Yonder Comes Day


Watch night, courtesy of Bessie Jones. Read more about the song and the watch night traditions here.

Happy New Year ya'll.

The Forging of Races: Reviews and Responses



Vol. X of the Journal of Southern Religion is up. Among many reviews and articles is a forum on Colin Kidd's The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2006), featuring extended responses by Ed Blum, Rebecca Goetz, and Randal Jelks. All three respondents give the author his due while taking substantive issue with particular arguments and approaches in the book, leading to an outstanding discussion. Blum summarizes the work as follows:

According to Kidd, the Bible was used on multiple sides in the race making (and unmaking) projects of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The idea of one unitary human creation (as told in the book of Genesis and referred to as monogenesis) provided a great bulwark against racialized thinking. Yet, for those intent on creating notions of racial difference, the Bible became a storehouse of useable prophecies and predictions, truths and tells. Ultimately, in an innovative argument, Kidd suggests that Protestantism did as much (if not more) to inhibit racialized thinking as it did to promote it.

The work focuses pretty exclusively on intellectuals; it is intellectual history in that old-fashioned sense. About this approach, Blum asks,

The focus on scribblers and intellectuals leads to serious problems in the study of race and religion. When studying race, should one focus on what people say or what they do? How many “I’m not racist” whites in the United States would refuse to allow their children to marry a person of color or would be irked if too many black families moved into the neighborhood? More importantly, perhaps, is religion mostly an aspect of the mind, a game of ideas disembodied from emotions, lived experiences, material and popular culture? Is there a way to approach religion as more than just cerebral? Can we integrate it with culture, community, social power, psychology, and material life?

Kidd's stress on the importance of the Christian tradition of monogenesis in contradicting racist ideas drawn from polygenesis draws some questioning from Rebecca Goetz:

Kidd's optimistic reading of the intellectual developments of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries seems to belie what happened in the New World in particular. The particular brutality of the dispossession (and often the enslavement) of Indians as well as the establishment of hereditary, lifelong servitude for Africans in the American South were both largely a product of the seventeenth century, precisely when Kidd argues that the Biblical defense of monogenesis was at its most powerful and persuasive. The English-trained Anglican minister Morgan Godwyn, who ministered to congregations in Virginia and Barbados in the 1670s, later lamented the "Hellish Principles, viz. that Negroes are Creatures destitute of Souls, to be ranked among Brute Beasts..." Godwyn's encounters with Anglican parishioners in the second half of the seventeenth century suggest that English planters were more likely to deny the humanity of their slaves than to uphold it—perhaps English intellectuals' particular attachment to monogenesis was not as popular or powerful on North American and Caribbean plantations.

Randal Jelks also praises the book's extensive survey of western theology and race, but ponders some issues in the final portion of the book, where Kidd explores how black theologians dealt with racialist theologies:

And here's where we see the great problem of Kidd's book. He is not familiar enough with the varieties of black theologies or the histories of African Americans to make a fully convincing argument. Those black activists, intellectuals, and religious thinkers to whom he refers were not, in the end, trying to support a form of Protestant Christendom, or any other kind of state religion, as they critiqued the racist propensities of their white counterparts and lifted up the justice and the spiritual concerns of African Americans. For the most part, they were trying to develop a truer Christianity in response to state enforced racism, both during slavery and its wake. It is amazing that one of the founders of the AME church, Richard Allen, converted his own slaveholder to Christianity and paid him for his freedom. This radical evangelical tradition of liberating black people from the bonds of oppression is even seen in the theology of James Cone, the chief proponent of Black Theology. In Cone's work, blackness is a metaphor for the humanity of those who suffer injustice in North America. Cone argued that African Americans' sufferings needed to be of paramount concern to black churches. He further contended that if white American Christians truly wanted to understand the gospel they had to know suffering or be "black." This is certainly dissimilar to the subtext of Kidd's book which shows that biblical theology was one of the main instruments that Protestants used in their efforts to gain control of European Christendom and have dominant power over the non-European world.

The entire exchange here is worth extended time and attention, as is Kidd's excellent book. This kind of forum, published so soon after the book itself, shows what kinds of contributions online journals can make in promoting timely scholarly discussion, so congratulations to the editors and contributors.

There's also an extended review in the new Books and Culture -- not online, so click to subscribe.

The Descent of AntiEvolution


Michael Lienesch's fine new book, _In the Beginning_, helps us understand the milieu from which the Creation Museum emerged. Lienesch contends that in the years between World War I and the Great Depression, an identifiable antievolution movement took shape. Hedraws extensively on social movement theory to make sense of the movement's early years. The book demonstrates how opposition to evolution became a cause celebre among conservative Christians, and it illustrates how antievolutionists transformed their ideology into a political movement. . . . By creating institutional and rhetorical structures in which conservative Christians could unite around a shared perception of rising secularity, fundamentalists had laid the groundwork for a mass political movement. But in the early 1920s, they lacked an issue around which they could rally their followers. Evolution became that issue.

The Fire Spreads


Congratulations to our contributing editor Randall Stephens, whose book The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South has just appeared with Harvard University Press. This book is part of the exciting new scholarship (including works by Anthea Butler and Wallace Best, which we've previously blogged about) on Holiness-Pentecostalism. Here is what I wrote about the text previously:

The reader really gets a feel for the restless, cantankerous, innovative, and disputatious characters who were involved in early H/P in the South. . . These folks, Stephens’s subject, have been subject to treatments both dismissive (the usual take) or nearly hagiographic; we see them here properly placed in historical context, as complicated religious figures pressing at the margins of southern society, undeterred by frequent scandals and internecine dispute, traveling constantly, delighting in acts of persecution, and testing the boundaries of religious ecstasies. Stephens frequently uses the phrase “restless visionaries,” which I think captures them perfectly.

Grant Wacker's take:

Randall Stephens' book represents sedulous research, balanced judgment, and impressive imagination. It stands as a work of exceptional importance in the rapidly developing fields of holiness, pentecostal, and southern cultural and religious history.




Here's a fairly new but high-powered blog to check out: The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere. Robert Bellah, Charles Taylor, Leigh Schmidt, my former Young Scholar compatriot Winny Sullivan, my graduate school buddy John Torpey, and other eminent sociologists, philosophers, and religious studies folk contribute. See, for example, Leigh Eric Schmidt's "That Weird, Strange Thing," which takes on Charles Taylor, and Robert Bellah's "Is a Global Civil Religion Possible," in which he writes:

One thing I learned from the complex discussion of the 1967 essay is that for many, particularly religious believers but also secularists, the idea of “a civil religion” is viewed as a threat, one religion competing with and threatening to displace other religions, even being established. All my Durkheimian arguments that any really existing social group necessarily has a religious dimension never quelled the opposition, to the point where, by about 1980, I stopped using the term civil religion and talked about the same issues using other language, language that did not involve me in endless, futile, discussions of definition. So if American civil religion is a bad idea, a global civil religion can only be worse, and I can answer the question of my title, which itself was meant to provoke as much as to describe, in the negative: no, a global civil religion is not possible.

But for the creation of a viable and coherent world order a world civil society is surely an essential precondition, and, dare I say it, any actual civil society will have a religious dimension, will need not only a legal and an ethical framework, but some notion that it conforms to the nature of ultimate reality. The biggest immediate problem is the strengthening of global civil society. As I will elaborate in my next post, I would suggest that perhaps the religious communities of the world may have something to contribute to that global civil society, and, indeed, that their participation may be essential for its success.

