Call for Proposals, SHA 2012, Mobile, AL



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Randall Stephens

Just received some more directions from Marjorie Spruill and Don Doyle on the 2012 SHA conference. They encourage those of us on the program committee to "help create a rich and broad program for 2012 by soliciting exciting proposals particularly in your field." My field, being your field, dear reader, so let's get at it!

Here's the general note about the Mobile conference:

The Program Committee for 2012 invites proposals on all topics related to the history of the American South from its pre-colonial era to today. In addition, for the 2012 meeting in Mobile, it extends a special welcome to proposals relating to:

~ Mobile and the Gulf South

~ International, transnational, or comparative approaches

~ 2012 as an anniversary of major historical events, publications, etc.

Any religious history anniversaries of note? How about the activities of Gulf South missionaries in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era? Religious responses to natural disasters? Religion and labor radicalism? Big Oil and the churches? . . .

Religion in American Literature, 2000-2010: Your Top 10 List



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Welcome back to our contributor to Everett Hamner, who's been goofing around doing research and teaching at Western Illinois instead of spending time on the all-important business of blogging. Below are his thoughts on ten recent pieces of American literature, of all genres, which show the vitality of religion in American literary culture. Feel free to add your own suggestions for a top ten list in the comments section.

Religion in American Literature, 2000-2010
by Everett Hamner

As one of the literary types haunting this blog, and in small recompense for all I learned about American religious history from my just-graduated Young Scholars in American Religion cohort, I thought some of you might appreciate these recommendations of 21st-century novels and graphic narratives to teach, reference, or just enjoy. Beyond their individual quality, my only criteria for inclusion was that they significantly engage religious questions and that they had not been discussed before at Religion in American History. The resulting list is neither exhaustive nor even my own “top ten.” But it is relevant and eclectic, featuring postmodern doorstoppers and plot-driven page-turners, science fiction and realism, with main characters ranging from African American Protestants to a Catholic-Islamic-Hindu syncretist. I hope many of you discover something intriguing.

1) E. L. Doctorow, City of God (2000). The back cover promises “a detective story about a cross that vanishes from a Lower East Side church only to reappear on the roof of an Upper West Side synagogue.” That just scratches the surface. This postmodern collage of literary forms, including emails, jazz lyrics, free verse, and prayers, is definitely about something missing, but not so much the cross as the God presumed to have hung upon it. Yet this is not merely another expression of Dover Beachian despair. Featuring dark matter and quantum physics, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, Tillichian theology and “Evolutionary Judaism,” and early Christianity and modern filmmaking, the novel is worthy of its namesake. As an early passage has it, “That the universe, including our consciousness of it, would come into being by some fluke happenstance, that this dark universe of incalculable magnitude has been accidentally self-generated … is even more absurd than the idea of a Creator.” A.

2. Yann Martel, Life of Pi (2001). Martel’s novel is one of only a couple on this list that is neither by an American writer nor about American religion. Instead its settings are India, Mexico, Canada, and most of all, the Pacific Ocean. At one level, this is a fairly simple adolescent adventure story, a tale of shipwreck and survival. The twist is that the ship in question was carrying a zoo, so Pi’s lifeboat companions include an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger. Too fantastic, you say? Then let me assure you that this half-comedic narrative is framed so as to render the entire novel a study in epistemology and an inquiry into the nature of fiction, allegory, and metaphor. Oh, and because the main character believes that “religion is about our dignity, not our depravity,” he assumes that a loving God won’t mind if a growing boy is simultaneously a pious Catholic, Muslim, and Hindu … even if he doesn’t tell his priest, imam, or pandit. Pluralism, anyone? A-.

3) Brian K. Vaughn, Pia Guerra, and José Marzán, Jr. Y: The Last Man (2002-08).

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narrative is thriving in the new millennium, and I don’t just mean Left Behind. Now collected in book form, this widely-acclaimed comic series will turn off some with its graphic violence and sexuality, but those who tackle it will be rewarded with much more to ponder than the average superhero tale. Utilizing a premise going back to Mary Shelley, this globetrotting narrative interrogates potential mutations of feminism, homophobia, racism, genetic engineering, US nationalism, global terrorism, and religious fundamentalism. True to the genre, there is plenty of hyperbole, special effects, and tongue-in-cheek humor, but these lush panels are as consistently evocative as the plot is relevant. Surgeon General Warning: strangely addictive. B+.

4) Joe Sacco, Palestine (2002). And now for something intensely historical, just to counterbalance the colorful future of that last entry. Joe Sacco does in-depth reporting through immersing himself in the world’s least stable environs. Rather than a feature in The New York Times Magazine, however, the result is graphic narrative. This account of two months in the Occupied Territories in 1991-92 is an effort to uncover the personal dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. There are certainly references to larger-scale political maneuvering, but the core of this work is its on-the-ground tales, which come from both sides of the fences. The wounds of rock-flinging juvenile operatives, the devastation of a neighborhood’s olive trees (and thus some residents’ primary sources of income), the torture of political prisoners, women’s feelings about the hijab, and the obliviousness of Western tourists … material religion, indeed. B+.

5) Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing (2003). Richard Powers is best known for his mastery of scientific detail and his insights about human responses to new technologies. Like his stellar National Book Award-winning The Echo Maker (2005), this novel foregrounds evolution,but here the transformations are primarily of music, race, and religion. Spanning the second half of the twentieth century, particularly the civil rights movement and its legacy, this is not only a 600+ page meditation on jazz, opera, and classical music, but a compelling argument about America’s need to embrace racial hybridity, confront class divisions, and search deeper than religious labels. With a Jewish immigrant father and an African American mother, the brothers who are the novel’s main characters face the same sort of dilemmas observed by their father decades earlier. Among them: “If I want to get ahead, I must become a Christian. But if I use Christianity to get ahead, I lose my soul!” A-.

6) Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). “Faulkner without the pretension,” I thought upon reading Gilead’s last sentence. The Pulitzer selection committee must have felt similarly, and among these recommendations, Robinson’s interwoven novels are the most certain to appear on future American literature syllabi. But greatness is only one element of their appeal. If you need antidotes to megachurch spectacles or clergy sex scandals, these quiet works consider far more mundane matters. Very little occurs plot-wise, and even some of the major events take place offstage. What we do get is immense theological depth, attention to ordinary beauties and graces easily overlooked. We find main characters who are largely admirable andindeed wise rural Iowan pastors. Seriously, this is possible. Need more? Well, race plays a major role. And in covering the same events from the two old men’s perspectives, the novels become a single, very successful narrative experiment. They are also full of understated humor, as in this description of a home health care book: “It was large and expensive, and it was a good deal more particular than Leviticus.” Taken as a whole, what Gilead’s narrator says of a verse in the gospels may be what even the most informed readers feel about American Protestantism after finishing these masterpieces: “You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completelyignorant of it.” A+.

7) Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2007). I debated listing this novel, as I’m not sure it says anything explicit about religion, at least not if defined narrowly. But a single scene from its sparing journey through a barely recognizable, post-apocalyptic American wilderness should be enough to convey the work’s significance. Having walked for days with little to eat, a father and his small son find an underground emergency bunker in the yard of an abandoned home. If the reader has not already accompanied this pair through the bleakness of the preceding hundred pages, the sensory impact of the moment is impossible to fully convey, but suffice it to say that I will never look at a tin of canned fruit the same way. “He turned and looked at the boy crouched above him blinking in the smoke rising up from the lamp and then he descended to the lower steps and sat and held the lamp out. Oh my God, he whispered. Oh my God. What is it Papa? Come down. Oh my God. Come down. Crate upon crate of canned goods. Tomatoes, peaches, beans, apricots. […] He held his forehead in his hand. Oh my God, he said. He looked back at the boy. It’s all right, he said. Come down. Papa? Come down. Come down and see.” A-.

8) Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (2010). Speaking of food, here is one of the best science fiction novels of the decade, and the problem here is calories. Imagining a twenty-third century in which international oil obsessions have given way to scarcities of food production, the setting and artificial beings involved are remindful of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, but the setting is Thailand. As in Life of Pi, the religion here is syncretistic, but the strange combinations in play—Buddhists overlapping with Grahamites, with stories about “Noah Bodhisattva, who saved all the animals and trees and flowers on his great bamboo raft and helped them cross the waters”—are taken for granted. This is a compelling contribution to the cyberpunk tradition that invites readers to extrapolate from current religious, ethnic, and global economic tensions and then to reinvest in that future’s history. B+.

9) Ralph Ellison, Three Days Before the Shooting … (2010). Ralph Ellison worked for more than forty years on his follow-up to Invisible Man, but never could bring himself to finish. The reasons were legion, and have recently been thoroughly explored in Adam Bradley’s Ralph Ellison in Progress and Arnold Rampersad’s biography. Scholars of race and American literature are well aware of this struggle, but as I will likely argue in a future essay, those who study American religion should be, too. This 1100-page volume contains a wealth of archival material painstakingly organized and introduced by Bradley and John F. Callahan, including the most coherent 300+ pages of the second novel (which were originally published in 1999 as Juneteenth). Such an unfinished monstrosity may prove too massive for some to engage, but be not afraid: it includes many bite-sized excerpts that deal powerfully with civil religion, African American Protestantism, and the increasingly hybrid religious realities evident at the turn of the millennium. See especially the eight excerpts published by Ellison during his lifetime that appear at the volume’s conclusion. A-.

10) Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (2010). I’m cheating with this one, as I just discovered it myself and am only a hundred pages in. Given the praise garnered elsewhere, though, that’s enough to recommend it. With the 36 chapters receiving such titles as “The Argument from the Improbable Self” and “The Argument from the Irrepressible Past,” philosophers and theoretically-oriented historians of religion and science may be most immediately attracted, but this is compelling reading for anyone in the humanities whose afternoons are commonly devoted to faculty meetings and university lectures. Although several main characters are unapologetically brilliant, Goldstein holds nothing back in critiquing the posturing and petty divisions that characterize too much of academic life. Meanwhile, the novel’s equally serious and humorous reflections on the relationship of faith and knowledge and on modern dynamics of religion and secularism suggest an ear very close to the ground. A-, so far.

Emotion and Christianity: Call for Papers from Editors of Church History



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The following special journal CFP comes to us from John Corrigan, one of the editors of the journal Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, published by the American Society of Church History:

The editors of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture invite submissions for a special issue on the topic: “Emotion and Christianity: Feelings Toward and About Jesus and the Saints.” Papers may focus on any historical period and any geographical region. Please send queries or complete manuscripts to: Ms. Tammy Heise, Senior Assistant, Church History, Church-History@admin.fsu.edu.

What Catholic Reform Looks Like



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Paul Harvey

Recently we put up a guest post from Julie Ingersoll reviewing Colleen McDannell's new work The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America. This work, part family memoir and part religious history, was recently published by Basic Books.

There's a nice interview with Colleen about the book, up now here. Below, a little excerpt, which I hope will interest you in reading the rest:

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was perhaps the most important event in twentieth-century religious history. While there are many fine books about Vatican II, they focus either on the session debates or on the ideas contained in the Council documents. What I wondered about was how Vatican II influenced the lives of average American Catholics. What was parish life like before and after the Council? Did Vatican II really change anything?

It really is impossible to speak of “the American Catholic,” because of the ethnic, class, and regional differences. So, I decided to use my mother as the narrative thread to look at how certain Catholics negotiated the changes of the past century. I wanted to shift the discussion to girls, women, nuns, and parish life because the sex abuse scandals had yet again reduced Catholicism to a story of boys, men, priests, and bishops. I also thought that it was about time that religious historians take seriously mobile, middle-class life in the suburbs, especially in the western United States.

Hard Times Ain't Gonna Rule My Mind



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Paul Harvey

What do Reinhold Niebuhr and Gillian Welch/David Rawlings have to do with each other? Nothing, you say, and that would be correct; everything, I say, and that's probably a stretch to say the least, but it's a reflection that came this morning reading/listening to two entirely unrelated pieces (update: now, three pieces, see the update below).

In "Religious Realism," over at The Book, Alan Wolfe reviews Why Niebuhr Now?, a posthumuously published work by the intellectual historian John Patrick Diggins. Wolfe provides a thoughtful review both of the book's strengths and weaknesses, as well as a nice short examination of Niebuhr himself, including a couple of sentences related to the subject to come shortly: "Niebuhr was of course serious, at times ponderous, himself. Yet he consistently warned against the kind of seriousness that dismisses the ironies inherent in human existence."

I happened to be reading that while listening to The Harrow and the Harvest, the new and long-awaited recording by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings -- you can listen to it in full (for the next couple of weeks or so, I think), here, courtesy of NPR Music (big HT to Deg for pointing me there).

Welch's musical persona always has been inspired by the kinds of struggles, personal journeys, dreams, and frustrated longings of characters that seem to step from the interwar years, updated a bit sometimes but carrying the kind of message and leading the kinds of lives of people that Reinhold Niebuhr's southern-born students (including Howard Kester and many others) and their comrades and co-workers (including Claude Williams and Owen Whitefield, discussed at full length in Jarod Roll and Erik Gellman's new book The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor's Southern Prophets in New Deal America) worked and lived among during some of the tougher years of the twentieth century. Heath will be posting a full-length interview with the authors of that book soon, so stay tuned for that.

"Hard times ain't gonna rule my mind," Gillian Welch sings, reflecting the characteristic determination of her song-characters to survive the vicissitudes that befall them, both those dictated by fate and those they bring on themselves. These are stories of American religious realism, in this case perhaps more personal and less archetypical or self-consciously mythical than in some of her previous records. At their best, the songs poignantly reflect on the ironies inherent in human existence.

