Report from the John C. Danforth Center's Beyond the Culture Wars Conference

Cara L. Burnidge

According to participants and organizers alike, the most recent conference hosted by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, "Beyond the Culture Wars: Recasting Religion and Politics in the Twentieth Century," was like a marathon.  After 11 panels and 40 prepared remarks in just over two days, we almost needed a finish line. The sports metaphor seems appropriate not only because of the intense schedule (16 papers given on the first day, including a keynote address by James Kloppenberg, and another 16 papers on the second day) or the powerhouse papers (that were, to keep up this alliteration, pre-circulated), but also because the conference was designed to bring together senior scholars, junior faculty, and graduate students, not unlike coaches and their athletes.

Organized by Darren Dochuk and the entire Danforth team, Beyond the Culture Wars featured a variety of scholars hailing from History, Political Science, American Studies, and Religious Studies departments. Senior faculty were asked to present on an idea or research they are currently considering and graduate students were asked to present their own innovative ideas for the field to consider. As a result, the title of the conferences was intended to be ambiguous so that participants could interpret how, or if, "beyond the culture wars" in a way they saw fit. The hope was that this conference would generate new questions, a new set of sources, and ultimately new ideas. (Due to its experimental nature, most #twitterstorians, myself included, respected the work-in-progress of our colleagues and refrained from live tweeting paper details. For more details on individual papers, a full conference schedule can be found here.)

Several themes circulated through the conference papers: changing constructions of "liberal" and "conservative"; ecumenism and the role of groups, individuals, and ideas that disrupt or bridge binary divisions; global perspectives, focusing on transnational groups, foreign relations, international networks; and the importance of economics, including class distinctions but also downturns in the economy. Many conference papers intersected one or more of these themes. For instance, Brendan Payne reconsidered a classic progressive issue, prohibition, by paying attention to the role of race, regionalism, and economics in his paper "Fidelity to that Liberty: Black Preachers and Brewers Against Poll Taxes and Prohibition in Texas, 1902-1916." Several papers considered the culture wars with respect to urban spaces, like Scott Kurashige's "What's Bad for Detroit is Bad for America: Race and the Politics of Bankruptcy," which argues that Detroit and its bankruptcy is not a unique case but rather should be viewed as paradigmatic of American culture. Kurashige pointed to the work being done in Detroit by religious organizations and with intersectional visions like those found in Grace Lee Boggs.

Just when it seemed that the conference papers were sharing similar themes and topics, new ones were introduced. One of the more exciting topics came from Kate Netzler-Burch who's work discussed the relationship between evangelical pro-life rhetoric and environmentalism. She examined how evangelicals extend their understanding of "pro-life" beyond abortion to include environmentalism. Netzler-Burch's paper was particularly interesting, not just because she and others introduced discussions of environmentalism, but because it was part of a panel of graduate students who offered their thoughts on both the future of evangelicalism and rethinking its past. Stephanie Wolfe, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern, posed what I consider to be the most thought-provoking point of the conference. When considering how or if current research really overturns the long-held narrative of evangelicalism in America, Wolfe contended that the old narratives do not hold when we fully consider the changing demographics within evangelicalism today. In other words, conventional wisdom on evangelicalism's history does not fully explain its contours today. She urged (warned? anticipates?) that, given the major shifts in demographics away from white, middle-class adherents as the majority, if we do not begin to seriously rethink the way we narrate the history of evangelicalism now, we will be scrambling to do so in the next decade. (Stay tuned to the Danforth Center's biographies page for more on Wolfe. There may be an announcement soon.)

As far as recasting goes, intersectionality was a clear undercurrent in most participants' research. Synthesizing historiographies and rethinking standard conversations in light of multiple historical factors, a global framework, or intersectional identities animated much of the discussion of historical actors and the historians who study them. (On that note, I found a curious absence of any discussion about sexuality, especially homosexuality. Upon reflection, this omission may be due in part to one of the upcoming events at the Danforth Center, Religion and Sexual Revolutions.) At the same time, the entire conversation was situated within a religion vs. politics mold. James Kloppenberg delivered the keynote address, "Barack Obama and the Paradoxes of Progressive Christianity," which, among other things, took on David Hollinger's secularization argument asserted in his book After Cloven Tongues of Fire and, fittingly enough, his own Danforth Center keynote address back in November. I'll elaborate on this debate (#DanforthDebate?) in my next post on the conference.


Gene Zubovich at: March 31, 2014 at 12:04 AM said...

Great report, Cara! The presentations you highlight were some of the most memorable. I would only add that one of the distinguishing features of this conference was the way that it brought together historians of religions with scholars of politics who don't usually engage with the subject (Kloppenberg included). It seemed like both groups got a lot out of the exchange.

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