Of Intolerance, Hate Crimes, and Beards: Boundaries of Inclusion and Tolerance in American History and the American Present


Today's guest post is from Barton E. Price, a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Grand Valley State University. He would like to thank his students for indulging his interests in these disparate topics and having discussions about them.

The last two weeks have been momentous ones for the history of American religious tolerance and intolerance, in case you missed it. Thursday the 20th marked the one-year anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In this landmark reversal, homosexuals were allowed participation in the military without fear of being “outed” and then discharged. The anniversary of this repeal prompted me to think about other important decisions that have an effect on American society. Namely, I am drawn to think about the intersection of religion, American history, and individual civil rights.

In Maryland, there is a referendum to legalize (or not) gay marriages in this state. As I see it, the issue of gay marriage boils down to a basic civil rights question. Do homosexual persons have the same rights and privileges accorded to them as citizens of the United States regardless of their sexual identity? I think that the rights of citizens are an ironclad guarantee so long as those persons are not criminals or enemies of the state. I do not see how homosexuals fit either of those criteria on the basis of their sexuality. So, it would seem to me that the logical answer to my question is that yes homosexuals should have the legal protection to marry. I do not see this issue as a religious one. Nor should it be.

New Books in Religion on Scientology


Kristian Petersen

We over at New Books in Religion (really its just me) can't get enough of the creative individuals working on American religious history. We already spoke with Kathryn Lofton and Kelly Baker, and now we add a wonderful new study by Hugh Urban. In this podcast I speak with Urban about his book, The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion. Stayed tuned because New Books has lined up an interview with Sarah Ruble about her book, The Gospel of Freedom and Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II, and will continue the Blum and Harvey extravaganza when we discuss The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.

Here is part of the brief:
In this case study, he explores the complex story of how Scientology described itself and eventually become recognized as a “religion” in the United States. As a specialist in secrecy in religion, Scientology offered a dynamic example where secrecy played several roles in shaping the tradition, including insider esoteric religious perspectives but also through the anxieties of Americans throughout the Cold War period. In our conversation we discuss the American spiritual marketplace, the science behind Dianetics, the development of the Church of Scientology, the term cult, challenges of the Internet for religious secrecy, how to approach problematic religious groups, New Religious Movements, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, The Master.

Belief and its discontents

Kelly Baker

Over at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, associate editor Matt Sheedy re-posted my reflection on "belief" from a little while ago. Here's an excerpt or a sampling of grumpy (you can make the decision):

“They don’t really believe that, do they?” is a refrain that I find familiar, expected and, frankly, tiring. As someone who researches white supremacists and doomsday prophets, I should be used to it. The query confronts me in the classroom, at conferences, at the dinner table, and most often conspiratorially in the hallways.  It is often a hushed question in which the interrogator asks me beseechingly to say what s/he already wants (needs?) to hear.  Simply put, the interrogator wants me to say “no, of course, they don’t believe” that the world will end catastrophically, that reptoids inhabit caves under New Mexico, that Atlantis might rise, or that race war is the only way to redeem America. If I, the person who studies “weird” or “exotic” religion, will assure them that these people don’t believe, then maybe they can rest easy. I cannot assure them. And, if I am being truly honest, I really don’t want to. Instead, I emphasize that this “belief” is materialized in every prophetic utterance, billboard proclaiming the date of the end, online discussion of reptoid encounters, and each weapon purchased for the possibility of race war. (Read more here.)

"Religion and the Trans-" Conference

Matthew Cressler 

On the behalf of the graduate students of Northwestern University's Department of Religious Studies, I am pleased to invite you to our interdisciplinary conference "Religion and the Trans-..." in Evanston, IL on October 12–14, 2012. 

Our conference focuses on the recent understanding of boundaries in the interdisciplinary study of religion – whether they are political, cultural, or intellectual – as permeable and transformative.  The conference will feature exciting keynote addresses from Thomas Csordas (Anthropology, University of California, San Diego), Thomas Tweed (Religious Studies, University of Texas at Austin), and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (Political Science, Northwestern University).  Our keynote speakers will be joined by over twenty gradate student papers representing
variety  of disciplines and speaking on topics as wide-ranging as globalizing Catholicism, translating  Islamic cosmology in China, transmitting religious values in Hindu summer camps, and  the transnational intertwining of Persian mysticism and Black activism. 

A number of papers will be of immediate interest to anyone situated at the intersection of American history and religious studies, addressing everything from lived religion in an age of mass incarceration to American mission agencies as transnational corporations to transnational perspectives on African American religions.  This is a must see event, especially considering the conversations about how religious studies can contribute to the historical study of American religions that have circulated on this blog lately.

