The Theological Turn at U. S. Intellectual History

Mark Edwards
Detroit Photographic Co., "Army and Navy [Soldiers and
Sailors] monument, Indianapolis, Indiana," Library of
Congress, Prints and Photographs Online.

The sixth annual meeting of the Society for U. S. Intellectual History (S-USIH)  will take place October 9-12 at the Omni Severin Hotel in Downtown Indianapolis.  More information can be found here, including the conference schedule which will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.  Readers of RIAH will note a number of familiar names on the program, including Kathryn Lofton, who will be delivering the keynote address on Bob Dylan and the search for belief in history.  Lofton will also be joining the omnipresent Ed Blum and several others on a plenary session, What is U. S. Intellectual History?  If that alone is not worth the price of admission, the conference will host a roundtable on what is being called the "theological turn" in American history.  This panel is the brainchild of Lilian Calles Barger, the author of Eve's Revenge who just recently completed a wonderful dissertation on liberation theology at UT Dallas.  Joining Barger will be Molly Worthen, K. Healan Gaston, Matthew Hedstrom, and Andrew Finstuen.

Review of Brian Connolly's Domestic Intimacies

By Carol Faulkner

Subtitled Incest and the Liberal Subject in Nineteenth-Century America, Brian Connolly's book
historicizes the incest prohibition. This is a tough, tough subject, and he succeeds admirably. In the nineteenth century, theological, legal, literary, reform, and physiological discourses surrounding incest were in transition. The religious proscriptions of Leviticus and the Anglican Church's Table of Kindred and Affinity (1563) diminished in power and persuasiveness, and they had yet to be replaced by eugenic theories of reproduction or the taboos developed by the fields of anthropology and psychology. Further, as Connolly argues, incest was inseparable from constructions of the new middle-class, sentimental family. At the center of nineteenth-century American society, the family nurtured the nation's citizens, and offered a moral refuge in an increasingly mobile, capitalist society. Even as it offered protection,  the nuclear family's affectionate domesticity facilitated and even encouraged incest. Families had the contradictory responsibilities of regulating individual desire and providing for its expression. Within the family, according to Connolly, incest placed necessary, if shifting, limits on the individual.

Readers of this blog will be especially interested in Connolly's chapter on "Theology," which covers a debate known as "the marriage question." Involving the Presbyterian, Congregational, and Dutch Reformed churches, clergy and their parishioners debated the restriction on husbands marrying their (deceased) wife's sister (a wife marrying her brother-in-law did not seem to cause as much outcry). In the early republic, states began narrowing the list of prohibited relationships. In 1785, for example, Massachusetts removed the wife's sister from their marriage restrictions. Furthermore, American notions of individual liberty, particularly marital choice, began to clash with religious proscriptions. Charged with incest for marrying his wife's sister, Presbyterian minister Archibald McQueen protested the church's demand that he "separate myself from the woman whom I have chosen as my wife" (59) as disruptive of stable and virtuous families. In their defense of the marriage prohibition, theologians invoked the specter of a sexualized extended family, in which every member was a potential sexual partner: "Would not every family become a school of abominable impurity, where the youthful mind would be initiated in the worst mysteries of vice, and long before it obtained years of discretion, turn out a giant in profligacy?" (71). For many church leaders, the Table of Kindred and Affinity was the only bulwark against a sexual free-for-all, but Americans rejected such infringements on their liberty.

Take a Stand for Peanuts: Thinking Out Loud About The Irreverent George Norris

Paul Putz

After finishing up my first semester of PhD work last December, I headed home to McCook, Nebraska for a couple weeks. McCook is a small town (pop. 7,652) in southwest Nebraska, roughly halfway in between Denver and Omaha. Its most famous resident for the vast majority of its 132 year existence has been George Norris, the legendary Ohio-born congressman who spent forty years serving Nebraska in Washington (1903-1943) -- thirty of those years as a senator.

