The Disestablishment of American Religious History: A Crosspost from the U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The following post appeared yesterday at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog (#USIH) in response to Ray Haberski's "Why Academia Found God" and John Fea's "Biography and American Religious History"

by Cara L. Burnidge

This past weekend, Florida State University held its first Religion and Law Conference. The Religion and Law student group had the pleasure of hosting Winnifred Sullivan who, during her keynote address, asserted that the history of religion in the United States is a narrative of establishment(s) and disestablishment(s). Using Richard Cover's foreward to the Harvard Law Review's summary of the 1982 Supreme Court term as the basis to her remarks, Sullivan explained that our approach to studying religion and law is best understood as "Nomos and Narrative": "the codes that relate our normative system to our social constructions of reality and to our visions of what the world might be are narrative. The very imposition of a normative force upon a state of affairs, real or imagined, is the act of creating narrative"[1].

This rubric can also be applied to the historiography of American Religious History. As a doctoral candidate in American Religious History and a frequent reader of USIH, I appreciate Raymond drawing attention to the "tsunami" of monographs engaging American religions. What makes this wave so interesting and, perhaps even overwhelming, is not the amount of recent monographs that engage the topic of religion (though from my vantage point that is refreshing), but rather the ways in which scholars now engage religion. As Andrew Hartman rightly noted via the resulting twitter conversation, this new wave of scholarship is disinterested in its approach to studying religion in American history. Indeed, the historiography is at a point in which a critical mass of scholars have now distanced themselves from a confessional model of religious history, in which the historian's religious affiliation no longer drives their study of religion and these historical approaches no longer consider "religion" to be, primarily, a matter of the religious affiliations of historical actors.

On two counts then American Religious History finds itself disestablished: first, as more scholars are religiously unaffiliated or separating their faith traditions from their methodologies; and second, as the field generally regards studies of churches (individuals and their institutions alone) as outdated. For instance, earlier this month Randall Balmer gave the Plenary Address at the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion's Annual Meeting in Greenville, South Carolina, providing his own narrative of the "Rise of the Religious Right" and the resulting culture wars. A Christian historian studying the history of Christianity, Balmer did not concentrate on the theological perspectives of historical actors, or for that matter himself; instead, he narrated the Religious Right through an economic and legal lens via Bob Jones v. United States (1983). The distance from a church history model has grown so wide that at the Winter Meeting of the American Society of Church History outgoing President Laurie Maffly-Kipp's Presidential Address asked members to consider what has been lost since members abandoned the model in the late twentieth century [2]. ASCH members as well as the field at large turned away from "church history" because of the convincing work by Robert Orsi, David Hall, Colleen McDannell, Catherine Albanese, R. Laurence Moore, Albert Raboteau, and others who pointed to the limited nature of textual analyses that focused on white, Protestant ministers and their institutions as the center of American Religious History while neglecting lay people, religious minorities, non- and anti-institutional traditions, and Christian traditions other than Protestantism (especially Catholicism, African American Christianities, and transnational Christian traditions). While recognizing the need for this turn away from church history, Maffly-Kipp noted that these methodological approaches left the social structures historical actors themselves valued unattended. It is a telling historiographical moment when ostensible church historians need to be convinced that histories of churches still matter.

Raymond rightly pointed to the Young Scholars of Religion Program as one of the sources of this historiographical turn. A scroll through the roster of YSR classes reveals the wellspring of "new" religious histories [Sullivan, Maffly-Kipp, Dochuk, Sutton, Thomas Tweed, Phillip Goff, Paul Harvey, Edward Blum, Kathryn Lofton, Julie Byrne, Kathleen Flake, Sylvester Johnson, Tisa Wegner...the impressive list goes on and every work is a product of and continuation of the tsunami]. This is the wave of American Religious History scholarship that blends historical method with theoretical developments in Religious Studies. As a result, these histories of American religions are disestablished from the notion that theology is alone a "force" of causation and are sensitive to more complex interpretations of "religion"--as a category of thought, as lived experience, and as immaterial reality made known through material life--that emerges in other "forces" within history, like law, economics, consumerism, diplomacy, labor, and so forth. Those of us submerged in the tsunami (for instance, graduate students at Florida State with former YSR mentors John Corrigan and Amanda Porterfield) often take this turn for granted, because it is our normative understanding of the field. For instance, it is less surprising to recognize "religious undertones" as "thoroughly secular," because of Culture and Redemption by former YSR mentor Tracy Fessenden, who persuasively argues "secular" space was framed by an implicit Protestant perspective. While headlines suggest that Americans are losing their religion, we know better. Affiliation may be on the decline, but the data is not. The naming and claiming of what is and is not properly "religious" continues, perhaps even is on the rise, as Americans distance themselves from formal institutional affiliations [3].

