New Landscape of the Religion Blogosphere



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Paul Harvey

While the tsunami of the semester rushes over my office and has made it hard to keep up at ye olde blogging, a couple of substantive links to explore. Some of the editors at Immanent Frame have prepared a full-length survey, summary, assessment, and critique of the religion blogosphere. It's an interesting, if daunting, read. Here's a snip which surveyed religion bloggers on gaps in the religion blogsophere:

When asked about gaps in the field, perhaps understandably, some bloggers didn’t come forth with a great many suggestions; after all, most of them started their blogs in order to fill the gaps they perceived. Fredrick Clarkson says, on the other hand, that there are “Too many to count.” But the group had a number of more concrete ideas as well:

  • High quality academic writing from known experts in the field is still missing.” (Robert P. Jones)
  • “I’ve had a hard time finding good writing in English about Islam as a lived religion.” (Jeff Sharlet)
  • “It seems to me that, just as foundations have been stepping forward to underwrite investigative reporting, so thought ought to be given to doing the same for reporting on religion.” (Mark Silk)
  • “At least among theology blogs, there’s an overwhelming predominance of white males; and I think the bigger blogs only represent a relatively small variety of theological viewpoints. So it would be good to see some a lot more diversity.” (Benjamin Myers)
  • “I wish that there were more and stronger progressive religious voices, but that’s just me.” (Daniel Schultz)
  • “It is a shame that Christianity Today’s daily round-up of news links [by Ted Olsen] has stopped running.” (Richard Bartholomew)
  • “Good blogs on the history and philosophy of religion, I think, are still missing.” (Salman Hameed)
  • Perhaps it is time to “convene bloggers with a goal of enhancing and expanding their impact and outreach.” (Diane Winston)
  • As the blogosphere survey of 100 religion blogs points out, the fact that there is much "missing" means that there is "more data to consume" yet, a daunting conclusion since most everyone feels the surfeit of data and "to be read" pieces is enough already. The piece concludes:
  • The key variable for the future of the religion blogosphere is the same as for the Internet as a whole: connectivity. In what ways will people interact, share ideas, form hierarchies, and gather social capital? There are certainly content areas that need to be filled, as the bloggers quoted above suggest. But just as important is the kind of infrastructure within which they work. There likely is, somewhere on the Internet, the great writing on Islam Sharlet is looking for, or the diversity Myers sees as lacking, yet they don’t have the means for finding it. While Web 2.0 brought vast, user-generated content-creation, the challenge of Web 3.0 will undoubtedly be finding ways to make all that information even more accessible, useful, and social—“taming the deluge of data,” as one observer puts it (Griner 2009). Even the nearly 100 blogs discussed in this report are more than most people can afford to keep track of on a daily or weekly basis. The bloggers’ suggestions—more diversity, more investigative journalism, more metro coverage, and so on—all amount to more blogs, more data to consume. The question then becomes: what to do with it all?
  • And if that isn't enough for you, the Huffington Post has gotten religion, and has come out of the gate with a strong lineup:
  • The bloggers who will be posting on HuffPost Religion will be a great mix of religious heavyweights and up-and-coming voices in the field. Today's thought-provoking lineup includes Rev. Jim Wallis on the spiritual crisis of the recession; Deepak Chopra on the continued importance of spirituality; Eboo Patel on the crucial importance of interfaith relations; Sister Joan Chittister on the future of the Roman Catholic Church; Rabbi Or Rose on the role of religion when it comes to the environment; Dr. Eddie Glaude on the declining power of the Black Church; Sharon Salzberg on Buddhism's "middle way"; Brian McLaren on 'new Evangelicals'; and Steven Barrie Anthony on technology and spirituality.

What about Southern Irreligion?



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Art Remillard

As one brilliant (and humble) reviewer summarized, volume one of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture "is comprehensive, relevant, and representative of past and present trends in the field of southern religion." If there is something missing here, chances are Sam Hill's hulking Encyclopedia of Religion in the South would have it.

Yet this morning, while flipping through the entries and indexes of both, I couldn't find a single reference to southern irreligion. No atheism, agnosticism, freethinking, or skepticism. And why would I? As Randall "Emotive Cutting Language" Stephens rightly said, the South is "the prayer capitol of America." But academic historians are in the business of finding new and unexplored topics (and convincing us of how important these topics are). So isn't there someone willing to fill this gap? Well, we might just have somewhere to begin with John Sparks's Kentucky's Most Hated Man: Charles Chilton Moore & The Bluegrass Blade. From the book description:

...born in 1837, [Charles Chilton Moore] was the grandson of religious reformer Barton W. Stone, and was himself a minister in Versailles, Kentucky, before he left the church, passing through deism and agnosticism to eventually declare himself an atheist. Moore founded The Blue Grass Blade newspaper in 1884 in Lexington. He was only able to publish sporadically due to financial and legal problems originating mostly because of the paper's editorial content--attacks on citizens that Moore considered to be bigots (including Bible-thumpers and whiskey distillers) and his advocacy of unpopular positions such as agnosticism and women's suffrage. . . . Moore is considered one of the fathers of American atheism. The Blue Grass Blade was circulated across the country, gaining him notoriety among both the religious and non-religious. . . . His legal trials resulted in landmark Federal judicial decisions which set precedents in the areas of both freedom of religion and
freedom of the press.

