Becoming American - a class under construction

Matthew J. Cressler

The semester is careening to a what better time to think about our forthcoming courses?! This fall I get to co-teach what is sure to be a rad honors seminar with my friend and colleague Shari Rabin (assistant professor of Jewish studies and associate director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture here at the College of Charleston).

Title: Becoming American. Timing: Impeccable (with what proves to be a contentious election approaching). Description: What is America? What does it mean to be "American"? How does (or can) one "become" American? These questions are at the heart of some of the most provocative debates in the United States, past and present. This fall the two of us, along with our intrepid students, will engage these questions from the vantage point of three communities: African Americans, Catholics, and Jews. At times each have been characterized as incompatible with (if not inimical to) the very idea of America. And yet, in other instances, each have been heralded as epitomizing the endless possibilities afforded by the American Dream. Is America a nation premised on equal opportunity, mutual coexistence, and pluralism? Or on slavery and genocide, violence, and exclusion? We're gonna jump right into the deep end on these kinds of questions. In other words, the course will be a mash-up of American studies and religious studies (and Jewish studies and African American studies and Catholic studies).

So, with nothing set in stone just yet, we have two questions: How would you construct this course? And what would you just have to teach?

Law and the Modern Mind: Consciousness and Responsibility in American Legal Culture (Review)

Charles McCrary

Liberal subjectivity and its complications loom throughout nineteenth-century cultural and intellectual history. Owing largely to Scottish Common Sense, American thinkers posited a normative, but putatively descriptive, account of the human subject. The person was rational, discrete, and agentive. However, as many historians have shown, these assumptions were frequently challenged, and many people clearly did not fit this model. Of course, one point of this model was to exclude certain subjects, such as women, African Americans, and Native Americans. But there were other exceptions too, some of which were understood as less fixed states, like the drunkard, the monomaniac, or the lunatic. Scholars of American religion have shown some interest in these politics of personhood, especially as they relate to Christian anthropology and the influence of Protestant thought of American political forms. Antebellum reformers, for instance, thought carefully about vice and social responsibility as they worked for temperance and against prostitution. Social gospel leaders, in different terms, considered the role of modernization and industrialization amid perceived social breakdowns. Religious figures from all positions on slavery employed ideas about morality and mental capacity to forge their theological justifications. Educators acknowledged the importance of cultivating morality and worked to instill it in public schoolchildren while navigating the politics of nonsectarianism. These are all familiar topics. Less common in American religious studies, though no less important, are mundane but meaningful legal issues like insurance, wills, torts, and divorce. It was here, Susanna Blumenthal argues in Law and the Modern Mind, that philosophical, legal, and medical discourses about personhood, consciousness, agency, and rationality had salience. Blumenthal’s brilliant study of “the default legal person” locates these high-minded and thorny questions—What is a person? Who is rational? What is insanity? Wait, isn’t everyone a little irrational sometimes?—in courtrooms throughout the nineteenth century.

5 Questions for Anna Su on her new book "Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power"

Lauren Turek

Anna Su is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Toronto. She is an expert on international human rights law, U.S. constitutional law, and law and religion, and has written several articles on religious freedom and American foreign policy making during the early twentieth century. The following is a recent conversation we had about her important new book, Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power, in which she "charts the rise of religious freedom as an ideal firmly enshrined in international law and shows how America’s promotion of the cause of individuals worldwide to freely practice their faith advanced its ascent as a global power."

Q1. Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power draws attention not only to the long history of American efforts to promote religious freedom abroad through foreign policy, but also to the important role that these U.S. efforts played in shaping current international law aimed at protecting religious freedom worldwide. Can you tell us about the central argument you make in this book? What core message do you hope readers will take away from reading it?

A1: The main argument of the book is that religious freedom promotion was part and parcel of the rise of the United States as a global power. It also shows that many of our international laws on religious freedom have American origins. It is a critical book in many ways because for one, it pushes back on the claims of neutrality and universality of international human rights norms, of which religious freedom is one.  But it also complicates the usual story that religious liberty promotion was simply a disingenuous ideological mask for the pursuit of material power. As I show in the book, there’s always a bit of both interest and principle at work, and the reason is that religious freedom is genuinely important for many Americans and remains to be a distinctive part of American national identity. I also hasten to add that religious liberty is obviously very much contested throughout domestic American history, but those debates did not travel when religious freedom is promoted abroad.

