Why turn to conscience?

It is my pleasure to introduce Peter Cajka for today's exciting guest post.  Peter is a PhD candidate in the Boston College History Department. He studies religion in American history. He is a Graduate Fellow with the Clough Center for Constitutional Democracy.

Peter Cajka

With the exception of 1967, the Psychology Department at Fordham University had sponsored a conference every other year since 1955 as part of a running series called the “Pastoral Psychology Institute.” An edited volume of essays followed each conference: the 1961 meeting on “the teenager” became The Adolescent: His Search for Understanding; the 1965 conference on “Woman in the Church” appeared two years later as Woman in Modern Life. As the theme for the 1969 conference, the planning committee chose “Conscience: Its Freedoms and Limitations.” In his preface, the volume’s editor explained why, of all the topics that could have been discussed over the course of a week, the committee selected conscience:

… it seemed that this concept had moved recently into a central position both in the Church and in the world. With the Declaration of Religious Freedom of Vatican II, with the appeal to conscience in dissent from the teaching of Humanae Vitae on birth control, and with the raising of the entire question of the exercise of authority in the Church, it was quite evident that a consideration of conscience had become unquestionably central in the life of the Church. With the continuation of the war in Vietnam and with the rise of selective conscientious objection to the draft, together with the extensive increase in civil disobedience as a means of protest against the war and against “establishment” policies in general, it is hardly less evident that the conscience now occupies a central position in civic affairs as well.[i]

Looking at primary sources from the “Catholic 1960s,” I was likewise astonished at the enthusiasm Catholics suddenly held for conscience. In sources I analyzed for seminar papers – articles from Catholic magazines like Commonweal and America, bishops’ pastoral letters, key Vatican II documents, and lay people’s letters to magazine editors – I found an outpouring of interest in conscience, beginning around 1963 and exploding after 1968. But why, we might ask, did the conference planners and those, “in the Church and in the world,” turn to conscience? I began to wonder about what a history of the concept of conscience, and the broader turn to conscience, might teach us about American religion during and after the 1960s.

Women of Faith: A Conversation with Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

Monica L. Mercado

Last semester, I taught a course on the history of women in Chicago -- a fitting coda to my graduate school years, as it turned out, and a way to explore a less familiar historiography, given my research on New York Catholics. So you can imagine my delight when Mary Beth Fraser Connolly, familiar to many of us as the Assistant Program Director of the Lilly Fellows Program at Valparaiso University, announced the publication of her new book, Women of Faith: The Chicago Sisters of Mercy and the Evolution of a Religious Community (Fordham, 2014).

Mary Beth's been busy -- she also co-edited the essay collection Empowering the People of God: Catholic Action Before and After Vatican II (Fordham, 2013) and blogs at One Solid Comfort -- but she made time this summer for a chat about the pleasures and perils of writing institutional history, and the need for nuanced stories of Catholic women religious.

Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 – A Review

Kristian Petersen

With all of the turmoil currently happening in the Middle East many Americans are revisiting their understanding of Islam and the character of Muslims, especially those that are their neighbors. While the 24 hour news cycle covers the events in Gaza or Iraq the average American can turn to a more entertaining place for shaping their opinions about Islam, TV shows. American television has a number of shows that revolve around Muslims, 24, Homeland, Sleeper Cell, just to name a few. All of these programs rely on worn formulas in their representation of Muslims, repeatedly introducing angry terrorists and oppressed women. In this media context, hate crimes against Arab and Muslim Americans and governmental policies that target Islamic identities can make sense to perpetrators. We can pinpoint the role of Hollywood television in shaping American attitudes towards Muslims because it always represents Muslims in a negative light ...right? Or at least this might be your assumption in a post-9/11 world.

In fact, after 9/11 there have been a proliferation of sympathetic representations of Muslim Americans in the U.S. commercial media. Making sense of this puzzle was one of the motivating factors behind Evelyn Alsultany’s, Associate Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, recent book, Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (New York University Press, 2012). How are we to understand the discrepancy between numerous positive images of Muslims and the simultaneous enactment of racists policies central to the ‘War on Terror’ in a post-9/11 world? What are the effects of these depictions on American Muslims? Why may these positive images a surprise to us?

