Michael Vick and the Politics of Prison Redemption

Paul Harvey

I always like it when someone comes up with a title guaranteed to drive a little blog traffic. The present title comes from Jennifer Graber, Professor of Religious Studies at Wooster College and author of the just-published The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America. In her piece today for History News Network, she uses the Michael Vick saga, and the deep ambivalence about punishment and redemption, as a contemporary case study to investigate the roots of this ambivalence. A little excerpt here:

In round after round, the reformers claimed that a Christian nation necessarily supported criminal punishments designed first and foremost for reformation. Officials retorted that public safety demanded a realistic approach to corrections, one that used bodily punishments and shame to put unrepentant inmates in their proper place. This endless debate gave us the prisons we have today, institutions caught between simultaneous impulses to punish and redeem.

More on the book here, and below:

Focusing on the intersection of Christianity and politics in the American penitentiary system, Jennifer Graber explores evangelical Protestants' efforts to make religion central to emerging practices and philosophies of prison discipline from the 1790s through the 1850s.>Initially, state and prison officials welcomed Protestant reformers' and ministers' recommendations, particularly their ideas about inmate suffering and redemption. Over time, however, officials proved less receptive to the reformers' activities, and inmates also opposed them. Ensuing debates between reformers, officials, and inmates revealed deep disagreements over religion's place in prisons and in the wider public sphere as the separation of church and state took hold and the nation's religious environment became more diverse and competitive. Examining the innovative New York prison system, Graber shows how Protestant reformers failed to realize their dreams of large-scale inmate conversion or of prisons that reflected their values. To keep a foothold in prisons, reformers were forced to relinquish their Protestant terminology and practices and instead to adopt secular ideas about American morals, virtues, and citizenship. Graber argues that, by revising their original understanding of prisoner suffering and redemption, reformers learned to see inmates' afflictions not as a necessary prelude to a sinner's experience of grace but as the required punishment for breaking the new nation's laws.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Paul Harvey

The question is badly posed, our contributor John Fea points out in his new book, to be available in just a couple of weeks, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

Publishers' Weekly has a nice note on the book:

Fea, history professor at Messiah College, does not answer the title query because, he says, “it’s a bad question.” Instead, Fea urges, think like a historian. Turns out, history is not about picking the best fruit off the vine to support your opinion--or the opinions of TV talkers--it’s about doing your homework. He does just that to produce this primer, as he calls it, which defines “history,” “nation,” and “Christian.” Fea studied current position papers of proponents and opponents of the title’s question, and he read from the past: the Federalist papers, John Adams and Jefferson’s writings, state constitutions, debate resolutions. In part one, the author traces the concept of a Christian nation from 1789 to today; part two focuses on the American Revolution, from the British colonies’ points of view to the constitutional “wall of separation between church and state.” Part three, the most fluid and fascinating, profiles specific founders, their orthodoxy vs. their orthopraxy, especially concerning the topic of complex, un-Christian slavery. Fea’s style, clean and simple, persuades by history, not histrionics. (Feb.)

John has some more thoughts on defining the terms of the book here; his speaking schedule on behalf of the book over the next couple of months is here.

This is a book meant for a broad audience, and also (one hopes) will help public rhetoric turn it down a notch by introducing some sense of historical complexity and contingency. Congratulations to John, and we wish his book a most successful launch.

When I Stop Dreaming: Charlie Louvin, RIP


Paul Harvey

Grading papers today to the sounds of the Louvin Brothers. The surviving member of the great duo, Charlie Louvin, passed away this week (his brother Ira, of course, died in a car crash in 1965, a victim of his own alcoholism). Charlie's obituary, with a summary of his career, is here. Their all-time great album cover for "Satan is Real" is above, together with the song. The title for this post comes from their country classic "When I Stop Dreaming," of course famously covered by Emmylou Harris and numerous others later.

Charlie's passing also brought to mind an essay I read a long time ago, had forgotten about, but on re-reading find it just about the best thing I've read on the Louvin Brothers, and one of the most insightful pieces that exists on country music and religion: Lorin Stein, "High Lonesome Theology," published originally 2001 and reprinted over at Killing the Buddha. A little excerpt below, but don't miss the rest:

On the face of it, there’s something paradoxical about the Louvin Brothers’ lasting popularity in country rock and hipster circles. Since the sixties, their sacred songs have enjoyed a kind of transgressive chic. Partly this is camp and condescension. But I think it has more to do with the loneliness of their gospel; and Satan Is Real is their loneliest gospel album.

You don’t need to have been raised Baptist to be moved by “The Christian Life”: to hear the delicate, sad tone of explanation in Charlie’s voice when he sings, “Others find pleasure in things I despise” or the yearning in Ira’s harmony on the following line: “I like the Christian life.” The words want to tell a story of triumph, but the story they actually tell-and the story that the Louvins Brothers sing-is more complex:

My buddies tell me that I should have waited.
They say I’m missing a whole world of fun.
But I am happy and I sing with pride,
I like the Christian life.

It would be impossible for Billie Holiday, or for that matter Patsy Cline, to sing “world of fun” more mournfully than Charlie does. When he sings “I am happy,” caution and sadness are built into the very notes of the song.

New England-Maritimes American Academy of Religion News

This arrived in my inbox from Rebecca Sachs Norris, American Academy of Religion. It should be of interest to our readers who live in what we now call the Snow Belt.

Greetings from your regional steering committee!

Please note -- some of these announcements are especially for GRADUATE STUDENTS

2011 Joint Mid-Atlantic / New England-Maritimes Regional Meeting

Registration for the regional meeting is now open and can be accessed at www.aarweb.org/Meetings/Regions/registration.asp?Region=MA.


After Feb. 1, the fees for all presenters go up to $75. All presenters must be pre-registered by March 1.