UPDATE: Jim Sleeper of Yale University sent me his review of the same book by Diggins, about Niebuhr, which just confirmed the conclusions I reached above about Niebuhr's theology as lived out in the characters in Welch's songs. More than a simple review, Sleeper's short piece aptly summarizes some of the most important conclusions Niebuhr reached in his work, and how they apply today. As Sleeper explains:

The faith, although Christic and biblical, turned paradoxically on humans’ experience not of God’s presence, but of his absence. Niebuhr’s “religious vocation was to doubt religious certainty,” as Diggins puts it: “Genuine religion is always a struggle between belief and unbelief.”

That struggle is inevitable, Niebuhr held, because, on the one hand, our individual finitude and mortality make us experience the wonder, love, and yearning that generate religion, art, and compassion. On the other hand, because we’re limited and doomed as creatures, we’re also willfully or wistfully doomed as creators, with no external vantage points or leverage on history. That predicament generates incessant flights into illusory self-importance, power, omniscience, and material security—and therefore into idolatries of rugged individualism, liberal universal nationalism, the invisible hand, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the global village, and techno-nirvana.

As Welch sings, "the Great Destroyer sleeps in every man."

Sunday, in the Park



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Paul Harvey

You wouldn't think it was the 4th of July in the showdown between the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church at some Memorial Day remembrances at Arlington National Cemetery. You can't make this stuff up, even when you just so happen to have a historical analysis of the 2nd Ku Klux Klan's white Christian nationalism on its way out soon. My co-conspirator Kelly Baker looks at this bizarre confrontation here, in an op-ed piece for History News Network.

Some other pieces catching attention lately in our Sunday roundup:

I just finished reading Jennifer Burns's book Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, a completely fascinating biography and analysis of the impact of Rand's works as a historic "gateway drug to the right." The religious metaphors quickly come to mind when looking at how the aggressively proselytizing atheist worked to control her own cult of personality, how heretics from her "Collective" were shunned and exiled, how "The Collective" was sardonically named but eerily apt as a descriptor, and how her novelistic heroes operated as godlike mythical heroes and heroines.

Unlike Hobbits or children residing in Hogwarts, Rand's heroes have proven impossible to transfer to movies or television mini-series, the genius of the market having rejected at the box office movie adaptations of her agitprop novels. Peter Travers writes of this most recent screen adaption of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's monumental 1,168-page, 1957 novel gets the low-budget, no-talent treatment and sits there flapping on screen like a bludgeoned seal. Our local (Colorado) AM agitprop specialist Mike Rosen, of 850 AM radio out of Denver, hosted a special screening and wrote a series of god-awful editorials for the Denver Post attemtping to flog the film. Rosen provided post-screening commentary together with Michael "heck of a job" Brown, lately of FEMA and Katrina fame, and host of the nightly show on same said "blowtorch" of Colorado radio. The rapture is sounding better by the moment.

Author Jennifer Burns also covers how much William F. Buckley, Whittaker Chambers, and others of that pioneering conservative generation hated Rand, and how she returned the favor. Rand also apparently didn't think much of that noted collectivist sympathizer Friedrich Hayek, but then there was almost no one else that she did like. Hayek didn't really have a problem philosophically, for example, with national health insurance, which of course put him in the same camp with the slaves rather than the individualists, in Rand's eyes. All of this has come back in the news now thanks to the Rand-inspired politics of Paul Ryan, a development discussed further over at Mark Silk's Spiritual Politics blog.

(A side note unrelated to this blog but just interesting to read about in this book anyway: In the late 60s/early 70s, Rand opposed the Vietnam War, which further angered many conservatives, while she celebrated in Kennedy-esque language the Apollo space program, which pissed off libertarians who already had sort of broken from her. As for her temper, let's just say that good thing Twitter wasn't around then).

Speaking of money uber alles and the cash nexus, my friend Lerone Martin has a very popular "Open Letter to Creflo Dollar," concerning Dollar's defense of Bishop Eddie Long, here.

In other news:

John Schmalzbauer has an outstandingly interesting review of Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt in the new Evangelical Studies Bulletin. No link for it, but click on the ESB link for quick and very inexpensive addition to the mailing list of this very informative newsletter. The link also gives you access to a number of back issues from 2007-2010, with lengthy and very substantive reviews of important recent works by Barry Hankins, Thomas Kidd, and many others.

In "Roots of Bachmann's Ambition Began at Home," the New York Times goes over some of the same material that the Rolling Stone did in Menckenian excess (except not as funny as Mencken), about the origins of Michele Bachmann's political career in Minnesota, only without the hypervenilation. Of her appearances speaking in church basements early in her career, one attendee remembers, “It felt like we were in a tent, like a revival,” Ms. Cecconi said. “It was obvious Michele was the star."

While Huntsman and Romney split families and compete for the same donor base, Bachmann is competing equally with Romney and trouncing the relatively unknown Huntsman in Iowa. The two candidates Romney and Huntsman have Tea Party trouble alike, while Huntsman moves away from Romney's position on his faith and his politics articulated in 2008; Matt Bowman explores Huntsman's new generational Mormonism here for New Republic. See also Russell Fox's response to Bowman's piece here -- Fox feels that it is not a generational difference between the business Mormonism of Romney and the more renegade style of Huntsman, but rather that "Huntsman doesn’t take his Mormonism quite as seriously as pioneer-stock Romney does." Both pieces are well worth reading.

We Don't Have to Call it "Holy War": Historicizing Michelle Bachmann



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Janine Giordano Drake

Is it just me, or does coverage these days of Michelle Bachmann these days sound like it was ripped right out of the journals of H.L Mencken in the hot Tennessee summer of 1925? Writes Rolling Stone Magazine this week in an article entitled, "Michelle Bachmann's Holy War,"

"Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions. She believes that the Chinese are plotting to replace the dollar bill, that light bulbs are killing our dogs and cats, and that God personally chose her to become both an IRS attorney who would spend years hounding taxpayers and a raging anti-tax Tea Party crusader against big government. She kicked off her unofficial presidential campaign in New Hampshire, by mistakenly declaring it the birthplace of the American Revolution. "It's your state that fired the shot that was heard around the world!" she gushed. "You are the state of Lexington and Concord, you started the battle for liberty right here in your backyard.... And later,

Bachmann's entire political career has followed this exact same pattern of God-speaks-directly-to-me fundamentalism mixed with pathological, relentless, conscienceless lying. She's not a liar in the traditional way of politicians, who tend to lie dully, usefully and (they hope) believably, often with the aim of courting competing demographics at the same time. That's not what Bachmann's thing is. Bachmann lies because she can't help it, because it's a built-in component of both her genetics and her ideology. She is at once the most entertaining and the most dangerous kind of liar, a turbocharged cross between a born bullshit artist and a religious fanatic, for whom lying to the infidel is a kind of holy duty."

