Thanks, RiAH: A Brief Personal Reflection

Charles McCrary

I have appreciated the reflections on and odes to Religion in American History posted this month. It’s been edifying to read of the blog’s role in the lives of many of my colleagues and friends and to consider its place in our field. I’ll add my short reflection here. Personally, I don’t know the field without this blog. And really, in many ways, I know the field through this blog. In the summer of 2007, when the blog launched, I was not a scholar of religion. I was 17 years old, and I delivered the Fargo Forum to doorsteps in the wee hours of the morning and Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity® pancakes to tabletops in the non-peak hours of the afternoon. Two years later, though, I was majoring in religion, entering my junior year, and trying to figure out what I would study in grad school. After various dalliances with Kierkegaard, Mādhyamikas, and early Christians (being an undergrad is great and weird), I decided to get serious with American religious history. But I didn’t know anyone who studied it. Or anything about it. My professors at the University of North Dakota, none of whom specialized in American religion, were willing to have very long office-hours conversations and work with me on directed independent readings. (It wasn’t until I went to another university, talked to new colleagues, and taught my own courses that I realized how truly and deeply generous with their time and patience my professors were. Shout out to regional state universities, small departments, and engaged teaching faculty.) But where did I find the books and articles to read? How did I know which scholars were working on this stuff? The short answer: the Religion in American History blog.

I started reading the blog regularly in the fall of 2009, and it shaped my earliest impressions of what it meant to study religion in America. Author interviews, book reviews, previews of new books, and conference recaps offered a window into a world I hadn’t yet entered. As I tried to figure out where I would go to grad school, I looked to the blog. I had read and enjoyed posts by Florida State students and graduates, especially Kelly Baker. So I looked up the program, read some of the professors’ books, and decided to apply. When I was an MA student at FSU, Kelly let me write a few guest posts. I worried that the posts weren’t good (looking back, I can confirm that they were not), but I’m grateful that the opportunity gave me the confidence to keep writing and keep working out ideas. And, more so, it made me feel like a part of a community, part of the “field.” After a very long guest post in spring 2014 about Ben Sasse (see a less typo-ridden, even longer version here), Paul invited me to join the regular roster. I’m always humbled and surprised and delighted when people contact me about my writing here, or mention a post at a conference reception, and I’ve made many friends and acquaintances through the community the blog fosters.

I don't think this blog should be taken, as the undergraduate me once took it, as a synecdoche for “the study of American religion.” It’s not that. But it is one prominent place in which those who study American religion have had their conversations. It’s where I and many others have been introduced to new books and ideas and people. It’s where we’ve self-promoted, tested ideas, and argued. Maybe it’s our field’s water cooler. Or the post office in our small town. I am not good at metaphors. In a post last year, I asked, “Are you talking to me?”, and I argued that this blog is one public, a discursive community organized by its own discourse, among many that constitute the larger public of “the field” (again, whatever that is). But the public is not just the speakers. More importantly, it’s the readers, the circulators (retweeters), those who are addressed. I’m grateful for the opportunity to write here, but I’m far more grateful for the opportunity to read, to be addressed. Thanks to Paul, Randall, Kelly, Cara, and everyone who has written here over the last decade. Thanks for talking to me.