If you are a NEMAAR graduate student and are giving a paper at the regional conference you are eligible for the NEMAAR graduate student awards for excellence. To be considered for these awards please send your paper by February 18 to Rebecca Sachs Norris at rsnorris@sacredgames.org. If you have a serious difficulty with this deadline please contact us at that address – we may be able to grant extensions under some conditions.

The deadline for discounted room rates is March 1. Please see this link for housing information: http://www.aarweb.org/About_AAR/Regions/Mid-Atlantic/call.asp.

If you are looking for a roommate for the conference please contact NEMAAR at Nemaarproposal@gmail.com. All we can offer in this regard is to pass on contact information.

Upcoming Event for Graduate Students (Co-sponsored by NEMAAR)

Theological Times: A Gathering for Doctoral Students of Theology

Boston, February 18-19, 2011
Information and Registration: www.TheologySalon.org

The Harvard Theology Salon invites all doctoral students of theology across the New England Region to join us in Boston, Feb 18-19, 2011. This gathering will critically and self-reflexively explore theology as it is being practiced, taught, and creatively rethought. In the process, the gathering will strengthen and augment our collaborative community of emerging theological scholars. All doctoral students who understand themselves to do theology (however conceived) are encouraged to attend. For more information, please visit the website above or contact Hannah Hofheinz at hhofheinz@mail.harvard.edu. We are grateful to NEMAAR for supporting this event, and hope that many of you will join us!

NEMAAR Call for Conference or Event Proposals (available to all NEMAAR members)

We aim to support our membership by co-sponsoring your events in different parts of the region. Conferences, teaching workshops, salons or other gatherings to benefit AAR members are eligible. NEMAAR’s contribution can include funds of up to $800 towards expenses and access to regional e-mail notices to publicize the event. For further information please see:

Further Regional Meeting Information
We encourage everyone to attend. The theme for the conference is Religion and Embodiment, and the plenary speakers are Miguel De La Torre, Marie Griffith, and Kieran Scott. Please see below for more details on the speakers.

Miguel De La Torre is a member of the faculty at the Iliff School of Theology. Among his published books are the recent volumes Liberating Jonah: Forming an Ethics of Reconciliation (Orbis, 2007), Lily Among the Thorns: Imagining a New Christian Sexuality (Wiley, John and Sons, 2007), and Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins (Orbis, 2004). De La Torre chairs the AAR's Status of Racial and Ethnic Minorities in the Profession Committee. In conjunction with his plenary address, he will be leading a workshop for faculty and graduate students on diversifying the field of religious studies for scholars from groups underrepresented within the Academy.

Marie Griffith is the John A. Bartlett Professor at the Harvard Divinity School. Griffith is the author of Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity (University of California Press, 2004) and God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (University of California Press, 1997). Her current research focuses on the role of sexuality among American evangelical Christians.

Kieran Scott is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Religion and religious studies department at Fordham University in New York City. He is the coeditor, with Harold Horell, of Human Sexuality in the Catholic Tradition (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007); and the coeditor, with Michael Warren, of Perspectives on Marriage: A Reader (3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2006).

Oprah: Gospel of an Icon

Paul Harvey

Another day, another author interview -- I was hoping to do this myself somewhere down the road, but no longer necessary as Immanent Frame's "Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life" has done it for me.

Kathryn Lofton's new book Oprah: Gospel of an Icon, is just out -- and just out in time for Oprah's new network, in what must surely be a divine coincidence. Check out the interview about the book here, where the author speaks with her usual panache. A little excerpt:

NS: What is it about how American religious history is studied now that has left Oprah not well-enough understood?

KL: I would say that the “how” of what we study is less problematic than the way we cordon our topics, which is very much an inheritance of our role as seminary church historians. I want to see more books written about objects that seem unlikely for religious studies, such as those seemingly in the purview of pop culture, but also those from economic and political arenas. Moreover, I think our disposition toward our subjects is often too tender for our own good. If on the one side we’ve been formed by our seminarian genealogies, on the other we inherit an abused mentality, one that flinches constantly at the possibility that elsewhere in the humanist ranks we’re being mocked for proximity to the religious subject. And so we appear, I think, often too defensive of our topics, believing they need caretaking before exposure to the imagined Marxist menace. So, if there is a critical edge to the book, it is to goad us to be less worried about explaining our subjects to their cultured despisers, and instead pursuing the mediations of their belief systems, the multiple functions of their ritual reiterations, and the social systems to which they reply and in which they participate

Read more about the book here, and more on the author here.

Myth of American Religious Freedom: Part II

Paul Harvey

Today we continue our interview with David Sehat, author of The Myth of American Religious Freedom.

PH: A good portion of your book is taken up with dissenters -- the abolitionists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mormons, freethinkers, and progressive intellectuals in the twentieth century. Time after time, they get beaten down by the moral establishment, yet in the end they more or less triumphed in crafting a new definition of religious freedom. Can you give us briefly one example of how you use dissenters in your book, and how they confronted and, over time, whittled away at the foundations of the moral establishment?

DS: Of all the people I talk about, my favorite is Elizabeth Cady Stanton. As most of your readers know, Stanton was a radical women’s rights activist who argued that the subservient place of women in law grew out of a Christian patriarchy. To make way for the emancipation of women, Stanton was relentless in her criticism of the connection of Christianity to law. According to her opponents, women’s liberation would entail societal degradation, because treating a woman as an individual before the law would undermine the institution of the family, the mechanism for inculcating morals in society. As a result, Christian proponents of the moral establishment placed the obligations of society over the desires of individual women such as Stanton. By contrast, Stanton placed the individual above society. She argued that laws too often required that the individual—especially the female individual—to be “sacrificed to the highest good of society,” which was the fundamental error of the moral establishment. She claimed instead that a society could not suppress the individual and still uphold the highest social good. Only when individuals possessed full freedom would the possibilities of a society be realized.

