Reappraising the Significance of Religion in the Modern U.S.: 2012 AHA Session

Paul Harvey

Some of you blog readers may be getting ready for the 2012 American Historical Association meeting in sunny Chicago Jan. 5-8 2012. Because the AHA meets in conjunction with the American Society of Church History and the Catholic Historical Association, there are really too many sessions on American religion to list usefully. So instead I'll feature a few sessions of interest that particularly catch my eye in the coming days here, and invite the rest of you to promote sessions of interest to you, either in the comments section or by sending me a guest post.

To start with, here's hoping you'll drop by our session, pasted in below, on "The Evangelical Century: Reappraising the Significance of Religion in the Modern United States." Details below.

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Kansas City Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania
World War II and the Birth of Modern American Evangelicalism
Matthew Avery SuttonWashington State University
Paul W. Harvey, University of Colorado Colorado Springs
Session Abstract
The twentieth century United States, according to the standard narratives, was defined by growing secularism and pluralism. Heavy immigration of Jews and Catholics in the progressive era, and of Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims since the 1960s, created what scholar Diana Eck calls “a new religious America,” one in which no single group has a monopoly on power. The members of this panel are not so sure. While there is no doubt that the United States is far more diverse today than it was in 1900, American evangelicals have nevertheless managed to shape the nation’s trajectory in important ways in the last one hundred years. Building on new archival research, these papers seek to reappraise the significance of American evangelicalism in the modern United States.

Alison Greene focuses on an important shift that began in the 1930s. Until the Great Depression, the nation’s established churches were on an upward trajectory in both numbers and influence. But the Great Depression crippled the Protestant establishment. At the same time, the economic crisis made room for evangelical and pentecostal churches that emphasized individual salvation and authentic religious experience. While the established churches struggled to maintain programming and participation, upstart evangelicals and pentecostals employed creative techniques and a core of committed volunteers to keep church operations afloat and expand membership. While it would be decades before evangelicals and pentecostals rivaled their established counterparts in numbers and national influence, the Great Depression marked the beginning of a gradual transition of power from the mainline to its upstart rivals.

Matthew Sutton's paper (revised since the original proposal) discusses the reaction of fundamentalists to World War One, tracing that era as one of the creation of a religious movement that grew to be hyper-patriotic and suspicious of government at the same time.

Steven Miller examines more recent expressions of evangelism. He argues that the growing prominence of Reagan-era evangelicalism produced two metaphors that profoundly informed subsequent discussions of faith and public life: Richard John Neuhaus’ “naked public square” and James Davison Hunter’s “culture war.” Neuhaus argued that secular elites had “systemically excluded from policy consideration the operative values of the American people, values that are overwhelmingly grounded in religious belief,” while Hunter described a conflict between “progressive” and “orthodox” forces in American society. In the end, neither metaphor could transcend a defining characteristic of late twentieth-century America: the complex, often ironic influences of evangelicalism on U.S. politics and culture.


Randall said…
Looks like a great session! Wish I could be there this year.
Amy said…
See you there!
DEG said…
Looking forward to it!