The Study of American Religions: Critical Reflections on a Specialization

Paul Harvey

What better way to spend a sleepy summer day reading a shot across the bow aimed at one's own ship of scholarship? And from some of the most creative thinkers in said area of scholarship? 

I'll not try to continue the lame nautical war metaphor, but instead point you to a new issue of the journal Religion, which has a very extensive forum on "The Study of American Religions: Critical Reflections on a Specialization." Contributors include John Lardas Modern, Kathryn Lofton, Jason Bivins, Finbarr Curtis, Chip Callahan, Tracy Fessenden, and Rosemary Hicks. Yes, a lineup that makes the Miami Heat look like the Charlotte Bobcats.

The link takes you to the complete table of contents; depending on your library's access (or lack thereof), you may or may not be able to get the full text of the articles, but it's well worth the effort. Tracy's article is, I believe, publicly available here

One starting point/object for target practice for three of the pieces (maybe more, I haven't gone through all yet) is a historiographical piece by Kevin Schultz and myself, "Everywhere and Nowhere: American Religious History and Historiography," published in the 2010 Journal of the American Academy of Religion. That target on which these essays take aim may also be the genre of scholarly study (and deliberate boosterism, for which I do not apologize as it is part of our raison d'etre) encouraged by this blog.

More after the jump.

As one would hope from such a group of essays, the authors collectively taken on, deconstruct, re-examine, and take apart the assumptions, conscious and unconscious, presiding over a field of study. Or probably better yet as fields: in this case American religious history (ARH) and American religious studies (ARS). K. Lofton dissects what she sees as the necessary dialogue that must go on between ARH and ARS:

Religious history cannot evade the methodological challenges of religious studies precisely because to identify an object as religious is to begin an inquiry into the subject of religion itself. Using the
example of the year 1893, the author seeks to demonstrate how scholars of history might justify their subjects as religious, and how scholars of religion might consider their concept of history

Jason Bivins's abstract expresses it this way:

As the narrative of post-denominational pluralism has become normative, a discursive ambivalence has been produced wherein a liberal, identitarian conception of religion coexists awkwardly with a radical suspicion of the analytical limits of ‘religion’ as an object of study. Identifying the different nodes of this ambivalence, this essay suggests that scholars might move beyond analytical repetition or paralysis by pluralizing method, genre, and style. 

John Modern most explicitly takes on the limitations of the normative historiographical approach (as exemplified in our essay) most directly:

This is what I think I felt while reading the good news: a tangible expression of an institutional force that ignores (always on the scientific basis of empirical rigor and inclusion) a critical conversation about the sheer strangeness of religion and the even stranger endeavor of writing about it. 

On the above, if it's any comfort, I've tried to address (to some degree) that very issue in a piece entitled "Transcendental Empiricism and the Transcendental Blues," to appear later this year. It is a response (one of a group of responses, including others by Lofton, Sylvester Johnson, and others) to Manuel Vasquez's work More than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion, but beyond that a reflection on how my training as a historian (largely in a positivist tradition, with a dollop of critical narrative analysis and a pinch of Foucault thrown in) shaped my studies of religion in America, and some of the ways I've come to grips with the limitations of that approach (even as I would still defend its virtues). Reading over these critiques, I often find myself thinking, "yes, exactly right, yes good point, but after all this critical self-reflection and suspicion of narrative as a mode of honest communication, would I ever be able to write another sentence, much less book?" But perhaps that's just my imagination, running away with me. And anyway, our book The Color of Christ (by Edward J. Blum and myself) takes a narrative approach and follows change over time in the meanings of the imagery of Jesus, and in doing so I hope (and believe) it uncovers some important truths of American religious history and American religious studies. 

Blogs are good things at making a few suggestive remarks and pointing people to good resources, but not so good at responding to these kinds of full-length critiques and analyses (that's why journals and books aren't going anywhere). So I won't try to do that here, but instead just leave you with the links to articles that strike at the heart of the most important disciplinary issues scholars in fields addressing religion face. Yes, it's most especially when the shots are coming across the bow that I love my job. Thanks to the authors above for provocatively challenging some of our assumptions and presumptions. But no thanks to them for the fact that I won't be able to sleep tonight.


Jason Bivins said…
Thanks for the mention, Paul! It was a treat to work on this piece alongside my friends and colleagues whose work I admire so much, and in exchange with other voices in the field (also admired even when disagreeing).

Whatever else I've done in my career, I'm happy to have proposed the acronym ARS (which, as I say in the piece, is always ars).

