John Wilson, American Religious Historians, and the 1960s

John Wilson has a stimulating (if problematic, as I will suggest below) piece on interpreting the 1960s from the standpoint of religious history, or at least incorporating religion into the narrative of the 1960s. His column is in reference to Preston Shires, Hippies of the Religious Right, a book published by Baylor Univ. Press last year

Shires argues that figures such as Bill Bright, Hal Lindsey, and most especially Francis Schaeffer played key roles in connecting the emphasis on authenticity and desire to move beyond a dis-enchanted and sterile technocracy (including a rejection of the modernist establishment in religion) to a newly emerging politicized evangelicalism in the 1970s. The result was that countercultural youth who became Christians “joined the larger evangelical community with their countercultural ideals intact.” The counterculture of the 1960s “appeared as a threat to biblically grounded Christians, but in the end it turned out to be an agent for future success."

(I should add that First Things has an amusingly and tartly written conservative critique of the book by a homeschooling mother who wonders whether the counterculture's influence on contemporary religious institutions is all that positive).

The prose in this book often pained me (my favorite was a reference to Timothy Leary "steeped in acid enlightenment," which made me think of a little Leary-imaged tea bag boiling in some acrid water, with the Moody Blues "Knights in White Satin" playing on the 8-track in the background). Nonetheless, despite my desire to yell "block that metaphor!" on any number of pages, the argument is illuminating and worthy of consideration.

But my point here has less to do with Shires's book than with a sort of academic conspiracy theory that Wilson has peddled in this piece. Wilson writes:

In the master narrative of these histories [of the 1960s], shaped by a peculiarly complacent conception of civil society, what millions of people happened to be doing in churches or synagogues isn't worthy of notice, especially if it contradicts the assumption that the trajectory of the '60s was taking a whole generation away from organized religion. Sure, the slideshow will feature Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but a bunch of Christians speaking in tongues? Please!

What should be done? For starters, we need a new generation of historians--perhaps one with a less personal stake--to look at the '60s with fresh eyes. There are signs that this is starting to happen. In 1998, for example, Columbia University Press published Doug Rossinow's "The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America," which showed how various strands of postwar Christian thought played a part in the formation of the New Left. Mr. Rossinow's account goes much deeper than the familiar images of William Sloane Coffin, et al., at the barricades.

Just this year, Baylor University Press published Preston Shires's "Hippies of the Religious Right," a rather plodding book that doesn't quite live up to its marvelous title but that nevertheless makes a case for its counterintuitive thesis: "Conservative activism"--the trademark of the Religious Right--"was actually a faithful expression of commitment to radical engagement that had been engendered and nurtured by sixties' youth during the counterculture."

It isn't surprising that both Mr. Rossinow and Mr. Shires were writing from the peripheries of High Academe. (At the time his book was published, the former was at Metropolitan State University in the Twin Cities, while the latter is an instructor in history at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Neb.) They were going against entrenched orthodoxies. . . .

This seems to me almost completely wrong on every count. Or rather: I used to read these
kinds of pieces in the mid-1980s, when the points made here had merit. Wilson, by contrast, has apparently (except for Rossinow) not read any of the veritable avalanche of books from the last 20 years that discuss precisely what he says historical "orthodoxies" ignore -- McGirr's Suburban Warriors, Chappell's Stone of Hope, Allitt's history of religion in the 1960s, a small library of books on religion and the counterculture, and on and on. Indeed, it's something of a cliche now to say that historians now see the 60s as important as much or more for the rise of the New Right and of a particular type of American American evangelicalism, both remaining influential today, than of the New Left, which pretty well crashed and burned in the early 1970s. Thus, it's now historical "orthodoxy" to say exactly what Wilson says historical orthodoxies ignore! In fact, I think it's orthodoxy enough that the next round of books will probably try to resurrect the New Left's reputation, which currently sits in tattered remains, blamed by the right for destroying American values and by the populist left (including Michael Kazin in his book about populism) for becoming obsessed with identity politics and ignoring class politics and the decline of stable working-class jobs and old-fashioned concerns of union politics.

It's true that Rossinow and scores of others remain at the "margins of high academe," but that's not because we bravely go against "entrenched orthodoxies," but rather because there are too many freaking historians for a very few jobs, and historians of all fields and political beliefs generally toil below the radar of the elite. And last time I checked, Harvard and Yale and Chicago and Columbia and Virginia were not exactly exiling religious history scholars to Podunk Polytechnic, as Jon Butler, Catherine Breckus, James Hunter Davidson and a host of others that I can think of suggest. In the meantime, rethinking the relationship of religion to the entire complex of social movements in the 1960s and 1970s should continue to yield dividends -- our blog contributing editor John Turner's forthcoming book on Campus Crusade for Christ will be one of those, as will Darren Dochuk's forthcoming work on religion in the Sunbelt. All this abundance of work recently published or forthcoming should give Wilson cheer.

AAS Visiting Academic Fellowships

Announcement: American Antiquarian Society Visiting Academic Fellowships, 2008-2009

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) invites applications for its 2008-2009 visiting academic fellowships. At least three AAS-National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships will be awarded for periods extending from four to twelve months. Long-term fellowships are intended for scholars beyond the doctorate, for which senior and mid-career scholars are particularly encouraged to apply. Up to twenty short-term fellowships will be awarded for one to three months. The short-term grants are available for scholars holding the Ph.D. and fordoctoral candidates engaged in dissertation research. Special short-term fellowships support scholars working in the history of the book in American culture, in the American eighteenth century, and in American literary studies, as well as in studies that draw upon the Society's preeminent collections of graphic arts, newspapers, and periodicals. The deadline for applications is January 15, 2008. For further details about the fellowships, as well as application materials, go to

The AAS is a research library whose collections focus on American history, literature, and culture from the colonial era through 1876. AAS, which was the first historical organization in the United States whose mission was national in scope, aims to collect, preserve, and make available as complete a record as possible of the printed materials documenting the early American experience. Although the AAS is located in the northeast, its holdings span the full range of U.S. history, offering rich resources for historians of American religion. In particular, our collection of nineteenth-century denominational and religious newspapers and periodicals is one of the most extensive in the U.S. For detailed descriptions of the collections, please consult the guidebook, Under Its Generous Dome, available online at

Paul J. Erickson, Director of Academic Programs, American Antiquarian Society

More on God and Harvard

A quick followup on Kelly's post on Hanna Rosin's God's Harvard:

The blog "Fire and the Rose" has an outstandingly interesting post on the book, based in part of the blogger's personal experience coming from communities that would send their kids to a school such as Patrick Henry, and based in part on responding to John Wilson's interesting column on the same book, including his pinpoint strike of a conclusion:

The publicity material accompanying Rosin's book describes Patrick Henry as a "nerve center of the evangelical movement," which Rosin's "account captures … at a moment of maximum influence." Hmmm. This is a bit like homing in on a single madrassah and making ludicrously exaggerated claims for its centrality to the global Islamist movement. In fact, like that movement, evangelicalism—both as a global phenomenon and in its specifically American form—is radically decentralized. And one of the services that Rosin's book provides is to remind all of us—insiders and outsiders alike—how unwieldy and many-sided that movement is.

Reflecting on this, the Fire and the Rose concludes:

On the basis of my own experience, there is a difficult tension between conservative politics and following Christ’s call. The two do not mesh nearly as well as I was taught to believe growing up. Jesus is radically nonviolent. Jesus is radically against individual possessions and property. Jesus challenged the religious and political structures of his time. And the call to discipleship involves being on the margins of society rather than at the center of influence and power. The PHC mission of training cultural warriors to bring America back to its roots (assuming the myth of an original American Eden is true) requires that these graduates pursue the center over the margin—power over service, influence over discipleship, the way of America over the way of the cross. PHC is thus torn between training Christians and training Americans.