Stylistically, the book is similar to Sparks's biography on "Raccoon" John Smith (subtitled, Frontier Kentucky's Most Famous Preacher--I'm seeing a pattern here). In his review, Craig Thompson Friend lamented Sparks's penchant for prolonged digressions, reliance on outdated sources, and lack of attention to the historiography. The same can be said of Kentucky's Most Hated Man. But Sparks is not an academic historian. And he seems rather unconcerned with our insights and criticisms. Still, the book might be conversation starter. Citing Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers, Sparks observes that Moore came along during the "Golden Age of Freethought," and modeled himself after "The Great Agnostic," Robert Green Ingersoll.

So Moore localized a national freethinking trend in Dixie. He also felt the Bible Belt's wrath as a result. The debates that Moore generated found southern evangelicals articulating their beliefs in new ways, fending off the unique challenges put forth by this atheist interlocutor. How many Moores were there in the New South? Who knows. But somewhere, there's an ambitious doctoral student searching for a topic--hopefully that person will be willing to write an encyclopedia entry or two.

Religion in American Politics: A Short History (Review)



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Religion in American Politics: A Short History
(review reprinted from the newest issue of Journal of Church and State; pdf available here)

Paul Harvey
Religion in American Politics: A Short History.
By Frank Lambert. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. 294pp. $24.95 cloth; $18.95 paper.


In this readable synthetic text, Frank Lambert provides a reasonably brief, accessible, and fair-minded survey of the broad history of religion and American politics from the era of the American revolution to the present, including the 2008 election. He follows broad trends, such as the debates between proponents and opponents of "America as a Christian nation" and zooms in on specific controversies (the 1800 election, Sunday mail delivery, slavery, the New Deal, and contemporary fights between the religious right and religious left) to illuminate those broader themes. Eight chronological chapters follow religious controversies in the era of the founding, the formation, and then breakdown of Protestant unity in antebellum America (where Lambert proposes a useful critique of Mark Noll's thesis in America's God), the gospel of wealth and critical social gospel in the post Civil War years, the Scopes Trial and the modernist-fundamentalist controversy of the early twentieth century, the connection between religious liberalism and New Deal politics in the mid-twentieth century, the civil rights movement as a religious revival, and finally corresponding chapters on the Religious Right and Religious Left. The early chapters, which come from periods of Lambert's greatest scholarly expertise, are the strongest in terms of scholarly sophistication. The middle chapters tend more or less to be summaries derived from secondary literature and have less original argumentation. The final two chapters doubtless will draw the most interest from readers outside academia interested in the author's take on contemporary religio-political fights.


One basic conflict reappears throughout the book and serves as Lambert's central theme. On the one hand, Lambert follows how "religious coalitions seek by political means what the Constitution prohibits, namely a national religious establishment, or, more specifically, a Christian civil religion" (5). Seeking to influence public policy, religious groups "develop moral agendas that become the centerpieces of their political campaigns." On the other hand, from Eza Stiles Ely's call for a "Christian party in politics" in 1810 to Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority in the 1970s and his descendants today, "religion in American politics is contested," and "any religious group's attempt to represent the nation's religious heritage or claim to be its moral conscience" always meets opposition. This basic conflict, between religious visions of a Christian America and secular individualist notions of a politics free from religiously inspired divisions and free to pursue a pluralist polity, has defined the story of religion and American politics.


Lambert implicitly stakes his claim in the Madison/Jefferson school at the end when he joins in these Founders' warnings against sectarian religion as a divisive force in public affairs: "they knew that, given the country's pluralist culture, any expression of religion offered as a guide to national policy would be labeled sectarian and would be contested as such. Two hundred and twenty years after the new republic's birth, critics of both the Religious Right and the Religious Left think the delegates were wise to keep religion out of national politics" (250). The founders, Lambert implies, were wise to make the Constitution a "godless" one and let citizens work out their religious quests on their own.


