The Future of Religion in America

Please welcome our new contributor Elesha Coffman. Elesha first posted here last week on the Religion and American Culture conference. She is an assistant professor of history at Waynesburg University and soon off to the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton for a year's fellowship. Elesha's current work is on the Christian Century magazine and its role in establishing mainline Protestant identity and influence during the first half of the twentieth century -- a sort of "prequel" to the much-discussed decline of the mainline. Before graduate school she was a magazine editor, one of the reasons she is interested in print culture and the ways books and magazines create communities of readers. Welcome to Elesha!

The Future of American Religion
Elesha Coffman

“This is a big question,” the Religion and American Culture conference program admitted, “but what is the point of assembling a group like this unless it is to take a step back and ask the big-picture questions from a variety of perspectives?” The last session in Indy delivered on its promise by offering three very different reflections from scholars with very, very different ideas. It wasn’t that the panelists overtly disagreed about anything, as had the panelists and audience members at the previous session on scriptures. Rather, they responded to different versions of the main question regarding the future of religion in America, proving once again that the answer you get depends on the question you ask.

David Daniels, a seminary-based church historian, addressed his remarks to a question that might be posed as, “How will broad cultural trends affect American religion?” He probably came closest among the panelists to what the organizers had in mind, as their program notes queried “How will technology change religion, or be changed by it?” and “How will civil religion relate to traditional religion?” Daniels foresaw an America in which religious believers were more networked, more socially and ecologically conscious, and less bound by ascribed identities.

Mark Silk, a journalist and professor of religion in public life, spoke to the question, “Which religious groups will gain and lose ground in the coming years?” He based his predictions on trends identified by the American Religious Identification Survey, a project with which he is deeply involved. Silk advised his listeners to “short” the Protestant mainline and Roman Catholicism, which he expects to decline to 10 and 20 percent, respectively, of the American public in the next decade or so. He was more bullish on evangelicals and religious “nones,” groups he anticipates will swell to 40 and 20 percent of the population. (Silk did not mention Pentecostals separately, so presumably he counted them among the evangelicals, a decision many self-described Pentecostals and evangelicals would contest.) Those numbers left just 10 percent of Americans to be divided among all “others,” including world religions and new religious movements.

Julie Byrne, a religious studies scholar with interests in ethnography, took a completely different approach, considering, “What could scholarship on American religion look like in the future?” She took her own writing as a case study. Several years ago, she began to research an independent Catholic church, but before she could finish her book, the church fractured. At least one member of the church thought that Byrne’s research contributed to the splintering, as factions clashed, prematurely, over the attendance boom the book was expected to spark. This was the context for Byrne’s proposed “ethnographic uncertainty principle,” the suggestion that a scholar changes what she studies merely by studying it. So much for scholarly detachment. Byrne added to this cautionary tale a call for more creative presentations of scholarship, a call I jotted down in my notes as “Make art, not monographs.”

If it seems, from reading these summaries, that these three panelists were talking past each other rather than to each other, that’s pretty much what it seemed like in the room, too, despite the fact they were actually facing each other around a small, round table. I didn’t think this was a fatal flaw, however. The lack of direct engagement served to clarify some disciplinary distinctions that underlay a number of conversations that arose throughout the conference. As sociologist Rhys Williams had observed the previous morning, during a session that asked whether the secularization thesis still performed any useful work, “It really depends on, what do we want to know and why?”

The three panelists wanted to know different things for different reasons, and on behalf of different audiences. I expect Daniels’s students at McCormick Theological Seminary are very interested in how cultural trends will affect the interests and activities of religious Americans, while Silk’s interlocutors in journalism and the social sciences really want to know which groups are (to use terms that were hotly debated at the conference) winning and losing market share. Byrne’s questions about method are central for ethnographers, and her challenge to rethink the relationship between art and scholarship had implications for every discipline represented at the conference—though I’m still not sure what a “historical uncertainty principle” might look like or how my research into the early years of The Christian Century could be transmuted into art.

The future of American religion surely includes changes in cultural engagement, group affiliation, and scholarship. Ideally, scholars asking questions about those changes would stay in conversation, as they were in Indianapolis, even if they can’t always figure out how to talk to each other directly. Social scientists counting religious adherents need to be reminded how slippery and complicated religious identities can be. The field of religious studies, which tends to pay a lot of attention to outsiders, could benefit from confronting sociologists’ statistics on mainstream, majority groups. And scholars working within religious institutions and those working outside ought to be reminded periodically how the other half thinks. Is that too much to ask?


