American History Now, American Religious History Now

by Carol Faulkner

I first read The New American History (originally published in 1990) in graduate school. Its early 21st century counterpart, American History Now, edited by Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr, is now available from Temple University Press, and perfect for a new generation of graduate students studying for exams. The essays survey the state of the field, emphasizing new historiographic trends across and within chronological periods. In this edition, included among the “Major Themes,” is John T. McGreevy’s essay on “American Religion.”

McGreevy explains the impetus behind this inclusion of American religion with an amazing fact: “more historians now identify themselves as historians of religion than as social historians, cultural historians, or even political historians.” And kudos to our blogmeisters for this site, which, McGreevy observes, “steer[s] the scholarly conversation.” (And, somewhat surprisingly, this may be the only reference to a blog or other internet resource in the entire book).

But McGreevy notes something unusual about American religious history: “The term ‘field’ may be a misnomer. Fields mean coverage, certainly, but at a practical level fields are defined by arguments as much as by the day-to-day trudge of the survey course. And in American religious history courses, and the scholarly literature upon which they rest, arguments are elusive.”

I have been thinking about those lines since I read them. Do others agree? If so, what does this tell us about the study of American religion? Despite its newfound popularity, even centrality, to American history, is it underdeveloped or undertheorized?

McGreevy acknowledges different methodological approaches, dividing those focused on “lived religion” and those attempting to integrate religion into “the main narratives of American history.” But, as McGreevey writes, the “field’s organizing principle is diversity,” the dynamic and vast “marketplace” of religions.

This edition includes a cheering essay for women’s and gender historians. In her article on the field, Rebecca Edwards states that “The real triumph of women’s history, then, can be found elsewhere in this volume: almost every author, whether writing on a specific period or a major themes in American history, incorporates findings in women’s and gender history.” McGreevey’s essay is a good example, mentioning scholarship by Kathleen Cummings, Ann Braude, Catherine Brekus, Victoria Brown, Anthea Butler, Maureen Fitzgerald, Marie Griffith, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and Amy Koehlinger.

And, for graduate students searching for a dissertation topic, McGreevy notes that “surprisingly little scholarship has appeared” on “religion and sexuality,” though he praises two studies, Leslie Tentler’s Catholics and Contraception and Cynthia Gorney’s Articles of Faith.

What do you think of McGreevy’s essay on the “field”?


Tom Van Dyke said…
Re the McGreevy essay, Dr. Faulkner, as a civilian [non-scholar] who reads this blog with some regularity, I'd consider it a boon if you could post some fuller [fair use] excerpts.

McGreevy's own work on Roman Catholicism in America is praised for its scholarly rigor; even more for its incisiveness on how Catholicism fits into Religion in American History.

McGreevy: “...more historians now identify themselves as historians of religion than as social historians, cultural historians, or even political historians.”

I don't dispute McGreevy's observation here, but find it intentionally mischievous. There is only history: it contains and subsumes all what he lists---religion, society, culture, politics.

Is he just having a laugh? At whose expense?

I think that's at the heart of yr bleg here, Carol---keep asking. What's McGreevy up to?
Carol Faulkner said…
Tom, I think you are right that there is something interesting going on. McGreevy's numbers come from the AHA (I'm assuming), which means that the historians who identify as religious historians might be American historians, or historians of China, Latin American, Africa, Medieval Europe, Ancient Rome, etc.
Paul Harvey said…
Interesting point about lack of "argument" in field -- new Journal of Southern Religion extends an ongoing argument about the origins, timing, and meaning of the religious right in the 20th century, how much race had to do with it, etc. It's a great discussion (follow links on our blog over to the group discussion of Dan Williams book God's Own Party, and go over to John Fea's blog for a brief recounting of the fundamental areas of argument there).

In days past, Thomas Haskell and David Brion Davis famously went at it about the origins of abolitionism, and many folks about republicanism versus liberalism in founding era. And on our blog we've featured Chris Beneke's book The First Prejudice, which concludes with two essays giving very different accounts of tolerance and intolerance in the founding/early Republic era (and I might add that you would get hugely different accounts on that subject contrasting Chris's first book with David Sehat's Myth of American Religious Freedom). These strike me as pretty fundamental arguments.

But John is probably right about a fair degree of consensus on a lot of things, and an overarching emphasis on diversity and the marketplace of religions metaphor. Where that would break down is when different fields get into the discussion, as at the Religion and American Culture conference in June, where there were wide and profound disagreements about some really basic things (methodology, approach, etc.).

Ultimately, the most important divergences may be less in arguments on conclusion, than on differences of approach and "starting points" for what is most worthwhile to study/research in the first place. Some of our bloggers have had some excellent discussion on facebook about that recently (wish they would have happened here -- hint to Kelly, Elesha, Michael, and whomever else was in on that).
Elesha said…
I'm mystified by the "lack of an argument" comment. I would broadly agree that the AAR wing of the field has spent more time finding new things to study than attempting to fit all of those new things into a unified narrative, or even attempting to fit several of them into mid-size narratives. This resistance to unified narrative and grand argument can be perceived as a strength or a weakness, probably more the latter if you're trying to teach a survey course. But the AHA/ASCH wing of the field seems to have plenty of arguments, as Paul points out.

Incidentally, I don't mean to suggest that the two guilds are completely separate. Having attended both conferences several times, however, I've heard more "You've never thought about this before, but you should" at AAR and more "You may think x, but really y" at ASCH.

I don't think American religious history is under-theorized, either (at least, not compared to other historical fields), though, owing to its methodological diversity, it may be more heterogeneously theorized than most. Having just a handful of governing theories to work within or against would tend to sharpen the field's arguments--but again, this could be seen as a strength or a weakness. Personally, I'm a fan of the methodological diversity, even if it means we sometimes talk past each other.

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