Stanton laid out the basic question in the debate, which was: which is most basic, the society or the individual? This claim about the importance of the individual and of individual rights in a liberal, democratic society circulated among the many dissenters to the moral establishment in the nineteenth century. But the notion did not finally triumph until the twentieth century, through progressive intellectuals, such as Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann, and liberal legal theorists, such as Louis Brandeis, who used the Court to enforce individual rights.

PH: You hit liberal justices pretty hard for misusing history, particularly in claiming a strict separationist position on the First Amendment that basically never really existed. In other words, since the "wall of separation" is basically a historical myth, it is a bad idea to use that myth in reasoning in legal cases. How do you think those on the center/left of the spectrum should view your history of the moral establishment in making arguments favorable to their position? Is this akin to Brown v. Board –acknowledge crimes against freedom committed in the past, including by the Court, and just say we need a completely different model than that?

DS: Yes, that’s exactly right. Using bad history does not help public debate and it does not make stable law. Liberals should acknowledge that the past did not feature a harmonious arrangement of freedom that sprang from the minds of Jefferson and Madison. By reframing their arguments away from that bad history, I actually think liberals would strengthen their own position because the most powerful argument for liberal jurisprudence is historical. It goes something like this: Once upon a time, the individual was subject to religious oppression that used the apparatus of the state. But then the Supreme Court realized that the Bill of Rights, which defines the rights of American citizens, should apply to the states because the states were infringing upon the rights of the individual guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. As the Supreme Court began applying the Bill of Rights to the states, it made a host of questionable historical arguments. But it did so for a still legitimate purpose that is now under attack by religious partisans in the present. The Court sought to free the individual from oppression in order to make the United States into a liberal democracy. We can uphold those rulings while not repeating the same bad history, because acknowledging past Protestant power helps to show why the liberal jurisprudence is necessary.

The latter portion of the book deals with some more contemporary controversies and decisions, and you suggest very strongly that the Roberts Court, when it has the chance, will "continue to aid political conservatives and religious activists in rehabilitating the moral establishment." This is a different argument than I have seen from some other legal scholars, who have suggested that recently the Supreme Court has moved more towards a position of shying away from big religion decisions, because First Amendment law as to what is or is not a "religion" has just become a huge mess of contradictory decisions (as in the one a few years ago allowing for the use of a religious symbol in a public place in one state, but disallowing it in another state). In what ways do you foresee a possibly more activist court under Roberts, and why would it be interested in rehabilitating a moral establishment that has led to so much dissent and conflict over two centuries, as you trace in your book?

DS: It depends upon what you mean by “big religion decisions.” I agree that the Court seems chastened by the daunting (if not impossible) theoretical task of defining religion in a way that is fair and stable and does not violate the establishment clause. But I don’t think that this strongly conservative Court is going to calmly accept past liberal jurisprudence. Part of my argument is precisely that a case doesn’t have to be about “religion” per se to uphold religious power.

Consider two cases. The Court currently has a case before it that involves an Arizona law which funnels money to private religious schools through a complicated tax credit system. I find this an instructive case. In the nineteenth century, Protestants controlled the schools but they lost that control in the mid-twentieth century as the Supreme Court forbade prayer and Bible-reading in schools. When the Supreme Court dismantled religious control over schools, religious conservatives began to advocate the use of public money in private schools. The Arizona law is in that tradition of seeking an end-run around mid-twentieth-century legal decisions. The state claims that the money given to private, often sectarian schools is not public money because an individual donates the money to a school and is then reimbursed by the state through a tax credit (not a tax deduction) on a matching basis up to a certain amount. As a result, Arizona claims, it cannot be considered a violation of the establishment clause. This sounds like money laundering to me, and I would like to think that the Court would strike it down. But the last thirty years has seen the Court ever more comfortable in providing public money to private schools, even private sectarian schools. If the Court upholds the Arizona law, it would be in keeping with the general jurisprudential trend of rehabilitating Christian schools through the use of public money.

The second case that bears watching is the California gay marriage case, which is going to wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court has been amenable in the recent past to the notion that the law cannot be used to advance private moral norms. In Lawrence v. Texas in 2002, Justice Kennedy used that argument to strike down all anti-sodomy laws in the United States. Moreover, in 1967 when the Court struck down miscegenation laws, it ruled, “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the most vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” Putting these two opinions together might suggest that the Court will uphold gay marriage, but it is not at all clear. As usual, the decision seems likely to boil down to Kennedy’s position. He wrote the opinion striking down sodomy law but did not give any indication of his stance on gay marriage. If I had to read the tea leaves (always a dangerous practice), I’m not optimistic that the Court will rule in favor of gay rights because I don’t think it likely that Kennedy will use the same kind of argument that he made in Lawrence. I hope I’m wrong, but should the Court strike down gay marriage, the ruling would, once again, serve as an extension of religious power.

PH: Getting to the bottom line: in 3 or 4 sentences, can you tell us what is the single most important takeaway point you want people to get from your book?

DS: I think it is time that we stopped celebrating ourselves. And by “we” I mean both liberals and conservatives. This nationalist self-celebration has generated a debate on religion in public life whose most notable feature is a pervading sense of falsity. By looking squarely at the religious coercions of the past and the multiple limits of religious freedom, I’m hoping that we can have a new conversation—both a more honest conversation and a more productive one—on a better historical foundation.

Thanks for the stimulating questions, Paul, and thanks again for reading the book.