Practicing Protestants

Practicing Protestants
Kelly Baker

Emily Wright, a doctoral candidate in Dance at Arizona State University, reviews Practicing Protestants: Histories of Christian Life in America, 1630-1965, edited by Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Leigh Schmidt and Mark Valeri for H-Amstdy. I picked up this volume not too long ago, and I was impressed by the attempt on behalf of contributors to understand how Protestantism in America has been practiced by individuals and movements. Wright focuses upon the use of practice theory as an interpretative lens:

In their introduction, editors Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, Leigh E. Schmidt, and Mark Valeri, describe two central strands of scholarship in the growing field of practice theory. These two strands, often found in opposition to each other, furnish a dialogic spectrum on which each author in _Practicing Protestants_ can be found. The first strand, that of social theorists of practice, draws on Marxist and Foucauldian theories, among others, to highlight "the intricate exercises of power, the procedures of enforcement, the spaces of negotiation, as well as the subtle tactics of resistance" found in various forms of Protestant religious practice (p. 3). The second strand, that of contemporary theologians, such as Dorothy Bass, and philosophical and ethical reconstructionists, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, offer a differing interpretation. Rather than view Christian practices as "generally hegemonic, with resistance being located in small-scale tactics of getting by or making room, Christian theorists view such regulatory structuring as largely humane, enabling, and supportive." As the editors and authors of this volume intended, the application of these opposing interpretive lenses to the examination of Protestant practice offers rich and varied descriptive and analytical scholarship in which the constructs of power, race, colonialism, class, and gender are held in productive tension with the intentional and meaningful conception of the Christian way of life (p. 4).

For the rest of Wright’s review, click here.

For American religious historians, this volume is useful way to move beyond presentations of Protestantism as a textual tradition and embrace that Protestants also embodied their faith as well. (This is not to say that American religious historians ignore Protestant practice, but I think that it is easy to present Protestantism as textual and Catholicism as embodied). From my reading of the text, it became clear that one of the larger goals of the volume was to present the lived religion of Protestants in various historical times and places from Mormon missionaries to Episcopal dancers to Protestant aesthetic sensibilities, and I think this proves to be a useful text as we consider again and again how to present the lived experiences of various religious actors. The press describes the text:

This collection of essays explores the significance of practice in understanding American Protestant life…Profiling practices that range from Puritan devotional writing to twentieth-century prayer, from missionary tactics to African American ritual performance, these essays provide a unique historical perspective on how Protestants have lived their faith within and outside of the church and how practice has formed their identities and beliefs. Each chapter focuses on a different practice within a particular social and cultural context. The essays explore transformations in American religious culture from Puritan to Evangelical and Enlightenment sensibilities in New England, issues of mission, nationalism, and American empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, devotional practices in the flux of modern intellectual predicaments, and the claims of late-twentieth-century liberal Protestant pluralism.

Randall Stephens, Campus Climate Chilly?

The Chronicle of Higher Education features an interesting piece, “Some Evangelicals Find the Campus Climate Chilly — but Is That About Faith, or Politics?”, by Thomas Bartlett. It highlights the trials and tribulations of Mike S. Adams, associate professor of criminology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, who has been denied promotion to full professor. Adams, who has been at the university for 13 years and has published and received three teaching awards, sees an anti-Christian conspiracy at work. He’s become a “lightning rod” for his conservative evangelical opinions, some of them published. Adams is seeking legal action against the school.

From conversations I’ve had with grad students and professors in the field of history, I’ve wondered if such claims have as much to do with aggressive conservative politics as with benign religious beliefs. George Marsden, C. John Sommerville, and Randall Balmer make that casein the article. But, perhaps, as Marsden suggests “Conservative religious views can be a strike against you if you’re early in your career."

Darren Grem, Drive-by Surveying

Darren Grem

I’m currently in my second full term teaching UGA’s Hist3150 course, a drive-by survey of American religious history. When crafting the course the first time around, I was high on the idea of “covering” as much as I could in a term – a common rookie mistake. Although my students reported last term that they “enjoyed the course” and “appreciated my lecture style,” they were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material we blew through. They felt that they had a broad, but not very deep, understanding of America’s religious past. In short, they had signed up for a survey, had gotten a survey, and were telling me that, well, they didn’t want a survey.

This is a common problem for the U.S. history survey, and re-thinkers like Lendol Calder have advocated an “uncoverage” approach as the solution. Concerning the American religious history survey – or, heck, any religious history class – his ideas might work even better. Teaching American religious history at least adds another adjective in the course’s title, which cuts down on questions and concerns. But which books or documents will best relate to students a sense of the questions and concerns that we, as the “senior students” in the class, are interested in? What techniques or assignments?

An even more challenging prospect might be teaching them to think historically about religion. A friend of mine – a historian of sexuality – once expressed that his field and the field of religious history have a lot in common. We both see our subjects – sexuality and religion – as historically contingent, and we both often teach students who do not necessarily share that view. How do we sensitively teach about religion’s socio-economic, racial, and gendered context and the impact of that context on religious beliefs and practices, without leading our students into either reactive resistance to that notion or a sort of resigned relativism? What sort of pedagogy best encourages critical, yet measured, thinking about religion in American history? How do we teach them to create their own perspective on that history, to craft their own “histories of the unseen”?

For most of our students, our classes are the only examination of “religion in American history” they’ll ever encounter. Might as well put our heads together to make sure that encounter is as good as it should be.

John Fea, "The Staying Power of Christian America"

The Staying Power of Christian America: What is a Historian to Do?

A week or two ago I commented on the recent poll by Vanderbilt’s First Amendment Center that found over half of Americans believe that the United States Constitution is a Christian document. Indeed, as John Turner has noted in his most recent post, the Christian Right, and particularly their view of American history, is alive and well.

What should historians think about such a survey? Some of them, like a prominent early American historian I spoke with recently about this matter, simply ignore such data. They write-off the Christian Right’s view of history from their elite perches in the ivory tower and return to their offices to continue writing their important new monograph on some subject that few average people care about. “There are no reputable historians who believe this stuff,” this scholar told me, as if such an authoritative assertion alone is all that is needed to dismiss the Christian Right’s historical errors.

While I agree that “no reputable historians” believe that America was founded as a Christian nation, I do not think this prominent historian’s blanket dismissal really gets us anywhere. It fails to take seriously, or even consider, the millions of Americans who actually do believe that America is a Christian nation and reveals just how detached some of us are from everyday life. At a time when public history is on the rise and historians are becoming more confident in their ability to educate mass audiences, why do these faulty views of the American founding still hold sway? In the 1980s, evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell, Peter Marshall, Francis Schaeffer, and John Whitehead, among others, began to use American history as a tool to promote their political and moral agendas. Shortly thereafter evangelical scholars Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden published The Search for Christian America (1983) to challenge the Moral Majority’s view of the past. And according to most evangelical academics and historians, they dismantled it.

But while these three prominent evangelicals convinced a whole bunch of thoughtful believers that they had been duped by Falwell, Marshall, Schaeffer, and company, I wonder just how much of an impact this excellent book has had among ordinary evangelicals. When I say “ordinary evangelicals” I am referring to the history buffs in the pew who know just enough about the past to be dangerous.

