Everywhere and Nowhere

Paul Harvey

In "Everywhere and Nowhere," in today's Inside Higher Education," Kevin Schultz (of the University of Illinois, Chicago) and I summarize some of the basic points made in our new article (of the same title) just out in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion -- you can access that article (free access) here, or in PDF form here. In the shorter piece and the article, we explore the paradox that "In a sense, religion is everywhere in modern American history, but nowhere in modern American historiography," as well as the two major exceptions to that generalization -- in the historiographies of civil rights and modern conservatism:

our general thesis that religion has been everywhere in history but nowhere in historiography has two major exceptions: in historical works on the civil rights movement and the religious right. When it comes to civil rights historiography, religious interpretations have vitally influenced scholarship; indeed, those who downplay the influence of religion tend to be the “heretics,” rather than the other way around. Meanwhile, we now have a small library of books on contemporary figures of the Religious Right, from Jerry Falwell to James Dobson to Phyllis Schlafly.

Noting these two exceptions raises important questions. For example, since these are two groups that have been historically racialized and/or marginalized, does that make it “safer” to incorporate religion more centrally into their intellectual trajectories? And to what degree do they influence the mainstream narrative? In other words, when we move from the mainstream to the margins, does it become safer to introduce religion as a central actor in people’s lives? And if so, will that scholarship focusing on the margins find its way into the mainstream narratives? The almost complete absence of religion from David Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear and James Patterson’s Grand Expectations, the two Oxford History of the United States volumes covering the period from 1932 to 1974, provides just cause for such reflection.

For an interesting companion piece looking at similar developments in the field of sociology, "Sociologists Get Religion," Inside Higher Ed., Feb. 9. A brief bit of it:

The new study on sociology arrives as a working paper of the Social Science Research Council, based on analysis of 587 sociology journal articles on religion, published between 1978 and 2007. The paper -- by David Smilde, a professor of sociology, and Matthew May, a graduate student, both at the University of Georgia -- finds much that would encourage scholars who want to see more research on religion. But the paper also raises questions about whether American sociologists may be too narrowly focused on some religious groups over others, and over the impact of outside funding, which is growing.

Among the key findings:

  • The most important general sociological journals have been publishing a modestly growing number of articles about religion over the period studied.
  • The articles show "a strong program" emerging on the role of religion in society. At the beginning of the period studied, religion was rarely the independent variable in the research, but by the end of the period, more than half of the articles had religion as the independent variable.
  • For most of the period studied, there was an upward trend in positive findings about the role of religion and a downward trend in negative findings. The last five years have seen an increase in negative findings.
  • American sociology's study of religion is dominated by religion in the United States and Christianity, with relatively little work on non-Christian religions or the Christian faith of non-Americans.
  • Private funding has increased significantly for sociological research on religion, notably from several foundations.
  • A positive correlation was found between receiving outside funding and positive findings about religion, although to the surprise of the authors, the strongest correlation was not from private sources of funds but from public sources. (The authors do not have a definitive theory on the source of this correlation and suggest it as a topic for further research.) The changes outlined in the report "are pretty significant" and show "a realization on the part of sociologists and other academics, too, of the enduring significance of religion in the modern world," said Neil Gross, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. Gross studies the sociology of academic life, and while he noted "the stereotype that most professors don't pay attention to religion," he added that it has "never really been true."


Matt Sutton said…
Great essay Paul! (And I would probably say that even if you hadn't pimped my book).
Anonymous said…
I assume you mean *David* Kennedy's *Freedom From Fear* in the cited paragraph? I look forward to reading the essay.
Paul Harvey said…
Blaach! Yes, David Kennedy, got to go correct that!
Anonymous said…
Religion has definitely been a big part of the American culture, but as far as historical events, it hasn't really played a major role in much of it -- being that it is a secular government.
The Atheist Perspective
John G. Turner said…
Anonymous, have you missed (just for starters) Prohibition, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and contemporary debates over a whole host of social issues? A secular Constitution, yes, a secular government, certainly not always.

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