Religion and American Foreign Relations: Reflections on the 2016 SHAFR Annual Meeting

Lauren Turek

I have just returned from the Annual Meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), which convened at the beautiful Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego.

The stunning Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice
I am happy to report that, as Andrew Preston noted while commenting on one panel, the range of papers included in this year’s program makes clear that “religion is now a standard topic in diplomatic history,” something that would not have been true even a decade ago. Indeed, SHAFR offered up numerous panels and individual papers of interest from established scholars as well as from graduate students working on cutting edge research for their dissertations.

I would like to share a brief overview of the exciting work that scholars presented on the history of religion and foreign policy. As is the case with all great conferences, each session boasted multiple panels that I would have liked to have attended, but since I (sadly) can only be in one place at once, I will not be able to offer a full accounting of each panel that addressed religion in some way. Instead, I will discuss two of the panels I attended and then, at the end of this post, I will provide a list of all of the papers that pertained to religion and perhaps other attendees can fill in the gaps in the comments section. This will also serve as a snapshot of some new and forthcoming work in the field.

Weddings, Religion, and the Universal Life Church: An Interview with Dusty Hoesly

Charles McCrary

Wedding season is upon us! If you attend a wedding this summer, you might notice that the officiant is not a professional clergyperson but a friend or relative of the couple. In preparation to officiate a wedding this summer I, like millions of other non-clergypersons, was ordained by the Universal Life Church. (In closely related news, send your congratulations to Cara Burnidge and Mike Graziano!) But what is the ULC? And how does it fit within the landscape of contemporary American religion? To find out, I turned to Dusty Hoesly, a PhD candidate in American religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His article “‘Need a Minster? How About Your Brother?’: The Universal Life Church between Religion and Non-Religion” provides a helpful overview to and insightful analysis of the ULC. Today, RiAH welcomes him for an interview that might be just the wedding-season prep scholars of religion need.

Hi Dusty. Thanks for doing this interview. Let’s start with some history. How did the Universal Life Church begin? In what context did it arise?

Thank you for inviting me to share my work with you and the RiAH readers.
The ULC logo

Kirby Hensley (1911–1999) began “Life Church” in his home garage in Modesto, California, in 1959, then incorporated it as the Universal Life Church in 1962. Although he was illiterate, he had served as an itinerant minister and church planter for Baptist congregations and then the Assemblies of God, working in North Carolina, Michigan, Oklahoma, California, and other states. However, his views were seen as too idiosyncratic, so he did not remain at any church for too long. Frustrated with theological orthodoxies imposed on him by denominational authorities and congregations, he decided to create a church that would allow anyone to believe whatever they wanted. The ULC’s sole creed became “to do that which is right,” as each determines for themselves what that means. Hensley also sought to ensure First Amendment freedoms for all people. If everyone has their own religion, as he claimed, then everyone should benefit equally from religious liberty protections and enjoy the same benefits accorded to more established religions and to their clergy. Thus, the church ordained anyone for free and for life, with no theological commitments required. It became the most famous and the largest mail-order ministry in America, ordaining over one million ministers by 1971 and spawning thousands of charter churches under its auspices. It also held mass ordinations on college campuses, organized annual national conventions, and published periodicals and other materials.

Making Pauli Murray's Home a National Historic Landmark

Paul Harvey

Just a quick intervention here to post this important message, sent to me originally by Ann Little (aka Historiann) on twitter (and here is the facebook post about it):

We have just been told that the deadline for letters of support is JULY 1st. Visit the link below to learn more about the national impact of Pauli Murray’s life and the historical significance of her family residence.
Please send your letters of support by JULY 1 to Mr. Paul Loether, Washington Office, National Park Service, addressing them to with a blind copy to with “Pauli Murray NHL” on the subject line, and a U.S. Mail copy to The Secretary of the Interior, Ms. Sally Jewell, Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street, N.W., Washington DC 20240. Thank you! If you have questions or other comments, they should also be sent to the same addresses.
Here's the link where you can learn much more about this effort, about Murray's life, and also about some very important recent books about her life:

The Arrival of Television in US and Italy: A New "Holy Crusade?"

January, 1954 cover of Information
[This month's Cushwa post is courtesy of Federico Ruozzi of the Department of Education and Human Sciences, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (Italy) and the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies, Bologna (Italy). We hosted him last summer and loved hearing about his fascinating research on the Catholic Church and the news media, so we asked him to take this year's final travel grant research report post. Looking forward to this summer's crop of new arrivals -- and hope you are all enjoying your research and writing time!]

