Is America Losing its Religious Vitality?

John L. Crow

Over the last week, I have been seeing a confluence of concerns regarding religious vitality in America, specifically pointing to the diminishing numbers of “cults” appearing in the news media. In the New York Times Op-Ed section, Ross Douthat lamented the loss, and pointed to others, stating “The decline of cults … might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large.” Douthat links to a talk Philip Jenkins gave this summer at Baylor where Jenkins stated, “the first symptom we might expect of genuine American secularization would be the disappearance of cults, and a precipitous decline in activism and enthusiasm on the spiritual fringe, which is exactly what has taken place over the past two decades.” In each case sounds a jeremiad regarding American religious vitality, and we are told the center of American religiosity is at stake. But is it?

I have to admit that I find these claims unconvincing. Instead I think there is something else going on beyond a mild shift towards a secularizing public. The first is the continued diminishment of Christianity’s, particularly Protestantism’s, claim to be the religious center of America and the continued expansion of a diverse religious marketplace. Second, we need to take into account the legal changes, and its mandates for tolerance and accommodation. Lastly, we need to recognize the different religious patterns in the youth of America, and their reluctance to join groups of any kind, established or marginal. Combined, these three factors have made objecting to newer religious groups socially unacceptable, and have pushed Gen Y and Millennials to eschew joining any group, but instead, to create their own religiosity, remaining spiritual but not religious.

There can be no doubt that America is greatly diversifying its religious environment. As a recent internet meme made apparent, while Christianity may be the most common religion in every US state, the second most common religion is surprising to many. America’s promise of real religious freedom has spawned a nation of significant religious diversity. Add to this many Christians who promote tolerance, accommodation, and diversity and you have a formula for fewer complaints about fringe religion. In a tolerant religious marketplace, new religious movements are not seen as threats, but just one more option, an option that is barely worth noticing or making a big deal over. It certainly is not cause to go to the media, abduct people to “save” them, or claim people are being brainwashed.

Walking Where Jesus Walked: A Conversation with Hillary Kaell

Rachel Gordan

The following is a conversation with Hillary Kaell, Assistant Professor of Religion at Concordia University and the author of the new book, Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and the Holy Land Pilgrimage (NYU, 2014). Millions of American Christians have been traveling to the Holy Land since the 1950's. Kaell's study asks why.

RG: How do you envision this book contributing to a course on American religion?

HK: Walking Where Jesus Walked ties together a few themes that could contribute to a course on American religion. It focuses on how Christians conceptualize the Holy Land, encounter people and places abroad, and then assimilate the experience upon return.  So it offers a great entrée into discussing the links between U.S. religion and “the world,” perhaps paired with readings on foreign policy or missions. In fact, one of the things I found so compelling about the project is that the pilgrims are not “global citizens,” like diplomats or missionaries. Many of them have rarely if ever left the U.S. before. How global encounters and exchange happen in that context, how they are mediated, how they reverberate at home – that could spark a great classroom conversation.

I could also see the book prompting students to think about how American religion happens in “in between” places. What I mean is that the pilgrimage is undertaken alongside, or even apart from, one’s usual church/congregation/worship. But it is not completely personal either. There’s an important institutional framework that makes these trips possible. Pilgrimage – and religious leisure more generally – is a great example that complicates the imagined binary between “traditional” church and “free-floating” seeker.  And I should add that leisure is important in and of itself because growing numbers of Americans “do” religion through things like tourism. In either context, I could see assigning the book alongside a classic text tracking changes in US Christianity, like Robert Wuthnow’s work on the growth of small groups.

Last, the book foregrounds how materiality and money operate for American Christians. So it could also fit well in a syllabus that is looking to upend normative assumptions about how Protestants use “words” and Catholics use “things,” for example, or how commerce and tourism are antithetical to “the sacred.” I also try to complicate this question of commerce – the exchange of money for things – by exploring how Americans use a discourse of “commercialism” to mark religious difference.

RG: Your book has terrific thematic chapters. How did you choose them?

HK: For methodological and theoretical reasons, most studies of pilgrimage focus on the shrine site, such as the Holy Land or Jerusalem. From the beginning, I wanted this book to be a complicated and textured account of the pilgrims’ lives. They are, of course, American Christians long before and after the trip itself so it was an easy decision to set up the chapters such that readers followed the pilgrims before, during, and after the trip. Once I had settled on that structure, I drew out the themes bit by bit as I worked through the material – both what I was finding in my fieldwork and the archives, and also the kinds of questions that surfaced as I read more scholarship on the topic.

RG: I was surprised how little Christian-Jewish relations seemed relevant to this study. It was the Protestant and Catholic distinctions that weighed on pilgrims' minds as they surveyed the Holy Land and thought about what it meant to be Christian. How did actually being in the Holy Land highlight these differences between Protestants and Catholics for the pilgrims?