The conference is FREE and open to the public, so please visit our website for registration and more information:
http://sites.weinberg.northwestern.edu/religionandthetrans.  Please fee free to contact us with any questions at nureligiousstudiesconference@gmail.com.

@THATCamp @AARweb 2013; Or, Acronyms for the Digerati


By Chris Cantwell

"When you start talking about the internet, you never run out of internet to talk about."
Last year's annual meeting of the American Historical Association featured, for the first time, one of the more interesting phenomena to come out of the collaborative network of scholars working in what's called the digital humanities: a THATCamp. For those that are unfamiliar with the acronym, THATCamp stands for a "The Humanities and Technology Camp" and is the brainchild of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. (For those of you unsure what the appellation "digital humanities" refers to, join...the...discussion.) THATCamps are, as there name suggests, a gathering of scholars, librarians, and other members of the academy interested in discussing how technology has affected, will effect, and can enhance teaching and research in the humanities. But unlike other scholarly gatherings, THATCamps are less about presentations and more about hands-on, collaborative learning. A program of sessions is not planned in advance, but emerges organically from the needs and interests of the audience. Want to learn how to devise digital research projects for your class? Propose a session. Need help using some software to dig into your research material? Call for a working group. Want to learn basic computer code? Ask for a workshop. Hence, the "Camp." Or, as THATCampers like to call them, an "unconferences."

Musically Speaking the Lectures

I'm delighted to post this from our newest contributor, Catherine (Kate) Bowler, Professor of the History of Christianity at Duke Divinity School. Her teaching focuses on topics in American Christianity including religion and ethnicity, religion and health, and contemporary popular religion. Her research centers on the American prosperity gospel. Her publications include “Blessed Bodies: Healing within the African-American Faith Movement,” in the forthcoming book Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing (Oxford University Press, 2011) and “From Far and Wide: The Canadian Faith Movement,” Church & Faith Trends, February 2010.

Musically Speaking
By Kate Bowler

‘Tis the season for behemoth core courses and this teacher finds her heart (or ears) inexorably turned to song. There is something about teaching American Christianity to 150 divinity school students in a 75-minute slot that gives me pause about barreling through with my regular lectures and wild hand gestures. As instructors, we seem to obsess over finding provocative prose for students to digest or non-copyrighted visual images to appreciate. So why not historicize the most common ritual of congregations of every stripe: music? After all, the sociologist Mark Chaves and his 1998 National Congregations Study found worship and the arts to be more important to church life than either politics or social services. (Chaves, Congregations in America, 5)

This semester I decided to experiment with a musical element in every lecture. In discussing Jesuit Jean Brébeuf and his indigenizing efforts with the Hurons, we sang the Huron Carol where “chiefs” and “hunter braves” visit the swaddled babe. While the Puritans bemoaned the Catholic vestiges of Mother England, we called out the bare unison sounds of psalmody. When a German Bible became the first holy book published on these shores, we put Luther’s “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” to shame.

Color of Christ at UNC Press Blog

Paul Harvey

Just a quick note to link you to a very full and extensive interview with Ed Blum and myself, at the UNC Press blog, about (I'll give you two guesses) -- that's right, about The Color of Christ. A brief excerpt:

Q: When did the white American Jesus first become prominent?
A: Americans en masse began to see and produce Jesus as white only after the colonial period, after the Great Awakenings, and after the American Revolution. It was a time of great concern. Americans worried about what the nation would be religiously after church disestablishment with the Constitution; they increasingly struggled over slavery as the South expanded its cotton kingdom; they were networked together more tightly through new roads, canals, railroads, newspapers, and goods; and they debated the morality of driving into Native American lands. In these decades, white Protestants began printing images of Jesus as white and sending them throughout the nation. It was at this moment that a white Jesus was first used to try and bring unity and purpose to the young nation.

These decades also gave rise to the first Americans who challenged the whiteness of Jesus. William Apess, a Native American in New England, was the first to explicitly denounce the white Jesus as an emblem of white power. Ridiculing whites for oppressing African American and Native Americans, Apess insisted that whites knew that Jesus was not white, that he was “a man of color.” Hardly anyone at the time listened.

Christ in Alabama (and Tennessee and Georgia)

Paul and I just finished our tour of the South (thank goodness for nice weather in Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, and Birmingham). Along the way we met up with good old friends, made new ones, and heard so many stories of Jesus and race in America (and the world) that we could almost write another book. The highlights, for me, were meeting several friends of the four little girls who were killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and hearing their tales of dealing with loss, fear, and imagery of Christ.
"Christ in Alabama"

I wanted to draw brief attention to four of our hosts in part to thank them, but also to let blog readers know about their dynamic and fascinating work.