While The Search for Christian America continues to be a valuable book (I use portions of it in my Age of the American Revolution course), it seem to have done very little to curb the Christian nation crowd. By the 1990s the Moral Majority had given way to the Religious Right and with it a whole new cast of so-called historians who were ready to carry the Christian nation torch. Enter David Barton, William Federer, and Newt Gingrich. Enter Tim LaHaye (who was known more in evangelical circles as the author of a book about sex than his now famous Left Behind novels) and D. James Kennedy (who was known for his books on personal evangelism), both established evangelical leaders who jumped on the Christian history bandwagon. All of these men wrote as if Noll, Hatch, and Marsden’s argument did not exist. A few years ago when Time named the most influential evangelicals in America, both Noll and Barton were on the list.

Thoughtful evangelicals, and especially evangelical historians, should be discouraged by the staying power of the Christian heritage movement, but how do they stem this revisionist tide? First they must admit that the Christian Right does a better job of promoting their view of the past. Second, they must do more to reach evangelical audiences. Let’s face it—the leaders of the Christian Right are better public historians than we are.

Granted, there have been a score of books trying to debunk this faulty view of history and a few of them do a pretty good job. Works by Randall Balmer, Michelle Goldberg, Laurence Moore and Issac Kramnick, Susan Jacoby, Brooke Allen, and Chris Hedges may be informative, but they all preach to the choir. They are screeds against the Christian Right’s view of American history (among other things) written for people who get great pleasure from reading screeds against the Christian Right’s view of American history. Most evangelicals who find these books and read them already agree with their anti-Christian nation arguments. In other words, they are not being read by the evangelicals who need to have their minds changed about how to interpret the Revolutionary-era. They are written instead to offer ammunition for the opponents of the Christian Right.

This then leads to the discussion I hope we can have on this blog. What is a historian to do? Should we care? How do we educate Christians who uphold this faulty view of the past? Is it possible? If so, then how?

Religious History Carnival in the Journal of American History

The Sept. 2007 issue of the Journal of American History, now online, features a review of Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling (which John Fea has blogged about below), as well as an exchange between Bushman and the reviewer, the eminent scholar Jan Shipps. The journal also has a substantive review essay ("Putting Religion on the Map") by Laurie Maffly-Kipp on Mark Silk and Andrew Walsh's 8-vol. series on Religion by Region (which I've blogged about before, and contributed one essay to in the volume on the South). After finishing grading my current stack of approximately 138 million student papers, I look forward into digging into this issue!

Shipps concludes with the following, on the "new" Mormon history, as led by Bushman:

. . . as they move ahead, they will probably leave the provinciality that made so much old Mormon history inward looking. If the past half century has proved anything about this religious tradition, it has provided evidence that Mormonism no longer stands at the margins of the culture. As members of the fourth-largest church in the country, Mormons are now everywhere. Their history is no longer simply sectarian. It is a part of our nation's history, and while its adherents will surely continue arguing about its beginnings, the reality is that for all its being a believer's history—which it is—Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling transcends its status as a work of new Mormon history. It is also a work of new American history that forces readers to recognize that religion is as much a part of our past as anything else.

Maffly-Kipp's conclusion on the Silk/Walsh volumes:

To juggle the variables of shifting places and mutable religious identities is an ambitious task, one that is bound to lead to spectacular insights and, if not noble failures, at least to the admission that in some places and at some times, the search for a regional religious personality may result in an identity crisis. As in the very best projects, though, the diligent and insightful work of the authors outruns the capacity of the paradigm to account for its findings.

Here's a fuller description, with links provided if you're a subscriber or are at a university library with access to the History Cooperative.

"Richard Lyman Bushman, the Story of Joseph Smith and Mormonism, and the New Morman History," by Jan Shipps

Jan Shipps, the leading non-Mormon scholar of Mormonism, critiques a major achievement of the New Mormon history, Richard Lyman Bushman's Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. As Mormonism tentatively entered the religious mainstream in the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century, a cohort of young church members earned doctorates outside the Mormon culture region and launched an intellectual movement that aimed to contextualize Mormon religious history. Their work--especially Bushman's--suggest the potential defects and strengths of history written by sophisticated scholars committed to a cause.

"What's New In Morman History: A Response to Jan Shipps," by Richard Lyman Bushman

In Richard Lyman Bushman's response to Jan Shipps, he situates his work within two intellectual currents: the new Mormon history and Mormon apologetics.

"Putting Religion on the Map," by Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp

A set of researchers, led by Mark Silk and Andrew Walsh, have adapted Wilbur Zelinsky's 1961 rubric of seven distinct U.S. "religious regions" for the Religion by Region Series. Reviewing the eight-volume series, Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp highlights both the procedural differences between Zelinsky's work and this newer project and the assumptions underlying the analytical creation of regions in a way valuable to scholars. The series will benefit all those with an eye to the geographical and religious diversity of the nation.

By the way, you need to be a member of the Organization of American Historians, so that (among other things) you can get the Journal of American History.

Rex Humbard, Elvis, and Thelonious the Gospel Lamb

Weird -- I've just been writing a short piece for the Wall Street Journal's "Houses of Worship" column on the Gospel Music Channel (more on that article in a future post), which is (according to their publicity materials) the first 24-7 advertiser-supported cable channel devoted to "uplifting and inspiring Christian music." "Rock, Pop, Country, Soul. It's all Gospel," the station's slogan goes. Unlike any radio station I know, the GMC broadcasts artists as diverse as Ricky Skaggs, Jars of Clay, Yolanda Adams, and Kirk Franklin, as well as a variety of gospel rappers that I've never heard of.

The station's founder is Charley Humbard, son of Rex Humbard, who passed away yesterday just as I was in the midst of working on this piece. Rex Humbard pioneered televison evangelism, and eschewed politics as assiduously as electronic evangelists today gravitate towards it. One may contrast the life and work, for example, of the recently deceased James Kennedy (discussed below, scroll down), the theocrat, with Humbard, who said "I hate for politics to get into religion, and religion to get into politics."

As part of the publicity materials for the Gospel Music Channel, I got a wonderful stuffed icon I dubbed Thelonious the Gospel Lamb, complete with choir robe and cross. By pressing on his hoof, the fuzzy creature springs into action and song, with Kirk Franklin's voice shouting "put your hands together, let's have a Holy Ghost Party," as a gospel chorus backs him up and he waves his arms in spirit-filled style. Rex Humbard was painfully square, more Lawrence Welk than Jimmy Swaggart, but Elvis Presley was one of his biggest fans, so he couldn't have been too bad. I hope The King makes an appearance on the GMC as well, even if only during "classic gospel" broadcasts. And Thelonious is righteous!

H-NET Review of Marr, _The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism_

Timothy Marr. _The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism_. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xii + 309 pp. Figures, index. $75.00(cloth), ISBN 0-521-85293-5; $24.99 (paper), ISBN 0-521-61807-X.

Reviewed for H-Amstdy by Milette Shamir, Department of English and American Studies, Tel Aviv University

Recovering Early American Orientalism

Until around a decade ago, the topic of early American orientalism went considerably under-treated in American Studies. Most students of orientalism followed Edward Said's lead in assuming that in the pre-twentieth-century United States--although "there were occasional diplomatic and military encounters with Barbary pirates and the like, the odd naval expedition to the Far Orient, and of course the ubiquitous missionary to the Orient"--there was "no deeply invested tradition of orientalism ... perhaps because the American frontier, the one that counted, was the westward one."[1] Given that the United States had relatively little direct commercial or political interests in the Middle East before the twentieth century, and that its expansionist ambitions lay mostly to the west, the Saidian model of orientalism qua imperialism could not be applied.

