William James and the Divorce Between Science and Religion


By Michael J. Altman

William James has always interested me because I've often wondered why his brand of knowledge production never took off.

Jonathan Rée has a great piece on William James that I found thanks to Ralph E. Luker.  As a whole, the article is a thoughtful review of James' life and work, including his interest in religion and science.  Below is my favorite paragraph of the article but I suggest you read it in full.
James was not unsympathetic to religion, and on occasion he was prepared to call himself a Christian, though in a thoroughly secular and untheological sense. His abiding intellectual passion was a love of open-mindedness and a corresponding distrust of dogmatism and metaphysics. We should never forget, he said, that all our opinions – even our “most assured conclusions” – are “liable to modification in the course of future experience”. But he warned against allowing a distrust of dogmatic metaphysics to harden into a metaphysical dogma of its own, as seemed to be happening with some of the evangelising atheists of his day. He admired the evolutionary biologist T H Huxley and the mathematician C K Clifford, for example, but when they used the idea of “science” as a stick to beat religion with they were in danger of behaving like high priests of a new religion – “the religion of scientificism” – and defending it with the same intolerant zealotry as any old-style religious fanatic. Knowledge, for James, was not so much the pre-existing premise of human inquiry as a hoped-for future product, and science was more like a tissue of fortuitous insights than a monolith of solid fact. We would not have much chance of stumbling into truth if we let ourselves get too anxious about falling into error, and the first rule of an unillusioned epistemology should simply be: Relax! “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things,” James wrote: “in a world where we are certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness.”
I've always found James compelling as a figure in American history because he lived and worked at the edge of an era where science and religion still saw each other as friends and companions in knowledge.  James died in 1910, and by the 1920s and 30s "truth" would be split between "empirical science" and "religion."  James is a figure that is worth revisiting and rethinking in the midst of many current cultural debates.  It's worth at least considering his "pragmatic, pluralist, empiricist approach to truth – what some would call his humanism."

Cross posted here.

The Strange Career of Thomas Paine

I'm pleased today to guest post another contribution from Benjamin Park, a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh who normally blogs at Juvenile Instructor. Ben's post concerns material he had researched for his master's thesis, about reactions/responses to Thomas Paine from The Age of Reason to Christopher Hitchens to the Tea Party Movement. Ben's previous guest post for us may be found here.

Thomas Paine in American Memory
by Benjamin Park

I recently visited the American Philosophical Society’s library in Philadelphia, PA. Besides housing a treasure-trove of early American documents, and being housed in a beautiful building across the street from Independence hall, the APS Library also offers tourist-friendly exhibits in its front lobby. I was excited to see a showcase dedicated to Thomas Paine—the focus of my research trip and center figure of my master’s thesis. Further, I was intrigued to notice that while the display exhibited numerous items—first editions Common Sense, The Crisis, The Rights of Man, and several letters or cartoons exemplifying Paine as a heroic American revolutionary—it did not include the one pamphlet that is the focus of my study: his deistical, anti-institutional religion tract, The Age of Reason. Whether this was a conscious decision or not, it merely continues the long and ambiguous relationship between Thomas Paine and American culture.

The importance of Paine’s writings in influencing the creation of a new American persona in the 1770s would be difficult to overstate: his pamphlets and editorials forged a national identity based in opposition to the British monarchy and as a starting point for a worldwide democratic revolution; “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind,” he declared in Common Sense. Indeed, Paine became the prototype figure for the young republic as he continued his defense of radical democratic principles, later taking his show on the road to England and, when unsuccessful there, France, just in time for the boiling point of the French Revolution.

But it was his years in France that altered his position in the American pantheon. Not only did he become associated in the public mind as the face of an increasingly unpopular revolution—at least at the federal and elite level—but he had finally gained the gusto to publish on what he felt was the second of a two-part revolution for American society: that the political revolution would “be followed by a revolution in the system of religion.” “All national institutions of churches,” he declared in Age of Reason, “appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” Paine had confidence that, just as the American colonists embraced his message two decades before, the American citizens would now recognize the frailty of Christian logic, reject the oppression of organized religion, and welcome a society based on natural religion and anti-biblical morality.

Of course, Paine’s prediction proved not only to be wrong, but drastically wrong, and his reputation suffered deeply as a result. While the first edition of his Age of Reason sold remarkably well, the backlash against his deistic views were as numerous as they were vehement (and only increased after Paine published a second volume of diatribe). Pamphlets responding to Paine were published from every region of the young nation as well as every denomination of the increasingly competitive religious marketplace; respondents ranged from Congregationalist Timothy Dwight to Unitarian Joseph Priestley, and from Baptist Daniel Humphreys to Universalist Elhanan Winchester. These responses—the focus of my master’s thesis—number over one hundred and offer an important glimpse into 1790s America. However, while each individual text represented a different outlook for the future of America to the extent that they shatter the idea of a homogenous view of American society during the period, they unite in an important way: not only was Paine wrong, they argued, but his views were un-American. Paine, once at the crux of the American identity, was now the antitype for a nation increasingly drawn to morality based on revealed religion, an epistemology based on biblical common sense, and an exceptionalist culture pitted against Paine’s cosmopolitan milieu.

