3 Hypotheses About "American Religions" and "American Religious History" That I Can't Get Out of My Head


Michael J. Altman

Lately I've been thinking about the fields of "American religions" and "American religious history." I did some of that thinking on Twitter and Facebook. 

I got some pushback, some encouragement, and some bemusement. I was also accused of navel gazing. So, at the risk of yet more navel gazing, I want to use this post to put forward three hypothesis that I've been mulling over. I've yet to really dig into these hypothesis. Right now they are research problems. They are rabbit trails. I see them leading off into the woods and I'm curious to know where go. I'm also curious to get more pushback, encouragement, and bemusement from the RiAH community, so feel free to congratulate me or thoroughly denounce me in the comments. 

1. "American Religions" is a nationalist discourse.

I'm beginning to think of "American religions" or "Religion(s) in America" as its own discourse. In some ways it's analogous to the "World Religions discourse" identified by Tomoko Masuzawa. Here I'm thinking of discourse in the sense it's used by Michel Foucault. (Stay with me. I know you don't want to hear any Foucault stuff. But just trust me for a minute.) "American religions" is not simply the description of some things called religions in some space called America. Rather, it's a way of speaking about, describing, categorizing, and inventing things labeled as both "religions" and "American." "American religions," then, is a phrase with two unstable signifiers and their meaning is worked out through the discourse about American religions.

Thinking about the American religions discourse in this light, here's the question I'm kicking around: Whence the American religions discourse? Why do we talk about "American religions" or "religion in America," not just a subfield or an AAR section (though they add "North" in there) or a job listing category, but as a general object of inquiry? I think the American religions discourse predates the subfield, the AAR, and the job listings. I think it goes back at least as far as Robert Baird's Religion in America: Or an Account of the Origin, Relation to the State, and Present Condition of the Evangelical Churches in the United States: with Notices of the Unevangelical Denominations. It might even go back as far as Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana: Or the Ecclesiastical History of New England from 1620-1698. But, for now, let's say it starts with or at least around Baird.  Glancing through the contents of Baird's work, a few themes emerge: the importance of voluntarism as the exceptional aspect of American religions; the relationship between the churches and the state; the religion of immigrants; an account of the various churches, denominations, and religions in the country; and missionary movements within America and abroad. In Baird's work we find the categories through which knowledge of "American religions" is produced. The horizons of the discourse are set in 1830. So, when attempts have been made to retell the story of American religions they have done so according to these discursive structures: add more immigrants, add more "religions," take a supply-side approach to voluntarism, etc. All of this is to show that American religions discourse isn't what we say about religions in America, but how we are able to say anything about religions in America at all. That is, it's not what we put (or don't put) on our "Religion in America" syllabi, but the reasons why we think there should be such a class in the first place.

So, whence the American religions discourse? As David Chidester has recently argued:
As we review the history of the study of religion, it is necessary but not sufficient to assert that the general idea of religion is a constructed category and that all kinds of ideas about specific religions have been invented...Therefore we have to ask: Under what material conditions were these crucial terms in secular modernity produced, authenticated, and circulated?
My hypothesis is that it has something to do with American nationalism. I think it also has something to do with American exceptionalism. For the most part, those of us working within the American religions discourse are Americans, or at least living or teaching in America. So even when we are critical of the United States, both now or in the past, it is always with the caveat that it could do better. We are all insiders and the American religions discourse is, at least in part, an act of identity formation and maintenance. It's why Americanists make such great media interviews. A wise American historian once told me that "you can't outrun your people." I think he meant your denomination/culture/upbringing/background. But I think there's more to it than that. We study ourselves, even if we don't often admit it. We are all nationalists. Even Baird first published his book in Europe as a representation of American religious vitality and only later published it at home.

2. Church History is American Religious History

If Baird is an early example for the formation of the American religions discourse then he is also an example of how what we call "American religious history" or "religion in American history" (as this blog is so named) has yet to move past the church history of folks like Baird. Here, I think I should isolate American religious history from other parts of the American religions discourse, such as sociology. Baird includes Jews, Catholics, and atheists in his "unevangelical denominations" section of the book. With a few exceptions, today's American religious history continues to add categories to the list of folks under study but has yet to evidence major methodological changes in its approach. The assumption shared by Baird and many historians today is that religion is a thing out there in the world that is empirically observable in the archive. History that describes and narrates religion is "religious history" and if it happens on this continent it's "American religious history." Innovation comes in finding religion in unexpected or understudied parts of the archive. Even the title of this blog, "Religion in American History," is ambiguous. On the one hand it could also assume there is a thing called religion that is accessible in the archive. But on the other hand, the hand I would like us to use more often, it could mean that "religion" is a category invented over the course of American history. In this reading, in this new non-Baird, non-Church History reading, the object of study would not be some stable "religion" but the various ways "religion" is produced, constructed, and imagined in American history. Taken this way, the American religions discourse would itself be understood as one way "religion" is produced in America.  

