Teaching with Primary Sources: Religious Freedom and U.S.-Vietnamese Relations

Lauren Turek

In her two most recent posts for this blog, Emily Suzanne Clark spurred vigorous and productive discussions about teaching with primary sources. [1] Much like Emily, I assign many primary sources in my classes, as I agree with her that they "illuminate conflict and show moments of creative tension in American history. They show how the past can be a foreign country and they reveal how the past is not so different from today." [2] In my courses on U.S. foreign relations, I find that primary sources that address religion in some way or that use explicitly religious language can help my students think more deeply about the role that ideology has played in shaping and restraining past U.S. foreign policy decisions. Such sources also allow my students and I to consider Christian nationalism and internationalism, civil religion, and a host of other interesting themes as we discuss the history of American foreign policy. Additionally, these documents can sometimes illuminate the historical context for contemporary foreign policy challenges.

Given Emily's recent posts, I thought I might start to (occasionally) share some of my favorite primary sources from the history of religion and American foreign relations, with the hope that readers might find them useful for teaching or that they might suggest similar sources they have found helpful in their own work or classrooms.

Since President Obama made a historic trip to Vietnam this week, I would like to start off by sharing a document I have assigned in my classes that addresses the religious dynamics of U.S.-Vietnamese relations before and during the Vietnam War.

Exporting Law, Exporting Freedom

The third post in our ongoing review forum on Anna Su's new book, Exporting Freedomcomes to us from Mona Oraby. You can read earlier entries by Michael Graziano and Jeffrey Wheatley. Look for our final post in the series next week.

Mona Oraby

Exporting Freedom complements a recent spate of scholarship that queries the timelessness and neutrality that is often attributed to the right to religious liberty. Drawing on historical case studies that span twentieth century U.S. foreign policy, Anna Su charts the emergence and promotion of religious freedom first as natural law, and subsequently as a human right enshrined in national constitutions and international law. Su argues that American religious freedom promotion abroad is part and parcel of U.S. global ascendancy.

The book is a significant contribution to our understanding of how “the malleability of religious freedom enabled its invocation abroad to be articulated and made salient within particular historical and institutional contexts” (4). Su not only excavates the political and intellectual milieu in which American discourse on religious freedom took shape. She also explains the modes through which this discourse figured into three U.S. military incursions: the Philippines following the Spanish-American War, post-World War II Japan, and Iraq after the 2003 invasion. By foregrounding the interstice between discourse and imperial power, Su opens up a productive inquiry into religious liberty’s distinctly American provenance.

If Exporting Freedom casts religious liberty and American power in a new light, it falls short of articulating a broader claim about the centrality of law to the U.S. export of both Protestant values and secular liberalism. After all, religious liberty was not exclusively deployed as a discursive tool, but as a legal instrument that curtailed preexisting power structures and reorganized local religious traditions. In all three case studies mentioned above, the career of religious freedom promotion followed a categorically legal course. American officials drafted constitutions as a means to achieve occupation goals. They increasingly sought to codify the disestablishment of church and state first in order to civilize subordinate populations, but always to secure U.S. material and moral interests. To her credit, Su demonstrates that religious freedom protections became entrenched in national constitutions and the panoply of international legal instruments we are familiar with today. However, she does not theorize the significance of this multi-jurisdictional spread of religious freedom as law. How, we might ask, has the constituent relationship among law, religion, and freedom changed over time?

The U.S. colonial experiment in the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century points to the imbrication of these concepts early on in Exporting Freedom. Using a constitutional framework, the U.S. government sought to promote religious pluralism and simultaneously limit forms of religious worship it deemed antithetical to its civilizing mission. The U.S. colonial administrator of the Moro Province, John Wood, remarked that Filipino Muslims and Catholics practiced “an unruly amalgam of local customs” (32). Su further tells us that “[a]lthough Wood believed in religious freedom, it was freedom that came in a particular shape and size. He praised Jesuit missionary work in the Moro Province…because he considered the principles of the Christian religion conducive to the observance of law and order and respect for authority” (32). Given that the book provides rich historical evidence for a robust theory of what law does in the context of military occupation, it is curious that Su asks but never answers whether it is significant that religious freedom is law (161).

Viewed from this perspective, U.S. ascendance is characterized by the global propagation of law and constitutionalism, American-style, of which religious freedom promotion is but one component. The histories of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) and the post-2003 Iraq Transnational Administrative Law (TAL) are cases in point. As Su explains, “[b]y enacting the IRFA into law and ensuring that adequate religious freedom guarantees were written into the Iraqi TAL, the U.S. government brought together its old and new ways of promoting international religious freedom” (157). The old way consisted of unilateral standard setting, often by military force. The new mode interprets and implements these standards, which are supported by a variety of domestic and international legal mechanisms.

This line of thinking extends to other realms in which law’s productive capacity is used to legitimate U.S. projects of global domination. Prisoner abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, Baghram Air Force base outside of Kabul, and Guantanamo Bay are haunting examples of how U.S. officials have bent legal definitions of what constitutes torture in order to sanction harsh interrogation techniques and extraordinary rendition. And just two years ago, the Obama administration expanded the scope of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force law to justify the killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. The point here is that it is no coincidence that American discourses on ‘defending religious freedom’ and ‘eradicating terrorism’ are tied to national security interests. Such interests are being realized through the force of law with alarming frequency.

