Charles Taylor's Secular Age and the American Zodiac


Paul Harvey

In "Higher Times in the Bible Belt," John Schmalzbauer considers why historians have not been discussing Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. Part of it has to do with the relative lack of social history in the work, of the kind that has most interested American religious historians of late. Of the work, Jon Butler has noted the lack of attention to the "experiences of ordinary people."

Butler draws on a deep knowledge of colonial American religion, noting that eighteenth-century observers found a combination of belief and unbelief. Together with recent scholarship on medieval and early modern Europe, such accounts challenge Taylor’s tendency to dichotomize the sacred and the secular.

Noting the interaction of the sacred and secular in the lives and practices of ordinary Americans, Schmalzbauer calls attention to one recent example, in Richard Callahan's Subject to Dust:

Focusing on twentieth-century Appalachia, historian Richard J. Callahan documents the persistence of such beliefs in Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields. Discussing the role of religion in everyday life, he describes how residents used the signs of the Zodiac to govern sowing and reaping, justifying such practices with appeals to both the Bible and the farmer’s almanac.

Some more potential material along the same lines: John Fea calls attention to the latest edition of Early American Studies, just as I had been using from that journal a very interesting piece, from a few years back, by Sarah Rivett: "Empirical Desire: Conversion, Ethnography, and the New Science of the Praying Indian" (Project Muse access required). Rivett has a fascinating passage about how English apostles of the 17th century sought to "hear" in Indian conversion voices the sound of authentic Christian primitivism; when they heard instead the same Puritan rhetoric that they had taught them, they heard it as false. There's much else of interest there, too.

The new edition of Early American Studies features a piece by T. J. Tomlin, "Astrology's from Heaven not from Hell: The Religious Significance of Early American Almanacs." Hope to get to that soon, or perhaps one of our readers can and give us a synopsis.

Preview of Coming Attractions: Empires, Wars, Politics, and Murder Mysteries

Paul Harvey

So what can a poor blogmeister do, but sing in a rock-n-roll band, and grade endless end-of-term essays? Preview some coming attractions on the blog, to keep you coming back for more. Translation: my mind is in end-of-semester catatonia, so the best I can do is point you to good stuff that will be coming this way shortly.

First, I mentioned a couple of posts ago Jon Pahl's new book Empires of Sacrifce: Religious Origins of American Violence; I'll have a post up about his work soon, as well as an interview with the author, an esteemed contributor to the blog and a not-half-bad basketball player back in the day.

Next, our contributor Luke Harlow has been busy finishing his first year at Oakland University (in Rochester, Michigan, the single most confusingly named university in the country), and getting his book manuscript ready for Cambridge University Press. In the midst of that, I've convinced him to give us his thoughts on Scott Rohrer, Wandering Souls: Protestant Migrations in America, 1630-1865; the author has an interesting post about his book here, and Mark Noll has a short booknote about the work here.

As you longer-term blog readers know, it's dangerous for Ed Blum to get on a plane; he usually plows through several books and comes back with reflections on those books together with whatever new bands (Jonas Brothers or Death Cab for Cutie, anyone) and questionable pop songs he's been listening to or video games he's been playing lately. You can look forward to such a post a few weeks down the road, as Ed is going to be busy reading Jonathan Ebel's new book from Princeton University Press Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the First World War (Ebel's book comes with some blurbs from some heavy hitters on the back cover, such as Skip Stout and Stanley Hauerwas). He plans a joint post about that work together with another new book of note: Derek Chang's Penn University press production Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century. Chang brings together African American and Chinese American religious histories in innovative ways, and looks at how white evangelicals (especially the American Baptist Home Mission Society) conceptualized American citizenship vis-a-vis the "Negro problem" and the "Chinese question." Just how Ed will put all this together with whatever popular culture he's been consuming nowadays remains to be seen, but it should be a treat.

Meanwhile, one of our original contributors, John Fea, has been going great guns on his own blog (see, for example, his terrific piece "Those who Will Not Learn from History," about the recent great Texas Textbook Massacre, and more generally about the virtues of thinking historically); John has promised me a post down the road on another work I recently received: The Disappearing God Gap? Religion in the 2008 Presidential Election (Oxford University Press). We also have another guest poster down the road who may be commenting on that book.

A couple of weeks ago we added Michael J. Altman to our roll of contributors, who already has graced us with a couple of posts about Hinduism in American culture. We'll soon be adding another up-and-coming graduate student to our rolls as well: Janine Giordano, of the University of Illinois, who's going to tell us about this very intriguing new title: Sharon Davies, Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America.

Two other folks -- a historian, and a religious studies person -- may be joining our rolls soon as well; more on that soon. So, keep those clicks and emails coming.

An Interest in Women: The Bellocq Brothers' Catholic New Orleans

Paul Harvey

At Killing the Buddha, our contributor Michael Pasquier has posted his first documentary production: "An Interest in Women: The Bellocq Brothers' Catholic New Orleans."

