By Chris Cantwell
There’s an old joke about Southern Baptists my grandfather used to tell—a joke that in all likelihood could be told about any religious faith. “How many Southern Baptists does it take to change a lightbulb?” he would ask. And the answer, for those of you who don’t know, is six. One to call for the formation of a Light Bulb Modernization Committee; another to second the motion; three more to make a quorum; and one church member to stand up and yell “HOW DARE YOU CHANGE THAT LIGHTBULB! MY GREAT-GRANDDADDY INSTALLED THAT LIGHTBULB IN 1902 AND ALL THIS CHANGE IS A SIGN OF HOW FAR WE’VE FALLEN FROM THE FAITH!”
|Cleveland's Italian Catholics Celebrate Columbus Day, 1938.|
Over the last decade, however, I have also come to appreciate the subtle—and perhaps not even fully intentional role—McGreevy ascribes to the Catholic historical imagination in shaping these fault lines. For as I read it, the Church’s divided response to the growing presence of African Americans in the decades after World War II was in part forged by particular understandings of parish life in the era before World War I. Catholic interracialists, for instance, often framed their support for ecclesiastical integration as a logical extension of the corporate unity of European parish life. The Catholic Church’s historic mandate to provide for all peoples within a parish meant that local priests should minister to parishioners regardless of race. Segregationists, by contrast, tended to emphasize the more parochial strands of local church history that reinforced ethnic identities in justifying the exclusion of black Catholics from “their” churches, schools, or hospitals. To make local churches a theatre in the struggle for civil rights was, to them, not only introduced new political causes into the life f the church but also gave it a new historical trajectory. As one Boston layperson that McGreevy quotes bitterly put it, why were nuns who “wore eighteenth century garb and followed nineteenth century rules suddenly vault[ing] themselves into the twentieth century” on matters of racial politics (144).
|Sunday School Historical Pageant.|
My own work on urban Protestants in the first decades of the twentieth century also bears out McGreevy’s attention to the important role memory plays in the shaping of religious communities. While historians often present the conflict between fundamentalists and modernists as a political or theological divide, I find that the division between these camps also arose from divergent collective memories about the small towns from which many urban Protestants originated. Social Gospelers, for instances, often cast their support for politically progressive social reforms as an industrial manifestation of the economic mutuality that supposedly governed the preindustrial, agricultural communities where many of them were raised. Fundamentalist, by contrast, tended to portray the towns and villages from which they came as sites of unmatched religious uniformity, where even the village atheist acceded to the moral authority of the church, which, in turn, informed their crusades against affronts to public morals like the saloon or bawdry entertainments. This appeal of the past to urban Protestants not only illuminates why so many fundamentalists first took up the moniker of “the old time religion” in describing their relatively new movement, but also helps explain why nostalgia continues to be such a potent political idiom within the evangelical community--ever always "Making America Great Again."
I'm not sure to what degree McGreevy intended Parish Boundaries to be a study of memory, but the recent spate of scholarship on religious understandings of the past suggests that McGreevy was prescient in his attention to his subjects' historical imaginations. Indeed, this ability to anticipate and contribute to future conversations is perhaps Parish Boundaries most admirable quality. Because like McGreevy more than twenty years ago, a growing number of historians are also now coming to understand that in order to write about how city dwellers engaged with their present, we must also take stock of how they understood the past.