There has been great discussion on this blog in recent months about antihistory--that popular assumption that differences in time, space and culture between the Constitutional founders and Americans at present is trivial and in most respects irrelevant. We see this in contemporary Tea Party protests for present taxes as well as recent political candidates' statements that they are "simply" for The Constitution. As Linford Fisher has recently said on this blog, Jill Lepore calls this habit of investing the words of the Founders with timeless meaning, irrelevant of context and ambiguity, "historical fundamentalism." Some contemporary Tea Partiers have indeed sought in the history of the Founders an unambiguous set of directives for taxation, the separation of powers, and the tensions between different interest groups.
And yet, watching the "Rally to Restore Sanity And/or Fear" yesterday, I began to wonder if antihistory looms just as largely within the secular, moderate majority as within the Tea Party. Jon Stewart said he was calling the rally to restore sanity and civility to political discourse. He thus assumed that at one point in the past, American could "have animus and not be enemies." In its lead-up, he referred to the event as a "million moderate march." However, when in the past was there animus without severe political infighting? When in the American past was there political turmoil without fervent religious discourse? Stewart's understanding of moderation was tied to secularism, but this must be recognized as a forward-thinking, and not a "restoration-ist" conviction.
I find myself wondering why Stewart's understanding of civil political discourse makes no room for firm religious commitments. For example, Stewart could have left out a benediction entirely. Instead, he opened the rally with a parody benediction by SNL's Guido Sarducci. Mocking all exclusionary religions and especially the intellectual humility of the Italian-American Catholic priest, Sarducci asked God to send a sign of the particular religion that God liked best. The joke thus not only mocked believers but mocked the possibility that God could be fit into one religion. Stewart didn't have to go here, but he chose to make a clear statement at the beginning of the rally about the irony of both religion and religious leadership in political discourse.
Stewart's closing speech reiterated this statement. He argued that in restoring civility, we need to denude political discourse of religious sensibilities. "We live now in hard times, not end times," he said. By "hard times" he likely referred to difficult economic times, and by "end times" to the conviction that Jesus' return is imminent. This not only bothers me because the idea that we are living in the end times has encompassed the entirely of American religious and political history. But, Stewart's suggestion that the reality of economic hard times become the common denominator of political discourse projects an alternate, secular framework for civil discourse that does not make room for religious convictions.
Stewart closed the rally, "[S]ometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey." Stewart here hoped to push us to see the world through less optimistic and more worldly eyes. He also secularized the founding mythology of a Promised Land to imply that what we really needed to learn from this American experiment was the importance of working together. He could not, or did not want to, imagine political civility within the context of our American plurality of cultures and serious religious convictions.
To imagine we could "restore" a time when Americans argued without calling each other unfair names and declaring some ought to be silenced politically and socially in the name of true religion is to engage in antihistory. Indeed, many these days try to imagine differently (as this pretend political attack ad suggests that even the Founders could not have withstood such oversimplified bickering). However, I think this is just wishful thinking. Politics has always been brutal, and political discourse in this country has always been about coalition building. If it sounds civil, it is just civil enough to engage the moderates who might be wiling to become allies.
Some of you are strolling the book exhibit at the AAR today. Bold jacket designs and interesting typography will catch your eye. Can you judge a book by a cover? No. But you can certainly judge a cover by a cover.
A couple weeks back the Harvard University Press blog featured a post on "Talking Book Design: Introducing 'HUP Jackets.'" Ever wonder how graphic wizards work their design magic? (BTW, the design for the new Jill Lepore book is superb. The bright red. The bold type. The little toy soldiers. Excellent. See Linford Fisher's interview with Lepore below.)
This short HUP video gives an insider's look at the craft of book design:
Posted by linfordfisher
Linford D. Fisher
It’s always nice when academic and pleasure reading coincide. Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton, 2010) is a bit like that—fun to read, informative, insanely timely, and likely to generate excitement in certain circles for a variety of reasons.
The book is essentially a commentary on the twenty-first century Tea Party by way of the 1970s and the 1770s and is—by Lepore’s own admission—a strong argument against “historical fundamentalism,” which, as she describes it, is "marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past—'the founding'—is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts—'the founding documents'—are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on skepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible."
The Tea Party folks, she contends, promote not just “kooky history” in their appropriation of Revolutionary themes and employment of Founding rhetoric; they practice antihistory, that is, they conflate the then and the now. The Founders are not just in the eighteenth century, they are here with us now; their struggles are our struggles. “In antihistory,” Lepore muses, “time is an illusion.”
The core of the book is a lively retelling of the Revolutionary Era from the 1760s through the late 1790s. The 1773 Boston Tea Party, ironically, gets precious little play; ditto for the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill (invoked in her title; for the Tea Party proper, you’d have to turn to Ben Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America [Yale, 2010]). Juxtaposing the messy, contested, exhilarating world of the late eighteenth century with the projection of an idealized past created by the Tea Party is both jarring and effective. Framed this way, the story almost tells itself, or so it seems. Regular readers of Lepore’s New Yorker essays will find familiar discussions of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Phillis Wheatley, although there is loads of new material, too, like the delightful sections on Jane (Franklin) Mecom (on whom a biography is forthcoming at some point). Along the way, the reader learns a great deal about the rise of the present Tea Party and how its antihistory came to be in the first place, namely, the historical profession's failure in the wake of the bicentennial of the 1970s to craft a responsible and satisfying historical narrative for the American populace to call their own. Into this lacuna, the Tea Party gladly stepped. In a sense, then, the Tea Party’s (mis)use of history is partially our fault.