At Morehouse College, Reverend Matthew V. Johnson helped coordinate our discussions with several classes and the chaplaincy program. Dr. Johnson is a graduate of Morehouse College and earned his Masters and Ph.D. degrees in Philosophical Theology from the University of Chicago. He has done post-graduate studies in Psychoanalysis and is currently a member in training at the Institute of Contemporary Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. In the ministry for thirty years, Dr. Johnson is the Pastor of Church of the Good Shepherd-Baptist and serves as the National Executive Director of Every Church A Peace Church. A novelist and a radio host as well, Professor Johnson’s first scholarly book, The Tragic Vision of African American Religion is a beautiful study of how African Americans experience, deal with, conceive, and interact with tragedy and the tragic. Thanks to Dr. Johnson, little E.Z. now has a “future Morehouse man” which my son will wear with pride (at least I’ll feel pride).

The Baptism of Early Virginia: Interview with Rebecca Goetz, Part 3

Here is part three, the finale, of our interview with Rebecca Goetz about her new book The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

7) What is your single favorite document/piece of evidence that you use in the book, and why is it your favorite?

Oh, Morgan Godwyn’s The Negro’s andIndians Advocate (1680) without a doubt. I was ecstatic when I first read it as a graduate student. Godwyn observed and commented upon (acerbically) the very processes I was interested in. My favorite bit of Godwyn: “These two words, Negro and Slave, being by custom grown Homogeneous and Convertible; even as Negro and Christian, Englishman and Heathen, are by the like corrupt Custom and Partiality made Opposites; thereby as it were implying, that the one could not be Christians, nor the other Infidels.” Godwyn is the thread that hold my book together: his words form the introduction and the conclusion, and I think he appears in every single chapter. I’m so fond of him that Travis Glasson and I are going to include his work in our anthology of seventeenth-century critiques of slavery.

 How much of this story would be the same, and how much different, if you had focused on a different part of early America? How would
you compare your conclusions with those, for example, of Richard
Bailey's book on race in Puritan New England?

One of the great things about this last decade has been the outpouring of work by junior scholars on questions of religion and race. Richard Bailey’s Race and Redemption (2011) about New England, Travis Glasson’s Mastering Christianity (2012), on the Atlantic history of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, my own The Baptism of Early Virginia (2012) about the Chesapeake and its Atlantic environs, and Heather M. Kopelson’s forthcoming work on New England and Bermuda. This seems to be a moment in which many historians are interested racial and religious histories of the Atlantic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I think the most important consequences of this interest are 1) historians can no longer ignore the role religion plays in making race, 2) it’s pretty clear that Europeans in a variety of contexts were thinking about human differences in explicitly religious terms, and 3) Europeans were using those insights to build colonial systems of power and domination. It happened at different paces in different places, and different theologies were at play. My Virginia planters were not nearly as thoughtful as Bailey’s puritans, for example. And my planters weren’t necessarily dealing with the tension between slavery and Christian mission in the same way as Glasson’s SPG missionaries. I almost envy Bailey and Glasson--they have so many explicitly religious sources. I mean, who wouldn’t want to have to sit and read Mather all day?

The Baptism of Early Virginia: Interview with Rebecca Goetz, Part 2

Here is part two of our interview with Rebecca Goetz about her new book The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

4) One of the older classics in this field is Winthrop Jordan's
WHITE OVER BLACK. I recently re-read that, for the first time in a
good long while, and was amazed to see how much he anticipated more
contemporary discussions of issues such as "whiteness." What is your
view of Jordan's book? Did it influence you in any way? What are its
primary strengths and shortcomings?

White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American Hist)White over Black is a huge book, encyclopedic in its coverage, and prescient in the kinds of questions it asked. It loomed very large for me, especially as I was writing the dissertation proposal. One of its great strengths is that it covers a great deal of territory, both geographically and temporally. If Kenneth Stampp was the historian who taught us how to think about slavery historically, then I think Jordan fulfilled a similar function for scholars who are interested in articulations of race and white supremacy. My main issue with Jordan is his description of the English decision to adopt the wholesale enslavement of Africans as an “unthinking decision.” The English did that deliberately, with malice aforethought.

5) A HUGE takeaway point of your book is how religion was vital to
creating "race" as a category. If you will, explain briefly how you
go about casting that argument in your book, and perhaps one or two
of the most important pieces of evidence that influenced you in
coming to this conclusion.