Stamp issued in 1961
It's difficult to get away from Norris if you're from McCook. Kids going through McCook's school system make numerous field trips to his old house, which is now run by the Nebraska State Historical Society as the Senator George Norris State Historic Site. Main Street in McCook is "Norris Avenue" and the central park in McCook is "Norris Park." All of this for a man who was a progressive Republican, a champion of liberal ideas that McCook's residents now generally repudiate, at least rhetorically.

For an earlier generation of liberals, Norris was a saintly figure. His stubborn opposition to "monied interests," his belief that the government could be a positive force for good in people's lives, his reputation for integrity, and the fact that he remained a steadfast progressive throughout progressivism's 1920s nadir captured the imagination of idealistic young Americans. In the 1950s, a panel of scholars put together by the U.S. Senate to determine the five most outstanding senators in American history voted Norris number one. In 1957, "John F. Kennedy" "wrote" Profiles in Courage, featuring Norris as one of his Courageous Eight U.S. senators.

Norris's greatest hits are indeed impressive. He opposed Joe Cannon, J. Edgar Hoover, American entry into World War I, the Espionage Act, and the poll tax (this did not come until the end of his career). He championed the TVA, Norris-LaGuardia Act, 20th Amendment, Rural Electrification Act, and Nebraska's Unicameral. And perhaps most impressive of all, he used an eight-foot spider labeled "Wall Street" as a prop for a speech on the Senate floor
But what does all of this have to do with American religious history?

You Cannot Serve God and Gridiron

Elesha Coffman

"We determine to follow the line of principle and refuse to compromise with the world," declared the young president of a small Christian college. The year was 1925, the small Christian college was the University of Dubuque, and the issue on which the president refused to compromise was football. Or maybe the issue was religious freedom. Or maybe it was ethnocentrism. So many strands get tangled up in declarations of institutional identity.

The University of Dubuque (or "UD" as we call it around here) was founded in 1852 as a Protestant seminary for German immigrants. By 1870, its name reflected its primary constituency: the German Theological School of the Presbyterian Church of the Northwest. As often happened, instruction in other fields grew up around ministerial training, and a four-year liberal arts college was spun off from the seminary in 1904. A Mexican student enrolled, then a few Czechs. Within a decade, the school had a new, much larger campus, a more diverse faculty, university accreditation, an emerging powerhouse football team, and a simmering scandal.

Religion at the Urban History Association Conference

Karen Johnson 

This year, the Urban History Association is hosting its seventh biennial conference in Philadelphia from October 9-12.  I've put panels that might be of interest to blog readers below, excerpted from the program. 

Session 36: Religion and Migration in the Post-World War II North American City
Lila Corwin Berman, Temple University,“Liberal Judaism and the Creation of Metropolitan Urbanism in Postwar Detroit”

Elaine Pena, George Washington University,“Religion on the Move: Sacred Spatiality and Civic Engagement in Nuevo Laredo”

William Schultz, Princeton University,“The Making of Jesus Springs: Colorado Springs and the New Geography of Evangelicalism”

Commentator & Chair: Sarah Barringer Gordon, University of Pennsylvania

Session 44  Religion, Race, and Suburbanization
Peter Borg, Doctoral Candidate, Marquette University,“Milwaukee’s White Urban Churches in the Age of Suburbanization”

Karen Johnson, Wheaton College,“Religion and Suburban Integration”

Erik Miller, Case Western Reserve University,“The Fields Are Black Unto Harvest:” The Rise of Evangelical Inner City Ministries and the Remaking of Christian Conservatism in the Age of the Religious Right, 1976-1989”

Chair and Commentator:  Darren Dochuk, Washington University in St. Louis

Session 77: Tenant Organizing in the Urban North: Empowering Residents to Improve Housing
Tracy E. K’Meyer,  University of Louisville, “The AFSC and the East Garfield Park Community Union: Organizing for Democratic Communities"

Jeffrey Helgeson, Texas State University-San Marcos, “Fighting Planners’ Blight: Renters, the Black Power Movement, and Urban Development in Chicago”

