Catholic Women and the Public Sphere in Tri-Faith America


I'm happy to introduce our newest contributor today. Karen Johnson is a PhD Candidate in history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is finishing up a dissertation called “The Universal Church in a Segregated City: Catholic Interracialism in Chicago, 1928-1963” which looks at the ways Catholics – black and white, men and women, lay and religious – struggled with one another, their church, and their city in order create a more just racial order.  It argues that race and religion in American history are inseparable and always affecting one another, and brings religion into the narrative of the long civil rights movement.  Karen lives in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood with her husband Eric, who teaches high school history (so you can just imagine their conversations), and German Shepherd Logan, who likes to hunt flies and take long walks through the city. Her first post today reflects on her panel on Catholic women recently held at the OAH meeting. 

Catholic Women and the Public Sphere in Tri-Faith America at the OAH.

The 2012 OAH in Milwaukee was, of course, excellent.  I had the privilege or participating on a panel on lay Catholic women and public life in the middle decades of the twentieth century.  What, you might say, there were Catholic women engaged in the public sphere?  As a matter of fact, there were, although sometimes sources about them can be hard to find. 

Mary Henold’s talk, “The Attitude of Sit-With-Hands-Folded-Until Someone-Tells-Me-What-to-Do-is-Definitely-Not-It: Margaret Mealey and the Politics of Reform, 1963-1975,” explored the challenges Henold has had finding sources about how the “women in the pews” responded to the changes brought about by Vatican II.  Unlike the actors who left nice paper trails that populate Henold’s first book, Catholic and Feminist, these actors are somewhat more elusive.  Some sought to redefine what it meant to be a Catholic woman by developing new ways of serving in church and emphasizing that women must grow up and stop being so dependent on their pastors and husbands, while others used Vatican II to justify what they were already doing.  I’m looking forward to Henold’s book about these women in the pews.

Tim Lacy’s “‘A Mind like a Rapier’: Clare Boothe Luce, Catholicism, and the Public Sphere, 1946-1964” explored the meaning of Boothe Luce’s conversion to Catholicism.  Boothe Luce was a fiery Republican who converted to Catholicism under the guidance of Bishop Fulton Sheen (who you might remember as the star of the T.V. show Life is Worth Living) after her daughter died in a car accident.  Lacy asked if Booth Luce’s religious conversion changed her politics.  The answer?  No.  But she did become a little more humble and subdued. Lacy’s paper raised questions about the meaning of conversion.

My paper, “Catholic Pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement: Lay Women, Race, and Interracial Justice” considered Catholic women and conversion of a different sort: becoming interracialists.  It showed how an older generation of black and white, religious and lay Catholics marshaled the theological resources of their faith and developed interracial spaces in a highly segregated city where black and white people could get to know one another.  These theologies and spaces enabled Catholic youth like Peggy Roach and others to change their perspectives about prejudice, segregation, and discrimination and gain strength to shape their Church, city and nation.

Jeanne Petite, our commentator, pointed us to the context linking these groups: the rise of what Kevin Schultz has called “Tri-Faith America” - and what Will Herberg pointed to in his Protestant Catholic Jew.  Together, the panels gave a nice depiction of the varied forms of Catholics women’s public engagement and pushed forward the conversation about how gender and race contributed to the shaping of tri-faith America.

I’d like to give a quick plug for one of the best panels at the OAH: “The End of the History Survey Course.”  The panelists, David Voelker, Joel Sipress, Nikki Mandell, and Lendol Caulder – all who have published on the scholarship of teaching and learning - demonstrated how far we’ve come since Caulder’s 2006 JAH article “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey.”  The panelists reminded us that must stop assuming we can cover everything; this model is a living fossil of 19th century “scientific” practices of history.  Instead, they said, we must teach students to think historically by considering the arguments about the past, the power of stories, and the questions historians ask of the past.  By merging content and skill, we can offer our students so much more than just material they will memorize for the test and then promptly forget.  We can help them become thoughtful, knowledgeable, genuine citizens.

Frequencies and the Aesthetics of Spirituality

By Michael J. Altman

Theologians. They don't know nothing. About my soul

Frequencies, the collaborative genealogy of spirituality curated by Katherine Lofton and John Modern, has become quite a brand across the religion blogosphere. The folks at the Immanent Frame have been posting a series of reflections on the project and its 100 entries ranging from chicken sandwiches to iPhones to my own adviser writing about LSD. The posts themselves are remarkable and the reviews have been excellent as well. I especially appreciated the bitchy essay from Martin Kavka and the musical musings of Jason Bivins.

The most striking thing about Frequencies in my eyes is its beauty. There are moments of wonderful prose, yes, but the collection is striking to gawk at on the screen. More than that, Frequencies has its own aesthetic. So, I have one question for Frequencies, a question I don't see anyone asking:

What if Frequencies looked like this...

...or this...

...or even this?

What happens if we take the same text, the same objects in the collection, and reframe them? What if Finbarr Curtis's essay on his father and the American Dream appeared surrounded by patriotic kitsch instead of smooth lines and a beautiful piece of art? What if Patton Dodd's thoughts about evangelical Eugene Peterson looked like they were posted by a Sunday School teacher and Gary Laderman's history of LSD looked like a Deadhead blog? Would we still see these objects a spirituality? How would the meaning of these texts shift in a different aesthetic? How much of the spirituality resonating through Frequencies is in its aesthetics? It just looks like spirituality--doesn't it?

Compare Frequencies, the genealogy of spirituality, with the American Academy of Religion's website. The AAR is the institutional hub for the study of "religion"--that thing that spirituality is so often not--and its website stands in stark contrast to Frequencies. So much news and so many menus. You have to scroll down a page with the colors of doctor's office wallpaper. Or, to go to a paragon of institutional religion, look at the Vatican. A brown background? A giant picture of the Pope in the center around which myriad links to various departments and documents circle. Look at Christianity Today. So much stuff. So many pictures. It's just so complicated. Now go back to Frequencies. There are no resonances with those other sites. They are on a different aesthetic wavelength. Frequencies has no institutional news, no leaders, no sidebars and frames. It is clean and sleek. It is spirituality--right?

Now, look at Apple. The iPad sits in front of you like the hamburger in a Hardee's commercial.  The menu across the top is full of one word options and there's not much to scroll down to. It's all right there in black, white and gray. It's clean and sleek. Now I understand why the image of a cup of coffee illustrating Adam Frank's "science" entry fits so well as the wallpaper on my iPad. There are resonances between Apple and Frequencies--they share an aesthetic wavelength.

Art plays a big role in Frequencies, illustrating many of the entries. The artistic resonances emerge when we look Frequencies alongside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. MoMa is clean with big pictures and simple menus of black and white. The menu items are verbs: visit, explore, learn, support, shop. Frequencies asks you to seek. There are resonances.

I keep wondering about the musical resonances of Frequencies. It's metaphors invoke sound--frequencies, tune in, wavelengths. Yet it is a startlingly silent website. What is the soundtrack for Frequencies?