Paine’s reputation would only get worse over the next few decades, especially after a puzzling decision in 1796 to publish an open letter lashing out against then-President George Washington. Even the Jeffersonian Democrats who synthesized with Paine’s radical republican views felt a need to distance themselves from the perceived “atheist” who soon became the bogeyman for the Evangelical culture. Paine’s previous role in the revolution diminished as well: when Mercy Otis Warren wrote the popular history of the American Revolution—a job Thomas Paine was originally assigned to write—Paine’s influence was literally relegated to nothing more than a footnote. When monuments and plaques were raised in honor of the nation’s founders within the next century, anything remembering Paine was conspicuously absent, all because his deistical tracts overshadowed his revolutionary propaganda. “It took a brave man before the Civil War to confess he had read ‘The Age of Reason,’” Mark Twain fittingly wrote toward the end of the following century.

This does not mean that Paine has forever remained in the shadows, however; far from it. The controversial writer has had several resurgences in the twentieth century, from FDR’s use of The Crisis at the start of World War II to Ronald Reagan’s invoking of Paine to prophesy the greatness of America’s future. The largest—and perhaps most ironic—revival, though, has been the use of Paine by the Tea Party movement. Attracted to his views of limited government, Glenn Beck assigned a man identified as Thomas Paine to announce Beck’s 9/12 project last year; then, perceivably inspired by Paine, Beck published his own Common Sense as the manifesto for the right-wing movement, even republishing the entirety of Paine’s same-titled classic within its covers as a way to seemingly validate his message. Paine’s works are perhaps being printed in more editions today than ever before, and his simple yet powerful voice thunders throughout many Tea Party rallies.

Of course, what is absent is any mention of the other half of Paine’s revolutionary argument: the evolution away from Christianity. This is, of course, no surprise given the religious underpinnings of much of the movement. (Also amusingly missing is Paine’s critiques of the US Constitution.) Paine is only useful to today’s pundits for his political commentary, while the religious portion of his message is conveniently swept under the rug. Just as with any historic figure in modern times, though, it’s the pliability of his persona that makes Paine so relevant to today’s world—pliable enough to be used by Glenn Beck to critique big government on the one hand, and by Christopher Hitchens to critique modern-day society and religion on the other.

In the end, Glenn Beck, modern-day Tea Party Protestors, political commentators on both ends of the spectrum, cultural critics arguing from either side of many debates, and even the esteemed American Philosophical Society are only continuing a national tradition of choosing what parts of our history to emphasize and what parts to ignore. In a sense, many echo the resolution a New York Republican Society pronounced two centuries ago: “May [Paine’s] Right’s of Man be handed down to our latest posterity, but may his Age of Reason never live to see the rising generation.” Such is the malleable nature of national memory, especially when religion is predominantly involved. Perhaps, however, Paine would be pleased to receive any acknowledgement in today’s world, no matter how disjointedly it comes.

HNN Post: Past is No Foreign Country

Randall Stephens

I crosspost here part of a piece I did for HNN.

“I don’t believe in change over time.” I wish Glenn Beck would come out and say just that.

I’ve watched quite a few of Beck’s 5:00 p.m. dispatches from disturbia. I’ve seen his maniacal chalkboard talks on fascism and communism, with brisk arrows drawn to “progressivism,” “social justice,” and “unions.” I’ve heard him tar the labor movement with the brush of nineteenth century racism, conveniently ignoring the Knights of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. I’ve spent too much time observing him weave far-fetched moral conspiracy tales on a range of subjects. Maybe I get some sick pleasure watching Beck cry crocodile tears for his American Babylon.

Beck’s political grandstanding and maudlin theatrics are offensive enough. (I can think of no better ipecac for the typical humanities professor.) But it’s his ahistorical theories of the past that disturb me most. Beck, like many conservatives, Christian or not, is incapable of coming to terms with the notion of change over time. What was true for bewigged, knee-breeches-wearing, slave-owning nabobs in eighteenth century Virginia must be just as true for a minivan-driving NASCAR dad in 2010. (Still, few of those NASCAR dads would adopt some of Ben Franklin’s woolly polytheistic notions.) Did America’s public schools once allow Protestant-styled prayers in the classroom? Then they should do so still. Were women once the caretakers of hearth and home? Then maybe they should still be. Didn’t learned folks once believe that the Grand Canyon formed in a matter of days during the flood of the Old Testament? Or was it millions of years in the making, as modern geologists would have us believe? The flood story—biblical, less complicated, more interesting—makes more sense. >>>

Make the Devil Mad, Go to Bob Jones U.

Randall Stephens

I've been slogging through a chapter that deals with the evolution of the family values agenda, Christian psychology, and evangelical child rearing. It's always harder when one moves further up in time. I feel more secure in what I have to say when the characters I'm writing about have been dead for at least half a century. (You know, when I'm writing about old time Nazarene preacher "Uncle" Bud Robinson or the Earth-quaker Seth Cook Rees.)

I've spent some recent days reading through issues of Christian Century, Christianity Today, the Herald of Holiness, Christian Life, and Christian Herald. (Evangelicals loved to us words like "herald," "trumpet," "harbinger," and "advocate" in the titles of their mags. What about "liberator" or "dissenter"?) The time frame: 1966 to about 1975. Though this is really recent history I've also been struck by what a distant era this now seems like. Many of the concerns of writers and editors, it's safe to say, are deep in the dustbin of history now. At other times what would amount to a kind of baroque political incorrectness today was no big deal then. Take for example one of the most interesting headlines from one of these magazines (and it wasn't Christian Century): "Good News for Retards."

