On the heels of Seth and Matt's posts about Tim Tebow, I thought we might consider (before tomorrow night's expected demolition of said quarterback) whether or not historians of American religion should engage in their own quiet forms of Tebowing.
Now that I've gotten Brigham Young in his grave, I've had time to begin combing through the stacks of journals that have accumulated in my home over the past several years. I felt a bit like Rip Van Winkle.
David Hollinger, from the most recent issue of Fides et Historia:
"Even when authors make a point of telling readers in a preface 'where they are coming from' (a practice I believe has more costs than benefits, not only in regard to religious orientation but in regard to other identities and loyalties), I can sometimes get secular colleagues to allow that the actual argument made by a book is a sound contribution to a profession, transcending the proclaimed faith commitments of the author. But prefaces proclaiming one's faith function like the Surgeon General's warning on a pack of camels."
Hollinger's own warning (to religious believers writing history) isn't the only or most important question raised in the forum, but it might be a matter of practical concern for many readers of this blog.
Other voices continue to promote gentle forms of academic tebowing. From William C. Ringenberg's review of Elizabeth Clark's latest in the December 2011 issue of the Journal of American History: "It is best therefore to openly acknowledge -- to oneself and to others -- one's intellectual orientation (religious or otherwise), to welcome with charity and even hospitality the insights of other interpreters, and then to work together to best find the record of the human past and the meaning of the human condition."
I studied under George Marsden, who most certainly would have affirmed Ringenberg's irenic suggestion. It makes me feel old to hear historians debate these questions, as I remember hearing Marsden and Jon Butler go back and forth on such matters on more than one occasion. Influenced by Marsden's line of reasoning (who wouldn't want to have some sense of where an author is coming from, simply to satiate curiosity?), I referenced my religious background in my first book. Since emerging from the cocoon of graduate school, I realize that even very modest statements along such lines turn off some potential readers. I think that reaction is quite uncharitable on their part, but there is no point offending others unnecessarily or prompting them to dismiss one's work. Believing historians should probably keep in mind that they are writing for religiously diverse audiences. At the same time, those of other faiths or no faiths could perhaps exercise a greater measure of tolerance when encountering expressions of belief.
For my next book, I initially presumed readers would be curious at the outset to know whether or not I'm a Mormon and briefly wrote a few sentences on the matter. Readers will now face the difficult task of figuring it out on their own. I'm happy to meet anyone over coffee to discuss the question.
[As an aside, are there any Mormon equivalents to Tim Tebow? I don't recall the Jimmer last year thanking Jesus at every turn or affirming his belief in Joseph Smith as a prophet.]