Federico Ruozzi

A reporter once asked Bishop Fulton Sheen if he thought Christ would use Television were He on earth today. The bishop said: "yes, for television is just a means of transportation. Christ used the most modern means of transportation in His day when He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey."

Looking for Religion in "Boys Among Men"

Paul Putz

Over the past few months I've settled into that ABD mode where nearly everything I read is filtered through a dissertation-colored lens. Since my dissertation is focused on the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the cultural history of the "Christian athlete," this has done a number on the excessive amount of sports journalism that I consume. Not even Jonathan Abrams's new book could save me.

Abrams has worked for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, but it was with ESPN's Grantland (RIP) that he became the writer whose pieces were heralded on twitter with their own hashtag (#AbramsAlert). His oral histories became particularly important sports internet events, especially after his piece detailing the "Malice at the Palace" – the 2004 brawl involving the Indiana Pacers, the Detroit Pistons, and more than a few fans. With a reputation for snagging insightful interviews and turning them into fascinating in-depth features, Abrams had a sizeable audience waiting in anticipation this year for his first book project, Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution.

Boys Among Men lives up to its hype as the definitive story of the "prep-to-pro" era in NBA history. Initiated in 1995 when Kevin Garnett elected to skip college and enter the NBA directly from high school, it effectively ended in 2005 when the NBA instituted an age minimum of 19. The prep-to-pro era saw both new superstars emerge from high school (Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, and Dwight Howard, among others), and also cautionary tales: players like Korleone Young, Leon Smith, and Robert Swift who entered the league before they were ready (or so the typical narrative went) and squandered their bright futures. It was the highly publicized presence of the cautionary tales that gave NBA executives public cover to change their rules and end the prep-to-pro pipeline.

Abrams brilliantly narrates the stories of the well-known prep-to-pro successes and failures, as well as those who were stuck somewhere in between. If you consider yourself a basketball fan, this is a book you should add to your summer reading list immediately. But this is a blog about religion, not sports journalism, and I am writing a dissertation about "Christian athletes" not prep-to-pro players. As I read the book I looked to see what, if anything, religion had to do with Abrams's story.

Social Activism and Gender at Joel Osteen's Church: Part 2 of an Interview with Phil Sinitiere

Karen Johnson

Phil Sinitiere recently published Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity. With 40,000 attenders each weekend, Lakewood is America's largest mega church, and its pastor's reach extends well beyond the weekend service, with best-selling books, podcasts, and sermons on satellite radio and cable television.  Phil argues that if we want to understand American evangelicalism today, we must account for Osteen and Lakewood Church. Last month I posted the first part of an interview Phil and I conducted that discussed race and class at Lakewood (for Arlene's interview with Phil, go here).  This month, I'm posting the second part of the interview, which addresses social change and gender at Lakewood.

KJ: Joel Osteen preaches a message of personal transformation and second chances.  How is it typical of American evangelicalism?  How is it different?  I was also surprised that despite the individualistic nature of Osteen's message, members of his congregation are working to fight human trafficking and participating in marches for social justice.  How did that happen?

PS: Osteen’s message of second chances connects to the history of Pentecostalism and the myth of American identity that promises the possibility of remaking oneself. At the same time, the idea of a spiritual second chance—if I can term it that way—is perennially Christian as well. My interest in the book does not consider this question in a theological perspective; rather I explore the historical roots and cultural meaning of Osteen’s prosperity gospel. Rooted in 19th century New Thought as Kate Bowler’s Blessed expertly documents, as the prosperity gospel intersected with Pentecostalism and later neopentecostal the message of starting over resonated culturally in the U.S. and gave the movement wider resonance. At Lakewood, and especially the context of Houston that some journalists and observers have described as a second chance city, the discourse of a spiritual makeover became extraordinarily popular. 

To Be or Not to Be ... an ASCH Member

Elesha Coffman

Those of you who are, or who have been, ASCH members should recently have received an e-mail from ASCH president Ron Rittgers, urging you to pay your 2016 dues if you have not already done so. "The ASCH is currently facing unprecedented financial challenges on a number of fronts," the e-mail indicated, "and your membership dollars have never been more important to the Society. Revenue from membership dues is significantly behind where it should be at this time of the year, and the shortfall is making it difficult to plan and provide the kind of high quality annual meeting that we all value so highly, among other things."

I've written before about the tense relationship between ASCH and AHA, and about affordability in academic guilds. There's an ASCH council meeting scheduled later this month, and I expect it to address both the AHA-ASCH relationship and the affordability of our annual meetings. Going into the discussion, I would love to know what any of you think about either of these topics.

