Are You Talking to Me? A Reflection on the Field

Charles McCrary

Certain hackles were raised last month by an article on the website of the evangelical organization The Gospel Coalition. The article, “Top Biography Recommendations from 12 Christian Historians,” featured twelve white Protestant men suggesting, for the most part, biographies of white Protestant men written by, well, you can probably guess. Of the twelve historians, many were prominent members of what scholars of American religion might consider “our field.” Thus, many scholars on social media were upset by the list as a bad representation of our field. However, as Mike Altman asked on Twitter, “Why should scholars of religion think that TGC reflects our field at all?”

We and a few other scholars had an interesting exchange about this, and it raised a few important questions. In this post I want think very broadly (but, I hope, also clearly) in order to address “our field.” What is it? How is it defined? What do we study? Which scholars are included? My argument is that our field—which I prefer to call “American religious studies”—addresses a public or number of publics that exist in discursive spaces often defined by institutions.

What is “American religions”? This is not a new debate. (I wrote a little bit about it here and here.) My stance is that there is nothing that must be included, but that scholars must always make, explain, and defend their choices about why they are studying what they’re studying. I prefer to think of “American religions” not in terms of what is studied, but who is studying it. In his book Publics and Counterpublics, especially in the title essay, Michael Warner explained the various uses of the noun “public.” When we discuss a public, we refer to spaces of discourse (physical or virtual), which are “organized by discourse” (68). In that way, this blog’s audience is a public, and it exists because I am addressing it right now. When Mike wondered why scholars of American religion cared about the Gospel Coalition article, the nub of his critique was that the public of TGC was not “our” public as scholars of American religion. But this is because the production of this article was created in an institutional setting apart from what most of us would consider an “academic” or “scholarly” or “our” discursive space. My objection to this is that Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Tommy Kidd were indeed speaking as members of our public, because they were identified as historians and defined by their university affiliations. But on whose behalf, with whose authority, and to whom exactly were they speaking? These are very important and complicated issues, and I think both sides of this particular debate—those bemoaning how poorly the TGC piece represented our field and those who thought this was of no concern to us—were not very careful.

I haven’t really answered the important question, though. If our field is a discursive community formed in particular spaces, then who is in it and what are those spaces?

Institutions, more so than subjects, define the parameters of whatever constitutes our field. Departments or programs are one such institution. Even certain individuals can be institutions. Think about what it means to be, say, a “Marsden student” or “Albanese student.” Such a label might tell us something about a scholar and the publics they address. And even within the broader field of American religious studies—or should we say American religions, or American religious history, or the study of American religion(s)?—there are plenty of divisions. Are you more of an AHA person, or an AAR person? Either sort can get into Young Scholars in American Religion. Is that who counts? One way the field is constituted, as I’ve argued before, is through exam reading lists. What are the texts “we” all take as “ours”? And if you haven’t read them, are you really part of the field? If the field is a discursive space, in order to be a part of it, one must produce discourse for certain publics. This means blogging, Twitter, presenting at conferences, publishing in certain journals and book series and with certain presses, maybe Facebook, and talking at conference receptions. Access to these spaces is not necessarily equal, and the field is inherently conservative by rewarding people who replicate existing frameworks—and who look like current gatekeepers. I think that more accessible public forums like Twitter are helping more people participate in field-shaping conversations, but I’m also aware of the limits of democratization, especially in places where it can really matter, like employment and publication. There are lots of directions this argument could go (and please go for it in the comments), but for now I just want to reiterate my point that the field, to the extent that it exists, is defined more by the people in it than the things it studies.

This post can be read, more or less, as an expansion of my response to Mike Altman’s “Three Hypotheses” post from a few years ago. Mike asked why people still think of “American religion” as an object of inquiry, i.e. a real thing that exists and can be studied. I hope I’ve explained why I don’t think the field works that way. However, a late-breaking realization on my part: there are some people who think that way. And, for many of us, these are the people who matter most. With very few exceptions, tenure-track job calls, at least as they’re written, seem to conceive of the field, if they do at all, according to a set of topics studied. So there’s a disconnect. My idea of the field is about my conversation partners, real and imagined. However, it’s unclear to me that the people writing job calls in what we might label “American religious studies” have these conversations in mind. Indeed, they might be largely unaware of them, since most hiring departments currently do not have scholars of American religion. This becomes clear every year when my friends and I discuss the recent hiring of someone we’ve never heard of to a major American religions job. Perhaps, for many search committees, a contribution to “the field” does not mean the same thing as it does to those of us around seminar tables, on Twitter, or at the Religion and American Culture reception at AAR.

I’m not sure how to conclude, or what to conclude. I’ll repeat my point: American religious studies is a field comprised of people addressing certain publics, engaging in conversation within certain institutional settings. This is a problem, of course, because it can lead to replication of existing topics and frameworks, as well as the entrenchment of current power structures by excluding people on the “outside” in whatever way. I think that, for as many people as the field can bring us into conversation with, it can cause us to overlook even more. Even as it provides a rich and robust historiography, it ensures that even more will be left off our exams lists. How can we expand and change the field while retaining its identity? Or should we retain its identity? Wait, does it have an identity? I’ve spent a lot of time in the past five years thinking about these things. But now my thoughts turn instead to one reality: the only people whose opinions really matter to me, right now, are the people writing job calls for a scholar of “American religion” (or something close!). Is there a word for something that is simultaneously incredibly liberating and terrifying?


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