Since the 1990s, however, this assumption has been revised in a series of studies, most notably in Fuad Shab'an's _Islam and Arabs in Early American Thought_ (1991), Lester Vogel's _To See a Promised Land_(1993), Robert Allison's _The Crescent Obscured_ (1995), John Davis's _The Landscape of Belief_(1996), Malini Johar Schueller's _U.S. Orientalisms_ (1998), Hilton Obenzinger's _American Palestine_ (1999),and Burke O. Long's _Imagining the Holy Land_ (2002). Collectively,these books not only brought to light the multiple and heavy investments in orientalist tropes and conventions in early U.S. culture, but also developed more nuanced models for understanding the relationship between cultural forms and political power, ones that far exceed the tethering of orientalism to imperialist practices.

These books are now joined by Timothy Marr's fascinating study. In _The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism_ Marr uncovers fresh and surprising archives for exploring American orientalism (military monuments, missionary reports, abolitionist and temperance pamphlets, anti-Mormon literature, women's dress reform, and more), to illustrate how orientalist codes and representations of Islam were deployed by Americans in order to shape their national mission, to manage domestic differences, and to claim a position of global importance. The choice of the term "islamicism" instead of "orientalism" is not self-evident; it first strikes one as at once too narrow (the trope of the "oriental despot," for instance, extended to non-Muslim, say Chinese, rulers as well) and too broad (since American popular imagination did not stretch across the entire Muslim world). But its strength is that it calls attention to the resilient religious component of early American cultural history, to the way the Orient was usefully opposed not only to Enlightenment ideals of liberty and rationality, but also to Protestant narratives of election and redemption.

Click here for the rest.

From Niebuhr to God's Harvard

From Niebuhr to God’s Harvard
Kelly Baker

As I surfed the web today between classes and dissertation, I noticed a couple things of possible interest to our readers.

First, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has an interesting web report on the “comeback” of Reinhold Niebhur. It seems that Niebhur is in vogue with an off-Broadway play, entitled “Horizon," loosely based on his life that ran this summer as well as various politicians, including Eliot Spitzer, Barack Obama and John McCain, quoting the politician. The appeal of Niebhur for politicians seems to be in his understanding of how faith relates to politics. Benedicta Cipolla writes:

Niebuhr's own grounding of his political beliefs in his Christian faith may serve as another factor in the increased interest in him. While Republicans have long cloaked their programs and policies in the language of faith, since the 2004 election Democrats too have turned to a religious vocabulary to publicly undergird their views on domestic and foreign policies and to attract voters who may feel more welcome as people of faith by conservatives. At debates and forums, current presidential candidates from both parties have spoken about how faith has informed both their public policies and personal lives with a pietistic emphasis some believe would have discomfited Niebuhr.

Second, Slate offers a dialogue between Hanna Rosin and David Kuo, who is a self-proclaimed evangelical and previous employee of the Bush Whitehouse, on Rosin’s God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America. (Kuo has also written Tempted by Faith critiquing the Bush administration’s faith based initiatives.) This is another book on my ever-expanding reading list of new books on “evangelicals.” Kuo, however, quickly calls Rosen on her presentation:

In examining Patrick Henry College, you are looking at a very narrow slice of the evangelical world. Most studies conclude that there are at least 20 million, and perhaps as many as 70 million, Americans who fit the "evangelical" classification. Patrick Henry's first class in 1999 had 92 students, and it currently has only 325 students. It's run by a man who makes no apologies for saying that Jesus would be a social conservative. Isn't it a bit of a stretch to make generalizations about evangelicals based on Patrick Henry?

Rosin responded with her conception of “evangelical”:

When I say "evangelical," I am thinking of that elite subgroup that goes to church at least once a week. The Patrick Henry kids are in that 29 percent of Christian teens who say religion is "extremely important" in their lives, who don't cut classes or do drugs, and who wouldn't succumb if you left Scarlett Johansson waiting for them in their bedrooms.

Despite the gender connotations present in her definition, I think, once you get past Scarlett, this points to a larger issue of how to define the term evangelical and how to employ it. Does the term have much value since it is bandied about so often?

Progressive Historians

A shout back at you, Progressive Historians, a "community blog" that I've followed and enjoyed for most of its existence. Tuesday's "Open Thread" on 09/18 gives our little fledgling effort here props for substantive posts in spite of our (so I gather) rather primitive blogspot format, and quotes from Kelly's post on "The Disciple Generation" (scroll down) as an example of what they like here. They conclude: I highly recommend adding this site to your Favorites list -- along with Street Prophets and Talk to Action, it's rapidly becoming one of the most hoppin' spots for religious discourse on the Net.

A good start for readers of this blog to dip into the variety of topics/posts at Progressive Historians is here, with one contributor's "diary" entry/reflections on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. Religious historians tend to "miss" labor issues often times -- as least I do -- and that doesn't need to be the case, given the historical connections between the two, most especially during the Progressive era.

Her conclusion: But how does a horrible tragedy from 1911 have anything to do with today?
Simply put, the work isn't done.

Radical Religious History


"Critical Approaches to Religion and Politics"

A special issue of Radical History Review (#99, Fall 2007)

The newest issue of Radical History Review is of interest to American religious historians; below is a selected portion of the table of contents. I'm definitely going to check out Axel Schaefer's piece. There are many pieces (not listed here) on religious history in other parts of the world.


Axel R. Schaefer, "The Cold War State and the Resurgence of Evangelicalism: A Study of the Public Funding of Religion Since 1945"

Sarah Crabtree, "'A Beautiful and Practical Lesson of Jurisprudence': The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution"

Daniel Magaziner, "Christ in Context: Developing a Political Faith in Apartheid South Africa"


Edward E. Andrews, "'Creatures of Mimic and Imitation': The Liberty Tree, Black Elections, and the Politicization of African Ceremonial Space in Revolutionary Newport, Rhode Island"


Melanie A. Bailey, "From Spontaneous Generation to Intelligent Design: Conservative Challenges to Science and Radicalism"

Bryan F. Le Beau, "Science and Religion: A Historical Perspective on the Conflict over Teaching Evolution in the Schools"

Steve Russell, "Law and Bones: Religion, Science, and the Discourse of Empire"


Michael Petro, "Domesticity and Spirituality in African American Religious History and Ethnography. Review of Julius H. Bailey, Around the Family Altar: Domesticity in the African Methodist Episcopal Church,1865-1900; and Marla F. Frederick, Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith

Alex Lichtenstein, "Up from Redemption: A Biography of Max Yergan. Review of David Henry Anthony III, Max Yergan: Race Man, Internationalist, Cold Warrior

CURATED SPACE: Conor McGrady, "Reverend Billy"

Reminders -- grant and paper opportunities

I'm reposting (for those who don't scroll down on blogs, and for those just now joining our game in progress) some excellent grant and paper opportunities posted here earlier by Kelly Baker and John Fea . Note that the paper prize deadline is Sept. 21.

1) The Religion and American Culture Caucus of the American Studies Association is pleased to announce its fourth annual best paper prize. Any paper that examines religion in the United States, broadly understood, and is on the program of the national American Studies Association meeting in Philadelphia is eligible for the award. Papers should be submitted electronically to dsigler at mail (dot) utexas (dot) edu by September 21. Papers should be double-spaced, in a 12pt font and contain full citations.The winner will be selected by a jury of three scholars in the field and will be announced at the caucus meeting on Friday, October 12, at 5pm. The meeting will take place at the Philadelphia Marriott, Room 501. The prize, a two-year subscription to _Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation_, has been generously provided by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at IUPUI. If you have any questions, please contact Matt Hedstrom, hedstrom at princeton (dot) edu, or Danielle Sigler(email above).