Now, I know one could argue that it is Bachmann herself who is channeling William Jennings Bryan. She is not only bold, audacious, and self-assured, but she is right when she says that she is not alone in her cultural gripes. Sure- she participated in the homeschooling and "Christian school" movement, an odd practice for the moderns of the East Coast. However, this is not such an unusual circumstance in America's heartland. She fights an unspokenly regional and religious culture war, a war about principles, a war driven by nostalgia for a world gone by. Outwardly, though, she yearns for power in Washington. Even though she doesn't make a good impression on the media, she draws crowds. She talks about God openly and confidently, maintaining an audience I'm quite sure is divided between political supporters and lovers of spectacle. We could go on and on here, especially in discussing the Third Party Politics, the struggle for Bryan's nomination to the Democratic Party in 1896, and the way jeremiads figure in American political rhetoric.

However, I am not really surprised at Bachmann for taking this approach to politics. She has learned from history that icons in the Bryan mold may not win presidencies but do have the power to reconstruct party platforms. Bryan may have spelled the end of the Populist Party, but he brought many key points of Populism to the Democratic Party, and many of those eventually came to pass.

Who I am surprised at is the contemporary, secular humanist media that has not found a way to move beyond its 1920s predecessors. H. L Mencken reported in 1925,

The Scopes trial, from the start, has been carried on in a manner exactly fitted to the anti- evolution law and the simian imbecility under it.... The rustic judge, a candidate for re-election, has postured the yokels like a clown in a ten-cent side show, and almost every word he has uttered has been an undisguised appeal to their prejudices and superstitions. The chief prosecuting attorney, beginning like a competent lawyer and a man of self-respect, ended like a convert at a Billy Sunday revival. It fell to him, finally, to make a clear and astounding statement of theory of justice prevailing under fundamentalism.

In 2011, Rolling Stone, calls Bachmann a "zealot," "pathological," and a fundamentalist. We are told that Bachmann is

crazy — crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.

There is no mention of the history of Protestant Fundamentalism and its overlap with politics. No mention of the cultural and political shoulders she stands on. We are simply told to have fear. If this is all that the triumph of liberal, secular, scientific and widespread public education can show for us after 90 years of Clarence Darrows in our midst, the problem is not Michelle Bachmann.

I'd like to make Rolling Stone and other media outlets some recommendations for their news commentary. For some background on the religious and political history of Populism, perhaps starting with the works of Robert McMath, Joe Creech and Michael Kazin. Consider the history of Fundamentalism and its role in politics, perhaps starting with Joel Carpenter, George Nash, Leo Ribuffo, Darren Dochuk, and Preston Shires. For more on the politics of family within conservative Christian circles, start with Betty DeBerg, Bethany Moreton and Natasha Zaretsky.

And, I invite others to join me in naming more good books that help define the shoulders that Bachmann stands upon. Rolling Stone, has the news not reached you yet?: Even if evolution is not the law of the land in every public school in America, Science eventually won in twentieth century America. And not just the hard sciences, but the social sciences. We don't have to think of the next presidential election as a Holy War unless we want to. In fact, to call it holy war-- to accept the fight on those terms--is, if you ask me, to lose the war that is actually being waged.

Catholic Looks at American Culture in the Antebellum Era and the Mid-Twentieth Century: Two New Books



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Paul Harvey

Just a brief note on two new books that will be of interest to some readers here, both important pieces of scholarship on the Catholic relationship with American politics and culture.

First, a review from Choice, just below, on Catholics and slavery:

Wallace, W. Jason
. Catholics, slaveholders, and the dilemma of American evangelicalism, 1835-1860. Notre Dame, 2010. 200p index afp ISBN 026804421x pbk, $30.00; ISBN9780268044213 pbk, $30.00. Reviewed in 2011jul CHOICE.
Over the past 40 years, scholars have produced a cornucopia of quality scholarship detailing the importance of religion in the antebellum era and how particular religious ideas shaped competing visions of the American Republic, creating the context for and animating the Civil War. Wallace's fine volume elucidates the challenge Catholicism brought to that discourse. Its traditional theology challenged the individualism in the hermeneutics of northern and southern Protestants. Increasing German and Irish Catholic immigration threatened the English domination of the US. In five crisp chapters, Wallace (history, Samford Univ.) outlines how Catholicism debated the hegemonic discourse of Protestant-based acquisitive capitalism, articulated a traditional accommodation to slavery as a product of human sin, and asserted its own historic and ongoing contribution to the discussion of social morality and the proper sources of the Christian life. In their attempts to explain, Catholic leaders offered a powerful critique of nationalism and religion rooted solely in the authority of individual believers under the Constitution and Scripture, an intellectual impeachment given credence by the outbreak of Civil War. Catholicism offered an alternative vision rooted in tradition, realism, and theology. Summing Up:Recommended. All levels/libraries. -- E. R. Crowther, Adams State College

Next up, a book just received which appears to be a landmark study: Anthony Burke Smith, The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War, hot off the press from the University Press of Kansas. I've only had the chance to skim through parts, but it looks fascinating, and later this summer Emily will give us a more substantive discussion of the book up here.

A brief bit from the book's webpage:

For much of American history, Catholics’ perceived allegiance to an international church centered in Rome excluded them from full membership in society. Now Anthony Burke Smith shows how the intersection of the mass media and the visually rich culture of Catholicism changed that Protestant perception and, in the process, changed American culture.

Smith examines depictions of and by Catholics in American popular culture during the critical period between the Great Depression and the height of the Cold War. He surveys the popular films, television, and photojournalism of the era that reimagined Catholicism as an important, even attractive, element of American life to reveal the deeply political and social meanings of the Catholic presence in popular culture.

Smith shows that Hollywood played a big part in this midcentury Catholicization of the American imagination. Leo McCarey’s Oscar-winning film Going My Way, starring the soothing (and Catholic) Bing Crosby, turned the Catholic parish into a vehicle for American dreams, while Pat O’Brien and Spencer Tracy portrayed heroic priests who championed the underclass in some of the era’s biggest hits. And even while a filmmaker like John Ford rarely focused on clerics and the Church, Smith reveals how his films gave a distinctly ethnic Catholic accent to his cinematic depictions of American community.

Smith also looks at the efforts of Henry Luce’s influential Life magazine to harness Catholicism to a postwar vision of middle-class prosperity and cultural consensus. And he considers the unexpected success of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s prime-time television show Life is Worth Living in the 1950s, which offered a Catholic message that spoke to the anxieties of Cold War audiences.

Revealing images of orthodox belief whose sharpest edges had been softened to suggest tolerance and goodwill, Smith shows how such representations overturned stereotypes of Catholics as un-American. Spanning a time when hot and cold wars challenged Americans’ traditional assumptions about national identity and purpose, his book conveys the visual style, moral confidence, and international character of Catholicism that gave it the cultural authority to represent America.