Ben Carson, Atheism, Bibles, and the Politics of Religious Neutrality

Charles McCrary

Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, popular conservative commentator, and possible 2016 presidential candidate, recently wrote a short piece for National Review Online entitled “Atheist Absurdities.” Writing in response to the U.S. Navy’s removal of bibles from their Navy Lodge hotel rooms—a decision, prompted by pressure from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, that, prompted by pressure from other groups, including the American Family Association, they quickly reversed—Carson argues, “If they [FFRF] really thought about it, they would realize that removal of religious materials imposes their religion on everyone else.” The lack of a Bible is, ipso facto, a promotion of atheism, which, according to Carson and many others, is a religion itself. When I first read Carson’s piece, I took it as an example of how religious neutrality is becoming an impossibility—how “we are all religious now.” But I think it actually points to something different. Carson is not asserting a universality of religiosity, where there is no neutral nonreligious and the religious is constituent of our very material being. Instead, he seems to be declaring Christianity, or at least the Bible, as neutral ground. The presence of a bible, then, is equilibrium. The absence of a bible is an “infringement.”

Faith in War: An Interview with Matthew McCullough

The following is an interview with Matthew McCullough, pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville and author of the excellent new book, The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U. S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War (University of Wisconsin Press, August 2014).  Readers will also want check out Paul Putz's wonderful review posted a few days ago, which McCullough responds to below.  (PS John Fea has scooped me; you can check out his interview with Matt here).

1. What led you to this time period and subject?

I can summarize this progress in three steps.  First, I’ve been interested in Christian nationalism since college.  It didn’t take much exposure to the history of American Christianity to recognize that the meaning and significance of the American nation has been a central preoccupation for American Christians for much of our history.  I entered graduate studies looking to understand how and why Christian nationalism has taken the shapes it has taken.  Second, times of war offer especially useful windows into Christian nationalism because it’s during such times that Christian leaders have been most prone to reflect on the significance of America, to define the nation in light of the cause for war and in contrast to whatever enemy has been on the other side.  Finally, I was drawn to the Spanish-American War in part because it had received much less scholarly attention than more famous wars before or since, and in part because—despite it’s brevity and it’s relative obscurity—this war marked a turning point for America.  It’s something of a hinge from the bitter, debilitating divisions of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras into a century of worldwide influence.  The Christian leaders who commented on this war saw it for the departure that it was and worked hard to justify the shift.

2. You argue that "this particular strand of American nationalism--this messianic interventionism--was embraced in the Spanish-American War as both Christian duty and providential destiny, first for liberation and then for subjugation" (5).  Could you explain what you mean by "messianic interventionism" and how it relates to your understanding of "Christian nationalism?"  Were one or both exceptional to this era?  Your reference to "subjugation" would suggest that messianic interventionism was an imperial ideology, no?

By Christian nationalism, I mean an understanding of and devotion to the American nation among Christians wherein the nation is believed to play a central role in the world-historical purposes of the Christian God.  By messianic interventionism, I mean a specific dimension to Christian nationalism.  When American Christians have discussed the American nation as an object of significance within their Christian worldview, they’ve commonly included some sense of national purpose, of how America would be used to benefit the nations of the world.  Messianic interventionism is one way of understanding this national purpose.  Before the Spanish-American War, the dominant understanding of America’s purpose was to win the world to ordered liberty by force of attraction, through the power of their example.  But in this war many came to believe it was America’s responsibility to intervene in the affairs of other nations to spread liberty by force of arms. 

I’ve called this ideology “messianic” interventionism because I believe the semantic range of the term nicely captures two dimensions to the prominent understanding and justification of this interventionism.  The two dimensions seem from our perspective ironic at best and outright hypocritical at worst.  But showing how they made sense to folks in 1898 is one of my main goals. 

First was the notion of national self-sacrifice.  What made this interventionism “messianic” is the widespread argument that America stood to gain nothing by this intervention, but was acting altruistically in the interests of the oppressed.  This notion didn’t come from thin air; northern interpretations of the Civil War emphasized liberation for the oppressed, and more recently some had called for American intervention to stop the slaughter of Armenians.  But this was the first concrete action—the first international war—framed in this light and the war’s distinctive features worked together perfectly to support the rightness of the idea. 

The second dimension was the notion of benevolent rule.  In its earliest biblical development, the messiah figure focused on kingly rule, an anointed one who would come and set the world to rights.  With some qualification, I’d say this was definitely an imperial ideology.  Weighing motives is always difficult, but my sense is most who celebrated the intervention genuinely believed it would be helpful to the Cubans and Filipinos and that America really was disinterested.  So I don’t believe messianic interventionism was developed self-consciously to support an imperialistic, conquest agenda.  But it was definitely an imperial ideology in the sense that it was easily adaptable to justify continued government over—and suppression of—those believed to be incapable of governing themselves.