Charles F. Casey-Leininger, University of Cincinnati,“’Not the Most Dramatic of Slum Properties’: The Standish Apartment Rent Strike, Community Organizing, the Civil Rights Movement, and Civil Unrest in Cincinnati, 1964”

Chair: Amanda Seligman, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Comment:  Brian Purnell, Bowdoin College

For those who want to exercise a little at lunch while learning about religion and the city, check out these tours:

The Woodlands and West Philadelphia
This tour will begin at the Woodlands, the estate (turned cemetery) of early national Philadelphia’s preeminent connoisseur of plants, William Hamilton.  Hamilton’s mansion (ca. 1770-1795) is among the most important works of Federal Style domestic architecture in the United States and makes use of the surrounding landscape in ways reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.  After walking briskly through open areas of the house, we will stroll out into the surrounding Woodlands Cemetery, one of Philadelphia’s first “rural” cemeteries and the final resting place of Thomas Eakins, Paul Cret, and Napoleon III’s dentist.  Proceeding out the front gate, we’ll visit clusters of mid-19th c. suburban villas built on land that once belonged to Hamilton, then make our way to Penn’s campus, where St. Mary’s Church and Hamilton Walk reconnect us to the Hamilton story.

Beyond the Post-industrial City: Camden in Transition

Known nationally as one of the nation’s poorest cities, Camden has struggled for years to overcome structural restraints on its revitalization. Joining historian Howard Gillette, Mayor Dana Redd (invited) and Camden Redevelopment Director Saundra Johnson will point out elements of the city’s renewal, including neighborhood reinvestment in the shadow of an expanding health complex associated with Cooper Hospital, senior housing sponsored by Antioch Baptist Church, and a newly opened Kroc recreational center in East Camden, near a Hope VI site that has been expanded with the cooperation of the St. Joseph’s Carpenter Community Development Corporation.

Revisiting Du Bois' Seventh Ward

Walk the streets and alleys of the Old Seventh Ward, the neighborhood W.E.B. Du Bois studied for his 1899 classic, The Philadelphia Negro, and learn how the area that was once home to blacks, immigrants, and US-born whites across social classes has become one of Center City's most expensive residential areas. Led by social worker and planning professor Amy Hillier, director of The Ward: Race and Class in DuBois’ Seventh Ward project, highlights of this walking tour include a visit to Mother Bethel, the first African Methodist Episcopal Church founded by Richard Allen in 1794, and the story behind the painting of the mural "Mapping Courage" honoring Du Bois on South Street. We'll also hear a tale of murder, participate in a group poetry reading, and look at manuscript census records to learn more about the people of this historic neighborhood. We'll grab lunch along the way at one of South Street's many hip take-out restaurants.

LeBron James, Prodigal Son?

I'm pleased to guest post this from our occasional guest poster Jeffrey Scholes, co-author of the recently published book Religion and Sports in American Culture

Jeffrey Scholes
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

LeBron James announced his decision to return to his old team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, last Friday through a Sports Illustrated piece entitled, “I’m Coming Home.” This kind of statement is a far cry from his announcement to leave Cleveland in 2010 and “take his talents to South Beach” to play for the Miami Heat. Considered a ridiculous proposition two months ago as the Heat were poised to win their third championship in a row, James’ pronouncement sent shock waves throughout the sports world.

Interestingly, the predominant adjective used to describe James after his return to Cleveland in the media is “prodigal.” Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe writes that James is the “Prodigal Son, returning home to protect the rim.”  Prodigal son language is also couched in terms of the economic benefits that James will bring to Cleveland—hence another reason for the allusion of a “father” killing the fatted calf. The Onion succinctly summarized the feelings of many fans inside and outside of Cleveland with its satirical and blunt title, “Prodigal Asshole Returns.”