Killing the Buddha is an online religion magazine for people made anxious by churches, people embarrassed to be caught in the “spirituality” section of a bookstore, people both hostile and drawn to talk of God. Since it was founded by Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau in 2000, it has published uncommon commentary, journalism, reviews, fiction, art, and more about religion, politics, and culture.

Glenn Beck, Paige Patterson to Address Class of 2010

Paul Harvey

I'm so there!

Glenn Beck, Dr. Paige Patterson to address Class of 2010 (at Liberty University)

Well-known radio host Glenn Beck will address Liberty University’s Class of 2010 at Commencement on Saturday, May 15, Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. announced today at Convocation. Joining Beck as a speaker will be Dr. Paige Patterson, the current president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Patterson will also be the keynote speaker at Baccalaureate Service on May 14.

“Liberty University is blessed to have two national conservative leaders speak at our 2010 Commencement ceremony,” Falwell said. “Dr. Patterson is one of the patriarchs of Christian higher education, and Beck is one of the few courageous voices in the national media standing up for the principles upon which this nation was founded. Both speakers continue Liberty’s long tradition of Commencement speakers who are making a positive impact on society in all walks of life.

Read the rest here and here; a triumph of religious pluralism, I guess.

Weekend Update: Jared Farmer Interview, the Jewish Review of Books, and Empires of Sacrifice

Paul Harvey

Blogging's a little light on my end as I limp to the end of the semester, but in the meantime a little weekend roundup for you.

First, we have blogged here before about Jared Farmer's award-winning On Zion's Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape. The author appears, in interview format, in Religion Dispatches, where he reflects further on his work. My favorite takeaway line: "There's no such thing as an innocent landscape." Take that, Frederick Jackson Turner.

Second, in today's NY Times, Mark Oppenheimer calls attention to a new journal, The Jewish Review of Books, which he compares to the New York Review of Books "but more Jewish, and intentionally so." The back page features a cartoon from Harvey Pekar (subject of the terrific film American Splendor), which reflects on R. Crumb's recent cartoon version of Genesis. Oppenheimer is himself a contributor to Books and Culture (make sure to check out its recently revamped website and podcasts), another analogue to the new Jewish Review.

Finally, our contributor Jon Pahl's new book is out: Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence. Somehow I doubt Jon's book will get much airtime on Fox News anytime soon, but it should get due attention elsewhere for the sheer range of subjects it covers, and its provocative thesis. I'll be dipping into this book soon and will blog more then, but in the meantime here's a little synopsis from Publisher's Weekly:

In this scholarly but generally readable monograph, Lutheran Theological Seminary professor Pahl traces the confluence of violence and religion in the United States. He argues with scholars who situate religious violence largely outside of American borders, claiming instead that it is a recurrent feature in the formation and development of the United States. Pahl emphasizes the ways in which, throughout U.S. history, the notion of sacrifice has rendered killing justifiable and even holy. Building on the work of theorists like René Girard and Mark Juergensmeyer, Pahl lays out four historical case studies—about youth, race, gender, and capital punishment—to develop his theory: Americans have found ways to consider blessed some rather brutal attitudes and behaviors... in patterns that are identifiably religious. His examination, in the epilogue, of the fusion of Christian symbols with military domination in the war on terror, while no longer a unique idea, is more extended and nuanced than most. Particularly helpful is Pahl's term innocent domination, describing a cultural attitude that champions violent systems while remaining convinced of its own virtuous intent.

PBS's God in America Series

Randall Stephens

In fall 2010 PBS will broadcast what looks to be an epic 6-part historical documentary on the American religious experience. Called God in America the program will feature religious studies scholars and historians alongside dramatizations and loads of prints, photographs, and illustrations. Subjects include: Franciscan Friars and the Pueblo leader Po'pay, Puritan leader John Winthrop and dissident Anne Hutchinson, Catholic Bishop John Hughes, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, reform Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, Scopes trial combatants William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, evangelist Billy Graham, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Moral Majority's Jerry Falwell. (See the trailer and read more on the official site. Series producer Marilyn Mellowes also worked on critically acclaimed From Jesus to the Christ: The First Christians.) The companion website promises to be a useful resource for the casual viewer and student of religious history alike.

Best of all for cash-strapped libraries, church-mouse poor scholars, and pockets-turned-inside-out departments, the full 6 hours will be available on-line.

The creators summarize the project as follows:

How has religious belief shaped American history? What role have religious ideas and spiritual experience played in shaping the social, political, and cultural life of what has become the world's most religiously diverse nation?