David Ruggles, Puritan

Carol Faulkner

Most readers of this blog will know David Ruggles (1810-1849) as the leader of the New York Committee of Vigilance, and the man who helped Frederick Douglass escape from slavery. Graham Russell Gao Hodges's excellent biography follows Ruggles from his birth in Lyme, Connecticut, to his death in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he ran a Water-Cure establishment. In between, Ruggles was a long-time resident of New York City, making his living as a mariner, shopkeeper, bookseller, printer, journalist, and anti-slavery agent. Hodges describes Ruggles as a practical abolitionist, who not only connected the anti-slavery movement and Underground Railroad, but "worked equally and frequently among male and female abolitionists of both races" (3-4). In 1834, he published an attack on colonization, The "Extinguisher" Extinguished! Or David M. Reese, M.D. "Used Up," which was, Hodges states, "the first time a black New Yorker had his own imprint" (3). I am interested in another pamphlet published by Ruggles, the shockingly named Abrogation of the Seventh Commandment by the American Churches (1835). As the title suggests, Ruggles argued that slavery enabled white men to violate the commandment on adultery without losing their good character, while forcing enslaved men and women to engage in sex outside of marriage. American churches tacitly accepted this sexual order. On the title page, Ruggles is listed as the printer, but the pamphlet is signed "A Puritan." A somewhat odd choice, this label served an important purpose: it established a shared religious and geographic identity with his intended audience of Northern women.

Listening for Religion in all the Wrong Places

David W. Stowe

Many readers will be interested in the very informative interview Art Remillard conducted with Isaac Weiner, for Marginalia.com, about his excellent new book, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism. Weiner examines with great sophistication and analytical rigor a series of contests over "noise" in American public space, from church bells in 19th-century Philadelphia to Jehovah Witness "sound cars" in upstate New York at mid-century to Muslim adhan in recent Hamtramck.
I've had the chance to get to know Isaac a bit in the past few months thanks to a Mellon Foundation Humanities Without Walls pilot grant to support publicly engaged scholarship on the "Global Midwest." My colleague at MSU, Amy DeRogatis, joined forces with Weiner, currently an assistant professor at Ohio State, to create a religious soundmap of the Global Midwest. The two teams met in May to brainstorm in East Lansing; we got back last week from a follow-up session in that faraway region where Buckeyes roam.

DeRogatis notes that most scholarship on American religious diversity has focused on the big coastal cities. "The Religious Soundmap Project will address this gap by calling attention to the increasingly "global" character of midwestern cities and their remarkably diverse populations."

The project offers a new approach to studying American religious diversity, by listening to the sounds of religious life," she writes. "Moving beyond an emphasis on beliefs or buildings, it asks what diverse religious sound like, how their sounds vary in different social and geographic contexts, and whether religion itself might have a distinct sound in different regional environments."

A pilot grant this summer allowed us to get started this summer on collecting musical samples from the greater Lansing and Columbus areas. We went out with a couple of undergraduates to various communities and public events in which religious practice was audible.  Eventually,  "these recordings will be integrated, along with interviews, visual images, and explanatory texts, onto a publicly accessible online mapping platform, which will provide a valuable research tool and pedagogical resource for specialists and non-specialists alike."

When I next teach my class, The Sound of World Religions, for example, I will make a carefully structured gathering and analysis of sound samples by student teams a central course assignment. If we are successful in securing the larger grant, we plan to develop an installation that would bring the Religious Soundmap to museums and other public spaces.

The Cross of War: Matthew McCullough's New Book on Christian Nationalism in the Spanish-American War

Paul Putz

Adding to a growing collection of books dealing with religion and war in American history, Matthew McCullough's The Cross of War (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014) takes on the "splendid little war" of 1898. Fellow RiAH blogger Mark Edwards was apparently as interested in this new book as I was, since we independently made plans to feature it in our August posts. My post below is not necessarily a thorough review, but it will offer some initial reflections and a summary of the way McCullough framed the book. In a few days, Edwards will allow McCullough to speak for himself about the project (and/or refute everything I've written here).

