Getting Religion in the 1960s

John Wilson of Books and Culture and I have been carrying on a dialogue about scholarship on religion and the 1960s. My last post on this is here, which has the links to follow the discussion so far. We've disagreed on some points, but agree on the goal of a richer and more capacious scholarship. I see that scholarship emerging all around me; Wilson sees the "canonical" and textbook accounts as straitened by views of religion which remain unsatisfactory or condescending (or both). Wilson sees evidence of "entrenched orthodoxies" still holding back scholarship, with authors of non-canonical books apparently having to write from the margins of high academe (this was in reference to Doug Rossinow's Politics of Authenticity); I still find this to be a fairly unproductive form of academe-bashing. George Marsden, Mark Noll et al changed the dominant historiography on evangelicalism as a force in American history; I'm sure good books on religion in the 1960s will do the same. "Entrenched orthodoxies" may or may not exist now (we disagree on that point), but in any event they will crumble when faced with superior scholarship.

It's going to take a number of shorter posts to respond to the issues involved here, so let me start here and continue on with this intermittently over the next couple of weeks when I can steal a few moments to think it over further.

Today in my class on Southern History from Civil War through Civil Rights, I had one of those golden moments that we long for in the classroom, but which come too infrequently -- and it was a moment that speaks to our discussion here. I queried the class about a piece about race, religion, and civil rights which they had read. In discussing the piece, a smart political science major in the class volunteered to speak and noted that, for some political science class, she had read David Chappell's Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (the link takes you to my review of the book for the journal North Star). She then explained the basic points she got from the book, which fit directly into our ongoing class discussion. David's book is quite sophisticated, not normal undergraduate fare, but this student "got" it and contributed richly to the class dialogue.

As it happens, I have a very particular disagreement with Chappell on his interpretation of the role of religion in segregationism; beyond that, however, his broader points remain an example of the richer and more capacious scholarship that Wilson and I both desire. He writes, "The civil rights movement succeeded for many reasons. This book isolates and magnifies one reason that has received insufficient attention: black southern activists got strength from old-time religion, and white supremacists failed, at the same moment, to muster the cultural strength that conservatives traditionally get from religion."

In going over the student's points, the students in this class at least seemed to understand that any rich history of the 1960s must go way beyond the usual oversimplified views, and should feature religious belief as a central actor. And they didn't get this from me -- this is not a class about "religion" per se. They brought it from elsewhere -- other understandings, other classes. The students in this course will be getting more along these lines when they get to our next text, the oral history compilation My Soul is Rested, and they'll get a view from the other side in the final book of the semester, Kevin Kruse's White Flight.

Without my consciously intending to provide them with such, the students are getting a rich dialogue on religion and the central event (for my money) of the 1960s, the civil rights movement. I might add that a pretty rich and capacious view of religion as religion (not just as a commentary on something else) is, I believe, "canonical" within civil rights scholarship -- to the degree that Charles Payne's I've Got the Light of Freedom was mildly revisionist for pointing out how little connection to religious belief a number of male (in distinct contrast to female) civil rights activists in Mississippi claimed.

In his post, John Wilson quoted from and then offered a trenchant critique of a passage in Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors. I hope to respond to that next (have to track down my copy of the book first!). Stay tuned, and let the dialogue continue.


David Sehat at: October 19, 2007 at 8:17 AM said...

Paul, I was curious: how do you disagree with Chappell on the role of religion in segregationism?

Paul Harvey at: October 19, 2007 at 4:25 PM said...

David: Thanks -- I'm on the road today and can't respond fully, but my review linked to the post suggests my basic critique, and it's developed a bit more fully in chapter 5 of FREEDOM'S COMING.

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