If you are an ASCH member, or if you are not a member, why? No judgment, I'm just really curious how people in different sub-fields, institutions, and stages of their career view ASCH membership. Who, and what, is membership for?

If you attend the AHA/ASCH winter meeting, do you attend sessions sponsored by, and interact with members of, a variety of represented societies (AHA, ASCH, the American Catholic Historical Association, others) or do you mostly stick to one group? How important is it, to you, that all of these historians are meeting together? Do you prefer big, multifaceted conferences or small, focused ones?

Whether you belong to ASCH or another academic society, what does that society do for you? What do you wish it did more or less of? How would it affect you if the society ceased to exist?

If you'd rather contact me personally than post your thoughts here, feel free to email me at Thanks!

Outsiders in a Promised Land: Interview with the Author

Janine Giordano Drake

In a well-researched account of religious activism in the Oregon Territory from the late nineteenth century to the present, Dale Soden's Outsiders in a Promised Land (also reviewed by Paul Putz, here) draws several meaningful conclusions. He shows that despite the fact that the region has always had a reputation as the least "churched" region in the country, religious activists have had an outsized influence within the region. For, as outsiders, they have frequently seen themselves as leaders in renewal and reform.  In casting an historical glimpse over the long period from the late nineteenth century to the present, Soden illuminates the long-term repercussions of both Victorian and Social Gospel work in the region.
I "sat down" with Soden over email and asked him a few questions. As you'll learn by the end of the interview, Soden was one of Paul Harvey's history professors!

Modern Fitness; or, The Origin of the Species

Adam Park

A curious thing has recently taken hold of the American health and fitness scene. It's been around for a while, to be sure. But it's really really around now. Foreword-thinking exercise and diet theories look backwards for inspiration. Pursuant that ubiquitous muscular Christian logic, Americans have forsaken modern "civilization" for love of prehistoric "nature." And in so doing, modern health and fitness culture has reverently articulated a most great and wonderful story of human origins, of human purpose.

Here's the academic rub to all this barefoot running, kettlebell swinging, gluten hating stuff. In Charles Taylor's terms, this move back to nature serves as a "recovery of transcendence." For the betterment of their visible selves, Americans are getting something invisible. Not only is "nature" the metric by which many Americans measure the legitimacy of health trends, but such Americans locate "nature" within themselves. Humans embody a kind of evolutionary imperative, so it goes, in which our created-ness is manifest. Our bodies "know." The larger significance of this nature, then, is that it salvages overcivilized bodies and provides buffered, overcivilized minds with a meaningful account of themselves. A lot of this collective nostalgia has to do with an "ethic of authenticity," as the idea is that an un-self-aware population has to be brought back to their more natural state. Our early hominid ancestors had it right. Overly domesticated Americans with all their overly domesticated things are but sad derivatives, decrepit and unnatural. Modern (meta)physical culture is engaged in a quest for the ancient real.

In the Beginning Was the Word (Part 2)

Jonathan Den Hartog

With posts falling on June 6, I have tried to keep a World War II-theme--see here and here.

This month, though, I wanted to continue thinking about Mark Noll's In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783. Even after finishing my piece last month, I found there were still more points I wanted to make. So, with that in the background, let me jump right into additional observations about Noll's book:

First, I'd like to commend Noll's attention to and careful delineation of the intersection of the Bible and slavery in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Noll traces how the impact of the Scriptures actually "Deepened" through its Great-Awakening-inspired transmission to slaves throughout the Atlantic World. Noll contends this movement was particularly marked by its taking up and personalizing of the biblical text. Recognizing and building on other scholars such as Vincent Carretta and Jon Sensbach, Noll calls this development the formation of "The Biblical Black Atlantic" (211). Noll traces biblical themes both in well-known figures such as Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano and lesser known figures Jupiter Hammon, John Marrant, David George, and Quobna Cugoano. In these figures, Noll connects biblically-rooted language among Africans and African-Americans in the American colonies, Canada, the Caribbean, and Africa. Noll's recognizing this public usage of the Bible is important and expands our vision of the place of the Bible for all levels of society, in many different places, in the eighteenth century.

Next, it's worth noting several of the other interesting by-ways that Noll illuminates.

For example, Noll helpfully points out the significance of versification of the Bible. Although chapters had been marked previously, verse numbers were inserted for the first time in the Geneva Bible (1557) and then, with further significance, in the King James Bible. Noll sees versification as significantly democratic: individuals could now point to single points in the Scripture as reference, rather than draw broad allusions to extended passages. Any literate person could read or find a passage. At the same time, versification allowed for proof-texting and the assembling of, in an empirical fashion, texts scattered throughout the Bible. Thus the Scriptures could be enlisted into "engineering projects" (123) of systematization and programmatic endeavors. Even the verse markings themselves, then, created a certain flavor of biblicism in British North America.