I started this post with a Wilco lyric. Check out the cover to that album on the right. A Ghost is Born could be the soundtrack to Frequencies (listen to "Handshake Drugs" while you read  Luís León's "cannabis club" entry). The cover fits right in with the artwork and feel of Frequencies. A simple egg. White on white with grays and black, while Jeff Tweedy doubly negates theologians. Again, resonances. We could look to other bands for other resonances. Who else might offer the audio for Frequencies words and images? Maybe Arcade Fire? How about Bon Iver? It might be a stretch, but how about Lana Del Rey? Who do you think of? Resonances?

Apple, an art museum, and indie rock, what does this all point too? What is this aesthetic wavelength we've tuned into? What do all these resonances mean? (All due respect to John Corrigan's "meaninglessness".) I think they point to two things. First, these resonances point to the cultural location of Frequencies within the American middle brow--that space of public radio, iPads, indie rock, the Atlantic, and SXSW. Some of its contents such as automatic writing or This American Life come from and appeal to middle brow America. Meanwhile, the aesthetics of the site and the inclusion of these objects alongside others like Eugene Peterson or Chick-Fila lift these "lower" objects up as spiritual and middle brow. Putting "Eugene Peterson" into the format of a poorly constructed webpage with Jesus fishes down the side highlights the ways Frequencies engenders spirituality in the mundane. Eugene Peterson is spirituality in sleek design next to LSD and A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda. Put him in Comic Sans Serif font next to a Zondervan NIV Bible and a set of Precious Moments figurines and he's just evangelical.

This leads to the second point. When Frequencies claims to be a genealogy of spirituality it also admits to being part of the spirituality family--a family located within middle brow culture. To me the project is less of a Foucaultian genealogy and more of an genealogy. It is the grandchildren and great grandchildren tracing out their lineage. There are resonances across the middle brow cultural spectrum, from high end consumer electronics to MoMA to indie rock, because they too are all children in this great family of spirituality. They all share similar cultural DNA that we could trace out historically if we tried. Frequencies is not just a catalog of culturally middle brow spirituality, it is a child of  culturally middle brow spirituality.

For me, Frequencies is the Portlandia of spirituality. Like the incredible hipster sketch comedy show, Frequencies smartly digests, analyzes, and catalogs hipster culture and in the process produces some of  best pieces of hipster culture. It slides back and forth from critiquing the culture and situating itself within the culture. Likewise, Frequencies is more than a genealogy of spirituality, it is a prime example of spirituality, down to the aesthetics of the flickering pixels on the screen. It just looks like spirituality.

A Churchless Man Seeking the Pure Fellowship: Or, Will the Real Roger Williams Please Stand Up?


I'm happy today to post this guest gig from Curtis Freeman, Research Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School. Freeman specializes in Baptist history, and here reflects on views of Roger Williams as seen in John Barry's new book and elsewhere. We had previously blogged about this book here. 

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of LibertyGordon Wood has written an insightful review of John Barry’s important book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. Wood credits Barry with having written one of best biographies of Williams to date, which as he observes is significant “since Williams is surely the most written about figure in seventeenth-century America.” Barry confesses to not being interested in the biography of Williams’ life per se, but rather in his role in the shape of religion in American public life, and in particular the beginning of the argument about church and state. It is here, however, where Wood observes that Barry’s book overreaches, noting the title, which suggests that Williams was the creator of the American soul, is surely exaggerated.

Barry, however, is not alone in linking Williams with the founding of American democracy. Robert Bellah appealed to Roger Williams as the fountainhead of radical American individualism. More recently Martha Nussbaum, in her book Liberty of Conscience, similarly appealed to Williams as the progenitor of American democratic liberalism. It is an old thesis, forgotten but not dead, first voiced by Vernon Lewis Parrington, in his 1927 Main Currents in American Thought. Parrington presented Williams as a seminal thinker, describing him as an individualistic mystic and forebear of Transcendentalism, but most importantly as a political philosopher and forerunner of democratic liberalism. Parrington portrayed Williams as a proto-Jeffersonian who anticipated Locke and the natural rights school, thus becoming one of the great heroes in the progressive vision of American intellectual life.

But it is not just academics that have bought into the view of Williams as a civil libertarian. Denominational newspaper editor and church-state separation advocate, J. M. Dawson, claimed Williams as a representative of the historic Baptist position of church-state separation that was transmitted through Isaac Backus and John Leland to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Dawson’s panegyric account in his 1956 book Baptists and the American Republic makes for a nice story, if it were only true. It is not the fact that Williams was only a Baptist for a few months that makes Dawson’s claim unbelievable. It is that Dawson showed no historical connection of the appropriation of Williams by Jefferson. There is, however, historically demonstrable evidence to indicate that John Locke, not Roger Williams, was the principle source of religious liberty for Jefferson and Madison.

Perry Miller countered the progressive view of Williams derived from Parrington and challenged scholars to engage Williams on his own terms, which were theological not political. Though Barry identifies Williams as puritan, as Wood notes, he looks chiefly to Edward Coke and Francis Bacon (neither of which was a puritan) to find sources of Williams’ political thought. Wood’s suspicion of historical revisionism puts him in the company of his Brown colleague, William McLoughlin, and his Harvard mentor, Perry Miller. McLoughlin concluded that “despite the valiant efforts of Williams, almost no one in colonial New England ever praised his experiment, sought his advice, quoted his books, or tried to imitate his practices.” Perry Miller put it succinctly: “As for any direct influence of [Roger Williams’] thought on the ultimate achievement of religious liberty in America, he had none.”

What Wood reminds us, and what Barry misses, is that Williams was a radical separating puritan. In his classic study on Williams, Edmund Morgan corrected the view of Cotton Mather that Williams had “a windmill in the head” and “less light than fire in him.” Still, Morgan concluded that Mather was right to see the danger of the radicalism Williams represented to civic life. The often invoked analogy in which Williams likened the church to a garden was not an account of the separation of the church and the state where Williams expressed equal concern about protecting the integrity of both church and state.

On the contrary, Williams envisioned a radical ecclesiology in which the church must be strictly separated from the world. Initially he thought this could be achieved by weeding the garden, first among the Separatists and then with the Baptists. When his hopes of a radically pure church faded, he renounced ties to all churches. He lamented that God had broken down the wall and the worldly vines had choked out the garden. The only hope was to await the coming of Christ, the heavenly gardener, who would prune back the weeds so that the roses might again bloom. Far from being a forerunner of Jeffersonian democracy, Williams was a stickler for an apocalyptic separatist ecclesiology. He became, as Perry Miller aptly described him, “a churchless man seeking the pure fellowship.” Revisionists seem to want the myth of a de-puritanized Williams as the champion of liberal democracy. The real Roger Williams was a much more complicated and untame figure than these sanitized versions can tolerate.

For a fuller account of the historiographical interpretations of Roger Williams see Curtis W. Freeman, “Roger Williams, American Democracy, and the Baptists,” Perspectives in Religious Studies, vol. 34 no. 3 (Fall 2007): 267-286.

Bible Belt to Sun Belt, Redux

Paul Harvey

It's a happy coincidence that I got my brand-spanking-new paperback copy of Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, on the very day that I learned that the book (which as a dissertation won the Allan Nevins Prize, and as a book previously won the AHA's Dunning Prize -- biggies, both) was just awarded the Ellis Hawley Prize of the Organization of American Historians. Some high honors indeed for the former volleyball star from the Great Plains of Socialist Canada.