The Myth of American Religious Freedom: Interview with David Sehat

Paul Harvey

In the tradition of this blog of posting author interviews from recently published important works in our field (when we're not thinking about zombies, or finding paeans to Sarah Palin on YouTube), I'm pleased today and tomorrow to post a two-part interview with David Sehat, author of the new book The Myth of American Religious Freedom, just out with Oxford.

We've blogged about the book in pre-release before, and I made some false promises to put up a post about Sehat's book together with Sally Gordon's The Spirit of the Law. Sadly, that post will have to wait until the tsunami of the semester calms down a bit, but I believe putting those two books together provides a most stimulating narrative (complementary on some points, contrasting on others) of the intellectual (Sehat) and social (Gordon) history of the concept of religious freedom. In the meantime, here is part one of our interview with David Sehat. You may follow more of his thoughts from his book over at U.S. Intellectual History, where he is a contributor and has recently posted great stuff based on the book, and also check out his recent entry at the Huffington Post, which contains an extensive summary of some of the major themes of the book.

Interview with David Sehat, Part I

Paul Harvey (PH): David, the central phrase in your book is "moral establishment," and you argue that for much of American history we have had a "moral establishment that connected religion and the state." Can you briefly define what you mean by this term for our readers, and why you have chosen to make it central to your book?

David Sehat (DS): Paul, thanks for reading the book and for interviewing me.

When I began researching this book, I was reading the letters and writings of a nineteenth-century agnostic named Robert Ingersoll. My intention was to write a book about American freethought or American agnosticism as a way of showing the informal power of Protestant Christianity. But as I read Ingersoll’s papers, I came across a case (he was a lawyer) that puzzled me. In 1886, he unsuccessfully defended a man named Charles B. Reynolds, who was being tried on two counts of blasphemy. I was stumped: How could a man be convicted of blasphemy nearly one hundred years after the passage of the First Amendment? As I went deeper into the case, my confusion grew. I discovered that blasphemy law existed for much of the nineteenth century, even if its enforcement was erratic. According to its proponents, criticizing Christianity or any elements of Christianity undermined the public foundation for morals. I also discovered that blasphemy was similar to many other kinds of law in that Protestant Christian ideas received the formal protection of law, which was a surprise to me. In other words, the judgments in this case, and many others, only made sense if Christianity was something like an official religion that relied upon the protection of the law.

To make sense of what was going on, I borrowed the idea of a “moral establishment” from the legal scholar John Witte Jr. Taking Witte’s concept further than he might have intended (and probably not in a way that he would agree with), I claim that the moral establishment involves the use of law to perpetuate Christian morals in society. The more I researched, the more I saw that this moral establishment was one of the chief mechanisms throughout American history by which Protestant Christian partisans maintained religious power over society in often illiberal ways.

: You spend a good amount of time criticizing positions on the left and on the right of our current politics, in terms of how they employ religious history to make their favored points about religion/state issues (and moral issues generally). What do you think each side gets basically wrong about history, and if you were anointed Historical King, what would you tell your subjects about how to use history properly in framing arguments about present-day concerns?

: I see both the Left and the Right as misguided in their understanding of the past. Both regard American religious history as a history of freedom that is threatened by the policies of the other side. But I don’t see U.S. history as a history of religious freedom. Instead, I see U.S. history as predominantly one in which Protestant Christians used law and politics to maintain religious power. That is evident in the case of blasphemy laws, but also in a host of other laws and practices that survived for much of U.S. history. It was only in the mid-twentieth century that the Supreme Court began dismantling this connection between religion and the state in order to mitigate religious power and to protect the individual. The Court’s actions caused religious conservatives to mobilize for the restoration of their past power, thus beginning the culture wars of the last fifty years.

So my problem with much of the political debate over the role of religion in public life, especially when that debate invokes history, is that the various parties are simply enacting the culture wars rather than using history to frame their arguments in a meaningful way. As a result, the history is bad on all sides. Liberals are too tendentious when they claim a separation of church and state in the past. To them, I say that Christianity was so thoroughly entwined with law and government that Protestant Christianity had significant power through its connection with the state. And I have to say that when conservatives claim that the United States was a Christian nation in the past, in a certain sense they are right. But I also have a problem with religious conservatives, because the past was not the Christian utopia that some of them claim. Christians relied upon law to protect their religion. And what law involves, above all else, is the coercive capacities of the state. So if we say that the United States was a Christian nation in the past, we must also say that it was a coercively Christian nation.

At bottom, I think all discussions about religion in public life have to acknowledge this past of religious coercion so that, while addressing present day concerns, we can be sure that we do not go back to that coercive past.

: I have often used the phrase "de facto establishment," or "de facto Protestant establishment," in classes, to suggest something of the informal Protestant establishment of the 19th century (the phrase you use in the book is "informal religious establishment," which you then go on to critique as wrong). In effect, your book suggests that my phrasing is wrong, because it fails to capture the legally coercive nature of the moral establishment. So, can you tell me how, in classroom setting, I should explain to students how and why we had effectively a legal establishment even after the First Amendment said we couldn't have one?

: Perhaps we can introduce more concepts than just “legal establishment.” First, we have to explain to students that the religion clauses of the First Amendment did not apply to the states until 1940. The Bill of Rights, for much of American history, applied only to the federal government: at the time when the First Amendment was ratified, six states still paid churches out of the public treasury and continued to be free to do so under the Frist Amendment. To put it most clearly: students need to understand that the First Amendment is really beside the point when we are talking about religious establishments and religious power prior to 1940.

Second, we can explain to students what exactly we mean by an “establishment.” As I mentioned earlier, I rely on John Witte Jr., who argues that there are three components of the American religious establishment: institutional, ceremonial, and moral. Institutional establishment is when states pay churches with public funds. Ceremonial establishment is when states incorporate an homage to God as part of their public ritual ceremonies (like swearing on a Bible or saying “So Help Me God” in the oath of office). And moral establishment is when states draw upon the moral ideas of Christianity (or Protestant Christianity) to craft their laws. When states finally decided to stop paying churches—in other words, when they did away with institutional establishment—there were still two other components of the American religious establishment in place.