Protestants remain at the center of the story throughout, with Lambert defending that choice by insisting that Protestants in fact have been in power for much of American history, and in earlier periods represented the vast majority of the population of the country. While this choice is defensible in some regards, it also means that the deep Catholic tradition of thinking about religion and politics is almost completely ignored here, an unfortunate exclusion especially when dealing with the anti-Catholicism that went into nineteenth-century notions of "separation of church and state," as well as the major influence of Catholic social gospelers and New Dealers on twentieth-century social legislation. Except for the civil rights chapter, African Americans make virtually no appearance, and Native peoples are given one paragraph briefly mentioning the ghost dance. In other words, for alternative visions of religion and politics, and alternative ways of defining the category of "religion" itself, readers will have to look elsewhere. This book achieves what it intends: a fair survey of mainstream Protestant conflicts of the relation of religion and politics from the founding to the present.

Listen America!



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Randall Stephens

When Jerry Falwell issued his call to arms Listen America! in 1980, he intended to rally the troops. Or to use another metaphor, them dry bones needed reanimatin'. Falwell's words leapt from the page like shouts from a megaphone. "Listen, America! Our nation is on a perilous path in regard to her political, economic, and military positions."

I'm not sure if Ken Ham is taking cues from Lynchburg's fallen saint. Could be. Ham--from the creationist Answers in Genesis fame and director of the sprawling, high tech Creation Museum--is not happy with how things are going in his adopted country. (He's is originally from Australia. I guess that chinstrap beards are popular down under. Though it seems like a hardcore, new metal, Amish thing up here.) As Ham watches America being reduced to moral rubble, there's much to shake a fist at.

In Ham's version of contemporary history, the nation is in need of a swift Jeremiad-kick to the hind quarters. He targets agents of atheism, milquetoast theism, and wild-eyed secularism lurking around every corner in his second State of the Nation address. (See video here. The embedded version seemed to slow things down here.) He is particularly tough on President Obama, who had the audacity to hope that America was more than just a Christian nation. When Obama proclaims: "Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation—at least not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation and a Hindu nation and a nation of nonbelievers," it rings loud alarm bells for Ham and Christian-nation amateur historians like David Barton and Peter Marshall.

Ham's address is interesting on a number of levels. (He takes my colleague and coauthor Karl Giberson to task at around 36:20.) I'm struck by the way that Ham, like millions of other fundamentalists now and from ages past, does not believe in hermeneutics. The Bible is so clear and direct--a one-stop shop for all life's problems--that there is almost no need for interpretation. According to the Heritage Singers, "God said it, and I believe it." Or, as I heard a seminary professor put it some years ago, fundamentalists take their miracles and their passages of scripture straight, no chaser. From a whirlwind of scripture passages emerges a few other themes. A thread of declension runs throughout, depicted well in the helpful cartoons. One major point (surprise) has to do with the fact that evolution is not a science. Another theme: America is slipping from the grasp of true believers. Quislings, meek Christians, have sold out.

Observers can find out a lot about a movement by looking at what it vilifies, damns, or fights. Billy Sunday was no fan of higher criticism and, by extension, Germans. Another Billy, Graham, fought tooth and nail against sin and commies in the late 1940s. Bob Jones, III, battled the feds, who wanted to strip BJU of its tax exempt status. One could go on and on.

I'm still asking the "why" questions about all of this. Why have fundamentalists, and many evangelicals, arrayed themselves against a host of enemies? What's the nature of that embattled feeling? . . . Help me, Matt Sutton!

The View from Pachgatgoch (or, Why Moravians are Still Sexy)



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Linford D. Fisher

Moravians are about as exotic as early American history can ever hope to be. And, seemingly, I cannot stop writing about them. Officially, they are not part of my research agenda, but books about them mysteriously appear on my shelves, squeeze their way onto my course reading lists, and land in my mailbox for possible review. This past January, once again, I found myself immersed in the world of early American Moravians as I picked my way through the 1300 hundred pages that comprise one of the most recent publications related to Moravians in early America: an enormous two-volume translation of the German diaries of the Moravian mission in Pachgatgoch, Connecticut, translated and edited by husband and wife team William A. Starna and Corinna Dally-Starna, titled, Gideon’s People: Being a Chronicle of an American Indian Community in Colonial Connecticut and the Moravian Missionaries Who Served There (2009). The diaries span from 1747 through 1763, even though the mission officially started in 1743 and was maintained on and off until 1770. My official evaluation of the volumes will be forthcoming in the New England Quarterly later this year, but the diaries themselves prompted more reflection that I could possibly fit into a book review, so I thought I’d share some of the overflow here.