HK: I decided not to place Christian-Jewish relations at the center of the book. One reason is that most studies of these trips have focused on Christian Zionism’s relationship to Jews. As I point out, the pilgrims themselves are rarely, in fact, neatly classed as “Christian Zionists.” Throughout I do note pilgrims’ conception of who Jews are and what they believe, which is often rather hazy and saturated with key symbolic tropes. That’s even more true of Palestinian Muslims and Christians. At the same time, the Israeli and Palestinian professionals with whom they actually interact are rarely confronted as religious “others,” we might say, because pilgrims don’t see them at worship. In short, the Protestant-Catholic distinction you picked up on comes through most clearly in shared sites where religion becomes a marked category, visible through the architecture of the place or the gestures and words of the Christians praying beside them. Ultimately, I point out that ecumenism is, at least in part, aesthetic. There is much less difference between American Catholics and evangelicals than between Americans and others, like Eastern Orthodox.

Research on Christian Homeschooling: Curricular Consequences and Organizational Power

Brantley Gasaway

As I was completing my first major research project over the past year (self-promotion alert: I just received a hot-off-the-press copy of Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice, so my book should begin to ship in the next few weeks), I turned to defining my next major project. Originally I had planned to write a monograph regarding the role of religion in the political career of former president Jimmy Carter—a topic closely related to my previous one. As you can imagine, after learning in 2013 that Randall Balmer was completing a biography of Carter focused on this very theme, I needed to search for a new subject. With several other smaller projects on the side, I have now begun research on a topic that has long interested me: Christian homeschooling. 

Although the modern homeschooling movement emerged from counter-cultural criticisms of public schools popularized by John Holt in the late 1960s, conservative Christians have constituted the majority of homeschooling families since the 1980s. Overall, the number of homeschooled children has risen dramatically over the past decade, with recent data indicating that over 3 percent of school-aged children (approximately 2.2 million) are being educated at home.  In some areas of the country, the percentage is even higher—for example, in North Carolina, nearly 6 percent of students are homeschooled, a rate that has now surpassed the percentage of those enrolled in private schools in the state. Although parents cite a variety of reasons in their choices to homeschool, reports from the National Center for Education Statistics reveal that over two-thirds indicate that “a desire to provide religious instruction” and "moral instruction" are two of their primary motivations. To be sure, there has been a recent increase in the religious and racial diversity of homeschooling families. Nevertheless, surveys indicate that theologically conservative Christians still represent the largest bloc. In addition, the most important institutions that influence public policies regarding homeschooling, such as the Home School Legal Defense Association, are Christian organizations. My research thus far has led me to consider two different types of analyses of Christian homeschooling. 

First, I am interested in analyzing the most popular religiously inspired curricula used by many homeschooling families. Even as more and more scholars have been examining homeschooling, most published studies have focused on the academic performances of homeschooled children and their social, emotional, and psychological development. Indeed, the majority of these studies seem to rely upon statistical analyses of standardized testing and ethnographic research. But few religious historians or religious studies scholars have examined the homeschooling movement, and apparently none have focused on one of the most fundamental features of home-education: the curricula. The production and distribution of textbooks and curricula for homeschooling is a billion dollar industry that is essential to the movement. Without these prepared materials, most homeschooling parents, who rarely have training in education or child development, would struggle to develop a structured educational program for their children.

As one may expect, because a majority of parents choose homeschooling based upon religious motivations, many of the most popular curricula—Sonlight, A Beka, Alpha Omega, Bob Jones, Ambleside Online, Apologia, Seton Home, Christian Liberty, My Father’s World, and more—integrate religious references into their materials and align their content with conservative Christian theology. Thus, these religiously inspired curricula are shaping the education and consequently the future of hundreds of thousands of children each year.  

Everlasting Gospel Mission Clovers

Emily Suzanne Clark

"... God's world will never pass away
God's world will never pass away, hallelujah
Well it makes no difference what the people say
God's world will never pass away, oh no
He's gone but he's coming back again
Yes, he's gone but he's coming back again
Well it makes no different what the people say
God's world will never pass away!"

This is part of Sister Gertrude Morgan's song "God's World Will Never Pass away" recorded in April 1971 in the Prayer Room. The Prayer Room was the front room of a shotgun house in the Lower Ninth Ward at the corner of North Dorgenois and Flood Street where Morgan lived and conducted small services. Very few people attended these services, and the services themselves followed no particular order. Morgan would sing, preach, paint, and exhort. Her message was a didactic one. I've posted here before about her unique apocalyptic message, which understood New Orleans as sinful and as the template for Revelation's New Jerusalem. She was both the "bride of Christ" referenced in Revelation, and additionally, she would play the role of John the Revelator.

The Prayer Room in her house at North Dorgenois was filled with her artwork. She painted the room all white, from the ceiling to the floor. And this matched her wardrobe. After God told her she was to be the bride of Christ, she wore only white - a visual reminder of her bridal status. The inside of her home was white with pops of color from her paintings, and according to those who knew her, bright four-leaf clovers covered her yard.