As is the case with most books like this, those who should read it, won’t. The book is clearly pitched toward the reading “public”—however defined—who may, in the end, be convinced by the pleasant mix of first-person narrative, historical storytelling, and trenchant analysis, all while hopscotching Lepore-ishly between the eighteenth century and the present. Most obviously, the book is bound be dismissed by the Tea Partiers and their sympathizers as yet another blathering rant by the liberal elites who not only drink the Kool-Aid but help to mix it as they conspire against the American people. The Whites of Their Eyes, however, is hardly that. In many ways it is rather a plea for a particular kind of public discourse and a more accurate use of history. And—in surprising ways—Lepore has spent far more time than you or I with Tea Party folks, trying to understand their rhetoric, concerns, and use of history. Each chapter opens with a fascinating first-person account of attending a Tea Party meeting or rally, before zipping to the eighteenth century and back again.
This book provoked all kinds of questions for me: about the use of history; the decision to write a book like this; and—most of all—what it was like hanging with Tea Party folks. I had to know. And so, over steak salads by the open windows of the Grafton Street Pub perched on the corner of the unseasonably humid Harvard Square, I hijacked the final minutes of a previously-scheduled luncheon with Jill to talk about her book.
LF: In a sense, portions of this book read like an ethnography of the Tea Party. How did—if at all—the experience of attending rallies and meetings in pubs affect your perspective (positively or negatively) of the Tea Party folks and their aims?
JL: My ideas definitely shifted as a result of spending time with the Tea Party people. From the beginning, I always outed myself as a Harvard historian who was writing an article (for The New Yorker; the book idea grew over time) and that I was interested in how people view the Revolution. Most people at the Tea Party meetings didn’t ask more about me. They wanted to talk about themselves. So I listened. Most people felt misrepresented by the mainstream media; everyone I talked to said this. Everyone in the left-wing press was saying the Tea Party was all about race; but for these people I talked to it was not about race. People were upset about that. Austin Hess was offended at being called a racist; he said we lived in a post-racial world. I took him at his word and wanted to be sympathetic with him. I’m not saying it has nothing to do with race. But that’s why they love the American Revolution, because they see it as a white, pre-racial movement, which of course it wasn’t. But that’s sort of the point of the book, and why I gave it the title it has [The Whites of Their Eyes].
LF: This must have taken a lot of intellectual discipline to go and only listen.
JL: I had a lot of fun, actually. Like with the Egan brothers; they were hilarious—exactly like my family. Being at the meetings was pretty much like every family dinner I’ve had since I was eight—was never a Thanksgiving dinner without a pitched political battle. We were family and yet we disagreed. So rather than these meetings being a foreign experience, it was familiar. I never tried to persuade people; I always wanted them to persuade me. People called me “Jane Goodall” because I took notes furiously and furrowed my brow. It’s not a move that a lot of scholars would make, to go and just listen. I did come to think that I understood better, but I still disagreed. For example, I was really trying to figure out people’s position on healthcare. I pressed George Egan on this point, and he told me this heartbreaking story of his three-year-old daughter who was sick and hospitalized and the hospital sent him a bill for ten thousand dollars. He had no insurance, but he got a second job and paid it off over time. And then—this is what surprised me—at the end he said something like, “That’s why I’m against Obamacare. Because I had to pay for it and others should, too.” The same story could be used as an argument for universal healthcare, but that’s not how he was using it. In the end, I think I did become more sympathetic to what they were about. I got to know them. I found myself in the position of defending the Tea Party to my colleagues and friends. I grew to like these people; I didn’t think they were crazy, even though I still disagree with them.
LF: What do you hope that people take away from this book? And have you felt that people are “getting” what you are trying to do?
JL: I’d like people to have a different vision for what political discourse could be like in this country, one that is based on historical evidence and respectful dialog. Argument and evidence are important. Often I need to preface my talks around the country with a plea for restraining emotions and practicing a more evidence-based, measured discourse that is generally lacking in political life today.
I have gotten a lot of positive feedback from various people—schoolteachers, politicians. My colleagues have been uniformly supportive. Same with people I see at events. I was at an event in Washington D.C., on a panel at the National Press Club with Dick Armey (Freedom Works), someone from Fox News, and a person from the New York Times. And a whole group of Freedom Works folks walked in holding—to a man, each woman—color photocopies of my New Yorker essay on the Tea Party. They came to fight. But after the session, a lot of the Freedom Works people came up and said they appreciated what I said. These people really wanted to talk to a real history professor who was taking them seriously. I met a guy in Texas who told me: “You’re the first liberal I’ve talked to that made any sense.” After one talk, a conservative Christian couple approached me and wanted to convince me that the Constitution grants only god-given rights. Neither of us convinced the other, but they appreciated that I was willing to talk. I’m not sure those people “get” me or will like the book, but they are willing to talk to me.