As I'm thumbing through yellowed copies--always better to look through print versions, I think--I've also been fascinated by the graphics, layout, and general look of these mags. Part Madmen Moderne, part Batman. Evangelicals, even those not so enthralled with Jesus People, quickly adopted the Haight, Op, and Pop Art wildness of the day. So, I include here a couple of my favorites. (Click images to enlarge.) The Bob Jones U. advert from 1968 is priceless! Pat Boone's take on the rapture might be worth more than a gospel car full of gold. Also, great use of passive voice: "Pat Boone's RAPTURE has been heralded as the greatest new religious record in 35 years." Heralded, see.

That reminds me of a recent news item from the English newspaper, not so affectionately called the Daily Torygraph by some: "Jesus will return by 2050, say 40pc of Americans." The paper picked up on a Pew, The Press/Smithsonian Magazine poll. Brits always like to be shocked by how unlike us they are. Few snakehandlers, supermalls, megachurches, kids with adult diabetes, or WWF wrestlers-turned-politicians across the pond. "41 per cent say Jesus Christ will return within the next 40 years while 46 per cent say this will definitely or probably not happen." 71% also think cancer will be cured by 2050. Are these two items related?

Pat Boone might have been a pop singer only a parent could love, but he was on to something with this rapture business!

New Metaphysicals: Online Symposium


Paul Harvey

Every time I post about Glenn Beck or some other late-breaking news from the idiocracy, I feel the need to take a shower by pointing you to something that is actually worthy of your time and energy. So here's the latest in that series of mea culpa posts.

As many of you may know, Courtney Bender's hot-off-the-press book The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination has been getting a lot of attention. Here's a brief summary from the book's website:

American spirituality—with its focus on individual meaning, experience, and exploration—is usually thought to be a product of the postmodern era. But, as The New Metaphysicals makes clear, contemporary American spirituality has historic roots in the nineteenth century and a great deal in common with traditional religious movements. To explore this world, Courtney Bender combines research into the history of the movement with fieldwork in Cambridge, Massachusetts—a key site of alternative religious inquiry from Emerson and William James to today. Through her ethnographic analysis, Bender discovers that a focus on the new, on progress, and on the way spiritual beliefs intersect with science obscures the historical roots of spirituality from its practitioners and those who study it alike—and shape an enduring set of modern religious possibilities in the process.

Immanent Frame is hosting a sort of online symposium on the work; click here for it. Nathan Schneider interviews the author here. Here's one particularly interesting Q and A from the interview, relevant to our historical discussions here:

NS: How do you do scholarship—and, in so doing, take account of history—about a community that denies its own historicity? I was struck by your claim that “the puzzle of spirituality in America cannot be solved by locating it in a history it refuses.”

CB: It is important to talk about and investigate the various historical links and pasts of contemporary spirituality. History is extremely important, and its elision is an ongoing problem with so much of the popular discourse about spirituality, which tends to suggest that it is a condition rather than a tradition. Sociologists and scholars of American religion need to have a better understanding of the complex religious and cultural pasts that form our present. There are lots more things to be written on these subjects, and while I was writing this book I was able to draw on a number of exceptional new volumes that focus on aspects of these ungainly histories. I’m thinking of work by Christopher White, Leigh Schmidt, Catherine Albanese, Molly McGarry, Alex Owen, Ann Taves, John Lardas Modern, and the list goes on.

But what is puzzling about spirituality is that, even as the number of monographs on the topic grows, these histories don’t seem to resonate with contemporary people who call themselves spiritual, or with most scholars who look at its present manifestations. One reason for this is that the living practices of spirituality allow people to cultivate ways of being in time that are future-focused, or that situate practitioners in perennial time. All religious practices place people in time and in space. In this case, the spiritual practices that I trace do interesting things to the kind of narrative history that most historians write, so paying attention to these practices, and chronicling how they unravel and decouple from most recognizable historical narratives, is just as important. That’s what I have tried to do.

For you Robert Orsi fans, here is his typically engaged and challenging response to the book.

Prothero and Tolerance


Kelly Baker

For those of you (myself included) who have yet to read Stephen Prothero's new book, God is Not One, Religion Dispatches has a quick interview with the author about the book. Here's my favorite quote from Prothero:

The notion that all religions are in essence one seduces us into thinking that we can send 160,000 troops into Iraq without reckoning with the fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam or, for that matter, between Sunnis and Shias. It prevents us from seeing the role that religions plan in many of the world’s hotspots: from Israel and the Palestinian territories to Nigeria and Kashmir. Equally importantly, it prevents us from seeing and appreciating the unique beauty of each of these religions. If I am a Christian and all religions are essentially the same, what do I have to learn from reading the Daodejing or from attending a Hindu wedding?

The bottom line? Tolerance is an empty virtue if you don’t even understand what you are tolerating. In God is Not One, I try to present as best as I can my own understanding of the world’s most influential religions. (Emphasis mine.)

Happy reading! I'll add another book to my burgeoning summer reading list, and coming soon, our readers' suggestions from summer reading.