Power in the Blood



My friend and most excellent Young Scholar and touch football quarterback Darren Dochuk, currently enjoying the largesse of Princeton's Center for the Study of Religion's fellowship, is working on a new project about oil and evangelicalism in the 20th century. Some time ago on our blog, Kelly wrote about academic books that become fodder for screenwriters. Darren didn't even have to write his book before it happened. See this review of the new film by Paul Anderson, There Will Be Blood, which is about, well, oil and evangelicalism, more or less, based loosely on Upton Sinclair's Oil. Anderson also made the movie Magnolia, which I recall as a splendid failure, and Boogie Nights, one of my all-time favorites. Here's the first paragraph of the review -- the movie doesn't make it out here to the boondocks for some weeks yet, but perhaps those of you in more cosmopolitan environs can check it out sooner:

“There Will Be Blood,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic American nightmare, arrives belching fire and brimstone and damnation to Hell. Set against the backdrop of the Southern California oil boom of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, it tells a story of greed and envy of biblical proportions — reverberating with Old Testament sound and fury and New Testament evangelicalism — which Mr. Anderson has mined from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel “Oil!” There is no God but money in this oil-rich desert and his messenger is Daniel Plainview, a petroleum speculator played by a monstrous and shattering Daniel Day-Lewis.

Read the rest here. NY Times' reader reviews of the movie are here.

Water in Sacred Places


In the new Journal of American History, Donald DeVore of the University of South Alabama explores the role of the black church in pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans: "Water in Sacred Places: Rebuilding New Orleans Black Churches as Sites of Community Empowerment," JAH 94 (2007): 762-769, part of an entire issue devoted to the theme "Through the Eyes of Katrina: The Past as Prologue," featuring articles by Lawrence Powell, Ari Kelman, Reid MItchell, Alecia Long, Arnold Hirsch, and other notables of scholarship on New Orleans.

Devore traces the history of some black Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic institutions, including Franklin Ave. Baptist Church. It began as a white congregation affiliated with the SBC, went into decline, and in 1986 transformed into a successful African American congregation under the pastoral leadership of Fred Luter: "He utilized a pastoral style characterized by a gospel message that emphasized inspiration and teaching, relationships that fostered equality, and ministries that stressed community service and empowerment." The church was devastated by Katrina: "Water, often symbolizing a life-giving or life-renewing power in Christian traditions, had been transformed into a toxic reality that defiled the sacred sites of African American life." Devore concludes:

"The political stance of New Orleans's black Christians . . . should not be oversimplified or misread. Religious leaders know that faith-based initiatives alone cannot command the monetary resources necessary to rebuilt a shattered city. But they see no fundamental contradiction between federal aid and grassroots action. They also understand the imporatnce of religiously informed group solidarity in preventing the kind of psychological fragmentation that leads to defeat and despair. In the end, the outlines of a 'new' New Orleans may be less about politics and race or concrete and steel, and more about the prophetic and communal role of the African American church."

Who Would Jesus Tax?



Professor Cites Bible in Faulting Tax Policies: a law professor and former seminarian in Alabama finds that biblical principles and the current soak-the-poor tax system of the state of Alabama are not in accordance:

"She calls Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas 'the sinful six' because they require the poor to pay a much larger share of their income than the rich while doing little to help the poor improve their lot. The worst violator, in her view, is her own state of Alabama, which taxes its poor more than twice as heavily as its rich, while holding a tight rein on education spending . . . . The poorest fifth of Alabama families, with incomes under $13,000, pay state and local taxes that take almost 11 cents out of each dollar. The richest 1 percent, who make $229,000 or more, pay less than 4 cents out of each dollar they earn, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, an advocacy group whose numbers are generally considered trustworthy even by many of its opponents. Professor Hamill said what first drew her to the issue of fiscal policy and biblical principles was learning that Alabama timber companies, which own more than two-thirds of the land in the state, pay an annual property tax of only about 75 cents an acre."

Alabama had a vote on this a few year's back, on a proposal to change the tax system, in particular by lowering the food and medicine levy and adjusting rates for upper incomes and for corporate holdings. The governor had been persuaded by Hamill and others, but his campaign, while based in Christian rhetoric, failed, in part because the evangelicals rejected it in large numbers. I was thinking of this as I've been reading any number of papers and articles recently tracing the interrelationship of business development in the Sunbelt and conservative Christianity in the post World War II era. They help to explain why Hamill's tax theology and concrete proposals emanating from it face formidable obstacles.

Religious History Text



I've been flipping through an introductory text in American religious history that might interest some of you: Lynn Bridgers, The American Religious Experience: A Concise History (Rowman and Littlefield, 2006). Rowman and Littlefield have been doing a number of short, introductory texts in American religious history, which we'll feature here from time to time (including one on religion and the Civil War, Both Prayed to the Same God). It could work for some of you who teach American religious history as advanced high school AP courses or lower-division undergraduates. It's short, leaving plenty of room for supplementary readings that students usually like better anyway. The author divides the material up into chapters that follow particular religious traditions.

P.S.: I gave myself a Christmas present of ordering and watching Season 4 of The Wire. So I'll re-recommend Darren's post on The Wire, from last summer, a mini-essay worthy of this riveting series.

A Rabbinic Christmas Eve



Here's a little Abraham Joshua Heschel for you, in time for your holiday season: Edward Rothstein, "A Rabbi of His Time, with a Charisma that Transcends It," in today's New York Times. The article references the second volume of Edward Kaplan, Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972 (Yale).

Here's a story, from the life of Heschel, retold in the piece and in the biography:

In 1965, after walking in the Selma-to-Montgomery civil-rights march with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was at the Montgomery, Ala., airport, trying to find something to eat. A surly woman behind the snack-bar counter glared at Heschel — his yarmulke and white beard making him look like an ancient Hebrew prophet — and mockingly proclaimed: “Well, I’ll be damned. My mother always told me there was a Santa Claus, and I didn’t believe her, until now.” She told Heschel that there was no food to be had.

In response, according to a new biography, . . . Heschel simply smiled. He gently asked, “Is it possible that in the kitchen there might be some water?” Yes, she acknowledged. “Is it possible that in the refrigerator you might find a couple of eggs?” Perhaps, she admitted. Well, then, Heschel said, if you boiled the eggs in the water, “that would be just fine.”

She shot back, “And why should I?” “Why should you?” Heschel said. “Well, after all, I did you a favor.” “What favor did you ever do me?”

“I proved,” he said, “there was a Santa Claus.”

And after the woman’s burst of laughter, food was quickly served.

Religion and the Early South



The weather outside is not all that frightful, actually, but inside, I'm looking at the monstrous pile of stacked-up unread journals, papers, manuscripts, books to review, reports, letters of recommendation, tenure files to review, and stuff I can't even remember anymore.

But at least I finally to the special issue of the Journal of Southern History devoted to short, pointed historiographical and thematic issues on The Colonial South. So put this on your reading shopping list:

Jon Sensbach, "Religion and the Early South in an Age of Atlantic Empire," Journal of Southern History. August 2007, 631-42.

Sensbach briefly and expertly outlines the complex, polyglot religious world of the South before the "evangelical ascendancy": one in which Catholicism was central (see: Florida prior to the Indian raids on the missions in the early eighteenth century, which in fact were more destructive and probably far-reaching than the much better-known ones on Deerfield and other Puritan outposts around the same time), and one in which, according to scholar Thomas Little, Anglican reforms possibly empowered revivalism that we normally associate with the evangelical Great Awakening. At no other time in southern history, Sensbach makes clear, was there such a heterogeneous mix of peoples "espousing such a medley of religious beliefs," making all our comfortable notions of what constitutes "southern religion" irrelevant.