While the wayward son in Jesus’ parable found in Luke differs considerably from LeBron James (as does other facets of the two stories), associating the two makes some sense. James asks his “father” in Cleveland for a lot of money, spurns his hometown seven years later (and sadistically keeps the Cavaliers in the dark about his plans) for the big(ger) city lights of Miami, is hated in Cleveland with the kind of passion that produces holidays, but finally returns home to face the music.

Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement -- 2 volumes now!

Paul Harvey

Scholars interested in religion and the civil rights movement need to be aware of a couple of new, new-ish, and newly available online primary source compilations. One is a nice 2-vol. book (vol II of which has just come out), and one consists of some newly digitized interviews that have been part of the Stanford Special Collections archive, now available online. Together they provide some of the best and most accessible material on this subject that we've ever had. (I would also mention the transcribed oral history collections from the University of Southern Mississippi --covering not just the civil rights movement but Katrina and numerous other topics. I'm not specifically highlighting those here because they've been around a bit longer and are more generally known among scholars).

Back in 2007, I reviewed the first volume of Davis Houck and David Dixon, Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965, a nearly 1000 page volume for which scholars should bow down and give thanks. Back then here's what I wrote upon reading the volume (ok, quite a bit of the volume :) )

Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965Davis W. Houck and David E. Dixon, eds., Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965. Baylor, 2006.

That rhetoric and religion “have conspired to cocreate reality” may be a truism, and that rhetoric and religion co-conspired memorably and effectively in the civil rights movement (a basic thesis underlying this book) is no great surprise. Yet to see these standard statements played out in hundreds of pages of rich primary source material is a treat and an invaluable service to scholarship. Scholars Houck and Dixon have compiled a massive compendium, an embarrassment of riches, that fleshes out that relationship. Starting with the Moses Moon collection, consisting of some eighty hours of audio tape collected in the early and mid-1960s, the editors then scoured numerous other libraries and archives for sermons, speeches, impromptu addresses, and exhortations. The editors lay out the material chronologically, and give each selection detailed and informative introductions. Readers then may peruse at leisure, picking and choosing among the selections. The paradox remains that these selections were originally oral performances, and the printed page cannot capture the essence of those moments – just as those oral moments would not allow for the extended contemplation that having the addresses in printed form allows. Indispensable.  

Virtually Dead: Religion in the Age of the Internet

by Laura Arnold Leibman

Gravestone of Isaac Lopez (1762)
Photo L. Leibman
Jewish Atlantic World Database

This past spring, I taught a digital humanities course on American Dead and Undead.  The premise of the course was fairly simple: we shouldn't study the dead and undead in isolation from one another.  Following the lead of Philippe Ariès, many scholars have argued that Americans have lost a language for talking about death and increasingly have delegated death rites to professional personnel and spaces.  If so, have the undead provided us with a new space and vocabulary for publicly talking about dying and what happens to us after death?  To answer this question, my students and I turned to a wide range of artifacts (real and virtual) to look at what Americans from the colonial era to the present think happens when we die.  We also looked at the rise of the undead in the American imagination and thought about correlations between the narratives of dead and undead.

I should admit upfront, this was my dream course.  We performed seriation studies of local cemeteries, we charted the use of the word "vampire" in early American newspapers, and we discovered and used new digital tools.  We also decided that our starting hypothesis of an inverse relationship between language about dead and undead was a bit too simplistic.  We kept having to ask, which Americans?  Moreover, we discovered that language about death didn't decline steadily, but rose and fell with the advent of wars and moments of national loss.  Similarly not all undead were equal in their appeal in any particular era, but rather they waxed and waned in popularity.  Vampires, my students  decided, were past their prime, and zombies were now being increasingly stratified and humanized to fill the vampiric void.  Vampires and zombies did different cultural work.

Some other revelations caught me off guard.  Since I am primarily a scholar of early America, we deepened my own sense of what is happening right now, and for me this was the most interesting aspect of the course.  Most scholars of twentieth-century American death hadn't historicized the advent of the digital age, and we discovered this was their loss.  The internet, my students argued, changed everything, including how we mourn and our sense of eternity.