For the first time on television, God in America, a presentation of American Experience and FRONTLINE, will explore the historical role of religion in the public life of the United States. The six-hour series, which interweaves documentary footage, historical dramatization, and interviews with religious historians, will air over three consecutive nights on PBS beginning Oct. 11, 2010. >>>

The Thoreau Diaries

by Michael Altman

John Summers has a review of the new edition of Henry David Thoreau's The Journal 1837-1861 edited by Damion Searls over at the New Republic. Usually, I'm interested in Thoreau because of his thoughts on the Bhagavad Gita or The Laws of Menu but Summers makes an interesting point contrasting Thoreau with his Puritan forefathers:
Thoreau’s “inner voice” did not sound anything like John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, or Samuel Sewell. “It is a certain faeryland where we live,” he recorded along a walk one June afternoon. “I wonder that I ever get five miles on my way, the walk is so crowded with events and phenomena.” Like the Puritans, Thoreau envisioned New England as an enchanted world; but unlike their journals and diaries, he did not suggest an unconscious conversing intimately with God, and he broke decisively from their Augustinian style of self-accusation.
In Walden, Thoreau sits at the side of the pond and reads his Gita. He delights in the thought that the water at Walden and the water flowing from the Himalayas are one and the same and that he and the brahman share a drink together:

I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug.I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and is landed in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.
On one level, it would tempting to read Thoreau's vision of unity between Walden and the Ganges and he and the brahman through the lens of the Gita and an adoption of Indian mysticism--after all, Thoreau claimed to be an American yogi. But Summers' small point illumines that more is going on here. Thoreau is part of a larger American Protestant tradition that sees the world through eyes of enchantment. While the Puritans may have seen evil in the wilderness and Thoreau found enlightenment in the woods, both intimately connected the natural and supernatural worlds. What draws Thoreau to the Gita is not only its philosophical difference from American Christianity but also its similarities to his New England ancestry. Thoreau's reading of the Gita emphasizes its commonalities with Puritan thought. In this early period of encounter between America and other religious cultures it is too easy to focus on the ways Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson adopted and adapted Asian religious cultures without considering how they made sense of these new cultures as Americans (and a special kind of Protestant Christian American at that.) We have to really think through the American in American yogi.

The Practice of Pluralism -- 18th Century Style


Paul Harvey

This book just came to my attention via Choice -- and it's sure to be of interest to some here, so I'll reprint the review.

Häberlein, Mark.The practice of pluralism: congregational life and religious diversity in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1730-1820. Pennsylvania State, 2009. 276p bibl index afp; ISBN 9780271035215, $79.00. Reviewed in 2010may CHOICE.
This meticulously researched book explores the complex religious landscape of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, during the long 18th century. Lancaster, despite its relatively small size and inland location, served as a fertile ground for religious diversity and the interaction of Lutherans, Moravians, Calvinists, Anglicans, Quakers, Catholics, Jews, and others. Häberlein populates his book with English and Germans, clergy and laypeople, upright citizens and ne'er-do-wells, and the result is a captivating sketch of life in a growing town. Although this microhistory focuses on one town, it does not lose sight of the larger American religious and political contexts.Häberlein's
depiction of Lancaster calls attention to the more widespread themes of revival, discipline and decorum, clergy-lay clashes over authority, and philanthropy. The author combines the denominational history model (to set the stage for the stories of the larger groups) with a social history of interactions among residents of different religions. The result is a detailed snapshot of a town where the people of each church strove for stability, and even in the turbulent times of the Great Awakening and War of Independence managed to build and sustain it. Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate students, faculty.
-- S. E. Imhoff, University of Chicago

On Illness Stories and Hospital Beds

Art Remillard

I’m blogging from a bed. It's supposed to look like a hospital bed. More on that later. For now, let’s talk about stories.

Whenever I do research, I’m not looking for sources. I’m looking for stories. Sometimes I find fragments of stories in letters and diaries. Other times I find more detailed stories in memoirs and autobiographies. In any case, since I write religious histories, I want stories that convey a certain essence—something that is reflective, insightful, unique, aesthetically compelling—something that gets to the heart of an issue, event, or idea.

But even when I do find that gem of a story, I worry that I’m just not getting everything. Recall Mike Pasquier’s post on this very point as it related to Hurricane Katrina. “The circumstances just seem too aberrant, too disjointed from ordinary time and space, to capture the religious experiences of the moment,” he laments. “Scholars of religious studies, myself included, tend to use phrases like ‘lived religion’ and ‘extraliturgical religion’ to describe religion outside the carefully scripted confines of ‘official religion’ or ‘institutional religion.’ But these categories seem only to get at the before and after the storm; the now remains elusive.”

Stories of the storm, filtered through memory, will always cast a veil of mystery. Is it even possible, I wonder, to find a “now” perspective? Probably not. But illness stories might come close. In At the Will of the Body, medical sociologist Arthur Frank chronicles his journey through two illnesses, a heart attack and cancer. Religion and storytelling play no small role in his account.

Stories we tell ourselves about what is happening to us are dangerous because they are powerful. Stories come to us from many sources: some we seek, many happen without our notice, others impose themselves on our lives. We have to choose carefully which stories to live with, which to use to answer the question of what is happening to us. Jacob’s wrestling became a story I lived with as part of my personal mythology of illness. This is what it is to be ill: to wrestle through the long night, injured, and if you prevail until the sun rises, to receive a blessing. Through Jacob’s story, illness became an adventure.

Frank elaborates on the significance of stories and spirituality in The Wounded Storyteller and The Renewal of Generosity. He emphasizes how a diagnosis wounds both a person's body and identity. Reconstructing both calls for a new story, one that accounts for the illness and all of its implications. Caregivers can play a significant role in this process, if they are truly caregivers. “I reserve the name ‘caregiver’ for the people who are willing to listen to ill persons and respond to their individual experiences,” he explains in At the Will of the Body.