In short, the book appears to be a cultural history accompaniment to Kevin Schultz's Tri-Faith America, reviewed at the blog here previously by Chris Beneke. The book features extensive discussions of Catholic representations in the movies, going far beyond the usual "Legion of Decency" emphasis that most books about Catholics and the movies cover. There are also chapters on Catholics in Life magazine, on Fulton Sheen and Catholics in television, and on "John Ford's Irish American Century."

Rock around the Pew



6 comments
Randall Stephens

For those of you who work at the intersection of southern history, religion, and music, the H-Southern Music email list just might be for you. I recently posted a question to list members and got some great feedback.

I asked about the work I'm doing for a chapter/article on the interconnections of early rock music and revivalistic religion/hot protestantism/pentecostalism . . . etc. (I wrote a little about this in the last chapter of my book The Fire Spreads, but I'll be exploring this in much greater detail now.) I asked list members about sources--primary or secondary . . . interviews, archives, what have you--that they could suggest. Here are a few of the items that I have found useful mixed in with those that I only learned about through the suggestions of list members (in no particular order). Anything else to add?

Walt Trott and Bill Carlisle, Sister Sunshine: The Martha Carson Story (1st Books Library, 2000)

Macel Ely II, Ain't No Grave: The Life and Legacy of Brother Claude Ely (Dust to Digital, 2010)

Lynn Abbott, I've Got Two Wings (Casequarter, 2009)

Rodney Crowell, Chinaberry Sidewalks (Knopf 2011)

Russ Cheatam, Bad Boy of Gospel Music: The Calvin Newton Story (University Press of Mississippi 2003)

Joe Moscheo, The Gospel Side of Elvis (Center Street, 2007)

Vestal Goodman with Ken Abraham, Vestal!: "Lord, I Wouldn't Take Nothin' for My Journey Now" (WaterBrook Press, 1999)

Bob Terrell, The Life and Times of J.D. Sumner: The World's Lowest Bass Singer (Daywind, 2009)

David Stowe, No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism (UNC Press, 2011)

Gayle Wald, Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Beacon, 2007)

Jamie Buckingham, O Happy Day: The Happy Goodman Story (Word Press, 1973)

Jerma Jackson, “Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Evolution of Gospel Music,” Religion in the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture, eds. Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004)

Paul Oliver, Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984)

Stephen R. Tucker, “Pentecostalism and Popular Culture in the South: A Study of Four Musicians,” Journal of Popular Culture 16 (Winter 1982)

Jimmy Wayne Jones, Jr., “Modern American Pentecostalism: The Significance of Race, Class, and Culture in Charismatic Growth, 1900-2000” (Ph.D. diss., University of Arkansas, 2002)

Johnny Cash, Man in Black (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975)

Tammy Wynette with Joan Dew, Stand by Your Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979)

Charles Sawyer, The Arrival of B. B. King (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1980)

Myra Lewis with Murray Silver, Great Balls of Fire: The Uncensored Story of Jerry Lee Lewis (New York: William Murrow and Company, Inc., 1982)

Charles White, The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock (New York: De Capo Press, 1994)

Vince Staten, The Real Elvis: Good Old Boy (Dayton, Oh.: Media Ventures, 1978)

Van K. Brock, “Assemblies of God: Elvis and Pentecostalism,” Bulletin of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and Religion 3 (June 1979)

James R. Goff, Jr., Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002)

Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994)

Nick Tosches, Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story (New York: Grove Press, 1998. I'm using this one for my fall 2011 course on the history of rock)

Ann Rowe Seaman, Swaggart: The Unauthorized Biography of an American Evangelist (New York: Continuum, 1999)

Jimmy Swaggart, To Cross a River (Plainfield, NJ: Logos International, 1977)

Four More Years! Happy Birthday to Us



7 comments
Paul Harvey

Our blog turns 4 today. In our 3s we had all the temper tantrums, self-promotional outbursts, and screaming fits that one would expect for that age. Expect more of the same in the year to come!

Actually, we got plenty of good stuff coming up for you faithful readers. Soon we'll have up an interview with Jarod Roll and Erik Gellman, authors of the terrific new book The Gospel of the Working Class, out next month with Illinois. John Fea will be discussing for us a new work on "enlightened evangelicalism" in the eighteenth century, Mike Pasquier has us covered on Notre Dame and the Civil War, and Art Remillard will be looking at a new text on Jews and black baseball. Heath Carter will be finishing his dissertation, courtesy of the prestigious Newcombe fellowship, and Elesha Coffman will be enjoying a year in paradise at Princeton. And, of course, Randall Stephens will continue to conquer the world, in the spring semester from his new Fulbright base in Norway. And if Kelly Baker has anything to do with it, we'll have some posts from zombies up here soon. Meanwhile, Matt Sutton will continue to send up intercessory prayers that there will be a fantasy football season this fall, and if there is praying twice as hard that his team will shock the world by finishing over .500 (that is, when he's not using his NEH year-long fellowship to work on his much-anticipated book for Harvard University Press, American Evangelicals and the Politics of Apocalypse, and touch up his article for the Journal of American History).

If you're not on our facebook page, then "like" us there. If you tweet, follow us there. Tell your friends, and your "friends," about us, and let's see if we can get to 1,000 fans and 200 twitter "followers" soon. Those of you who want to contribute, let me know and we'll get you involved. To you publishers: keep your cards and books coming, we'll do our best to cover them.

For now, do not ask for whom the vuvuzela blows. Instead, party on!

You Say Evangelical, I Say Evangélico



0 comments
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Today's guest post is from Stephen Dove, a graduate student in the history department at the University of Texas at Austin. He currently lives in Guatemala where he is writing his dissertation about the ways Guatemalan Protestants in the early-twentieth century shaped the theologies and practices they received from missionaries. Dove aptly reminds us about the problems with some of the designations we use as scholars of American religion.

Stephen Dove

Summer is here, and for those of us who live in developing countries that means that missionary season has arrived as well. For the next few months, a steady stream of eager, well-intentioned groups in matching T-shirts will offer a visual reminder that U.S. religion—especially evangelical Protestantism—does not stop at the border. Seeing these groups interact with the non-U.S. churches they have helped create also serves as a reminder that our definitions of what are effectively international religious movements can become a little small when viewed exclusively through a U.S. lens.

Take “evangelical,” a label that applies both to most summer missionaries and also to most local churches here in Guatemala. In the U.S., the battle over that term has become increasingly narrow in recent decades as social and political conservatives have essentially elbowed all other Protestants into categories like mainline or liberal. A few outliers like Jim Wallis continue to fight for inclusion under the banner of evangelical, but for the most part, the word has moved closer and closer to being a synonym for conservatism in general. In Latin America, the past century has seen the exact opposite trend occur among evangélicos. This term has become the preferred self-referent for virtually all non-Catholic Christians from Pentecostals to strict dispensationalists to social progressives. This is a diverse bunch, which has led some scholars to caution (correctly) that evangélico does not have the same meaning as evangelical does in the U.S. However, the two groups do share some important foundational beliefs such as an emphasis on the authority of the Bible, a belief that personal conversion is essential, and an imperative to share their faith.