McCullough's book is based on a dissertation written under the advisement of James Byrd at Vanderbilt. McCullough and the editors at UW Press seem to have done a bang-up job in the transition from dissertation to book. From intro to conclusion, this is a slim, sleek, and well-written 141 pages (much of the material cut must have found its way into the endnotes, which clock in at 40 pages). Also, shout-out to whoever made the decision to put a Puck Magazine cartoon on the book cover.

McCullough describes his book as a study of Christian nationalism, or the view that America is a "central actor in the world-historical purposes of the Christian God" (he draws on scholars like Ernest Tuveson, Conrad Cherry, Liah Greenfield, and Harry Stout for his discussion of civil religion/Christian nationalism). Recognizing that Christian nationalism in America has taken various forms over its history, McCullough primarily focuses on "messianic interventionism," a term he chose became "it captures the prevailing sense that America could intervene in the affairs of other nations not to advance America's national interests but on behalf of the weak." While messianic interventionism had various precedents before 1898 and became especially prevalent during World War I, McCullough argues that its "emergence and codification" was a direct result of the events and context of the Spanish-American War.

Who Are You Calling Liberal?

Elesha Coffman

Sometimes the attention to labels and definitions in our field seems excessive, merely an excuse for yet another conference panel. At other times, though, a slippage in terms causes significant confusion, as in a recent exchange I had with an editor at the New York Times Book Review.

It started with Frank Rich's August 3 review of a new book by Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. The review noted that the post-Goldwater conservative army included "an emergent religious right invisible to the mainline Christians reading the still liberal Christianity Today." I couldn't quite figure out what error(s) contributed to this unlikely sentence, or whether the mistake originated with Perlstein or Rich, so I sent a letter to the editor that read:

"It would seem that the landscape of 1970s American Protestantism continues to befuddle outside observers. ... Mainline Christians read the consistently liberal Christian Century, which had briefly lost its tax-exempt status for an editorial endorsing Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater. If these mainline Christians and their fellow elites had also read the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, the emergence of the religious right might not have come as such a surprise."

To my own surprise, an editor responded to my letter right away, on a Friday night no less. But the response only confused me further.

Interview with Nancy Wadsworth on Evangelicals Working for Racial Change, Part I

Karen Johnson
Political scientist Nancy Wadsworth recently published Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing, which explores why despite making admirable gains in race relations, evangelical Christians pursuing racial change are often ambivalent about extending their commitments to political engagement for racial justice.  Focusing primarily on heyday of 1990s “racial reconciliation” discourse to the present, Wadsworth used extensive ethnographic research, interviews, case studies from the 1990s and the 2000s, and a content analysis of three decades’ worth of race-related content in Christianity Today to illuminate the significant breakthroughs evangelicals have made regarding racial division, as well as how their history, social power dynamics, and cultural frameworks have limited the impact of their work in the larger culture.  In the end, Wadsworth argues that evangelicals concerned with racial change have accomplished something incredible, akin to a miracle, but they remain mostly apathetic about whether and how to extend these miracles outside their subculture by working for policy change.

I had the chance to ask Nancy some follow-up questions about evangelicals, race in America, and politics.  I've put the first part of the interview below, and will post the second part next month, so stay tuned.  But first, some context on the story Wadsworth told in her book.

Female (Mis)Behavior, Class, and Religious Authority: Bath Attendants in Early America

 Laura Arnold Leibman

Nidhe Israel Mikveh, Photo S. Arnold, 2010
Ritual baths or mikva'ot (s. mikveh) are key to Jewish life and to communal boundaries--a community can even sell a Torah scroll to build a ritual bath.  Moreover, ritual baths are an important element of Jewish women's history.  Since the fall of the Second Temple, mikevh has become primarily a women's ritual: women are the main users of the baths, and also the people who oversee women's ritual immersions.  What can baths tell us, then, about the everyday lives and challenges women faced in early America?

I first spoke about early Jewish American ritual baths in 2008 at the Association of Caribbean Historians conference in Suriname.  Little was know then about early Jewish American use of ritual baths, so I lovingly laid out the hallmarks of the baths in a piece that would later become my Religion in the Age of Enlightenment article "Early American Mikvaot: Ritual Baths as the Hope of Israel" and then the first chapter of Messianism, Secrecy, & Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life.  In this post, I move beyond an architectural analysis to talk about the women who worked in the baths, and present new information about who bath attendants were, what led them to take the such positions, and what we can learn from their lives.