For a fuller explication of colonial southern religious history as seen by Sensbach, see his piece "Before the Bible Belt: Indians, Africans, and the New Synthesis of Eighteenth-Century Southern Religious History," in Beth Schweiger and Don Mathews, ed., Religion in the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture (UNC Press).

In short, good reading to reorient your thinking. While you're at it, check out Julianna Barr, "How do You Get from Jamestown to Santa Fe: A Colonial Sun Belt," pp. 553-567 in the same Journal of Southern History issue -- not as explicitly about religion as Sensbach's, but illuminating on themes of religious history nonetheless.

Quaker Money: Research Fellowship

The Gest Fellowship for the Study of Comparative Religion

Each year Haverford College Special Collections offers three one-month, $2,000 fellowships to researchers interested in exploring the various ways of expressing religious belief in the world using the unique resources of our Quaker Collection. We invite applications from researchers at various stages in their career and from any discipline. The most competitive applications creatively explore concerns to which Friends have turned their attention, including literature, mysticism, women's issues, family history, race relations, and American Indian affairs, as well as religious doctrine and controversies. Application requirements, deadlines and a complete list of past fellows and their topics are available at http://www.haverford.edu/library/special/gestfellowship/.

The Quaker Collection

The Quaker Collection was founded in 1833 and presently consists of some 35,000 printed volumes and 300,000 manuscripts. Our holdings span the history of Quakerism from 17th-century Britain to the resent day in many parts of the world. Information by and about the=20Society of Friends can be accessed here in many formats and categories. Highlights include the Jenks Collection of early books and pamphlets, meeting records, organization and family papers, journals and diaries, English and American Quaker serials, and a comprehensive collection of Quaker fiction. Because of Quaker involvement in the social justice movement and Pennsylvania's location in the history of the United States, these materials also lend themselves to many kinds of study beyond the Society of Friends.

AHA Sessions


I'm not able to attend the AHA this year, but if I were there, here's where I would be: a session with papers continuing the re-examination of white southerners during the civil rights years, religion, and the rise of modern conservatism. IN each case, the authors explore the conflict between national faith communities and local resistance during and after the civil rights movement.

Sunday, January 6, 8:30–10:30 A.M.
198. Southern White Christianity and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954–80
Marriott, McKinley Room
A session of American Historical Association

Jason C. Sokol, Cornell University

White Evangelicals and Massive Resistance: Mississippi’s Church Property Bill
Carolyn Renee Dupont, Eastern Kentucky University

"Born of Conviction": White Methodists and Mississippi’s "Closed Society"
Joseph T. Reiff, Emory & Henry College

Religion in the Private School Movement: A Case Study of Private Schools in North Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi
Joseph H. Crespino, Emory University

Edward Blum, San Diego State University

Crazy for God


I just got done reading Frank Schaeffer’s memoir Crazy for God. (See Paul's comments on the book from Oct. 5). The subtitle of the book really tells it all: “How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (Or Almost All) of it Back.” For those of you who have never heard of him, Frank Schaeffer (or “Franky” as he was known to many evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s) is the only son of Francis Schaeffer, the late evangelical theologian, cultural critic, and founder of the Christian study center in Switzerland known as L’Abri.

Frank Schaeffer is angry, and his book is painful to read in places, but he writes so well that it was hard for me to put this book down once I started reading. A few brief thoughts:

First, many evangelicals will read this book as a sort of guilty pleasure. Frank knows things about Francis and Edith Schaeffer that the public does not. And he is willing to spill the proverbial beans. Others will read this book as yet another attack on the Religious Right—this time by a former insider. Here are just a few little tidbits likely to drive evangelicals crazy and bring a self-reverential smile to their critics: Francis had a propensity for throwing heavy objects at his wife when he got angry with her. Frank learned to smoke pot from the son of John Harold Ockenga, the pastor of Boston’s famous Park Street Church. Frank and Os Guinness (his first name is irritatingly misspelled “Oz” throughout the book) often plotted together over which of the female L’Abri visitors Frank would “have a go at.” Edith Schaeffer always accompanied Francis on speaking trips because he demanded daily sex.

To be fair, the Schaeffers also come across as compassionate people who shared little of the intolerance of today’s Religious Right. Once Francis shed his 1930s and 1940s fundamentalist baggage, L’Abri became a happening place and Schaeffer became an evangelical authority on popular culture. Timothy Leary spent time at L’Abri and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page carried around a copy of Schaeffer’s Escape from Reason. (Barbara Bush—yes THAT Barbara Bush—also spent time at L’Abri). One of Frank’s goals in this book is to show how men like Falwell, Dobson, and Robertson used the Schaeffers to further their own political ends. He wants to make it clear that Francis would have rejected most everything about the Religious Right if he were alive today. I am not so sure.

Second, and here I am building off a suggestion offered recently by Russ Reeves over at Tolle Blogge, this book is a fascinating story about how the son of an evangelical is able to remake himself. There is a Franklinesque (as in Ben) quality to his story. After Frank Schaeffer left the evangelical fold he had to start over again from scratch. He was no longer wanted on the evangelical lecture circuit and he could no longer bring himself to write evangelical books for evangelical publishers, even though some of them were still beckoning him. Rather than taking evangelical money for speaking engagements or advanced contracts, he stole pork shops from the local grocery store in order to feed himself. (He later paid the store back). He directed four really bad feature films (including “Baby on Board” with Judge Reinhold and Carol Kane) and was completely broke before MacMillan Publishing agreed to publish his novel Portofino. He eventually began to refer to himself as “Frank,” converted to Orthodoxy, and started writing a series of novels and non-fiction books about the experiences of American soldiers in the wake of 9-11. (His son, a marine, did a tour of duty in Iraq). When I saw him a few years ago on C-Span hawking one of these military memoirs, it took me several minutes and a few trips to Google before I realized that this New York Times best-selling author was the same guy I knew from the evangelical world.

Finally, historians of American evangelicalism will find Schaeffer’s memoir useful. I would imagine that he is not the most reliable or objective source, but his suggestion that Francis Schaeffer and his ambitious pro-life son provided intellectual firepower to the nascent Religious Right is convincing. In fact, Frank Schaeffer uses his memoir as an act of repentance. He claims that it was he who pushed his father to jump on the anti-abortion bandwagon. (Francis was skeptical since abortion was a “Catholic issue”). As a result, he laments that he is partially to blame for the politicization of abortion by the Religious Right and indirectly responsible for the election of George W. Bush and the deaths of so many young men and women in Iraq. This may be pushing things a bit far, but the suggestion is an interesting one.

Schaeffer’s memoir is a great read. I am now more eager than ever to read Barry Hankins’s forthcoming biography of Francis.

Enthralled by the Halls, Part II

Enthralled by the Halls?
John Turner

A few weeks back, Paul gave us an introduction to Mike Lindsay's Faith in the Halls of Power.

Lindsay interviewed more than 350 evangelical elites in the fields of business, academia, entertainment, and politics and suggests that "cosmopolitan" evangelical elites have very different concerns and outlooks than "populist" evangelicals enmeshed in the movement's subculture. In short, "cosmopolitan" evangelicals are not right-wing, anti-intellectual Neanderthals. For the most part, they think critically about their vocation / calling, sensitively and often quietly share their faith, and try to make a lasting impact on secular American culture. [Lindsay suggests that evangelicals have made inroads into these segments of elite America over the past three decades, but he does not give sustained attention to the question of how things have changed over time. In some arenas, such as politics, it is clear that an evangelical elite has obtained considerable more power in recent decades, but in the world of business this is much less clear.]

