Acts of Conscience, Part II: Religion in the Total Institution

Following up on yesterday's post on Kip Kosek's Acts of Conscience, today we feature Kip's thoughts on Steve Taylor's Acts of Conscience: World War Two, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors (Syracuse University Press).

by Kip Kosek

The first thing to say about Steven J. Taylor’s new book is that it has an absolutely brilliant title. I know it’s brilliant because it happens to be the same title that I chose for my own book. Yes, by some strange manifestation of accidental publishing telepathy, two histories of radical pacifism in America appeared this year with the title Acts of Conscience. My book has been the subject of a few posts on this site; now it’s time to say a bit about Taylor’s work, which made me realize how little we know about religion in what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “total institutions.”

Taylor focuses on some World War II conscientious objectors and the alternative service they performed in mental hospitals. When those upstanding Mennonites and Methodists (among others) went to labor in the nation’s institutions for the so-called “feebleminded,” they were dumbfounded by what they saw: violence, overcrowding, disease, and an overpowering stench that permeated everything. Inmates attacked them with makeshift weapons, while hospital staffs resented the intrusion of untrained assistants with lots of ideas about how to change things.

The conscientious objectors set out to publicize the horrific conditions that they witnessed. For a few years after the war, state governments and national media picked up their stories and made the care of the mentally disabled into a national scandal. A writer in
PM compared the hospitals to concentration camps, while a 1947 exposé called Out of Sight, Out of Mind gained the endorsement of Eleanor Roosevelt. Taylor is careful not to overstate how much good the publicity did, but it seems that the pacifists’ efforts mitigated some of the worst abuses.

If pacifist religion reformed mental hospitals, so, too, did experience in the hospitals transform that religion. The objectors had to ask hard questions about what nonviolence meant amid the challenges presented by uncooperative and often violent patients. One Mennonite attendant described using a restraining hold on one of his charges: “I tried the full nelson on the man to control him, but in no way beat him or bruised him. And I do not feel that is misusing our Mennonite principles.” Nonviolence turned out to be a little ambiguous in these settings.

Taylor’s book made me think more generally about religion in “total institutions”: prisons, asylums, military barracks, and other spaces separated from the larger society where individuals face constant surveillance and discipline (no, universities do not count). Most of us write these off as secular realms, rocky ground where faith is unlikely to flourish or even survive. After all, Michel Foucault does not generally inspire reflection on the spiritual dimensions of existence.

Nonetheless, we know that religion happens in these constrained environments. Simply recall the spiritual dread in Ernest Hemingway’s World War I story “Now I Lay Me” or the prison conversion in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. These literary accounts offer far more insight than almost anything historians have produced. One reason may be that relatively few academics have firsthand experience of “total institutions” – and we like it that way.

A few religion scholars, though, have ventured into this treacherous terrain. Jonathan Ebel’s recent article in
Church History, based on research for his forthcoming book, thoughtfully examines the “muscular Christianity” of the American soldier in the First World War (get the abstract here). In GI Jews, Deborah Dash Moore interviewed American Jewish veterans of World War II to discover the heroic improvisations that they made to keep their religious traditions alive at the front.

Prisons are less well-studied. I have high hopes for Winnifred Sullivan’s
Prison Religion (which I haven’t yet read) and for Tanya Erzen’s work-in-progress on prison evangelicalism (get an article citation here). I don’t know what kind of institution you’d call New Hope, the ex-gay residential ministry that Erzen examined in Straight to Jesus, but she depicted it with a sensitivity that made that book one of the best recent ethnographies of American spiritual life.

The study of religion in prisons, asylums, and barracks seems unlikely to produce the uplifting stories of popular spiritual creativity that both academic and general audiences seem to prefer. Yet over one million Americans are currently on active duty and over two million are in prison. Added to all the other participants in our “total institutions,” past and present, this is a huge group of people that historians of religion have mostly left out of sight, out of mind.


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