The ongoing centrality of law to American power thus casts considerable doubt on Su’s assertion that “the slow realization of religious freedom is and should be a profoundly political act, one that is built on continuing deliberation, contestation, and mutual recognition” (162). Exporting Freedom may be “[f]irst and foremost a cautionary tale [that] illustrates the ambitions and limits of what religious freedom promoted as law by an external actor can achieve,” (10) but the book’s elite-centric view does not suggest how the ideal of religious liberty can be instantiated otherwise.

Mona Oraby is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University.

Book Challenges as Primary Sources in the Study of American Religion

Today's guest post comes from Meredith Ross. Meredith is a doctoral candidate in American Religious History at Florida State University. She holds a Master’s degree in Library and Information Studies, also from Florida State, and her research focuses upon religion and information, particularly mid-20th century church libraries. You can contact her at mr09@my.fsu.edu or on Twitter @Memo_Ross.

In 2011 Jonesboro, Arkansas, concerned adults asked that the critically acclaimed novel The Kite Runner be removed from the high school curriculum of the Valley View School District. Why? Because, they argued, the book “may cause some students to question the validity of our ‘one nation under God’” through its “presentation of Islam as a viable and genuine religion.”

Challenges like this one – the first step in officially banning a book from a school or library – are tracked carefully by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF). The OIF’s numbers show that, between 1990 and 2009, 688 challenges were issued to books on the basis of their so-called “religious viewpoint;” challenges citing concerns that books espoused the “occult/Satanism,” which the OIF lists separately from “religious viewpoint” challenges, totaled 1,044 during this same time. These challenges have helped scholars illuminate concerns about the supposed “occult” nature of youth media – particularly as related to the “Satanic panic” and the attempted banning of the Harry Potter series.

Less considered, however, has been the capacity for official book challenges in schools and libraries to provide clear insight into some Americans’ perceptions of the religious other and the place of religion in the public square – especially when, as in Jonesboro, the title in question features Muslim characters or themes.

Photographing "Father Ted"

Hesburgh with donors at a Challenge Rally fundraiser, 1961
 [This month's Cushwa post is by Todd C. Ream, who is Professor of Higher Education at Taylor University. Todd's current research is on the life and writings of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952-1987. While he has several projects ongoing, we asked him to offer some thoughts on the rationale for and method of a book of photos of Hesburgh that he's currently assembling. We're illustrating the post with three of these photos drawn from the ND archives, with thanks to archivist Charles Lamb for his help in obtaining these versions.

Speaking of Hesburgh, we'll announce the first round of grants for research in his papers shortly. Since this is a new opportunity, we're still trying to widely circulate news of their availability. If you're interested in religion in/and American higher education, and/or in any of the governmental commissions Hesburgh participated in, the papers are particularly rich sources and we encourage you to apply for research support.]

Religious Activism in the Pacific Northwest

Paul Putz

Kevin Kruse's One Nation Under God and Matthew Sutton's American Apocalypse are both blockbuster books on conservative American Christianity. But that's not the only trait they hold in common. Both books also prominently feature Christian leaders who operated out of the Pacific Northwest. Sutton uses Seattle's Mark Mathews, pastor from 1902-1940 of one of the country's largest Presbyterian churches. Kruse features Abraham Vereide, also based in Seattle, who combatted socialism by reaching out to businessmen and civic elites in the 1930s. Vereide's efforts led to the prayer breakfast movement, which eventually made its way to the halls of power in Washington D.C.

I had not thought much about the shared home region of those two figures until I read Dale Soden's Outsiders in a Promised Land: Religious Activists in Pacific Northwest History (Oregon State University Press, 2015). In Soden's text both figures appear, working alongside numerous other religious leaders in the region that Patricia Killen has aptly described the "None Zone."

With Outsiders in a Promised Land Soden provides an account that stretches from the late-nineteenth-century to the present, describing the ways in which "religious activists, in this least-churched region of the country, have shaped the struggle to define the nature of public life" (p. xiii). For Soden, "religion" mainly comes in the Catholic/Protestant/Jew formula. But if his selection of subjects follows a traditional path, the setting in which they operate provides a unique frame. Rather than the standard "anxiety over lost prestige" as a motivating factor for religious (mostly Protestant) activity, Soden's religious activists -- whether conservative or liberal -- viewed themselves as outsiders in a hostile culture. For them, there was nothing to "take back" in the land of the religiously unaffiliated, only new ground to be gained.

The Last Time Methodists Split: A Primary Source

Elesha Coffman

The United Methodist church may be heading for a split over LGBTQ inclusion and the interpretation of Scripture. American religious historians might remember that this church split before, in 1844, over the issue of slavery. In poking around the 1844 history, I ran across the General Conference speech of the man at the center of that crisis, Bishop James O. Andrew of Georgia, who had become a slaveholder by marrying a widow who had inherited slaves from her previous husband. Northern Methodists pressed for a resolution that no slaveholder should serve as bishop; Southern Methodists deemed this move a galling overreach. Andrew's speech complicates the true but perhaps overly stark picture of slaveholding Christianity that one gets from, say, the relevant documents in R. Marie Griffith's American Religions reader (Frederick Douglass, from Narrative of the Life of an American Slave; Angelina Grimke, Appeal to the Christian Women of the South; and George D. Armstrong, from The Christian Doctrine of Slavery). The speech appears in many Methodist sources, including this one, but is not, I think, well known elsewhere. Some highlights:

"Strange as it may seem to brethren, I am a slaveholder for conscience' sake. I have no doubt that my wife would, without a moment's hesitation, consent to the manumission of those slaves, if I thought proper to do it. I know she would unhesitatingly consent to any arrangement I might deem it proper to make on the subject. But how am I to free them? Some of them are old, too old to work to support themselves, and are only an expense to me; and some of them are little children: where shall I send these, and who will provide for them? But, perhaps, I shall be permitted to keep these; but then, if the others go, how shall I provide for these helpless ones? and as to the others, to what free state shall I send them? and what would be their condition? ... I believe the providence of God has thrown these creatures into my hands, and holds me responsible for their proper treatment."

