What's New? What's Next?

Elesha Coffman

Many readers of this blog likely received an email recently from the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, which is starting to plan its 2017 Biennial Conference. Among other questions, the message asked, "Given what you know about our field and about our conference, what areas require our focused attention?"

In addition to reminding me to mark my calendar for a conference that's always lively and interdisciplinary in the best way, this question made me think about trends in the study of American religion--a topic that is extra important for me now that I'm at an institution (Baylor) that trains graduate students. What's new in our field, broadly conceived? And, although historians wisely shy away from predicting the future, what might be next?

Paul Putz's most recent preview of forthcoming books (found here) suggests some trends. Attention to economics--some of which might go under the heading of the "business turn" in American religious history, some of which might not--runs through four September titles: Julie L. Holcomb, Moral Commerce: Quakers and the Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy; Harvey Cox, The Market as God; Matthew Pehl, The Making of Working-Class Religion; and Marcia Walker-McWilliams, Reverend Addie Wyatt: Faith and the Fight for Labor, Gender, and Racial Equality. The topic of sports makes a run a bit later in the year, with books by Timothy B. Neary (Crossing Parish Boundaries: Race, Sports, and Catholic Youth in Chicago, 1914-1954), William J. Baker (Of Gods and Games: Religious Faith and Modern Sports), and Steven Fink (Dribbling for Dawah: Sports among Muslim Americans) in October and November. Foreign policy, missions, liberal religious expressions, print culture, and environmentalism all appear on the list multiple times, and there seem to be especially strong crops of books on Mormonism and Judaism.

What strikes me most, though, is the amount and variety of work on race, especially though not exclusively on African American concerns. The titles are too numerous to recount here. Members of our guild are making valuable contributions to national conversations on racial ethics and aesthetics, Reconstruction and lynching, civil rights and social justice, with scopes of vision ranging from small towns to the transatlantic world. There is so much to learn and teach here.

What else is new or emerging in our field? What would you like to hear about at RAC, or ASCH, or in the seminars you're taking or teaching? What are we, as a guild, doing well, and what can we do better?


David Kirkpatrick at: August 20, 2016 at 7:20 PM said...

I'm encouraged by the continued trend toward more diversity in the study of American religion. Yet, I'm also struck by the continued lack of study on Hispanic-American religion.

Charlie McCrary at: August 22, 2016 at 9:37 AM said...

Thanks for this post, Elesha! I always appreciate assessment and reassessment of "the field."

I think we could identify a number of broad shifts in the trajectory of the field,such as increased attention to the state and more dynamic work on race, but I'll add two specific things I've noticed.

Religion and environment. People have been doing this, sometimes under the heading "religion and nature," for a long time, but I've seen a dramatic increase in interest in this (including in job calls.) There are lots of angles, from histories of environmentalism to ethnographies of communities significantly affected by climate change. As we contend with what it means to live in the anthropocene, this will be crucially important.

Pacific studies, especially Hawaiian studies. I know of at least a few projects forthcoming on religion and Hawai'i. Hawaiian studies is a really vibrant field intersecting with postcolonial studies and, increasingly, in American studies. Scholars of religion are late to the game, but I think we're getting there. One problem is language competence, but there is still good work to be done by scholars who don't know Kanaka Maoli. But I do hope that in the near future there will be scholars with the language skills who also have training and knowledge in American religious studies. (on a related note, if anyone reading this wants to fund my language study, I'll do it! Never to early to start project 2...) This might become evermore relevant as Hawaiian sovereignty movements gain traction. If Hawai'i is no longer a state in, say, 30 years, I'd expect that there will be great interest and need for that history.

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