Brad Wilcox recently praised Faith in the Halls of Power in Books & Culture:

"Instead of dreaming up a right-wing evangelical cabal guided by the Christian Reconstructionist writings of R.J. Rushdoony and intent on taking over American politics, academic life, popular culture, and business, Lindsay … finds that American evangelical élites approach these domains from a range of political, ideological, and theological perspectives. He points to politically progressive evangelicals such as former President Jimmy Carter and to hard-to-pin-down figures such as Dr. C. Everett Koop—who angered the religious right by calling for early sex education and condoms in the fight against HIV/AIDS—to remind us that evangelical leaders in public life are not uniformly associated with the right wing of the Republican Party."

As Paul noted, Alan Wolfe panned Lindsay's book in the NYT Sunday Book Review. Wolfe suggests that Lindsay "views himself as a sociological dictation machine; they talk, he writes it down." As an example, he mentions Lindsay's profile of Debra Waller, an evangelical executive at Jockey:

"'all Jockey models wear wedding rings in photo shoots involving both men and women.” Jockey International, the underwear manufacturer, is led by an evangelical, Debra Waller, who told Lindsay that “we have intentionally decided to stay away from the more provocative, sexy type of advertising.” When I checked out Jockey’s latest catalog, not only were there bodies I could never hope to replicate, there were no men and women together and hence no wedding rings. America’s libidinal culture has clearly shaped Waller’s priorities more than she has changed it."

As Wolfe concedes, Lindsay occasionally adopts a more critical tone. He is uncomfortable with evangelical executives who fail to wear their cloak of materialism lightly. He also suggests that evangelical elites who criticize the superficiality and insularity of the evangelical subculture often fail to recognize how that subculture nurtured their own success. But after reading the book, I agree with Wolfe that Lindsay's sympathy with his subjects' mission precludes some needed criticism and irony; however, I suspect he aimed for the much-needed corrective to popular and superficial treatments of evangelicalism. Ironically, both appraisals simultaneously contain large elements of truth. But I think one part of Wolfe's judgment is particiularly prescient: "Unfortunately for Lindsay, if you do not agree with him beforehand, you are unlikely to agree with him after he has had his say." Even more unfortunately for Lindsay, those unsympathetic to these cosmopolitan evangelical elites probably won't read his book. If they did, at the very least they would meet an array of fascinating and thoughtful figures, who regardless of their flaws are bringing some very different and challenging perspectives to "the halls of power."

New Review: Kelsay on _A Muslim in Victorian America_



Since I am always promoting new reviews from H-Amstdy, here's another one. John Kelsay, Professor of Religion at Florida State University, examines Umar Abd-Allah's A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb. Webb was Anglo convert to the global faith, and Kelsay notes how American Muslims have claimed Webb to place themselves more firmly in the American religious narrative. Kelsay writes:

"The only biography of the first prominent American Muslim," reads the announcement on the Oxford University Press website. And, indeed, that may be the case. Umar F. Abd-Allah's study of Alexander Russell Webb, which began as a University of Chicago dissertation, takes the bits and pieces of a story related by others as a point of departure for this full-length exploration of the man who represented Islam at the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions. Most of those bits and pieces, as it turns out, have been related by Muslim Americans interested in placing their faith in the mainstream of American religious history. For these individuals, the fact that a man like Webb identified himself as both Muslim and American as early as the 1890s provides an example to which contemporary Muslims may recur. Thus, Sulayman Nyang, a Ghanaian émigré teaching at Howard University, speaks of a "Webbian tradition" of American Islam. Especially after September 11, some Muslims seeking an American identity find in Webb a prototype of an integrated self.

Given this interest, the first word a reviewer should use to describe
Abd-Allah's scholarly study is "helpful." _A Muslim in Victorian America_ is the story of a descendant of Scots-Irish immigrants, who came to identify himself as a Muslim and founded a mission dedicated to the propagation of Islam in the United States. As noted, Webb served as the spokesperson for Islam at the 1893 World's Parliament. He established interesting, if troubling, connections with Muslims in India and in late Ottoman Turkey. On these and other points, Abd-Allah provides much useful information. Given our current lack of solid information about the place of Islam in American religious history, Abd-Allah's scholarly work is really quite valuable. If and when someone writes a really good history of American Islam, I am sure that the author of that work will have ample reason to cite _A Muslim in Victorian America_.

That said, the second judgment to be made about Abd-Allah's study is
that it leaves us with more questions than answers. We might profile Webb as follows: born and reared in upstate New York, from a family that was nominally Presbyterian. Webb's religious interests show the imprint of revivalism, in the sense that he was in search of an authentic religious experience, a conversion "from the heart." At the same time, Webb was influenced by transcendentalism and felt that "church-Christianity" (as he called it) was overly narrow. In short, Webb was a seeker, whose perspective suggests that each and every person ought to search out the truth for himself or herself, and follow whatever light is given. (For the rest of the review, click here.)

The Search for Solid Rock


Millennial thinking needs new tropes. At the very least, it needs new energy, since plots for endgame take an increasingly absurdist slant (or they star Will Smith, whose apocalypse seems inevitable the longer he stands so near to Tom Cruise). What with war, Hillary Clinton’s criticized tableau, and holiday merriment straight around the weekly corner, we have ample material to fuel fantasies of new tomorrow (prefaced by bleak todays, but no matter: the righteous will survive).

To wit: the quest to free Joe Francis. What might be said about a world (any world, really, but let’s stick to ours, geographic and political) that worries so about a man (any man, really, but let’s stick to this one, this prescient pornographer) accused of (for real) more than 70 counts, including racketeering, drug trafficking, prostitution and promoting the sexual performance of children. Who is Joe Francis, you might ask (if, say, you lean more towards piano parties and Lutheran bake sales than late night infomercials or the pleasures of South Padre Island)? Well, to answer this question, you should take a trip to his website, a rattan- and bamboo-inflected wander through the genius of Joe Francis, the 37-year-old founder of the Girls Gone Wild franchise.

At that website, and in a Sunday New York Times article, we learn about Joe’s current incarceration and lavish lifestyle. We learn, too, about the location of the “hottest girls” (“My experience has been that anytime you go south of the Mason Dixon line, the girls seem to get more attractive.”) and the sexual options of a Peeping entrepreneur (in short, quite a wide array). Most importantly, though, we learn that constitutional rights are being infringed: “Girls Gone Wild founder and CEO Joe Francis has been sitting in jail for eight months, not because he’s been convicted of a crime, but because he’s been denied his 8th Amendment Constitutional right to bail. It seems certain officials in a small Florida town are intent on making some sort of example of him.”

Some sort of example, indeed. Exemplifying what? The details of the case are intricate and appealing, including as they do Larry Flynt self-analogies, lying teenage hotties, and tax evasion as the kicker. As is almost always the case in such sparkle-studded imprisonments, both sides have their fair share of idiocies and aggrandizements. Most critical, though, is Joe Francis himself, standing at the center, martyred to a democracy and an economy that gave him the opportunity to give to others so much (“Cassandra and Brittany know how to have a good time -- and all they need is each other!”) and all he wants to do is keep giving (“as you explore this site, I think you’ll come to find that my desires, dreams and disappointments aren’t terribly different from your own”). The problem is, of course, that government officials just can’t stand him (or for what he stands) and so they are violating his rights (and yours).