LF: Is this a new direction for you—tackling present issues, arguing for a particular kind of public engagement in the historical profession?
JL: I’ve always thought there should be places to talk about shared concerns, which is why I started Common-Place with Jane Kamensky. It is a place where academics, librarians, teachers, can all share ideas. I appreciate all kinds of historians—we need both Gary Nash and Gordon Wood, for example. I think debate is important; recently in my seminars I’ve set up a series of debates where students read historical speeches and essays and spend time making the case for the historical person they have been assigned. And it works. Students get all animated and put on southern accents or whatever. But of course the next day they are slouched back in their chairs. But it is still worth it.
Posted by Randall
Sunday School, Sunday School.
The mothers and the fathers,
and the boys and the girls,
everybody ought to go to Sunday School.*
Below is an excerpt from J. Edgar Hoover's article on the merits of Sunday School. (Subversives, he wrote, wanted to abolish it.) The piece, in the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category, appeared in Christian Life Magazine (May 1970). As I was flipping through the pages and stumbled on this, I did a double take. Yes, indeed, this was the J. Edgar Hoover stumping for a cherished institution of Protestant education. I take it that he wrote for other Christian magazines, too. Haven't seen him in CT, but perhaps he graced their pages as well.
J. Edgar Hoover, "The Sunday School Can Lead Us Back," Christian Life (May 1970)
Our Nation has survived the sixties. Save perhaps for that of a century ago when the Union was rent by civil war, no decade in the history of the United States has been more fraught with uncertainty, more torn by violence, or subjected more frequently to high peaks of intense emotion. . . .
The guidance derived from study of the Bible has been immense from our beginnings as a Nation. The French observer, de Tocqueville, tells us that the sovereign authority in the United States in the 1830's was religious. He explains that religion exercised little influence ". . . upon the laws and upon the details of public opinion; but it directs the customs of the community, and by regulating domestic life, it regulates the state." De Tocqueville found that there was no country in the world where the Christian religion retained a greater influence over the souls of men than in this one. And he found the average American to be, in his words, ". . . a highly civilized being, who consents for a time to inhabit the backwoods, and who penetrates into the wilds of the New World with the Bible, an axe, and some newspapers." . . .
It is because believe the future of freedom in our Nation--and. therefore, the fate of the entire world-is dependent upon improving the spiritual life of our country--the quality of life, if you will--that I wholeheartedly support the Sunday School as an institution. I believe it has within it the capacity to become an even more dynamic and evangelistic force than it now is. I believe it must reach out in some manner to encompass and enlighten that great body of pathetic young people who, in the main because they are ignorant of Him, do not believe in God and cannot believe in themselves. I refer particularly to the immature and demanding children of affluence. the "Now!" oriented young people, who--because of parental neglect in the area of discipline--have as their sale guides to action only their own wants and desires.
Posted by Mike Pasquier
If you're going to be at this weekend's annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, please consider attending a roundtable discussion of the "The Future of Southern Religious History." I will be speaking about the peculiarity of place and the conceptualization of home in the American South. Specifically, I will take the audience on a brief tour of a plantation and a church on a bayou. If you'd like to know how this song relates to the photographs below, then join me and the rest of the panel on Monday, November 1, at 9am.
Posted by Randall
"A Conversation on Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy with Andrew Bacevich and Stephen Prothero"
Join bestselling authors and Boston University professors Andrew Bacevich and Stephen Prothero for a discussion on the role played by religious ideas in U.S. public policy today, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the “Ground Zero Mosque” debate. This interactive event will be moderated by Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore, and will be streamed live online.
Date: Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Time: 7 to 8pm
Location: George Sherman Union, 775 Commonwealth Avenue
(George Sherman Union Conference Auditorium, 2nd floor)
Reserve Your Seat
The professors will also discuss their most recent books–Bacevich’s Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, and Prothero’s God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–available for purchase and signing at the event.
Posted by Randall
A new Purdue University study shows that as America becomes more religiously diverse, views of America as a Christian Nation gain in strength as well. According to the Purdue University News Service: "[Jeremy Brooke] Straughn and co-author Scott L. Feld, a professor of sociology, looked at two waves of public opinion data from the General Social Survey, which was collected by the National Opinion Research Center. They found that between 1996 and 2004 the percentage of people who said Christian faith was a very important attribute of being 'truly American' rose by more than 11 percentage points, from about 38 percent to 50 percent. The findings are published in the current issue of the journal Sociology of Religion."
This shift in thinking has gone hand-in-hand with a rise in religious diversity. Christians make up 78% of the population, though the number of Protestants has steadily decreased. I'd like to know more about what accounts for the rise in the "Christian Nation" view. Readers: Any thoughts about that?