I think the moral establishment is the most important because it enabled Protestant Christians to use the idea of morality to establish a special place for their religion in law. As a result, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and freethinkers, along with a host of others who purportedly failed to demonstrate proper moral norms, faced an active and state-sponsored discrimination that grew out of Protestant legal control.

: The American Missionary Association (AMA) was one of the primary institutional expressions in the nineteenth century of what you call the "moral establishment." Yet its vision for southern blacks after the Civil War, "education for citizenship," eventually gave way to what you call the "white Southern vision of the moral establishment . . . in which maintaining moral order, in this case with a decidedly racial cast, overcame the black argument for individual and equal rights." Do you see this as a case where the center of the moral establishment could not hold? Or I'll put the question another way, paraphrasing Randolph Bourne's famous question to John Dewey about the support of progressive liberals for World War I: if the moral establishment was so dominant, and so (as you frequently suggest) coercive, then how was it so weak as to not be able to prevent the coming of the Civil War, or do anything about the horrific carnage of the Civil War (except to give it religious meaning)?

: This is a great question, thanks for asking it. I don’t want to claim that the moral establishment was all-powerful or even powerful enough to stop the Civil War. I want to make the opposite case: the issue of slavery split the moral establishment, with southern proponents claiming that slavery was an institution for the perpetuation of Christian society and northern proponents seeing slavery as a state-sponsored concession to evil and, therefore, not within the moral establishment. This split allowed for a host of dissenters, mainly radical abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and women’s rights proponents such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to challenge the moral establishment by rejecting the idea that religious sensibilities should have a central place in public policy debates.

My narrative here tries to answer the same question that many other writers have sought to answer: why did this moment of liberalism and individual rights during Reconstruction prove so evanescent? I suggest that this liberal moment came into being through the division of the moral establishment over the issue of slavery, a division that gave proponents of individual rights the upper hand. The AMA, the dominant organization of the northern moral establishment after the Civil War, did in certain respects favor individual rights but, ultimately, its low view of black racial capacity meshed with that of the southern moral establishment. The moral establishment came back together after the Civil War around their desire for denominational harmony and their suspicion of black rights—in other words, around a shared distrust of individual rights. This allowed establishment proponents to again maintain their collective (and, in this case, racist) moral norms and undermined the Reconstruction moment of liberal individualism.

[2nd half of interview will be posted tomorrow; stay tuned!]

Sacred Steel

Paul Harvey

A while back I blogged a bit about this unusual text: Robert Stone, Sacred Steel: Inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition. The author also has produced a documentary video for the Arhoolie Foundation, Sacred Steel, which I hope to track down soon. Some wonderful examples of this tradition can be heard also on the 3 CD set Fire in My Bones: Raw + Rare + Otherworldly African American Gospel, 1944-2007 (the link takes you to my former post on that CD set). Here's a short review from Choice on the Sacred Steel book, which I hope will interest some of you:

Stone, Robert L. Sacred steel: inside an African American steel guitar tradition. Illinois, 2010. 280p bibl discography index videography afp; ISBN 9780252035548, $80.00; ISBN9780252077432 pbk, $25.00. Reviewed in 2011feb CHOICE.
In a consideration of African American music, one might not readily encounter the names of Chuck Campbell, Calvin Cooke, Little Willie Eason, Lorenzo Harrison, Glenn Renard Lee, Henry Randolph Nelson, or Robert Randolph. All these musicians were affiliated with music of the indigenous black American Holiness Pentecostal churches, music in which the steel ("Hawaiian") guitar plays an important role. Arcane though this information might seem, Stone (an independent folklorist) shows its importance both in its own right and in its relation to other musical and spiritual aspects of African American culture. This is a tale of personal discovery, a path that started in Florida two decades ago but broadened to California, Canada, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Bahamas as Stone investigated the liturgy and practices of the denomination and specific congregations. The photographs, videography, extensive bibliography, lengthy discography, and register of more 100 interview sessions reveal the implications of this music for those interested in African American culture (musical and religious) and folk and popular music traditions.Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. -- D.-R. de Lerma, Lawrence University

A Wanton Woman

Paul Harvey

We've blogged here before about Leigh Schmidt's new biography of Ida Craddock; yesterday's All Things Considered on NPR features the book, and an interview with Schmidt -- and there's a review of it featured here. Here's a little excerpt from the written material accompanying the story:

Schmidt deals sentences just as lapidary as his subtitle (The Unpredictable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman) leads us to expect. "Since the end of the eighteenth century," he writes, "a good number of freethinkers had seen such fertility symbolism as a rich lode to mine for anticlerical nuggets, but no woman had ever joined this particular fraternity of gentlemanly dilettantes and antiquarians." And later: "The pile of unpublished manuscripts that [Craddock] produced (on everything from lunar mythology to heavenly bridegrooms to animal rites) left little doubt about the extent of her egghead dedication."

You can read an excerpt from the book here, and our previous blogging on the book here. Also, Religion Dispatches has an interview with Schmidt here, in which the author talks about his scholarly "superegoes" that hovered over him as he was writing about this unconventional and somewhat scandalous topic.

The Latest Religious Data

Kevin M. Schultz

Who knew Jews were the most loved religious group in America? The least loved? The Mormons. Sadly, it is also they who love everyone the most. Tough to be a Mormon I guess, all that giving, nothing in return (save heaven).