Constitutionality litters the airwaves this week. “What Article VI does not do, and was never intended to do, is deny me the right to say, as loudly as I may choose, that I will on no account vote for a smirking hick like Mike Huckabee,” explains Mr. Hitchens in another subtle rampage against religiosity. “Isn't it amazing how self-pitying and self-aggrandizing the religious freaks in this country are?” As posts on this blog have explored, and opinion pages nationwide have professed, this is a moment for religious inquiry to serve the spastic clatter of politics. Are we not, to some extent, called upon to respond, to leaven Hitchens’ monomaniacal bigotry and reflect upon Mr. Francis’ sacrificial sense of self? Some may say we should stay far from such talk; after all, to be an intellectual is to practice arts and methods too rigorous for punditry. Our footnotes will never make it, and so we will serve only the précis, not the proof. Yet. As we ponder Mitt’s Mormon mug and Hillary’s deepening lines, as we smirk at Jamie Lynn Spear’s baby bump and roll in our tinseled excess, a moment for messianism (or critical reflections on the need for messianism) wouldn’t be so outlandish. Because if Joe Francis is the only letter we’re getting from prison nowadays, then I think we have a real problem on our hands. Birmingham never seemed so very far away.

Religions News Redux



As I scoured the print magazines and the online news sources that I have missed over the past couple of weeks, I was impressed by all the religion news stories that ranged from the religious beliefs of presidential contenders to sacred drinking water to reviews of new religion documentaries. Newsweek, in particular, has presented quite a few articles on religion and politics that have analyzed not only Romney's faith speech but also the religious lives of Guiliani and Huckabee. The editor of Newsweek, Jon Meacham, wrote a cover story entitled, "A New American Holy War", which examines the much-examined Romney speech as well as the so-called tension between evangelicals and Mormons. Meacham notes:

So it has come to this: the 2008 Republican Iowa caucuses have descended into a kind of holy war. The clash centers on issues that are, in Saint Augustine's phrase, ever ancient, ever new: the nature of God, the disposition of power and the sanctity of conscience. The skirmish pits Huckabee against Romney in a story of hardball politics and high-minded history, of shadowy slurs and noble principles.

To Meacham's credit, he frames this debate in a larger historical context, and he quibbles with Romney's interpretation of the founders' various positions on religion and the state. He writes:
Romney would have been on safer ground had he said that America has always been largely religious and largely free, and that America's religious traditions should fight for the freedom of all, if only out of self-interest. Without freedom of conscience, today's tyrant could be tomorrow's tyrannized, and the other way round. With freedom of conscience, we come closer to living out the promise Washington made in his 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, R.I., in which he said that the government of the United States was "to give to bigotry no sanction … and to persecution no assistance."

Newsweek's Holly Bailey interviewed Huckabee about faith being a central part of his campaign. Bailey wastes no time in getting into the heart of the matter:
You've made your faith a central part of your campaign. Your latest ad flashes the words CHRISTIAN LEADER.
There's one slide in that ad that says CHRISTIAN LEADER, which is descriptive. There's another slide that [quotes Time magazine saying] ONE OF AMERICA'S BEST GOVERNORS. How come nobody asks me about that? It's perfectly fair to ask, "What did you mean by [Christian leader]?" because some people have suggested there was something being written into it, but there wasn't.
So "Christian leader" wasn't an attempt to app
eal to social conservatives who may have problems with Mitt Romney's faith? Absolutely not. It was simply a description of my pilgrim job, a Christian leader in a church in a denomination. This is who Mike Huckabee is, where he comes from. It was intended as an introductory ad.

Luckily (for me), not all of Newsweek's religion coverage has focused upon presidential contenders. Lisa Miller documented the rise of sacred drinking water and its consumption. Various companies have marketed their water that is blessed by priests, has good "sound energy" because it was bottled near a Tibetan singing bowl, or has prayers printed on the bottle that puts (water) drinkers in a good frame of mind. Not surprisingly, there has been backlash by religious believers, who find plastic bottled water morally and environmentally reprehensible.

Finally, the news magazine reviews the new HBO documentary "Hards as Nails", which follows Justin Fatica, a twenty-something "self-proclaimed prophet." As the title of the documentary suggests, Fatica focuses on showing teens the pain and suffering of Christ, and more interestingly, he's Catholic. The description of Fatica says a lot:
The pumped-up proselytizer—he looks more like a white rapper than an evangelist—sports a tough Jersey accent and a swagger that would make Tony Soprano proud. He screams, taunts and humiliates half-filled rooms at spiritual retreats across the country, hoping to "motivate" teens into accepting Jesus into their lives. Though his ministry, called Hard as Nails, is aimed at Catholic teens, he sounds like an evangelical. His tactics include drill-sergeant-like assaults: "If you sin, you better have the courage to bash Jesus' face in!" Fatica screams at one cherubic girl, pushing her to the verge of tears. "Have you sinned in the last 24 hours? Have ya?! HAVE YA?!" Fatica wants his disciples to feel the pain that Christ suffered for their sins. At one session, a kid picks up a metal folding chair and whacks Fatica—at his direction—on the back, as the minister repeatedly screams to another supplicant, "Jesus took all this pain for you!" He re-creates Calvary, ordering teens to carry heavy crosses up a hill, or asking them to stand, arms extended against the wood, while their peers pound the cross with a hammer and scream insults.

What proves most interesting about the documentary (which I will probably watch) is that Fatica is Catholic, but he is using supposed evangelical methods. I wonder how different his approaches are to those of similar evangelical teen ministries. One recent fascination is the advent of Life Teen Masses at Catholic churches, in which Catholic teens sing along with religious rock music, and the message is purportedly "hip" for teens. They seem to have an evangelical bent to me, but I wonder what it really means. Are these methods effective to evangelizing the younger set, Catholic or Protestant? And what does this show about the Catholic church embrace of said methods?

All in all, it always proves interesting (at least to me) to see what religious movements, peoples, ideas and products are covered by the news media. The religious lives of presidential contenders, anything that is slightly evangelical, or any religious consumption always seems to be fair game, which possibly means the mundane lives of everyday believers are just, well, too mundane for coverage. Folks chugging "holy" water or smashing chairs on body parts is another story entirely.

Gentile on My Mind


I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the ministry of John Hagee since I wrote about him a little in the last chapter of my book on southern pentecostalism. The megachurch pastor, Christian Zionist, pentecostal self-help guru, and best-selling author of end-time camp classics may or may not be a force to be reckoned with. But judging from the attention he’s getting in the press he is a powerful figure of the Chrsitian right. Nearly two years ago Hagee and 400 other conservative religious leaders organized Christians United For Israel (CUFI). That organization sums up one of its goals on its website: “While millions of Evangelical Christians support Israel , there are millions more who do not. It is crucial to educate Christians on the Biblical and moral imperatives of supporting Israel.” Hagee’s harangues against Iran and his call for a preemptive strike against that country have been raising eyebrows in the media for some time now.

Bill Moyers recently featured the Texas preacher on his Journal. Evangelical theologian Ron Sider and M.J. Rosenberg, Director of Policy Analysis for Israel Policy Forum, provided interesting counterpoints. Rapture-ready, Hagee has staked his political and religious fortunes on a militant Israel. Whenever I’ve heard Hagee on NPR, I can almost imagine listeners dropping their tote bags in horror. I thought I heard a collective shriek as Boston’s PBS viewers were treated to the minister’s fury:

Let us shout it from the housetops that a new day has been born in America. The sleeping giant of Christian Zionism has awakened. If a line has to be drawn, draw the line around Christians and Jews. We are united. We are indivisible. And together we can reshape history.

And, worse yet:

JOHN HAGEE, SEPTEMBER 18, 2005: I want to ask Washington a question. Is there a connection between the 9,000 Jewish refugees being forcibly removed from their homes in the Gaza Strip now living in tents and the thousands of Americans who have been expelled from their homes by this tremendous work of nature [Hurricane Katrina]? Is there a connection there? If you've got a better answer, I'd like to hear it.