3. "American Religions" and "World Religions" are somehow connected?

Circling back to Masuzawa and the world religions discourse, I'm wondering if the American religions discourse and the world religions discourse share a common genealogical root. This is the hypothesis I have the least to go on so far. Yet, if you follow me through my first hypothesis and we locate the American religions discourse in the 19th century, then, it coincides nicely with the rise of the world religions discourse during that same period. Ten years after Baird's book, Lydia Maria Child published The Progress of Religious Ideas Through Successive Ages, an early attempt at an accounting of the world's religions. To what extent is Baird's account of American religions a species within the larger taxonomies of religion around the world? If world religions discourse was produced through encounters with racial and cultural others, the rise of empires, and the birth of nation-states, then is American religions discourse also implicated in these things? While liberals compiled accounts of the world's religions in search of universal truth did conservatives fashion an account of American religious exceptionalism? I honestly don't know. Yet.


Elesha at: October 2, 2014 at 8:56 AM said...

Mike, buddy, where on God's green earth does the rubber meet the road with these musings? What are two things we in the RiAH community (dare I call us historians of American religion? of American religions?) are doing wrong and two ways we can do better? Not think or categorize or discourse better, actually *do* better. I'm just not seeing it.

Michael J. Altman at: October 2, 2014 at 9:20 AM said...

Here's one: We can stop importing folk categories into our analyses. So many of the basic terms we use to isolate and analyze our objects of study come from the objects themselves: revivalism, modernism, fundamentalism, prayer, conversion, the list goes on. I think we fall back on the same categories that our subjects (dare I say "data?") use because we are too close to them--again, we're Americans studying Americans. We fail to make what seems obvious and familiar to us strange. We should treat American religions as if it were as different from ourselves as ancient Vedic horse sacrifice, but we often don't.

And here's another: We can stop sneaking sui generis theories of religion into our work. I think I've related this story before, but I once asked a Ph.D. student writing his dissertation how he knew what he was studying was religion. He answered: "Because it was in a Methodist archive." Or for another example, when I was giving my take on Porterfield's book at ASCH last year and was asked about the relationship between religion and politics as if those were somehow two separate things. The idea that the categories we study are constructions (discursive constructions even) is only a new idea in religious studies/religious history. And it isn't written off as pomofoco shenanigans in any other discipline.

I will say, this, though. I think institutional mission matters a lot here. The job of an American church historian at a seminary is very different from my job at a public university. And because of that we are asking very different questions and have very different goals. What I want to *do* is teach students to think critically and deconstruct the categories they run into in the world. What those in seminaries want to *do* is train pastors for ministry. And so even our research questions will differ because I am most interested in how knowledge is produced and seminary professors are producing knowledge for the church. And so to a certain extent, the church historians are my data.

Elesha at: October 2, 2014 at 10:34 AM said...

You're absolutely right that institutional context matters, Mike. Radically questioning the meaning of "religion" would not be useful here in an Iowa seminary.

I do still wonder, though, who that radical questioning *does* help. It seems, from what you're writing, that radical questioning encourages scholars to study topics they might not have studied before (esp. things that don't fall under the heading of "church history") and to ask new questions (esp. questions that don't resemble the old "theology drives practice" model derived from the study of Protestantism). All to the good. But you also seem dismissive of "our subjects," which I take to mean "people who think of themselves as religious in old-fashioned ways, and who speak in 'folk categories.'" That part makes me nervous.

So ... you want scholars to broaden their inquiry while consciously moving away from terms or categories that most religious people would recognize? How does this help? How does it not quickly devolve into work that only those privileged enough to have studied religion at a secular university can understand? Does this kind of study have anything at all to say to my Iowa seminarians, or to the people in their churches? (To be clear, that's a genuine question, not a rhetorical one.)