The Difficulty of Religious Communication: Brother, Born Again

J. Michael Utzinger

Streaming video affords us the ability to watch many film documentaries about religion that otherwise might escape our notice.  I have been watching several of these lately: some recent and some not so recent.  I am always intrigued about personal documentaries and what makes them compelling.  

Michael Hammond reminded us a while back in a past post that "our best understanding of this thing we call religion comes in stories and testimonies and strange recollections of the way that people find meaning in their lives."  So, I left a recent viewing of Julia Pimsleur's "Brother, Born Again" (2001), pleased with the raw and complex religiosity one can observe in a family divided by religious convictions.  The rest of this post is a spoiler, so if you wish, you can watch the entire film here before finishing the post.

The film had all of the making of a really interesting exploration: brother from an educated Jewish family joins a separatist evangelical group in Alaska.  After ten years of separation, his sister, feeling cut off from her brother, seeks to understand how this could happen and hopefully reunite the family.  Oh, and she brings a documentary film crew with her as well.

The beginning portions of the film shows the considerable misunderstandings that religious individuals bring to other religions.  One of my favorites was when Julia visited a Christian bookstore to find information about the evangelicalism her brother now professes.  After wading through Christian kitsch (and this word is both the right and wrong one in this particular context) the store clerk tries to explain the experience of his conversion: "I was on another planet.  I was like so high on Jesus." After essentially calling her Satan, another store clerk (perhaps the owner?)  admonishes to Julia just to pray that the Lord make himself real to her (which is what her brother wants for her).  When she says she cannot pray in that way because it does not mean anything to her, the clerk is genuinely baffled.  "But you want to know the Lord?"  "No, I want to understand my brother.  I want to understand what he finds in the Lord."  One is left wondering if these two worldviews are simply incommensurable. 

No sooner have we gazed at this great gulf, Julia reveals that her open bisexuality is another likely sources of division between her and her brother.  In a conversation with friend, she wonders how many concessions will she have to make and how many will he need to make for them stay close?  She worries aloud, "He has this great alibi called 'Jesus.'  And I don't know what I have that carries that much weight.  Except that I am your sister, dammit! You have to try harder."

It is our good fortune that both siblings are willing to try harder.  Julia flies to Hoonah, Alaska to see Marc and the separatist community to which he belongs, called "The Farm."  After a worship scene, Marc and Julia discuss his conversion.  After ten years on the Farm, Marc speaks of God with such familiarity with his sister that it is disarming.  One is struck by the irrationality of it all, an irrationality that seems central to Marc's notion of authentic faith, and Julia's apparent fear that such a faith is even possible.  In fact, Julia's discomfort with this irrationality leads her to throw out other psychological explanations for her brother's experiences that preclude the very religious explanations her brother uses to understand himself. 

The British Association of American Studies Conference, Northumbria University, April 2015

Randall Stephens

1955 was an eventful year on both sides of the Atlantic.  The Brooklyn Dodgers bested the New York Yankees in the World Series, thus giving Billy Joel a line for one of the worst songs ever written, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” For the first time in their history Chelsea F.C. won the Football League First Division championship. Doubleday published Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. J. R. R. Tolkien rolled out the final in his Lord of the Rings series: The Return of the King. Speaking of Kings, Elvis continued to fill out his Sun Records sessions, with amazing results.  Fellow southerner Billy Graham held his 1955 London crusade at Kelvin Hall and Wembley.

And . . . in that same year a few intrepid academics founded the British Association of American Studies (BAAS) in order to “support and encourage the study of the United States in the Universities, Colleges and Schools of the United Kingdom, and by independent scholars.”  It's been going strong ever since.

The 60th Anniversary Conference of BAAS will be held at my institution, Northumbria University, between Thursday April 9th and Sunday April 12th 2015.  (The call for papers is here. The Deadline is November 1.)

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