Morgan named her home the Everlasting Gospel Mission House. It was her home where she slept, ate, and died. It was her church where she preached. It was her studio where God instructed her to paint and sing. The lines between "sacred" space and "profane" space were blurred, both for her and for those who knew her and remember her. In 2008, I interviewed a few people who knew Morgan, and I saw what remained of the Everlasting Gospel Mission House. Morgan died in 1980, and her Everlasting Gospel Mission House became another's house until 2005. Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters pushed the house off its old foundation and into the building next door. It was demolished a few weeks before I took this photograph. What the floodwaters could not destroy where the four-leaf clovers that grew in her yard. And for some, it was the clovers that mattered. 

American Gandhi: An Interview with Leilah Danielson

Mark Edwards

The following is an interview with Leilah Danielson, Associate Professor of History at Northern Arizona University and author of the wonderful new book, American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).  Like all great biographies, Danielson’s work offers fresh insights on the major developments of Muste’s time, including the fortunes and follies of the American left, the formation of the civil rights and peace crusades, and (most exciting to me) the radical foundations of the mostly forgotten workers’ education movement of the 1920s.  This study should have broad appeal for historians of American leftism, labor, and politics, as well as for scholars of religion.

1. What first drew you to Muste?
I have long been interested in the history of social movements and the left and Muste seemed to appear everywhere I turned.  As an undergraduate, my senior thesis was on the cultural critic Paul Goodman, who frequently referenced Muste as a comrade and source of inspiration.  Then, as a graduate student, my first research project was on the civil rights leader James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality.  Again, it was clearly evident that Muste’s role in early CORE was fundamental.  The same thing happened again when I conducted research for my dissertation on the history of Christianity and American peace activism; Muste was the pivot upon which everything – theory, organization, and action – seemed to turn. 

2. You place Muste within the “liberal-left tradition” (p. 3) in America.  Could you elaborate a bit on that concept, as well as its connections to pragmatism?  To Communism?  To Christianity?
I borrowed this term from Doug Rossinow’s book, Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).  In it, he argues that the split between radicals and liberals in the Cold War represented a break from a dynamic history of left-liberal collaborations from the late 19th-century through the 1940s united by “a transformative concept of social progress.” (4) He also suggests that recovering this tradition offers the key to reviving progressive politics today.

The history of Muste’s career illuminates Rossinow’s thesis on a number of levels.  Ideologically, he often straddled the divides between liberalism and radicalism: As a socialist, he challenged liberals to recognize that collectivist implications of their egalitarian ideals, while, as a civil libertarian, he challenged labor and the left to pay attention to means as well as ends.

Like many radicals in the 1940s, Muste broke with liberalism over questions of war and U.S. foreign policy.  He also broke with communism, viewing it as a totalitarian ideology, and focused instead on building a “third way” of nonalignment and nonviolence.  Later, in the late 1950s, he attempted to resuscitate a left-liberal alliance yet faced tremendous opposition from anticommunist liberals and socialists alike; only the younger generation of civil rights and new left activists agreed with him that a non-exclusionary approach was necessary to reenergize the American reform tradition.  He would finally manage to build a liberal-left coalition against the war in Vietnam in 1966, but it was full of fissures and it broke apart soon after he died.

In the book, I posit the tension between liberalism and radicalism in terms of pragmatism and prophetism.  Doing so allowed me to highlight the role of Christianity in shaping Muste’s political commitments and concerns.  It also expresses my central thesis that Muste was both a pragmatist and a prophet.  He believed that ideals must be grounded in practice and the individual in community, which drew him to collective political projects and inspired a dialogic method of communication that brought different groups of people together.  The tension between the poles of pragmatism and prophetism, realism and idealism served as a source of creativity and dynamism, but also as a source of frustration that, over time, pushed Muste to assume a more prophetic posture.

Charity, Sylvia, and God

Carol Faulkner

Rachel Hope Cleves's marvelous book Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America is a dual biography of two women who lived together in Weybridge, Vermont, for forty-four years. Their relatives and neighbors recognized them as married in practice if not by law, with Charity's nephew William Cullen Bryant describing their connection as "no less sacred to them than the tie of
marriage." Demonstrating that toleration of same-sex marriage is not a recent historical development, Cleves attributes recognition of their union to the rural and frontier status of their community, and to the women's important economic and religious contributions to the town. As Cleves argues, however, this toleration depended on "a strategic silencing" of their sexual relationship. Rejecting this silence, Cleves explores both the public and intimate aspects of their marriage. Students of American religious history will be interested in how Charity and Sylvia, as pious women in the early nineteenth century, struggled with what they perceived as sin.