The coincidence reminded me it's a good time periodically to revisit some of our older blog classics, one of which was the interview we conducted last year with Darren and printed here. So, without further adieu, in honor of the book's success and newly being made available for your course use in paperback, here is Part I of our interview from last year below; and from there you can click on the link for Part two here (or just follow the  link below). Congratulations again to Darren.

PH: Darren, how does a volleyball star like you from the Great Plains of Socialist Canada end up studying and writing this massive book about conservative southern evangelicals in twentieth-century California? Take us through some of your professional trajectory that got you to this book.

DD: The Great Plains, Socialist Canada, and volleyball may have had something to do with my obsessions. As a kid growing up in Alberta, I had a warped fascination with all things American; I read more about George Washington than John A. Macdonald, I loved U.S. college football, and my family’s annual vacation usually took us south (Edmontonians don’t drive north unless ice fishing or moose hunting are in order). South meant Southern California, a place where we could escape the Great Plains tundra for beaches and Disneyland. It wasn’t uncommon for us to use some of the 30 hours of driving time to debate why Americans hate government so much and Canadians don’t think it’s so bad. Then, while playing university volleyball, I had the chance to compete against California programs I followed as a high schooler. I had the best match of my career against the Pepperdine Waves, despite being heckled by some brutally tough fans. So perhaps the book can be boiled down to catharsis—some subconscious attempt to reclaim (or maybe purge) a familiar past…but I’ll leave that up to my sister psychologist to figure out.

The “professional trajectory” can be summed up more simply. While struggling to find a Ph.D. dissertation topic, I read (and loved) Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors and thought more could be done to explain Southern California conservatism, so I set out to do it. My goal was to write a book that embedded evangelicalism in the larger story of post-1930s politics by teasing out its connections to suburbanization, political economy, race relations, and the politics of labor, education, housing, and business. I wanted to thread evangelicalism into mainstream narratives of U.S. political history, which still tend to paint evangelicalism as a sideshow.

PH: I read somewhere, on another online interview I think it was, that in part this book is a response (and historical critique) of the "What's the Matter with Kansas" thesis, which of course holds that a fair number of Americans have been effectively snookered into voting against the own material economic interests by forces which have sold them on a falsely cultural populism. Am I right in seeing this book in part as a response, and if so, how so?
DD: I didn’t set out to address Frank’s thesis, but my book touches on a few of its themes. At the least, it tries to add a layer of complexity to Frank’s notion that Main Street populists have been “duped” by Wall Street corporate types into voting against their economic interests. First of all, the “duped” motif has its limitations. Some of the Wall Street types I include in my story could be classified as evangelical populists themselves whose own politics covered a range of issues beyond their pocketbooks; economic interest wasn’t their sole interest. And many of the Main Street types I talk about continually measured their economic interests against the “culture wars” agenda they’ve purportedly been spoon-fed from above, so to say they were snookered into doing something against their wellbeing shortchanges their own capacity as rational political actors.

Along this same line, I think Frank’s provocative critique also downplays the processes of negotiation that have taken place between Wall Street and Main Street over the past half-century. The people I talk about were embroiled in a struggle against liberalism that started much earlier than the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s, and the alliances they forged to fight their battles were not static, uncontested, or permanent. The Main Street evangelicals I write about were never perfectly or entirely or always willing to do Wall Street’s dirty work in the trenches, and the evangelical businessmen I talk about sometimes acted on behalf of their rank-and-file brethren in ways that defied fiscal logic.

And ultimately, I’m hesitant to say someone is voting or acting against their best interests, as if I have some deep wisdom they don’t; I can’t even figure out what my own best interests are, let alone someone else’s, so I’m not that eager to pass judgment.

PH: The people you study didn't wait around for Rand Paul or the contemporary Tea Party to develop a pretty deep-rooted antipathy towards the New Deal and the expanded state that came out of the New Deal. Ironies abound here, of course, since the processes set in motion by the New Deal brought many of them to California in the first place. When did the subjects you study come to distrust the New Deal state, and how did they get to that point given their origins as poorer folk who were supposed to be one bulwark of the New Deal coalition? What role did religion play in that critique?

DD: I don’t think the people I study ever truly trusted the New Deal state. They certainly relied on it during times of trouble and they believed it was their right as white American citizens to do so; however contradictory or not, they thought that the federal government had a responsibility to provide short-term aid in exceptionally bad circumstances, and be the last resort in times of need. Roosevelt came through for these citizens, and they returned the favor by supporting him. But their first choice was always a limited state; as soon as times got better, Washington, they believed wholeheartedly, was to move aside.

When government didn’t move aside, they got angry. Their anger was politicized right after World War II, during the labor wars that erupted in the defense plants and neighborhoods that had lured them west.

Amid post-war adjustments, when California’s Social Democrats pressed for an active government that would support industrial unionism and race reform—for an expanded New Deal, in other words—southern evangelicals attempted to protect their interests as white workers and homeowners through a movement called Ham and Eggs, which combined calls for Christian revival and morality with a championing of the independent producer. This was William Jennings Bryan’s (and Huey Long’s) Populism reborn, and it scared Social Democrats, who believed that Ham and Eggs was irrational and racist. Ham and Eggs failed, leaving liberals in charge of California’s Democratic Party and evangelicals convinced that a coordinated assault on “big labor” and “big government” was in order. It’s in this moment that they began recasting Roosevelt and the New Deal as twin evils that had allowed socialism to creep in to American society.

It’s also in this moment that they began shifting their party affiliation to Independent and Republican. Evangelical businessmen, who at the time were helping form an anti-statist/free market movement, urged their fellow churchgoers along in this thinking. These sides would unite in the 1950s thanks, in large part, to Right-to-Work campaigns, which sought to rollback the power of unions in the workplace (sound familiar?).

PH: It's rather amazing to me that in reading your book alongside Bethany Moreton's To Serve God and WalMart, two previously obscure tiny colleges in Arkansas - John Brown University and Harding University -- have suddenly become central to the narrative of twentieth-century religion and conservatism, and hence to the entire narrative of twentieth-century American politics. As far as California higher educational institutions go, only Pepperdine plays as central a role in your book. Tell us something briefly about those two institutions, and what role they play in your book

Funny thing is, Bethany and I met in the one-room archive of John Brown University, tucked away in the foothills of the Ozarks. We were told that no researcher had visited in quite some time…yet there we were, two dissertators from “up north” eagerly flipping through files and splitting time at the photocopier.

The reason we were there is because we recognized that evangelical institutions have rich stories to tell. Historians often focus on preachers and the pews when tracking the evangelical Right. But a much thicker history of this phenomenon emerges when we follow the money trails that link evangelical schools to their patrons (highly politicized businessmen), or read between the lines to see how a college’s pedagogy endorses certain political expressions.