First and foremost, reading through these diaries reminded me of the surprising religious and ethnic diversity of western Connecticut. Pachgatgoch was in many ways at the crossroads of empire and a place of multiple, overlapping religious regions and ethnicities. Runaway Africans and Indians along with Indian preachers from other parts of the colony drift in and out of Pachgatgoch. EuroAmericans (mostly English and Dutch), likewise, surface in the diaries as inquisitive visitors: Presbyterians, Anglicans, New Lights, Old Lights, Baptists, Separates, Quakers, seekers, and even the occasional Jew or two come to figure out the Moravians and—at times, even try to join them. Peering into the Pachgatgoch records is almost like peeking behind the curtain at a show or performance, or into the basement or attic of a host's house: you find some unexpected things that belie the official presentation. Whatever we might take to be the “center” of religious history in the colonies, these records serve as a warning against privileging too much the urban coastal centers.

Secondly, I was deeply impressed with the intensely intertwinedness of Indian and non-Native lives. Labor is of course the most familiar point of overlap (discussed below), but Indians also routinely cleared out of Pachgatgoch to party all night with their Anglo neighbors. The most frequently recurring (and railed against) example of this is the annual day of post-harvest thanksgiving in the colony. It was an “old custom” of the Indians, according to the Moravians, to go and celebrate late into the night with their “good friends” the white people. Joachim Sensemann let the Pachgatgoch know in no uncertain terms that he “would be pleased if they stayed nicely at home”—to no effect, of course. Not only were Indians out in colonial homes working (and boozing it up), in towns selling brooms, baskets, bowls, and spoons, but colonists were also constantly visiting the small Indian town. In addition to almost daily, more mundane visits by colonial neighbors, on at least two occasions the Anglo congregants of local English minister Cyrus Marsh came to the Moravians’ Sunday services at Pachgatgoch when Marsh was sick or out of town. By the late 1750s, non-Indian attendance at Moravian Indian services was so frequent that it prompted exasperation on the part of Moravian missionaries, who worked hard to shield the Pachgatgoch from outside influences. So ubiquitous were the colonists even on most weekdays that Moravian missionary Johann Mack reported with surprise in 1761 that he had not seen a “white” person for almost four days.

Thirdly, in reading these records, I was reminded of the politicized nature of Indian evangelism at the edges of empire. Not only were the Moravian missionaries arrested and placed on trial in Milford, Connecticut, in 1743 under deep suspicion of being Catholic spies trying to woo local Indians into a military alliance against New England Protestants, but they were subsequently banned from Connecticut for a full six years. Even after they returned, rumors circulated for the next decade that they were supplying the French with powder and shot. (I grappled with some of these issues in an NEQ essay from Sept. 2009.) Over time local colonists grew to accept the Moravians more and more, and even the minister of nearby Kent, Connecticut, cannot seem to forgive himself for not defending the Moravians when they were placed on trial (his excuse was that he had been temporarily swayed against the Moravians by Gilbert Tennent’s 1743 anti-Moravian tract, Some Account of the Principles of the Moravians).

Fourthly, I’ll admit to receiving new insight into the way that drunkenness actually functioned in Native communities. Everyone knows that the drunken Indian quickly became a colonial Indian stereotype; less often discussed are the ways in which drunken men (usually) not only offended EuroAmerican religious sensibilities but also brought tangible fear and physical danger to Indian families and communities. According to the Moravians, at least, drunken Indian men routinely got abusive enough that women and children fled into the woods overnight or to the Moravians’ houses to escape the violent outrages of their husbands, brothers, and sons. In short, drunkenness was a very real social threat for Indians themselves in this period; it was not just something missionaries denounced in fits of cultural arrogance. I knew this, of course, but somehow these records made this more tangible.

Fifthly, the centrality of free and unfree labor for Indians and Africans alike in this period cannot be overstated. My suspicions that debt and labor profoundly shaped much of Indian-African-colonist relations were confirmed by the stories in these volumes. Just one example of this was a colonist who was owed money by a Moravian Indian, marched into Pachgatgoch and, when he couldn’t find the Indian who owed him money, instead randomly kidnapped two Indian children and sold them for profit as servants/slaves.

Sixthly, and lastly, these records confirm, once again, the difficulty of any single group in bringing about the desired religious and cultural transformation in Indian communities. The last few years of the diaries drip with a familiar declension narrative in which the drinking, sexual promiscuity, and religious indifference of Natives spins out of control. The harder the Moravians try to reform specific cultural habits (not clothing Native children, for example), the less the Pachgatgoch respond. The curious thing is, of course, that many Pachgatgoch do continue as Moravian Indian Christians well past the official closing of the mission. Some move to Pennsylvania and some remain in New York and/or Connecticut, but the perceived failure of the Moravians does not always translate into a total abandonment of Christianity by the Pachgatgoch.