Is Frank’s illness story—and others like it—“now” enough? “Cancer never disappears,” he affirms. Frank will always live with his illness, and tell his illness story. And this story's religious dimension might influence readers too. As Martin Marty put it in his review, “this short work can transform lives or at least ways of thinking about living.”

This brings me to my faux-hospital bed. It’s Relay for Life time at St. Francis University. Students from my “Narrative Medicine” course decided to set up 3 hospital beds, with 3 volunteers acting as cancer patients for 24 hours. Somehow, I ended up being one of the patients. I've assumed the identity of a 40-year-old brain cancer patient. I'm married, with two kids. I’m also angry, depressed, disoriented, and enveloped in pain. My motor skills are such that the “nurses” have to feed me.

So I have a story. It's a story of humility, mainly. I've ceded my freedom to move, sleep, and eat. It's nothing like the real thing, but maybe I'll leave with an improved sense of empathy. After all, throughout the day and night, survivors have stopped to share their illness stories. The depth and detail has been nothing short of astonishing. Every story resonates with spiritual force, causing me to reflect on the limits of life, and the reality of death.

I'm almost finished now. I have crossed over in to another identity, as well as another discipline, and will be resuming "normalcy" soon. I will bring back new insights. In particular, maybe on my next trip to the archives, I'll pay closer attention to stories of illness. They seem to make the “now” a bit less elusive.

National Day of Prayer Supporters Fear Dark, Prayerless Days to Come

Randall Stephens

Allan Sears, president of the Alliance Defense Fund, worries that a US District Judge could be putting another nail in the Christian America coffin. In the face of legal threats to the National Day of Prayer, Sears calls for support. (Is there a Nationalists' Day of Prayer?) "We must see victory on the appeal," Sears writes, "and if necessary this case must go to the U.S. Supreme Court and we must see the court uphold America's history and heritage."

Frank James blogs on the dust up over at NPR: "Add National Prayer Day Ruling to Reading List," April 16, 2010.

Because her legal opinion is likely to be a subject of discussion for a while, it's well worth taking some time to read U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb's controversial decision Thursday that holds that it is unconstitutional for the president to proclaim, under Congress' direction, a National Day of Prayer. . . .

Her decision also provides anyone who's interested a useful history of how the National Day of Prayer came to be. A member of Congress with the good, appropriately Old Testament name of Absalom Robertson introduced the legislation in 1952, explaining in part a national day of prayer would be a good bulwark against those godless communists.

King Philip’s Board Game: Trivializing or Educating?


Linford D. Fisher

I really have no excuse for blogging about an upcoming board game titled “King Philip’s War,” since it has nothing to do with religion in America. Or does it? A board game that allows players to take sides and reenact one of the most horrific clashes between Natives and English colonists in the colonial period must certainly have something to do with religion.

John Poniske, a middle school social studies teacher from Maryland, claims he designed the game to educate the wider public about the war itself, since he was surprised to read about it in a military magazine (his surprise surprised me, to be frank; which textbook published in the last twenty years does not mention King Philip’s War?).

The company behind the game, MultiManPublishing, is known for its militaristic-historical games. One can purchase board games that reenact the major battles of the Civil War, for example, or a board game that might be my personal favorite, called “Warriors of God,” which allows players to participate in the wars between England and France between 1135-1453.

Am I being too cynical here? Maybe a generation of young people will be educated by this board game. But I would hope that, in the future, people might turn to less-trivializing and more nuanced and culturally sensitive ways to learn about King Philip’s War. For middle-schoolers, Dan Mandell has an age-appropriate text on the war and has recently completed a forthcoming book on the same topic for a more general adult audience. Really hardy non-specialists might even consider tackling classics like Jill Lepore’s The Name of War. Or, as a last resort, interested media- and entertainment-starved folks could even learn a lot from watching Episode One of PBS’s “We Shall Remain.” But a board game? My only consolation is that it has not (yet?) been turned into a game for the Wii.

Watch This! Jonathan Walton's Trek to Harvard Divinity School

by Ed Blum

The West coast will miss Jonathan Walton. In the same week that we cheered the tremendous new resources for the study of religion in the American West, we now boo the fact that Professor Walton will trek from Riverside, California, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, he’ll be a new professor at Harvard Divinity School. Just as in the world of sports media, it appears that an east coast bias has once again carried the day. I hope Professor Walton appreciates the nod to sports media, because in those two arenas, Walton has demonstrated his remarkable abilities to bring top notch thinking to multiple publics. Whether addressing scholarly and religious communities with his amazing book Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism, whether blogging about current trends in American and African American religion at Religion Dispatches, or whether discussing links between televangelists and professional athletes on ESPN, Walton has become a leading public voice in American religious studies.