Runnin' Down the Dream

Paul Harvey

Glenn Beck is restoring honor: that is, restoring Martin Luther King's movement back to its true conservative, white roots. Stephen Colbert explains (starting at 2:53 below -- although earlier in the segment the Vatican endorsement of the Blues Brothers as a good film for Catholics is worth watching for sure). As Colbert explains, the date (August 28 -- the anniversary of King's speech) is divinely inspired because "whenever I tell people what he's doing, they always say, 'holy sh##t!'" As Jake and Elwood would say, he's on a mission from God. Actually, this Blues Brothers dialogue is more appropriate for pretty much any Beck-related post:

Jake: You lied to me.

Rereading Creation: Teaching About The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder

Rereading Creation

Everett Hamner

A good deal of my work has to do with questions of origins. I teach a liberal arts and sciences gateway course on evolution; I am writing a book about how science and religion have interacted in the last century’s fiction. But as a scholar of contemporary American fiction, one course I didn’t imagine teaching was Literature of the Bible. The first time I offered it resulted from a schedule fluke, but it impacted the students so deeply that this fall I’ll be teaching it for the third time. This canon still matters a great deal to students who self-identify both as religious and irreligious.

A key element of the course’s popularity, I think, is that it takes on modern controversies about the Bible and Christianity very directly. We discuss feminism, homosexuality, immigration, terrorism, stem cell research, and other topics alongside the biblical texts most frequently cited when Americans make normative claims. Using documentary films like Craig Detweiler and John Marks’s courageous Purple State of Mind and Daniel Karslake’s poignant For the Bible Tells Me So, I pursue an atmosphere in which students can rethink many of their foundational assumptions in relative safety. In our dominantly white, homogeneous, lower-to-middle-class, Midwestern context, the complicated wisdom that emerges can be life-altering.

I thought about this course while reading a new book Paul Harvey sent along recently by Columbia Theological Seminary Professor of Old Testament William P. Brown. I haven’t read a lot of biblical criticism since my own seminary days, but The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford, 2010) is a refreshing reminder of what such studies can provide. The book isn’t perfect—there are moments when its alliances of biblical and scientific metaphors feel forced—but it effectively opens what remains a crucial discussion of genre. In approaching intersections of eschatology and cosmology, of predestination and physics, it provides a thoughtful inspection of our hermeneutical lenses.

In past versions of Literature of the Bible, the primary text I have used to get at questions of genre and interpretation is Marcus J. Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally (HarperSanFrancisco,2001). Borg recommends that Bible readers adopt a posture of “postcritical naivete,” whereby one “hear[s] the biblical stories once again as true stories, even as one knows that they may not be factually true and that their truth does not depend upon their factuality.” One of his best elucidations of this attitude builds on the way many Native American storytellers begin their performances: “Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true” (50). Like such narrators, Borg demonstrates that story-truth extends beyond factual evidence, that wisdom exceeds empiricism without countermanding it.

Why is this realization so important, yet so elusive? In my experience with Literature of the Bible, almost every student openly or secretly expects in week one that a choice must be made: either embrace the world of religious tradition and personal righteousness or adopt the route of scientific abstraction and intellectual integrity. And beneath their politically-correct facades, many of the students can only characterize opposing convictions with inflammatory terms. But a realization that consistently helps both groups is that religion is not just Christianity, and apparent tensions between the natural and the supernatural extend well beyond this tradition’s purview.

Consider the scientism critiqued in this paragraph from Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, I invite them:

The spider came out first. She drank from the edge of the pool, careful to keep the delicate eggs sacs on her abdomen out of the water. She retraced her path, leaving faint crisscrossing patterns in the fine yellow sand. He remembered stories about her. She waited in certain locations for people to come to her for help. She alone had known how to outsmart the malicious mountain Ka’t’sina who imprisoned the rain clouds in the northwest room of his magical house. Spider Woman had told Sun Man how to win the storm clouds back from the Gambler so they would be free again to bring rain and snow to the people. He knew what white people thought about the stories. In school the science teacher had explained what superstition was, and then held the science textbook up for the class to see the true source of explanations. He had studied those books, and he had no reasons to believe the stories any more. The science books explained the causes and effects. But old Grandma always used to say, ‘Back in time immemorial, things were different, the animals could talk to human beings and many magical things still happened.’ He never lost the feeling he had in his chest when she spoke those words, as she did each time she told them stories; and he still felt it was true, despite all they had taught him in school—that long long ago things had been different, and human beings could understand what the animals said, and once the Gambler had trapped the storm clouds on his mountaintop. (87, emphasis in original)

This passage shares a great deal with the mindset Brown’s book encourages: an openness to the possibility of meaning beyond factuality, of wonder beyond mastery, whether the facts to be mastered spring from religious or scientific sources. As the introduction to The Seven Pillars proposes, the book is “a tour of the biblical contours of creation conducted in conversation with science” (5), an expedition that looks beyond the obvious passages in Genesis to equally significant ones in Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Second Isaiah. While Brown may too easily equate “biblical” with “Christian,” his book models a wonder that usefully contests both religious and scientific absolutism. In this he stretches toward the same goal I pursue for my students: a sense that profound meaning has not disappeared with secularization, that not just “long long ago” but even now, there is great reason for awe. In fact this response remains the source of our best science, a point also made by a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I think biblical criticism like Brown’s may prove essential if our culture is to move beyond simplistic arguments about evolution, stem cell research, and genomics. So much of the resistance to biological knowledge and medical intervention is bound up with fear that God is being dishonored, and many Americans need to see either-or thinking about these issues give way to more complex both-and possibilities. By reading Genesis beside preexisting creation narratives like Mesopotamia’s Enuma elish, Brown’s book pulls readers toward active interpretations of their scriptures, much like those of other literature. In the process, he provides fresh images with clear implications for contemporary debates.