In short, the Moravians are still sexy for a reason. These volumes are well worth the hefty price you pay either by purchasing them or lugging them home from the library (plus, you’ll look cool and cutting-edge carrying anything with “Moravian” in the title). The issues raised are numerous and enlightening, and for that we owe Starna and Dally-Starna a big thanks.

The Future of Unification



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As I drove home from school yesterday, I listened with interest to NPR report on the wobbly state of the Unification Church in the United States.

The report, well worth a listen, is available both as text and audio here.

I was interested in the rather superficial comparisons the reporter made between the Unification Church and other American religious movements:

[By encouraging academic and financial success instead of quitting school and starting missionary work], the church is taking a page from another new religious movement: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, who are growing by leaps and bounds in part because of their economic success. As to style of worship, the Unification Church is looking to yet another model: the evangelical megachurch.

I'm sure the Mormons won't appreciate being reduced to a Prosperity [Restored] Gospel, and evangelicals at least strive to be more than "bells and whistles." As the reporter rightfully suggests, though, the Unificationists have a long way to go before entering the religious mainstream.

Everywhere and Nowhere



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Paul Harvey

In "Everywhere and Nowhere," in today's Inside Higher Education," Kevin Schultz (of the University of Illinois, Chicago) and I summarize some of the basic points made in our new article (of the same title) just out in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion -- you can access that article (free access) here, or in PDF form here. In the shorter piece and the article, we explore the paradox that "In a sense, religion is everywhere in modern American history, but nowhere in modern American historiography," as well as the two major exceptions to that generalization -- in the historiographies of civil rights and modern conservatism:

our general thesis that religion has been everywhere in history but nowhere in historiography has two major exceptions: in historical works on the civil rights movement and the religious right. When it comes to civil rights historiography, religious interpretations have vitally influenced scholarship; indeed, those who downplay the influence of religion tend to be the “heretics,” rather than the other way around. Meanwhile, we now have a small library of books on contemporary figures of the Religious Right, from Jerry Falwell to James Dobson to Phyllis Schlafly.

Noting these two exceptions raises important questions. For example, since these are two groups that have been historically racialized and/or marginalized, does that make it “safer” to incorporate religion more centrally into their intellectual trajectories? And to what degree do they influence the mainstream narrative? In other words, when we move from the mainstream to the margins, does it become safer to introduce religion as a central actor in people’s lives? And if so, will that scholarship focusing on the margins find its way into the mainstream narratives? The almost complete absence of religion from David Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear and James Patterson’s Grand Expectations, the two Oxford History of the United States volumes covering the period from 1932 to 1974, provides just cause for such reflection.


For an interesting companion piece looking at similar developments in the field of sociology, "Sociologists Get Religion," Inside Higher Ed., Feb. 9. A brief bit of it:

The new study on sociology arrives as a working paper of the Social Science Research Council, based on analysis of 587 sociology journal articles on religion, published between 1978 and 2007. The paper -- by David Smilde, a professor of sociology, and Matthew May, a graduate student, both at the University of Georgia -- finds much that would encourage scholars who want to see more research on religion. But the paper also raises questions about whether American sociologists may be too narrowly focused on some religious groups over others, and over the impact of outside funding, which is growing.

Among the key findings:

  • The most important general sociological journals have been publishing a modestly growing number of articles about religion over the period studied.
  • The articles show "a strong program" emerging on the role of religion in society. At the beginning of the period studied, religion was rarely the independent variable in the research, but by the end of the period, more than half of the articles had religion as the independent variable.
  • For most of the period studied, there was an upward trend in positive findings about the role of religion and a downward trend in negative findings. The last five years have seen an increase in negative findings.
  • American sociology's study of religion is dominated by religion in the United States and Christianity, with relatively little work on non-Christian religions or the Christian faith of non-Americans.
  • Private funding has increased significantly for sociological research on religion, notably from several foundations.
  • A positive correlation was found between receiving outside funding and positive findings about religion, although to the surprise of the authors, the strongest correlation was not from private sources of funds but from public sources. (The authors do not have a definitive theory on the source of this correlation and suggest it as a topic for further research.) The changes outlined in the report "are pretty significant" and show "a realization on the part of sociologists and other academics, too, of the enduring significance of religion in the modern world," said Neil Gross, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. Gross studies the sociology of academic life, and while he noted "the stereotype that most professors don't pay attention to religion," he added that it has "never really been true."

The Tea-Partying of American Religion



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by Steven P. Miller

Thomas Frank made easy sport today of a recent piece by Glenn Harlan Reynolds (the ur-blogger of popular conservatism) in which Reynolds touted the Tea Party movement as “America’s Third Great Awakening.” Upon reading the article in question, I realized that Reynolds did indeed have Whitefield, Finney, et al, in mind when referring to those earlier awakenings, which he does concede “were religious in nature.” Now, he writes, “it’s different. It’s not America’s churches and seminaries that are in trouble: It’s America’s politicians and parties.”