No doubt there are many antinomies, problems and contingencies involved in the promotion and protection religious freedom as a human right today, several of which are structural thanks to the way secularism has structured and conditioned the way we engage in modern politics (see for example the recent work of Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age). The takeaway however is not to throw out the whole religious freedom project altogether. I don’t think we can afford to do that in the current historical moment. To say that there has been a decline in global religious freedom is a massive understatement. And governments have and should have a role in addressing that problem, along with others.  So yes, the book is a cautionary tale but it is not meant to be a tale of despair. We should be more critical about our own assumptions and vigilant about our own conduct, but that’s not an excuse for inaction.

What's Your Favorite Primary Source to Teach?

Emily Suzanne Clark

Maybe it's because I'm at a teaching school, but a lot of my posts in recent months have been teaching-centered. I assign a lot of primary sources in my classes. I have students write their own faux primary sources. I take students into the archives. Today I want to think about the primary sources I love to teach and why. Reply in the comments about your favorite primary sources for teaching.

What makes a primary source a good teaching resource? I think primary sources are great readings on their own, but some are certainly richer than others for the classroom. Good teaching primary sources are ones that reflect their context. A good source prompt student reflection on how his/her own subjectivity is shaped by the culture around her/him. Primary sources illuminate conflict and show moments of creative tension in American history. They show how the past can be a foreign country and they reveal how the past is not so different from today.

King's mugshots provide good visual primary sources too. 
One of my favorite primary sources to teach has got to be MLK's Letter from Birmingham Jail. Students enjoy this reading, and for Gonzaga students, it speaks to the social justice mission of the university. To Zags (and many others), there is something timeless about it. Placing the document within the context of the Birmingham campaign and the subsequent bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church provide good conversation on the interplay between religion and culture. Excerpts from Frederick Douglass's autobiography (namely the excerpts printed in Milton Sernett's African American Religious History) do the same. When I taught some of the FBI files on the Moorish Science Temple the other week, I asked the students what it was like to read declassified FBI files. Many found the blacked-out parts frustrating. I agreed and used the opportunity to talk about the monitoring process and think out loud with them about what might be blacked out and why.

One of the original 38 engravings from The Awful Disclosures
of Maria Monk
Those first three choices were pretty African American Religions-centric, which makes sense because I'm teaching that right now (Oh! And Jarena Lee's autobiography! So make that four choices). I'll expand further out for the final three and then open it up for the comments. I frequently teach excerpts from James Mooney's Ghost-dance Religion. The brilliant Sarah Dees recently made a strong case for continuing to teach this topic, and I agree. Mooney's work is great because it's both a primary and a secondary source. We have an anthropologist examining and analyzing a movement, but the content and his own biases make it a primary source that requires a close read. Excerpts from The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk are also good for teaching. It opens up conversations about religious intolerance and hate literature. Students can see how words have real effects; the burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown makes that clear. They also enjoy TJeff's "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom," because the ideas both feel so familiar and strange. Then we play a game that day where I read out various 17th and 18th-century laws from around the colonies and they vote on whether or not they would work TJeff's views on religious freedom.

This is barely the tip of the iceberg. There are so many primary sources that are effective teaching tools. What are your favorites and why?

Also GO ZAGS! #DotheFew (sorrynotsorry)

Conference Recap: Uses of Religion in 19th Century Studies


Charles McCrary

Last week I attended the Uses of Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference at the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University. Organized by Josh King and deftly and seamlessly facilitated by the Library staff and numerous volunteers, the conference was a small gathering featuring eight panels of three papers each. In my post today, I’ll say a few brief things about the content of the conference itself, but I’ll also spend some time considering the conference format—small meetings versus large ones, specializations and subfields, and interdisciplinary conversation.