So, for instance, John Brown University and Harding University wrapped their pedagogy in a curriculum (“Head, Heart, and Hand”) that stressed practical education in the trades and business, full immersion in boots-strap entrepreneurialism, and staunch defense of traditional family values. These schools’ founders saw that this curriculum as a counter to the liberal elitism of the Ivy League, and the only answer to society’s “socialist” drift. Like countless other southern colleges, these two schools were near financial collapse in the 1930s. To save themselves—and preserve their independence—they approached the nation’s most powerful (and often evangelical) corporate leaders for support and got it, with the promise that they would train the next generation of evangelicals in a corporate-friendly environment. During the Cold War, as public education expanded and private schools faltered, John Brown, Harding, and their peer institutions stepped up their search for corporate help, by hosting annual “Freedom Forums,” for instance, which gathered CEOs, educators, and activists from around the country. In reaching out in this way, at such a formative moment in American political development, these schools essentially became the conservative movement’s first “think tanks” and marshaling zones.

I think a second benefit of studying these schools is the way they account for regional change in the post-Depression era. One of my book’s goals was to track the emergence of a Sunbelt axis of power—of the kind Kevin Phillips and Kirkpatrick Sale first designated in the 1970s as spanning from California to the Carolinas. Scholars have debated the strengths of the Sunbelt thesis, with detractors often stressing important differences in Atlanta, Houston, and Los Angeles’ metropolitan politics, or the disjuncture between notions of citizenship in Oxnard, California and Oxford Mississippi as reasons to jettison the concept. I think the Sunbelt concept is useful, and one way I saw it play out was in the realm of evangelical higher education. The more I dug the more I became fascinated with the way these schools (as well as west-coast ones like Pepperdine) linked the futures of the South and West through institutional channels, laying the groundwork for a broader, Sunbelt powerbase. Critics of the Sunbelt thesis claim that their research on urban development doesn’t bare the burden of this concept, but perhaps they should look to simpler data for evidence—bank statements for Christian colleges, which demonstrate Californian, Texan, and Floridians’ shared investment in places like John Brown University, or school enrollment books that track the flow of teens from Tulsa to Los Angeles, Orange County to the Ozarks—teens with last names like “Harvey."
Part II of the interview is here.

Saturday's Warriors and Mormon Correlation

Paul Harvey

Today's must-read for ya'll: Matt Bowman, "Saturday's Warriors: How Mormons Went from Beard-Wearing Radicals to Clean-Cut Conformists." Aside from covering the short-lived, cute-if-cringe-inducing history of "Mormon rap," the piece expertly details the origins of the policy of "correlation" in early twentieth-century progressivism's emphasis on efficiency and order, its translation in the world of the modern corporation, its usefulness in creating a church capable of handling growth and expansion, and the struggles to translate mid-century corporate correlation into a more contemporary idiom of pluralism and self-expression. A little excerpt:

Saturday’s Warrior
—the title alludes to the latter days—was an unprecedented pop phenomenon in the small world of midcentury Mormondom at least in part because it struck with perfect pitch the tone of that Mormon moment. In the 1960s and ’70s, many Mormons were disappointed with American culture, which seemed to them to be spinning wildly out of control. The musical’s heroes urge their wayward siblings to protect themselves by embracing a rigorous code of personal morality and loyalty to the clean-cut church that teaches it. Saturday’s Warrior is, essentially, a tract from Mormon parents desperate to keep their children out of the dangerous clutches of hippies.

But Saturday’s Warrior is not only an amusing bit of Mormon cultural ephemera. It is also a remarkable relic of the midcentury bureaucratic reform effort that gradually became the defining force of 20th-century Mormonism. This program went under the vague and harmless-sounding name of “correlation.” If you’ve ever wondered how Mormons went from beard-wearing polygamous radicals (think Brigham Young) to your well-scrubbed, wholesome, and somewhat dorky next-door neighbors (think Mitt Romney—albeit with not quite so much money), the short answer is “correlation.”

The piece also makes a nice intro into Matt's book The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. And it's an entree, too, into the culture, with both its strengths and its weaknesses, that has helped to shape and inform Mitt Romney. 

Bad Religion, Good Conversation?


Bad Religion, Good Conversation?
 by Elesha Coffman

Despite being a basically optimistic, progress-oriented, and historically amnesiac nation, the United States remains fertile ground for jeremiads. Bookstore shelves groan with laments for the fall of America’s economy, global stature, higher education system, civil discourse, environment, family structure, capacity for innovation … you name it, it’s apparently going down the tubes. “There was a time,” sang the doomed Fantine in Les Mis, “then it all went wrong.” Even the reviewers who nuance these assessments—pointing out that Americans still manufacture a lot of stuff, for instance, or that our universities attract high numbers of foreign students—tend to stay with the minor key. The broad contours of the narratives of decline are rarely challenged.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s new book Bad Religion: How WeBecame a Nation of Heretics would seem to fit into this dirgelike cultural soundtrack. He introduced his argument in the April 8 issue of the Times, writing that, until recent decades, “a Christian center … helped bind a vast and teeming nation together.” Today, though, “that religious common ground has all but disappeared.” As evidence, Douthat cited the religious diversity of the field of 2012 presidential contenders: Obama, whom he calls an “unchurched Christian” with “ties to liberation theology”; Romney, a member of “the ultimate outsider church”; and Santorum, a “staunchly orthodox Christian” whose “traditionalist zeal has made him a bigger target even than Romney or Obama for fascination, suspicion and hysteria.” No wonder conspiracy theories have replaced political dialogue, Douthat asserted. These men, and their supporters, might as well have come from different planets.
My own copy of Bad Religion is on order at my local bookstore, so I can’t comment on it yet (maybe next week?). What fascinates me at this stage is the response Douthat is getting across the media and blogosphere. He’s lamenting the fall of mainline religion in America—hardly a new argument—but instead of “yes, but …” nuance reviewers are reacting with the sound of a needle scratched across the giant, dirgy, jeremiad record. Not all reviewers are pushing back so hard; Mark Oppenheimer at the NYT deemed the book flawed but “responsible and fair,”and John Presnall at First Things called it “exemplary of a serious grappling with these postmodern theological conundrums.” 

 But Michael Sean Winters at The New Republic judged the book “simplistic and coarse,” the product of a writer “who does not seem to have any idea what he is talking about,” while over at Religion News Service Mark Silk declared Douthat’s column “such a tissue of non- and half-truth, of historical misconception and ideological prejudice, that it requires an interlinear gloss to set the story straight” (which Silk then provided) Who knew that another flower laid on the coffin of mainline religion would provoke such a heated reaction?

Responses to Douthat’s column and book, probably like responses to all of his writing, break more or less along conservative/liberal lines, but I sense two other themes running through the commentary. One is the generalist’s constant vulnerability to challenge from specialists. Douthat is, by profession, an opinion journalist, while ranks his book atop its bestseller lists for church history, Catholicism, and religious studies/sociology. That’s at least three fields full of experts willing and able to offer critique.

Specialist critique can be devastating. Notably, David Chappell’s History Society blogpost pointed out that, contra one of Douthat’s major points in his column, it was political coercion—not widely accepted moral and theological arguments—that undermined support for segregation.  Specialist critique can also feel a bit labored. For example, Silk countered Douthat’s observation that “Post-J.F.K., many of America’s established churches went into an unexpected decline” by highlighting the growth of Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God churches. Surely those are not the churches Douthat meant, nor the ones anyone would expect him to mean in context—though, as Silk pointed out, “established churches” is a curious and insufficiently clear label.

