Report from CA American Studies Association

Esalen at Big Sur
by  Edward J. Blum

Just finished a wonderful weekend at the California American Studies Association meeting at Pitzer College (home to marvelous scholars of religion Phil Zuckerman and Erika Dyson). I was the chair of a terrific panel on religion, politics, and identity. What was thrilling was how the overall panel was trying to pull religious history and religious studies into the American studies conversation (of course, a project Religion and American Culture has been dedicated to for decades now), which makes sense to me since American Studies has such religious roots. So many of the pioneers of the American Studies did so through avenues of religion: Perry Miller was obsessed with the Puritans; Carroll Smith Rosenberg’s historical and cultural feminism was rooted in religious studies; Benjamin Mays’s and W. E. B. Du Bois’s pioneering works in sociology, history, and literature touched on religious topics near and far. And when we think of California, we have the most diverse state in the United States politically, culturally, and religiously. Whether we’re discussing Esalen in Big Sur (thank you Jeffrey Kripal for your fantastic book on that), Buddhist temples in Los Angeles, Mormon temples in the region dedicated to influencing state politics, or megachurches in Orange County, California is a visionary state.

None of the papers dealt with topics in California, though, really. Professor Sarah Azaransky, of the University of San Diego and the author of a book I haven’t yet read, but looks absolutely terrific, on Pauli Murray, presented on the religious black internationalism of Benjamin Mays. She focused on his visits in the 1930s and the 1950s to India and finds that it was by bringing religious sensibilities to his international voyages that encouraged his political and social embrace of nonviolent resistance. Roberto Sirvent, a theologian at Hope International, presented on how Reinhold Niebuhr and Hans-George Gadamer teach us that all interpretations of sacred texts are conditioned on the historical point and prejudices of writers and readers, and that our prejudices can be avenues to engage one another (not just offend one another). And finally, Hyang Jin Jung, an anthropologist from Seoul National University, presented on her field work on evangelical/hippie-church small groups in a Midwestern Methodist church. What findings! As women shared “whatever they wanted,” others would prompt, “go deeper.” When they struggled to explain themselves, group members would encourage, “go deeper.” The sexualized nature of the small group dialogue was so pronounced and yet so unrecognized by the group.
photograph from
The Historian's Eye

The final bit of the panel was a proposal to create a CASA caucus on religion that would link up with Kelly Baker, Matt Hedstrom, and the rest of the gang at the ASA caucus on religion. Maybe that can be in the works here in CA and at the ASA meeting in San Juan.

The conference ended with an incredible keynote by Matthew Frye Jacobson (famous to all of us who study critical race theory, immigration, and American studies). It was a talk on “The Historian’s Eye,” which is a documentary project of photographs, interviews, and videos from “Obama’s America.” It is a stunning resource, and I’m trying to figure out assignments to use in my survey and US religious history courses. And maybe somehow we can get some folks getting "religious" photographs and interviews connected to his site.


Matt Hedstrom said…
All sounds very cool! Thanks, Ed for the write up. (Sarah Azaransky got her PhD in my department at UVa!)

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