Here's the paper's abstract:
Jeremy Brooke Straughn and Scott L. Feld
Though predominantly Christian since the time of its founding, the United States has become more religiously diverse in recent decades. Yet since the mid-1990s, the proportion of Americans who see their country as a "Christian nation" has reportedly increased. Though initially paradoxical, these trends are less mysterious if the idea of a "Christian America" (CA) is understood, not as a description of religious demography, but as a discursive practice that seeks to align the symbolic boundaries of national belonging with the boundaries of the dominant faith community. Using data from 1996 and 2004 General Social Survey, it is shown that the growing prevalence of CA was restricted to Americans of Christian faith, thereby widening an existing religious divide over the meaning of American identity.
All that I can say is . . . I'm happy to plug this in to my current co-authored book project!
Posted by Paul Harvey
The first morning, Saturday, is the main panel presenting new research in African American religious history. Monday afternoon, for those of you who can stay around until then (regrettably, not including me), is a dream team scholarly lineup discussing how Robert Orsi's Madonna of 115th St has affected (or not) the study of religion. Saturday afternoon at 1:00 features a panel discussion of our friend Tisa Wenger's work We Have a Religion, which we blogged about before here featuring an interview with the author.
The full program is searchable here.
Location: Marriott Marquis - L405-406
Missionary Innovation: African-American Religion and the New South
* Josef Sorett, Columbia University
* Lerone Martin, Emory University
Selling to the Souls of Black Folk: Atlanta, the Phonograph, and the Transformation of American Religion and Culture, 1920–1941
* Elizabeth Jemison, Harvard University
Writing and Righting Race: Women’s Interracial Cooperation in the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church and Methodist Episcopal Church, South
* Brandi Hughes, University of Michigan
(En)Gendering the Trans-Nation: The Missionary Sojourns of Black Womanhood from Atlanta through Monrovia
* Brandon Winstead, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
“We are Responsible to God”: Black Nazarene Women’s Theology of Evangelistic Responsibility and Its Relationship to Their Contributions to the Church of the Nazarene’s Gulf Central District, 1953–1969
* Paul Harvey, University of Colorado
Saturday 1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Location: Hyatt Regency - Hanover E
Author Meets Critics: Thomas A. Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling (Harvard University Press, 2008)
* Daniel Ramírez, University of Michigan
* Richard Callahan, University of Missouri
* Marie Marquardt, Agnes Scott College
* Grant Wacker, Duke University
* Thomas A. Tweed, University of Texas
Saturday 1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Location: Hyatt Regency - Hanover FG
Defining Religious Freedom: Reading Tisa Wenger’s We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (University of North Carolina Press, 2009)
* Ines M. Talamantez, University of California, Santa Barbara
* Quincy Newell, University of Wyoming
* Greg Johnson, University of Colorado
* Kenneth Mello, Southwestern University
* Tisa Wenger, Yale University
Saturday 1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Location: Hyatt Regency - Hanover C
The Lutheran Tradition: New Theological and Global Perspectives
* Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Gettysburg
* Farisani Elelwani, University of South Africa
The Challenges Facing Lutherans in South Africa
* John Reynolds, Union Theological Seminary
The Heart in Sixteenth Century Physiology and the Role of Luther’s Theology in the Life of the Believer
* Hans Schwarz, University of Regensburg
Martin Luther’s Reception in Korea
* Cecilia Nahnfeldt, Karlstad University, Sweden
Lutheran Vocation and Gender Relations
Saturday 4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Location: Marriott Marquis - L507
Seminar on Religion in the American West
* Jane Naomi Iwamura, University of Southern California
* Travis Ross, University of Nevada, Reno
Sectionalism in California’s Religious Periodicals: Place in Religious Rhetoric
* Jonathan William Olson, Florida State University
“Not Merely Asiatic but Pagan”: Religion, Chinese Exclusion, and the American West
* Barry Joyce, University of Delaware
Creating an Axis Mundi in the American Southwest: Religion, Science, and the Sacred at the Chaco Culture National Historical Park
* Brett Hendrickson, Arizona State University
Mexican-American Religious Healing and the American Spiritual Marketplace
* Tisa Wenger, Yale University
Sunday 3:00 PM to 4:30 PM
Location: Hyatt Regency - Hanover AB
Keywords in the Study of North American Religion: Anthropomorphism, Agency, and Vernacular
* Gary M. Laderman, Emory University
* W. Clark Gilpin, University of Chicago
Anthropomorphism: Human Connection to a Universal Society
* Elizabeth Jemison, Harvard University
Writing Agency: Reconsidering Agency in the Study of American Religion
* Rachel Lindsey, Princeton University
The Light of the World: Vernacular Photography and American Religion, 1839–1910
Monday 9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Location: Marriott Marquis - M101
The Future of Southern Religious History
* Paul Harvey, University of Colorado
* Alison Greene, Yale University
* Michael Pasquier, Louisiana State University
* Randall Stephens, Eastern Nazarene College
* Curtis Evans, University of Chicago
* Ted Ownby, University of Mississippi
* Lauren Winner, Duke University
Monday 1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Location: Marriott Marquis - M103-104
How Has Orsi’s Madonna of 115th Street Affected the Way We Think about Religion?