The other thing that strikes me in this commentary is how much is still perceived to be at stake in discussions of 20th century religious declension. When I first read Douthat’s column, I was mildly surprised that someone with no direct connection to the Protestant mainline—Douthat was baptized as an Episcopalian but attended evangelical and Pentecostal churches before converting to Catholicism at age 17—would perceive that tradition’s decline as a loss. This wasn’t the familiar insider mourning (seminary professors asking “Whither the mainline?”), insider resignation (“We’ll have to make do with less, and it’s probably good for us”), or outsider celebration (evangelicals hailing the decay of mushy liberalism, religion scholars glad to have old divinity school monkeys off their backs). Granted, Douthat also expressed concern about Catholic losses, and about the erosion of a “mere Christianity” he judged to have been shared by the majority of American believers, but mainline decline clearly weighed on him. Why would he care? And why does anyone else care whether his nostalgic look back at the pre-Kennedy era, which he personally missed by about 25 years, paints a recognizable picture?

Indirectly, some of the criticism aimed at Douthat seems to confirm his premises that orthodoxy matters and that “religious common ground” is an important component of a functioning civil society. Among their other charges, Winters complained that Douthat ignored elements of Catholic social teaching (especially regarding labor and capital), and Silk argued that Obama’s and Romney’s religious traditions are pretty solidly mainstream (Santorum’s, not so much). In other words, although different writers populate the categories of “orthodoxy” and “religious common ground” quite differently, the categories are not going away, and they are considered relevant not just to the survival of a set of religious institutions but to the health of the body politic. Whatever else they did and did not do, mid-20th century mainline Protestants and Catholics kept these topics prominent in national conversation. Evidently, it’s a conversation a lot of people feel strongly enough about to continue.

American Islam in Dearborn: A Portrait

Today's guest post is from Dan Bryan. He received a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago, and has founded the site American History USA. His goal is to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy. What follows is a summary and short history of the Muslim community in Dearborn, Michigan. Two books that were very helpful to the author were Islam in America by Jane Smith, and American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion by Paul Barrett. 

 Henry Ford paid good wages in the 1910s, and he hired workers from a wide variety of backgrounds. For whatever reason, a number of Lebanese were among those that moved to Dearborn, Michigan to take advantage. Most of them were Christians, but those who practiced Islam formed the nucleus of one of the largest Muslim communities in the United States. In 1937, this community built the Dearborn mosque. It is one of the oldest mosques in the United States and remains open to the present day.

 The largest group of Muslims in Dearborn still consists of Lebanese Sunnis. Over time, their presence has been augmented by immigrants from many different areas. Some other communities with a sizable presence in Dearborn include Iraqis, Yemenis, and Palestinians. Overall, about 40,000 Muslims live in Dearborn, forming 40% of the population.

No matter what the origin, the question of reconciling the practice of Islam with American culture has never been an easy one. Women and the Hijab One of the most visible decisions is made by every woman in the community -- whether to wear the hijab. There is no consensus on this practice, and the women themselves are about evenly split. In the general public, a hijab is almost always the first thing that a Muslim woman is judged by. Reactions from non-Muslims can range from awkwardness to outright hostility, due to the perceived cultural divide. On the other hand, a woman not wearing the veil exposes herself to criticism from the conservative members of her own community, whom she frequently comes into contact with. There is no equivalent choice for a Christian woman that marks her so powerfully in the eyes of strangers.

The argument in favor of the hijab is a traditional one, based on the Qur'an. One line, for instance, states about women that, "They shall not reveal any parts of their bodies, except that which is necessary." As with most religious texts there is a level of ambiguity. Clerics have commonly interpreted verses like this to mean that a woman's hair should not be visible in public.

Increasingly, Muslim women in America have disagreed. They argue that the Qur'an simply demands that women dress modestly and not flaunt their bodies to the public eye. They also point out that the hijab is an Arab garment and a product of that culture -- not a universal garment and never mentioned in the Qur'an. While it is likely to be a contentious point for the foreseeable future, there does seem to be a gradual trend towards more women giving up the veil.

For those who view the veil as fundamental to Islam, this arouses great consternation. Sunnis, Shiites, and Politics Dearborn Muslims across the board tended to support George Bush in the 2000 election. His policies on Iraq once elected, however, divided them quickly. As with the rest of the country, the 2003 invasion was a very polarizing event in Dearborn. The Sunni community was furious. They felt betrayed by the move and saw it a misguided act of imperialism by the Bush Administration. The fact that in a new Iraq, on the balance, the power of Sunnis would be greatly reduced was also no small factor. On the other hand, the Shiite community was ecstatic. Many had relatives in Iraq or were refugees themselves, and they unanimously despised Saddam. They had been more inclined to view George H.W. Bush's non-intervention in their 1991 uprising as the true betrayal.

As the Muslim community has grown in size, the Sunni and Shiite population have split into different mosques and neighborhoods. A key event in this regard was the opening of the Islamic Center of America in 2005, which is a Shiite mosque and the largest U.S. mosque of any denomination. As the minority, Shiites claim that they are frequently ostracized and disrespected by the Sunnis. In the days before the two groups could worship separately there were arguments over the correct forms of prayer, and Shiites often would be prohibited from leading any of the proceedings.

Now when vandalism occurs, both sides are quick to blame members of the other sect. In one event, the Islam Center of America was vandalized in 2007 with anti-Shiite graffiti. In spite of this division, all Muslims could agree that the 9/11 attacks made them feel disquieted. The city became closely watched by the FBI and other counter-terrorism agencies, and men were detained and a few even deported for their connections to organizations in the Middle East. Community spokesmen and newspapers view many of these cases as unjust, while reaffirming their own commitment to the U.S.

Overall, the Dearborn community displays many of the trappings of American life. The cars, houses, and clothes look similar to those seen in other suburban communities. The teenagers strive for their independence, while parents hope that their young children will live in a more accepting culture of the future. There is a universal quality to these ambitions that mixes with the practice of Islam. The devout seek to find the proper balance, in the long tradition of American immigrants and their descendants.

Sehat wins Frederick Jackson Turner Award, and Other Congratulations!

Paul Harvey

Remember a while back when I said that books that got early extended attention on this blog seem to be on the inside track to winning the biggest awards - including Darren Dochuk's Dunning Prize for From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, and Anne Hyde's Bancroft Prize for Empires, Nations, and Families? (Update: Dochuk's book has also just been awarded the Ellis Hawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians -- congrats again to Darren!).

Ok, yes, you do remember. Now add another one to your list. David Sehat, whose important book The Myth of American Religious Freedom has been discussed here extensively (including our two part interview with Sehat last year), has been named the 2012 winner of the Frederick Jackson Turner award from the Organization of American Historians. The award goes to the author of what is judged the best first book in American History; past winners have included Danielle McGuire, Walter Johnson, Glenda Gilmore, Bethany Moreton, Tiya Miles, David Brooks, and many others. Another big award for a friend of the blog. Congratulations to David! Richly deserved, of course, as our bloggers here recognized when the book was still in galleys.

