had been with the First Infantry Division (or more specifically, the 26th Infantry Regiment, which comprised a substantial part of the Big Red One) since the summer of 1943.  By his own admission, Flynn gave last rites to many of the dead while German fire echoed over him and tried to provide spiritual comfort to those who feared the end had come. This duty continued throughout the next sixty four hours until the First Infantry Division could establish a narrow beachhead.

Flynn would describe the assault on the Normandy beaches in vivid detail in an article in September 1944 in The Sign magazine.  The Sign was the official magazine of Flynn’s religious order and one of the most popular Catholic newsmagazines in the United States.  He wrote:

The frantic cry of “Medics!” heard through and above the din and roar.  The whistle and ping of small arms and snipers’ bullets, the unmistakable brrup of a German machine gun; the shouts and curses and commands of officers; the vehicles and equipment hit and abandoned half in and half out of the water: the smoldering trucks and jeeps, the silent battered tanks, the powerful bulldozers twisted and torn; the baggage and bedding strewn about among the dead bodies and stalled vehicles; assault boats impaled on cruel spikes, high and dripping in the falling tide; the earthshaking detonation of mines touched off or stepped on.  But always the ranks and lines of men pouring ahead.  All day it lasted and through the unendurably long twilight.  Then the night with flares making daylight out of darkness, planes purring and droning, diving and bombing to harry and annoy and impede us.  Around and around, up and down and over in maddening rout.

Father Flynn in his chaplain's jeep, 1944
Flynn survived D-Day without injury, although he had not been as lucky nine months before in September 1943 during Operation Avalanche, the Allied invasion of Italy, as shrapnel from an exploding grenade nearly killed him. The fact that he was even at Normandy on June 6, 1944 was a remarkable achievement, as he had developed stomach cancer in 1938 and had 2/5th of his stomach removed to prevent the cancer from spreading.  Born in Boston Massachusetts in 1905 and ordained a Passionist priest in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1931, Flynn led a remarkably diverse career as a Catholic cleric; serving as a chaplain for the US Army was just one of the many diverse roles he pursued throughout his career.  His career both as an American and a Catholic priest provides a fascinating microcosm of the roles played by the Catholic Church and by the United States during the tumultuous events of the 20th century in Europe.  Flynn’s nineteen years serving in Europe from 1943 to 1962, first as an Army chaplain and then as a director of Catholic Relief Services in Germany, Austria, and Hungary came during a time when the United States, for better or for worse, became permanently involved in European political, diplomatic, and military life.

Homespun Gospel: An Interview with Todd Brenneman


Kate Bowler
Today we follow up on Mark's helpful review with Todd Brenneman, Assistant Professor of Christian History at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama. He earned his Ph.D. and M.A. from Florida State University and is the author of a book that will surely (WARNING: Terrible Pun Ahead) capture your heart called Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism.

Kate Bowler (KB): For every person that has ever wondered why soft piano music has to play throughout every megachurch prayer, this book is for you. When you say that evangelicalism is a religion of sentimentality, what do you mean?

Todd Brenneman (TB): So much attention to evangelicalism in the last four decades from scholars and journalists has focused on evangelical beliefs and politics (and how the two interact). A lot of this attention was driven, of course, by the resurgence of evangelicals, and it produced some great scholarship that really helped us understand the contemporary political situation to some extent. When I decided to focus my dissertation on best-selling evangelical author and minister Max Lucado, however, there was a disconnect. I certainly could see how he fit into the traditional narrative of evangelicalism, but in many ways he stood counter to it in that he wasn’t explicitly pushing a religio-political agenda nor was a sizable amount of his massive corpus of writing (he has over 100 million products in print) about the inculcation or explanation of evangelical doctrines or beliefs. Instead his books communicate and model feelings, particularly ones we can call sentimental—feelings of domesticity, of nostalgia. When I started looking at other examples of popular conservative white evangelicalism, I found the same motifs and themes. Much of popular evangelicalism is based on domestic tropes and is about the transmission of feeling and feeling rules. The concern isn’t as much about doctrine or beliefs—though doctrine is still important in some ways—it’s about encouraging certain emotions, especially through religious practices like reading, singing, watching evangelical media, and so on. These notions of domesticity and nostalgia—particularly when it comes to talking about God—are ubiquitous throughout evangelical popular culture and media.

Empire, Science, and the Disembodied Head of Chief Osceola

You might recall Andy McKee's post earlier this year about hauntings and church murals in his hometown of Pittsburgh. These days, he's thinking about what a disembodied Indian head can tell us about empire and appropriation in the past and present.  

Andy McKee

At the latest Florida State University graduate symposium (Next CFP coming early this fall, if Remillard has taught me nothing else, I’ve always got shameless self-promotion) I had the great privilege of talking about empire with Sylvester Johnson. Of course, there are few better places to discuss commercial empire and trading heads than on a campus that, less than two months after the symposium, was up in arms over the changed logo of its athletics teams. Absent from this debate, though, has been the use of the image of an Indian head as a fearsome warrior. This should be a discussion. Yet when I surveyed my World Religions class about their cherished logo, not one student knew the curious story of Osceola's head.

A Seminole chief, Osceola died in 1838 of quinsy while captured and held in Fort Moultrie, South Carolina. Before his burial, his head was surgically removed from his body, and taken by Frederick Weedon, a doctor for the U.S. Army. This struck me as odd at first. But as I read further into this subject, I discovered that the trading of Native heads and skulls among the American and British scientific elite in the early nineteenth century was entirely common. They exchanged, sold, gathered, cataloged, and classified the heads of dead Natives in attempts to increase knowledge about the “vanishing” tribes of North America. One of the most famous of these “artifacts” was Osceola's head.

While alive, Osceola was represented in American print culture as a hero of sorts whose name became synonymous with the successes of Seminole resistance in Florida. Osceola’s death, however, brought him his greatest fame as an iconic martyr. He died for, not against, the trudge of American expansionism as something along the lines of an American revolutionary, a patriot. Once he was imprisoned, and certainly once he died and was no longer an active physical threat, Osceola’s image: the headless, defeated, wild native, essentially a specter that haunted the southern border of the United States, could be constructed, controlled, and reified through the consumer marketplace (for this reading of spectral empire, I am indebted to the work of Laura Ann Stoler).
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