Noll also reminded me that no English-language Bibles had been printed in the colonies. Royal monopolies had guaranteed that all Bibles had to be printed in England and then shipped to the colonies. Native American language Bibles could be printed, such as the Algonquian translation done by John Eliot, but English Bibles had to come from England. This observation helped make more sense of the Bible produced by Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken. It actually was a revolutionary act when Aitken published an "Authorized Version" in America in 1782. The significance of the Aitken Bible lay, then, not in that Congress endorsed it (though it did), but in the fact that it represented the new nation's ability to produce Bibles for a spiritually-hungry population.

Lessons from a Year on Fellowship

Hunter M. Hampton

Twelve months ago, I started my fellowship year to work on my dissertation. I was equally excited and nervous. Nothing to that point in my academic career, from preschool to comprehensive exams, had prepared me for a year without teaching, grading, or deadlines. I started looking around for any guide or advice on this year, but little appeared. I am certainly not an expert on the field of sabbaticals or fellowship years, but I hope these lessons are helpful for my comrades fighting to finish their dissertation or tenured professors working on their last book.

1. Make a schedule
This I know seems obvious. Everyone has some sort of schedule each day, even on days when you say you don’t have anything to do. That being said, a year with literally no regularity or rhythm is a different monster. The best advice I received on this is to treat your day, week, month, quarter, and year, like a business.  Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art – a must read for any writer – calls this “incorporating yourself.” In “real corporate jobs,” bosses set your to-do list with short, intermediate, and long-term goals (or so I am told.) Adopting that same strategy into a writing schedule is incredibly helpful. I did this with daily word counts, weekly word counts, a specific date to finish chapters, and a total sum of work to accomplish by the end of the year. Checking off something everyday from my to-do list gave me the tiny sense of accomplishment necessary to keep plugging along. A second part of making a work schedule is building in off time. Just like other jobs, I quit working at 5pm each day, only worked on the weekends if I didn’t hit that week’s deadlines, and enjoyed Thanksgiving and Christmas break. These breaks allowed me to stay fresh and sane (for the most part) throughout the year.

Chicken Chaplains: A Business Made in Heaven

Andy McKee

At the end of a short video about Tyson Food's chaplaincy program, Dr. David Miller, identified earlier in the same video as "Princeton University Project Director Center for the Study of Religion and Author" states, "If I could give you a little pill that you could put in the water at the cafeteria, the canteen, everyone have it, and that pill would make everyone be a little bit more loyal, a little bit more engaged, have a little bit higher loyalty, be a little more creative, a little bit more absenteeism, and assuming there are no negative side effects, would you take that pill?" "Well of course!" Miller states, all while having an apparent conversation with himself. If one is hesitant about any potential repercussions about using metaphors about drugging your employees, you need not worry because as the video fades out, Miller gives us his gotcha moment: there are no real drugs at play. Instead, "well we've just described workplace chaplaincy."

For Tyson and others, however, this pill or program can't keep workers from using the restroom, and recently big chicken has been making headlines undergoing fire from groups bringing to light the horrible conditions of poultry workers, highlighted by the routine denial of bathroom breaks. And this isn't the first time. Coupled with recent legislative bills anti-whistleblower, or ag-gag laws passed in various states across the country, and the fact that four companies – Tyson, Pilgrim’s Perdue, and Sanderson Farms – control roughly 60% of the poultry industry and employee some 250,000 workers. This is not a small issue. Coupled with concerns over claims of animal cruelty, polluting the environment, and bankrupting contract farmers, the chaplaincy program sidesteps these issues by tying into some apparent universal construction of spirituality.

American Catholic History: A Media Round-up


 Pete Cajka

American Catholic historians have been active out in the field as of late, doing interviews, panels, and lectures. We have an embarrassment of riches! Thankfully the material is available online. Here are a few recent endeavors. This media round-up includes Robert Orsi, Daniel Williams, Timothy Matovina, Eugene McCarraher, Kristy Naban-Warren, Leslie Woodcock Tentler, Samuel Moyn, John McGreevy, and Thomas Sugrue. American Catholic historians (and American Catholic history) have appeared at the John C. Danforth Center on American Politics at the Washington University in St. Louis, Religion and Politics, the Cushwa Center at Notre Dame, the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, and the Journal of American History podcast. Our thanks go out to all these institutions and publications.
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