And a couple of other congratulations to extend. First, John Turner will be taking a new position at George Mason University next year, while Kerry Pimblott, fresh off finishing her dissertation at the University of Illinois, will be taking a position at the University of Wyoming. Finally, Chris Beneke gamely posted his photos of some old faculty men v. students/ringers intramural championship basketball game on his Facebook page. That deserves some kind of Hubris award.

Update: I meant to put this in the original, but neglected to -- congratulations to our contributor David Stowe, who will be enjoying a one-year fellowship next year at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, where he will be working on his next book Babylon Revisited: How Psalm 137 Helped Americans Make a Nation.

Report from CA American Studies Association

Esalen at Big Sur
by  Edward J. Blum

Just finished a wonderful weekend at the California American Studies Association meeting at Pitzer College (home to marvelous scholars of religion Phil Zuckerman and Erika Dyson). I was the chair of a terrific panel on religion, politics, and identity. What was thrilling was how the overall panel was trying to pull religious history and religious studies into the American studies conversation (of course, a project Religion and American Culture has been dedicated to for decades now), which makes sense to me since American Studies has such religious roots. So many of the pioneers of the American Studies did so through avenues of religion: Perry Miller was obsessed with the Puritans; Carroll Smith Rosenberg’s historical and cultural feminism was rooted in religious studies; Benjamin Mays’s and W. E. B. Du Bois’s pioneering works in sociology, history, and literature touched on religious topics near and far. And when we think of California, we have the most diverse state in the United States politically, culturally, and religiously. Whether we’re discussing Esalen in Big Sur (thank you Jeffrey Kripal for your fantastic book on that), Buddhist temples in Los Angeles, Mormon temples in the region dedicated to influencing state politics, or megachurches in Orange County, California is a visionary state.

None of the papers dealt with topics in California, though, really. Professor Sarah Azaransky, of the University of San Diego and the author of a book I haven’t yet read, but looks absolutely terrific, on Pauli Murray, presented on the religious black internationalism of Benjamin Mays. She focused on his visits in the 1930s and the 1950s to India and finds that it was by bringing religious sensibilities to his international voyages that encouraged his political and social embrace of nonviolent resistance. Roberto Sirvent, a theologian at Hope International, presented on how Reinhold Niebuhr and Hans-George Gadamer teach us that all interpretations of sacred texts are conditioned on the historical point and prejudices of writers and readers, and that our prejudices can be avenues to engage one another (not just offend one another). And finally, Hyang Jin Jung, an anthropologist from Seoul National University, presented on her field work on evangelical/hippie-church small groups in a Midwestern Methodist church. What findings! As women shared “whatever they wanted,” others would prompt, “go deeper.” When they struggled to explain themselves, group members would encourage, “go deeper.” The sexualized nature of the small group dialogue was so pronounced and yet so unrecognized by the group.
photograph from
The Historian's Eye

The final bit of the panel was a proposal to create a CASA caucus on religion that would link up with Kelly Baker, Matt Hedstrom, and the rest of the gang at the ASA caucus on religion. Maybe that can be in the works here in CA and at the ASA meeting in San Juan.

The conference ended with an incredible keynote by Matthew Frye Jacobson (famous to all of us who study critical race theory, immigration, and American studies). It was a talk on “The Historian’s Eye,” which is a documentary project of photographs, interviews, and videos from “Obama’s America.” It is a stunning resource, and I’m trying to figure out assignments to use in my survey and US religious history courses. And maybe somehow we can get some folks getting "religious" photographs and interviews connected to his site.

New Book from Friend of Blog Bob Cornwall

Here is the press release for a new book from Bob Cornwall, a pastor in Michigan, blogger, and reader/friend of the blog.

Faith in the Public Square
Decades ago a Harvard professor wrote a book entitled The Secular City, suggesting that America was moving into a new secular era, but in spite of claims that the public square is naked, religion continues to make itself felt in public life. Although many continue to push religion into the private sphere, there’s no evidence that this effort is succeeding. The secular could be domesticating the sacred, but the sacred remains present. If this is to be true, then how should faith express itself in public?
In his foreword to Robert Cornwall's book Faith in the Public Square, Mark Toulouse responds to philosopher Richard Rorty’s claim that religion is a conversation stopper and thus must be kept private. Toulouse suggests that Rorty’s view of religion is distorted, though perhaps with good reason, because "he believes that religion can only speak in one way, the way that stops a conversation. But religion is far more complex and multifaceted than such a view would indicate. The damage religion can cause in public is when it enters in such a way as to claim sole ownership to the truth, and then seeks to legislate its view of the truth so that it affects the rights of others, whether at home or abroad." In Faith in the Public Square Cornwall attempts to provide a model of conversation that opens dialog rather than closes it.

Cornwall brings together in this book a representative sampling of columns published by Lompoc Record from 2006 through 2008. Cornwall wrote them while serving as pastor of a Disciples of Christ congregation in Lompoc, California. Appearing on the Sunday Op-Ed page, rather than being relegated to the Friday church page, the author sought to use these essays to address important social, political, and religious issues, from the perspective that was formed by his Christian faith and his involvement with interfaith and social justice movements. The columns, now published with an introduction, appear largely as they were first published, though updated as necessary, so as to broaden the conversation in the present.

So, can a person of faith be involved in the public square with integrity? Is public policy made better by this action? Can faith remain whole and genuine following the encounter? Read these essays to discover the answers, and perhaps find a new optimism for the future as you do.

Yoga and the Protestant Public Sphere; Or, Taking Back Yoga Where?


By Michael J. Altman

Thanks to NPR, the debate about white people doing yoga is back in the news:
About 20 million people in the United States practice some form of yoga, from the formal Iyengar and Ashtanga schools to the more irreverent "Yoga Butt."

But some Hindus say yoga is about far more than exercise and breathing techniques. They want recognition that it comes from a deeper philosophy — one, in their view, with Hindu roots.

Many forms of yoga go back centuries. Even in the U.S., the transcendentalists were doing yoga in the 1800s.

William Broad, a reporter for The New York Times and author of The Science of Yoga, has been practicing since 1970. He says people pursue yoga for all kinds of reasons, from achieving health and fitness to seeking spirituality, energy and creativity.

Yoga, Broad says, is an antidote for a chaotic world.
The story goes on to quote Sheetal Shah of the American Hindu Foundation, the force behind the "Taking Back Yoga" campaign, who argues that yoga has its roots in the Vedas and therefore in Hinduism and so it is a problem to divorce the practice from the "lifestyle" and "philosophy" of nonviolence, truthfulness, and purity--all admirable qualities.

The NPR piece prompted my colleague at Emory, Deeksha Sivakumar, to ask over at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion "do religious practices become irreligious when they travel across national borders?" I think Deeksha is on the right track, and her post over at the Bulletin makes some important points, but we need to ask another question first. Is modern transnational yoga religious? How and why? Or to put it another way, where do we need to take yoga back to?

Missing from all of the debates about yoga in the past year and half or so (see here and here) is a thoughtful look at the history of yoga in India and in the West. Last January, Roman Palitsky, writing at Religion Dispatches, wrote the only essay I've seen taking a historical approach to modern yoga. In his piece he referenced a group of books that had recently been published and how they challenged the HAF and the "yoga is essentially Hindu" argument:
A corpus of literature has emerged over the past ten years, including David Gordon White’s “Siddha” trilogy, several volumes by Joseph Alter, Elizabeth DeMichelis’ A History of Modern Yoga and just last year Stefanie Syman’s Subtle Body and Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body, all of which oppose the straightforward message of the Take Yoga Back movement.

