In the May/June 2008 issue of Historically Speaking I interviewed Stephen Prothero. We're a little bit behind, so this just came out in print. Prothero gave his take on the changing field of American religious history, evangelicals in the academy, teaching, religious literacy, and the differences between history and religious studies. I asked: "Are there major concerns that shape how religious studies scholars work?"
Prothero: We don’t really have a discipline like historians do, so we’re always ripping things off from other people. Religious studies still has a lingering status anxiety problem. It has had to justify itself. That’s less the case since 9/11. Obviously it’s harder for administrators to ask the stupid question: Why should we study religion? . . . Not long ago I spoke on the [Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't (HarperOne, 2007)] at the University of Florida. Religious studies students asked, “Why don’t you do more with Judaism in?” And my answer was, “Because it doesn’t matter as much. It doesn’t have the same influence that Christianity did and does.” That was a historian’s answer. I wrote more about Christianity in Religious Literacy because 85% of Americans are Christian, because all the presidents have been Christian, and because Christianity is the language of American politics.
I would like to see a discussion on this issue at the AAR, OAH, or AHA. Are historians concerned with numbers and representation when it comes to the topics they focus on? Should historians and religious studies scholars take percentages into consideration? Many, I think, would argue that scholars have an obligation to write about individuals and groups that were oppressed or underrepresented in society. Since at least the 1980s the model has been to teach diversity. There are some intense arguments to make on either side of the issue.
I told Prothero that the history students in my Religion and American Culture course were big fans of his book American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003). Among other things, most thought it compelling because it showed so much change over time.
Prothero: A religious studies treatment of the topic would have been more synchronic. The tension between history and religious studies is essentially between anthropology and history.
The interview concludes with Prothero's brief discussion of his current work on the Exodus narrative in American history.