I think if I had to boil the book down to one major question, it would be: how did Anglo-Virginians come to understand black and Christian to be irreconcilable terms? I wanted to discover and trace the process by which that happened. I had all of Hening’s Statutes, of course, but these laws were effectively divorced from their social context. They indicated a context but I needed another way to get at what real people were doing, and maybe what they were thinking as well. That’s where the court records came in. Seventeenth-century Virginia court records are wonderful and rich; the voices of actual people, and often people who were silenced in other contexts, come out. I found the voices of indentured servants, male and female, of poor planters, of slaves, and even occasionally of Indians, in addition to the voices of the Anglo-Virginian elite. So I had the material that would tell me what people did, and maybe what they thought, but would it help me show how Christianity created race? I wasn’t sure until I started digging into the microfilm at the LIbrary of Virginia (and learning that dreadful seventeenth-century court hand). Then I started to find court cases in which Christianity and race were both implicated, usually revolving around some aspect of Christian ritual or practice. Baptism stuck out in particular for me. Every time I turned around, someone in Virginia was suing for his freedom on the basis of his baptism. I found these cases to be enormously powerful, especially since the Virginia legislature passed a law in 1667 essentially saying that baptized slaves could not become free. And then I started to see the narrative arc of baptism, Christianity, slavery, and freedom over the long seventeenth century. And I started to see how race was embedded implicitly in the way elite Virginians talked about baptism and in the ways they talked about converting their enslaved property. And then I realized that the book was going to work.

The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race. Part I of Interview with Rebecca Goetz

Rebecca GoetzA bit earlier this summer, we ran a 3-part series on Linford Fisher's new book The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America. Continuing on with our series in exciting new work in early American history, I'm delighted to post a three-part interview with friend-of-the-blog Rebecca Goetz, author of the outstanding new book The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race, just out with Johns Hopkins University Press. I used (mined, plagiarized, strip mined bare for quotes) the predecessor to the book, Rebecca's dissertation, extensively in writing parts of The Color of Christ as well as for Moses, Jesus and the Trickster. Rebecca's book advances a really important argument about religion and race in early America, one that challenges a good deal of other scholarship on the topic, as you'll see developed further in this interview.

Many of you may know her from her pioneering blog Historianess, which she began as a graduate student and where she chronicled the conception and birth of her dissertation which became "Amazing Mr. Book." Rebecca is Assistant Professor of History at Rice University, and with this new book completed, she is embarking on an exciting new project involving research in archives in the U.S., England, and Latin America: Indian Enslavement in the English Atlantic World, 1500-1700. I can't wait to see that project develop further. Without further adieu, then, Part I of our interview below. Parts 2 and 3 will follow Thursday and Friday. Oh, and you can follow Rebecca (and the adventures of Pepper and Elsa) on Twitter here, and like her book on Facebook here. 

1) Rebecca, talk about the path that led you to this topic in the
first place, and to early American history more generally. Of all
the things you could have done/studied at Harvard, how did you end
up with this topic and approach? Who were your main influences in
grad. school, and how did they influence you?

When I went to college, I was going to be a double major in Spanish and Political Science. I came out the other end a double major in German and History. Go figure! I credit Jim Leamon, my undergraduate mentor, with convincing me that being a history major would be a good way to go. I just loved his class on colonial New England, and after I took that in the first semester of my sophomore year, I was a convert. I ended up writing a senior thesis on the Revolutionary War diary of a Massachusetts soldier named William Dorr. I was interested in why his diary was almost identical to several others. (The answer to your question is most likely pension fraud--getting a pension was difficult if you didn’t have direct evidence that you had participated in a particular campaign. This was especially true of Dorr’s campaign--Benedict Arnold’s March to Quebec in the winter of 1775-1776.) I had so much fun writing that thesis that I knew I wanted to keep doing history professionally.

The Contested Color of Christ

Paul Harvey

For those wanting a quick summary of some of the major points of The Color of Christ, this piece by Edward J. Blum and myself, just out in the Chronicle of Higher Education (it will be the cover story in the print edition that comes out Thursday) provides a sort of bullet point summary of some of the major themes of the work. A brief excerpt:

How is it that a Jewish prophet from the Roman era could become so entangled with the American obsession with race? How could the color of Christ be invoked throughout American history to justify some of the worst atrocities of white supremacy as well as to inspire some of the most heroic civil-rights crusades?
The first English settlers in the Americas carried with them no sense of what Jesus looked like. The Bible was central to their beliefs, but it offered no physical description of Jesus's face, hair, eyes, or body. Roman Catholics were already placing images of Christ in their churches, but many Protestant settlers were anti-Catholic and were more likely to report their visions of Satan than to worship icons of Christ.
That all began to change in the 18th century, during the Great Awakenings. Up and down the East Coast, whites, blacks, and American Indians began reporting visions of Jesus as emotional revivals pushed Americans toward personal relationships with Christ. In some cases, their images focused on the blood that poured from Jesus' hands and side. It was a broken and battered Christ that seemed to speak to their difficult lives. But mostly Jesus was seen in a blinding light. Light, not white. For colonial Americans, light connoted power, goodness, love. White was a sign of trouble. The lack of association between Jesus and whiteness left the spiritual terrain open to linking other peoples to the sacred. Thus a small but significant cohort of American Indians moved toward Christ, as did a charter generation of African-Americans.

Godly republicanism: Puritans, Pilgrims, and a City on a Hill

Paul Harvey

Here's a great looking new title that should interest a lot of you, with short review from Choice. Anyone else who has looked at the book, feel free to chime in, I have yet to see it.

Cover: Godly Republicanism in HARDCOVER
 Winship, Michael P.  Godly republicanism: Puritans, pilgrims, and a city on a hill.  Harvard, 2012.  339p index afp; ISBN9780674063853, $49.95. Reviewed in 2012oct CHOICE.
In this panoramic revisionist effort covering decades of Puritan historiography, Winship (Georgia) begins by investigating notions of the proper bond between civil and religious government current during the Tudor era. He segues into the first decades of the Jacobean period and reexamines the church-state relationship described in Puritan studies, from Perry Miller's classics of 80 years ago to the research of a dozen leading scholars writing from the 1950s to the present. Recent investigations by Darren Staloff (The Making of an American Thinking Class, CH, Jun'98, 35-5854) and David D. Hall (A Reforming People, CH, Dec'11, 49-2266) provide underpinning for Winship, but his is a stunningly original piece of scholarship that reinterprets the origins of Massachusetts Bay's congregational practice using both the tracts and sermons of early-day Puritan separatists and the later examples provided by the settlements at Plymouth and Salem. Only time will reveal how many of the author's conclusions will be accepted by historians, but whatever its fate, this book is an impressive piece of scholarship. The new picture of early English and American politico-religious thought it provides is complex, densely argued, and quite persuasive. Summing Up: Essential. Advanced undergraduates and above. -- B. R. Burg, Arizona State University

The Bible in the Public Square

by David Stowe

“Experts say Bible has role in American life,” ran the dog-bites-man headline in the Duke Chronicle.   “Contrary to popular belief,” the article begins, “the Bible affects people’s everyday lives because of its influence on the political and social realm, experts said.”  The experts were on hand for a day-and-a-half conference on “The Bible in the Public Square” sponsored by Duke’s Center for Jewish Studies (with help from the Religion Department and Southern Methodist University).  

Panels ranged from The Bible and Popular Culture to the Bible and Middle East Policy.  (All sessions were videotaped and can be viewed in their entirety on the conference website--eventually.)  Jacques Berlinerblau, a wisecracking former jazz vibraphonist from Brooklyn who now teaches at Georgetown, opened the conference with a paper on the Bible and presidential politics, reminding us that how scholars read the Bible and assess Biblical literacy is very different from how politicians (and ordinary Bible-believers) read and deploy the Good Book. He also plumbed the mystery of why no one has succeeded in organizing a voting coalition made up of all the religious folk left out of the Religious Right—most Catholics, mainline Protestants, non-Orthodox Jews, Unitarians, Quakers, Pagans, seekers, and so on.  These modernists would number some 90-100 million and be electorally decisive.

Brother Bill Clinton, Caffeinated Soda, and Crown Burgers

by John G. Turner

Authors typically start book projects with two dreams: 1) to get published; 2) to have anyone care about the results. Traveling to Utah after publishing a biography of Brigham Young is very satisfying.
I’ve been used to spending my summers in Utah, but I hadn’t been here since August 2011. Whenever I return to Utah, I notice a combination of constancy and change, reminders of the past and under-construction plans for the future:
Beautiful surroundings juxtaposed with the horror that is Interstate 15.
▪ The completion of City Creek Center, a massive project that has generated both awe and criticism. Brigham Young built railroads and a department store. His twentieth-century successors built the ZCMI mall. Now the LDS Church’s Real Estate Division has produced a downtown project adjacent to Temple Square that includes a shopping center, offices, and apartments.
▪ Caffeinated soda. Most surprisingly, I arrived to find the BYU community in an uproar (relative term) over the recent church statement that the Word of Wisdom does not "prohibit the use of caffeine." A BYU spokesperson made the infelicitous comment that BYU does not sell fully charged Coke because of a lack of student demand. Convenience stores and gas stations near campus are holding their collective breath.
▪ A strange combination of apparent fitness and incredibly unhealthy food. Speaking of the Word of Wisdom, if anything it ought to prohibit the consumption of Crown Burgers (burger topped with pastrami). Definitely unwise. I put my planned nutritional improvements on hold during this week’s trip to Utah. The chocolate shake at Hires was rather egregious as well. And I can’t resist BYU Bookstore fudge or anything from the Provo Bakery. Yikes.