Lastly, I think there's at least one other place in the academy where categories are recognized as constructions but not obsessed over: the AHA. What makes many religious historians resistant to "pomofoco shenanigans" is, I suspect, less the fact that they study religion and more the fact that they identify as historians.

Matthew Cressler at: October 2, 2014 at 11:09 AM said...

Thank you for this post, Mike, and for this conversation. To attempt to address who (and how) does this radical questioning help, I understand it to help _everyone_ in the broad humanistic sense. If our job as scholar-teachers is to challenge our students (and the broader public) to think more carefully and critically about the world around us, then encouraging people to think precisely about what they mean by the word "religion" is no more and no less necessary than encouraging people to think precisely about what they mean by terms like "race" and "gender" - stuff many of us take for granted as part of what we do as scholar-teachers. A feminist approach to the study of women in American history might argue that sexist and patriarchal social formations are not natural or necessary ways of organizing society, but rather products of particular historical processes. Likewise, a teacher-scholar of religion/s in American history could argue that particular ways of conceiving the nature and function of "religion" are not self-evident or natural, but rather products of a particular moment that serve particular political ends. For a concrete example of this "in history," so to speak, I wrote a piece a few years back, in the midst of the "controversy" around the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, that analyzed the way discourse of "the sacred" was deployed to certain ends. Rather than take it as self-evident that certain spaces are inherently sacred, I interrogated the ways that a particular (historically contingent) conceptions of what makes something "sacred" reflected and reinforced exclusive claims about what and who is and is not American. (You can check it out here: http://matthewjcressler.com/2014/09/19/ground-zero-and-the-s-word/) So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that interrogating "religion" and "American religion" as a constructed term is FAR from a navel-gazing enterprise. It is part and parcel of a broader imperative to think critically about the world around us.

K Engel at: October 2, 2014 at 11:31 AM said...

Mike - Interesting stuff, and great discussion! I would also suggest that we not lose track of the legal and governmental dimensions to this subject. Whatever else it has been, "religion" has also been a matter of law in the US, both in the federal Constitution and in the prior colonies. That provides a legal touchstone (and power center) for discussions of definitions of religion that is not merely an a priori construction. The advocates for "religion" in the past meant specific things with the term. I'm comfortable with calling everything that can, broadly construed, be put in that discussion "religion." Even those to whom Protestant denominational leaders would deny "religion," still inhabited a world defined by it. I think this discussion, especially after 1791, is fundamentally different from the very interesting but separate creation of the category of "world religions."

Unknown at: October 2, 2014 at 12:11 PM said...

To my surprise, I really liked your ideas in this piece, especially the idea of how Robert Baird has helped frame what counts as worthy to be studied as "religion in America." I say "to my surprise," because I think that deconstructionist projects like this often focus on what one recent scholar has in JAAR has typified as the production of knowledge alone, not on its consumption (one of the major problems this scholar had with Russell McCucheon). So...it's great to have scholars like you focusing on the production of categories, but its not so great if that's what every scholar does all the time. I get worried that some scholars, like McCucheon, suggest that we should just be doing the former as religious studies scholars. I don't think you're advocating for that.

One more thought. J.Z. Smith wrote in a famous essay that "it is impossible to escape the suspicion that a world religion is simply a religion like ours, and that it is, above all, a tradition that has achieved sufficient power and numbers to enter our history to form it, interact with it, or thwart it." (This is from "Religion, Religious, Religious) Substitute the word "American religion" for "world religion," and I think you have yet another answer as to why some things are studied under that title and others are not. Because Hobby Lobby. Because Al Smith. Because WCTU. Because Mormon polygamy. Because Malcolm X. Because Religious Right. Because...

Jeffrey Wheatley at: October 2, 2014 at 3:25 PM said...

Thank you for this post, which I found very productive. A few thoughts:

Seems to me that the best way to get students into a room to start discussing the constructions that make an American religious history discourse—one present in both folk talk and academic talk, as if there has ever been a rigid division between the two—is to call a class “American Religious History,” or, preferably, something like “A History of American Religion, Religions, Religious.”

In my admittedly limited experience—one that does not include being on the job market—the historicization of constructions of “America” or “religion” has been integrated and even, occasionally, dominates ARH courses at a number of institutional sites. So I would heed caution about your use of “we” in the tweet. The approach you have outlined here is, I argue, fairly popular and heavily utilized, even if it is not always the driving approach for a course or work of research. After all, not every category is going to be deconstructed; we necessarily have to be selective, at least if we are interested in producing a historical narrative and not just taking one particular deployment of a category as an example of the efficacy of critical theory.