Two quick concluding examples: I like the way Brown wittily argues that instead of defining women in terms of men, “in Genesis 2, the separation of flesh makes possible gendered differentiation and, in turn, sexual union. Call it splitting the ‘adam. Through the creation of the woman, the groundling has become a man” (83). In other words, we Earth creatures only find gender identity in relationship; there is no “male” without “female.” Similarly—and unlike too many biblical commentaries—his book recognizes that the natural world of the Pentateuch is “red in tooth and claw” long before human beings appear on the scene, and that in representing “the quintessential ‘alpha male,’” Genesis is hardly attempting to refute concepts of biological evolution that would not emerge for thousands of years. I’ll be referring to Brown in my next version of Literature of the Bible for that reason alone: whether self-identifying as Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, or otherwise, my students need every opportunity to grasp that neither the Bible nor any other great wisdom literature is the enemy of scientific discovery.

David Brainerd, God, and the Founders: Choice Reviews

Paul Harvey

Someone pointed me to this book some time ago, but I've never had a chance to take a look at it. Some of you here will be interested, however, so I'm posting the short Choice review below of Vincent Phillip Muñoz, God and the Founders.

Muñoz, Vincent Phillip. God and the founders: Madison, Washington, and Jefferson. Cambridge, 2009. 242p index; ISBN 9780521515153, $85.00; ISBN 9780521735797 pbk, $24.99. Reviewed in 2010jul CHOICE.
Muñoz (Notre Dame) argues that Supreme Court decisions on religion that have cited the Founding Fathers have ignored the complexity of their views. First, he carefully analyzes the writings and political actions on religion of Madison, Washington, and Jefferson, chosen because of their important roles in establishing and defending religious liberty and separation of church and state. Madison favored nonrecognition of religion by the state, Washington advocated supporting religion insofar as it served to inculcate personal morality and civic virtue, and Jefferson sought freedom of opinion but also wanted to weaken the clergy's power and to foster a rational religion undermining orthodox Christianity. Muñoz then uses the Founders' positions to analyze post-1940 Court rulings on establishment and free-exercise cases, providing a chart to illustrate how individual justices voted. Finally, he shows the weaknesses in the Founders' perspectives and in recent jurisprudence and offers as a doctrine with many advantages a modified Madisonian "No legal privileges, no legal penalties." This is an important book; it is well researched and intelligently argued and has important public policy implications. This reviewer's two reservations are that Virginians do not represent all the Founding Fathers, and "profundity" as a test may not represent the politics of religious liberty. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Especially law schools/theological seminaries; upper-level undergraduates through researchers/faculty. -- J. W. Frost, emeritus, Swarthmore College

Another review of interest from Choice here: John Grigg, The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon. Some more extensive commentary on this work may be found here.

Grigg, John A. The lives of David Brainerd: the making of an American evangelical icon. Oxford, 2009. 276p bibl index afp; ISBN 9780195372373, $65.00. Reviewed in 2010jul CHOICE.
David Brainerd (1718-1747) lived a short, inspirational life, emerging from establishment origins in Connecticut through the tempest of the Great Awakening to a brief but personally transforming career as a missionary to the Lenape Indians in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Thereafter, Brainerd's life became a malleable example for evangelical writers from Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley to Richard Hasler and Ranelda Hunsicker to render Brainerd as a Calvinist, an Armenian, a self-sacrificial missionary, and a Jesus person. Historian Grigg (Univ. of Nebraska-Omaha) now offers both a sound analysis of these posthumous protean and contradictory depictions and a convincing depiction of the real life of Brainerd in historical context. Caught in the maelstrom of the Great Awakening, Brainerd was expelled from Yale and subsequently employed by the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, where his success at converting Delaware Indians became the source of his fame. Grigg's Brainerd embodies the persevering saint who came to view converted Lenape as siblings among God's redeemed, while unregenerate whites recalled for him the allegedly unconverted established clergy from his student days at Yale. Grigg's exemplary study permits a fuller understanding of the history of 18th-century evangelicalism and revivalism. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. -- E. R. Crowther, Adams State College

We Survived the Terrible Twos: Happy Birthday to RiAH!

Paul Harvey

This blog turns 3 today! In spite of not always being potty trained and sometimes still spitting up food, we're growing nicely I think, thank you very much. Our contributor list has grown this year and added fresh voices and perspectives, as you all have seen lately with the posts of folks such as Michael Altman and Janine Giordano. Make sure and check out our facebook page, and,
shucks, even "like" us to get updates there (with any luck we'll get to 500 fans soon). As you will see there, Kelly has initiated some discussions from the facebook page which have been getting good responses -- summer reading lists, film lists for courses, etc. And we've recently added Twitter as well.

As always, we solicit your ideas and perspectives, and are always eager to hear from people wanting to add their posts here. In the meantime, I'm going to blow the vuvuzela in our honor!
VVVVVRRRRRRRRRRRT! (thanks to Lin Fisher for the onomatopoeia)

Reviews in American Religious History


Paul Harvey

The new issue of Reviews in American History -- to me, the single most helpful professional periodical that I read -- brings focus to a number of titles of interest -- some we’ve blogged about here before, others not.

