Everywhere and Nowhere: Religious History and Historiography

Paul Harvey

This piece is getting a lot of attention at various academic blog sites:
"Religious Revival," Inside Higher Ed, December 21. It reports on an American Historical Association survey that Randall blogged about here before, which shows that religion is the "box" now most often checked by historians reporting on their specialities/interests, with a disproportionate number of younger historians reporting on religion as a field of interest/inquiry/research. From the article, a summary of reasons cited for the rise of religion in the field:

  • Interest in the rise of "more activist (and in some cases 'militant') forms of religion."
  • An "extension of the methods and interests of social and cultural history.
  • "The impact of the "historical turn" in other disciplines, including religious studies.
  • Increased student demand for courses on the subject.
Jon Butler, a professor of history, religious studies and American studies at Yale University, is quoted in the AHA report as saying: "I think the category has become more popular because historians realize that the world is aflame with faith, yet our traditional ways of dealing with modern history especially can’t explain how or why. In short, the ‘secularization thesis’ appears to have failed and so we need to find ways to explain how and why it didn’t die as so much written history suggests.

Robert Townsend of the American Historical Association reflects further on the study
here in the December 2009 Perspectives of the AHA, with a bit more detail on the points summarized in the Inside Higher Ed. article.

Is it time to celebrate? Partly but not so fast. Trends and interests come and go; social history was king of the mountain a generation ago, but has gone into rapid decline according to these self-identification surveys. Yet social history is so ground into the assumptions and practices of the discipline, perhaps, that it seems superfluous for many to self-identify with that field as opposed to something more recognizably set (diplomatic history, military history, economic history, religious history, or whatever).

Further, in our forthcoming piece "Everywhere and Nowhere: American Religious History and Historiography," co-authored by Kevin Schultz (an occasional contributor to this blog) and myself and forthcoming in the March issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, we suggest that the proliferation of American religious history in recent years has not necessarily centrally shaped the narratives of mainstream historiography of modern America (with the exceptions of the civil rights movement and the rise of the New Right). Here's the abstract to the piece:

A spate of recent polls show that Americans are as religious as ever, even if their affiliations to particular faith groups have somewhat faded. Furthermore, during the past two decades, historians of American religion have unearthed much new information, connecting American religion to broader currents of American life in numerous exciting ways. Despite these two events, we argue that religion has yet to become central to the way in which most historians of modern America (since 1865) tell their story—except in areas that are either racialized (the civil rights movement) or considered to be politically marginal (the New Right). Religion is everywhere in history, but nowhere in mainstream historiography. We explore some possible reasons for this fact, and then conclude by pointing out several directions in which religious history is currently moving, and in which an examination by mainstream scholars might benefit the field as a whole tremendously.

You'll have to wait for the rest later when it appears, but in the meantime sometime after the New Year Kevin and I will have an shorter op-ed piece for Inside Higher Ed summarizing our piece and how it reflects on the kinds of polls/surveys such as this one from the AHA.