Adventures in Religious Materiality

Sarah E. Dees

Adventures in teaching religious materiality, that is. I'm currently leading students through an intensive, three-week (crash) course on religion in museums, which I am teaching at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Tennessee. I’ve used museums in my teaching before in a class focused on religion, race, and ethnicity (and written about it here); the present course focuses specifically on material religion and the relationship between religious studies and museums studies. In addition to introducing students to the ways in which religions were historically represented in public spaces—including fairs, exhibitions, and museums—the purpose of the class is to acquaint students with how contemporary museums display objects of religious significance and to help students understand important conversations surrounding these practices. How have museums acquired their collections? Who decides the value that objects hold? What is the relationship between the academic study of religion and the display of significant objects? What can objects tell us about American religious history?

Graduate Student Conference on Constructing National Identity in US History, Northumbria University, September 9th, 2016

Randall J. Stephens

Regular readers of this blog may be interested in a graduate student conference that will be held here at Northumbria University on Friday, September 9, 2016.  A PhD student I've worked with here, Megan Hunt, is organizing it.  Looks like the conference will be a rewarding and fascinating experience. 

Historians of the Twentieth Century US (HOTCUS) Annual Postgraduate Conference: "Winning Minds and Hearts: Constructing National Identity in US History."

Friday 9th September 2016, Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Keynote speaker: Dr Simon Hall (Senior Lecturer in American History, Leeds University)

On 1 February 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asserted that "Americanism is a matter of the mind and the heart." Just a year after he approved the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, FDR’s statement about the inclusiveness of American identity highlights one of the key questions scholars face when writing the history of the United States: What do we actually mean when we talk about US national identity?

The distinction between what is and isn’t American has dominated the history of the twentieth century United States, from the Hollywood Blacklists of the 1950s and protests in the streets of Selma, Alabama in 1965, to clashes between construction workers and Vietnam War protesters in New York City and debates over U.S. military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. In these instances and many others, the process of defining national identity remains central to our understanding of U.S. history.

This conference will explore the constructions and limitations of American national identity in the twentieth century. Panels and twenty-minute paper proposals are invited from postgraduate students and early career researchers on the constructions and manifestations of Americanism in the last century.

Topics for papers or panels might include:

Exporting Freedom and the Power of Religious Freedom

The second post in our ongoing review forum on Anna Su's new book, Exporting Freedom, comes to us from Jeffrey Wheatley. You can read the first review here.

Jeffrey Wheatley

Anna Su’s book Exporting Freedom is a timely contribution to scholarship interested in state power, international relations, and religion. Arguing that religious freedom should not be analyzed as a mask for other interests, Su examines religious freedom as an American ideology, by which she means that religious freedom served as both a legitimation for American intervention and shaped the goals and processes of intervention. Religious freedom, understood by Su’s subject to be essential for democracy, has been both an element of American political morality and American self-interest abroad. She examines this ideology at work in policy deliberation and codification through six historical case studies, beginning with the US occupation of the Philippines in the early twentieth century and ending with the US occupation of Iraq in the twenty-first century. 

What I find compelling about Exporting Freedom is how colonialism, global warfare, and military occupations were the contexts that bound together the book’s six chapters. Within these contexts religious freedom, as understood by American policy-makers, was a tool of pacification and securitization, both associated with democratic nation-building. But how and why, exactly, did American officials imagine religious freedom to pacify and secure? And what assumptions are embedded in such a view? Chapter 1, which examines the Philippines, and Chapter 4, which examines post-WWII Japan, provide some of the deepest analyses and are productive sections to consider these questions. 

Religion, Revolution, and Digital Humanities: A Guest Post from Kate Carte Engel


Today I'm thrilled to share a guest post from Kate Carte Engel, an Associate Professor of History at Southern Methodist University. If you don't know of Prof. Engel from her important work on the religious and economic history of the Moravians, you might know her from her previous appearances here on the blog. What you may not know, however, is that this semester Prof. Engel has been working with her students on a digital humanities project on religion and the American revolution. I had the good fortune of watching the project unfold as the class blogged about their work. So I asked Prof. Engel if she would consider reflecting upon the experience for RiAH. Below are her thoughts--and visualizations! 

British Library, 1868,0808.10061,AN75238001
Religion and the American Revolution is a topic that tends to linger in our national discussions.  Just recently, Jonathan Den Hartog blogged about the fascinating questions raised on the subject by Mark Noll’s new book. Those on the right regularly insist that the United States is a Christian nation because of something or other that happened in the Revolutionary era, it's part of the school curriculum in Texas, and the power of Christianity alongside our founding documents in our civil religion keeps the subject on the table.

In the Beginning Was the Word (Part 1)

Jonathan Den Hartog

I've appreciated the conversations around John Fea's The Bible Cause over the last month. Today, I wanted to turn our attention to another Bible-focused history that is also a 2016 product: Mark Noll's In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783. Although there has been some discussion of the book--as a Ben Franklin's World podcast, at the Cushwa Center at Notre Dame--I've been surprised there hasn't been more. (I'll let Commenters point me to other resources.) Noll's work is an impressive piece of scholarship that deserves to be digested into our thinking about religion in colonial and revolutionary America.