Small, Good Things, and Government Cheese

Paul Harvey

For some reason, my mind is pairing up two completely different essays, one that I've just seen (courtesy of Matt Bowman pointing me that direction), one that I meant to link here a while back (one of many things I've been meaning to link to from Religion and Politics -- they keep putting up good stuff faster than I can read and link it).

First is "Small, Good Things," from the Paris Review, a lovely essay paralleling rituals of communion and rituals of writers. A little excerpt:

One way of understanding the sacraments, perhaps best articulated by liturgist Gordon Lathrop, is that simple things become central things. When Christians refer to the bath and the table, they refer not only to the specific sacraments of bathing and eating, but they point also to the sacramental character of every bath and every table. The setting apart of one table and one bath shows forth the splendor of all tables and all baths.
That setting apart is the calling of Christians but also the vocation of the writer. The attentiveness of the writer is shown in how that writer lifts to the level of extraordinary the most ordinary of people, places, and things.

I found this piece arresting, as I did one that is in some ways its aesthetic opposite: Sean McCloud's "A Hoosier Remembers Eating Government Cheese." Growing up in Indiana in the 1980s, the author remembers:

It was also a period when I ate my share of government cheese, packaged as two-pound blocks of uncut, white American, and distributed at Monon’s community center. We were not poor enough to be on welfare, but we were not so financially secure as to refuse government cheese. We also got large chunks of butter and boxes of powdered milk. It only took me a few glasses to decide that there was nothing like the taste of warm, powdered milk to make the flavor of Reagan’s beloved Jelly Bellys seem like the indulgence of an aristocracy. Let them eat jellybeans, indeed. 
Music moved me to think about the material conditions I experienced and the cultural assumptions in which I grew up. I listened, laughed, and danced to the Dead Kennedys’ “Kill the Poor,” a satirical critique of political attacks on social welfare programs. I felt a combination of anger and pleasure when Stiff Little Fingers sang, “they take away our freedom in the name of liberty.” In short, my favorite bands often put words to my inchoate and adolescent thoughts, urged me to question assumptions, and helped me to imagine a life that might exist outside of the rural Midwest.
Sometime soon I'm going to put these two pieces together for a class, have students read them, and then just say, "discuss." Two different ways of approaching the vocation of the writer, and the meanings of sacraments and rituals. 

Blum/Harvey Book Talks

Email (eblum@mail dot sdsu dot edu) if you want more info on any of these book events related to The Color of Christ

Can Civil Religion Be Saved?

Art Remillard

"This may merit a blog post full of quotes from David Chidester," Tweeted Michael Altman.

To our good fortune, Altman did write a Chideblog that calls attention to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius's commentary on the poll results from the Pew Research Center.  "The data show," Ignatius summarizes, "that even as the developing world is getting more modern, it is also getting more religious, with especially sharp gains for both Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa."  To this, Altman retorts, "Apparently there was no religion in Africa before Islam and Christianity showed up."

Indeed, one suspects that the journalist's intentions were good.  But his choice of words revealed an assumed definition of religion that simply does not match the realities of sub-Saharan Africa.  Altman's response brings to mind the compelling insights of scholars interested in taking to task our assumptions about what is, and is not, religion.  Consider the recent issue of Religion, wherein an all-star cast writes about, "The Study of American Religions: Critical Reflections on a Specialization."  (Check out Paul's post on this and the discussion that follows.) I see the authors dealing with the challenges that have emerged from, as Tracy Fessenden phrased it, the "narrative turn from Protestantism to pluralism."  This transition calls for studies that are suspicious of any assumptions about religion, and opt instead for a more rigorous investigation of what we mean when we say "religion."  Kelly Baker offers a paradigm example of this in her treatment of the Klan, rejecting the notion that the group's Protestantism was a "false religion."  "Christianity," she insists, "played an essential part in the collective identity of the order, and neglecting religious commitment ignores a crucial self-identification."  Similarly, Tisa Wenger's We Have a Religion identifies how Native Americans adopted Euro-American discourses on religion in an effort to resist government suppression and gain religious freedom. The care with which the author contextualizes the competing definitions of "religion" is simply remarkable.