Of course, according to my project and interests, the constructions of “America” and “religion”—and the plausibility structures that make these constructions intelligible—deserve central attention, but, even within ARH courses or research, there will be instances in which these categories, perhaps serving as backdrops for other categories, will be left assumed and not rigorously interrogated. Because time and our mortality, mostly. I am not thrilled with this fact. However, I view deconstruction as a means to another end, one that can be and has been problematized, but, remains, I argue, necessary: constructing a historical narrative.

And so I largely agree with your intent, but from my perspective this process is well under way and well represented under the sign of American religious history.

Lastly, I, for one, do not run into the archival stacks when I hear Foucault, who seems to me to be crucial in a number of published and in-progress works that operate in conjunction with or thoroughly within ARH. Again, I think he, and critical theory's current canon in general, is fairly well represented.

Curious to hear other scholars' experiences though because, as mentioned, ARH, like RS, is stretched across a number of institutions with varying intents.

Craig Prentiss at: October 2, 2014 at 11:23 PM said...

I was excited to read this post, Michael, as the questions you’re asking align with some that I’ve been asking for the past couple of years. Each of your three hypotheses opens up fruitful possibilities for research. Your assertion that “‘American Religions’ is a Nationalist Discourse” is particularly interesting to me and I appreciate your Bercovitchian observation that even critiques that appear anti-nationalist on the surface inevitably serve to reinforce America’s origin myths and exceptionalist discourse rather than undermining them. My inclination would be to view the distinctive discourse of US/American nationalism as doing the work of laying the ideological foundation for the organization and maintenance of a particular kind of liberal nationstate that was (at one time) a fairly new approach to social organization. The means by which the category of “religion” comes to be used in such a way that it could play a role in this larger process of nation-building is of particular interest to me. I would argue, by the way, that American “religious exceptionalism” depends precisely on the way we conceive of the term “religion,” and the prevailing models for telling the story of “American religion” enabled the preservation of that narrative of difference.

Judging from a couple of the comments, it’s interesting to see how these theoretical questions have a way of making people feel threatened. I confess to wanting to tear my eyes out when some of the most valuable insights into the discipline of history and the role that the historian plays is trivialized and deemed beside-the-point with expressions like “pomofoco shenanigans.” I’m not a seminary historian, but I know quite a few of them who might be insulted by the insinuation by one commenter that these questions are somehow over their heads or irrelevant to what they do. Moreover, the idea that Russ McCutcheon only focuses on the production of knowledge rather its consumption suggests a fairly limited familiarity with McCutcheon’s writings and the strange notion that scholars of religion (McCutcheon’s principle, but not sole, object of inquiry) are only producers and not also consumers of knowledge.

But I like where you’re headed with this blog post and look forward to seeing what comes of it in the future.

David Howlett at: October 3, 2014 at 7:46 AM said...

Hi Craig, Good to see you on here! My brief observation about McCutcheon comes from Benjamin Fong's article in JAAR "On the Critics and What's Real: Russell McCutcheon on Religious Experience," JAAR 82.3 (2014), page 5 of online version. It's an analogy that Fong makes, and, like all analogies gets us only so far before it falls apart, but I thought the critique was fair. McCutcheon will disagree, as you may, but I liked it.

So, to be clear, my initial concern was simply this: noting that the constitutive term "religion(s) in America" is a socially constructed category with its own history states the obvious to any religious studies scholar who has been in the classroom since the early 1990s. Heck, I think my generation of scholars have been obsessed with this question to the point that I roll my eyes when I hear someone present such an idea, as if it were new. I thought when I read Mike's tweet (and had not read his post), "Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt." However, the ideas he advances ARE quite helpful. They made me reconsider why I have taught religion in America courses in certain ways around certain narratives. That surprised me. I guess it should not have, but it did.

Of course, the next step in Mike's project would be to be self-reflexive and ask how questioning the category of religion in America itself plays into larger cultural conflicts that authorize, naturalize, and (de)legitimate certain cultural practices, groups, funding sources, etc. (Here, I am thinking in particular about how such a debate might play into hiring at a university or college.)Deconstructing a category has consequences. And, that's a worthy project of study, as well.

Kelly J. Baker at: October 3, 2014 at 8:15 AM said...

I'm struck by how much the undercurrent of this discussion is about training scholars receive in different disciplines on how to study "religion."