Without giving Reynolds the dignity of too much attention, he does point to the creative means by which Americans will “whig” just about anything—in this case, rolling the conventional narrative of American Protestantism into a tale of continuous liberty tree watering. Moreover, he pulled off an interesting historigraphical reversal. Normally, it’s the proverbial liberal academy that secularizes religious history. From camp meetings to town hall screaming, the Lord works in mysterious ways . . .

Newsweek's Lisa Miller on "Harvard's Crisis of Faith"



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Randall Stephens

Just got the latest issue of Newsweek in the mail today. And, behold, there's this very interesting article on Harvard University's trouble with religion in the curriculum. (Lisa Miller, "Harvard’s Crisis of Faith," Newsweek, February 11, 2010.) So while the Texas board of education is intent on getting the word out to students that the founders were born-again believers, many of Harvard's cultured-despiser profs would rather their students spend more time learning about anything but religion. (I exaggerate.)

Miller discusses a 2006 proposal floated by Louis Menand "that undergraduate students should be required to take at least one course in a category called Reason and Faith." Harvard's evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, and a host of others, said no thanks.

Miller observes that for Pinker:

human progress is an evolution away from superstition, witchcraft, and idol worship—that is, religion—and toward something like a Scandinavian austerity and secularism. (Pinker is one of those intellectuals who speak frequently about how sensible things are in Europe; one suppresses the urge to remind him of the Muslim riots in the Paris and London suburbs.) A university education is our greatest weapon in the battle against our natural stupidity, he said in a recent speech. "We don't kill virgins on an altar, because we know that it would not, in fact, propitiate an angry god and alleviate misfortune on earth."

In Miller's opinion such views haven't served the students all that well. "To decline to grapple head-on with the role of religion in a liberal-arts education," she argues, "even as debates over faith and reason rage on blogs, and as publishers churn out books defending and attacking religious belief, is at best timid and at worst self-defeating. . . . it's fair to say that the study of religion at Harvard is uniquely dysfunctional."

Miller speaks to faculty at Harvard--Peter Gomes and Diana Eck among them--and interviews Robert Orsi, Jeanne Kilde, a collection of others.

"Just because the study of religion does not fit into the narrow categories the university has created for itself," contends Miller, "does not mean that students should not equip themselves—in a rational, secular context—with a vocabulary for thinking about it."

A very intriguing piece, made all the more relevant by the recent buzz about the increasing number of historians who are working on religion.

Nick Saban 1, God 0



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Paul Harvey

Nick Saban (coach of the championship Alabama Crimson Tide football team) has more Facebook fans than does God in the great state of Alabama. So the Birmingham News reports.

What does this betoken for southern religious history? Might Drew Brees soon be outdrawing the Virgin on facebook accounts in Louisiana?

In Florida, Starbucks wins, but we always knew they weren't really in the South anyway.

Oklahoma is not represented here -- my home state slighted yet again. Texas also isn't reported, which is perfectly ok with me.

Deg -- Georgia is a question mark here. How does Chick-Fil-A measure up to God in the Facebook polls?

Hat tip to Seth Dowland for this in-depth research.

Texas Toast: Christianity and History in the Lone Star State, Part DCLXVIII



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Paul Harvey

Today's New York Times magazine features another roundup of the Texas schoolbook controversy: Russell Shorto, "How Christian Were the Founders."

Since we have blogged a bit before about this, and it's been covered much more extensively and thoughtfully by (among many others) John Fea's twenty-five (and counting) posts, I don't have that much useful to add except mainly to call your attention to this very nice piece by Shorto. The public hearings over these standards were a circus defying parody. As John Fea put it, "This is what happens when non-historians try to mess with state history standards."

Just two points to mention a bit further. First, Shorto follows the remarkable career of Cynthia Dunbar, who manages to be a law professor for Liberty University in Lynchburg while residing in Richmond, Texas, and who serves on the Texas board of education which has overseen the textbook standards even while likening sending children to public schools to “throwing them into the enemy’s flames, even as the children of Israel threw their children to Moloch.” Shorto writes:

In 2008, Cynthia Dunbar published a book called “One Nation Under God,” in which she stated more openly than most of her colleagues have done the argument that the founding of America was an overtly Christian undertaking and laid out what she and others hope to achieve in public schools. “The underlying authority for our constitutional form of government stems directly from biblical precedents,” she writes. “Hence, the only accurate method of ascertaining the intent of the Founding Fathers at the time of our government’s inception comes from a biblical worldview.”