The conference topic—Uses of Religion in Nineteenth Century Studies—could be understood in a number of ways. Should we read it with “religion” in quotes? As in, the way the category has been operationalized? And, if so, do we mean how it functioned in the nineteenth century, or in the study thereof? Or both? And if we’re not talking about the word “religion,” then what are we talking about? OK, I could write more questions, but we get the idea. The short answer is, I suppose, “all of the above.” The conference participants came from a number of backgrounds, though most were in literary studies, and a number of countries around the world. A majority of the presentations focused on British literature in some capacity, often on themes of religious forms in supposedly “secular” literature or the way religious groups used texts to make political arguments. Secularism (and secularization) was a constant theme, though sometimes more explicitly than others. While my background is in neither literature nor British studies, I found all the presentations engaging, enriching, and thought-provoking. I’ll highlight just a few here before moving on to a more general discussion of conference formats.

Researching "Ex-Priests": The Catholic Central Verein, Anti-Catholic Lecturers, and the KKK

[This month Cushwa welcomes Sean Rost, a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Missouri. A recent recipient of a Graduate Fellowship in American Political History from the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy, his dissertation examines the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, with a particular focus on the efforts of anti-Klan activists to use their power at the polls, in the pulpit, and in the press to stymie the growth of the “Invisible Empire” in Missouri." As with last month's Cushwa post, this one focuses on the results of a 2015 Research Travel Grant. And while I'm at it, don't forget to finish your applications for the Theodore M. Hesburgh Research Travel Grants, which in this cycle are due April 1.

On the topic of Cushwa news, also, a reminder to check our Events Calendar if you might be in the neighborhood. In the next month we have a lecture by Colin Barr on Missionary Sisters in Ireland's Spiritual Empire and the Spring Seminar in American Religion, featuring a public discussion of Mark Noll's new book In the Beginning was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783. Thomas Sugrue's planned lecture from a few weeks ago had to be canceled because of weather, and is currently being rescheduled for the last week of April.]

Sean Rost

When I first ascended to the sixth floor of the University of Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library, I thought I knew what I was looking for. At the time, my dissertation research focused narrowly on anti-Klan activism in Missouri’s “Little Dixie,” a series of counties in the central part of the state known for southern heritage and a slave-holding past. As such, with the exception of reviewing files related to the nationally published anti-Catholic newspaper The Menace, I intended to hunt through the Notre Dame Archives in the hopes of finding materials related to the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Catholicism in “Little Dixie.” But I quickly realized that to understand the efforts made by “Little Dixie” residents to confront religious intolerance I needed to review the files of the Catholic Central Verein of America.

Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age (Review)

Paul Putz

It's been four years since Mark Edwards asked: "What if Historians of Liberal Protestantism Threw a Party and Nobody Came?" Since that post (in which Edwards detailed an already impressive list of recent scholarship on the subject) we have seen the party continue and even expand. It hasn't necessarily been a wild, packed-to-the-ceiling event. And those pesky conservative evangelicals across the street still seem to be drawing a larger crowd. Still, it has had its moments of excitement and even celebrity guests (hello New York Times).

With David Mislin's Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age (Cornell University Press, 2015) historians of liberal Protestantism can add one more book to their ever-growing list of attractions. Mislin has already discussed his project here at the blog with Pete Cajka, so check that out if you'd like to hear straight from the author.

Mislin puts his chronological focus on the years between 1870 and 1930. During those years, Mislin argues, American Protestants had to deal with religious anxieties of an unprecedented sort. Facing intellectual challenges to the plausibility of faith, encountering increased cosmopolitanism, and competing with the allures of a growing mass consumer culture, Protestant leaders had good reason to worry about their declining authority, even if church membership numbers continued to climb. Beginning with this late-nineteenth-century crisis of faith, Mislin's book "traces the process by which anxieties about declining religious commitments prompted two generations of liberal Protestant leaders to affirm the diversity of beliefs and practices around them" (9).