Cleves traces the backgrounds and marriage of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake in remarkable detail, piecing together town histories, family papers, their poems, and what remains of their correspondence (unsurprisingly, much was destroyed). When the couple met in 1807, Charity was 29, seven years older than Sylvia. Charity had several previous relationships with other women, but she and Sylvia quickly became inseparable. They moved in together, on property rented from a widowed female landlord, and supported themselves as tailors. At first, and for their relatives' sake, Sylvia was Charity's "assistant." Soon, the two women became equal partners, jointly running their business, and owning their house and personal property. In public records, Charity's name often appeared above Sylvia's, establishing her civic identity as the husband of the relationship, a household order that their neighbors understood. The couple shared a bed, a fact that would have been clear to early visitors to their one-room house, but they later built additions, establishing some privacy and upholding the community's reticence about their sex lives.

Who Needs a Hug(ging) Saint?

Ed Blum

Below is a transcription of a book discussion I had with Amanda Lucia last spring at the University of California, Riverside (home to so many fantastic scholars of American religious history in the present and the past). The audience comprised faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and members from the community.

(ejb) It is hard to find an analogue for Mata Amritanandamayi, the “hugging saint,” the “goddess,” or “Amma,” whatever you prefer to call her. Like Oprah Winfrey, she is a contemporary woman adored by millions who has the power to organize and distribute millions of dollars each year. Thousands upon thousands wait to be hugged by her, and while Pope Francis has become a media darling because of his class-leveling actions, she has embraced lepers. Recently, I sat with Professor Amanda Lucia of the University of California, Riverside, to discuss her fantastic new book Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace. The point of our conversation was not simply to receive a taste of her book, but also to consider how it connects with contemporary trends in the study of religion in the United States.

(ejb) Q: To begin, can you give us the “who, what, where, and when” of your book and Amma’s ministry?

(ajl) A: Well, the first time I was in India I was on the UW Madison College Year in India program in 1996-1997. I was living in Varanasi and researching Hindu ascetics, sadhu babas, and renouncers. I was trying to study female ascetics, but I had this old male brahman assistant who said simply: “They don’t exist. Every woman who is a female ascetic is doing so because her husband died or she has no other means of supporting herself.” But then later that year, I was in Kerala and it was there that I ran into this huge pink ashram and the famed female guru Amma or Mata Amritanandamayi. According to her hagiographies her life story goes something like this: Amma was born in 1953 in a small South Indian fishing village to a fisherman’s caste. As a young child she began to feel the suffering of others, and she began hugging people in order to alleviate their suffering. Many people found these hugs to be comforting, healing, and miraculous in some cases and a cult of devotees formed around her. Now she travels around the world hugging tens of thousands of people every single day without rest. She hosts public programs that are free and open to the public that will last for about 10-20 hours at a time, during which individuals line up and she hugs them one by one by one. Even though darshan is usually a visual exchange between a deity and a devotee, taking Amma’s darshan is a hug.

I didn’t see Amma performing darshan until I went to Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago in 2004. There were maybe five to ten thousand there that night and I had no idea of what to expect. I immediately noticed two distinct groups of people who were there: Indian Hindus who were very traditionally dressed, often dressed up, there to take Amma’s darshan and then there were “alternative” looking American metaphysicals (spiritual seekers) who were neither Indian nor Hindu, but were very much taking a part of Amma’s darshan. The book then drew out of the central question of how are these widely disparate cultural groups of devotees working together? How are they finding resonance within the same stimuli in different ways? How and when do they come together and where do they fall apart into their culturally distinct communities? Those were the questions that struck me at the outset and they became the central project of the book. And then of course, the secondary aim was going back to my first question back in 1996 of how could a woman become a very famous guru even though the scriptures tell her that she can’t? In the most traditional Hindu moral codes (shastras), it’s not allowed. But here you have this very famous female guru who seems to be thumbing her nose at Hindu prohibitions regarding caste and gender all over the world - so what role do traditional hierarchies of caste and gender play in her religious authority and her global organization?

One important point that I should mention at the outset is that for Westerners, many people think ‘oh, that’s nice, she’s hugging people – everyone wants a hug.’ But in India and in Hinduism, conservative Hinduism particularly, a hug among strangers is a radical transgression, especially for a woman of low caste to be hugging all persons regardless of gender, caste, illness, and so on. As Selva Raj put it, Amma’s hug is her “discourse of defiance.” This story emerges from my analysis of the ways in which Amma is publicly thwarting caste and gender restrictions that would prohibit such behavior.

Rally the Scattered Believers: Northern New England's Religious Geography

Paul Putz

I finished reading Shelby Balik's Rally the Scattered Believers: Northern New England's Religious Geography (Indiana University Press, 2014) a few weeks ago, and I've been reflecting on it often ever since. I think this is a book that will interest many RiAH readers, so I'd like to give it some attention.

Set in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine in the years between 1780 and 1830, Balik analyzed the religious geography of the region, or “the many ways in which denominations and churchgoers organized their communities spatially." In Balik's telling, two competing religious geographies battled (or rather, denominations representing those geographies battled) for power in the region. On one side stood the town-church system represented by the Congregationalists. Enshrined in laws and practices inherited from southern New England, in this system the religious community was "organically rooted in a particular place" with both believers and non-believers within the town's boundaries joined together in a "common spiritual endeavor."