The move to Harvard Divinity School comes a year after the publication of Watch This! I’ve been meaning to blog about this book for months (and even started crafting an entry about it and his University of California, Riverside, colleague Jennifer Scheper Hughes’s Biography of a Mexican Cross to highlight the great work coming from UCR), but kept forgetting, or putting it off, or not wanting Professor Walton to have even more great press coverage. It’s hard not to praise this work. It’s an in-depth study of black televangelists – particularly Bishop T. D. Jakes, Bishop Eddie L. Long, and Pastors Creflo Dollar and Taffi Dollar. Walton shows that to understand these televangelists, we need to move beyond a number of interpretive paradigms. First, we cannot fit them into the mold of “progressive” or “otherworldly” black religious history. Not all of African American religious history is progressive, Walton shows. But there is more to these televangelists than an otherworldly framework that forsakes the earth for heaven. Second, we cannot fit these televangelists into previous studies of religious broadcasting and the megachurch movement, because those two phenomena have often been construed as white. By using innovative media technologies to advance not-necessarily-progressive agendas, these religious leaders stand beyond our usual ways of thinking either black religion or religious media.

To analyze the place of Jakes, Long, and the Dollars in both black religious history and new movements in religious media, Walton turns to ethics and aesthetics. He shows, in fact, that the aesthetics of their ministries provide a window into their ethics. Walton showcases the ingenuity of their aesthetics – T. J. Jakes’s sanctuary is a television studio with paintings of clasped praying hands over broken water vessels, Eddie Long’s sanctuary is a theater which regularly has celebrity music ministers, and Creflo Dollar prints “Creflo Dollard, PhD” on the cover of his books to present a sense of authority and expertise beyond the ministry. All of them present themselves and their families as financially successful and overflowing in material abundance. But for all over their media savvy, Walton is deeply troubled by their social and political agendas. He finds that they are committed to hyper-American patriotism, free-market capitalism, and patriarchal conceptions of society’s ordering. By coupling conservative social messages to employ new and modern technologies, these ministers follow the examples of Oral Roberts and Aimee Semple McPherson, two prominent white evangelists and institution builders.

Walton’s study is wonderfully written, engaging, and offers religious historians new approaches to media studies, ethics, and African American religiosity. My graduate seminar had a robust conversation about each televangelist, and we contemplated new ways to study these ministers – whether from Youtube presentations to images on their websites.

To honor Professor Walton’s new venture to Cambridge, though, I wanted to pose some points that perhaps could have come at the famous “sherry hour” portion of Harvard Divinity School interviews (where candidates drink sherry after their job talks and try to answer sophisticated questions that they may or may not understand while getting slightly intoxicated). Is it possible that Professor Walton’s ethical critique of these televangelists is far more rooted in the material world than their preaching? At the end of Walton’s book, he chastises their presentation of material prosperity because it does not fit with the actual social and economic experiences of everyday African Americans. Ethics of consumption are not ethical for African American communities, Walton seems to suggest. He relies upon the sociological work of Thomas Shapiro and William Julius Wilson to show that black Americans are not accumulating wealth at the rate of white Americans – and wealth, not income, should be the measure of growth. Yet is this an appropriate ethical measure? Is it possible that psychological or emotional or even spiritual capital is being accumulated through these economic teachings and presentations? Is it possible that another form of ethical judgment – one not rooted in material gain itself but in other measures – would give us a better explanation for why so many thousands follow these preachers?

And this speaks to another problem with Walton’s Watch This. It is fundamentally a book evaluating these televangelists. It is not a book about why everyday people – men and women all over the country and world – find their teachings compelling, so compelling that they buy their books, watch their television shows, attend their conferences, and get glad when they succeed. For more on the everyday viewer, one would need to turn to Melissa Victoria Harris-Lacewell’s fantastic Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought. If Walton had spent more time with everyday viewers and consumers, he may have found different resources than financial ones being accumulated through the material aesthetics of these televangelists.

bookjacket If you know Professor Walton, then you would know these are the kinds of debates he tackles and loves. He’s the kind of professor who wants to struggle with the highest of intellectual thought and the depth of everyday culture. He endeavors to be a public intellectual whose ideas can be intelligible to those who walk within the ivory tower, kneel within their sanctuaries, and stomp along the gridiron (if you can’t tell, I’m already pining for football season!) Professor Walton, enjoy the East coast. The West will certainly miss your presence, but will continue to read your blog entries, watch your television interviews, and wait for that next great book.

The New American Ganges: Hinduism and Health in American Religious History

Today's post comes from our newest contributor to the blog, Michael J. Altman! Michael is a Ph.D. student in American Religious Culture at Emory University, where he researches the American encounter with Hinduism, and more broadly constructions of the category of the sacred in American religious history. Michael's first post, below, concerns the connections made in the 19th century between Asian religions and the spread of disease, versus more contemporary conceptions of the connections of Asian religions and health. Welcome to Michael! You can also follow Michael on Twitter: @MichaelJAltman.

Cholera, India, and Religious Epidemiology in America

Michael J. Altman

Today is the end of the Kumbh Mela—a Hindu festival held every three years—which means millions of Hindus are bathing in the Ganges river at the City of Haridwar to cleanse themselves of their wrong doing in order to achieve moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth). What does this have to do with religion in America? Or American history, even?