When I gave my talk about ritual baths at the conference in Suriname, at least some audience members felt something was missing from my architectural analysis, but given the sources I had then located, I was somewhat at a loss at to how to fill in the blanks.  One audience member asked me why I wasn't speaking more about the specific women who ran or visited the baths rather than merely detailing the structure of the baths themselves. I explained that while occasionally European women's diaries like The Memoirs Of Gluckel Of Hameln (trans. Marvin Lowenthal) would mention ritual baths, we have very few diaries written by colonial Jewish women that could record such details.  Moreover, mikveh use isn't the sort of thing that usually comes up in letters.  Because it is a mitzvah for couples to have sexual relations after women visit the bath, letting people other than one's spouse know when a woman visited a bath was (and in certain circles still is) considered taboo, or at least impolite.  Hence it is extremely rare to know anything about the women who oversaw ritual baths in early America, let alone their clients.  As much as I wished a woman had kept records about the baths, I hadn't seen good sources.  I remained haunted by the question, though. Who were the women of the ritual baths I studied?

The Histories of American Capitalism

Heath Carter

Registration is now open for Cornell University's blockbuster conference on the Histories of American Capitalism, scheduled for November 6-8, 2014.  Keynote speakers include Julia Ott (the New School), Richard White (Stanford), Jackson Lears (Rutgers), Orlando Patterson (Harvard), Guy Standing (University of London), Nancy Folbre (Univ. of Massachusetts), and Peniel Joseph (Tufts).

The program is structured thematically, with sections on Built and Natural Environments; Race and Ethnicity; Democracy, State, and Nation; Gender and Sexuality; and Intellectual and Cultural.  That final section will be headlined by Lears' plenary address on "Capitalism and American Cultural History," and will include the following panel specifically on Religion:

Chair and Comment: Kevin Kruse, Princeton University

Heath W. Carter, Valparaiso University, "Christianity, Capitalism, and the Power of Working-Class Belief"

Christopher D. Cantwell, University of Missouri-Kansas City, "God's Foremen: The Evangelical Imperatives of Industrial Management"

William J. Schultz, Princeton University, "The Making of Jesus Springs: Capitalism and Culture War in Colorado Springs"

Katherine Mohrman, University of Minnesota, "A Materialist Spirituality: The Translocation of Political Economy and Sexuality in Mormonism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century"

As I mentioned in a post here back in 2013, the intersection of the new history of capitalism and American religious history is suddenly very busy.  Will be interesting to see how this conference advances the conversation.  More on that to come.  Lodging in Ithaca is in short supply, so if you think you might make it, you should reserve your room sooner rather than later. 

Four Questions with Kate Carté Engel

Randall Stephens

Kate Carté Engel is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University.  Her areas of expertise include early American history and religion in the Atlantic world. Readers of the blog will likely be familiar with her 2009 book, Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America (University of Pennsylvannia Press), which garnered high praise from reviewers and won the 2010 Dale W. Brown Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. Engel has also published in journals such as Church History and Early American Studies. Her current book project is titled The Cause of True Religion. It will be looking at the American Revolution in connection with transatlantic Protestant networks in North America, Britain, and Europe. 

Randall Stephens: When and why did you decide to study American religion?

Kate Carte Engel: My first academic love was early America, because it combined the best of all the historical worlds I wanted to explore.  It’s a field where, if you go from origins to consequences, you can think expansively from medieval Europe and pre-Columbian North America through to the present day United States.  Eighteenth-century North America can be the pivot around which so much history rotates. 

When I started, I was fascinated by debates about the “transition” to capitalism in early America.  There was a lot of discussion of a “moral economy,” and I wanted to understand how religion fit into those arguments.  That led met to my first book, Religion and Profit, which tried to get beyond macro-economic arguments about a transition to look at how religious choices informed daily market choices against the backdrop of dramatic cultural, political, and economic change that all eighteenth-century Americans experienced.

Once I started studying some of the incredibly diverse things that fall under the category of religion, I was hooked by the amazing and persuasive stories.  For me, studying the history of religion amount to studying what mattered most to people—how they understood their relationships and their own actions as right or wrong.  As so many people know from reading Jon Sensbach’s book, Rebecca’s Revival, the Moravians kept amazing records.  One of the people who has really stuck in with me is a man named Digeon, a mentally-disabled man who was among Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s first residents.  Though its early decades, as Bethlehem’s leaders were contemplating how and why they should make various investments, or send out missionaries to some particular place, they were also dealing with the reality that people had very different abilities to contribute to the economy.  Some people needed help, or care, others needed discipline.  Following how they treated Digeon kept reminding me to think of my historical subjects as real people, and not as an accumulation of abstract historical forces. 