Dunbar is leading the charge of those who insist on connecting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, then somehow declaring the Declaration to be based on Christian principles, and then from there arguing that those principles became law in the Constitution. Jon Rowe explains and dissects this business further here.

[[Update: Here's Cynthia Dunbar's statement about Obama, just before the 2008 election: "State Board of Education member Cynthia Dunbar isn't backing down from her claim that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is plotting with terrorists to attack the U.S. . . . In a column posted on the Christian Worldview Network Web site, Dunbar wrote that a terrorist attack on America during the first six months of an Obama administration 'will be a planned effort by those with whom Obama truly sympathizes to take down the America that is threat to tyranny.' She also suggests Obama would seek to expand his power by declaring martial law throughout the country."]]

Secondly, and more importantly as far as I'm concerned, Shorto covers the strategy of the Houston dentist Don McLeroy and other board members who are seeking "transformational change outside of the public gaze," meaning that the real war will be conducted in private with textbook publishers who have to take these general standards and condense them down into textbook bite-sized chunks.

Their model is based on their previous assault on the state educational science standards -- failing to get in their intelligent design theories, they managed to get textbooks to incorporate language about the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution as a possible "inroads to creationism." In their view, there has been a secularist conspiracy among experts to suppress "truth" in both science and history. Evidently, biology and history professors are united in an alliance to lead schoolchildren down the path of destruction, while the Texas activists seek "an uncovering of truths that have been suppressed." (My blog co-editor Randall Stephens' forthcoming book The Annointed: America's Evangelical Experts discusses the history of this idea, and the creation of an entirely separate evangelical intellectual universe, with great skill).

The conspiracy theory emanating from the evangelical right, and from state legislative proponents of "intellectual diversity," always seems odd to me, for it has been academic historians of the last generation -- evangelical, non-evangelical, Jewish, atheist, and of all other stripes -- who have led the way in creating a vibrant religious history scholarship in all fields, American history and many others besides. The recent American Historical Association poll demonstrated this best; religion led all other categories in terms of historians' fields of interests. Sociologists are busy at this too -- see the article "Sociologists Get Religion," for a rundown on the discussion about the "strong program" of religion as a social force that folks in that field are busy discussing presently.

I had further occasion to think about this recently while contrasting a statement by a regent of the University of Colorado demanding that more conservatives get hired, with a whole host of job applications that I was reading for a position in my History department at the University of Colorado, in European and/or African History. It was exciting to read over explanations of the newest work in fields of which I know relatively little, including quite an explosion of scholarship on religious interactions of Christians/Jews/Muslims in the medieval, Mediterranean, and Iberian worlds. The fact that we can only hire one candidate from this harvest of talent will be painful for sure; but the sheer intellectual firepower these (mostly) younger scholars are bringing to bear on important historical questions left me feeling pretty good about our field. History is just a damn interesting subject, and it's painful to watch (as in Texas) when it's turned into a boring slugfest over number of mentions of our favorite people/groups/religious traditions/whatever. Yawn. No wonder students don't know much about history -- there's no place for the discipline and aesthetics of historical thought.

[An aside: I feel similarly about my second love, biology, which I majored in for part of college and would have pursued had history not called me away. As I've blogged about before, reading On the Origin of the Species is like listening to the Bach cello pieces, supremely simple and complex at the same time].

Did it ever occur to me for one second to "investigate and report on" the (as Colorado radio commentator Mike Rosen, of 850 AM Denver, once expressed about me, his token America-hating left-wing professor, in a bizarre hour-long rant) "ideological inclinations" of these candidates, or to find out who they voted for in the last election and make my hiring decisions accordingly? Please.

What is best and most interesting about this work in history, sociology, religious studies, and other fields is, of course, completely lost in all these ahistorical "Christian nation" debates. The questions are posed wrongly to begin with, and thus the answers come down in ideological sound bites. That's why the complex motivations of people, founding fathers and everyone else, are reduced to categorical ideological slots that must be chosen:

McLeroy remains unbowed and talked cheerfully to me about how, confronted with a statement supporting the validity of evolution that was signed by 800 scientists, he had proudly been able to “stand up to the experts.”

The idea behind standing up to experts is that the scientific establishment has been withholding information from the public that would show flaws in the theory of evolution and that it is guilty of what McLeroy called an “intentional neglect of other scientific possibilities.”