In “The Cult of Domesticity, Southern Style,” our friend Charles Irons reviews Scott Stephan’s Redeeming the Southern Family: Evangelical Women and Domestic Devotion in the Antebellum South, a book that has quite unaccountably escaped our notice here. This work focuses intensively on domestic piety among a fairly elite class of white southern women. The home was the site of “many of their most significant religious experiences,” and the women Stephan studies put their suitors through a gauntlet of domestic devotion trials, remaining reserved while their courters strutted their evangelical bona fides. In the end, Irons concludes, Stephan shows that “white evangelical women found the process of reforming their own households to be extremely fulfilling,” while “more work is required to evaluate whether and why these domestic reformers were so wary of shining their light outside of their homes.”

Since we've missed discussing this work before, here's just a bit more about it, from the book's website:

In the years leading up to the Civil War, southern evangelical denominations moved from the fringes to the mainstream of the American South. Scott Stephan argues that female Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians played a crucial role in this transformation. While other scholars have pursued studies of southern evangelicalism in the context of churches, meetinghouses, and revivals, Stephan looks at the domestic rituals over which southern women had increasing authority-from consecrating newborns to God's care to ushering dying kin through life's final stages. Laymen and clergymen alike celebrated the contributions of these pious women to the experience and expansion of evangelicalism across the South. This acknowledged domestic authority allowed some women to take on more public roles in the conversion and education of southern youth within churches and academies, although always in the name of family and always cloaked in the language of Christian self-abnegation. At the same time, however, women's work in the name of domestic devotion often put them at odds with slaves, children, or husbands in their households who failed to meet their religious expectations and thereby jeopardized evangelical hopes of heavenly reunification of the family. Stephan uses the journals and correspondence of evangelical women from across the South to understand the interconnectedness of women's personal, family, and public piety. Rather than seeing evangelical women as entirely oppressed or resigned to the limits of their position in a patriarchal slave society, Stephan seeks to capture a sense of what agency was available to women through their moral authority.

Sara Dwyer-NcNulty reviews our blog contributor Kathleen Sprows Cummings’ New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era (the link takes you to our previous post on Kathy's book). The review gives a thorough summary of the volume, and concludes with this reflection on Catholicism and gender: “The Catholic women under examination [the major figures studied by Cummings] did not seek to form an association of work together unless they had to. Gender was subordinate to religious identity. It appears, however, that rejecting gender was only required of women. For men, gender was (and is) paramount, and it was gender that guaranteed men’s access to power.”

Briefly, and off-topic, but interesting in conjunction with this: I can't help but compare those thoughts above with the interview with Sinead O'Connor on NPR today, who reflects on her famous television appearance in 1992 which was controversial then (ripping up a picture of the Pope, and all, you remember), but now appears prescient in terms of highlighting the issue of abuse. In the interview, she says,

"A lot of people misinterpret me and think I'm somehow anti-Catholic, and I'm not," she says. "I've acted out of a passionate love of the Holy Spirit and what is good about Catholicism. ... I have nothing but respect for any priest and nun that I've ever met. ... They've been disrespected and misrepresented. I think there's so much that's beautiful about Catholicism, but that has been clouded by the cover-up more even than the abuse."

She questions the beliefs of those in the church who would hide abuse: "[It's] as if they don't believe in God. They certainly don't believe in a God that is watching them or what they're doing."

To go on: Matthew Grow provides an assessment of a book we’ve discussed at length here before: Jared Farmer’s ON Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape. Farmer's interview about his book, at Religion Dispatches, can be found here.

Finally, Julian Zelizer of Princeton University provides a long, thorough, and synthetic set of reflections on the various historiographical "waves" of the study of American conservatism. While focused mostly on policy debates and not religious history, Zelizer has a section dealing with conflicts and divisions within contemporary conservatism, including the disappointment felt by religious conservatives in recent years in the public policy arena; well worth checking out.

Religion Reporting as Therapy? MIchael Altman's Religion Roundup

Paul Harvey

A quick followup to our new contributor Michael Altman's post yesterday on discussions about the religion of Nikki Haley in South Carolina:

Michael has started a new "religion in the news" roundup for Religion Dispatches; the first entry, "Religion Reporting as Therapy?", can be found here, and Michael approaches the task with wit and a capacious taking in of religion the press and in public life. It should be fun to follow this in the upcoming months.

Constructing Religion in the SC Governor's Race


By Michael J. Altman

This is a cross-post from my nameless other blog.

For me, religion will always be constructed in South Carolina.  As an undergraduate at the College of Charleston I became fascinated with the category or "religion" and began the long road toward a career studying it.  Now, I look back to the Palmetto state again and see the ways the current race for governor is reconstructing Christianity and religion.  Peter Hambly has written a great piece probing into the role Nikki Haley's religious identity is playing in the race.  In the wake of being slurred a "raghead" by state senator Jake Knotts, Haley has pushed into a primary runoff that many believe she will win.