A Balm(er)y Fall

It's hard to keep up with Randall Balmer, but this fall is especially frenetic. Oxford University Press just released a new, twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory (and the scholar who had his evangelical conversion take place at Word of Life Bible Institute and the other scholar who performed as Jesus there will both remain nameless). A special panel at the upcoming Conference on Faith and History will address the many publics of Mine Eyes (Saturday morning).

With Balmer, however, there is always something new to match something old. Last May, Basic Books released his Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. Today, Elesha Coffman begins our three-part series of responses to the book. Look out in the next few weeks for the next two. (ejb)

Elesha Coffman

To paraphrase Mark Noll, the scandal of the evangelical left is that there is not much of an evangelical left. It does exist, as David Swartz has recently and Brantley Gasaway will soon remind us. Still, most writing on the topic adopts a wistful tone, pondering what might have been (or might yet be) if evangelicals disentangled themselves from political conservatism. If only different voices had gained a wider hearing, especially in the 1970s. If only the money and the organizational prowess had tipped the other way.

Randall Balmer takes a step further in his spiritual biography of Jimmy Carter, Redeemer. He posits that there actually was a viable, coherent “progressive evangelical” tradition, but twentieth-century evangelicals betrayed it. Instead of what might have been, this approach begs the question, “Who are we talking about?”

Interview with Nancy Wadsworth on Evangelicals Working for Racial Change, Part 2

Karen Johnson

Since the 1980s, few evangelical Christians concerned with racial reconciliation and racial justice have mustered their efforts in the political arena.  Nancy Wadsworth's new book Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing explores this seeming paradox.  Last month I interviewed her about her new book and promised the second part of the interview this month.  Here is goes:

Karen Johnson: How central is the framing of race as a black/white binary in American history to the development of evangelical racial change efforts, and to today's on-the-ground reality?

Nancy Wadsworth: What we need to understand about the black/white binary is that while it is less relevant to race relations within Christianity today—because of course the American racial mosaic is complex and variegated far beyond black and white—it matters a lot for thinking about how the deep racial divide within American Protestantism developed, and why it has been so difficult to bridge. (Mind you, this is not just the case for evangelicals, though that is the focus of my book. The same patterns repeat within American Catholicism and the mainline denominations.)

It is easy for us to forget that almost all American denominations fractured over, first, the question of slavery, and then, with emancipation, the issues of citizenship, integration, and civil rights for African Americans. These were core questions around which Protestants, like the nation and as the largest religious group within it, fought virulently. With Native Americans effectively relocated to the margins of American life by the mid-Nineteenth Century, racial fractures within American Christianity developed along the black-white binary. And to a very serious degree, whites developed their racial identity and sense of superiority in contrast to the group designated as their opposites: blacks, whose humanity was so disregarded that enslaving them was seen as not only justified but also, in many cases, as a prerogative of good Christians. That is why most of the denominations we know today, especially on the Baptist and Methodist side of Protestantism, literally were created based on their defense or repudiation of slavery. Black denominations grew directly out of that fracture, on the liberation side. The SBC, for example, was explicitly founded on the pro-slavery side of the racial divide. Similar fractures occurred in the Pentecostal tradition as it split over questions of integration in the early twentieth century.

When Women Don't Marry: Single Blessedness and the Shidduch Crisis

Laura Arnold Leibman

"Save our desperate daughters," proclaims the cover article in issue 521 of Mishpacha [family] magazine, an English-language, ultra-orthodox journal. Although distributed via mail worldwide and featuring articles from from around the world, the magazine is based in New York and Jerusalem and is primarily aimed at a U.S. audience, as well as English-speaking Jewish-American ex-pats living in Israel.  The choice of English (rather than Yiddish) as the common tongue speaks both to the magazine's desire to appeal to Sephardic Jews and to the increasing number of people who taken on orthodox practice as adults. Magazines like Mishpacha help build community and become a stage upon which American orthodoxy performs its values and concerns.  Two key concerns are marriage and gender roles.

Many ultra-orthodox Jews believe in a limited engagement with the internet; thus, in-group magazines have become a crucial way to track of current events and forge a sense of community that extends beyond U.S. national boundaries and links families living in the U.S., Israel, and Europe.  Although nominally one publication, the magazine comes with three separate components: one aimed primarily at men, one at women, and one at children.  Interestingly, the August 6, 2014 (521) issue of the magazine, in which the article on the crisis for young Jewish women appeared, was placed in the men's portion of the magazine, and was was filtered through the gaze of an important Jewish male philanthropist, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz.  What was the crisis "that's breaking Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz's giant heart" and required attention from readers?  The lack of marriage partners for young orthodox women.