Similarly, the Christian bloc’s notion this year to bring Christianity into the coverage of American history is not, from their perspective, revisionism but rather an uncovering of truths that have been suppressed. “I don’t know that what we’re doing is redefining the role of religion in America,” says Gail Lowe, who became chairwoman of the board after McLeroy was ousted and who is one of the seven conservative Christians. “Many of us recognize that Judeo-Christian principles were the basis of our country and that many of our founding documents had a basis in Scripture. As we try to promote a better understanding of the Constitution, federalism, the separation of the branches of government, the basic rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, I think it will become evident to students that the founders had a religious motivation.”

Perhaps most importantly, the very public discussion of the textbook standards ultimately pales in comparison to the more private campaign to be conducted in forthcoming months and years. Sharing a meal with textbook representatives at the local Tex-Mex establishment probably will have more to do with shaping history than with whatever happened at these public forums. Shorto explains:

It’s possible a wave of religion amendments will come in the next meeting, in March, when American government will still be among the subjects under review. But the change of tone could signal a shift in strategy. “It could be that they feel they’ve already got enough code words sprinkled throughout the guidelines,” Kathy Miller says. The laws of Nature and Nature’s God. Moses and the Bible “informing” the American founding. “The Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith” as America’s original purpose. “We’ve seen in the past how one word here or there in the curriculum standards gets seized upon by the far-right members at adoption time,” Miller says. “In the science debate, the words ‘intelligent design’ did not appear, but they used ‘strengths and weaknesses’ as an excuse to pitch a battle. The phrase became a wedge to try to weaken the theory of evolution, to suggest that scientists had serious problems with it. We’ve seen the board use these tiny fragments to wage war on publishers.”

This squares with what Tom Barber, the textbook executive, told me: that in the next stage in the Texas process, general guidelines are chiseled into fact-size chunks in crisp columns of print via backroom cajoling. “The process of reviewing the guidelines in Texas is very open, but what happens behind the scenes after that is quite different,” Barber says. “McLeroy is kind of the spokesman for the social conservatives, and publishers will work with him throughout. The publishers just want to make sure they get their books listed.”

I'm reminded here of the narrative that Edward Larson tells in Summer for the Gods, about the Scopes Trial, and his skillful explanation of the tension played out in Tennessee that summer between democratic/localist ideals of public education and the sometimes conflicting role of a national culture of expert-defined knowledge in shaping educational standards. From this article, it seems that the Christian Nationists on the Texas board have learned their lesson well. The controlling narrative that developed about Scopes was devastating to Christian conservatives, hence their strategic drive to control the narrative now, with the public hearings being something a sideshow for the more important and subtly strategic interventions to come.

Blood Done Sign My Name -- Out in Film!



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Paul Harvey

Congratulations to Tim Tyson, whose gripping memoir/history book Blood Done Signed My Name, has found its way onto the big screen. This New York Times story covers this particular tale of book to film, and discusses the way both author and filmmakers sought to avoid the comforting but tired narratives of civil rights victory where whites somehow manage to play the leading role.

Dr. Tyson, who was 11 in 1970, chronicles the struggles that his father, Vernon, a Methodist minister, faced in advocating civil rights progress to a conservative parish. (Vernon Tyson was effectively driven out of Oxford by the end of 1970.) Mr. Stuart’s father was a Presbyterian minister who faced similar trials in Gastonia, N.C.
When Mr. Steel and Mr. Stuart met with Dr. Tyson to discuss turning “Blood Done Sign My Name” into a movie, with Mr. Stuart as writer and director, the author was initially leery of turning over his work to a Hollywood filmmaker bearing the name of a Confederate general. (Mr. Stuart was nicknamed for, but not descended from, the rebel cavalry officer J. E. B. Stuart.) But the men soon discovered they agreed on what the movie should avoid.
“One of the goals was not to make ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ” Mr. Stuart said in an interview at Mr. Steel’s Greenwich office. “What always happens in the way Hollywood tells these stories is that the white guy saves the day. I did not want to fall into that trap. The Tysons got run out of town. Tim’s dad is one of my heroes in this movie, but he’s not Gregory Peck. He’s not going to make it all right for everybody.”

Besides being a fan of “The Fugitive” Dr. Tyson was happy to learn that he and Mr. Stuart both loathe movies like “Mississippi Burning” and “Ghosts of Mississippi,” in which conflicts between good and bad white people overshadow the actions of blacks. Interviewed by phone from his current home in Durham, where he teaches African-American studies at Duke University, Dr. Tyson said that Hollywood’s distortions have helped reinforce the gauzy mythology of the struggles of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther Kingand others.

“We have this sugarcoated confection of the civil rights movement in popular memory,” he said. “It’s interracial, it’s nonviolent, and it’s successful. Nobody ever opposed it. In this rendition the civil rights movement is largely a call to America’s conscience that America pretty much answered.” The reality, he said, was more complex.

A trailer for the film is here, and Tim talks about the book here.

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