Mick Huckabee is slated to speak at Hagee’s 18,000-member Cornerstone Church on December 23. What will the former Arkansas Governor and Baptist minister say? Has the flap over his comment on Mormonism chastened him somewhat? The press would certainly have a field day if Huckabee ventured into premillennial eschatology or waxed on the place of Israel in the last days. That would be a rhetorical a-bomb and a public relations nightmare for Huckabee’s handlers. Unlikely, though. Yet this appearance reminded me of the damage that can be done to a campaign by hard-right associations. Think George Bush at Bob Jones U.

Institute on Creation Research: Saving Western Civilization


The NY Times reports, "Green Light for Institute on Creation in Texas."

No "Intelligent Design" fig leaf for creationism here. This is the real thing, an online masters of "science education" degree based on the curriculum developed by the Institute of Creation Research -- six literal days, strategically placed fossils, etc. Perhaps they'll be taking field trips to that creation museum in Kentucky (see Randall Stephens blogging about that, below). The Institute, of course, knows how to play the "both sides of the story" game (the same one played by noted scientist George W. Bush when asked about this a few years ago):

“Where the difference is, we provide both sides of the story,” Mr. [Henry] Morris said. On its Web site, the institute declares, “All things in the universe were created and made by God in the six literal days of the creation week” and says it “equips believers with evidences of the Bible’s accuracy and authority through scientific research, educational programs, and media presentations, all conducted within a thoroughly biblical framework.”

The curriculum comes not a moment too soon, since the fate of Western, or at least Texas, civilization is at stake:

It also says “the harmful consequences of evolutionary thinking on families and society (abortion, promiscuity, drug abuse, homosexuality and many others) are evident all around us.”

I can now blame Darwin for my addiction to and abuse of coffee.

Transcendental Blues



Back in '99 I saw Steve Earle premier his song "Transcendental Blues" at a concert in NYC. His solo man-and-guitar version was great; the full-band CD version didn't appeal to me as much, so it faded a bit from consciousness.

But this week it's been running through my head again -- thankfully, not like some Celine Dion bombast that was haunting me after I pulled out the inevitable cheap-joke "Titanic" reference in class to graduate students a few weeks ago; in the short term it induced a little mirthless laughter, but God then punished me (for a few weeks), as Celine Dion tunes started inhabiting my inner ear like what's-her-name in Jane Eyre inhabited the attic. See, even thinking about Dion makes you dumb and dumber.

Thankfully she's been replaced (for now) by Earle, Bob Dylan, and Pete Seeger, who came to me this week as I started reading Scott Gac's Singing for Freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Nineteenth-Century Culture of Antebellum Reform, a history of the antebellum musical northern Baptist family who "sang for freedom" in the anti-slavery movement of the 1840s, becoming "stars" in the process. Like all good bands, they made some great music, counted their box-office take, slept around, quarreled, broke up, had some ill-advised solo engagements (at one of which Lincoln slumbered), and then had an endless string of reunions. At the end of the day, though, they were troopers for the most important social movement of American history, which is a hell of a lot more than I've ever done, or ever will do. I'll be writing a review of this fine work for Books and Culture -- a positive one, to be sure, but I'm waiting for a decently interesting idea to descend, or emerge, such that the review becomes something more than "good book, here's the synopsis, read it," the scholarly equivalent of "it's got a good beat, you can dance to it." More on this later.

Still waiting for that inner light, I came across (thanks to Ralph Luker) this review of Philip Gura's new book American Transcendentalism: A History. I've never researched or written or even taught very much (particularly) about these figures from the American Renaissance, but I can't seem to get enough of them, and the review captures some of the reason why:

Like art, music and literature, works of scholarship matter most when they trouble our minds and spirits right now. Even those perennial perplexities -- about love and religion and the proper government of the self and our role as citizens -- can and should be made relevant to our current confusions and grounded in the present, particular moment. Then, the deepest scholarship, like the greatest art, not only enriches our lives, but also implicitly asks us to examine them, even to cross-examine them.

On the surface, a history of transcendentalism hardly seems especially electrifying or contemporary. Isn't this a subject for one of those standard and rather tired seminars regularly offered in American studies programs, sometimes with a subtitle like "Emerson, Fuller and Thoreau"? But there's nothing perfunctory or dryly academic about American Transcendentalism. Philip F. Gura writes a lean, impassioned prose, chockablock with anecdote and information. By mixing a dozen brief biographies with sustained narrative -- about contemporary religious belief, social commitment, just and unjust wars, the rights and plights of women and African Americans -- Gura underscores how much we remain the descendants of these still too little known thinkers and crusaders. Above all, his exciting, even eye-opening book shows us that from 1830 to 1850 a group of
New England preachers and intellectuals confronted what has proved to be the great polarizing tension in American history, that between hyperindividualism and the claims of social justice and human brotherhood.

For more, see The Web of American Transcendentalism, which might even chase away some blues.

Religion, Religion Everywhere: Too Many Drops to Drink?



Kevin Coe and David Comke ask, "Think Religion Plays a Bigger Role in Politics Today?" They answer "yes," with statistics from a communications/rhetoric content analysis. If in the current presidential tussle you think you're hearing all religion all the time, maybe that's because you are, at least in comparison to other historical reference points. They conclude:

Wherever we looked, whatever we measure, we find the same pattern. Presidents and presidential hopefuls since Reagan have been afraid to be seen as the apostate in the room. They put religion front and center to show they’re not. This new age is one that many past presidents would hardly recognize. One can’t help but wonder what would become of a candidate today who, like John Kennedy in 1960, “believe[s] in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair.”

But wait, there's more ! A doctoral student at Georgetown asks "What does Mormonism mean to Mitt"? His answer: more than might appear at first glance from "The Speech":

Like Catholicism, Mormonism is a religion of works; salvation is achieved through participation in the ordinances Mormons believe their church alone is empowered to administer and obedience to the commandments of scripture. Unlike Catholicism, Mormonism is a lay faith; congregations are run by members of their own flocks, and every Mormon is rotated through a series of callings, or particular tasks, from teaching youth Sunday school to coordinating community service. (Romney himself has served as a bishop, head of a congregation.) These characteristics, combined with the faith’s atheological character, mean that Mormon culture tends toward legalism and the celebration of effort. . . . .

In all these ways, then, Mitt Romney has been telling us about his Mormonism all along. It is a faith compatible with American civic religion in ways deeper than most observers note. Romney has interpreted it in ways designed to appeal to the constituency he seeks, emphasizing Mormonism’s close identification of religion with moral behavior, and drawing on certain social policies derived from distinctive Mormon theology. Tensions clearly remain, but they are primarily on a theoretical level; like Kennedy, Romney is reluctant to discuss his religion in too great detail; he rarely if ever mentions the theological imperatives behind his politics, and seeks to paper over the gap between the essentially theocratic, communitarian way Mormons imagine religion and the individualistic ethos that penetrates American Protestantism to its core.

In a more critical vein, Steven Conn blasts Romney for forgetting that "The 'Wall of Separation' Has Preserved Religion -- Including Mormonism":

The lesson of Mormon history would seem to be clear: keep the church out of the state and the state will stay out of the church. Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy should be an opportunity to remind Americans about that critical lesson. Unfortunately, Romney chose instead to tell the religious right what it wants to hear: more prayer in public places. Romney's understanding of theology may or may not be palatable to the Republican base he courts. What should trouble us more than his Mormonism is his misunderstanding of our tradition of religious freedom. Religion has flourished in the United States precisely because we have separated state and church.

I'd say there are other reasons for religion's flourishing, but that's certainly one. I'd bet, too, that if he wins the nomination, Romney may tilt back towards a more separationist position, if indeed he survives the evangelical anti-Mormon vote first during the early primary season.

If you call now, you'll get yet another special offer!