Rather than offer a full academic review of the book, I want to offer a more-impressionistic response to it. Much more can--and should!--be said about it. In fact, let me share some of my thoughts in this post, and I'll save the second half for next month.

Before jumping into the book itself, it's worthwhile contextualizing this work in Noll's larger body of scholarship and in the intellectual milieu in which he's working. As for the Noll "corpus," this is a big, scholarly book to be set next to his America's God. At the same time, I also saw important echoes about the place and uses of the Bible from his Civil War as a Theological Crisis book. As to theme, it hearkens back to much earlier work, such as his Bible in America project and bears echoes of his celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

Further, the book helpfully takes advantage of the types of intellectual exchanges provided by his position at the University of Notre Dame. One way of the book could be read would be as a (very) extended response to Brad Gregory's Unintended Reformation. Whereas Gregory interpreted subsequent developments in modernity from a Catholic perspective, Noll demonstrates the internal, Protestant logic that shaped the debates over the place of the Bible in society. In so doing, he demonstrates that choices were made, and that these choices differed for various groups.

Exporting Freedom and the Politics of Disestablishment

This is the first post in a series responding to Anna Su's new book, Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power (2016). We'll feature other responses throughout the month of May.

Michael Graziano

In The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1996), Thomas Friedman put forth his “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention.” Friedman suggested that two countries that both had McDonald’s would not go to war against one another. This reassuringly capitalist teleology didn’t quite pan out, though, and he supersized it to the Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention in 2006’s The World is Flat which, I will simply note, won the inaugural Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.

I was reminded of Friedman’s prophecy while reading Anna Su’s new book, Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power (2016). Su is no Friedman, but her book could be considered a study of Friedman-like attempts to understand the big ideas that govern human interaction. Friedman, like many of the subjects in Su’s book, thought he’d discovered a peace-and-justice algorithm built into modern society. Su is looking at something as American as apple pie (or, well, as McDonald’s): religious freedom. Su tells a story of Americans convinced that they could make the world a just and peaceful place by exporting American-style religious freedom around the globe.

Su addresses two related questions about religious freedom: (1) How did Americans theorize the world around them by extrapolating from their own national experiences? (2) How did these theories come to be applied around the world and under American imperial power? These questions are made all the more pressing by the ease with which “religious freedom” is thrown around by American leaders. Anyone with the mettle to stomach a presidential debate has surely heard it proffered as a foreign policy panacea for global ills of every variety. How did that come to be?

CFP: Boston University Graduate Conference on Religious Studies

Andrew McKee

When not throwing my own parties, I like to spread the word about good graduate conferences. So, apply to this:

Second Annual 

Boston University Graduate Conference on Religious Studies 

Protest, Public Religion, and Social Change 

October 1, 2016 

9 Questions with Jack Downey

Pete Cajka

Jack Downey is an Assistant Professor in the Religion Department at LaSalle University. We talked recently about his new book, The Bread of the Strong. This study traces the history of the Lacouture retreat in three acts: the retreat's founding by in Quebec by Jesuit Onesime Lacouture; its introduction into America by Pittsburgh priest John Hugo; and, finally, the retreat's impact on Dorothy Day. This book investigates the intersection of the Roman Catholic contemplative tradition and modern political activism. Fordham University Press published The Bread of the Strong as part of their Catholic Practice in North America series.

PC: Can you tell us about the development of the retreat and how it changed people, theologically speaking, and in terms of lived religion?

JD: The retreat I study in my book was founded by this Jesuit named Onesime Lacouture. Lacouture is born in 1881 but he doesn't start giving the retreat until he is about 50. It was 1930 when he gave his first retreat. He visualized it very much as consolidation of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. He has these enormous retreat notes. He calls them the "three series" of the retreat. He only gave the first of the three series. The exercises have a portion that focus on the grim stuff, meditations on hell which is eventually what draws allegations of Jansenism. But initially he visualizes this retreat as being explicitly for [vowed] religious. His idea was to begin a revival among clergy and other religious so they would eventually have a trickle down type of effect that would inspire the laity. He saw this as being a pushback against Anglo-Protestants in Quebec at this time.

The ABS and the Art of History Writing

In April we began a series of reviews on John Fea's recent book, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society
(Oxford University Press, 2016). The series contained two reviews, one review by Elesha Coffman and the other by Candy Gunther Brown. I'd also like to draw our reader's attention to a review of The Bible Cause by Paul Harvey (our own blogmeister emeritus) at Religion Dispatches. Harvey's thoughtful review responds to the reviews by Coffman and Brown, and is well worth reading alongside them.
In this concluding post, John Fea offers a response to his reviewers. I am glad that John agreed to this forum in the first place and has taken the time to offer us his thoughts. Now that you've read these three posts (four if you count Harvey's review) I encourage you to read The Bible Cause for yourself. —Lincoln Mullen

John Fea

I am extremely grateful to Lincoln Mullen and the Religion in American History blog for holding a symposium on The Bible Cause. I also want to thank two scholars whose work I admire—Elesha Coffman and Candy Gunther Brown—for taking the time to review the book.

I have seen the Bible Cause as an experiment of sorts. As many of the readers of the Religion in American History blog know, I wrote 120 blog posts tracking my progress on the book. This was also the first book (and it will probably be the last) I have written to commemorate an important anniversary in the life of an institution. Since The Bible Cause required that I build a relationship with the ABS, I had a unique set of challenges to deal with. How would I maintain my scholarly integrity and academic freedom while at the same time providing the ABS with a book worthy of its bicentennial? Though I never talked to George Marsden about this project, I tried to use his book Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism as a model for writing this kind of institutional history. Finally, I wanted to write a narrative history of this important American institution. While I had scholars in mind as I wrote, and I hoped that this book would contribute to our knowledge of American history and find its way into academic libraries, I also had in mind the thousands of Christian laypersons who were affiliated with the ABS as donors and participants in the Bible Cause.