Speaking of heaven, who knew that a huge swath of the American people think that celestial reward is not reserved only for their own people? Many a head-shaking minister say their flock know not what they say, but the polling data is there.

These are some of the findings of a relatively recent arrival in the American Religious History world, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by sociologists Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) and David E. Campbell. The book's central claim is that Americans are incredibly polarized in their religious beliefs, but also that they are incredibly tolerant of others.

For us historians, the authors also propose a three-stage progression as to how we became that way: (1) the "sixties" add a whole bunch of sexual licentiousness to our culture (especially legalized abortion and rights for homosexuals); (2) the religious right emerges in response, peaking in the early 1990s; and (3) the "millennials" (those who came of age around the millennium) are so turned off by the religious right they flee organized religion, thus accounting for the dramatic rise of the "nones."

It's an interesting theory, one we should chew on. I'm struck by the fact that a decade-and-a-half ago more than 85 percent of Americans considered themselves Christian but now it's hovering around 75 percent. Really? That's a large drop, perhaps too large to be accounted for by worries about the religious right? I'm also struck by the authors' portrayal of the 1950s as religiously placid, which they most certainly weren't. Nevertheless, it's a book worth grappling with, and something that should be consulted before we start talking about how many Americans believe in what and why. If you want to know more about my thoughts, I've written a brief review of it for Wilson Quarterly--subscription required for the full review.

In the Beginning...What?

by Heath Carter

For the second spring in a row, I am teaching "History of Religion in the United States" at Loyola University Chicago. The class meets once a week on Thursdays from 4:15-6:45pm, meaning that I am working against not only short attention spans but also serious hunger pains and wish-it-was-Friday already syndrome.

Nevertheless, things got off to a promising start yesterday. I gave a lecture that focused on life in Pueblo New Mexico on the eve of Spanish arrival, the experience of conquest, the establishment of Franciscan doctrinas, the possibilities of resistance, etc (based mostly off of Ramon Gutierrez's When Jesus Came, The Corn Mothers Went Away (1991)). We followed that up with a discussion of Lauren Maffly-Kipp's essay, "Eastward, Ho! American Religion from the Perspective of the Pacific Rim," which can be found in Retelling U.S. Religious History (1997), edited by Thomas Tweed (I imagine most readers know of this book already, but for those who don't, it's full of provocative essays, perfect for stirring up conversation in class). You could see the wheels turning as students struggled to re-imagine American religious history outside the trope of westward expansion, which is so pervasive in high school history classrooms.

And I will admit, often in mine. While I am committed to starting somewhere other than aboard the Arbella (we get there toward the end of week 2) and was generally very pleased with the conversation yesterday, I haven't yet figured out how to weave this initial class meeting seamlessly into the rest of the course. This is mainly because I go on to foreground the nation. By dealing extensively with themes of race, class, and gender I try to move beyond the confines of older grand narratives, with their "confessional pitfalls," to borrow Maffly-Kipp's phrase. But in exploring questions about the way religion has historically shaped - and been shaped by - national political and economic currents, I do end up spending a lot of time on Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant). In this way my approach is certainly more traditional.

All this brings me to a question: where do others begin when teaching the American religious history survey? Many of the contributors to this site have participated at one time or another in IUPUI's seminar for young scholars in American religion, which you can learn more about here. Over the past twenty years this program has produced a treasure trove of syllabi for courses in American religious history, which are invaluably cataloged on the same site. For those of you who have posted syllabi there in years past, do you still begin your courses the same way? Or have you changed things up as you've gone along?

Going Straight to Hell on a Crazy Train

By Michael J. Altman

Combining Paul's post of a Sarah Palin version of a classic song and Kelly's post about zombies, I bring you the best parody of Ozzy Osbourne ever. This comes courtesy of Westboro Baptist Church, the church that loves Jesus but probably hates you:

That's right, WBC is protesting Ozzy Osborne--a few decades late, if you ask me--making it official: "God hates Ozzy Osborne!"

Zombies, Millennialism and Consumption

Kelly Baker

While perusing facebook yesterday, I happened upon a friend's event, entitled "Zombie Apocalypse." The end via shambling, brain-eating zombies is scheduled for December, 22, 2012, so please mark your calendars. It seems that the zombie apocalypse follows very closely behind the Mayan calendar's end on December 21 of the same year (unless you believe new estimates.) What was striking to me was not that such an event existed, since facebook is a world of random events, fandom, and strange pages, but rather the number of people attending said event. According to the event page this morning, 521, 035 people are attending, 80, 798 are maybe attending, and 289, 558 have politely declined their invitation to a gun-toting, gore-filled end. While some might still be shilling for the Mayan apocalypsis, zombies appear to be the vogue way for the world to end.

Zombies have become a sci-fi/horror/fantasy genre staple. From the popularity of AMC's The Walking Dead to Romero's zombies and their legacies in film to Max Brooks's franchise of World War Z and the survival guide to various anthologies (The Living Dead I and II, Zombies, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and my personal favorite Zombies vs. Unicorns), the zombie apocalypse is a cottage industry. While I could reflect on what the zombie apocalypse teaches us about (in)human nature, gore, or the necessity of high power weaponry, I think the more pressing and interesting point for scholars of American religion and popular culture is the pervasiveness of this genre and the continued presence of catastrophic millennialism in American popular culture.

Michael Barkun discusses the "pervasive millennialism" of American culture in which end times theologies and scenarios are popular and consumable. Pervasive millennialism works because of the commodification of these ideas. Do you need to be briefed in the Mayan calendar? Buy this book or dvd. Need to survive zombies on the front step? Please purchase one of the many survival guides, necessary hardware, and stock up with food. Need to ride out the looming end (of any variety)? Please buy your rations for a year at Costco. Want to know how the world looks post-Rapture? Purchase the Left Behind series. Perhaps, one wants to survive post-apocalypse? Download various films via Netflix, read Cormac McCarthy's The Road or maybe not, or pick up any number of young adult fiction titles from Carrie Ryan (zombies) to Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games trilogy), pick up survivalist gear and stock up food. We can consume the end and all its possible varieties. What is clear from the proliferation of end times products is the hope and fervor that the right products can save us. Read, watch, stock and prepare.