Finally, George McKenna argues that the true heirs of New England Puritan Providentialism are Southerners (white ones, I presume he means), and Catholics. Mormons too, maybe? Blue state liberals, out of the gene pool!

". . . during the brief Kennedy years patriotism enjoyed something of a renascence in high cultural circles. American history was viewed as an inspiring story of a people struggling to realize the ideals of freedom and democracy, and America was a force for good in the world.

All that changed with Vietnam, Watergate, and long national Lenten period that followed. The Northeast, the birthplace of the Puritan narrative of an American “mission,” was now the region most hospitable to doubters. It was all just a facade, they claimed, for American capitalism’s global ambitions. New England, the birthplace of American providentialism, was abandoning the whole idea of Providence in American life, while Southerners, the outsiders in the Puritan-told story of America, and the Roman Catholics, once considered un-American because of their allegiance to a “foreign prince,” were now the most fervent believers in the Puritans’ patriotic account of America’s glorious mission. The wild olives, the church-going Catholics and Southerners, were now grafted to the main stem of American patriotism.

In the preface to his biography of Increase Mather, historian Michael G. Hall remarks on the similarity between the beliefs of Mather and Pope John Paul II on the subject of angels. Hall considers this ironic, given the hostility of Mather and other Puritans toward the Catholic Church. But perhaps, by the 1980s, Increase Mather’s attitude toward Catholics might have softened. Not only on the subject of angels but on an extensive range of creedal questions, from the divinity of Jesus to the hope for life after death, the beliefs of the Puritans, evangelicals, and faithful Catholics are almost identical, and stand in sharp contrast to the allegorized, secularized approach of liberal Protestantism. Even more striking was the similarity of their positions on moral issues like gay marriage and abortion (which the Puritans would not have even considered debatable)--once again in contrast to the liberal position. To crown it all, the three of them -- the Catholics, the Southerners, and the Puritans of Mather’s day-- shared the view that America was divinely summoned to the task of Christianizing wilderness, a view now scornfully rejected in the cultural centers of Greater New England. If he were alive now, Increase Mather, one of the greatest champions of the New England Way, might find himself allied with Catholics and Southerners--and alienated from his own region.

[See the comments section for some critical comments on McKenna's overdrawn sense of Puritanism].

And don't even get us started on Huckabee! See yesterday's New York Times Magazine for the latest profile. See also GOP Candidates Scrambling to Cope With Rise of Huckabee.The "Club for Growth" and Grover Norquist "drown-government-in-the-bathtub" types are attacking him ferociously -- and with enemies like that, who needs friends? On the other hand, here's a painful revelation:

To this day, Huckabee regards [hyper-conservative evangelist James] Robison as one of his role models in the art of communication, along with Ronald Reagan and the radio commentator Paul Harvey.

How unfortunate.

Perhaps that explains what George Wills calls his "incoherent populism," such as his awful "Fair Tax" scheme. On the other hand, let's close with a brief salute to the shy guy at the dance, at one of his own campaign events:

The band was tight that night, but the show started slowly. Only a few couples took the floor. A man who looked like Dick Cheney did a sedate version of the Chicken with his wife, who also looked like Dick Cheney. ‘‘Get out there and dance,’’ Huckabee exhorted the crowd. ‘‘Let’s show the world that conservative Republicans can have as much fun as anybody.’’ Huckabee, I later learned, doesn’t dance himself, or even move around onstage. He must be one of the few guys of his generation who didn’t join a band to meet girls.

Now there's the guy I can relate to; he has a good beat, and he can't dance to it.

Boston 1775 on Huckabee the "Historian"


Last week I noted J.L. Bell's historical analysis of Mitt Romney's "Faith in America" speech. This week the prolific blogger at Boston 1775 has tackled the historical problems in Mike Huckabee's political rhetoric, including his outragous assertion that "most" of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence were ministers. Ed Rollins, Huckabee's campaign manager and a wily veteran of the down and dirty politics in my home state of New Jersey, is also taken to task.

Yearly Top 10, and Turning Back from the Dragon



The Chicago-based public radio show Sound Opinions is excellent. Having heard it only once, how do I know? They picked my favorite CD of the year for their top recording on the obligatory year-end top 10 list: Mavis Staples, We’ll Never Turn Back. Although clearly based in some appropriately righteous fury stemming from the moral disasters uncovered by Katrina (“I heard all the lies/you politicians said," from the great original song "My Own Eyes"), the CD features music which recaptures the spirit of the freedom songs, without simply reproducing them museum-style. Mavis always can be counted on to serve up good soul food, with a significant assist here from Ry Cooder and others. It also makes the perfect antidote to aural Christmas-kitsch that assaults the ears 24/7 this time of year.

While listening to the program, I was reading a paper by a student in History 300, Southern History, Civil War through Civil Rights class this semester, about “the 3 Hanks” – Hank Williams Sr., Jr., and Hank III. The theological tension between the program and the paper struck me: the gritty hope conveyed in Staples’s well-worn voice, a kind of theology crossing Niebuhr, Howard Thurman, and Cornel West on the one side; and the “hard religion” of the white southern working-class tradition on the other. Both draw the listener, speaking to the contrariness of the human soul. The three Hanks each battled the country music industry, contentious personal relationships with women, catastrophic accidents and illnesses, and (of course) alcohol and drugs. The lure of self-destruction was always there. The lure of watching/listening to self-destruction is always there, as well (see Evil Knievel, below on our blog!).

The student’s paper describes music that speaks mostly of fatalism and darkness, just occasionally broken into by moments of seeing the light. This comes across especially in Hank Jr.’s “Family Tradition,” his country classic brilliant in its ironic, sneering salute to the burdens of the past, a poor man’s irony of southern history.

Lordy, I have loved some ladies/and I have loved Jim Beam/and they both tried to kill me/in 1973/when that doctor asked me/Son how did you get in this condition/I said hey sawbones I'm just carryin on/an old family tradition.

The student’s concluding paragraph (reprinted below with a few identifying details changed) left me strangely uplifted, helped along by Mavis Staples’ righteously warm fury coming through the speakers at the same time:

"Now that I have left the cold [hometown] winter and am at home in the warm Colorado Springs winter, I look back at the time I spent in [hometown] when I first found Hank III on the jukebox. My life, just like each of the three Hanks' at times, was a little out of control. The music scene in [town] is small, but extremely diverse, and the town itself is the sometime home of many musicians. I managed a restaurant and bar in an old theatre . . . where all three Hanks had at some time played. I worked hundred plus hour weeks, so I was no slacker, but for some reason the music business, or maybe just the pressure that the business puts on musicians, brings with it a darker side. There were many others who did not work at all and partied more, but I was there just the same. You don't know you are chasing the dragon until it becomes something you have to catch. Something inside of me has always kept me from going too far, maybe because I have always had to work hard to live, but the lure of utter destruction is always there, just behind the dragon. Life is hard. Sometimes the only way to deal with it is to write about it. The 3 Hanks each know both.

The lure of cynicism is there as well. Mavis knows this, and overcomes it in her music, in her case by meeting fire with fire. On this Friday, this student turned me away from looking behind that dragon.

Holiest Member of the Trinity, Revisited (see: Mitchell Report)


Back to the Holiest Member of the Ball Sport "Trinity"


On John Wilson's recommendation, I just finished reading Bill Felber's A Game of Brawl. Wilson's description:

Bill Felber uses this season to shed light on a crisis that faced baseball in the 1890s, as the sport was increasingly marred by violence, profanity, and cheating ("cutting" bases when the one umpire's attention was turned elsewhere, holding the belt of a player who planned to tag up and score from third, and so on). The Orioles, alas, were as notorious for their dirty play as they were admired for the splendid skills that made John McGraw, Wee Willie Keeler, and their teammates household names. In comparison, the Beaneaters were positively genteel.