CFP: American Friends Service Commitee at 100

Lauren Turek

The American Friends Service Committee is celebrating its 100th anniversary next April. They are hosting a symposium to mark the occasion and have an issued the following call for papers. Given the AFSC's long history of social justice work in the United States and abroad, this symposium presents an excellent opportunity for readers of this blog to share their related scholarship or to learn about new directions in this field of study:

"100 Years of Peace with Justice: looking back, moving forward"

What's Your Favorite Primary Source to Teach? Part 2!

Emily Suzanne Clark

Just what you always wanted—another post from me about teaching and primary sources. This is a follow-up my post last month about my favorite primary sources to teach. Again, add your favorites in the comments! The question today is: What is your favorite media-based primary source (image, song, video) to teach?

Last month I focused on written primary sources (though hopefully you noticed that the post's images were visual complements to two of the selections). This is typical way I organize class: homework is reading, class is full of discussion with images and other media. We dissect images, we note what strikes us in them, we use those readings to help us see things in the images we wouldn't otherwise see. I also add in as much music and video as I can too. In fact, I begin class everyday with what I call "mood music." I play a song as the students file into the classroom and get settled in. I can't claim originality here; I stole the idea from my M.A. advisor Chip Callahan. The mood music sets the tone, and, as some students have figured out and remark on, the music gets at the topic in another way. There's so much about The O'Jays' "Ship Ahoy" that sets the right atmosphere for a discussion of religion and the Atlantic slave trade. And Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" is just a fun way to begin a class on the Second Great Awakening.

The Journal of Southern Religion: A New Volume and a Peek at the Future


Charles McCrary

As you may have seen, the Journal of Southern Religion recently released its 18th volume. Go check it out now! It includes a forum on southern religion in the Atlantic World, edited by JSR associate editor and RiAH’s own Emily Clark. The forum features three pieces—from Alexis Wells, Thomas Little, and Christopher Jones, respectively—with a response from Jon Sensbach. As Sensbach asks, “how did religions cross the Atlantic from Europe and Africa and take root in the South? How did religion transform the geographic region we call the South while connecting it to distant points around the Atlantic littoral?” If you want some answers, read the forum! Volume 18 also includes sixteen book reviews, some of which are among the first reviews for these books. Last year the JSR adopted a “rolling release” model. Rather than releasing the entire volume at one time, the journal is published a few times throughout the year. This allows us to have book reviews out earlier than many print publications.

What’s on the horizon for the JSR? Thank you for asking. We’ll have more book reviews, of course, as well as articles later this year. And, this fall we will publish another forum, this one a roundtable on “southern religion” through its dissenters, outsiders, and critics. We have five great contributors lined up, and it’s going to be awesome.

What else is in the JSR’s future? Maybe you are! The journal accepts submissions at any time. (See submission guidelines here.) The journal traditionally has published mostly history pieces, but we remain very interested in other disciplinary and methodological approaches, including political theory, critical theory, ethnography, and literary studies. If your work has something to do with “religion” and “the South” (both broadly construed, of course!), then the JSR just might be for you. Send something in and stay tuned for more releases.

Religion at the Common Ground Summit

Mark Edwards

Last weekend, the Hauentstein Center at Grand Valley State University in Michigan convened a symposium on potential "Common Ground" between progressives and conservatives.  Here was their statement of purpose:

Americans have ample reason to think deeply and critically about the roots of progressivism, conservatism, and the various ways the two have interacted in history. Today, the widening gap between the left and right, as well as the fractures inside the Democratic and Republican parties, have caused widespread political confusion and upheaval. Ideological gridlock dominates the headlines, while reasoned and substantive political discussion often devolves into talking-head reparteeand triumphalist chest thumping.
In this age of crippling ideological polarization, the time is ripe for a reexamination, and even redefinition, of what it means to be progressive, and what it means to be conservative, in the 21st century. Our summit will provide a rigorous setting for political thought leaders, humanities scholars, and engaged citizens to discuss the ways in which progressives and conservatives might share common ground and common cause—historically, culturally, philosophically. 

Cheers to Hauenstein for assembling an amazing team of scholars, including several persons well known to this blog like David Hollinger (who presented in conversation with E. J. Dionne), Ray Haberski, Kevin Schultz, and Andrew Hartman (who defended his book on the culture wars against Chris Shannon).  You can check out the presentations here.

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

Monica C. Reed

A number of years ago a friend asked me what I knew about Nat Turner. We had been talking about my interest in American history, specifically the history of race and racism, and he was using Turner as a litmus test. If I knew about the nineteenth-century preacher and his rebellion, then the discussion could continue. If I didn’t, then my knowledge was too limited and the discussion was over. A few months ago I had to inform this friend that he was going to have to find a new test, and I was reminded of that earlier this week when I saw the trailer for the 2016 film, The Birth of a Nation.

The Birth of a Nation, written and directed by Nate Parker, is the story of Nat Turner, and it made news back in January when it premiered and won big at the Sundance Film Festival. In addition to winning the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, Fox Searchlight Pictures also bought the film for $17.5 million in the largest deal in festival history. Back in January it seemed clear that scores of moviegoers would soon learn about Nat Turner. In a few months, he will no longer be a relatively unknown figure in American history, and so it seems  my friend is going to have to find a new way to gauge whether or not he wants to continue talking to you. What struck me while watching the trailer this week, however, is that that in addition to learning about Nat Turner, audiences might also learn quite a bit about American Christianity and slavery.