In her excellent book, Tourists of History (2007), Marita Sturken argues that cultures of fear and paranoia bolster "consumer practices of security and comfort" (5). This "comfort culture" allows Americans to purchase goods that supposedly might protect us, and this "culture of comfort functions as a form of depolitization and as a means to confront loss, grief and fear through processes that disavow politics"(6). We consume supplies to comfort ourselves in the face of global war, domestic politics and personal strife. Moreover, Sturken claims that often Americans seek to be "tourists of history" who remain distant to the sites they visit, where they are often defined as innocent outsiders, mere observers whose actions are believed to have no effect on what they see" (10). As I read Sturken's book, I couldn't help but wonder if maybe apocalyptic consumption functions as a "culture of comfort." Purchasing survival guides or survivalist training, reading books, watching films that direct us how to kill zombies, purchasing a year's worth of food can all provide comfort. Americans are often "tourists" of the apocalypse.

Apocalyptic thinking is rife with paranoia, conspiracy and fear, and the genre of apocalyptic tales is as well. Consuming (products of) the end provides comfort that the end is not quite here but could be. Products can "save" us. The comment sections of the "Zombie Apocalypse" event page makes this obvious: what weapons, cars, tools, etc. might you need. Folks discussing the merits of a Louisville slugger over various guns or axes or other household objects. Part of my interest is the question of what does this mean about not only apocalyptic thinking but also about more secular visions of millennialism? What is at stake if we are "tourists" of the end? Why does consumerism go hand-in-hand with visions of catastrophe and the undead?

It is at this point that I wish already had Katie Lofton's book on Oprah. [Editor's note: Lofton's Oprah is available, so I misspoke early]. Now granted, I imagine Oprah doesn't have much to save about zombies but I bet Lofton has much to say about how products can save and how consumerism can become religious practice and devotion. Moreover, if half a million people are excited about the prospect of taking down zombies, then what is at stake in the consumption of this particular end? Why is the zombie apocalypse comforting? And why am I more and more convinced that apocalypticism functions as a comfortable rhetorical and imaginary space? If the apocalypse provides comfort, products can save us, then how might we understand the role of popular culture in the study of American religion?

[Cross posted at www.kellyjbaker.com]

Religion and the New Congress

Chris Beneke

The Pew Forum's religious survey of the 112th Congress (table on the right is theirs) is out. No surprise that Protestants and Catholics abound, though roughly in line with their proportion of the overall population. Perhaps also unsurprising to historians will be the fact that 69% of Congressional Republicans identify as Protestant, while 34% of Congressional Democrats identify as Catholic and 15% as Jewish. Pew also reports:
A few of the country’s smaller religious groups, including Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Jews, have greater numerical representation in Congress than in the general population. Some others, including Buddhists and Muslims, are represented in Congress in roughly equal proportion to their numbers in the adult U.S. population. And some small religious groups, such as Hindus and Jehovah’s Witnesses, are not represented at all in Congress.

Perhaps the greatest disparity between the religious makeup of Congress and the people it represents, however, is in the percentage of the unaffiliated – those who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” According to information gathered by CQ Roll Call and the Pew Forum, no members of Congress say they are unaffiliated. By contrast, about one-sixth of U.S. adults (16%) are not affiliated with any particular faith. Only six members of the 112th Congress (about 1%) do not specify a religious affiliation, which is similar to the percentage of the public that says they don’t know or refuses to specify their faith.
The apparent non-electability of the unaffiliated might prompt us to again ask what exactly "unaffiliated" means. It may not be the same thing as agnosticism or atheism (a 2006 Baylor survey in fact indicated that a healthy majority of the un-affiliated "believe in God or some higher power") though it might be fairly close (Pew itself concluded that "the majority of the unaffiliated population ... is made up of people who simply describe their religion as 'nothing in particular.'") If we were examining these numbers the way early American historians and journalists study the founders, we might also wonder about the percentage of deists residing among both the non-affiliated and the affiliated.

As the Pew report notes, the change from the 111th Congress is very modest. However, the change from the 87th (1961-62) Congress is significant with Catholics (who have gone from 19 to 29% of the total) and Jews (who have gone from 2 to 7% of the total) now serving in noticeably larger numbers. I'm looking forward to Kevin Schultz's forthcoming Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held America to Its Protestant Promise (Oxford UP, due in March) to help us shed some light on all of this.

Battle Hymn of the Palin

Paul Harvey

Ok, enough already with the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother; this one is more interesting. I normally leave this kind of stuff to Randall, our resident analyst of Christian kitsch, but it's mid-week in January, all of my teams are out of the playoffs, and I needed some cheering up. Also, the male singer here has a very nice, resonant George Jones-quality to his voice, and there's no bigger fan of George Jones than me (listen to the second line, "ingrained with common sense"; that's some pure Jones musical intonation there). As for the lyrics, well, this is not Stephen Sondheim, but what can you do?

Research on Religion

by Matt Sutton

Normally I would not recommend anything associated with the University of Washington. However, they have an excellent political scientist who is moonlighting in the virtual world at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. Anthony Gill has begun a wonderful new podcast series entitled Research on Religion, which features in-depth discussions about religion with both practitioners and academics. Past episodes include Philip Jenkins and the ubiquitous Thomas Kidd, and this month Tony interviewed me about my work on Aimee Semple McPherson. Go Cougs!