Glad you asked.

I recently came across a handful of articles in the Chicago Medical Examiner, and a few other medical journals from the late nineteenth century which argued that this same ritual bathing at Haridwar would lead to a cholera outbreak in the United States.

As one 1868 article from John C. Peters, M.D. of New York puts it:

“There is a great nursery of cholera in the northern part of Hindostan, at the foot of the Himalaya Mountains, viz., at HURDWAR, where the thrice sacred Ganges emerges from the mountains…The largest of all the Hindoo festivals and fairs is held at Hurdwar every year…but every twelfth year, which is particularly holy, as man as 1,500,000 to 3,000,000 of devotees and traders are often crowded together…As a matter of course, cholera is often brought to Hurdwar; often originates there; and is frequently carried away from it.”

The article then goes on to explore how various 19th century epidemics of cholera began at Haridwar and then spread to Europe. While many of the explanations focus on trade routes, a lot of them also focus on religious practices as the spreading disease. Hindu pilgrims spread the disease throughout the subcontinent and then Muslim pilgrims spread it across Russia and the Near East. As the story goes, it then spreads to southern Europe, then to Western Europe and then possibly to the United States.

The relationship between Hinduism, Islam, and southern (Catholic) Europe to the spread of cholera brings three points to mind regarding American religious history.

First, the connection between “superstitious” or “heathen” religious practice and disease highlights the relationship on the other hand between Christianity and rational Western medicine. All of the writers in these journals doctors and Protestants and the two are intimately connected.

Second, the spread of disease tracks along a religious/cultural/ethnic hierarchy from the lowest, “heathen India,” through the Muslim Middle East and Catholic Italy to Christian Europe to the highest, democratic and Protestant America, that reflects the ethnological theory of the period. At this point in American history, non-Christian religions were not only encountered through a missionary lens but also through this pseudo-scientific, ethnic, and racial lens as well. Furthermore, this religiously flavored epidemiology is another way of thinking through the connection Thomas Nast makes in his cartoon “The New American Ganges” between Catholic ritual and Indian religion.


Finally, these articles provide the background against which later nineteenth century encounters with Asian religions in America would occur. Vivekananda and members of the Brahmo Samaj could have moderate success at the World’s Parliament of Religions because their Hinduism looked nothing like this ritualized, disease spreading, “superstition.”

A century later, Asian religions would provide resources for new forms of spiritual and religious healing. That move from disease to health reveals a lot about the success of the turn of the twentieth century Indian gurus like Vivekananda and his 1960s progeny. Now, ideas about health and Hinduism in America tend more toward ideas about Transcendental Meditation than communicable diseases like cholera.

Religion in the American West: New Blog and Seminar


Paul Harvey

Brandi Denison has started a new blog that some of you will be interested in: Religion in the American West, an offshoot of the Seminar on Religion in the American West of the American Academy of Religion. The seminar website will be featuring papers to be read in advance and discussed at the 2010 AAR in Atlanta. The new accompanying blog describes itself as follows:

This group blog is a place to initiate a rhizomatic mapping of religions in the American West. With multiple contributors focusing on a variety of places, times, and points of reference, this blog will aim to capture the diversity of narratives and approaches. Contributors will review books and journal articles, reflect on the rewards and challenges of teaching religion in the American West, share syllabi, comment on current events, point out conference paper calls, share primary source documents, and provide informal reflections on the subfield.

In the coming month, look for posts from James Bennett, Roberto Lint-Sagarena, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Quincy Newell, Sara Patterson, and Tisa Wenger.

A warm welcome to Religion in the American West to the religion blogosphere.

Rival Revivals and Liberal Protestant Recovery


Rival Revivals and Liberal Protestant Recovery
Paul Harvey

Just back from the Organization of American Historians (OAH), I had planned on doing an extensive post on the excellent panel I saw there, “Rival Revivals,” featuring papers by Alison Greene, Jarod Roll, and Matt Sutton, and with commentary by Kenneth Fones-Wolf and chaired by Lizabeth Cohen. But now I don’t have to, as we have an excellent summary of the panel from the OAH reporting at HNN, with full videos of the presentations and summaries of the papers. I would just say in addition to what is there that the panel featured the interesting twist of having the fundamentalists of the 1930s/1940s (discussed in Matt’s paper) as the northern, educated elites, in comparison to the various folk preachers, Garveyites, and premillennial radicals discussed in Alison and Jarod’s papers, turning the usual stereotypes about recent fundamentalism on its head.

Cover for ROLL: Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South. Click for larger image

The material in Jarod Roll’s paper came from his book, out any day now (I saw it at the University of Illinois press table at the OAH, but wasn’t between regular hard covers yet), entitled Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the Cotton South. A bit more about the work here:

In Spirit of Rebellion, Jarod Roll documents an alternative tradition of American protest by linking working-class political movements to grassroots religious revivals. He reveals how ordinary rural citizens in the South used available resources and their shared faith to defend their agrarian livelihoods amid the political and economic upheaval of the first half of the twentieth century.