2) Today I received announcements for two residential fellowships offered by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Of particular note to readers of this blog is the “E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Fellowship in Early American Religious Studies.” This dissertation fellowship is open to Ph.D candidates in any discipline “researching any aspect of religion in North America in the Atlantic World.” And you have plenty of time to apply—the deadline is March 1, 2008.The other fellowship is the two-year Barra Postdoctoral Fellowship for 2008-2010. The Barra Fellowship is not geared specifically to scholars studying religion, but I know that the Center is certainly open to considering those working in this area. The deadline is November 1, 2007 and I believe the search committee conducts preliminary interviews at the AHA.

The Disciple Generation -- Kelly Baker

The Disciple Generation
Kelly Baker

While pundits are lauding the death of the Religious Right, Lauren Sandler, a journalist who has worked for NPR and was a fellow at NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, suggests that this larger label occludes the rising generation of youth and young adults that live and breath conservative politics and conservative Christianity. In Righteous, she explores the ways in which evangelical youth culture subverts and reinvents the political tactics of their predecessors, like the late Jerry Falwell and James Dobson.

The “Disciple Generation” is her moniker for this movement, which includes disciples that like punk rock, Jesus tattoos, kitschy shirts about salvation, dreds, piercings and skateboards. These young men and women are unabashedly pro-life, Republican, pro-Intelligent Design (see Randall Stephen's previous post on ID), supporters of “traditional” gender norms, and often anti-institutions. Sandler documents skateboard preachers, pro-life concert organizers, Christian rappers and tattooed adherents that somehow have not found their spiritual needs fulfilled in the evangelical churches of their mothers and fathers (or sometimes, the lack of religion among their parents), but they support the religious and political ideologies of their parents. Moreover, Sandler believes that the tactics of the Disciple Generation are quite effective to recruit teens and disaffected twenty-somethings to this “emerging” movement. Rather than holding “old-time revivals”, the ministers that she documents hold concerts, skateboarding exhibitions, and create church spaces in which the young are more comfortable. (By this, I think she means those of my generation prefer to sip lattes, listen to rock, and have sacred space without traditional iconography of Jesus. Instead, we would, of course, prefer abstract, metal crosses, purple interiors, and “cool” lighting.)

What Sandler alludes to is simply that this generation is being ignored in larger discussions of the Religious Right. Instead, many (as we can see from the two previous posts by John Turner and John Fea) are seeing the old vanguard of the Religious Right as a dying breed. This, naturally, means that the Religious Right is declining, and that those of the religious left and the secular left can breathe a deep sigh of relief. However, if we take Sandler’s claim of a rising Disciple Generation that encompasses a multitude of subcultures in an attempt to reclaim Christian prominence in America, then maybe the label of Religious Right is not so effective any more. For Sandler, there’s a new movement a brewing, and it’s “scary.” She writes:

For all their oblation, one must not overlook the fact that the Disciple Generation is foremost a growing fundamentalist population. The apocalyptic imagination, the annihilation of the individual, the subjugation of women, the resistance to competing ideas—all these startling facets of the movement are conventional aspects of fundamentalism of any kind, anywhere (Sandler 239).

This generation is “slouching toward Babylon”, and Sandler is most concerned because they seem to be off the radar (Sandler 233). All of the teens and twenty-somethings imbibe the ideology of the Religious Right, but they use their own, possibly more effective, methods to accomplish their goals. Despite her insight into this “emerging” movement, Sandler’s work often reads as a nightmarish tale of what might happen if these movements take over, and I get a keen sense that she wants the reader to be terrified of these young evangelicals and their powers at grassroots organizing. Yet her book is provocative because of the population she sheds light on (the numbers of this generation seem to be murky) and because it leads me to question, as previous posts have, whether we should ring the death knell of the Religious Right. Or if we can deny that some movements still see the necessity of Christian prominence in America to right the wrongs, even if the adherents are skateboarders.

The Religious Right is Still Not Dead (John Turner)

John Turner sends the following on our discussion of the religious left/right, and on America as a Christian Nation:

Building on John Fea's fine post, I've noticed since last year's midterm elections obituaries not just of key figures in the Religious Right, but of the Religious Right itself.

Earlier this year in TIME, Jim Wallis proclaimed that "The Era of the Religious Right Is Over." Wallis argued that evangelicals are deserting conservative politics in droves, driven by progressive issues like global warming, HIV/AIDS, and Darfur.

The deaths of Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy provide further evidence for such obituaries. Pat Robertson's influence continues to slowly wane. Ted Haggard fell from grace. Even Jim Dobson doesn't seem quite as formidable as he did only a few years ago. It is, perhaps, the end of an era.

This is not, however, the first time that pundits have proclaimed the passing of the Religious Right. This usually occurs in conjunction with Democratic electoral victories, such as those in 1992, 1996, and 2006. Ironically, as recently as 2004, the Religious Right looked stronger than ever by mobilizing opposition to gay marriage. The Religious Right's perceived strength seems to wax and wane in tandem with that of political conservatism more broadly. If the Democrats do indeed win a convincing victory in 2008, the Religious Right will seem like the relic of a bygone era.

There have been predictions of the rise of the Evangelical Left since the early 1970s – perhaps it will truly come to fruition. And perhaps young evangelicals will continue to move in progressive directions on issues like abortion and homosexuality. Progressive evangelicals, however, are still a long way from constituting anything approaching a mass movement.

It's hard to predict the future, but even without Falwell and Kennedy, prognostications of the Religious Right's permanent decline seem premature. Religious Right organizations remain well-organized, wealthy, and dedicated. When organizations fade or implode, they are quickly replaced. The Christian Coalition replaced the Moral Majority; Focus on the Family filled the vacuum when the Christian Coalition lost its momentum. I wouldn't be surprised to read about the resurgence of the Religious Right in 2010.

The Death of America as a Christian Nation? Hold the Funeral! He's Not Dead Yet!

Hold the Funeral! --BY JOHN FEA

I have been a fan of Diane Butler Bass’s work ever since I read her award-winning Standing Against the Whirlwind: Evangelical Episcopalians in Nineteenth-Century America (1995) during my graduate school years. I have not read some of her more recent books on American religious practice (although I hope to get to Christianity for the Rest of Us soon—waiting for the paperback!), but I do look forward to reading her occasional columns on (If you ever attended a vacation Bible school as a kid you must read Bass’s “Sock Puppet Church”).

Her most recent Sojourners essay, “American Christendom, RIP,” is a reflection on the death of D. James Kennedy, the Ft. Lauderdale Presbyterian minister who was a major leader of the Christian Right. (At last check a whopping 187 people had commented on the piece!). Like many pundits, Bass argues that Kennedy’s passing and the recent death of Jerry Falwell mark a “generational shift of leadership now occurring in evangelical Christian circles.” She focuses much of the piece on Kennedy’s enthusiastic cheerleading for the idea that America is a “Christian nation.” Indeed, Kennedy spent a good part of his final decades preaching sermons, writing books, and producing videos that extolled America’s Christian founding. Much of this work was done under the auspices of his recently closed Center for Reclaiming America for Christ. According to Bass, a new generation of evangelicals, particularly those who read theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon and are affiliated with the emerging church, is no longer interested in Kennedy’s “Christian America” because his “nostalgic world bears no resemblance to their own.” Young evangelicals find no use for Kennedy’s Christian civilization of the 1950s and prefer a progressive, confessional, and Anabaptist-informed political theology that understands the church as a countercultural agent in the world.