Christian Historians & Their Publics: CFH 2014

Michael Hammond

It is not too late to get in on the early registration discount for the 29th Conference on Faith and History Biennial meeting, which will take place September 24-27, 2014 on the campus of Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Early registration runs through Friday. 

Program chair Jay Green of Covenant College has brought together an outstanding lineup, including these plenary sessions:

Respectability: The Pursuit of a Historical Illusion
Allen Guelzo, Gettysburg College

Heritage Religion and the Mormons
Colleen McDannell, University of Utah

Reaching a Wider Audience
John Wigger, University of Missouri

“Spread Hilaritas!”: Writing History out of a Higher Satisfaction
Charles Marsh, University of Virginia

Many other papers and panels feature regular contributors to Religion in American History. Register through this Friday, August 15 to get the early rate. Fees for the conference have been structured to give guests and adjunct/unemployed/retired scholars an additional discount. The undergraduate student conference starts a day earlier, and is free for undergraduates to attend. Registration for the undergraduate conference is required, and these students may also register for the full conference at a discount ($50 through this week). 

Dispatches from the IUPUI Conference on the Bible in American Life

By Chris Cantwell

One of the conference's many fine presentations.
As I noted in one of my earlier posts this summer, the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis is wrapping a multi-year study of the Bible in American life. The study began with a survey, continued with an insightful report on the results of the survey, and is concluding with a conference that puts the report's results in broader historical, sociological, and theological contexts.

Well, the conference wrapped up its final session moments ago and I'm pleased to report it was a success by every measure. A testament to the conference organizer's efforts, the papers were remarkably diverse. Nearly a hundred attendees heard extended presentations on everything from the first Bible published in America to the latest biblical iPhone apps. Ray Haberski has offered up his own reflections on the conference divergent streams over at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog. But what struck me the about the conference were two very coherent conversations that emerged from these very different papers.

  • Words or the Word? The Bible in American life can take the form of both a specific biblical story as well as symbolic presence. Papers considered not only the ways Bible stories have inspired popular music but also how particular editions or translations of the Bible in toto have anchored specific religious communities.
  • Book Binding. The study of the Bible in American life is the study of power. The resonance scripture has in both its textual and iconic forms has made it a weapon of both the weak and the strong. Even non-Christian groups have plied the Bible for a number of causes, using it to both connect with and critique broader American culture. Social, cultural, and political power is also bound up in the ways race, gender, and class shapes who can interpret scripture and how religious institutions authorize interpretations. But power is also about access, and the ways the Bible has been published, marketed, or distributed also shapes the kinds of power scripture can yield.
I'm certain there are other vital questions and concerns in the study of American scripture, but this is what stood out to me at the conference's immediate end. I'd welcome other's thoughts.

Book Review: Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America


Samira K. Mehta

Leslie Dorrough Smith. Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)

Leslie Dorrough Smith’s Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America offers an in-depth look at the rhetoric of Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America (hereafter CWA), using it as a case study to explore the role of what the author terms “chaos rhetoric” in American public life. Smith argues that while scholars of conservative American Protestantism (of various stripes) have tended to focus on “absolute, ordered, unshifting elements of the movement”—a perspective in line with how the groups see themselves—in fact, their positions on political issues shift constantly, masking internal contradictions and tensions that reveal a far more complex relationship between the CWA’s public rhetoric and the implementation of their agenda.  (6-7)
These shifts  constitute Smith’s chaos rhetoric, which she defines as “a type of declension speech that attempts to persuade an audience by stressing an imminent threat to a beloved entity (which could include everything from children, to liberty, to the nation itself).”(5) Chaos rhetoric presents its audience with a world defined by “threat, disorder, fear, and chaos.”(5) Having thus defined the term, Smith undertakes a prodigious analysis of CWA’s speech (primarily as it has appeared on their website), to demonstrate that CWA uses chaos rhetoric to attack and undermine liberal, feminist agendas, even as the specific targets under attack have changed. She demonstrates, for instance, how in the early days of CWA, they characterized liberal feminists as man-hating, bitter lesbians in order to oppose both the ERA and women in the workplace. By focusing on being against liberal feminists rather than on the content of the CWA, they were able to sidestep the fact that the CWA was largely staffed by women in the workplace. Similarly, when the demographics changed such that most conservative wives and mothers came to work outside the home, gay marriage could step into the role as a threat to the American family. 

