Beyond the Protestant Nation: Religion and the Narrative of American History
American historians, like their counterparts in other fields of historical inquiry, have become increasingly interested in integrating religion into our historical narratives. Prominent religious figures now appear in survey courses; we see theological ideas contributing to the formation of political philosophies and programs; and we use popular ritual practices to convey the culture of an era. But in studying the most religiously diverse country in the world historians have implicitly perpetuated an interpretive hierarchy of American religious life that inflates the illuminating power of certain religious communities and circumscribes or even ignores the historical (and historiographical) contributions of others. For instance, exploring the contours of the Protestant work ethic or evangelical conceptions of the state tell us, scholars argue, about the foundation of America’s capitalist ethos or our core political values. Catholic street feste to particular saints or changes within Reformed Judaism, however, are about urban culture or the immigrant experience—about Catholics and Jews, not about “America.”
This roundtable seeks to bring the deeply rooted Protestant and religious presuppositions of American historiography to light to challenge its assertions. Historians who insist on the historical primacy of Protestantism (singular) are not describing the past; they are implicitly reproducing a particular nationalist ideology that has long equated the identity and wellbeing of the United States with “Protestantism.” “Protestant,” moreover, entails assumptions about the kind of religiosity that has been consequential in American history. Embedded in the enduring and unchallenged identification of America as “Protestant” is an implicit argument about religion and modernity that endorses specific ways of being religious. Jewish orthodoxy, Mormon revelation, Catholic devotionalism, spiritualist meetings, Pentecostal tongue speaking, and other ways of being religious are excluded or defined as historically marginal.
This roundtable proposes to invert this interpretative hierarchy to ask how the American historical narrative change if the historiographical questions and concerns of non-Protestant religious groups were given national significance. What questions would rise in importance? What questions would decline? How would our periodizations change? In short, the round table seeks to ask what it would mean to re-imagine the American historical narrative from a more robustly plural religious perspective—not to include other religious idioms in our stories, but to rethink the narrative itself from a post-“Protestant” perspective? The round table convenes a number of scholars who work on religious traditions other than “Protestant” to explore this question of a post-Protestant historiography. Lila Berman considers the consequences of Protestant paradigms in Jewish studies, where authors have contorted Jewish beliefs to underline their seamlessness with America’s “Protestant” values. Wallace Best argues that assumptions about the Protestant nature of African-American religiosity have obscured the spiritual beliefs of admittedly secular and non-believing black activists. Robert Orsi suggests that the way Catholics have been “American” demands revisions of the idea of a singular American modern. Catherine Albanese asserts that though loosely organized and poorly defined, metaphysical religiosities have been a potent “third force” in American history that has inflected and shaped much of what we see as purely mainline and evangelical Protestantism. Richard Bushman highlights the distinctive perspectives Mormons brought to many phases of American history and how these have engaged and shaped the contours of the nation.
Though each participant brings a particular insight to the panel, the roundtable hopes to put these perspectives in conversation with the audience to explore the possibilities of a post-Protestant historiography as a field.