American Religious History Symposium, Newcastle University, March 26, 2015



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Randall Stephens

On Thursday, March 26, 2015, the history programs at Northumbria University and Newcastle University will co-sponsor a symposium on “American Religious History.” The event will be open to the general public.

Praying during revival meeting at a pentecostal
church, Cambria, Illinois, January 1939.
Arthur Rothstein, 1915-1985, photographer.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Since September 11, 2001 the study of American religion—through literature, history, sociology, politics, film, and a host of other fields—has been booming.  That might have been surprising news to scholars 50 years ago.  In the 1960s renowned sociologists like Peter Berger predicted that America would become more and more like secular Europe. That did not happen, and in the coming decades Berger made an about face. “[T]he assumption that we live in a secularized world is false,” as he bluntly put it in the late 1990s. “The world today, with some exceptions . . . is as furiously religious as it ever was. . .”  Now scholars and journalists are asking how this upsurge in religious belief and practice relates to standards of tolerance, ethnic identity, and political engagement. Stanley Fish sensed the growing importance of religion in the wake of the 9/11 and the terrorist attacks: “When Jacques Derrida died I was called by a reporter who wanted to know what would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy. I answered like a shot: religion.”

American religious history features as national and international news in stories about voting behavior, America’s special relationship with the UK and with the rest of the world, and in efforts to define what it means to be “American.” Historians on both sides of the Atlantic have now also turned with greater interest to the religious lives of regular Americans, immigrants, laborers, just as they look at instances of religious tolerance or intolerance, and study the way that religion figured into America’s Civil War and other wars fought overseas.  It is no wonder then that religion, like never before, as Stanley Fish observed, is a hot topic.  The American Historical Association reported in 2009 that religious history topped the list of member specializations.  It had also outpaced cultural history as an area of concentration.  That trend has continued since then and is reflected in a growing interest in religion within American Studies in the UK. 

The roundtable and keynote address will reflect on religious topics as related to the study of history, American studies, and diplomacy. Accordingly, participants may address questions such as: How does the religiosity of America compare with that of other western nations? Does religion mostly unite or divide Americans? How is religion now being debated at a federal level in the US courts?  In what ways have religious leaders and organizations promoted innovation in media, outreach, and missions? What accounts for the recent boom in American religious history?  What can we learn about volunteerism, tolerance, and violence through the study of religious life and practice?  What are the longstanding connections between religion and politics?  To what degree was religion a factor in the modern civil rights movement and in ongoing social justice campaigns?

American Religious History Symposium 

Newcastle University, Armstrong Building, Room 2.50

State of the Field Roundtable, 3:30-5:00pm 

Uta Balbier (Director and Lecturer in the Institute of North American Studies, King’s College London)

Paul Harvey (Professor in History, University of Colorado)

Randall Stephens (Reader in American Studies and History, Northumbria University)

Sandra Scanlon (Lecturer in American history, UCD Dublin)

Keynote, 5:15-6:15 

Matthew Sutton, keynote (Professor, Washington State University, Heidelberg University), “American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism”

Wine and Cheese Reception (sponsored by Harvard University Press), 6:15pm 

The symposium has been made possible through the generous support of Newcastle University, Northumbria University, Harvard University Press, and the US Embassy London.  Interested in attending?  Please email randall.stephens@northumbria.ac.uk.

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