David notes:
"my initial concern was simply this: noting that the constitutive term "religion(s) in America" is a socially constructed category with its own history states the obvious to any religious studies scholar who has been in the classroom since the early 1990s."

I don't necessarily disagree with this statement, but I would point out the key component is "any religious studies scholar."

So, yes, if you received your graduate training in a religious studies department, then this interrogation of the category of religion would seem familiar and perhaps even rote (tired, boring, or pick your adjective). It is key component of the graduate training of how to be a religious studies scholars (at least it tends to be).

Yet, scholars of American religions, American religious history, American religious studies, or religions in America (look at all the options!) don't all come from religious studies departments. They might be trained in history, anthropology, American studies, ethnic studies, women studies, and the list goes on. While they might study something called religion in something we call America, this does not mean that they are necessarily trained in deconstructing the category of religion or that they want to be.

Moreover to Jeff's point, search committees also have expectations of what American religions might look like that seem to fit pretty neatly with Mike's three hypotheses. (More than once, I've had to explain how research on the Klan could count as American religions to editors, search committees, colleagues, conference-goers, and students). These hypotheses are common assumptions in the variety of difference audiences that we engage.

So, I understand the temptation to say "been there, done that." I often feel this way too. BUT, this underplays how disciplinary bounds in graduate training produce scholars who imagine religion in America very differently and have different concerns about what their work should accomplish. Who are we writing for and why are we writing are not trivial questions.

I was very glad to see this post, Mike, as well as the conversation now taking place.

Edward J. Blum at: October 3, 2014 at 9:45 AM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cara L. Burnidge at: October 3, 2014 at 12:26 PM said...

FYI to readers: Part of this conversation is continuing at the University of Alabama's "Studying Religion in Culture" Blog. See "A Word from the Balcony," "http://religion.ua.edu/blog/2014/10/a-word-from-the-balcony/

Mike: Thanks for posting.


Charlie McCrary at: October 3, 2014 at 3:40 PM said...

I agree with those who have pointed out that institutional setting matters--but this shouldn't be limited to the institutions that employ us. When I write for this blog I write about "religion," understanding how this institution conceives of its topic. Once we've historicized a discourse (which we have whenever we invoke "historiography"), we've located ourselves in a community. As I read this post, Mike, what you're advocating is just a clearer genealogy of how these communities (defined by job calls, professional organizations, this blog, etc.) have defined themselves--or, in other words, historiography.

Now, having done that, if we're going to question our forerunners' choices or try to expand or change or destroy their delineations of "American religions," that's all fine. But if we're still working within a framework defined by those terms, then all we're doing is arguing that the matters we study really are religious or sacred and thus belong under the tent.

Really, though, I don't know whose work is bothering you. More precisely: Who are the "we" who, apart from institutional concerns, define their study as "American religion(s)," as you say, "as a general object of inquiry"? Who does that?

We all have our various projects, and, in order to explain them to a certain audience or participate in a certain community, we might call them "American religions." But who actually thinks that has analytic value? And who finds it a defensible way to organize individual projects? Who wouldn't know, for example, that if your task is to write about NY Catholics in 1838, then it's more important to know about the Panic of 1837 than about Vatican II?

Tom Van Dyke at: October 5, 2014 at 5:19 AM said...

The very mention of him sends certain individuals into polemical apoplexy, but here it is:


During a speech at Colorado Christian University on Wednesday, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit religious references in public places, including schools:

“I think the main fight is to dissuade Americans from what the secularists are trying to persuade them to be true: that the separation of church and state means that the government cannot favor religion over nonreligion.”
Scalia suggested that if Americans want a more secular political system, such as those in Europe, they can “enact that by statute, but to say that’s what the Constitution requires is utterly absurd.”

At the heart of the argument over separation of church and state lies the age-old debate over the intent of the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

So is the intent “freedom of religion,” or “freedom from religion”?

Justice Scalia argues that it is the former:

“We do Him [God] honor in our pledge of allegiance, in all our public ceremonies. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is in the best of American traditions, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

I think we have to fight that tendency of the secularists to impose it on all of us through the Constitution.”

See also Hunter Baker:


[Disclosure: Dr. Baker is an erstwhile blogbrother. Still, he argues similarly: The Constitutions mandates neither a godly nor godless polity. we are free to choose.]

Michael J. Altman at: October 7, 2014 at 12:52 PM said...

A very short response that will have to suffice for now.

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