Anyone interested in reading my piece and who doesn't have a library sub to the journal, feel free to contact me at my NCSU email address and I'll happily send it your way.
Kelly Baker said…
Paul, I have read all of the pieces (and I might still blog on them).

What I would say is that each author is trying to suggest a need for less suspicion at and more engagement of theory in the research and writing of American religious history and American religious studies (Weirdly, I fit somewhere between the two categorizations of the field).

So, I read the issue as "friendly fire" to encourage discussions of the subfield AS a subfield (or even a discipline) and to examine what our assumptions about religion might be. This feels like a tired question. "How do we define religion?" likely elicits sighs and eye rolls, but scholars define this term and its ever so important parameters very differently. Thus, we ask different questions and use different evidence. It is beyond time to address this candidly and as Modern puts it "honestly."

So when you write: Reading over these critiques, I often find myself thinking, "yes, exactly right, yes good point, but after all this critical self-reflection and suspicion of narrative as a mode of honest communication, would I ever be able to write another sentence, much less book?"

I say, "YES, OF COURSE, YOU CAN. Yes, of course, we do." Much like the scholars in this issue, I want more discussions of how we create narratives, what we use to create them, what we use to interpret, and what we qualify as evidence (I have thing on this that will be published later). Engaging these issues is not to stop conversation or stop our work at scholars, but to realize the tenuousness of our work and appreciate how deeply we are implicated by what we do.

All of this is to say, I found the issue liberating because questions of narrativity and self-reflection are ever-present to me. I find them unavoidable in a good way :) And I hope others will feel that way too.

(On a side note, when did someone say narratives aren't "honest?")
Paul Harvey said…
Kelly, Thanks, I hope you will blog on them! (after your social media sabbatical, of course!).

Very briefly, fair point on "honest," I was actually thinking of some other pieces (not so much the ones in question here), ironically enough by historians who posit narratives necessarily as fictions, in using that word. Anyway, I have now crossed it out, it was not a good word choice.

Perhaps I'm pondering this more than usual now as I'm trying to start a new book and pondering structures/outlines/narrative strategies. My historian self just wants to plow forward, from Jamestown to Katrina, but it seemed this collection of essays provided a good pause to reflect.

I agree on "friendly fire," that I think is communicated in the post itself (or was intended to be). I haven't read or digested all of these pieces so will not comment more at length, but could you point blog readers to your forthcoming piece that you allude to?

Finally, although written in standard "history journal" mode, I'm glad the piece by Kevin and myself was in JAAR, as it has elicited an entirely different "take" and discussion than it would have otherwise (indeed, i doubt it would have generated much discussion at all if in the journals frequented by historians).
Kelly Baker said…
Yes, Paul, it did appear as "friendly fire" in the post. I was just reiterating the point (though not very well it seems).

As far as my forthcoming piece, it is part of a special issue on evidence in American religions for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, which might be in the November issue or a bit later. I'll let you know when it appears.
Edward J. Blum said…
i love the question "how do we define religion?" and Katie Lofton, Tisa Wenger, and Amanda Porterfield are the ones who got me to take it seriously for my next project. What I don't like, however, is when it is used as a crutch to question/challenge a work where "religion" is not the only or main point. If we had to define each and every phrase, then we would never get anywhere. "In the United States, which I define as a collection of legal states adhering to the Constitution of the United States and as a nation where residents and non-residents (who I define as those living physically beyond the confines of the legal state) share a sense of imagined political community (and by political I mean...)". My sense is - when the definition or take on religion factors crucially to the form and type of analysis, then we need to dive into that question. When it does not (say in trying to discuss the role church people played in the Civil Rights movement) then you don't have to define it or have a lengthy footnote to the various debates over 'religion, religions, religious.'
Looking forward to reading the essays!
Mark T. Edwards said…
Great post, Paul!

I haven't read the essays yet and just today dug into the JAAR piece in earnest. It seems a major reason why "mainstream" historians overlook religious persons, groups, movements, phenomena, etc., is because they are not deemed "influential." Of course, what is/is not influential is pretty narrowly defined. I realized this when, a few years back, DIPLOMATIC HISTORY was debating the role of religion in foreign policy. It was pretty clear that "influence" meant "impact on public policy." How many religious persons and instituitions measure up by that criteria? Can we name one law/decision/executive order directly attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr?