These works reveal the formative influence of (wait for it) Buddhism, Jainism, Sufism, television, military calisthenics, Swedish gymnastics and the YMCA, as well as of radical Hindu nationalism, upon today’s postural yoga practice. There is no doubt that the Vedas, Upanishads, and folk traditions of India have been formative toward yoga: yoga is almost inseparable from them. Nevertheless to assert that yoga is essentially and primarily a Hindu practice means to ignore millennia of generative influence from other quarters. Worse still, it means to step blindly into a political fight for the heart of India that has simmered for over two hundred years.
Of the books Palitsky names, Mark Singleton's stands out as wonderful history of transnational yoga that traces the connection between Hindu thought and practice, European physical culture, and Indian nationalism. Singleton writes in his final chapter:
This chapter and those which precede it have outlined some of the ways in which the early modern practice of asana was influenced by various expression of physical culture. This does not mean that the kind of posture-based yogas that predominate globally today are "mere gymnastics" nor that they are necessarily less "real" or "spiritual" than other forms of yoga. The history of modern physical culture overlaps and intersects with the histories of para-religious, "unchurched" spirituality; Western esotericism; medicine, health, and hygiene; chiropractic, osteopathy, and bodywork; body-centered psychotherapy; the modern revival of Hinduism; and the sociopolitical demands of the emergent modern Indian nation (to name but a few). In turn, each of these histories is intimately linked to the development of modern transnational, anglophone yoga. Historically speaking, then, physical culture encompasses a far broader range of concerns and influences than "mere gymnastics," and in many instances the modes of practice, belief frameworks, and aspirations of its practitioners are coterminous with those of modern, posture-based yoga. They may indeed by at variance with "Classical Yoga," but it does not follow from this that these practices, beliefs, and aspirations (whether conceived as yoga or no) are thereby lacking in seriousness, dignity, or spiritual profundity.
That's a tangled web of influence for what we call "yoga" today and it is not a simple story of Vedic texts through Patanjali to Vivekananda and the West. Following Singleton's analysis, the "Take Back Yoga" campaign is yet another chapter in the unfolding of transnational yoga. The HAF's reimagining of yoga as an essentially Vedic and essentially Hindu practice and their entire campaign to proclaim this to America is part of their program for political self-representation and power. It is necessitated by the demands of American diversity and by the resurgence of a public conservative Protestant establishment. As religion has taken a greater role in the public sphere post-1965 (and here I'm thinking of the conclusion of Kevin Schultz's Tri-Faith America) the need for minority communities to make public claims to religious relevance and authenticity has increased. "Take Back Yoga" is more than a claim for a religious practice, it is the claim for power within the de-secularizing public sphere and an increasingly empowered Protestant establishment.

So, there is no where to take yoga back. There is only a pressing forward as Hindus and other minority religious communities assert themselves in the public sphere in the face of an encroaching Protestant establishment.

Another Award for Harvey ... time to ask, is it evidence of prosperity gospel truth?

Congratulations to Paul Harvey for winning the UCCS Chancellor's Award. The author of so many terrific books; the editor of a blog that we read for some unknown reason; a passionate teacher who tries not to get too upset with his students who still, for yet other unknown reasons, support the Confederacy (or at least its "rights"), Paul has another trophy to put on his mantle. Now, if only he could win some kind of award for his jumper.

Slavery, Sin, and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism

Ed. note: A lot of you are probably familiar with this book already, but here's a nice review of Molly Oshatz's new book, from Choice.

Oshatz, Molly.  Slavery and sin: the fight against slavery and the rise of liberal Protestantism.    Oxford, 2012.  183p index afp; ISBN 9780199751686, $49.95. Reviewed in 2012may CHOICE.
Oshatz (San Francisco State Univ.) describes the ways in which the antebellum debates over the morality of slavery helped create the foundations for liberal theology. Because so many Christians looked to the words of the Bible to inform moral decisions, the proslavery tenor of its text posed a challenge to those Christians who increasingly opposed slavery. Some abolitionists simply rejected the Bible as an Iron Age relic. But moderates began to approach scripture in a different way than these immediatists or the apologists for slavery, who read the Bible literally. Moderates contended that the Bible reflected the historical times in which it was recorded and that its words masked more eternal principles of justice that could be apprehended through the individual's conscience. As human consciousness evolved, people became better able to understand eternal moral principles behind the plain text. This understanding of morality, rather than the words in the text itself, rendered slaveholding a sinful behavior. In Oshatz's skilled analysis, liberal theology provided an important, if short-lived, haven for those Christians who wished for a biblical rather than a secular morality, but whose evolving moral vision could not countenance the evils of antebellum slavery.

Summing Up:
Recommended. All levels/libraries.
 -- E. R. Crowther, Adams State College

Malcolm X and Mormon Studies: Some Reflections on Comparative Religion

Christopher Jones

I hadn't seen Paul's post on Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention when I posted my own brief thoughts on the book this evening at the Juvenile Instructor. My reading of the book led me to consider the potential usefulness of comparing early Mormonism with the Nation of Islam. Thinking readers here might be interested, I thought I'd throw up a quick post highlighting it and soliciting feedback (especially from you religious studies folks with training in comparative religion). Feel free to head on over to JI and read the whole post, but here's the relevant excerpt:
Don’t get me wrong—I’m a historian and am adamant that all individuals and communities deserve to be studied and understood as products of specific historical contexts. Mormonism emerged as both a product of and challenge to the emerging evangelical order in 1830 upstate New York. The Nation of Islam appeared almost exactly 100 years later in the heavily-populated urban centers of the Midwest. Each responded to distinct social and cultural environments, targeted their message to radically different groups of people, and emerged from very different Abrahamic religions. I couldn’t help, however, noticing what they had in common [prophetic claims, alternative myths about America's racial order, secretive sexual liaisons among the group's leadership, and an uneasy relationship with the tradition from which they each emerged]. ...
Forgive me for wading into the waters of comparative religion—a subject in which I maintain an interest but possess little to no actual training—but I think an article, or a book, or a course comparing the two movements (especially in their early manifestations) might be both interesting and useful to scholars of each movement. And here’s where I open it up to you, the readers: What does reflecting on the NOI’s relationship to Islam add to our thinking about Mormonism’s relationship to Christianity? Beyond consideration of their respective relationships to the larger movements from which they were birthed, what might we learn from such a comparison? Are there other religious groups that might be worth including in this conversation?

Manning Marable's Lifetime Achievement Award

Paul Harvey

And while we're on the subject of religion and politics -- congratulations, posthumously, to Manning Marable, winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize in History for his work Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Consider this a good time to check out Emily Clark's review of the work here last year.  As usual, one of our bloggers here was first, or one of the first, to the story. (And I'd like to point out that my longtime friend Anne Hyde, whose Bancroft Prize I blogged about just a while ago, was a finalist for this Pulitzer as well).