Of Guilds and Get-Togethers

Elesha Coffman

Once again, a conversation animating the AAR causes me to ponder issues related to the academic society I serve as a council member, the ASCH. Late last year, Kate Daley-Bailey wrote an open letter to the AAR, titled "For the Good or the 'Guild,'" urging greater consideration of the concerns of contingent faculty. One line of this piece's abstract reads, "I recommend the American Academy of Religion reassess its values and priorities and ask that the organization decide if it is a nonprofit organization or a guild." A nonprofit, in Daley-Bailey's analysis, would uphold the needs of the downtrodden--a category to which too many contingent faculty and unemployed academics belong--while a guild protects the interests of those privileged enough to pay for access. A number of other scholars have responded to the piece here.

I've mused about the aptness of considering the ASCH a guild elsewhere. Basically, I don't think ASCH has enough leverage on the profession to function that way. Like AAR, though, ASCH controls its conferences, which are key sites for c.v.-building, networking, and job-seeking. (ASCH does not facilitate interviews directly, but it has long held its winter meeting in conjunction with the American Historical Association, which does.) With both the ASCH winter and spring meetings under re-evaluation by the council--Can ASCH afford to maintain ties with the AHA? Would it be possible to meet separately from AHA but in the same city at the same time? How often should we have spring meetings? What about other sorts of meetings?--I wanted to do a bit of thinking in public, as well as seek input from readers of this blog.

Race and the Social Democratic Presidential Candidate

Janine Giordano Drake

Bernie Sanders, the Social Democratic Jewish senator from Vermont, has been winning democratic primaries in states with large populations of industrial and post-industrial union members. After a very narrow loss in Iowa, he has won primaries in New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma
and Vermont. Any historian of socialism in the US could pick these states out (with the possible exception of New Hampshire) as historic hotbeds of socialist and social democratic activity. In the early 1910s, US citizens elected hundreds of socialist and social democratic mayors and city officials within these states. Many of these states still maintain large numbers of union members. Eugene Debs organized among many of the same cities (and, likely, families) that Sanders has been organizing.

What historians of socialism in the United States are often less comfortable talking about is why democratic socialism has had so little to say about race.

Is Sanders racist?

@Preacher_Bot, You, and Me: An Update

Chris Cantwell

As some of you may recall, a while back I took a rainy afternoon and built a twitterbot in the hopes of exploring the contours of contemporary evangelicalism. Dissatisfied with theories that cast evangelicalism as a discursive construction with a lexicon determined by religious elites, I designed an application that remixed the tweets of Twitter's most prominent preachers in order to see if an evangelical really could be spoken into being. The result, @Preacher_Bot, has been churning out content for a full seven months now--nearly ten thousand tweets in all.

As a research experiment, @Preacher_Bot has been fun. In some ways it does confirm the argument of scholars like Susan Friend Harding who claim that evangelicalism is a language that allows individuals to narrate themselves into a movement. Even at its most nonsensical, a solid block of @Preacher_Bot's thoughts do read like those of an evangelical tastemaker--albeit one with terrible punctuation. The gospel according to @Preacher_Bot is one of grace and unending love that individuals must tirelessly seek to receive or make manifest in their own lives. And it always comes with a study guide you can buy at Wal Mart or Amazon.

But the experiment's limits have also become evident over the last several months.

We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics An Interview with Neil J. Young

Samira K. Mehta

Neil J. Young. We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

SKM: Neil, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed here on Religion in American History. I may, however, have to start with a complaint: for the entire time I have had your book on my desk, I have also had the hymn running through my head!

NJY: Thank you! There are probably worse things that could be stuck in your head, but I will take the blame here. I will say that having a book titled “We Gather Together” come out in November means you receive a lot of Google Alerts about Thanksgiving-related items rather than your own book. That said, I really love hymns and hymn history, so I loved getting to use one for my title.

SKM: For those who are not familiar with your book, you tell the story of the rise of the religious right, but rather than focusing on evangelicals, or even on evangelicals and Catholics, you add Mormons into the story. How did you decide to use an expanded cast of characters in determining who to include in the religious right?

