Defining and Expanding the Field of American Religion

Today we feature our third post from the Religion and American Culture Conference just concluded in Indianapolis. Today's missive comes from Seth Dowland, our newest contributing editor here at Religion in American History! Seth is a lecturing fellow and associate director of the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University, where he completed his Ph.D. in 2007. He is working on a book called Family Values, which examines the emergence and evolution of the Christian right in the 1970s and 1980s. Some more of Seth's work, an analysis of recent works on Billy Graham, is featured here, and here is his review of Michael Lienesch's In The Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the AntiEvolution Movement.


Thanks to both Gerardo Marti and Linford Fisher for their excellent recaps of the recent Religion & American Culture conference in Indianapolis. Since both of them have covered the conference so well, what follows here is a selective account of the most interesting conversations from my perspective, along with some questions to generate further discussion.

The conference began with a panel discussion about the connections and differences among the main disciplines comprising the “field” of religion in America: sociology (represented by Jay Demareth), religious studies (represented by Paula Kane), and history (represented by Jon Butler). There are, of course, scholars in other departments who study religion in America, but the overwhelming majority of attendees fell in one of these three disciplines. I put “field” in quotation marks because Butler suggested that no such field exists. American religion, he argued, does not have a canon or even a common set of questions in same manner as, say, American political history. Robert Orsi challenged Butler on this point, suggesting that a discernible field had developed over the last 25 years. I side with Orsi here, though I also know that I usually refer to my field of study as “American religious history,” a designation that might exclude sociologists. I wonder if my belief that there is a discernible field emerges from my training in a department of religion. In graduate school I grew accustomed to differentiating myself from theologians and biblical scholars, whereas my colleagues in history and sociology probably learned to draw different boundaries. Or, to put it more crassly, perhaps I’m inclined to see “American religious history” as a field because I earned a Ph.D. in that field! I wonder if I’d find Butler’s argument more compelling if I earned a Ph.D. in “post-1945 American history.” Do those of you trained in history or sociology recognize American religion as a field? If so, what defines it?

I think these questions are important because, as Jerry Park suggested later on the first day, universities reward scholars based on their contributions within disciplines. Those of us looking for tenure-track jobs or seeking tenure do so (for the most part) within departments. While a host of interdisciplinary programs dot the academic landscape, they typically hold less power than departments in the governance of universities. Given our need to win and maintain employment, it’s a rational decision for pre-tenure scholars to write within our disciplines. And lest I sound entirely cynical: it’s also rewarding. I find the archival research and narrative writing of religious history thrilling and important. But at what price do we cloister ourselves in disciplinary homes?

The final session of the conference allowed Jim Lewis and Amanda Porterfield to weigh in on the question, “where do we go from here?” Lewis pointed out the increasing financial difficulties facing publishers and universities and said that if ever we enjoyed the privilege of ivy tower seclusion, that era is over. We must speak to public audiences; given Lewis’s position as director of the seminary-based institute, he suggested that at least some of our scholarship must speak to religious leaders and practitioners. This requires a different type of writing in different venues than the ones we’re accustomed to. Here again, I wondered if university governance works against the desire to broaden our audience. We’re rewarded for writing journal articles and monographs, but increasingly, our work reaches the public through online sources like this blog and other sites. That’s not to say that blog posts and NPR appearances should “count” as much as a refereed article, nor is it to argue against the need for monographs (an argument that, like Linford, I was happy to bypass last week). But I do think one of the challenges facing us involves a careful consideration of how institutional structures can either hinder or foster the expansion of our audience.

There were plenty of other conversations during the sessions and, as Linford and Gerardo have noted, a delightful banquet marked the end of the conference and celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture. I was delighted to take part in the event and came away with a fresh set of questions, acquaintance with new colleagues, a longer reading list than I’ll ever have time for, and a renewed appreciation for the richness and depth of scholarship examining religion in American life. Kudos to Phil Goff, Becky Vasko, and everyone else associated with the Center for putting on such a wonderful conference.


rjc said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
rjc said…
Thanks for your comments, Seth. I'm curious about how you self-identify your field. You say you have a PhD in American religious history, but I notice that, at least according to their website, Duke's religion department calls the area of study "American religion." Why do you add "history" to it?

I hope this doesn't sound like a crazy or obnoxious question. I'm truly interested. I find that one "branch" of the study of religion in America -- at AAR, for instance -- seems to be dominated by historians, or those who identify their field as "American religious history," while those scholars who identify with the SSSR are usually a certain type of sociologist of religion. But there are many folks with religious studies degrees who study religion in the US who aren't so comfortable labeling themselves as "historians" or "sociologists," at least not as their primary identities, and who therefore don't quite feel like they fit into these clubs. In some respects this has been an issue with the North American Religions section of the AAR for quite some time -- some scholars of religion in America feel that they don't quite fit with the discussions going on in that group (though they do overlap at points). Some have found a home in AAR's Religion and Popular Culture Group, the Cultural History of the Study of Religion Consultation, or other areas of AAR, or in places like the Religion and American Culture Caucus of the American Studies Association.

Personally, I have often been "labeled" as an "American religious historian," but I don't think of myself as a historian at all. It does make it difficult to find a place to "fit" in an institutional arena that is defined largely by disciplinary categories like "history" and "sociology" -- especially when some graduate programs in Religious Studies intentionally bypass these sorts of labels for good reason. Religious Studies, as a field, as I see it, is concerned with things that are related to, but somewhat different from, History or Sociology.

So, to add to the dilemma that you brought up about the institutional disciplinary realities of employment and tenure, I'd also note that there can be a tension, especially in the study of American religion, between the departmental and professional identity. Americanists in religious studies departments are part of the field of religious studies (or ought to be, I'd argue), while in other professional arenas Americanists are often asked to choose between identifying as a historian or a sociologist (and those who don't study the present with empirical methodology, more often than not, find themselves having to define themselves in relation to (as, or against,) historians.
Seth Dowland said…
Chip - these aren't crazy or obnoxious questions at all. And I see that Duke's website does indeed call our field "American religion," though when I began doctoral work I fell into the "church history" track. (Back then there were only 4 tracks: church history, theological studies, biblical studies, and Asian religions. Now there are, I think, 8 or 9 tracks! But that's a different story.) I suppose I add "historian" to my identification for two reasons:
1. That's how my doctoral advisor (Grant Wacker) defined the field.
2. I can more easily identify my work with the methodology of history, whereas it's harder for me to identify a methodology that defines religious studies. Religious studies seems to embrace a variety of methodologies (history, sociology, ethnography, anthropology, archaeology), yet some scholars in the field resist those labels (as you said, often for good reasons). On the other hand, I clearly see what I do as history and claim that label.
rjc said…
Why choose a PhD program in religious studies, rather than one in history, to train to be a historian?
Seth Dowland said…
I wanted to study religious history alongside people who were examining religion from other angles - I benefited, for instance, from TA'ing a course in ethics and a course on MLK taught by a professor of preaching. I loved the mixture of methodological approaches I found in religious studies (still do), even if I identify most strongly with religious history.

Popular Posts