Haley is a second generation Indian-American whose parents are Sikh, who self-identifies as a Christian, grew up in South Carolina, and even picked up a Southern accent along the way.  It's the tension between all of these layers of her identity that is beginning to draw curiosity and interest.  As Hambly notes, Haley attends both Methodist and Sikh services, especially with her parents and extended family.  This inter-religious practice is leaving some evangelicals in South Carolina uneasy:
Ray Popham, pastor of Oasis Church International in Aiken, said Haley's religion is a "big topic" among his congregants, who have posted notes about her religion on Facebook and have lately approached  him for advice about the governor's race.
 "She claims to be a Christian but also attends a Sikh temple and was married in a Sikh ceremony, so a lot of people can't figure how you can claim both," Popham told CNN. "I think she needs to be straight      up with people, if she is both. If she believes that you can be both, then she should say that up front."
Tony Beam, the interim pastor of Mount Creek Baptist church in Greenville, hosts a radio show called "Christian Worldview Today." He recently posed a question to his listeners: Is Nikki Haley being           honest about her faith?
Beam said several callers were not sure if Haley had completely abandoned her Sikh beliefs.
What immediately jumps out to me in the midst of this kerfuffle is that there are various understandings of what counts as religion and as Christianity flying around.  For most conservative evangelicals their religious identity centers around belief.  The belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus is what makes one a Christian.  Yes, there are other things that make one an evangelical Christian but they tend to center around correct belief.  It's all about orthodoxy.  But what about other religious cultures?  This focus on right belief--on an orthodox religion--doesn't translate across cultures.  The Sikhism of Nikki Haley's family is more about orthopraxy.  That is, it is about correct practice.  You do things because they are what you do.  To be Sikh is to do the things a Sikh does first and foremost.

Indian religions have sometimes struggled to adapt to an American religious landscape that emphasizes meaning and belief over ritual and practice.  As a white guy visiting Hindu temples in North Carolina I've often noticed how practitioners there felt the need to try and explain their religious practices to me, mostly through references to Christian symbols and meanings, when such explanations wouldn't happen in India.

I really have no interest in deciding whether or not Haley is a good Methodist or a good Sikh, or whether she's religious at all.  What these questions about Haley's religiosity point out, however, is the ways our public definitions of religion are generally shallow and Christian at bottom.  They are about what one believes first, and what one does only matters insofar as it can be grounded in doctrine or explanation.  The problem with focusing on right belief is that you can never be sure.  It is impossible to really know what someone believes and so there are always anxieties and questions of authenticity.  That's what lies behind much of this discussion of Haley's religion.  Is she authentic?  I don't know nor do I think that it is an important question.   I'm more interested in what gets lost in translation between Anglo-American Christian notions of orthodoxy and Indian forms of orthopraxy.

Saint, Prophet or Just Palin


Kelly Baker

Sarah Palin graces the cover of Newsweek this week with the moniker, "Saint Sarah." Bill O'Reilly interviewed the author of the piece, Lisa Miller, to discern whether Newsweek was mocking Palin or not. The National Catholic Register claims that Miller caricatures Christianity. When I first bumped against Miller's article on the supposed sainthood or prophet-like status of Palin to pro-life women a day or so ago, it bothered me but at first I wasn't sure why. Now, I don't care if Palin is a saint or not, and I have attempted thus far to NOT write about her. Partially, this is because everyone writes about her, and some are much, much better than my analysis would be (see our own John Fea on Palin--here and here). She is lauded and vilified. And Fea and (Tina) Fey seem to have it covered.

Thus, my issue with Miller's piece and the photo gallery of Palin products and fans, entitled "The Cult of Palin," is not about sainthood, consumption or even how Palin is represented. My problem is how Miller suggests that Palin signals that the Christian Right is now a women's movement because there is one lone celebritized female figurehead. Palin is popular among pro-life women but I am not sure that this means that she is the leader of the newer Christian Right. Miller showcases "Saint Sarah" as an approachable, human character, who described taking a pregnancy test, her pregnancy and the birth of Trig in her memoir, Going Rogue. Sure, I can buy how this message complements pro-life stances that have cultural currency with pro-life Christian women. Heck, I can even see why discussions of pregnancy tests and unexpected pregnancies make Palin more human. Miller writes:

Palin has been antagonizing women on the left of late by describing herself as a “feminist,” a word she uses to mean the righteous, Mama Bear anger that wells up when one of her children is attacked in the press or her values are brought into question. But while leftist critics continue to shred Palin as a cynical, shallow, ill-informed opportunist, and new polls show her unpopularity rating to be at an all-time high—53 percent—Palin is now playing to her strengths. Even if she never again seeks elected office, her pro-woman rallying cry, articulated in the evangelical vernacular, together with the potent pro-life example of her own family, puts Palin in a position to reshape and reinvigorate the religious right, one of the most powerful forces in American politics. The Christian right is now poised to become a women’s movement—and Sarah Palin is its earthy Jerry Falwell.

Miller continues that other women leaders of the so-called Christian Right were not role models like Palin. Women want to be Palin but not Phyllis Schafly, I guess. Moreover, Palin's "generic theology" and focus on motherhood appeals to women who already have a stake in the Christian Right. Sarah Posner takes on Miller's discussion of Palin's ascension over at Religion Dispatches. She notes:

In some ways, the Christian right has always been a movement about women -- about what their role is in the family, in the church, and in the culture. That doesn't make it a women's movement, and that doesn't make Palin its leader. The movement's original sin, if you will, is that it is entirely predicated on the idea that America is a Christian nation and must be guided by biblical principles. And those biblical principles, as defined by the Christian right, preclude things like women's free agency -- choosing when and if to have children, choosing to enter ministry, choosing not to submit to her husband's spiritual authority, or choosing not to get married and have children at all.... But while Palin's not a feminist, she is a lightning rod for evangelical and Pentecostal women, because she gave them a fearless -- fearless in that she was unafraid so say whatever nonsensical thought popped into her head -- leader on the national stage.