* David Harrington Watt, Temple University
* Judith Weisenfeld, Princeton University
* Stephen J. Stein, Indiana University
* Kathryn Lofton, Yale University
* Leigh E. Schmidt, Harvard University
* Robert Orsi, Northwestern University
by Michael Utzinger
There is a really nice interview with Ellen Schrecker, author of The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University (The New Press, 2010) by Serena Golden at Inside Higher Ed.
Schrecker highlights, it seems to me, some of the key issues facing higher education today. The questions remain: how can faculty articulate their vocational goals and how do these goals dovetail with their institution’s mission in the current climate? I wonder if Schrecker’s final hopes (quoted below) are possible in a world in which “re-branding” has become the tool of survival, especially at small tuition-driven schools, to reach our potential students, who act and are treated like consumers. The pressures to mold one’s institutional mission in new directions may be especially acute if you are at a small church-related institution, especially if being, say, Methodist does not appear to be a brand that potential students initially find appealing. As colleges and universities increasingly retool their identities and missions in a tough economy, we may need to speak now or forever hold our peace.
Here is a short excerpt from the interview:
For the past 40 years, professors have been abandoning their collective responsibility for maintaining the quality of higher education. Some have been careerist or lazy, but most, I think, are just overwhelmed …
This situation must be reversed; faculty members must return to their traditional role at the heart of the university. They must explain to the public – and to their students and their administrators as well – why their input is essential if American higher education is to meet its current challenges. This reversal will not be accomplished easily; the nation’s faculties face a legacy of more than forty years of demonization by the media and marginalization on their campuses. Collective action – through unions, faculty senates, and organizations like the American Association of University Professors – is crucial. Fortunately, the situation is not yet hopeless. As many administrators admit, faculty members still have considerable clout within their institutions, even if they do not always exercise it. At the same time, as the failure of David Horowitz’s recent campaign against academic freedom revealed, once politicians and the general public understand the real issues involved, they do support the intellectual openness and faculty autonomy that American higher education requires. And, who knows, they might even pay for it.
Posted by Paul Harvey
Posted by Paul Harvey
If you are interested in church-related higher education this may be a book worth reading. (I am not sure how to order a copy. Perhaps the best way to obtain one is to contact the Lilly Fellows Program at Valparaiso University--www.lillyfellows.org).
The book includes sections on "The Christian Academic and the Public Square," "The Christian Academic and the Academic Guild," and the "Christian Academic and the Church."
Here is the table of contents:
Foreword: Joe Creech
Tal Howard, "On Plausability, Post-Secularism, and Evangelicalism."
Jeffrey Zalar, "The Roots of Public Virtue in Christian Intellectual Practice."
Colleen Seguin, "Classrooms as Public Spaces."
Paul Harvey, "Exile from Valpo: On Being a Religious Scholar in the Historical Guild at the Public University Amidst a Charged Atmosphere of Religion, Politics, and War."
Maria LaMonaca: "My Teaching Load is None of Your Business, and Don't Steal My Desk: Seeking an Identity Among Academic Guilds."
Heath White: "The Profession is the World: Some Thoughts on Being in the Guild But Not of It."
J. Michael Utzinger, "Faith That Kills?: Reflections on Religion after 9/11."
Kathleen Sprows Cummings, "Have Women Souls?: The Council of Macon and the Dilemma of a Catholic Feminist Scholar."
Martha Greene Eads, "The Professor in the Parish: Beyong Gourmet Coffee and High-Quality Handouts."
John Fea, "Worshipping with 'Christian America': A Historian's Search for a Spiritual Home in Mainstream Evangelicalism."
Scott Huelin: "Dual Citizenship: The Politics of Belonging to Church and Academy."
Posted by Paul Harvey
Like most in our discipline, I watched the God in America series on PBS. There are many elements of the series that have been discussed here and on other blogs, such as events, figures, or themes left out of the series, overly represented in the series, or given an unexpected portrayal. While listening to the commentators and following the story they mapped, I thought about American religious history narratives and how particular events can make all the difference to the story.
As a Ph.D. student at Florida State University, I get the opportunity to teach a section of the Religion in US History survey course. Each time I have taught it or assisted a professor, the narrative is different. Given our varied research interests, what we know best and what we most enjoy exploring seeps into our courses. I most enjoy teaching when pushing my students to think about the role race has played in our nation’s history and how its influence in American religion has never been neutral. And I know this leaves less time for other topics, but like all teachers, I try to negotiate it best I can. For a survey course, I find the most frustrating planning part to be: what to cut and who to leave out. Course organization varies as we decide whether to cover the history chronologically or thematically. For example, God in America chose chronologically and devoted one-third of the airtime for the latter half of the twentieth century to the present. Over six hours or fifteen short weeks, preparation decisions whittle down the story to fit the time allotted, and all the deities in the world know I wish for more time.