Fair enough. Bass has her finger on the pulse of the emerging church movement. It is true that the leaders of the emerging church have hitched their wagons to the wisdom emanating from Duke Divinity School. But perhaps we should wait just a bit before we hold a funeral for “American Christendom.” As Paul Harvey noted yesterday on this blog, a recent poll from Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Center found 55% of those surveyed believe that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation. While it should not surprise us that 74% of Republicans surveyed believe that the Constitution should be interpreted in this way, it is a bit shocking to find that 50% of Democrats and 47% of Independents also hold to this view.

I do not know much about the First Amendment Center or the reliability of their polling data (I tend to agree with Paul that these numbers seem a bit high). But it does seem that Bass may be too optimistic about the impending doom of Christian Right “history.”

I hope to get back to the triumph of Christian Right history in a later post.

Religion and American Culture Caucus Paper Prize

Religion and American Culture Caucus Paper Prize
Kelly Baker

I thought I would pass on this announcement from the Religion and American Culture Caucus of American Studies Association about their paper prize. Also, if you are not a member of ASA or the caucus, I would urge you to join. In the past couple of years, the caucus has presented panels on varying topics in North American Religions for historians, interdisciplinarians, literature folks, and those interested in cultural studies.

Here’s the announcement:
The Religion and American Culture Caucus of the American Studies Association is pleased to announce its fourth annual best paper prize. Any paper that examines religion in the United States, broadly understood, and is on the program of the national American Studies Association meeting in Philadelphia is eligible for the award. Papers should be submitted electronically to dsigler at mail (dot) utexas (dot) edu by September 21. Papers should be double-spaced, in a 12pt font and contain full citations.The winner will be selected by a jury of three scholars in the field and will be announced at the caucus meeting on Friday, October 12, at 5pm. The meeting will take place at the Philadelphia Marriott, Room 501. The prize, a two-year subscription to _Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation_, has been generously provided by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at IUPUI. If you have any questions, please contact Matt Hedstrom, hedstrom at princeton (dot) edu, or Danielle Sigler(email above).

McNeil Center Fellowship -- John Fea

Fellowship Announcement: McNeil Center for Early American Studies

Today I received announcements for two residential fellowships offered by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Of particular note to readers of this blog is the “E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Fellowship in Early American Religious Studies.” This dissertation fellowship is open to Ph.D candidates in any discipline “researching any aspect of religion in North America in the Atlantic World.” And you have plenty of time to apply—the deadline is March 1, 2008.

The other fellowship is the two-year Barra Postdoctoral Fellowship for 2008-2010. The Barra Fellowship is not geared specifically to scholars studying religion, but I know that the Center is certainly open to considering those working in this area. The deadline is November 1, 2007 and I believe the search committee conducts preliminary interviews at the AHA.

On a personal note, I was a fellow at the McNeil Center in the late 1990s and I cannot say enough positive things about the experience. This is a wonderful community of early American scholars convened by Dan Richter, the Center’s director. (Richard Dunn, the founding director, ran the Center during my stint as a fellow). My seventeen months in residence at Penn gave me opportunities to write, research, visit archives, present my work, share dissertation drafts, and network with other scholars. I am very grateful for the experience. If you do early American history I encourage you to apply. For more details, see the McNeil Center website.

Wednesday Notes and Noted

Baldblogger concludes his 7-part series of interviews with Edward J. Blum, regarding Blum's religious biography of Du Bois. Ed talks about the process of thinking about writing as a musical endeavor: that one should try to write musically, to hear the rhythm of the syllables, to groove to the spirit of narrative. I found myself doing that a bit this summer trying to write to Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, but I loved the CD so much I would descend into the music and forget to write! And don't forget that reading liner notes is always a great procrastination tool -- especially the wonderfully informative ones to Goodbye Babylon, the six-CD compilation that "that culls strange, rare and fiery finds of American gospel and other religious music from the early 20th century," and should be required listening for all American religious historians -- also read about it here and here, and listen to an interview with the compiler and annotator here).

Tim Burke gives some further thoughts on thinking about going to graduate school, in his typically thoughtful and provocative manner.

Matthew Hall points to a recent poll, conducted by the First Amendment Center, suggesting that
Most Americans believe the nation's founders wrote Christianity into the Constitution, and people are less likely to say freedom to worship covers religious groups they consider extreme, a poll out today finds.

The survey measuring attitudes toward freedom of religion, speech and the press found that 55% believe erroneously that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation. In the survey, which is conducted annually by the First Amendment Center, a non-partisan educational group, three out of four people who identify themselves as evangelical or Republican believe that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation. About half of Democrats and independents do.

That seems a little high to me, although the poll claims a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points. I may follow up and try to learn a bit more about the poll.

On the other hand, maybe I'm the naive one. I just gave some upper-division history majors here a few documents by Jefferson (including a famous letter to John Adams in which Jefferson hopes that the biblical stories of miracles will soon be classed with the fables of Minerva) and asked them to do a writing exercise in which they wrote successive paragraphs crafting an answer to the question "Was Thomas Jefferson a Christian," and then revising their paragraph after reading the next document. It was just an exercise in historical writing, and this is not a religious history class, but I was startled to see all but one student proclaim Jefferson a Christian even after reading the document in which he says that Jesus had every human excellence and never claimed any other. Clearly, ideology, or something, trumped reality.

Finally, I don't know about the U.S. but the Crimson Tide nation is a Christian one, that's for sure! (HT to University Diaries --click and then scroll down to "Scathing Online SchoolMarm" for her wonderfully tart interjections on this story).

The Shia Revival

“The Art of Mismanaging War,” by Art Remillard

“Know the enemy, know yourself; your victory will never be endangered,” wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War. Wise words indeed for anyone involved in the business of war. I often wonder, however, whether elected officials really “know the enemy” in the war on terrorism. Consider the following exchange between journalist Jeff Stein and Representative Silvestre Reyes, who at the time was the newly appointed Democratic chair of the Congressional Intelligence Committee.

“Al-Qa'eda is what—Sunni or Shia?” asked Stein. “Al-Qa'eda, they have both,” Reyes stumbled. He then speculated, “Predominantly—probably Shi'ite.”


“[Reyes] couldn’t have been more wrong,” Stein wrote. “Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.” Stein asked other elected officials similar questions. This produced similar results, leading the journalist to resolve, “Too many officials in charge of the war on terrorism just don’t care to learn much, if anything, about the enemy we’re fighting. And that’s enough to keep anybody up at night.” Stein no doubt has a point. As Vali Nasr proposes in The Shia Revival, “The reality that will shape the future of the Middle East is not the debates over democracy or globalization that the Iraq war was supposed to have jump-started, but the conflicts between Shias and Sunnis that it precipitated. In time we will come to see this as a central legacy of the Iraq war.” Nasr’s book provides an excellent description of the differences separating Shias and Sunnis, past and present (here’s a quality review). For the religiously illiterate, he frequently parallels Islamic and Christian practices. For example, Nasr likens the Shia Ashoura ritual to Catholic Holy Week, showing the comparable emphasis on penance. For those teaching courses on this topic, Nasr’s interview on PBS’s “Foreign Exchange” may be useful. And NPR ran a multi-part series, “The Partisans of Ali: A History of Shia Faith and Politics.” I’ll be using both in the classroom—who knows, maybe one of my students will have the misfortune of serving in congress.

Mountain Meadows Massacre -- from new Contributing Editor John Turner!

