John Wilson and the Religious History of the 1960s -- a Rejoinder



4 comments
John Wilson has posted a rejoinder to my post on his original Wall Street Journal column on incorporating religion into the story of the 1960s.

It makes for good reading. When I emerge from my grading cave, I'll respond a bit further.

Suffice to say for now, part of our disagreement stems from referring to different kinds of books. If we look at some standard textbooks and major synthetic surveys (such as that of Patterson), and probably some popular literature like some of the Summer of Love books coming out (a singularly overrated event in my view), Wilson's laments make sense. If we instead analyze the monographic scholarship and the general "direction of the field" based on what younger scholars are writing and many senior scholars are incorporating into their work, I think the picture is brighter than he makes it out to be, and this will eventually find its way into the texts and synthetic surveys. On the two specific examples he mentions in his piece, I agree with his assessment of Patterson (see the article for details), and also am in accord with his original assertion that "when the revisionist dust has settled, we'll have an understanding of that tumultuous time that is richer and more capacious." I will argue with him on McGirr, whom he sees as condescending and I see as, mostly, on target.

And note that we have not yet gotten into discussing myriad other books, some self-proclaimedly in "religious history" and some not, that feature religion centrally. Obviously, civil rights movements books generally do that; in that field, religion's central role is in fact an entrenched orthodoxy, to the degree that those who argue with it are staking out deliberately contrarian positions. And, for my money, the CRM stands as far, far more important than much else that was evanscent about that decade, including a good deal of the counterculture that draws too much press and historical attention.

Then, of course, there are works on Catholics, Mexican migrants and C. Chavez, the explosion of Asian immigration and religions, Vatican II in America, the evolution of ideas of freedom among Catholics (a la John McGreevy), as well as the religion of the truly radical right (Christian Identity and others).

Stay tuned! Or, run screaming, if you're already bored. At any rate, thanks to Wilson for his tough but thoughtful response.B

Update: Randall Stephens lists some other important major texts in the comments section; that list could be extended a long ways further, and represents the kind of works I had in mind in my original post.

4 comments:

Randall at: October 9, 2007 at 2:13 PM said...

Wow! Wilson's rebuttal is quite long. I'm happy to see this kind of exchange in print (if virtual). It actually would make for interesting reading in my course on the 60s. I use McGirr's book for that.

I was thinking of some other recent titles (not sure how much each contributes to religious history, though):

Donald T. Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism:
A Woman's Crusade (2005); Matt Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (2006); and Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution
(2007)


Add to that Critchlow's forthcoming The Conservative Ascendancy
How the GOP Right Made Political History (HUP).

Historically Speaking will be publishing a feature review of some of this work in coming months.

I'm interested to see what John Turner makes of this exchange.

Paul Harvey at: October 9, 2007 at 2:24 PM said...

Randall: Thanks, those are the kinds of books I had in mind in my original post. None of them are "religious history" per se, buit each deals with religion as part of the topic in interesting ways; in short, religious belief/practice are woven into the narrative. This is the kind of thing that makes me see the situation more optimistically than Wilson does.

Christopher at: October 9, 2007 at 6:37 PM said...

Then, of course, there are works on Catholics, Mexican migrants and C. Chavez, the explosion of Asian immigration and religions, Vatican II in America, the evolution of ideas of freedom among Catholics (a la John McGreevy), as well as the religion of the truly radical right (Christian Identity and others).

It is perhaps also worth noting that in Jan Shipps' article, "From Peoplehood to Church Membership: Mormonism's Trajectory since World War II," (Church History,76:2 (June 2007), 241-261), she focuses in on the 1960s as the key turning point of the 20th century in Mormon identity and relationship to the country at large.

John Turner at: October 11, 2007 at 9:22 AM said...

I'm having trouble accessing Wilson's rebuttal.

I think one sign of historiographical "progress" is that Isserman and Kazin's textbook on the 60s incorporates a section on religion and even discusses Campus Crusade for Christ (that's a real sign of progress!). Attention paid to conservatism and religion in that sort of textbook indicates that the scholarship done on religion and the 60s (and particularly conservative forms of religion) is starting to seep into more general treatments. Chappell's book has increased the attention paid to religion and the civil rights movement (or at least how important it was).

I don't think Wilson's lament is entirely dated yet, however. The attention paid to the New Left still dwarfs that paid to the New Right (despite the recent flourish). And many historians continue to make the appearance of "new religions" in the 60s a more important storyline than the resurgence of conservative forms of Protestantism. [I think growing religious pluralism and the rise of evangelical / charismatic / Pentecostal Christianity make for good competing storylines].

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