Digitizing Four Decades of Conversations


Msgr. John Egan preaches at the dedication mass for the Cushwa Center in 1981. Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, the celebrant for the mass, is at right.
[In this month’s Cushwa Center post, assistant director Shane Ulbrich shares some news about a few digital projects underway at the Center. Some of these are fully up and running—see below for links—while others are still in progress as we deal with copyright or content management questions. Back in December on this blog, Heather Gary recalled the myriad lectures, seminars, symposia, research projects, and conferences that Cushwa has sponsored in the 40 years since its inception. The overall aim of our digitization efforts is to give scholars means for revisiting those many activities, by making the relevant materials readily discoverable and searchable on the web.]  

Shane Ulbrich

New Books in American Religious History: 2016 Year in Preview, Part Two (May-August)

Paul Putz

It's time for part two of the 2016 book preview list. This one will cover books published in May through August. If you missed part one (books published January-April), you can check it out here. Part three will be posted in late August, and will feature books published in September-December.

The usual preface: I've listed the books in roughly chronological order based on the month of their tentative release date. Although I've tried to include as many relevant and interesting titles as I could find, I'm sure that I left out some deserving books. Sometimes this is because publishers don't have updated information on their websites, and sometimes it's because I just missed it. Please feel free to use the comments to add to this list and I can update the post as needed.

As for how I define what is "American" in American religion (to say nothing of what is "religion" in American religion), for the purposes of these lists I mostly follow Kathryn Gin Lum's response in this IUPUI RAAC forum. There, she articulated an understanding of "America" as the region that eventually became known as the United States. That definition does have problems, of course, which is why your contributions to this list -- contributions which envision "America" differently -- are more than welcome.

Now, on to the books! (after this collage to add some color to any social media links)

Race, Class, and America's Pastor: An Interview with Phillip Sinitiere

Karen Johnson

I recently read Phil Sinitiere's new book Salvation witha Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church & American Christianity.  (Arlene Sanchez and Phil did an interview about the book on this blog here, which you can check out if you want to read more.)  Phil suggests that to comprehend recent American evangelicalism, we need to understand Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church.  I had an opportunity to talk with Phil further about how Lakewood and the Osteen family illuminate themes of race, working for structural change, and gender in American Christianity.  Phil is well-poised to speak about these subjects based not only on this current book, but also his earlier Holy Mavericks:Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace, and Christians and the Color Line: Religion and Race after Divided by Faith, which he co-edited with Rusty Hawkins, and which you can read more about here. I'm happy to post some of the results of our conversation today, and look forward to sharing more with you in June.

KJ: American Christianity is marked by the history of race in America.  When racial change and (mostly white) suburbanization happened in American cities in the postwar era, most white Protestants moved out of the city and their old neighborhoods.  Their church may have remained in the old neighborhood longer, but, particularly if the church did not have a strong denominational polity, the congregants moved the church building to the new neighborhood.  Lakewood Church, however, stayed in its neighborhood for years past when the neighborhood changed, before it moved into the Compaq Center (former Houston Rockets arena) in 2005.  Could you speak more to those dynamics?

PS: Karen, Let me first say thanks for the interview about my research on Lakewood Church and American Christianity. The working-class and racially diverse area of northeast Houston in which Lakewood was once situated experienced demographic shifts over the four decades it was there. John Osteen, Lakewood’s founder, commented in sermons that wealthy Houstonians criticized him for not re-locating Lakewood to another part of town (interested readers might also refer to the Woodrow Seals story in chapter 2 for another example of class-based criticism)—presumably more white, and bourgeois. My research suggested that John’s working-class origins oriented him to consider the plight of the poor in Houston even though the prosperity gospel he preached netted millions of dollars that propelled him into a new tax bracket. 

I should also note that while John exhibited a preferential option for the poor in and around Lakewood Church, starting in the 1970s he moved his family out to suburban Houston. At the same time, congregants seemed to find John’s decision not to move Lakewood Church meaningful. Many commented on his charitable spirit and monetary redistribution, while thousands continued to show up such that by the time of John’s death in 1999, Lakewood had tens of thousands of members. 

Jerusalem YMCA: Relics of Mainline Missions

 Michael Limberg

Jerusalem YMCA, photographed from the front.
Photograph by author.

Wandering down a shady section of King David Street in Jerusalem, the weary traveler first sees a soaring tower. Walking closer, a large complex opens up, built with Jerusalem’s ubiquitous honey-colored stone in a blend of 1920s modernism and Oriental domes and arches. The sound of children calling in Arabic and Hebrew while they play on courtyard playgrounds echoes from a large sign at the entrance, where multiracial men and women in sports clothes contorting their body to spell out “YMCA.” The Jerusalem YMCA is a relic of the high tide of mainline American missions in the 1930s, but it is also a reminder of the long continuing history of mainline missions even as their work was eclipsed by newer evangelical organizations. The Jerusalem Y also remains deeply entangled in the national and international politics of the Middle East. And for me as a historian, exploring the history of the Jerusalem Y was a chance to understand some of the opportunities and challenges of missionary history.