I'm pleased to introduce our newest contributing editor: John Turner of the University of South Alabama. Here's his bio:

John Turner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Alabama. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Notre Dame (2006) and a Masters of Divinity from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (2002). His book manuscript, Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America, is forthcoming in Spring 2008 from the University of North Carolina Press. He is now swimming and possibly drowning in the turbulent waters of Mormon History, working on a projected biography of Brigham Young. Even during this troubled year, he believes that God ultimately has a wonderful plan for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

John has just published a longer piece on the subject of the post below, the Mountain Meadows Massacre: 9/11, 1857, published in Books and Culture. Turner reviews the terrible incident, as well as recent scholarly explorations of it, notably including Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows. Turner's conclusion:

Partly because the church initially suppressed evidence and only recently has made extent materials more accessible, debates over the culpability of Young and others will probably never be fully resolved. In our fallen world, hatred and prejudice and fear can all too quickly evolve into violence, violence that religion—Mormon and otherwise—all too often has failed to restrain.

Here's John's first post, highlighting in condensed form some of the points made in 9/11, 1857. I might point also to Art Remillard's post below on Mark Lilla's article in the New York Times Magazine, which addresses some of the same points about religious devotion and violence which Turner discusses below.

The First 9/11

It's a pretty safe bet that all Americans think of the Twin Towers when someone references September 11th. Fewer know about another mass murder that took place on that same date. 150 years ago this week, a group of Latter-day Saints (with the help of some Paiute Indians) slaughtered roughly 120 pioneers in a place called Mountain Meadows, in present-day southwestern Utah. Approaching them with a white flag, the Mormons had persuaded the pioneers to give up their weapons in return for protection from the Indians and safe passage to nearby Cedar City.

Those unfamiliar with the Mountain Meadows Massacre can get a brief overview of the events by watching a chapter of PBS's recent The Mormons. (The entire documentary is well worth the four-hour investment).

Mountain Meadows remains a bitterly contested topic within contemporary Mormonism. Some church members were upset that PBS devoted an entire segment to the massacre. Descendents of massacre victims and survivors remain upset that the church will not cede control of the massacre site. Numerous reporters have asked Mitt Romney for his response to the film. Moving beyond the denials of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints openly acknowledges Mormon complicity in the massacre. Several recent books – most notably Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets – and the recent box-office bust September Dawn argue that Brigham Young explicitly ordered the massacre, a contention the church vigorously disputes. In fact, the church has spent a princely sum of money and considerable human resources to produce a book portraying the massacre as a local affair. A summary of the forthcoming study recently appeared in the church's Ensign magazine.

For many outside observers of Mormonism, the massacre remains deeply troubling. Jon Krakauer, in his bestselling Under the Banner of Heaven, connected a brutal double murder in 1980s Utah, the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping by a wanna-be polygamist, and historical episodes like the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Krakauer's book was subtitled: "A Story of Violent Faith." He wasn't saying that mainstream Mormons today are violent, but he was saying that both today's polygamists and 19th-century Mormons were. I think Krakauer's larger point (and that of September Dawn), a point happily embraced by a goodly number of observers in the post-9/11, 2001 world, is that religious belief itself is inherently dangerous, as it opens people up to blindly commit horrific acts believing that they are following God's will. Is Mormonism, at least in its primitive form, its 19th-century form, inherently dangerous? Is religious devotion?

Randall's Links

Our contributing editor Randall Stephens has put up an excellent and helpful links page for American religious history, with a concise list of web links, discussion groups, teaching resources, musical resources, broadcasts, publications, and more.

Gods on the Stage -- Crosspost from Guest Blogger Shawn Young

Amy DeRogatis, associate professor of Religion and American Culture at Michigan State University and the author of Moral Geographies: Maps, Missionaries, and the American Frontier, is conducting a graduate seminar this semester on religion and American culture; periodically, we'll be posting some thoughts from her students in our guest-blogging series.

Today's guest blogger, Shawn David Young, is a Ph.D. student in the American studies department at Michigan State University. He holds the M.A. in American culture studies from Washington University, St. Louis and the B.S. in music industry studies from Appalachian State University. He is interested in researching the formation of dogmatism and apocalyptic fundamentalism within the contemporary Christian music youth culture, and its alignment with the religious right.

Gods on the Stage, by Shawn David Young
Crossposted from:

The typical rock and roll stage elevates the performer to a position which could imply a kind of status above the fan. Technology amplifies messages and illuminates images: corporal, rhetorical and visceral. This intentional position gives the rock star a kind of privileged role in the minds of fandom. Whether they admit it or not, to the fan of Christian rock the stage is a place where they are privy to information given by “vessels of God.” The fact that the star is positioned in such a manner might give some fans a sense of misplaced authority when listening and viewing.

My concern is not with the (perhaps) benign teenage idolizing of the all-too-familiar American music icon. My concern is with the overuse of power, marketing, and positioning when an artist proclaims a message rooted in meta-narratives. While message music has played an important role in American history, particularly protest music, the need seems less appropriate and the danger more severe when the subject discussed deals less with concrete issues such as equal rights and more with religious ideology (ideologies which have been argued for hundred of years).

Fundamentalism of any brand becomes quite dangerous if married to corporate money and power. The messages embedded reach young ears, perhaps untrained in philosophical inquiry. The musings of the latest Christian rock star trumps years of theological and political research. These messages appear to take priority over intellectual inquiry. While I agree with William James’ anti-intellectualism as it pertained to religious experience and personal encounter, I also agree with James’ call to avoid the systematizing or dogmatizing of these experiences. James would, perhaps, cherish the life-changing moment the teenager experienced at the concert. However, it is possible he would caution the recipient of the moment to avoid extending the experience beyond the bounds of that particular moment. The teen need not proselytize based on what the musician shouts from the stage. But they do. Some attend concerts for simple pleasure. Many more attend to receive their marching orders, albeit subtly. Vernacular religious music exists as a tool for conversion, as well as the alternative to the mainstream “secular.”

While I applaud the need and the use of age-appropriate music (regardless of religious affiliation), I wonder how the next generation of voters within the ranks of neo-evangelicalism will act. From what frames of reference will they gain insight into the complexities of American life and culture? Will they seek the nuances of the American experience, or will they be content with the weekend youth group conference, sound bites attempting to contain complexity within simplicity?

Lure of Images -- Kelly Baker

New Book: Lure of Images, by Kelly Baker

David Morgan, Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Professor in Christianity and the Arts at Valparaiso University, has just published another book that demonstrates the importance of images, even mass-produced ones, in the religious lives of Americans. The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America is now available from Routledge. Building on his previous works that examine religion and visual culture in America, this book examines mass produced religious media from the 1780s to today ranging from evangelical tracts to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

From Routledge’s website:

David Morgan explores the cultural marketplace of public representation, showing how American religionists have made special use of visual media to instruct the public, to practice devotion and ritual, and to form children and converts. Examples include:

Studying Jesus as an American idol
Jewish kitchens and Christian Parlors
Billy Sunday and Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the anti-slavery movement.

This unique perspective reveals the importance of visual media to the construction and practice of sectarian and national community in a nation of immigrants old and new, and the tensions between the assimilation and the preservation of ethnic and racial identities. As well as the contribution of visual media to the religious life of Christians and Jews, Morgan shows how images have informed the perceptions and practices of other religions in America, including New Age, Buddhist and Hindu spirituality, and Mormonism, Native American Religions and the Occult.

Desire Street Ministries -- Darren Grem

Welcome back to our contributing editor Darren Grem, currently finishing his PhD at the University of Georgia. Darren sends word that his dissertation title has changed from its previous posting. It is now called "The Blessings of Business: Christian Entrepreneurs and the Politics and Culture of Sunbelt America."

With the passing of Katrina’s two-year anniversary, the cameras and microphones have once more left the New Orleans/Gulf Coast area. Desire Street Ministries (DSM), however, plans to stay.

