This might be cheating, but I’m going to write about the American Society of Church History spring meeting for my latest entry in Religion in the Pacific Northwest. The meeting was held in Portland, after all. My friend and fellow blog author Brantley Gasaway made the cross-country trip from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. After touring him around Tacoma, we made our way south to Portland. I’d always heard my doctoral advisor, Grant Wacker, rave about the ASCH spring meeting, praising its small size, intellectual camaraderie, and choice of location. This year’s conference had all of those virtues.
One of the most memorable presentations focused on Dwight Eisenhower’s Presbyterian identity. Samford Religion Professor David R. Bains offered a memorable set of slides focusing mainly on the Chapel of the Presidents at the National Presbyterian Church. Eisenhower promoted the church project as it was conceived and built during the 1950s and 1960s. To keep wealthy, conservative donors Henry Luce and J. Howard Pew on board with the project, the denomination ensured that the finished chapel featured monuments to Americanism and anti-communism, including a vivid stained glass window that depicted Lenin and Marx as forces of evil. An American eagle graced the pulpit, and six windows along the side featured some of our greatest presidents: Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, both Roosevelts, and—you guessed it—Ike (pictured here signing the law adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance). David’s presentation brought to life the importance of Christianity in the Cold War, along with the shifting nature of denominational identity at midcentury.
Brantley and I followed with papers on Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush’s contentious relationships with some of their co-religionists. As respondent Mary Beth Mathews put it in her comments, “the one theme uniting these papers is, ‘with friends like these…’” Brantley showed how the liberal evangelicals who soured on Jimmy Carter during his presidency yearned for him once they realized the scope of fellow evangelical George W. Bush’s conservative agenda. I riffed on Clinton’s declaration that he had become a “Southern Baptist apostate,” which is something of a theological impossibility if you’re the type of Baptist who believes in soul competency. But the Southern Baptists in power during Clinton’s presidency were fonder of their version of biblical inerrancy (imported from other denominations) than homegrown Baptist dictums about the autonomy of each believer.
On Saturday I responded to a trio of fascinating papers on the Bible and American identity. Matthew Bowman of Hampden-Sydney College argued for a different way of understanding “liberal evangelicalism” by focusing on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The debates then were more hermeneutical than political. Bowman’s project differs from Brantley’s and from David Swartz’s excellent new book Moral Minority in its way of conceiving the liberal evangelical tradition, and the linkages between his turn-of-the-century characters and the folks who signed the Chicago Declaration in 1973 are not apparent; they may not exist in a substantial way. But his paper got me excited about a new line of scholarship that will examine this category in the same way that other scholars have been rethinking fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism.
After Bowman’s paper, Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, presented a paper on early Mormons. Hendrix-Komoto recounted a bizarre incident in which Saints in the Kirtland period “plunged into a nearby river in a spectacular baptism that worked not to cleanse them of their sins but to transform them into the American Indians. After their baptisms, these white men and women pretended to scalp each other and then slid and scooted on the floor. Some sources claim that they also climbed stumps in order to ‘harangue imaginary crowds of Indians’ and that women even rolled naked in the snow.” Because this happened while Joseph Smith was away evangelizing, Parley Pratt had to figure out what to do with these untoward Mormons. Hendrix-Komoto smartly showed how Pratt and, when he returned, Smith, addressed a perennial problem of the Mormon doctrine of open revelation: how open is it? As it turned out, Smith eventually had a vision that discredited the female leaders of these unusual religious exercises by outlining a gendered dichotomy in which men like him had rational, well-ordered revelations sanctioned by God, who condemned the irrational flights of fancy of the women.
The final paper of the panel, by independent scholar Crissy Hutchison-Jones, built on the work of Colleen McDannell to show how the Bible acted more as a totem than as a text for some nineteenth-century Protestants. Her research illustrated that some of these Protestants quoted very little from the Bible even as they lambasted Catholics and Mormons’ unfamiliarity with the Good Book. Hutchison-Jones demonstrated that one of the few things every Protestant knew about the Bible was that Catholics and Mormons didn’t want their followers to read it.
As usual, I returned from the conference intellectually energized and refreshed to work in a guild populated by so many humane and smart colleagues. It was nice, too, that some of these colleagues trekked out to the mildewed upper-left corner of the continent for a conference; I relished the prospect of a 2.5-hour drive rather than a five-hour flight!