I think part of what scholars of religion must do is prove that there are other ways of being "influential" or "exerting influence" beyond political impact. Don't religious persons and groups, often quite deliberately, try to determine alternative realities, modes of being, etc.? Can't we argue that they are "influential" precisely because they show us different paths not or not yet taken?

Perhaps it is also here that religious studies perspectives can most help historians figure out how to sell our subjects as influential, and thus Oxford-history worthy, in new ways.
Matthew Cressler said…
Thanks for posting such incisive essays and, most importantly, for starting the conversation!

In response to Edward Blum's comment, I too worry about taking the critical theoretical approach too far. There does seem to be a potential danger of methodological tautology, wherein the only thing scholars of (American) religion can discuss are the construction of "religion" and the discipline of "religious studies." Beyond being problematic, this quickly becomes quite boring.

That said, I think the careful use of this critical theoretical approach is essential to all works on American religious history. Whether or not the principal subject of research is "the definition or take on religion," the conception of religion we use in our histories profoundly shapes our narratives - and choosing to work without a clear definition of religion, assuming "you'll know it when you see it," implies its own definition of religion fraught with its own baggage. This doesn't mean that everyone writing about "religion" needs to rewrite their project, so that the entire work deals with "what do we MEAN by religion." But it does mean that a failure to grapple with definitions and assumptions about "religion" and the "religious" inscribes our histories with certain normative understandings of what it means to be legitimately or properly religious (Curtis and Sigler's edited New Black Gods has some great essays by Katie Lofton and Sylvester Johnson that deal with this issue in African American religious studies).

So, even if histories that "discuss the role church people played in the Civil Rights movement" are not primarily tasked with defining religion, those definitions (or lack thereof) deeply direct the way those histories are told. Some of the most fundamental differences between Aldon Morris's Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, Charles Marsh's God's Long Summer, and David Chappell's A Stone of Hope derive from their fundamentally different conceptions of "religion" - even if they don't admit it. Further, the popular civic myths of the long civil rights era (about the non-violent, religious Civil Rights movement that declined and collapsed into the violent, secular Black Power era) are premised precisely on particular understandings of what we mean by the "religious."
Edward J. Blum said…
agree with Matthew Cressler completely!
Finbarr said…
Hi Paul,

Sorry for chirping in so late but I did want to thank you for posting this and say a few quick things. First, I noticed that a number of the comments have focused on the definition of religion question. This does come up but I wouldn’t say it’s the central focus of the essays and there is a lot more going on, especially in terms of how theoretical reflection in religious studies can help to work through questions of language, identity, and politics.

So I agree with Matthew’s comment above about the potentially boring use of the critical theoretical approach but I’m pretty confident that isn’t what these essays are actually doing. That is, if theory is just a matter of defining religion to identify religious groups so that one can then go ahead and tell the history one wants to tell anyway, then yes, we can all agree that that’s pretty boring. But I think there are some more fundamental assumptions about the purposes of theoretical work that need to be worked through here. What I find interesting is that theory is often understood to pose methodological obstacles that need to be overcome in order to get to the real work of producing historical narratives. But this still presumes that religious studies is ancillary to history. And if this is so, should scholars of religion just become historians and get PhDs in history? After all, historians are perfectly capable of telling the stories of religious groups. So the question the essays were trying to address is what difference does religious studies make (if any).

So if one primarily identifies as an historian, this isn’t necessarily your problem and I would agree with Kelly’s comments that of course you’ll still be telling narratives. In my mind (which isn’t necessarily to speak for all the contributors) your JAAR essay was a useful example of how a couple of excellent historians frame the study of religion. And what this provided was a way to consider what kinds of disciplinary assumptions guide your work as well as others and then, in turn, to reflect on how this might be different from someone whose primary task is working through conceptual problems in the study of religion. In other words, for the essays to make sense a reader will have to bracket the assumption that the work of religious studies scholars is exhausted by the work of creating historical narratives (though feel free to unbracket this after reading). For some people at least (and once again, I’m not speaking for all of the contributors much less all inhabitants of religious studies departments), historical work might not be an end in itself but would be undertaken to analyze some aspect of what has been called religion. And it would make sense to think that different kinds of disciplinary questions would lend themselves to different kinds of scholarly work. So the question isn’t so much who is right and who is wrong as much as what differences exist between the questions that scholars with different disciplinary orientations are trying to answer.
Paul Harvey said…
Finbarr: Excellent and very clarifying points, thank you for commenting. I hope we can keep this discussion alive, even as we attend our different disciplinary conferences!