Still, as Ignatius's article indicates, there are plenty of people who didn't get the memo.  Scholars, therefore, must persist, hopeful that the message and methodology will spread beyond our universities.  I would like to see the same thing happen with "civil religion."  Perhaps we too could force a "narrative turn" from civil religious consensus to civil religious diversity.  I find civil religion to be a valuable category of analysis.  It offers a point of departure for me to understand how people define, defend, and deploy the social values that they believe transcend individual interest and contribute to their perceived common good.  I have found in my studies of civil religion, not a placid pool of agreement, but rather a raging river of competition, with many voices articulating their vision for how society ought to be.

Still, the tendency to link civil religion with American exceptionalism and a mythology that "we" are God's chosen people has a tenacious hold on the popular imagination.  This is enough to to prompt Ira Chernus--the person who I credit with reviving my interest in civil religion--to announce: "We Need to Stop Using the Phrase 'American Civil Religion.'"

He explains:
I would prefer to see the term "American civil religion" and all its connotations given a decent reburial. It was abandoned by scholars of American religion back in the 1980s, only to be disinterred after 9/11, largely in other academic fields. Now it’s time for a more permanent burial because (for one reason) those three words inevitably mitigate against diversity. As long as talk of American civil religion goes on, it will perpetuate the debate begun by Bellah’s seminal essay about what our “real” or “true” civil religion is, implying that there must be one and only one.

Chernus then cites--well--me as a "vocal advocate of pluralism" who ultimately, "can't resist adding that Bellah's concern about what holds 'us' together in a post-Protestant age is 'a noble aim, one that is probably still worth discussing.'"  Indeed, in that blog post, I stated my admiration for Bellah's initial effort.  I also said that "his concern is not my concern.  I'm interested in contextualizing the realities of American many-ness."

But Chernus raises an interesting point, that the default definition of civil religion is simply too strong to overcome.  I'm not prepared to give it up just yet.  I will follow the lead of my colleagues who use religion as a category of analysis.  The Sisyphean task here requires that we purge "civil religion" of its normative assumptions.  Doing this requires that we listen more closely to what our sources tell us, and less closely to what we think civil religion is and is not.  And if we're lucky... really, really lucky... David Ignatius will hear us.

Pioneer Prophet on the Road

by John Turner

Fortunately not by handcart.

For any of our readers in Utah (and their friends), I'm going to be in the Beehive State this week talking about Brigham Young in Logan, Provo, and Salt Lake City.

Tuesday, Sept. 11:
Utah State University, Old Main Room 225, 4:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13:
Brigham Young University, Varsity Theatre, 11:00.

Thursday, Sept. 13:
Benchmark Books, Salt Lake City.

For details on the above talks, see http://johngturner.com/2012/09/09/utah-trip/ (still working out a few kinks on the website).

Closer to my home, I have an event at Politics & Prose on Sept. 21 and the Fall for the Book Festival on Sept. 28.

Bringing up the Bones: Bioarchaeology and the Second Great Awakening

By Carol Faulkner and Meredith Ellis

In 2006, construction on the future Trump Soho uncovered the burial vaults of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church. Syracuse University Anthropology graduate student Meredith Ellis and Bioarchaeologist Shannon Novak, author of House of Mourning:A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, have been analyzing the human remains and material artifacts to gain greater knowledge of this congregation.  My interview with Meredith Ellis, whose dissertation, tentatively titled The Remains of Childhood in a 19th Century Abolitionist Congregation, reconstructs the lives of SSPC’s children, reveals how urbanization, evangelicalism, and the burgeoning abolitionist movement shaped a religious community. For a full story on Novak’s lab and the SSPC remains, see the Spring 2012 issue of Maxwell Perspective, available here as a pdf.


Please tell us a bit of the history of the SSPC during the period when the vaults were in use. How was the church influenced by the Second Great awakening?

During the time when the burial vaults of the church were in use, the city was changing, quite drastically.  The church was built in 1811 in what was known as the 8th Ward.  It was on farm land at the time.  Within the next 20 years, the neighborhood of the church grew and urbanized into a mixed class, multiracial center.  Soon, Spring Street had a market along the docks at one end; businesses and residences along its length, including a fire station, the church, and a glue factory/tannery; and several blocks of brothels at the other end.  Like other groups, residents of Spring Street reacted to the burgeoning technology and market revolutions in this country that challenged previous ways of life. 