At the 2008 National American Academy of Religion meeting in Chicago, the Q&A during a panel on violence in American religious history brought survey course organization into the discussion. Not entirely surprising, it was a graduate student working on teaching her own undergraduate course who raised it. One of the audience members who offered guidance was Thomas Tweed, whose 1997 edited volume Retelling U.S. Religious History called the academy’s attention to the way we narrate our field. Recognizing our own voices in our work and their impact on our (hi)stories force a scholastic self-reflexivity that is also applicable to our teaching style and our relationship as a field with the public. God in America told a particular story that encourages me to reflect upon what I impart onto the undergraduates I teach.
Posted by Paul Harvey
I'm working up a more coherent response to the God in America series, and hope to have that up soon. Over at Killling the Buddha, Nathan Schneider is live-blogging the series (last part is tonight), with Stephen Prothero (a major commentator on the series) and others joining in the fun, so check that out if you want to chat about the show while watching it.
For those of you (I'm talking to you pesky scholars here, especially, but others will be interested) annoyed at something of fundamental importance missing in the series, or of the treatment given to some individual or episode, make sure to check out the full website accompanying the series. It's full of detail, and presents a more complex and satisfying narrative than is possible in a documentary that, of necessity, has to distill and narrate in very broad strokes. For those of you wanting to use clips from the film for class, the author interviews, background stories, and further narrative provided in the "study guide" available at the website will be indispensable in enriching students' understanding. As some have noted here, this is basically a series about religion and public life (that's the subtitle to the series, in fact), but it could certainly be used as a springboard to lead students to explore other avenues of religious expression (music, art, interior experiences, religion and the body, and numerous others) that the film does not attempt to cover at the same level it devotes to the "intersections" of religion and public life.
As it happens, I'm watching the series while having just finished David Sehat's forthcoming book (out this January from Oxford) The Myth of American Religious Freedom, and Sarah Barringer Gordon's The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America. If God in America is basically a story of religious liberty and freedom and their effects on religion in public life (and is at times, as John Fea writes below, a pretty Whiggish version of that story), Sehat's and Gordon's books taken together tell a story of the coercive nature of what Sehat calls the "moral establishment," and the struggles of religious dissenters (including in David's book the abolitionists, Stanton and early feminists, Mormons, progressive intellectuals, and others; and in Gordon's book everyone from the Jehovah's Witnesses to Elijah Muhammad to Beverely LaHaye and the Concerned Women of America to gay religious activists arguing on behalf of same-sex marriage) to articulate a fundamentally different vision of freedom than that establishment wanted to allow. Taken together, both of them present a kind of intellectual and social history of how people dealt with the abstract concept of religious freedom from the Founders down to the 2000s. They are both dealing with a basic contrast in what Gordon calls legal (or "technical") constitutionalism versus popular constitutionalism, and with the broad forces that have fundamentally altered constitutional "regimes" in different periods of American history. I hope in the future to post here an author interview with Sehat, and further thoughts of my own on the social history of what "religious freedom" has meant in American history, a subject I aim to write a book about one of these days.
I've blogged a bit before about Gordon's work, which is out and available from Harvard (having now read the book, I commend it to you wholeheartedly; apart from the intellectual content, it's really a fun read, and to say that it covers a "big tent" of fascinating and often ornery and cantankerous characters is putting it mildly).
As for Sehat's book, he's been producing a series of blog posts over at U.S. Intellectual History, where he outlines and develops some of his themes. His posts are a real intellectual treat, so check them out as a preview of the book; here's a brief description from Oxford:
In the battles over religion and politics in America, both liberals and conservatives often appeal to history. Liberals claim that the Founders separated church and state. But for much of American history, David Sehat writes, Protestant Christianity was intimately intertwined with the state. Yet the past was not the Christian utopia that conservatives imagine either. Instead, a Protestant moral establishment prevailed, using government power to punish free thinkers and religious dissidents. In The Myth of American Religious Freedom , Sehat provides an eye-opening history of religion in public life, overturning our most cherished myths. Originally, the First Amendment applied only to the federal government, which had limited authority. The Protestant moral establishment ruled on the state level. Using moral laws to uphold religious power, religious partisans enforced a moral and religious orthodoxy against Catholics, Jews, Mormons, agnostics, and others. Not until 1940 did the U.S. Supreme Court extend the First Amendment to the states. As the Supreme Court began to dismantle the connections between religion and government, Sehat argues, religious conservatives mobilized to maintain their power and began the culture wars of the last fifty years. To trace the rise and fall of this Protestant establishment, Sehat focuses on a series of dissenters--abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, socialist Eugene V. Debs, and many others. Shattering myths held by both the left and right, David Sehat forces us to rethink some of our most deeply held beliefs. By showing the bad history used on both sides, he denies partisans a safe refuge with the Founders.
It's been a fascinating exercise comparing and contrasting the vision presented in these two wonderful books alongside the (mostly) more optimistic story spun out in the film. It's sort of an exercise in narrative and counter-narrative. More on that in the coming days.
God In America, Part One: An Exercise in the Evangelical Whig View of Early American Religious History
Posted by John Fea
Cross-posted at The Way of Improvement Leads Home
I just got done watching Part 1 of the PBS series "God in America." I know I am behind (Part 2 aired tonight), but such is the life of a blogger, professor, and a new department chair.
