Son of: Is America A Christian Nation? Fea's Thoughts Continued

John Fea continues the discussion (see the previous post on Friday, July 13) from the comments received on "Is America a Christian Nation." Before posting, I'll recommend again the Religion by Region series of books edited by Mark Silk. Since the discussion below is specifically about the South, let me mention the extensive discussion of this question found in vol. 5 of this series: Charles Reagan Wilson and Mark Silk, eds., Religion and Public Life in the South: In the Evangelical Mode (the link takes you to a nice review of the book by Darren Grem, who contributes to this blog in the comments section below). I have a chapter in this book, but as Darren writes, historian Ted Ownby "offers perhaps the most informative piece in the volume, using data from the North American Religion Atlas (NARA) and American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) to look at the current state of religious affiliation in each southern state. Conducted in 2000, the NARA counted adherents as those listed on the rolls of specific religious groups. Conducted in 2001, the ARIS counted as adherents those who self-identified with a certain religious tradition. From the NARA and ARIS, Ownby interpolates that 'the statistics offer rich confirmation of the image of the South as the country's evangelical heartland' (39). But large numbers of 'unaffiliated,' as well as the strong presence of Catholics, Pentecostals, and non-Baptist Protestants, show that other groups seem to be reshaping the South's public character." Ownby includes some great maps.

John Fea sends the following:

In the comments section Darren Grem asks whether or not we can legitimately use Heclo’s categories to call the present-day and/or historic South a "Christian region." I will leave the answer to that question to those of you who know the South far, far better than I do. (Heck, this Jersey boy just visited Oklahoma for the first time in his life last fall!).I am curious, however, just how helpful Heclo’s categories might be for thinking about the historical South or, for that matter, the history of the nation as a whole. What is our responsibility as historians in judging whether or not the nation or the South is indeed “Christian?” By taking Heclo’s categories and using them to interpret the past are we dabbling in the historical sin of presentism? For example, I have been reading Harry Stout’s book Upon the Altar of the Nation. In that book Stout points out that the leaders of the Confederacy understood themselves to be part of a “Christian nation.” Now if we use Heclo’s fourth category (behavior), the Confederacy could not be considered a “Christian nation” because of its commitment to slavery. If we use his first category (demographics) we would have to say that the Confederacy was absolutely a “Christian nation.” I thus wonder if the entire project of trying to solve the problem of whether or not America (or the South) is a “Christian nation/society” is outside the scope of what we as historians do. I am not suggesting here that we cannot make the kind of judgments that Heclo is suggesting we make, but if and when we do, do we somehow cease being historians and begin to take on the role of cultural or moral critics? I am quite eager to hear what you all think about this since I am wrestling with this question myself.


deg said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
deg said…
Thanks for the kind words, Paul. I enjoyed your piece in that collection as well and second your endorsement of what Silk and Wilson are doing.

John Hayes, a good buddy of mine who's working on an interesting dissertation about Johnny Cash and the religious culture of the southern rural poor,* forwarded me the following debate between Stephen Prothero, Robert Orsi, and a few others. Check it out here and here.

All of them have strong views about the issue of authorship and critical voice that John Fea raises and - as you will see - they tussle with themselves, and each other, over it (as, I think, we all should).

If Paul wants, I can write a more pointed response reflecting on this essay and how it relates to how the South is - or has been - a "Christian region." But for now, I think it's enough to say that these categorizations have jumpstarted my own thinking about the South and how its religious culture(s) have informed its present and past.

* John, if you're reading, you can make that check out to "Darren Grem's Dissertation Research Fund." Tax deductible!
Paul Harvey said…
Darren: if you want to prepare such an essay as mentioned here, I'll be happy to post it! Totally up to you, but I'd be glad to read it, for one.
deg said…
That longer reflection might have to wait a little bit since I'm currently get some dissertation ducks in a row. But thanks for accepting my offer!