Summer Reading: Going Clear

Jonathan Den Hartog

One of the joys of summer for me is the possibility of reading a few things outside of my immediate academic specialty. Even if (when) I don't make it through everything I would like, I always feel like I've discovered some rejuvenating things of interest.

To that end, one of the highlights of my summer 2014 reading has been the not-quite-new book by Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief.

When Baylor graduate student Adina Johnson first recommended the book to me, I was skeptical. Could an author really present Scientology in an interesting way?

I shouldn't have been so suspicious. I already knew Wright had outstanding skills in investigative journalism, getting extensive insights through personal interviews, and communicating through compelling prose. All of these skills were on display in his earlier book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, a book which to my mind is indispensable in understanding and historicizing September 11, 2001.

All of those skills were on display in Going Clear. I had somehow missed its publication last year and the fact that it had been named to a number of year-end "best of " lists (such as here, but also including being a National Book Award Finalist and being honored by the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune).

The subtitle actually provides a rough outline of the book. The first section gives a detailed account of L. Ron Hubbard's life and creation of the books and ideas supporting Scientology. Hubbard's life might charitably be called "tumultuous." Wright describes violent and dysfunctional personal relationships and suggests that many claims Hubbard made about himself were fabricated. Wright also does a decent job of limning Scientology's beliefs. The movement uses invented terms and loves acronyms, and Wright translates them helpfully.

Wright communicates the structure of beliefs fairly, but here I would have liked to have seen more description. I wanted to hear, not only what was believed, but how it was received and how those beliefs structured a larger world. The one thing I felt the book lacked was an explanation of the appeal to converts and members. What and why did the movement's teaching resonate?

The second section describes the movement's development and institutional flourishing. Although Hubbard led the organization from a small naval flotilla that cruised the Mediterranean for several years (forming the Sea Organization or "Sea Org"), the executive leadership eventually settled back into America and began building significant nodes of influence, first in Florida but primarily in Southern California. This organization-building was helped by the millions of dollars which flowed into the organization and which were controlled by the inner circle of leadership. Acolytes paid for every course to bring them further along the "Bridge to Total Freedom." This led to great wealth and power at the top of the organization. After Hubbard's death, control was assumed by a young aide to Hubbard, David Miscavige.

Influence also grew as Scientology developed networks in the acting community. Scientology offered promises of help and a competitive advantage in Hollywood. This section detailed the recruitment and deployment of such celebrities as John Travolta and Tom Cruise. (Wright had earlier written about Scientology through the lens of a Hollywood writer who had left the movement, Paul Haggis). This section proved useful to me in understanding how and why various Scientology appeals have emanated from Hollywood figures.

The "Black Manifesto" in Twentieth-Century American Religious History

Trevor Burrows

The last several months have seen many thoughtful responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “A Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic in late May. Of special interest to readers of RiAH may be a recent roundtable discussion posted at the Society of US Intellectual History blog, as several of the contributions use the famous "Black Manifesto" as a starting point for considering various aspects of the modern reparations debate. I, too, thought of the Black Manifesto as I read and reflected on Coates’s piece, but I did so with the Manifesto’s place in American religious history in mind. In this brief post, I want to consider how the Manifesto, as an event, is often read and included in narratives of twentieth-century American religious history, and to tentatively - and perhaps a bit vaguely - suggest some alternative questions that might be useful in thinking through those narratives. (Because some of the themes I raise here are relevant to my own current research, I hope to comment further on these suggestions in later posts.)

The events surrounding the Black Manifesto are rather well-known. On May 4, 1969, James Forman disrupted Sunday services at New York City’s prestigious Riverside Church, marched to the pulpit, and proceeded to read a long document, the Black Manifesto, to the congregation. Forman ostensibly represented the National Black Economic Development Conference (NBEDC), itself an outgrowth of the ecumenical Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), which had approved the Manifesto only a few weeks earlier. In vivid, even shocking language, the Manifesto demanded 500,000,000 dollars “from the Christian white churches and the Jewish synagogues” and detailed how it was to be spent on a range of programs and services for the black community. Further, it exhorted African Americans to do as Forman had done, and to disrupt religious services across the country in support of the Manifesto’s appeals. And so many did: an interracial group of students occupied the offices of Union Theological Seminary a week later, and several other occupations of various denominational offices followed suit; copies of the Manifesto were distributed to leaders or read to congregations of churches big and small, often by interrupting Sunday services; and the calls for reparations even encouraged other minority groups to appeal to the churches for financial support.