Because of these similarities (and no doubt also because of a love of bigger membership numbers), both U.S. evangelicals and Latin American evangélicos like to consider themselves part of the same team. This weekend, however, I was reminded again just how odd that pairing can sometimes be.

At its Sunday service (attended by at a least one U.S. evangelical mission group), a local church passed out a flyer for a Father’s Day gathering titled “Papás Revolucionarios,” complete with an illustration straight out of Communist propaganda: a woodcut of a stylized worker waving a red, revolutionary flag. This church, which matches theologically with U.S. evangelicals in most ways, was completely comfortable drawing on leftist political imagery to promote its event, and its leaders knew exactly what they were doing. This was not just a convenient clip art graphic or an ironic Jesus-as-Che-Guevara T-shirt worn by an edgy youth pastor. I doubt this particular church has many Communist sympathies, but they could nonetheless imagine the radical social revolutions of their own country’s past as a model for their spirituality. Somehow, I don’t see the same metaphor flying in the average U.S. evangelical congregation. Even left-leaning U.S. evangelicals like Wallis have distanced themselves from such imagery in the current political climate.

At the same time, I have no doubt that this church could turn around next week and draw on imagery from a law-and-order, right-wing political group to make a different point. The reality in Latin America is not that evangélicos are the opposite of their counterparts to the north or even that they can somehow hold people with opposing beliefs together. The truth is that many individuals who identify themselves as evangélico can shift back and forth depending on their context. Their tent is not just bigger; it’s also portable.

Understanding this form of evangelicalism is not just important to the U.S. because of the historical missionary connection. This other evangelicalism is also moving back across the border, not only through immigration but also through reverse missions. Latin American immigration is usually associated with Catholicism when it comes to religion, but in many Central American countries like Guatemala, as much as one-third of the population is evangélico, and the Pew Forum estimated a few years ago that 15 percent of U.S. Latinos are evangélico. The political arena is one place Latino evangélicos have shown their political malleability compared to traditional U.S. evangelicals, with a majority voting for George W. Bush in 2004 but Barack Obama in 2008. In both elections, however, a sizable minority voted the opposite way, again illustrating that this group does not fit easily into political and social categories. This is an important issue in North American religion now, but it is only going to become more so as the evangélico population grows in the U.S. and as Latin American churches build more and stronger relationships with their counterparts in the U.S., forcing both groups to evaluate where their identities merge and where they diverge.

Blackness, The Book of Mormon, and Broadway: Part II



3 comments
Christopher Jones

(cross-posted at the Juvenile Instructor)

When the news feed on my facebook began to be flooded with links to the same page last week, I excitedly clicked over the the Washington Post On Faith Op-Ed by John Mark Reynolds, professor of Philosophy at Biola University. Reading the title,"Amos and Andy and the Book of Mormon," I hopefully (but mistakenly) assumed that the article was evidence of Jared Farmer's critique--that lurking beneath the portrayal of religion in the Book of Mormon musical was not-so-subtle racism in the show's portrayal of Africans--starting to gain traction.

Instead, I proceeded to read the following:
"The Book of Mormon is a minstrel show for our present age with Mormons as the joke.

Ugly plays did not by themselves produce the Klan or keep some Americans from voting for African-Americans. Original sin was enough for that, but minstrel shows did give racism an artistic and comedic whitewash. When Americans were hurt by the cruel stereotypes, they were told it was 'just a joke' and were painted as petty for not laughing along."
Mormon, Reynolds appears to suggest, is the new Black. The comparison is problematic to say the least, even with Reynolds's caveat that "no group has been as cruelly treated as African Americans." Mormonism's "history of being persecuted" that Reynolds mentions certainly deserves attention, and has received such quite recently from several up-and-coming historians and scholars, including Patrick Mason, whose excellent new book on anti-Mormon violence in the postbellum South deserves wide readership, and Spencer Fluhman, whose forthcoming monograph from UNC Press on anti-Mormon literature in the nineteenth century can hardly come soon enough. In fact, instead of situating the Book of Mormon musical within the tradition of minstrel shows of yesteryear, Reynolds would do well to pick up a copy of Megan Sanborn Jones's recent volume from Routledge Press, Performing American Identity in Anti-Mormon Melodrama. Anti-Mormonism, it turns out, has its own history of being portrayed and performed on the stage; perhaps we would do well to look at and understand that history before making comparisons to blackface and minstrelsy.

Besides, by invoking Mormonism and race in the same breath, Reynolds wades into troubled waters. The subject is far more complicated than he acknowledges, and no op-ed can adequately address the topic. Mormons, to be sure, have a history of being portrayed as something other than racially white. Nate Oman's fine research on the legal aspects of this story is telling, and Paul Reeve's book-in-progress (under contract with OUP and entitled Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness) promises to expand on the social and cultural aspects of it all in the 19th and 20th centuries.

And Mormons, of course, have not always been innocent victims in America's racial history, as even a quick glance over at the Juvenile Instructor's posts on Mormonism and race reveals. From the so-called priesthood ban, which denied the admission of Africans and African Americans to the Mormon priesthood and restricted their entry in Mormon temples until finally being rescinded in 1978, to the Book of Mormon's complex portrayal of American Indians, to the public opposition to the Civil Rights Movement by several high-ranking Mormon officials in the 1950s and 1960s, Mormons have often found themselves on the wrong side of America's pathetic history of racism. Mormons themselves even participated in and put on their own minstrelsy shows well into the 20th century.

Perhaps most glaringly, though, Reynolds's comparison of the Book of Mormon musical to "Amos 'n' Andy" passes over entirely the portrayal of Africans in the show. While lamenting "the cruel, tasteless jokes" and "mindless mockery" leveled at the Mormons, he ironically seems to have missed the "talented African American actors hamming up 'African-ness' for cheap laughs."

And in a final touch of irony too rich not to mention, several of my Mormon friends--most of whom, like the op-ed's author, are politically and socially conservative and outspoken supporters of Mitt Romney--who linked to Reynolds's piece on facebook with apparent satisfaction that someone from outside the church was finally defending their religion and co-religionists, excerpted the following paragraph to accompany their link:
"This new play will pander to our prejudices and treat our Mormon neighbors as we would never wish to be treated. Some Americans will allow it to confirm unthinking prejudice, while cowardly Mormons will applaud it hoping for crumbs of respectability."
Mormons applauding something while hoping for crumbs of respectability, indeed.

The Future of American Religious History Monographs



8 comments
by Edward J. Blum

If you take a quick glance at Paul Harvey’s vita, you’ll see that he plans to dominate the publishing world of the next 12-24 months (from my sociological skills, I count that he has 4 books that will probably be published in that window).