Musician and pastor Mo Leverett shares administrative direction of DSM with Danny Wuerffel, a former Florida Gators and NFL quarterback. Both lost their homes in New Orleans and their ministry at Desire Street when Katrina hit, and both have been integral in reforming their ministry in the city’s poor and predominantly African-American Upper Ninth Ward. After Katrina flooded their Desire Street Academy and scattered their pupils and their families across the region and nation, Leverett, Wuerffel, and the DSM staff have worked to rebuild both their presence in the community along with the economic lives of those who remained or returned. Volunteer work groups from various churches have engaged in short-term trips to supplement these efforts, and thousands of dollars worth of donations have also helped fund DSM’s transition back to “normalcy.”

What makes DSM interesting is how it illustrates a social ethic informed by contemporary Protestant conservatism. Leverett is a graduate of the conservative Reformed Theological Seminary, and DSM receives its most direct support from the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) denomination. As such, DSM lines up with the PCA’s views on biblical interpretation (it affirms inerrancy) and “kingdom building” (it emphasizes the conversion of individuals as a means to socio-economic change). Yet, it remains something of an outlier when compared to the PCA’s demographic make-up (which is mostly white, professional, GOP-leaning) and, most especially, its denominational policy. Indeed, despite the attention and support granted to DSM by the PCA, their relatively close relationship has not inspired any drastic changes in the higher halls of the PCA itself. According to a PCA pastor and friend of mine, only a handful of people showed up at the denomination’s most recent General Assembly for a seminar on poverty while hundreds attended various other seminars on the finer points of neo-Reformed theology. Whether a sense of social awareness is growing among local-level PCA churches likewise remains to be seen.

Regardless, Leverett and Wuerffel’s ministry has no doubt had a vital role in the recovery experience for the Desire Street community and the New Orleans area. Their ministry is also a vital reminder of the past impact of numerous social ministries, their present impact within (or in spite of?) the framework of larger denominational, institutional, or political issues, and their future impact on the oft-forgotten corners of America.

Prayer Books and Liberalism/Secularism


From this blog's intermittent religion and the press beat, a couple of NY Times pieces on completely separate subjects which are strangely related.

First, "In New Prayer Book, Signs of Broad Change," NY Times religion writer Laurie Goodstein covers the new prayer book of Reform Judaism. An interesting excerpt:

“It reflects a recognition of diversity within our community,” said Rabbi Elyse D. Frishman, the editor of the prayer book. “We have interfaith families. We have so many visitors at b’nai mitzvah ceremonies that I could have a service on Shabbat morning where a majority of people there aren’t Jewish,” she said, referring to bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies on Saturday mornings.

“There are even those in my community who come to Shabbat worship each week who don’t believe in God,” said Rabbi Frishman, who leads the Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J. “How do we help them resonate with the language of prayer, which is very God-centric and evokes a personal God, a God that talks to you in a sense? There are many, many Jews who do not believe in God that way.”

The article gives a nice religious history of changes in the Prayer book over the last century.

Second, at Crooked Timber, John Holbo takes on Stanley Fish's op-ed piece (irritatingly hidden behind the "Times Select" wall) arguing that liberalism and secularism are one and the same. I was going to blog on that piece myself, but Holbo has made my point for me:

Also, it might not be a half-bad idea to notice that liberalism is not incompatible with religion, merely with illiberal forms of religion. Just as liberalism is incompatible with illiberal forms of secularism. Which suggests that there may be a need to revisit Fish’s title: “Liberalism and Secularism: One and the Same”.

One of the 81 (and counting) commentors on Holbo's post reiterates an argument (and a pretty good one) that I often hear in my classroom, usually from religiously oriented students confronting some nasty side of religious social expression in the past (in my class, that' s usually the religious proslavery argument):

Almost all liberal ideas originiated as religious ideals. For example, the anti-slavery movement, the movement for political rights for racial minorities and the movement for women’s rights were first advanced in this country on religious grounds by Puritans, Quakers, and other religius movements and organizations.

Another student of mine last semester, referring to the religious impulse of the anti-slavery movement versus the racist implications of a considerable body of Enlightenment/proto-scientific-racism thinking, put it this way: "who were the missionaries of the Enlightenment"?

Yes, the above point is overstated, and it doesn't take long to come up with a good list of missionaries for a liberating form of the Enlightenment. But I liked the question, for the same reason that I liked the article on the prayer book: it challenges the kind of assumptions that pervade the Fishian equation of liberalism and secularism.

On the Road -- Again


Today’s broadcast of Democracy Now, featuring a lengthy interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, reminded me (sigh – we’re two weeks into the semester already and I’m not going anywhere for a while) of one of my favorite religious pilgrimmages: to visit City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Which then reminded me of a variety of interviews I’ve heard and read recently celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (including a very moving interview with Kerouac’s former wife on Bob Edwards Weekend, which doesn’t seem to have a weblink that I can find). This is an event of significance for American religious historians and scholars (as is much of beat writing, especially Ginsberg’s poem “Kaddish”), as Kerouac must be counted in the ranks of Catholic writers (and basically conservative ones, at that, whatever the reception and pretensions of On the Road). The interview also reminded me that Kerouac’s use of “Beat” referred not to “Beatnik” (which came from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen) but from an abbreviation of Beatitude, or Beatific. Some years ago I read a volume of Kerouac's letters; he wrote voluminously to his friends, and his basically Catholic understanding of religious matters stands out more clearly than in some of his other work.

The Beats are easy to satirize, and they wrote a lot of awful stuff (let’s not get on the subject of their sexism just now); but I’ve always loved their sense of religious questing, to the point of a holy absurdity; I confess I enjoy reading excerpts of their poetry to our students in the newest major at my university, Professional Golf Management; if I had the chance, I’d read some more to our graduate students working in our newest PhD program, which is in Homeland Security Studies (“I saw the best minds of my generation . . .” --- oh, never mind; here we are now, entertain us).

As Ferlinghetti points out in his interview, Kerouac turned in upon himself, unable to handle fame and celebrity, seeking refuge in the working-class Catholicism of his youth but, more destructively, in alcohol. If he had not drunk himself to death, he would have been appearing on the pages of the National Review (for all I know he did -- corrections welcome). Joyce Johnson lived through parts of this, as she details in her new memoir (see a blogged interview with her here). A little excerpt as my doxology:

Everybody’s time today is so programmed. There is a message in Jack’s book that speaks to men and women, which is to open yourself up to experience. Look around. If there is an inner search that you have, go for it. That message of opening yourself up is a very powerful one. And On the Road is a very anti-materialistic book, which is also something people ought to think about.

ellery's protest

Below (scroll down), Kelly provides some thoughts on Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy--a reminder of the importance, as well as the difficulties involved, in understanding religion in school/academic contexts. Prothero's work joins a host of others (notably including Noah Feldman's) which attempt to define new ways for public discussion or practice of religious faith.

This morning I awoke to another reminder: of the bad old days when religion was in the public square in intrusive and coercive ways. It wasn't that long ago. In 1956, as his school's public address system resounded with readings of the Bible, Ellery Schempp (a Unitarian) silently read the Koran. Six years later, he was in the Supreme Court. Check out this interview with Ellery Schempp, plaintiff in the case that became a landmark school prayer decision (Abington School District v. Schempp). Law professor Stephen Solomon's work Ellery's Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle over School Prayer (read an excerpt here) gives a social history of the case and its importance in American life. The author provides a resource page here, which includes the oral argument, previous cases (notably including Engel v. Vitale), court records, and current controversies.

I really didn't know anything about the personal story behind this case, and found the interview and author's excerpt a good place to start; it might pique your interest too.
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