Advertisement for Segulah (Remedy) for
Shidduchim, Mishpacha Magazine (2014)
As Mr. Rechnitz notes, "Everywhere I turn, and at most Shabbos [Sabbath] tables, eventually the topic turns to the Shidduch Crisis. What is causing the Shidduch crisis? What can we do to solve the Shidduch Crisis?"  Given the magazine's audience, Rechnitz claims regarding the crisis's ubiquity are almost undoubtedly correct. While the "crisis" (or catastrophe as Mr. Rechnitz renames it) may be news to readers of the RAH blog, few who read Mishpacha magazine would be surprised or doubt the Shidduch Crisis's existence.  Indeed the magazine often features advertisements for ways to get a segulah (remedy, charm) for Shidduchim (matches; see this brief list of popular segulot and prayers and the image at RIGHT).  For the non-orthodox this may seem mystifying.  What is a shidduch anyway, and why is it suddenly causing a crisis for young Jewish American women? Moreover, the historian in me wants to know, is the shidduch crisis actually new? If not, can the past offer any guidance to current situation?

Muscular Christians and American Football

Seth Dowland

Like many football fans, I watched aghast at the news coming out of the NFL this week. The horrific video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee (now wife) Janay Palmer came out the morning after a full slate of Week 1 games. A series of Nixonian statements from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell followed, in which Goodell denied reports that the league office had seen the video months ago (as if the previously-available video of Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of the elevator—and Rice’s own admission of punching her—hadn’t already made clear what happened). To finish the week, Minnesota Vikings superstar Adrian Peterson was indicted on charges of child abuse, after admitting to bloodying his son with a tree branch.

Incidents like these don’t occur among the majority of players, and it’s hard to draw solid causal links between the on-field violence of football and the off-field behavior of its players. Researchers have produced increasing amounts of evidence that concussions lead to permanent and debilitating brain damage, though this week’s incidents probably had little to do with head trauma. Still, such a week raises the question of how much fans will be willing to tolerate, as we learn more and more about how our most violent major sport affects the modern-day gladiators who play it.

Damned Souls and Damned Nation -- Damned Good

Paul Harvey

Today I hope to call your attention to two books -- one older (published 2000) and one just out now – for the simple reason that I heart both of them; they are both about hell; and they are both fun as hell to read. The first is Edward L. Bond's Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony (published in 2000); the second, just out with Oxford, is Kathryn Gin Lum (aka, The Notorious KGL),  Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction.

Edward L. Bond’s study Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony (Mercer University Press, 2000), is one of those books that takes a fresh approach to a subject (in this case, emphasizing the strength of religiosity in seventeenth-century Virginia, contrary to how the usual accounts go) and supports that approach with a wealth of primary source research that will keep you returning to the footnotes for years. I came to appreciate that latter fact more this summer as I worked through my ideas about religion in early Virginia, and returned time and again for help to the primary sources listed in the footnotes from Bond’s book, as well as Rebecca Goetz’s The Baptism of Early Virginia – two books that are pursuing different subjects and arguments, but ultimately work in tandem. 

Legacies of Faith and War in the Republic of the Savior, El Salvador

Michael Hammond

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

The Quetzaltepec volcano rises over San Salvador
Historians often guide students to view the study of history as a trip to a foreign land, following the suggestion of L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel.  After starting my fall semester classes in August, I spent nine days in El Salvador to teach an intensive course on Latin American history to a group of U.S. students. Within that class, the “Hartley concept” went “meta,” as the imagined visit to a foreign country actually took place within a foreign country.   

This group of students is part of an internship and study program partnering with ENLACE, a non-governmental organization committed to community development and poverty relief throughout El Salvador. There is a Christian element to the work of ENLACE, which gave opportunities to reflect on the role of religion in Latin America as well.

Archbishop Oscar Romero's Toyota Corona
Semester abroad experiences often prioritize historical study because of its usefulness to interpret the culture during the time in the foreign country. This is also why students take intensive courses in the native language. In an environment where the understanding of the role of history and the humanities is fading, it is tempting to justify historical study by its pragmatic worth. Universities spotlight programs of relevance, immediate application, simple concepts, and raw skills. History and the humanities push us closer to the facts and reality of the story of people. The closer we get to the details, the more fragmented and frayed that story becomes. We can magnify the story, or retell it to get a better focus. But clarity often eludes the realities of Latin America—and history done well. Real history is messy, and not reconciled in a 60-minute documentary. History can leave us with more questions than answers. But the experience of thinking about that history can also change us. Our quick week of history brought these students a deeper understanding of the Cold War, Latin American religion, and the culture of El Salvador.

Announcement: _Water Like Stone_ DVD Now Available

We are happy to announce that Water Like Stone is now available on DVD!

Water Like Stone is a documentary by Zach Godshall and RiAH contributor Mike Pasquier. Using Leeville, Louisiana as a case study in life in coastal communities, Water Like Stone provides a window into "what it's like to live in a dying landscape." This film is part of Mike's larger body of work, which gives us all insight into religion and water in America, an area of study that several contributors continue to develop.