But there are other books that look pretty exciting too – both of which I’ve checked out in dissertation form. As mentioned a few times on this blog, Kelly Baker’s Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK's Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 should be available in September. David Morgan – by far one of my favorite historians, writes of it: “An original and sobering work. In the present age, when we may no longer pretend that the lines between violent fanaticism and religious fervor are clearly discernible, this book makes a timely and urgent intervention. Hatred may have more to do with religion than we care to acknowledge.”

Her title alone reminds me of a little section in Matt Sutton’s book on Sister Aimee where on a church survey form, one congregant wrote down for occupation: “Chief Klansman.” Way to go, Kelly, and what a striking cover!

Then Art Remillard’s Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era should be out by December. Not only a blogger, Art is an editor at the terrific online Journal of Southern Religion. Doyen of southern religious history Charles Reagan Wilson claims of Art’s book, “anyone wanting to understand how a variety of people in the South have understood its spiritual and moral meanings will like this book.” I think he’s right, and my guess is that reviewers will read it in comparison with Paul Gaston’s New South Creed and John David Smith’s terrific Old Creed for the New South. Art’s book may also be read as a kind of prequel to Andrew Manis’s Southern Civil Religions in Conflict: Civil Rights and the Culture Wars (2002).

Speaking of J. D. Smith … he’s blurbed another forthcoming book that looks fascinating: W. Scott Poole’s Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting (out in October). Smith writes, "Poole brings to life American horror stories by framing them within folk belief, religion, and popular culture, broadly unraveling the idea of the monster. Thanks to Poole's insights we see the ubiquity of the monster lurking in and around us." Scott is one of my favorite historians of religion and culture – whether we’re talking South Carolina during Reconstruction or Satan in comic books. This is sure to be another path-breaking book.

And look out early Americanists. Amanda Porterfield’s study of religion and politics in the early Republic – Doubt – should be published soon too, and I think given her work and David Sehat’s Myth of American Religious Freedom we’re going to have to rethink Nathan Hatch’s democratization thesis pretty seriously.

Congratulations to Kelly, Art, Scott, and Amanda.

Only St. Jude Can Prevent Forest Fires



1 comments
Emily Clark

This morning in Tallahassee was wonderfully pleasant in temperature due to storms passing through the area last night. However, the air quality was horrible, as smoke from nearby wildfires covered the city in a smelly haze. The Florida Division of Forestry has deemed wildfires an area hot topic, and a big part of the problem is a drought. Raised in south Texas, I view droughts not as occasional; they’re the normal environmental state of being. But isn’t Florida supposed to get enough rain? I mean, the Everglades and swamps are here. And Florida isn't the only state in a drought. The majority of Texas has been in a severe drought for months, with many places ranking at the highest severity level (exceptional).

When in need of rain, what can mere humans do? Apparently, pray. Just two months ago in April, Texas governor Rick Perry declared “the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas,” and “Texans of all faiths and traditions” were “to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal way of life.” Crop failure and wildfires are plaguing the state, and since (according to Perry) “Texans have been strengthened, assured and lifted up through prayer,” it only made sense to pray for rain. In the wake of a hopeless exceptional-ranking drought, prayer would be the answer. Move over Smokey Bear, enter St. Jude.


Perhaps it’s fitting that today I read Robert Orsi’s Thank You St. Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes as I prepare to take my doctoral comprehensive exams this December. I may not have been in Indy for the RAAC that I have so jealously read reports on from fellow bloggers, but Orsi has been on my mind too. If you haven’t read Thank You St. Jude, I highly recommend it. Personally, I like it better than Madonna of 115th Street. In it, Orsi investigates the devotional worlds of women who have called upon St. Jude. In doing so, Catholic women (“the immigrants’ daughters”) have appropriated the saint, and Orsi explores how they use their devotions to regain their voices and how their appeals to Jude can also push them further into their state of hopeless despair. In analyzing the functions, results, and workings of the women’s devotions, Orsi in the end embraces the ambivalence of it all. Jude and the women who ask for his intercession live in unstable and “in-between” worlds. The questions of bracketing belief and passing judgments that seem to have come up again at this June’s RAAC (and reminiscent of the famous “Orsi-Prothero Smack-down” in the HDB) permeate the pages of Thank You St. Jude as well. When he laments how a woman asked Jude to keep her husband faithful instead of confronting the husband, is Orsi passing judgment on the oppressive nature of this woman’s devotion or he is simply embracing the “in-between ground” he endorses in Between Heaven and Earth? Truly, the intersubjectivity beloved by anthropologist Michael Jackson remains a blurry area hard to define when deployed in religious studies and American religious history – though it is a task and goal that I love and applaud Orsi and others for engaging.

After finishing Thank You St. Jude, I visited the website for the National Shrine of St. Jude in Chicago that begins Orsi’s narrative, and the shrine is in need of help. In his book, Orsi argues that Jude needs the devotion and sustenance of the women who call on him, just as the women who ask for his help need him. Both the women and Jude inhabit a space of vulnerability – the women at the edge of hopeless despair and Jude the long-forgotten saint who could slip back into obscurity. It seems Jude needs help more than ever right now. Upon opening the shrine’s website, one immediately learns that the shrine is $60,000 under budget and is in need of donations. The shrine is once again selling the healing St. Jude's oil, a product that was not available when Orsi was writing. Another possible way to donate is to electronically purchase a “virtual prayer candle,” which comes complete with a 3, 9, or 30 day novena. Though I am an immigrants’ great-great-granddaughter of German and Czech Catholic heritage, I haven’t purchased one yet. But, perhaps come late fall with a hopelessly large pile of comps reading still to tackle, I might take Jude up on that offer.

The Future of Religion in America



3 comments

Please welcome our new contributor Elesha Coffman. Elesha first posted here last week on the Religion and American Culture conference. She is an assistant professor of history at Waynesburg University and soon off to the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton for a year's fellowship. Elesha's current work is on the Christian Century magazine and its role in establishing mainline Protestant identity and influence during the first half of the twentieth century -- a sort of "prequel" to the much-discussed decline of the mainline. Before graduate school she was a magazine editor, one of the reasons she is interested in print culture and the ways books and magazines create communities of readers. Welcome to Elesha!

The Future of American Religion
Elesha Coffman

“This is a big question,” the Religion and American Culture conference program admitted, “but what is the point of assembling a group like this unless it is to take a step back and ask the big-picture questions from a variety of perspectives?” The last session in Indy delivered on its promise by offering three very different reflections from scholars with very, very different ideas. It wasn’t that the panelists overtly disagreed about anything, as had the panelists and audience members at the previous session on scriptures. Rather, they responded to different versions of the main question regarding the future of religion in America, proving once again that the answer you get depends on the question you ask.

David Daniels, a seminary-based church historian, addressed his remarks to a question that might be posed as, “How will broad cultural trends affect American religion?” He probably came closest among the panelists to what the organizers had in mind, as their program notes queried “How will technology change religion, or be changed by it?” and “How will civil religion relate to traditional religion?” Daniels foresaw an America in which religious believers were more networked, more socially and ecologically conscious, and less bound by ascribed identities.