I agree with Posner's assessment of the place of women in the Christian Right, but I want and need more historical context from both of these pieces. The debate over Palin's feminism strikes me as an older debate, as Posner notes, about the place of women in more conservative political and religious movements. How could women be feminists in movements that clearly don't seem to have their best interests at heart?! (Marie Griffith's God's Daughters is the best on this ambiguity, and Miller uses Griffith in her article.) The rhetorical move to include motherhood as the claim for political and religious authority is not new. In his White Protestant Nation (2008), Alan Lichtman labels this as "conservative maternalism" in which women affirm the "inherent differences between the sexes and women's special role in rearing children as healthy, moral, and productive citizens" (p. 19). Lichtman is not the first to note how this maternalism functions but I really like the label and his ability to show how this maternalist ideology and its embrace by conservatives can be traced to the 1920s (and likely before though Lichtman begins in the 1920s). (See also Burlein's Lift High the Cross, for a more theoretical approach to the gender ideology of the Christian Right, and Blee's Women of the Klan, for a full discussion of how Klanswomen used maternalist strategies).

Palin, thus, melds personal experience and political authority in a way that other conservative women have, which does not make her a replacement for Jerry Falwell. Rather, this makes her complementary to larger political and religious agendas of the Christian Right not a trailblazer. She affirms what this movement already believes about gender and provides a role model for the women that attend her speeches and pay for plates at fundraisers. Moreover, Palin's disapproval rating might be high, but she has a dedicated fan base that sport bumper stickers, t-shirts, her particular brand of glasses and buy her book and slots at fundraisers. Her celebrity does not signal a new spiritual mission of the Christian Right rather she just showcases the status quo in a flashier fashion.

I Went Back to Ohio, and My Jesus was Gone; I Was Stunned and Amazed at my Plastic Jesus

Paul Harvey

In Ohio, Jesus has been struck down by lightning -- discuss. So come back, Pretenders and Woody Guthrie, come back to us now.

My theory: God is mightily annoyed at the recent prayer rally at the Texas GOP Convention, featuring a woman in Minuteman-like style using the Psalms to defend our sacred borders. John Fea explains more here.

Possible implications for BP do not look promising.

Burning Man, Green Acre, and Ritual in U.S. Religious History

By Michael J. Altman

This morning I came across an interview with Lee Gilmore at Religion Dispatches where she discusses her new book Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man (UC Press).  The full interview deserves a read, especially the story of how she came upon the books title, but what jumped out to me were the following portions:

This decadent ritualism, which can be both sincere and satirical, casts the festival as a semi-religious cultural happening. Furthermore, many participants describe Burning Man as a “spiritual” experience, but deny that it constitutes a new religious movement as such. Organizers too explicitly hope  that the event will “produce positive spiritual change in the world,” even while they also stop short of characterizing the event as “religious.” My work sought to explore the tension between “spirituality” and “religion” in the narratives of Burning Man participants in order to better understand how religio-cultural systems operate and adapt.
The popular term “spiritual but not religious” only goes so far in describing an event like this. I think Burning Man shows us the enduring importance of ritual as a vehicle through which humans connect with one another and as well as with a mysterious “more,” while also showing us how these expressions are increasingly displaced outside the bounds of the dominant Western cultural concepts of “religion.” Burning Man is on the vanguard of contemporary religious movements that resist easy classification by favoring eclecticism and hybridity. Yet in articulating a clear ethos  that places a core emphasis on building and supporting community—both inside and outside the confines of the week-long event—Burning Man manages to be individualistic and idiosyncratic without being solipsistic.

I haven't read Gilmore's book, though I'm really excited about it after reading the interview, but it did remind me of something I had just finished re-reading.  I'm in the midst of that wonderful summertime project known as "studying for comprehensive exams" and I just finished going back through Leigh Eric Schmidt's Restless Souls: The Birth of American Spirituality.  In that book, Schmidt has a great chapter on the Green Acre community founded by Sarah Farmer in Eliot, Maine.  But when reading the chapter recently I was struck by what little material Schmidt gives on the ritual practice of the community  There are a few mentions of morning walks on the dewy grass and meditation and a great narrative of the history of the community and its participants but I never got a picture of what life was like on daily basis within the commnunity.  Perhaps that information just isn't in the record and I don't mean to take pot shots at an important book.  Rather, I merely want to speculate that the same ritual life represented by Burning Man has antecedents in Green Acre.  I bet Schmidt would grant that, as well. 

But to push it further, as Lee makes the point above, certain rituals associated with the "spiritual not religious" challenge the notion of what counts as "religion" in American culture and, I would argue, push historians of religion to reconsider ritual as the central category for these post-non-Protestant forms of the sacred in America.  The point that belief has been central to narratives of American religious history is worn out, but I think that as we begin to reconsider and write the history of religion in America during the latter half of the 20th century into the 21st we may have shift our consideration to ritual.  Many people have done this and continue to do this.  But the challenge is not to simply adopt existing definitions of ritual and write them into our histories, but rather to use the diversity of sacred phenomenon in American history to reconsider the category of ritual and its relationship w/ things like belief, myth, identity, etc. 

Look out for more on this when I get my hands on Lee's book.
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