These historians of religion must not be confused for religious historians. "Religion" is not a personal descriptor of the scholar, but the topic of one's scholarship. The religious persuasion of a historian, while as relevant as any influence that potentially shapes a narrative, is less meaningful than the conceptual framework applied to their notion of religion and the rigor with which critical inquiry is applied to historical topics. Consequently, I find John Fea's assessment that "many American religious historians study religion because they are religious or were raised in religious environments" an outdated assumption about the field and also an odd rubric with which to assess scholarship. Fea is certainly not alone in this anecdotal conclusion (which he readily admits was less "theoretical" than others supplied in the comments section of Ray's post). In the wake of the tsunami, I find it more interesting that encounters "with religion" (as if it an object to possess or an identifiable space one can enter) is considered to be authoritative evidence in the first place, as in the statement "it is striking that so many [American religious historians] have had religious experiences in their lives or attended very religious schools."

While Fea notes that not all American Religious historians are religious and that it is, at base, a matter of intellectual inquiry (I agree on both counts), I find it curious that this reasoning surfaces at all. For instance, do we assume that economic historians went into their field because they interacted with money during their lives? Or walked into a bank? Are labor historians interested in labor history because they or their parents were labeled "blue collar"? Perhaps this is the case in these subfields, but also perhaps not. My point is that I doubt this reasoning would be taken seriously in any subfield other than the history of religion. This form of analysis is something Religious Studies folks wrestled with--and disestablished themselves from--decades ago: treating religion as a special category that self-evidently reveals anything (about an object, a person, an event, an experience, etc.) is untenable. It is its own form of "nomos and narrative" that preferences a certain normativity about who studies religion and who does not [4].

Admittedly, there is confessional work in American Religious History; there are scholars who do church history models; there is scholarship that continues to privilege religion as a unique category of existence that must be defended. I do not argue that these streams of scholarship do not exist nor do I mean to imply they are not valuable to the field. The historiography of American Religion would not be as robust as it is without each of the scholars named in Fea's post or the discussions generated from their work. I do, however, what to challenge the notion that scholarship in this vein is primarily the work of American Religious historians and that this kind of approach to religious history continues to be the center of the field [5]. In the wake of the tsunami and theoretical advancements in Religious Studies over the past thirty years, the formerly established center has shifted.

[1] Richard Cover, "The Supreme Court, 1982 Term--Nomos and Narrative," Harvard Law Review 97:4 (1983), 10.

[2] Maffly-Kipp's remarks can be found in the forthcoming June 2013 issue of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture

[3] For instance, see Steven Ramey's post at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, "Creatio Ex Nihilo: Pew Forum and the "Nones."

[4] A brief example of the consequences of the politics of "religion," can be found at another Steve Ramey post at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, "Critical Theory and the Importance of Religious Studies."

[5] See, for instance, the discussion on Mark Edward's recent post, "Is There a Christian Approach to History," for Religion in American History in which theitinerantmind stated "that in many academic circles, to veer too far into this territory is to forfeit all credibility"


For interested readers, John Fea posted "A Response to Cara Burnidge" at The Way of Improvement Leads Home,
A really excellent post, and I appreciate you offering it. I particularly agree that the heart of the turn needs to be seen in the work of scholars like Moore who turn both from the confessional and the consensus models of the history of American religion.

I do think, however, that you are being unfair to Fea, especially with respect to the possibility of biography explaining other historians in other fields. For example, a quick roll call in environmental history will reveal a startling overlap between environmental activists and environmental historians, even as there is no necessary connection between writing a history of the idea of wilderness and advocating for the establishment of sacred wilderness spaces (Nash on both counts). There is undoubtedly also a fruitful inroad into the mind of the economic historian somewhere in a more nuanced approach to biography, and I think you make a farce of the analogy (hopefully deliberately for effect) by reducing Fea's comment to, "Economic historians must have been to a bank."
Thanks, theitinerantmind. I appreciate your comment.

I thought I was clearer in the post that a historian's faith is "as relevant as any influence that potentially shapes a narrative." I _do_ think it is important to know this information. I wanted to emphasize, however, that this information should not be _more important_ than a historian's method and approach to their research.

On this issue, I take your point. I perhaps inferred too strongly that Fea's thoughts on biography implied its significance more than he intended. While this may be the case, I thought his post was indicitive of the way many people first turn to a scholar's religious background to "uncover" information about their scholarship. On this point, I will reasert my primary concern: that faith traditions and "religious experience" is too often the primary rubric used to evaluate whether or not someone is a "religious historian," a standard I think should not apply to either historians of faith or unaffiliated historians (in which case, I thought I was being fair to Fea in that I think his scholarship, rather than his religious background, should speak for his value to the field). As much as you think I should have been more nuanced when referring to economic historians and their experiences with banking, I think people should be more nuanced when talking about historians of religion and their experiences "with religion."
What role do you [or others in the conversation] think biography does/should play?
Mark T. Edwards said…
Good question. Biography might determine our interests and, thus, choice of subjects, but not at all how we write about them.