After Cloven Tongues of Fire, The Nation (Magazine) Gets Religion

Paul Harvey

I think a lot of you are out there are having fun thinking about Elesha's provocative post yesterday Do Religion Scholars Read the Bible, and the conversation about it will continue tomorrow with a follow-up post by Janine -- but in the meantime here are some more items of great interest that passed my way today, and very much related with one another.

First, The Nation magazine has given one of its reviewers, Chris Lehmann, ample space to discuss together Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt alongside Matt Sutton's Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (which, as some of you know, was John Updike's alltime favorite book in his New Yorker review). Subscribers can read the review here, and the rest of you will have to track it down somewhere else, but if you're at a subscribing library as I was today it will show up as well.

Lehmann's lengthy discussion is fascinating, and framed in a way I have not seen before; he begins by discussing Golden State high-tech boosterism characteristic of TED conferences, Wired magazine, and the early Whole Earth catalog, and then tries to figure out how religious conservatives previously suspicious of free market orthodoxies (as discussed in Darren's book) came to be in the same camp as the "Californian ideologues" who preached "an anti-statist gospel of hi-tech libertarianism," concluding that "No less contradictory than the gospel truths of the California digerati, the dogmas of West Coast evangelicalism proved instrumental in acculturating an earlier generation of Jeffersonian golden dreams to a life of abundance bolstered by government-driven subsidies and development policies that, over time, they came to despite with a righteous fury."

Anyway, given a few years separation of publication dates, I have not seen Dochuk and Sutton's works considered together elsewhere, but they are here, and very fruitfully. Plus, Lehmann picks out some stories from Sutton's book about McPherson, who of course is an endless fount of fascinating tales, which I had forgotten about. And yes, that "who" pronoun was deliberately ambiguous.

Next semester I'm having my MA students read Sutton's biography of Aimee together with Jennifer Burns's Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right -- a wonderfully engaging book I'm just now finishing. I'm expecting this pairing to lead to a great class discussion -- two of the most self-inventive Americans of the twentieth century, with personal sagas which no fiction writer could make up (indeed, fiction writers of McPherson's time modeled characters after her precisely because they could not make her up), but obviously at opposite ends of the spectrum in their relationship to Christianity. Or maybe not, since Rand's visceral hatred of religion didn't prevent her from creating her own version of a rigid belief system.

The other article to call your attention to is David Hollinger's Presidential Address at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Houston a few months back, which is now published in the Journal of American History:

"Presidential Address: After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity," by David A. Hollinger

It bears mentioning that Hollinger, who teaches at Berkeley, was the PhD advisor for blog friend and occasional contributor Kevin Schultz, whose book Tri-Faith America has received attention here, as well as of Jennifer Burns, author of the Rand biography just mentioned above. Congratulations to Prof. Hollinger for his OAH presidency and for the outstanding work that his students are doing.

Here's a brief summary of the main point:

In his presidential address to the 2011 Organization of American Historians annual meeting, David A. Hollinger argues that the flourishing of evangelicals and the membership decline of ecumenicals since World War II constitute a single dialectic driven by contrasting dispositions toward ethnoracial, sexual, religious, and cultural difference. More sensitive than their evangelical rivals to the diversity of American society and of the globe, ecumenicals abandoned a series of ideas that were not supportive of diversity, but those same ideas remained popular with the white public that was the chief constituency of Protestantism. Evangelicals then energetically espoused ideas such as the notion of a "Christian America" to appeal to Americans dubious of the accommodations with diversity that ecumenists had enacted with secular liberals. Americans become increasingly comfortable with the liberal ideas espoused by the ecumenical churches, while Protestantism itself became an evangelical stronghold.

What is interesting here -- among many other things -- is that the histories of "mainline" or "mainstream" Protestants have been largely considered separately from the "rise of the evangelicals" historiography, and Hollinger suggests one way to bring them together.

I hope my buddies over at U.S. Intellectual History might take up some of the ideas discussed by Hollinger and weigh in on his argument -- down the road when people have had a chance to read it, of course. In the meantime, if you historians out there haven't joined the OAH, what's wrong with you?


Edward J. Blum said…
I'm just finishing Dochuk's amazing book right now. It's a good one to compare and contrast with Sutton's - because McPherson had so many similarities and differences from the folks Dochuk discusses.

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