NJY: I felt it was really important to include Mormons in my story since they had been mostly overlooked by the literature. Nearly all histories of the religious right mentioned Mormons as key players in their introductions, but these works then ignored Mormons and the LDS Church for the rest of their story, so I felt it was essential to bring them in. Additionally, religious right operatives like Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly constantly mentioned Mormons as important political allies, so I wanted to see what that looked like for the movement. Knowing how controversial Mormonism has been, especially for evangelicals, added a dimension to the story I wanted to investigate. How did evangelicals and, to a lesser extent, Catholics build and navigate political alliances with a faith they historically rejected as un-Christian? Lastly, including Mormons allowed me to tell a national story about the Religious Right, rather than one focused largely on the South.

Religion and Hamilton

Jonathan Den Hartog

Have we reached peak-Hamilton?

By this, I mean this outstanding Broadway musical, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Although I've been following the musical for a while (and am still waiting for that sponsor to buy me tickets to the Broadway performance), it's only come to to the broader public's attention more recently. Its performance during the Grammy Awards, for instance, spiked attention. When the Tony Awards are presented in June, it's sure to garner even more accolades.

(And, let's point out that lots of others have been commenting on Hamilton, too. The Junto has been doing a great job. Andy Seal connected it to an earlier interest in Hamilton. Even 60 Minutes got in on the act.)

I've been listening to the soundtrack for long stretches since Christmas and have really enjoyed it.

I contend that the musical could be a great help for teaching the Revolution, as I'm going to attempt this fall. I love, for instance, the sound of George III as a lounge singer decrying the loss of the colonists' love. Envisioning the issues before President Washington's Cabinet as rap battles is genius. Being able to communicate the code behind dueling is very helpful. It's worth saying the content should be used with discretion: I'll be editing some sections for language, and I think there's a misunderstanding of the dynamics of the election of 1800. Even so, there's much to use.

Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)(Explicit)(2CD)

Research Tools and the Dissertation II

Today's post comes to us from Erin Bartram. Erin completed her Ph.D. in December 2015 at the University of Connecticut. She studies 19th century American history with a focus on gender, religion, and conversion, inspired by borderlands studies. She is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the University of Hartford and an editor for H-AmRel. You can follow her on Twitter @erin_bartram.

Erin Bartram 

Having just defended my dissertation in December, Mike’s recent post inspired me to do a bit of a post-mortem on my own research practices, and I hope some of my successes and struggles can help others. In general, I want to emphasize three important points.

  • There’s an app for that, but you don’t have to use it. Most of the useful technology for historians, broadly speaking, creates additional work on the back end. Sometimes new technologies help; sometimes they just complicate.
  • Accept that you will never be current. I began my dissertation research in 2010 and defended at the end of 2015, and the difference five years made is amazing. You establish a system and then something new comes along, but the benefit of switching midstream is not always enough to justify the labor of the switch. 
  • Find what works for you. The suggestions that you hear from those around you are just suggestions, and they won’t work for everyone, based on working style, research realities, and financial realities. 

What works for you will be largely determined by the material you’re working with. My dissertation examined the lives of American women who converted to Catholicism in the mid-19th century, centering on one woman - Jane Minot Sedgwick II - and the secular and religious networks she moved in throughout her life. Everything I used was manuscript: over 2000 letters, diaries, commonplace books, etc. Moreover, what I was doing with the material meant that I couldn’t just scan for keywords in the archive; I needed all the words.

The Formation of Conscience: A Few Thoughts on Theological Language and Religious Reality

Pete Cajka

Pope Francis earned a few headlines recently with a remark on how Catholic politicians were free to decide on votes for same-sex marriage – for or against – using a “well-formed conscience.”  The comment and its responses caught my attention because I am trying to understand why Catholics came to think of conscience-formation as a psychological process in the 1970s. The contemporary discussion seems to have a different tone. Much of the current discourse on conscience-formation focuses on assent to- (or a bypassing of)- specific teachings. In this blog post, I want to explore, briefly and tentatively, the relationship between theological language of conscience and the nature of the reality of conscience for Catholics. 

In their reactions to Pope Francis’s airplane comments (and similar remarks made by Archbishop of Chicago Blase Cupich in the fall of 2015), a few Catholic journalists turned to The Catechism.  A writer for The Catholic World Report provided his readers with canon 1783: "Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened...A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true and good as willed by the Creator."

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