Readers can purchase a copy of the film here.

The Cold War as an Historical Contingency

Janine Giordano Drake

In my "Cold War and American Culture" course this semester, we have been spending a good deal of time examining how Harry Truman "sold" the American public on the Cold War. As Michael Hogan and Thomas McCormick remind us, many Americans, especially Congressional Republicans of the 1940s, were not easily convinced that it was worthwhile to dedicate so many American resources to Europe and the rest of the world. While World War II saw the dramatic expansion of the American government and military industrial complex, Congressional Republicans largely wanted to make it stop. Franklin D. Roosevelt's high-sounding rhetoric of the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms sounded patriotic during the War, but many Republicans feared FDR was a fascist. Truman had to sell the idea of the Cold War war, over and over again.

In order to get students to appreciate this historical contingency, I spent the first few days of the class asking students to crawl into that historical place where Americans' default position on world politics was that the US had no business being making entangling alliances overseas. We talked about Wilson's vision in the Fourteen Points, and how he couldn't get Congress to approve US membership in the League of Nations. We talked about all the pacifist ministers and conscientious objectors of the 1910s and 1920s who believed (and often preached in their churches) that building up militaries and stockpiles of weapons was the opposite of the Christian calling on earth. My students read the Catholic priest John Ford's "The Morality of Obliteration Bombing" and tried to imagine themselves in the shoes of religious and other Americans who were not easily sold on the prospect of a huge, standing military.

Now, I currently live an teach in Great Falls, Montana, a city whose entire social, cultural, and religious infrastructure is built around the Malstrom Airforce base--and the fact that we have nuclear missile silos somewhere secret, yet very close by. Many of my students are either in the military or married to folks who are. To these children of 9-11, a world wherein a huge, standing, and volunteer military is not taken for granted is an exercise in historical imagination.

From this platform, we read Andrew Preston's essay, "The Faith of Harry Truman and the Theology of George Kennan," in Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith in conjunction with primary sources from from these leaders. I asked students if they thought Truman's moral rhetoric--talk of protecting individual freedom of worship and self-determination, and defending Christianity in the world-- would have convinced them to support Truman. What if they were Catholics who followed John Ford? What if they had been Quakers? Would Truman have persuaded them that Communism was a different kind of enemy altogether? Do Truman and Kennan convince them that communism was in fact a different kind of enemy, all together?

My students tell me that they've never done so much textual analysis in a history class before. I don't think I've ever done so much textual analysis in any of the history courses I've taught or taken, either. But, both Andrew Preston and Jason Stevens (in God Fearing and Free) have convinced me that the Cold War really was won and lost on the solidarity politicians had to continually build with the American churches. I am trying to get students to see the Airforce base here not as a natural backbone of Western small-city economies, but as the unpredictable result of successful political messaging.

Registration for THATCamp AAR2014 Now Open!

Chris Cantwell

Gifts awaiting THATCampers
As I announced earlier in the summer, The Humanities and Technology Camp (THATCamp) will be making a return to the American Academy of Religion's annual meeting. And I'm thrilled to announce now that registration for THATCamp AAR2014 in San Diego is now open! Register here.

For those of you who are not familiar, THATCamps are "unconferences" devoted to considering how technology is changing the way humanists research, teach, and share knowledge. Where most conferences focus on the presentation of prepared research, THATCamps focus upon collaboratively learning new tools and techniques that individuals can take back to their research and teaching. And where selective program committees determine the agendas for most academic conferences, the program of every THATCamp is created by the campers themselves. In the month leading up to our gathering, campers will propose the sessions they'd like to see on the THATCamp AAR2014 blog. First thing we do when we meet is then vote on the sessions that will run that day. To see the sessions AAR THATCampers have proposed before, check out the last year's blog.

Like last year, THATCamp AAR2014 will be held the day before the AAR's annual meeting, on Friday, November 21 from 9am-5pm. We'll also again be treated to coffee through the generous sponsorship of DeGruyter Press. And like last year, THATCamp AAR2014 will feature the typical mix of user-generated sessions mentioned above and pre-planned directed workshops. This year's workshops will include: 
  • The technical, logistical, and programatic methods of running a podcast on the study of religion.
  • Using Voyant to mine religious texts so you can do the kind of cool visualizations our own Michael J. Altman showed in his recent post on Hindu/Hindoo.
  • A roundtable of nonprofit program officers, journalists, editors, and bloggers who will discuss how the internet and new media provide allow scholars of religion to reach audiences beyond the academy. 
 Spaces is limited, so make sure you head over tothe  THATCamp AAR2014 blog and register today!

