Making American Religious History



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Cara Burnidge

With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the presidential inauguration behind us, the semester is now in full swing for many of us. If you're like me, then your classes are beginning with primers on how to think critically about religion in American history. Today provides us with a fantastic, current  example to share with our students.
At 10 AM EST this morning, most news channels began covering the National Prayer Service at Washington National Cathedral. Washington National Cathedral is no stranger to presidential politics, supporting and legitimizing past presidents and political causes through their space and services. Yet, this service was not without some controversy. Current and former deans of the church disagreed about the choice to host Trump. Some Christians focused on number of evangelical leaders represented at the event. Even though this National Prayer Service hosted a larger variety of faith leaders than previous services, the number of evangelical leaders was double that of past National Prayer services.

National prayer services provide one way to study religion in American history and culture: institutional; formal, structured services; led by clergy; largely (though not exclusively) male. This might be what most expect to study when they enroll in an American religion class. We could disrupt this stereotype in these early weeks (or throughout our classes), by encouraging our students to see the diversity of American religion on display currently and in the past--and introduce them to the robust conversations and debates found in our field's historiography.

We can share clips and images from C-SPAN and Twitter or share the split screen at a variety of channels. In these places, another form of American religion is on display and in the making. These displays are not in the pews of formal religious institutions, but in the streets of Washington, D.C. and numerous other cities across America. The Women's March on Washington (and other cities) includes religious leaders like Sister Simone CampbellRabbi Sharon Brous and these Episcopal women, practices like indigenous women dancing in solidarity and protest, and images like the one below.

For our students looking to understand the history of women's protest and the place of women in American culture, the American religion classroom can be a wellspring of knowledge and critical analysis. I know these "theory" conversations might seem to be academic navel-gazing to some readers, but as I see it, including our students in our conversations about what the study of American religion is and who we include in our syllabi and why can be a productive, generative, and relevant conversation paralleling current public discourse. If you, like me, ask them to think like historians in the classroom, then this can be a part of the exercise of selecting sources, constructing narratives, and making arguments.

Here are some suggestions to get those conversations started. It's a start and certainly not meant to be exhaustive. As always, suggestions welcome in the comments.
  • Ann Braude "Religious History is Women's History" (1997)
  •  Catherine Brekus, ed., The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past (2007) 
    • There are many great chapters, but relevant to the increased presence of Hispanic and Latina activists today, Kristy Nabhan-Warren's "Little Slices of Heaven and Mary's Candy Kisses: Mexican-American Women Redefining Feminism and Catholicism" may be particularly relevant

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