The series begins with the Franciscan attempts to convert the Pueblo Indians to Christianity in the 17th century. This, of course, is a sad chapter in American history. The Spanish friars were militant. Their evangelistic zeal led to the destruction of Pueblo sacred sites and all sorts of brutality. The high point of this story is the Pueblo revolt of 1680, the Indian rebellion that put an end to the Spanish presence in the west and proved that Christianity would not come to America unchanged.
This is a nice way to begin, but it has absolutely no connection to the rest of Part One's narrative. One gets the impression that this was just tacked on to the beginning of the program because SOMETHING needed to be said about native Americans. The story line of the native Americans, and the Spanish for that matter, are quickly dropped in favor of what I call in the title of this post the "evangelical Whig view" of American history. This script could have been written by George Bancroft.
And where is slave religion? (Let's hope it is discussed later in the series).
The Puritans are next. Steven Prothero of Boston University establishes himself as our guide through this history, but we also hear from a star-studded lineup of historians that include Michael Winship, Frank Lambert, Mary Beth Norton, Stephen Marini
Much time is spent on Anne Hutchinson. Too much time. Prothero is very good at showing the Protestant individualism of the Puritans and how Hutchinson, in some ways, seemed more Protestant than the Puritans. Hutchinson is clearly the star. There is more time spent on her story than on the Puritans who removed her from the colony. Was the Hutchinson trial really the most important moment in 17th century New England history? Would the people living in Puritan New England have seen it this way? Absolutely not. The Halfway Covenant, King Philips War, the Salem Witch Trials, and a host of other events would have been more important to the Puritan "city on a hill," but these events do not fit easily into the Whig narrative.
The portrayal of the Hutchinson trial is well-acted and the trial transcript is used as the script. Winship claims that during this trial Hutchinson "rips him (John Winthrop) to shreds." Norton celebrates the rebellious spirit of Hutchinson. Prothero concludes that Hutchinson is the future of America--she represents liberty of conscience and religious freedom.
The documentary then jumps to George Whitefield. Marini stresses the individualism of evangelical religion. (By the way, I would love to take a class with Marini--so much passion and energy!) Harry Stout mentions Whitefield's appeal to the emotions and the imagination. Lambert connects Whitefield's evangelical, individualistic Protestantism to that of Hutchinson. A clear intellectual and spiritual genealogy is developing here.
The discussion of the First Great Awakening does a great job of explaining evangelicalism as a real and powerful religious movement that impacted people's lives. The documentary uses a host of quotes from the diaries of Whitefield converts to make this point. Very well done.
But overall the treatment of the Great Awakening is blatantly Whig. One is left with the impression that the Great Awakening was more of a political movement than it was a religious movement. Stout talks about the way Whitefield's evangelicalism challenged "the old aristocratic order" and even suggests that the Great Awakening led to the popular idea that "we are the people." Then Daniel Driesbach talks about the way that the Great Awakening brought the colonies together. One clearly gets the impression that these historians are setting us up for the American Revolution. I tell my students that the Great Awakening created a transatlantic religious network that made the colonies more British and Protestant. "God in America" would prefer to see it as the seedbed of individual liberty, revolution, and American identity.
And then, in the last three minutes of Part One, we get the triumph of the evangelical Whig narrative or, what Jon Butler has called "Born Again History."
The narrator states that people began to insist that it was their right to worship in the church of their choice. Evangelical religion is said to have provided the American Revolution with a sense of "moral" urgency. Prothero says that following the First Great Awakening, the Revolution was "inevitable" and "perfectly logical."
In the end, the story of "God in America"--at least early America-- is best told by following a direct line between Hutchinson and Whitefield, culminating in the American Revolution. At times I thought I was sitting in a lecture at Glenn Beck University.
Posted by Randall
On October 18, 1902, the New York Times ran this curious obituary. Readers must have done a morning coffee spit-take:
"Chose Death Before Prison. Ida C. Craddock 'High Priestess,' Was to Have Been Sentenced for Circulating Improper Books"
Leigh Eric Schmidt takes up Craddock's strange, fascinating story in his forthcoming Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman (Basic Books). Much of it is startling, to say the least. In an era of buttoned down formality and Protestant prudery Craddock broke more rules than one could shake a ruler at. She dabbled in all manner of fringe-ish religion. The one-time Methodist moved with some ease into Quaker circles, Spiritualism, Free Thought, Eastern Mysticism, amateur biblical studies, Sexology . . . . For some time she lectured as a self-proclaimed expert on phallic cults. Not a typical Chautauqua circuit subject.
Schmidt, with narrative skill and analytical insight, draws on Craddock's life to tell a broader tale of American religion in this age as well. (It's made me wonder about what we can learn about the whole from unusual subjects.) Says Schmidt: "The retrieval of Craddock's life from the vaults of vice suppression offers an entryway into major social and political issues of her day--and, often enough, of our own as well" (xi). She tested the country's Christian identity and it's moral certainty. In small ways, her exotic religious and secular outlook foreshadowed later developments: religious seeking, experimentation, new age dabbling, secular crusading. ". . . Craddoock floats only occasionally into view as a feminist," precursor, Schmidt observes, "a tragic free-speech martyr, a steamy occultist, or a sexologist ahead of her time. The diaphanous quality of those memories should not dissolve the grainy roughness of her life, the audacity and disrepute of it" (273-74).