Religion and Politics: New Online Journal Out Next Month

Paul Harvey

I'm pleased to let you all know about the much-anticipated online journal Religion and Politics, soon to be published digitally by the Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University at St. Louis. R. Marie Griffith, formerly of Princeton and Harvard, has taken up the task of heading the Center, joined on the faculty there by Leigh Schmidt. Tiffany Stanley and Max Mueller (who has blogged here before) are serving also as editors of the journal. The editorial board includes folks such as Jackson Lears, Mark Silk, Diane Winston, Robert Wuthnow, and others. 

I have written a piece on religion and politics in Colorado which I believe will be posted there in one of its early editions, and some other authors have been contracted to write about their own state. My piece reflects on the vast range of religio-political diversity up and down the front range of Colorado, within a 90 minute drive, featuring the yin of Colorado Springs and the yang of Boulder. I also read a fantastic sample piece on Indiana, which I think should be a highlight. 

One other cool thing -- the Center already has been featuring a roster of stellar scholars, writers, and journalists to give public lectures, and then making those available. A recent one of note: Laurie Maffly-Kipp speaks on "The Long Approach to the Mormon Moment: The Making of an American Church." Click on the link for the full lecture, and if you'll look over to the thumbnails on the right you'll see the other ones available there to listen to, play in class, or sample. 

Max recently wrote the following, which I'm copying here to promote the launch of the journal:

Tiffany Stanley, Marie Griffith and I have the past year helping to create Religion & Politics, a new online journal published out of Washington University in St. Louis.

After much anticipation, we launch next month. 

Prior to our beta launch, we’re hoping to get a base of social media followers. What can you do to help?

          Pretty please like us on Facebook.
          Follow us on Twitter.

         And tell all your friends!

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: A Review


Blake Barton Renfro

I received two packages in the mail last week. One was a box of Brooks Brothers oxford shirts, the other was Andrew Preston’s much anticipated Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (Knopf, 2012). The boxes were nearly the same size. At six hundred thirteen pages of text, this hulking book offers a sweeping narrative of religion’s role in American foreign affairs. “It is difficult to think of two subjects that have shaped the United States more than religion and foreign affairs, and it is difficult to find two bodies of literature that are as large, diverse, and controversial,” Preston observes. Religious history is subject to an expansive and frequently overwhelming literature which often crosses scholarly disciplines. Foreign affairs are informed by limitless perspectives, and the trend toward interpreting ‘globalization’ only encourages a more sophisticated scholarly literature.

The title is appropriately taken from St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, instructing them to wield the “sword of the Spirit” and to carry the “shield of faith.” Preston reminds us that Americans have consistently used this kind of prophetic language; the sword to justify war, the shield to promote peace. Too frequently, scholars have examined the sword and its attendant rhetoric, “the stuff of providence, manifest destiny, a New Jerusalem, and a shining city upon a hill.” The shield has promoted peace, and Preston successfully incorporates it into his scholarship, illustrating how pacifists and opponents to wars have acted as a counterpoint in American foreign affairs.

The book seeks to resolve the presumably incompatible topics of religion and diplomacy. A previous generation of historians rarely acknowledged religion in American political history, usually excusing it as ‘paranoia’ or ‘status anxiety’ of the far right. Diplomatic history was a noble profession steeped in hard facts and reason, and religion was simply on the fringe. Drawing upon emerging scholarship which approaches religion seriously, Preston contends that religion has “acted as the conscience of U.S. foreign relations.” While it does not claim to offer a new definitive history, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith suggests that “cultural habits” repeatedly shaped America’s understanding and interaction with the world. Originating in the colonial period, religious and civic ideals informed these assumed cultural habits and contributed to the rhetoric of American foreign affairs throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

We are told in the introduction that the book will assess “America’s engagement with the wider world, including the overseas efforts of private citizens, missionaries, and other nongovernmental organizations, in addition to the use of diplomatic and military power.” Preston intends to examine the interplay between the bottom up pressure from religious people and organizations and the top down personal piety of political leaders. Yet, one quickly senses the author’s intent is not so much to reveal lesser known historical voices, but to reflect on the powerful men who influenced foreign affairs. There are numerous examples of movements and people who persuaded political decision makers, but Preston relies on national political figures to narrate most of the book.

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith revisits many of the familiar men, whose moral vision guided the nation’s foreign affairs, including Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Jimmy Carter. Preston offers some insightful remarks on figures who received less attention, but who shared strong religious convictions and a sense of civic duty to promote peace and justice. A compelling chapter entitled “John Foster Dulles and the Quest for a Just and Durable Peace,” examines Dulles’s collaboration with mainline Protestant liberals during World War Two. Deemed “the most influential layman in the world,” Dulles was the son of a Presbyterian minister and staunch cultural Calvinist, but he was also a modernist who believed in an ecumenical internationalist church, a movement at its peak during his later political career. Preston contends that “Dulles placed Christianity at the very heart of his worldview, and thus at the center of planning for the postwar world.” In 1940 he was nominated to head the Federal Council of Churches’ Commission on a Just and Durable Peace, where Dulles used the position to advance his own views on foreign policy. The FCC released a book in 1943, Six Pillars of Peace, which was intended “to improve upon the generalities of the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms by laying out the essential principles that would need to form the core elements of any postwar system.” Dulles and fellow mainline churchmen pressed President Franklin Roosevelt to enact their vision for a lasting peace. The committee eventually participated in one of the first UN charter meetings with the U.S. delegation, where four of its nine proposals were adopted. “Rarely had religious lobbying been so effective, or so consequential,” Preston concludes.

Unfortunately, Professor Preston has employed civil religion to analyze American political history. Politicians and average citizens have presumably bought into the idea of civil religion and all its attendant rituals, language, myths, symbols, and virtues. Although there is no “official hierarchy in American civil religion,” Mr. Preston contends that “the president is its de facto pope.” As the American presidency garnered symbolic importance, so too did the rhetoric of nationalism and civil religion. The difference between the two is unclear, but civil religion expanded throughout the early twentieth century to include Protestants, Catholics, Jews, creating a ‘Judeo-Christian’ consensus. Readers familiar with the work of Will Herberg will likely find this a foregone conclusion, but Preston subtly traces the gradual inclusion of Catholics and Jews into America’s mainstream religious establishment. This phenomenon certainly had a dramatic and resounding influence upon American foreign affairs, and its consequences remain imbedded in our diplomatic policy.

The use of civil religion, however, fails to explain the process of historical change and readers are left with the sense that politicians have pontificated on lofty themes, while the rest of us listen in the civic pews. Americans have certainly disagreed on war and peace, and Preston comprehensively assesses the contentious dialogue between religious groups and politicians in the public sphere. But, there are more vignettes into political history than a thorough explanation of how cultural themes, civic values, and religious ideas have impacted the evolving dialogue over foreign affairs. The blurred distinction between nationalism and civic religion weakens the overall argument and is a surprising departure from intellectual and political history.

Concern over civil religion is tempered by Professor Preston’s sensitive appraisal of the moral dilemmas inherent in politics and religion. The temptation to proclaim moral superiority, whether in brandishing the sword or the shield, has often yielded hubris and occasionally perished into disillusion or mere complacency. Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith challenges readers to consider how moral foresight, or the lack thereof, motivates our own impulse to create a better world and fulfill American liberal ideals.
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