Book Review: Religion, Food, and Eating in North America

Today's guest post is written by David S. Walsh. David is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology of Religion at Arizona State University. He has lived, worked, and shared in the foodways of the Tłįchǫ Dene in the Northwest Territories, Canada, since 2011. He has conducted ethnographic research on Dene worldviews, foodways, religion, and relationships with nature. Today, David reviews Religion, Food, and Eating in North America (Columbia, 2014), a book first previewed by Paul here at RiAH. David gives us more insight on the book's strengths, its weaknesses, and how we might use it in the classroom.

David S. Walsh

Those in search of a fruitful and, dare I say, tasty collection of essays on religion and food are promised satiation for their hunger in the book Religion, Food, and Eating in North America, edited by Benjamin E. Zeller, Marie W. Dallam, Reid L. Neilson, and Nora L. Rubel. The editors have drawn from a diverse range of traditions, topics, and approaches to the study of religion and food, weaving together a ground breaking collection that frees us from the traditional studies of prohibitions and taboos, and reveals the importance of privileging food in the classroom, in research, and in our very understanding of what is religion in North America.

I was first introduced to this book by Samira Mehta at the fantastic Donner Symposium on Religion and Food in Turku, Finland (see Samira’s post). Samira contributed a thoughtful, accessible, and fun chapter to the book on food as a conduit for blending Jewish and Christian traditions in mixed families. Ben Zeller, an editor of the collection, gave a thoroughly engaging keynote at the symposium that reflected his chapter contribution on quasi-religious food movements among vegans and locavors (see Zeller’s interview).

I was inspired in my own work by the combination of the symposium on Religion and Food, followed closely by reading Religion, Food, and Eating in North America, to understand food as an overlooked but highly influential factor for religion in North America. Since this is my first time on the blog, I should say that I am currently writing a dissertation (if my advisor asks, yes I’m working on it) on the indigenous Dene of northern Canada and their spiritual relationships with caribou. I ask how an analysis through foodways and the necessity of sustenance may alter the ways we understand indigenous relationships with nature: what does it mean when the primary motivation for spiritual, ritualistic acts is not to commune with the divine, nor for a sense of identity, but for survival and the basic need to eat? I have found some answers to my questions in Religion, Food, and Eating in North America; specifically in how the book frames food as central to religious traditions, and food as a common denominator that permeates across religions.

Religion and the Fall Semester

Jonathan Den Hartog

Much of my thought in the past weeks--as, I suspect has been the case with many readers--has been dedicated to preparing for the fall semester. (This is apparently a teaching week--thanks, Michael Graziano and Charlie McCrary!)

This fall I have the opportunity once again to teach my "Religion in American History" semester-long course. Due to scheduling issues and a sabbatical leave, it has been several years since the last time I had offered it. It has been invigorating to go back to my syllabus, recall what had worked, and figure out how to refresh and enliven the topic.

It has been good to go back to some reliable resources, old academic friends. I'm happy to use again the great teaching tool which is Edwin Gaustad and Mark Noll's Documentary History of Religion in America. It is hard to go wrong with Chaim Potok's The Chosen. I also think Mark Massa's Catholics and American Culture teaches quite well, while at the same time introducing theoretical concepts in an accessible way (bonus points that it features the University of Notre Dame football team). I even think I'll still have a few things to say about the significance of religion and the Federalist party.

At the same time, it has been great to rework some pieces of the syllabus in light of new scholarship in the field and conversations even from this site. As I indicated this spring, I'm assigning George Marsden's Twilight of the American Enlightenment, both for its picture of the 1950s and because it ties into themes we'll be developing in the course. To point students to contemporary debates, though, they will also have to respond to several pieces from Molly Worthen. I hope this will produce some good discussion. I'm also excited to be teaching Larry Eskridge's God's Forever Family, on the Jesus People movement. Although my students might be too young to resonate with the book, I think it brilliantly captures a moment of important development for American evangelicalism and the nation as a whole.

that's our quad...really!
It has also been good to rethink teaching strategies. I have doubled-down on putting the onus of discussion on the students. These upper-level students should be well-equipped to wrestle with the readings, and so I expect them to take the lead, repeatedly. Further, it's important to me to keep students writing and thinking, through a variety of forms.

I'm glad we'll have chances to practice hospitality, as we welcome outside speakers into the class.

Historical Perspectives on War, Peace, and Religion - CFP

Trevor Burrows

The Peace History Society has issued a CFP for their 2015 conference. The conference's theme is "Historical Perspectives on War, Peace, and Religion," and will be held at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut. The full CFP follows below:

The PEACE HISTORY SOCIETY invites paper proposals for its ninth international conference: Historical Perspectives on War, Peace, and Religion, October 22-24, 2015 at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut, U.S.A. The theme focuses on the interrelationships among war, peace and religion. This conference seeks to shed light on the relationship religious traditions and beliefs have had with the making of war and peace in all areas of the world.  We are most interested in papers that take a historical approach to this topic. We welcome panel and paper proposals that compare different historical periods and geographies as well as those that focus on a particular event, person, place or time-period.  Paper proposals about peace history not related to the conference theme will also be considered.

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