The Spring Street Presbyterian Church pastors participated in the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening in a few ways.  First, we know that the Reverend Henry G. Ludlow, pastor at the church from 1828-1837, hosted at least 6 revival events during his time at Spring Street.  Additionally, both Ludlow and his predecessor Samuel H. Cox were active abolitionists.  They were part of the founding group of the Third Presbytery, a break-away synod of Presbyterians who supported immediate emancipation of slaves, and of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which had the same goals.  Both pastors reached out through tract distribution and education programs to children, the poor, and African Americans.  And from pieces of sermons that we can find today, we know that they were likely involved in other reform movements associated with the Second Great Awakening, including temperance, Sabbatarianism, and body reform.

What have you learned about the backgrounds of the parishioners? Who belonged to this church?

The church appears to have drawn congregants from the local neighborhood.   Census data indicates that the neighborhood and church included working-class and middling class families.  Reverend Ludlow said in 1828 that the church was home to 300 people “most of whom belong to that class of person who cannot afford to pur­chase or hire a pew in our city churches.” We know from archival sources that the neighborhood included shopkeepers, blacksmiths, grocers, cartmen, and cabinet makers, among others.  Additionally, we know that households around Spring Street included nuclear families and extended families, both of European and African ancestry, as well as boarding houses. 

This is one place where the skeletal remains can help as well.  From the remains, we know that indeed some of the parishioners were working very hard: large muscle attachments, repetitive use injuries, and the occasional traumatic injury suggest that some of those buried in the vaults performed heavy manual labor on a regular basis.  And yet, we also find individuals with far fewer skeletal signatures of work.  These individuals were leading less stressful lifestyles.  Additionally, we have at least three separate instances of gold dental work: two individuals with gold fillings and one with a gold bridge. 

Skeletal remains can also give us some insight into ancestry.  We have some skeletal markers consistent with those of African ancestry and some consistent with those of European ancestry. We hope to receive grant funding in the future to further investigate this issue through DNA analysis.

What do the bones tell us about the way the congregation put its religious beliefs into practice?

This is a really important question, and something we think about quite a bit.  Basically, we are trying to understand if the individuals practiced what they preached.  The inclusion of African Americans in the burial vaults with European Americans would be good evidence that, at least in terms of welcoming those of African ancestry into their faith, the congregants we true to their word.  Other questions are more elusive: did they practice temperance? Sabbatarianism?  These are less clear.  Body reform movements that targeted dietary practices are an issue we can begin to address as we look at dietary patterns.  We are doing this by using stable isotope analysis, which tracks the signature of carbon and nitrogen, which is absorbed from the food that you eat.  In addition, diseases of deficiency in the children, including rickets, scurvy, and B12 deficiency, may suggest how the time and also perhaps the church influenced diet.

Your dissertation focuses on the children of the Spring Street Presbyterians Church. What do their remains reveal about evangelical childhood?

Great question.  To me, they reveal a few things: First, we need to remember that the remains of the children act as perhaps the best barometer of the conditions at the time. Adult bone continues to grow and turn over regularly, with complete replacement taking place every 7-10 years.  For children, however, bone turn over is much faster, approximately every year, because they are growing so quickly.  So their remains offer us a window into their more immediate environment.  I think the high rates of metabolic conditions that we are seeing in the children’s remains are our first clue to life at this time in this location.  These conditions are results of dietary deficiencies (a lack of Vitamin C, D, and B12) and living conditions (low access to sunlight).  The rates these conditions appear in the remains directly implicate how parents, and perhaps the church, were instructing the children to live.  Does the lack of access to sunlight mean children were being kept indoors, or clothed tightly, or working inside?  Do the missing vitamins from food mean that the diet was purposefully restricted by ideology or just simply unavailable to these classes? 

I think the other important thing that the children’s remains teach us about an evangelical childhood is that there is no one evangelical childhood.  The variety we see in the remains—healthy and sick, working hard manual labor and not, and early and late weaning—suggests that there were a variety of childhoods in the church.  The young are sensitive to epidemics, and from the records we know that children of all classes and lifestyles were taken by cholera and yellow fever, and even that the Reverend Cox lost three children in a month to scarlet fever.  Some of the remains show heavy muscle development for the age of the children, with large deltoid muscle attachments, or even a case of healing cranial trauma, for example.  Others show no signs of day to day life.  Isotope data suggest some children were weaned early, which would facilitate the mother working or being outside the home, while other children were nursed quite late, which suggests an entirely different parenting strategy.  So the evangelical childhood was really a diverse experience, and we can begin to show this diversity through understanding the remains of the children of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church.

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