Cain on the Brain

Emily Clark

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Cain. This certainly is not the most healthy topic to be contemplating – with the violence and family murder – but these things happen when one is in a religion department. Last week in a seminar on religious intolerance, we read René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred, and for this week, we’re reading Regina Schwartz’s The Curse of Cain. But this isn’t the primary manner in which Cain keeps coming across my laptop screen. Rather, his identity and his “mark” are wrapped up in America’s past with African slavery. When it comes to Christian pro-slavery arguments, Ham is typically the star historical player (Sylvester Johnson’s The Myth of Ham provides a great exploration of this). Identifying Noah’s curse as biblically legitimate proof that Africans’ natural state is one of enslavement, nineteenth century American slave-owners stood by their rhetoric through a civil war.

Ham’s bad behavior was not the only piece of Christian scripture southerners lifted from the text. In 1850, the Southern Presbyterian Review printed an article titled “The Mark of Cain and Curse of Ham;” and in it, the author cites both these biblical figures to argue that “the special Providence of God” created “the varieties found existing in the family of man.” Providing religious justification for the racial differences perceived around them, pro-slavery Americans argued for the religious origins and morality of slavery. And this kind of religiously-grounded language translated into other rhetorical realms, such as legislation. In the infamous 1857 Dred Scott case, Chief Justice Taney’s majority opinion explained how African slaves and their descendants were not US citizens. Through his (questionable) reading of the Constitution, Taney wrote that blacks “were never thought of or spoken of except as property” throughout America’s legal history. Even more important for this particular historian, Taney states that “the unhappy black race were separated from the white by indelible marks.” Slavery, racism, and “marks” call to mind a certain Old Testament verse. Though I’m not certain (I’ll get back to you at the end of the semester after writing an anticipated seminar paper), these “indelible marks” referenced by Taney seem related to contemporary readings of Genesis 4:15. After killing his brother Abel, Cain receives a “mark” from God, and some pro-slavery arguments interpreted this mark as darkened skin. Many point out how the American Constitution is literally “godless,” but religion has a sneaky kind of way of infiltrating legal rhetoric. Eric Slauter’s fairly recent cultural history of the Constitution, The State as a Work of Art, identifies how contemporaries to the Constitution understood the rights of man to be sacred, given by a Divine Providence, even if said Deity isn’t directly recognized. Is the Dred Scott decision an instance of religion diffusing from church buildings and into secular parlance? If it is, then it is certainly not alone. Yesterday the country remembered Martin Luther King, Jr., a man well-known for using religion in civil settings to push for legislation.

Gender and Religion in American Culture


Kelly Baker

For the spring semester, I am enjoying a rare privilege for lecturers, teaching a senior seminar. I am teaching Gender and Religion in American culture. This is basically a crash course for our majors and non-majors in the intersections between gender and religion, gender as analysis, and the complicated relationships between religion and sexuality in the U.S.. The course is reading heavy and requires a fairly substantial research project. Yet, it is only a sixteen week course, so I couldn't possibly cover all I might want to.

Here's a glimpse of the syllabus:

Description: This course covers the role of religion in lives of American women and men, gender as a category of analysis for the study of religion, the often-conflicted relationship between religion and sexuality, and perhaps most importantly, how religion and the religious construct, reconstruct and deconstruct gender norms. Religion informs gender, but gender also informs religious discourse. American men and women practice and live religion, and thus, religion cannot be separated from the sexed bodies we inhabit. Gender matters.

We will examine the pivotal role of religion in defining and constructing gender from Puritans to Salem Witch Trials to Spiritualism to muscular Christianity (including modern constructions of religion and sport) to contemporary debates over sexuality and abstinence to home birth to LGBTQ concerns to gender performativity. We will use historical and modern case studies to explore both the nature of femininity and masculinity in the religious lives of Americans.

Assignments: Research Project and Presentation, Gender as Analysis Paper (autobiographical paper on how gender impacts you), and a Field Visit.

Select Readings: Joan Scott, “Gender as a Useful Category of Analysis,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 91, No. 5 (Dec., 1986), pp. 1053-1075.

Ann Braude, “Women’s History is American Religious History” in Retelling U.S. Religious History, ed. Thomas Tweed, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

Pamela Klassen, “Sacred Maternities and Postbiomedical Bodies: Religion and Nature in Contemporary Home Birth,” Signs, 26:3, (Spring 2001), pp. 775-809.

Marilyn J. Westerkamp, “Puritan Patriarchy and the Problem of Revelation,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 23:3, (Winter 1993), pp. 571-595.

Robert Orsi, “ ‘He Keeps Me Going’: Women’s Devotion to Saint Jude Thaddeus…” in Religion in American History: A Reader, eds. Jon Butler and Harry S. Stout, (Oxford: 1998).

Bret Carroll, “The Religious Construction of Masculinity in Victorian America: The Male Mediumship of John Shoebridge Williams,”Religion and American Culture, 7:1, (Winter 1997), 27-60.

Krista McQueeny,"We Are God's Children, Y'All:" Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Lesbian- and Gay-Affirming Congregations, Social Problems, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Feb., 2009), pp. 151-173.

The full syllabus is available here.

For this course, I am relying upon experiential and autobiographical assignments, so I'll post later about what happens. This is a new practice for me, and I think perhaps a concept like gender might make more sense if students have to apply it analytically to themselves. I've already done this. Selfishly, I want to think more about the role of autobiography in scholarship, so I am testing this out on my students as well as myself.

For readers of the blog, what might you assign for a gender in American religions course? What am I missing? What might be added?

Just a quick note to say, I did rely upon articles rather than books to expose students to many styles of gender scholarship in differing subfields (history as well as sociology, etc.) and topics rather than taking a solely historical approach.

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