On the frontier of the New Cotton South in Missouri’s Bootheel, the relationships between black and white farmers were complicated by racial tensions and bitter competition. Despite these divisions, workers found common ground as dissidents fighting for economic security, decent housing, and basic health, ultimately drawing on the democratic potential of evangelical religion to wage working-class revolts against commodity agriculture and the political forces that buoyed it. Roll convincingly shows how the moral clarity and spiritual vigor these working people found in Pentecostal revivals gave them the courage and fortitude to develop an expansive agenda of workers’ rights by tapping into existing organizations such as the Socialist Party, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the NAACP, and the interracial Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.

Yesterday morning I attended an equally excellent panel of a very different sort: “Putting Faith in American Democracy: Remembering Liberal Protestantism in the Twentieth Century,” featuring papers by Mark Edwards, Matthew Hedstrom, and Bryan Peery, and with commentary by Mark Hulsether. Mark discussed Protestant ecumenicism in the post WWII era, emphasizing how it dovetailed with a one-world liberalism rather than a Cold War realism that we associate with Reinhold Niebuhr. Matt’s paper discussed the Protestant liberal influence on the American Library Association, which created a sort of quasi-canon of books to read each year (sort of a well-publicized “top 50” list), one which pushed a reading public towards Protestant liberal thought and thus exerted more influence culturally than we might recognize looking only at the Protestant liberals and politics. Bryan Peery, a graduate student at George Washington, covered the course of Protestant-Catholic dialogue after WW II and the vital influence of Robert McAfee Brown in the same, who held that “dialogue itself was valuable, even if it only led to more dialogue.” Those views competed with an upsurge of anti-Catholicism signaled in Paul Blanshard’s 1949 screed American Freedom and Catholic Power, which compared the Vatican to the Kremlin.

Hulsether called for more appreciation and respect for mid-century liberal Protestants. Often they are interpreted as being powerless -- thus, nowhere -- or as leading the charge for a “secular neutrality” that was just liberal Protestantism in disguise -- and hence, everywhere. He suggested that the Protestant liberals assumed a position sort of like the UN non-aligned movement in distinction to the choosing up of sides going on in the Cold War, and that their vision should be given more respect and credence than is usual in a scholarship which in recent years has made the Protestant liberals the object of target practice.

Politically radical premillennialists, preachers jumping out of airplanes to call attention to the imminent millennium, Garveyite devotees picking up the cause of radicalism in the South, Protestant liberals demanding alternative visions besides those given to them during the Cold War, northern fundamentalists wondering if the “Blue Eagle” of the NRA was the mark of the beast -- who said 20th century Protestants were boring? Actually, I just said that, a few posts ago, about Methodists. My bad.

From the Record Bin: Jewish Folk from the Fabulous 60s

Randall Stephens

Get out the hand sanitizer. It’s time to rummage through the dusty, moldy, old albums at your local Salvation Army, book store/cat sanctuary, or record shop. When I'm thumbing through LPs by Tijuana Brass, Ray Conniff, Henry Mancini, The Commodores, and Captain & Tennille, I’ll spot the occasional religious album. It might be the bicentennial/patriot/gospel mishmash of the Heritage Singers, hymns rendered for pipe organ lovers who were born before 1920, or the Jesus anthems of the Imperials. Once in a great while, I’ll come across a real gem.

I picked up a copy of the Rabbis' Sons' 1967 folk romp at a used bookstore in Bennington, Vermont. I know next to nothing about beatnik-lite Jewish folk music. So, I’ll let the liner notes and the music itself do the talking/singing. (The notes below remind me of the wordy, awkward prose that fills a typical college yearbook. It doesn't quite capture the beauty of the music.):

With the emergence of the state of Israel, folk songs became the natural vehicle of expression for the renascent spirit of a people bursting with a longing for freedom and national independence. Songs of faith and thanksgiving were mingled with exultant tones of Jewish heroism to produce a colorful array of melodies that we now know as Israeli folk music.

With this album, however, a new creation in Jewish music makes its debut. It offers an harmomous blend of Jewish liturgical texts with traditional melodic warmth, uniquely set to a modern folk beat--by The Rabbis' Sons. On this LP recording, eleven songs are presented; nine were composed by Baruch Chait, one by Mark Davidowitz, and the last is a stirring revival of a somewhat forgotten Yiddish folk song.

[Listen to my favorite track: "Hu Elokeinu (Sabbath Prayer)"]

Two guitars and a bass fiddle provide the fundamental instrumention for this complement of musical innovations. The penetrating resonance of a steel guitar is skilfully produced by David Nulman, who assisted in the guitar arrangements. Mickey Lane, as master of the bass fiddle, carries the rhythm with striking artistry.

The Black Church(?)

by Matt Sutton

There has been a lot of debate
recently among academics about the “black church.” First Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., buried it on the Huffington Post. Then, Religion Dispatches asked some prominent scholars to respond to Glaude. Some dumped more dirt on the grave, others claimed that the church had never died, and others still asserted that it had never existed in the first place. In the midst of the forum Ed Blum inadvertently provoked a firestorm. Now he turns his attention away from the bizarre-o world of the academy to take on a bigger churcher—Barack Obama. See his excellent piece in the Washington Post here. Nice work Ed!