In the interviews embedded here, I ask Schmidt about Craddock's career and her higgledy-piggledy path from Methodist to sexologist. Schmidt reflects on the larger meaning of religious dissent in these years and discusses the shape of American religion in the late-Victorian age. In part two of the interview he also comments on a couple of his current projects.
Posted by Randall
A note for any of y'all who live near Boston.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 15, at 3:00pm, Shrader Lecture Hall, Eastern Nazarene College, Quincy, Mass: Thomas S. Kidd (Baylor University), "God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution." The Donald S. Metz Lecture in American Christian History.
Thomas Kidd is the author of a variety of books and article on American religion in the colonial and revolutionary eras. His The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America was published by Yale in 2007. University of Notre Dame historian Mark Noll described the book as “Well researched, clearly written and authoritatively argued. There is no book of comparable breadth, either chronologically or geographically.” Kidd also published The Great Awakening: A Brief History with Documents, with Bedford Books in 2007. His American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism was published by Princeton University Press in 2008. Walter Russell Mead thus praised American Christians and Islam in Foreign Affairs: “This concise and well-organized study offers readers an excellent summary of American popular attitudes toward Islam from the eighteenth century onward.”
Kidd will be speaking on his new book God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books, 2010), which Harry Stout described as "a history of religion and the American Revolution that addresses the revolutionary war in substantial detail. Thomas Kidd brilliantly examines the role of religion in the Revolution, and explores the intersection of religion and the Republic, neither of which can be fully understood without reference to the other. Kidd demonstrates in persuasive detail how the idea of religious liberty informed the meaning of the Republic at its deepest level."
The lecture is part of a series on colonial America. Gordon Wood and Jill Lepore will speak on campus in November.
Posted by Paul Harvey
Your final reminder for God in America, to be shown starting tonight on your local PBS station. I've posted a few early press reviews of it in recent posts here. But for the most substantive review and critique to date, check out Ed Blum's take on the series over at Patheos. Ed summarizes some of the major themes, characters, and scholarly trends represented in the series, and then imagines what a series of this sort would look like if done ten or twenty years from now -- in other words, what scholarly work is emerging that will find its way into synthetic narratives meant for a more general audience. He finds three in particular:
Posted by Paul Harvey
With all of the discussion of the midterm elections, I would like to rewind the clock to a bizarre little incident from the ghost of news cycles past. Last November there was a short-lived furor about a bumper sticker that read:
Pray for Obama
When I first saw this bumper sticker, while driving, I naturally went home and looked up the passage in the Bible: “May his days be few, let another assume his office.”
Because I found it moderately clever, I was surprised when the news broke that the websites selling Psalm 109:8 bumper stickers and T-shirts had stopped peddling these wares because the message may have been against the law, a law that bans threatening the President of the United States
The guilty speech in this case was not the verse printed on the bumper sticker (Psalm 109:8) but the verse that follows it in the Bible which reads: “May his children become fatherless, and his wife a widow” (v. 9).
Speaking with some colleagues about this, I admitted that I thought it odd that “Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8” would be construed as a threat against the President. One colleague disagreed. “You have the read the next verse,” he insisted. “This is clearly a threat.” The implicit argument of my colleague was based upon the claim that the bumper sticker must be interpreted contextually. In other words, Psalm 109:8 can only be understood if it is read with Psalm 109:9. My colleague pressed that these people know their Bible, so they know what they meant.
I have no doubt that they knew what they meant. The problem is: how do “we” know what they meant? For example, what about verse 6? “Appoint an evil man to oppose him; let an accuser stand at his right hand.” (So much for the newest Republican revolution or the Tea Party.) Better yet, in the full context of the Psalm, it appears that verses 6-19 represent the voice of those that oppose the anointed of God, the king, the messiah. Perhaps, the bumper stickers implies those that paste it to their cars are the “accusers” (Satans) mentioned in verse 6? Perhaps, Obama was God’s anointed?
And this, of course, is the rub. Bible verses can be de-contextualized and re-contextualized on a bumper sticker or a shirt or a sign. On what grounds does one verse printed on a bumper sticker carry some or all of the rest of the meaning of the literature from which it was decontextualized?
For example, it is cliché to use John 3:16 in a decontextualized manner: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall perish but have everlasting life. My experience, however, has been that those that use the verse are completely unaware of verses that follow that speak of the condemnation of those that do not believe. How do I know if the fan in the rainbow wig is inviting me to accept Jesus as my personal savior, warning me that I am potentially hell bound, just an eccentric, or all of the above?
Claims about what the verse meant and why a certain interpretation seems credible at a particular historical moment requires argument and evidence if it is to have validity. This, of course, usually takes more time than a new cycle. However, well after the event is news, it becomes our job as students of American religion to determine if this was simply a trivial misunderstanding or a religious conspiracy to threaten the president.