Wilson recommended the book to accompany this year's World Series. Given that the 2007 Fall Classic singularly lacked much drama, A Game of Brawl made for illuminating reading alongside the release of the Mitchell Report. Already full of Good (the Red Sox) versus Evil (the Orioles), Felber's story is full of foul play and rampant cheating: spiking opponents, wielding bats as weapons, browbeating umpires, and hiding extra balls in the long outfield grass to use to throw runners out.

Felber's book (this is the somewhat contrived rationale for this post!) includes a few nuggets of American religious history. For example, Cleveland's owner fought a losing battle against his state's Blue Laws in an attempt to increase attendance and revenue by playing on Sunday. The Boston Beaneaters exist as a proud residue of Protestant Puritanism against the Orioles from polyglot Baltimore. [As in 2007, 1897 Boston sports fans could have used Niebuhrian caution to guard against sanctimonious self-righteousness (admittedly harder to obtain since Reinhold Niebuhr was only five at the time)].

It's also interesting to note that athletes of the late 1800s seemed much less interested in evangelical Christianity than athletes today. Even allowing for the association of sports with vices like sex and gambling, one also thinks of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the evangelicalism of the Colorado Rockies, and football players praying before games. Such things never come up in the 1897 pennant race.

If baseball often resembles an American morality play, cheating seems to be its original sin. With the dirty tricks of the 1897 and the gambling scandals of "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and Pete Rose in our memories, why should we be shocked at Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and now Roger Clemens?

Of Mormons and Methodists


I’m hunkered down in the house today with Beatrice, my border collie. As the snow falls and the winds howl outside, I’ve had some time to check up on email and look at a few items on-line. A couple of things I came across may be of special interest to Religion in American History blog readers

A provocative article, “Making Mormon History,” by Mark Oppenheimer appeared in the Ideas section of the Sunday, December 9, issue of the Boston Globe.

Given the media coverage and chattering class buzz, Oppenheimer writes, it would appear that the LDS has entered a period of openness or transparency concerning its history and identity. Yet…

the relationship of the Latter-day Saints hierarchy with scholars and journalists has frequently been antagonistic: The church has excommunicated historians whose writings were deemed to portray Mormon history in a negative light, and to this day church archivists closely guard many documents, keeping some entirely secret, to scholars and everyone else. One church leader gave a famous speech in which he cautioned against unvarnished truth if it imperiled people’s faith.

Sounds like the hook for a research paper or an article. What can or can’t a person say about his/her tradition’s history? That would be an interesting question to pose to Pentecostal, Holiness, Baptist, or Church of Christ denominational historians who work “in-house.” Other observations in Oppenheimer’s piece concerning the “excessive” record-keeping of Mormons and the opportunities and challenges of Mormon history are equally interesting.

For professional historians and religious history enthusiasts (I’m sure there are at least three nonacademics in the latter category scattered across the US), there is a wonderful new research tool on another religious movement that exploded out of the 19th century. The revamped website of the Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition at Duke Divinity School will be welcomed by both bow tie-wearing Methodist archivists and religious studies grad students sporting trendy glasses.

Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies Randy Maddox describes some of the additions:

[The site provides] online access to a complete and reliable collection of the verse of both John and Charles Wesley. Production of the collection is still in process, but it already contains—in time for the 300th anniversary of his birth—a complete set of the verse of Charles Wesley that was published during his lifetime. A complete set of the verse that remained in manuscript at Charles’s death is planned to be added by 2009. There is also a parallel collection of all of the volumes of hymns and religious poetry that John Wesley edited and published during his lifetime, which is currently over half complete.

As our first offering of scholarly access to important early Methodist sources, we are posting a transcript of a manuscript diary by Wesley’s book steward (Thomas Butts) in Bristol from October 1752–54, which offers some intriguing insights into Methodist debates of the time.

You will also find bibliographies of recent dissertations in Wesley Studies, a description of our
Summer Wesley Seminar, which is designed to allow folk like you to spend a month in Durham working with our resources. If this sounds inviting, considering applying.

We at the Center hope that you find this website helpful and welcome your suggestions for future development.

The Holy Trinity of Sports -- Exposed! And More on Politics in the Academy



If you listen closely, you’ll hear the sound of me kicking myself…hard and often. Yesterday, I scanned the pages of the newest Journal of the American Academy of Religion only to find three outstanding articles on religion and/as sports from the University of Florida’s Bron Taylor (focus: surfing), A. Whitney Stanford (focus: kayaking), and Samuel Snyder (focus: fly fishing). Concentrating on what Taylor calls “Aquatic Nature Religion,” the authors use their subject to investigate the definition of religion, referencing theoretical frameworks from the likes of David Chidester, Robert Orsi, Catherine Albanese, Benson Saler, and Thomas Tweed. As Taylor writes in his introduction to the series, the articles “challenge dominant, contemporary constructions of religion. Whether they blur or expand our understanding of the boundaries of religion is less important than whether they help explain the ‘organic-cultural flows’ wherein water-related practices and perceptions are experienced and construed by their participants as spiritual and religious.” To be sure, the theoretical examination of religion is the principal contribution of these articles. But I also appreciate the authors’ choice to look beyond what Michal Novak calls the “holy trinity” of sports (baseball, football, basketball). Studies that venture beyond ball sports are noticeably rare.

These superb articles will, I suspect, generate more discussion on the topic. And I will probably use them both in my own scholarship and teaching. So why, you may ask, am I kicking myself? Some time ago, I composed an essay on religion and distance running. I looked through various journals, and briefly considered sending it to the JAAR. I quickly dismissed this option. “They would never consider this; it’s too trivial,” I speculated. I now stand corrected. Hopefully this will serve as a reminder in the future. To use a sports metaphor, in this instance, I chose to sit on the sidelines rather than get in the game. In all reality, I suspect my essay would have been rejected. Many do. Nevertheless, I still should have tried. Lesson learned, I hope.

On to another item of interest for blog readers…

In Sunday’s Washington Post, Robert Maranto of Villanova wrote a provocative op-ed entitled, “As a Republican, I’m on the Fringe.” He dismisses claims that academics have coordinated a vast conspiracy to eliminate conservatives. Still, the author posits that Republicans face unique challenges advancing through the ranks, as liberal colleagues unconsciously permit politics to cloud their judgment. Maranto concludes…

“Ultimately, universities will have to clean their own houses. Professors need to re-embrace a culture of reasoned inquiry and debate. And since debate requires disagreement, higher education needs to encourage intellectual diversity in its hiring and promotion decisions with something like the fervor it shows for ethnic and racial diversity. It's the only way universities will earn back society's respect and reclaim their role at the center of public life.”

On Wednesday, Maranto’s former undergraduate mentor from the University of Maryland, Eric Uslaner, wrote a response. He notes that Maranto’s argument rests largely on anecdotal evidence rather than systematic research. “A more fruitful way to begin a discussion of bias among academics,” writes Uslaner, “is to ask why so many academics are liberal in the first place.” Put simply, conservatives go where the money is, and that’s not academia. He concludes, “We have no evidence that ideological discrimination is common. If Robert Maranto believes it is, there is at least one concrete step he can take to combat it: Encourage his best conservative students to join him in the academy.”

I’m interested to know what others think of this exchange. When thinking about my limited experience, both sides made convincing points. I’ve been in many conversations with colleagues that would make Michael Moore blush. But I’m not fully convinced that this translates into wholesale alienation of conservatives.

But I can’t think about this now. I’ve still got more kicking to do…
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