We All Got A Sacred History

Paul Harvey

“Africa is no historical part of the world,” wrote Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the nineteenth century. Blacks, he thought, had no “sense of personality; their spirit sleeps, remains sunk in itself, makes no advance, and thus parallels the compact, undifferentiated mass of the African continent.” In short, Africans were a people without history. The World Historical Spirit that moved history forward never breathed over the continent.

"We all got history . . . It's there. You just got to look for it," said Ellen L. Hazard, descendant of a friend of Amos Webber, a free black Union Army veteran, churchman, political activist, and fraternal order member in mid-nineteenth century Massachusetts (and a personage recovered in 1996 by historian Nick Salvatore; see the link above).

Webber and his family and friends (and his descendants) knew that they lived through some of the most dramatic and revolutionary events of nineteenth-century history: the Civil War and Reconstruction. Black Americans were not just a people with history; they practically embodied American history.

With honorable exceptions, white Americans from the Revolution to the early twentieth century were Hegelians at least in terms of their relegating of Africans and African Americans to the historical dustbin. Black Americans like Amos Webber knew otherwise. And so did the legion of authors, intellectuals, philosophers, poets, schoolteachers, journalists, and sociologists, both educated and self-taught, which Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp discusses with consummate skill in her new (and long-awaited book) Setting Down the Sacred Past: African American Race Histories.

I'll have much more to say about this important work later in the summer when I have the chance to review it fully for
Books and Culture. I'll save the full-length review for that venue. For now, here's a bit more from the book's website:

Christian Militias, White Supremacists, and Scholars Who Study Them


Kelly Baker

I know that many of you who know me well for just waiting for me to comment on the Hutaree, the Michigan Christian militia group, the nine arrests, and the larger white supremacist plot to reclaim America. What might be more surprising is that I sort of don't want to. What?, you say, How could a girl who works on the 1920s Klan, religious intolerance, and the hate movement not want to talk about this? What have you done with the real Kelly Baker? Is she locked up somewhere? Has her course load gone to her head?

No, I think I might be suffering from white supremacist fatigue. For the past two weeks in my Religious Intolerance class, we have been discussing terrorism (more later, I pinky swear), domestic terror and (surprise) white supremacy's relation to religious intolerance. We examined the SPLC's new report that caused much news fervor. We looked at the racial slurs flung at members of Congress about health care reform. Menacing phone calls, faxed nooses and scary racist slurs became topics of interest. This week before the Hutaree story broke (or before I knew it broke anyway), we covered the World Church of the Creator and Christian Identity. We've debated fantastic and terrifying racial theologies, yearnings for a racial apocalypse, the weird insistence that Obama is the anti-Christ. This is the part of the semester, in which I start to feel guilty about the focus on white supremacy and domestic terrorism. This is, generally, because students aren't aware of Christian militias, The Turner Diaries, and the promotion of racial separation and longing for a return to white America. This semester, however, my students are hyperaware because of recent events and their frequency in the news cycle. We, ny students and I, have covered this topic in length, and I am terribly unsettled.

In all fairness, my students could be unsettled too, but my discontent comes the realization of something that has always lingered in the back of mind when I decided to study groups like this: Despite how fantastic and racist these worldviews are, people believe in them and act upon these ideologies. Many of you might be saying, "Well, duh." But, there is a keen difference in knowing this intellectually and watching these sorts of things happen in real time. I recite these words like a mantra to my students, to public audiences and to my peers to showcase how important work on groups like the Hutaree is, but there is often a disconnect between my study and actual events. Part of this is from the obvious, my work now centers on the 1920s Klan, whose members are long gone or aged and the structured movement no longer exists. Sure, there have been more recent incarnations of the Klan but they aren't central to my more historical case study. The disconnect has allowed me to write on the 1920s Klan in depth and to showcase how common prejudices and positions that the order held dear were. The recent upsurge in coverage on the contemporary movement gives me the opportunity to showcase how my historical work is important to our particular moment, but it also gives me pause. Part of me wants to retreat into my historical work and ignore the Hutaree altogether.

The other part of me wants to proclaim how these movements are similar to the 1920s Klan and how these movements feared the loss of white dominance in America. The Hutaree don't present a complete picture of our nation in this moment but they do signal the growth of white desperation about the direction of our nation (Chip Berlet catalogues Hutaree's beliefs at Religion Dispatches). For this particular movement, America has lost her religiosity and her racial hue, and this Christian militia also continues a long tradition of Hofstader's "paranoid style"in American culture. Their positions aren't new, but they are important to understanding why certain segments of white America finds these ideas appealing. It, of course, is about more than loss of dominance, frustration or anxiety. It is also about the soul of America, the religiosity of Americans, and America's role in a global affairs. The Hutaree tells us something how Americans envision our nation and the place of religion and race in that vision. Somebody has to study these groups, even if we (myself included) sometimes might not want to.
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