In 1919, Archibald Harte, an employee of the U.S. Young Men’s Christian Association, arrived in Jerusalem determined to “do everything possible for the people and the land, in order to bring to the people righteous prosperity and to make the land again a land of milk and honey.” After securing a million-dollar gift from a wealthy American donor, Harte oversaw the construction of a huge YMCA complex in Jerusalem. The facility boasted a gymnasium, pool, sports field, library, an American-style soda fountain, and space for lectures, religious services, and vocational classes. The impressive building showcased modern technology and architecture and symbolized the commitment of U.S. missionaries to help the Holy Land. The Jerusalem YMCA has survived many changes and challenges over the decades since its construction. Arab, Jewish, British, and American members fought over racial and religious tests for admittance in the 1930s. Its façade still bears scars from the 1946 Irgun bomb attack on the King David Hotel across the street. Amos Gil, the current CEO, remembers growing up nearby in what was, until 1967, a poor Jewish neighborhood exposed to Jordanian sniper fire from the Old City walls. During the intifadas or more recent fighting in Lebanon and Gaza, Arab members coming from the Old City braved checkpoints to reach what Gil describes as an “oasis” of peace.

“Jesus, Don’t Let Me Die Before I’ve Had Sex”: A New Documentary

Today's guest post comes from Suzanna Krivulskaya. Suzanna is a Ph.D. student in U.S. History at the University of Notre Dame. She studies U.S. religion, gender, sexuality, and scandal in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Suzanna can be found on Twitter via @suzzzanna.

Suzanna Krivulskaya

Coming out to family is stressful for anyone, especially if the patriarch happens to be Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. Bright’s grandson, Chris Bright had to be especially creative in how he delivered the message. Convinced that flawed theology was at the heart of his parents’ rejection of homosexuality, Chris tried to change their minds by having them sit through “For The Bible Tells Me So,” a 2007 documentary about gay Christians. As Chris’s mom quietly sobbed on the couch anticipating the announcement of her son’s deviant sexuality, his dad loudly denounced the pro-gay theology that the documentary espoused. The coming out did not go as planned.

Fast-forward a few years, and Chris is now the subject of another provocative documentary. “Give Me Sex Jesus” takes an enlightening look at the evangelical abstinence campaign that swept the nation in the mid-1990s. (By the early 2000s, it gained international momentum, reaching yours truly all the way in Belarus, where Chris Bright’s grandfather had sent Campus Crusade missionaries to spread the gospel among the ex-Soviet atheists.)

Evangelical teens made virginity pledges, donned “True Love Waits” promise rings, and held each other accountable for staying away from temptations like pornography, masturbation, and--God forbid--homosexuality.

Bernie and Black Southerners

The following post comes from Adele Oltman. Adele is the author of Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition: Black Christian Nationalism in the Age of Jim Crow (University of Georgia Press). 

Adele Oltman 

The most significant thing about Bernie Sanders is that without a billion-dollar war chest, a Super PAC, or the support of the Democratic Party establishment he has become a formidable political adversary to Hillary Clinton, who expected to waltz into the White House with all of the above. The second most significant thing about Bernie is that he’s accomplished this even as he unapologetically identifies as a democratic socialist. In every stump speech and debate he points to the fundamental unfairness of the top one-percent owning as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Not only does he support breaking up the big banks by reinstating the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, he would increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for universal health care and free public education through graduate school. And the massive public works program that Sanders proposes would put people to work while at the same time fix this country’s crumbling infrastructure.

So what is it about Sanders’ redistributive agenda that black southerners don’t like?  Why did they vote for the candidate who has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in speakers’ fees from Wall Street (and refuses to release transcripts so that voters would know exactly what she’s promised), and supported international trade agreements that have led inexorably to the loss of American jobs and devastated communities all over the country, including the South?  Why do they continue to vote for the candidate that has promised to make her husband a key advisor in a Clinton 2.0 White House, even though as Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, reminds us, he capitulated entirely to Ronald Reagan’s backlash against the civil rights movement when he pushed through his punitive agenda on crime, welfare, and taxes – which hurt black communities even more than Reagan himself?

The most obvious explanation, and one that progressives ought not to dismiss too quickly, was her central role in President Obama’s administration during his first term. For many black Americans, our first black president Obama is a (prophetic) symbol of racial equality and they see Clinton as an affirmation of that. But there may be another reason that Sanders hasn’t done well among black voters, especially in the South. It has to do with the history of southern black Christianity long after the end of slavery.

Conference: Early American Material Texts

Sonia Hazard
All are invited to participate in “Early American Material Texts,” a three-day interdisciplinary conference in Philadelphia, May 25-27. The conference will showcase new theoretical, methodological, and historiographical developments in scholarship on the history of the book and its allied material cultures in North America and the Atlantic world before 1850. Information about the schedule and locations may be found on the conference website here. Registration, which is free and required in order to access the pre-circulated papers, will be available later in April.


“Material Texts” is an interdisciplinary formation that connects the study of texts to their material conditions of production, circulation, and reception. Particularly of interest to readers of this blog is the panel on Thursday afternoon at 3:00 PM, “Lived Religion and Material Texts,” chaired by Matthew Brown.
  1. “What the Hymnbook Says: On Reading a Print Artifact as Statement and Event,” Christopher Phillips (Lafayette College)
  2. “Books Buried in the Earth: The Book of Mormon and the Humic Foundations of the National Romance,” Jillian Sayre (Rutgers University, Camden)
  3. “Breaking the Good Book: The Bible as an Immoral Material Text in Nineteenth-Century America,” Jamie Brummitt (Duke University)
The conference is funded by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, and supported by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and Penn's Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts. 