Imagining "Time" in American Religious History

Michael Graziano

In “America’s Memory of the Vietnam War in the Epoch of the Forever War,” a recent essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, H. Bruce Franklin reflects on the American national memory of war. Franklin observes that many (if not all) of his students have lived their entire lives while America has been at war. “How many people alive today have ever lived part of their conscious lives in a United States of America at peace with the rest of the world?” Franklin continues, “How many Americans are even capable of imagining such a state?”

This is one of the tensions explored by Mary Dudziak in War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences (Oxford, 2012). Dudziak is primarily interested in how Americans have understood “wartime” as well as the idea’s legal implications, and in this the book is similar to other recent studies that focus on time and temporality. “Wartime is not merely a regulation of the clock,” Dudziak writes, “it is the calibration of an era. Once we enter it we expect the rules to change. Some burdens are more tolerable because we think of war as important and exceptional, and also because, by definition, wartime comes to an end” (15). While Dudziak is not focused on "religion," scholars of American religious history will find this study well worth their time. Dudziak discusses wartime as an “argument” rather a self-evident part of our world, and in doing so she works to historicize American assumptions about the structure of time and the way it works.

Failure and Humility in the Classroom and on the Road

Art Remillard

For me, teaching is an ongoing lesson in humility.

When I explain this to friends and colleagues, I recount the first time that I taught my "Religion and Sports" course. I developed it during the summer before I began at my present institution. At the same time, I was writing about the topic for Chuck Lippy's Encyclopedia of Religion in America. So here I was, in possession of everything that anyone needs for classroom success: 1) a catchy title; 2) a solid base of knowledge; and 3) an engaged audience (roughly 35 percent of our students are athletes).

The semester began, and I was certain that the course was going well. There were highs and lows, as there are with any class. But overall, I felt that the students were having a positive experience. In fact, when it came time for course evaluations, I worried that my chairperson would be blinded by the awesomeness of the results. Confidence. Sweet confidence.

Then the evals came back.

They weren't horrible, but they weren't great either. They were, instead, just... meh. Only one student bothered to comment (mostly negative), and the numbers were all entirely average. I felt neither loved nor hated. I was simply ignored. And my course was insignificant.

Visualizing Presbyterian Statistics Through One Hundred Years

Lincoln Mullen
The title Presbyterian Statistics through One Hundred Years, 1826–1926: Tabulated, Visualized, and Interpreted sounds like contemporary digital history project. Click the link, and you might expect some slick visualizations and open data. If you’re an optimist about digital methods you might expect a revolutionary new methodology for doing history that overturns old models; if you are a pessimist you might expect to find some “Big Data” hubris. But what you’ll find is a book from 1927, compiled the Presbyterian minister and employee of the General Council of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Herman Carl Weber.1 Weber compiled the data at the behest of the PCUSA, laboriously compiling the statistics because the General Council wanted to know what insights could be gathered from its data.
The first part of Weber’s work included dozens and dozens of tables like the one below.2 Denominations often maintained records and published them in yearbooks and annual reports.3 What is especially useful with Weber’s figures are that he compiled the numbers longitudinally—apparently over a period of three years of work—so that it is possible to see change over time.

Figure 1: A table of membership figures from Weber, p. 12.

Having gathered the numbers, Weber turned them into a series of visualizations and accompanying interpretations aimed at improving both the national church and individual congregations. In turning records into tables, and tables into graphs, Weber had some confidence that “the circle of those who can understand visualizations readily is very large,” though he also deemed it wise to use prose to “suggest what some of the visualizations mean” (3–4). In 1927 the idea of visualizations was not particularly innovative. Beginning in the 1780s the Scottish political economist William Playfair invented some of the foundational visualizations, including line charts, bar charts, and time series. As Susan Schulten has shown, maps and other kinds of data-driven visualizations were important techniques for nineteenth-century American science, engineering, and statecraft. Nor is it any coincidence that visualization was a technique for interpretation in the same period that the historians in America were turning themselves into professionals.
Weber’s charts told a story. In the first visualization in the book, reproduced below, notice the rise in Presbyterian membership over a hundred years. (The vertical orientation of the chart exaggerates growth, but from what I can tell Weber chose that orientation because of the constraints of printing and not out of any intention to distort.) Weber called this a “bird’s-eye view of the membership” (46).

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