Kelly J. Baker said…
Elesha, thanks for contributing this post. The tendency to talk past on another is a danger in any interdisciplinary work, and I think you note the ways in which each panel participant's assessment can be complicated.

Yet, I disagree a bit with your assessment of Julie's paper because I think she is not just talking to ethnographers rather she is applying some of the obvious methodological "troubles" of ethnography to the larger study of American religions. Yes, she did encourage us to make art, but she also encouraged us to think about our relationships with our actors, alive or dead, and how we study them.

What I heard her saying is that we all confront the uncertainty principle. This uncertainty is just more obvious in ethnography than historical work. We change our study by simply making it the choice of our study, and our scholarship, our interaction if you will, changes us. The knowledge that we produce is often unreplicable because of us. With historical work, there is some stasis because we have what remains at certain moments but others are utterly lost. In ethnography, this is more obvious because the scholarship is through personal interaction.

Julie notes that we have to relate to our evidence in some way as well as the constructed nature of knowledge. We construct, and we are changed. Uncertainty, then, is built into scholarship, perhaps, we should embrace this (i.e. make art).
Elesha said…

I didn’t at all mean to come across as dismissing Julie’s comments. I don’t think they were irrelevant, but I’m honestly not sure how to apply them in my own work.

In some ways, historians of religion face similar challenges to those faced by ethnographers. The relationship between us and our subjects (including the question of whether or not we share their beliefs) does matter, and we always shape the stories we tell. In other ways, the challenges are different. For one thing, because the people I write about are dead, I can’t affect the course of their lives as Julie might have affected the trajectory of the congregation she studies. Additionally, when I’m in conversation with historians, they usually aren’t concerned about intersubjectivity. They want to know how my historical subjects interacted with other historical subjects, not how they interact with me. I guess this is another example of scholars bringing different questions on behalf of different audiences.

On the topic of making art, embracing uncertainty would be part of that, but I think Julie was calling for something quite a bit more radical. She gave the example of writing fiction instead of a dissertation. Karen McCarthy Brown’s genre-bending Mama Lola came up in later discussion. Elsewhere at the conference, Su’ad Abdul Khabeer mentioned performance art as a component of her scholarship on African-American Islam.

It’s harder for me to imagine these artistic impulses crossing disciplinary boundaries, from religious studies and anthropology to history and sociology, than for me to see how intersubjectivity is relevant across disciplines, albeit in various ways and to varying degrees. I just don’t think I’d get much of an audience for a dramatic rendering of The Christian Century’s 1925 circulation campaign, nor would such a presentation accomplish what I understand to be my primary task as a scholar, namely to make arguments that advance ongoing conversations in my field. Not that every scholar does or should frame her task this way. I’m speaking only for myself here, and for what might very well be, at root, my lack of imagination. I did, after all, pursue graduate studies in religious history rather than English in part because a mentor told me, “History is stodgier—but in a good way.”
Kelly J. Baker said…
Elesha, I am glad to continue this dialogue, and I think that Julie is calling for something more radical in the discussion of making scholarship art. I don't disagree at all, and I also think that some project might lend themselves to performance ethnography, novels, painting, illustration, etc. A colleague of mine who works on Sufi mysticism paints miniatures of mystic's lives to understand the embedded art of the mystical practice but also to visualize/analyze the scenes in more detail. I know folks who write fiction alongside their historical work to play through the details, flesh out details, or just try to tap into their analysis in a less standardized way.

Lauren Winner, for instance, cooked through recipes to write about Anglicans. This is exciting work. Just because our subjects are dead doesn't mean we can't find novel ways to relate. Granted, my forthcoming work doesn't lend itself to artistic performance, but it did have moments of the intersubjectivity. (Plus, I tend to categorize what I do as cultural history or a "historical ethnography.")

Yes, the folks I study by and large are dead, but my work had deep implications for their living relatives. Archives made sure that I didn't publish names, so I wouldn't mar the lives of living descendents with the legacy of white supremacy. My work (as one example), then, can effect the course of the lives of the living as can the work of others. The historian's role in memory and legacy can become quite important.

Part of my excitement about the conference (as you can already tell) is the way in which interdisciplinarity forces different conversations than when we are just among our scholarly brethern (that feels a little too something but I can't think of another word).

At the end of the "future" section, one of the social scientists pointed out that data and social scientific research can be about art too. Maybe we need better conversations about how we get used to talking to the folks that make us the most comfortable and seek a little more discomfort.

On another note, welcome aboard, I look forward to future discussions.

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