The images are of religious material texts from the Library Company's collections. The first image shows an American Tract Society book on which its former owner installed a daguerreotype to memorialize an unknown young man, himself holding a book. In the second, a reader inserted black butterfly wings in a bespoke-bound volume of tracts, corresponding to the tract An Appeal on the Subject of Cholera, on the page containing the passage, “The dark wing of the destroying angel…”

Winking Scofflaws and Christian Strongmen

Adam Park

Perceptually indistinguishable, Clifford Geertz famously reminds us, is the difference between a 
wink and a twitch. But, oh, how very vast the difference between a conspiratorial signal and an involuntary eye closure! And as it so happens, the wink-twitch interpretational problem can be quite useful when it comes to navigating First Amendment obstacles.

Christian strongmen teams--The Power Team, Team Impact, John Jacobs Next Generation Power Force, Omega Force Strength Team, et al.--with their public feats of strength, are particularly savvy in this regard. Breaking bricks, hoisting logs, bending iron, and exploding hot water bottles for Jesus ... or is it breaking, hoisting, bending, and exploding for the world? I forget.

Nevertheless, many witness. Team Impact has a weekly television show and performs at nearly 1,000 schools a year (which amounts to an annual audience of over 700,000 students). Since its founding in 1976, The Power Team has performed in every state and in over 40 countries; and in the past 20 years alone, they have put on over 26,000 school assemblies. Big numbers. Big men.

6 Questions with Daniel K. Williams

Jonathan Den Hartog

Daniel K. Williams (University of West Georgia) has produced some outstanding scholarship on the connection of religion with modern American politics. His first book, God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (2010), provided a clear narrative of the institutional formation of the "religious right," while showing that it had much deeper roots than Jerry Falwell in the late-1970s.

Williams has just published a new book: Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade (reviewed well, we should note, in the New York  Times). In addition to tracing a political movement in opposition to abortion, Williams observes the significant role religion played in debating a profound moral issue. Daniel graciously allowed me to pose 6 questions for this blog.

And, after reading this interview, if you would like more, you can listen to Daniel's podcast with John Fea and Drew Dyrli Hermeling.

Question 1: I very much enjoyed your first book, God’s Own Party, about the place of religious conservatives in the Republican Party. What led you to follow up that book with a project about the pro-life movement before Roe vs. Wade?

As a result of studying conservative Christian politics, I realized that abortion was a different sort of issue than the other causes that had attracted the Christian Right’s attention, because ideological divisions on this issue did not correspond to the conventional left-right divide.  Although most pro-lifers after the 1980s aligned themselves with the political right, the language that they used to describe their cause was reminiscent of the human rights campaigns of the left. 

After I began researching the early history of the pro-life movement, I discovered that its origins were even more intriguing than I had suspected.  The conventional view among most historians is that the pro-life movement developed as a backlash against Roe v. Wade and the feminist movement, and that it originated as a conservative movement opposed to women’s rights.  These notions are false.  Not only was there a vibrant pro-life movement before Roe v. Wade but that movement was winning political victories precisely because it was a liberal human rights movement that foregrounded women’s activism and allied itself with other rights-conscious movements.  The pro-life movement’s leaders included opponents of the Vietnam War, supporters of the Great Society, and even some African American civil rights activists, along with numerous women.  In fact, women were more likely than men to oppose abortion in the 1970s, and women were often the executive leaders of state and national pro-life organizations.    The movement received plaudits from liberal acolytes such as Jesse Jackson and Ted Kennedy, and its grassroots organizers included many loyal Democrats, such as Eunice Kennedy Shriver.       

I wrote this book partly because I wanted to tell the surprising story of a liberal human rights movement that became a conservative cause – a story that challenges our assumptions not only about the abortion debate but about the history of modern American politics.

The Language of the ABS


Yesterday Elesha Coffman reviewed John Fea's recent book, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016). Today the symposium continues with a review by Candy Gunther Brown, author of (among many other works), The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880 (UNC Press, 2004) . —Lincoln Mullen

by Candy Gunther Brown

John Fea’s The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society provides a full chronological account of the American Bible Society (ABS) from events leading up to its founding in 1816 through the twenty-first century. Fea organized the story into twenty-seven chapters, each of which is titled thematically and moves the narrative forward in time, contextualizing the ABS within a larger historical framework. The book emphasizes the vision of ABS leaders not only to promote Bible distribution, but also to shape American identity. Thus, it is “the story of the American Bible Society and the American Bible Society” (3).

Other books, notably Paul Gutjahr’s An American Bible (1999) and David Nord’s Faith in Reading (2004), have ably examined the rise and influence of the ABS in the nineteenth century; additional accounts, such as Edwin Robertson’s Taking the Word to the World (1996), survey twentieth-century developments. The Bible Cause builds upon these earlier studies, but stands out for the comprehensiveness of its chronological purview. The volume draws extensively on primary, including archival, sources. Brief, illuminating quotations from letters and narratives pepper the account of institution-building, bringing to life individual stories.

The Bible Cause presents a largely affirmative portrayal of the ABS and its agents. Fea reports that “the American Bible Society has never lost touch with its cultural mandate: to build a Christian civilization in the United States and, eventually, around the world” (3), concluding that “as the Bible Cause in America enters its third century, the future looks bright, but the challenges ahead are great” (316). Although noting examples of “nationalism” (96) and “imperialism” (117), the book does not offer sustained analysis of the ABS’s cultural agenda. It relies primarily on ABS sources and makes relatively scant use of secondary scholarship, for instance post-colonial theory and critical renderings of U.S. nationalism, exceptionalism, and policies aimed at the assimilation of Native Americans and non-Protestant immigrants, and of institutions like the ABS as agents of cultural imperialism abroad and social control of the working classes and people of color domestically.

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