Dispatches from LeConte Hall 323 – Part VI
by Darren Grem
For the past few weeks, we explored the coming of “modernity” and its impact on American religions. To start off, my students explored the impact of immigration on America’s religious landscape, looking at the “theologies of the street” that American immigrants created in urban centers like New York and Chicago. I’ve been a big fan of Robert Orsi’s since I read his work on the subject as an undergrad, and I tried to drive the students toward considering his conclusions about what “street theologies” can teach about the immigrant experience. Thus, they viewed A/V selections of the Italian festa, along with slides of Irish Catholic festivals and Jewish practices in the Hester Street community, analyzing how immigrants used public displays of religion to state something about their immigrant communities, their collective identities, and their relative status as religious insiders/outsiders. After this, I had them consider the impact of consumer capitalism on American Protestantism. To do so, I lectured on “economic modernity,” integrating into the lecture the conclusions they developed from reading selections from Russell Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds” sermon and Walter Rauschenbusch’s writings on the Social Gospel. Finally, we had a debate – lightly attended due to the coming of Spring Break – about religious nativism, looking at how and why certain Native American, Catholic, and Protestant observers conflicted over the definition of “mainstream” religious America.
Given that earlier in the term we spent nearly a week and a half on the creation of the “religious marketplace,” I probably should have spent more time on this important period in American history. Although their essays and A/V analyses showed that they “got” the major trends of the period, I thought that we should have studied it more thoroughly. Boiling fin-de-siècle America and its religious transformations into three days made the period go by too quickly for my tastes and, as such, I thought we only skimmed the surface of why the period matters. Our study of fundamentalism – which happened after Spring Break – perhaps granted more context, but, even with it I thought we over-focused on the particulars of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy. Instead of connecting it to the larger shifts in the era, I believe we treated it as a solitary conflict, somehow related to larger demographic, economic, and cultural changes but not clearly related to them. Missing a viewing of Sister Aimee, the PBS documentary based off Sutton’s book, due to some technical difficulties, didn’t help. That documentary lays out the context for fundamentalism quite nicely, and it was a real loss to have it go by the wayside.
Of course, I have yet to read their essays on fundamentalism, so I may be overstating the problem. My students have continually surprised me with how well they understood the major points of the document sets they’ve read, as well as how well they’ve connected them to larger trends we’re studying. Thus, my concerns may be allayed when I pick up the green and red pens for one more go-round. In addition, their debate on the matter of public funding for religious instruction was a pretty good one, showing that they knew certain “broader” reasons for fundamentalist/modernist conflicted over evolution then, plus how and why that debate has both continued into today.
With that debate (since it was our last), I also think that I can start draw some preliminary conclusions about the effectiveness of these historical simulations. First, I will certainly use the debate format again. They were a nice break in the flow of the class, and they yielded both some valuable frivolity and valuable insights on the part of my students. Second, in the future, I will institute some way to police students to ensure that they’re preparing properly for the debates. Like many open-floor exercises, there tended to be distinct talkers and sitters, and I want more of the former and less of the latter. Perhaps including a mandatory talk policy would help matters, decreasing the opportunity for students to sit back and let the more talkative (and, presumably, more well-read) students lead the way. Any suggestions on how to reframe these debates so students can get more out of them would be appreciated.
Up next: Religion and the “American Way of Life” (whatever that means).