Mark Silk, a journalist and professor of religion in public life, spoke to the question, “Which religious groups will gain and lose ground in the coming years?” He based his predictions on trends identified by the American Religious Identification Survey, a project with which he is deeply involved. Silk advised his listeners to “short” the Protestant mainline and Roman Catholicism, which he expects to decline to 10 and 20 percent, respectively, of the American public in the next decade or so. He was more bullish on evangelicals and religious “nones,” groups he anticipates will swell to 40 and 20 percent of the population. (Silk did not mention Pentecostals separately, so presumably he counted them among the evangelicals, a decision many self-described Pentecostals and evangelicals would contest.) Those numbers left just 10 percent of Americans to be divided among all “others,” including world religions and new religious movements.

Julie Byrne, a religious studies scholar with interests in ethnography, took a completely different approach, considering, “What could scholarship on American religion look like in the future?” She took her own writing as a case study. Several years ago, she began to research an independent Catholic church, but before she could finish her book, the church fractured. At least one member of the church thought that Byrne’s research contributed to the splintering, as factions clashed, prematurely, over the attendance boom the book was expected to spark. This was the context for Byrne’s proposed “ethnographic uncertainty principle,” the suggestion that a scholar changes what she studies merely by studying it. So much for scholarly detachment. Byrne added to this cautionary tale a call for more creative presentations of scholarship, a call I jotted down in my notes as “Make art, not monographs.”

If it seems, from reading these summaries, that these three panelists were talking past each other rather than to each other, that’s pretty much what it seemed like in the room, too, despite the fact they were actually facing each other around a small, round table. I didn’t think this was a fatal flaw, however. The lack of direct engagement served to clarify some disciplinary distinctions that underlay a number of conversations that arose throughout the conference. As sociologist Rhys Williams had observed the previous morning, during a session that asked whether the secularization thesis still performed any useful work, “It really depends on, what do we want to know and why?”

The three panelists wanted to know different things for different reasons, and on behalf of different audiences. I expect Daniels’s students at McCormick Theological Seminary are very interested in how cultural trends will affect the interests and activities of religious Americans, while Silk’s interlocutors in journalism and the social sciences really want to know which groups are (to use terms that were hotly debated at the conference) winning and losing market share. Byrne’s questions about method are central for ethnographers, and her challenge to rethink the relationship between art and scholarship had implications for every discipline represented at the conference—though I’m still not sure what a “historical uncertainty principle” might look like or how my research into the early years of The Christian Century could be transmuted into art.

The future of American religion surely includes changes in cultural engagement, group affiliation, and scholarship. Ideally, scholars asking questions about those changes would stay in conversation, as they were in Indianapolis, even if they can’t always figure out how to talk to each other directly. Social scientists counting religious adherents need to be reminded how slippery and complicated religious identities can be. The field of religious studies, which tends to pay a lot of attention to outsiders, could benefit from confronting sociologists’ statistics on mainstream, majority groups. And scholars working within religious institutions and those working outside ought to be reminded periodically how the other half thinks. Is that too much to ask?

Broadway, The Book of Mormon, and Blackness



2 comments
Christopher Jones

(cross-posted at Juvenile Instructor)

Over at Religion Dispatches, Jared Farmer, professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and author of the excellent On Zion's Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape, reviews the multiple Tony Award-winning broadway play, The Book of Mormon.

By all accounts, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's satirical look at Mormon missionaries in Africa is funny. With very few exceptions, everyone I've talked to that has seen it---including a number of believing Latter-day Saints---has praised both its humor and its ultimately touching (if somewhat condescending) message about religion: Religion (especially the brand of religion preached by Mormons) is naive, silly, and based on absurd beliefs and unprovable truth claims, but that belief can ultimately motivate adherents to do good, help others, and improve the world.

Farmer largely agrees with this assessment. "The Book of Mormon is fun, and occasionally uproarious," he writes. "If the giddy laughter I heard at the sold-out show on Easter Sunday is any indication, theatergoers love it." He then goes on to offer a more complete critique of the play than I'd previously seen, noting the ways in which Parker and Stone's portrayal of Mormon missionaries is sometimes on target ("Pairs of missionaries (“companions”) do often resent each other; sexual tension, homophobia, homesickness, and boredom strain the relationships of these co-workers/roommates. Many missionaries dislike their geographic assignments. Even as they compete against each other for baptisms in the field, missionaries often struggle to convert a single person in two years of service.") and other times not even close ("Pairs of missionaries are never equals; there is always a “senior companion” and a “junior companion.” The various missionaries (men and women) in an area are supervised by one (male) “mission president” and his wife, not by a three-person bishopric. ... The missionary program certainly no longer encourages Latter-day Saints to gather in Salt Lake City."), and the concludes by suggesting that "Most egregiously, the play mischaracterizes Mormon theology." This is tricky territory, as Mormonism has no systematic theology, and some of Farmer's points seem more credible to me than others. I think he's right that "Unlike evangelical missionaries who want to save you from going to hell, LDS missionaries want to help you reach your potential in heaven. Mormon eschatology is radically egalitarian, and very American: everyone gets a second chance, everyone wins," but his suggestion that "for Joseph Smith and his followers, the existence of the translated text—proof of Smith’s prophetic powers—was more important than its contents" is open to debate. Farmer's argument echoes that of a former generation of historians, but much new research on early Mormonism suggests exactly the opposite; that early Mormons read the book's contents with care and that the Book of Mormon's teachings shaped early Mormon theology in ways previously ignored.

Couched in between Farmer's analysis and critique of the Book of Mormon musical, though, is something that has been repeatedly mentioned in passing by numerous friends but never fully teased out---a seemingly significant critique of the Broadway hit that those too focused on the delightful ways in which the South Park creators mock Mormons have opted to either ignore or quickly dismiss. I speak of the show's racial overtones. Farmer summarizes the salient points:
The plot twists at the end raise questions about the racial politics of the show. Only a threat of American violence saves the villagers from the tyranny of the local warlord. Only the ingenuity of the white men provides Africans a useful religion. The dewy-eyed boys from Utah share the genius of Joseph Smith: the Yankee spirit of invention. The musical’s happy ending, complete with black missionaries in neo-Mormon garb, contains a strong note of American chauvinism.
And then offers his most stinging critique of the musical:
I cringed in my seat at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre as I watched talented African American actors hamming up “African-ness” for cheap laughs. It brought to mind the long, shameful history of Americans—black and white—performing blackness (often in blackface) on stage for white audiences. The Book of Mormon wants to have it both ways. It wants to make fun of The Lion King and its African stereotypes by substituting more authentic stereotypes. It wants to be transgressive and conventional, blasphemous and saccharine. This combination is not impossible, but incredibly difficult to achieve. Parker, Stone, and Lopez don’t pull it off.
If nothing else, Farmer's critique on this point raises important questions about the intersections of religious and racial representation and satire, and that, I think, is a conversation worth having.
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