Feasting at the AAR

by Karen Johnson

Conferences are like church potluck Thanksgiving dinners.  More specifically, dinners like those at a multiracial/multicultural church when participants bring food from their respective backgrounds.  I feasted at the AAR this weekend.  I went to some panels that were standard fare for me, which were like the traditional turkey, gravy, and cranberry mold.  I went to others that were more like steamed bok choi or collard greens with bacon bits, dabbling in things I was less familiar with.  Before my body is overwhelmed from a tryptophan-induced nap,  I wanted to draw out some of the more tasty themes relevant to religion in American history.  

First, I was struck by how varied church leadership strategies across denominations, time and space lead to such different outcomes.  The last panel I went to dealt with the tension between the leadership and the laity in 20th-century mainline churches.  Aaron Sizer explored the conflict between Presbyterian denominational leadership and individual churches and organizations as the denominations tried to create a tightly-run organizational structure worthy of the glories of Protestant America. Elesha Coffman considered the battle between ministers and the laity in the Christian Century (which, by the way only had a maximum circulation of 35,000!) when the esteemed magazine tried to recruit intransigent lay members.  Curtis Evans detailed the resistance the FCC faced from local congregations as it tried to promote anti-lynching laws.  In each situation, organizational bodies tried to reign in the masses. 

This strategy of spreading the Christian message was quite different from two other cases I encountered at the vast feast of the AAR in a panel on Global Pentecostalisms.  Pentecostalism has spread globally through dispersed leadership, without much organizational structure.  Lydia Marie Reynolds described the freedom Christianity brought to a contemporary Sikkimese hill tribe, as converts no longer worshipped a dragon god that terrorized them and instead depended on the blood of Jesus to protect them.  The tribe adapted Christianity to their needs in ways that would support Lamin Sanneh’s and Andrew Walls’s arguments that Christianity can be liberating for indigenous cultures and not a tool of colonial oppression.  Surprisingly, the hill tribe Christians are part of the U.S.-originated Vineyard Movement.

The second theme that I found particularly tasty is the question of children’s religious experiences, and their effects on the broader culture.  For me, this raises the question of who we – and our subjects – think are important, and how faith traditions change as they are passed from one generation to the next.  What is lost in the passing?  What is gained?  We are currently in the midst of a generational handoff where  today’s millenials are more interested in their private spirituality and participate less and less in organized religion.  I presented on a panel that was part of the Childhood Studies and Religion Group and my co-panelists raised some provocative questions for me.  Using marriage as the boundary line between childhood and adulthood for young Mormon women, Natalie Rose considered how Mormon girls used their journals to construct themselves as Mormons at the turn of the twentieth century.  This made me consider how faiths constitute the religious markers between childhood and adulthood, and how those markers shape the faith.  Rebecca Koerselman considered how evangelical camps tried to pass on notions of Christian manhood and Christian womanhood in the mid-twentieth century through summer camps.  It turns out that they groomed girls for spiritual leadership (although not senior pastors), while boys’ camp experience included little that was explicitly religious, which is surprising since these young boys would grow up to be senior pastors.  I was shocked by the lack of God-talk for the boys, and made me wonder why that was, given how important it was (I assume) for male pastors to be able to cultivate devotional habits and use a religious vocabulary.

My final theme is race.  At the AAR, one can sample delectable foods from fields outside one’s own, and I thoroughly enjoyed a panel on race, ethnicity, immigration and religion given by sociologists and a religious studies scholar.  R. Stephen Warner argued that, in the twentieth century, religion continues to be the most acceptable form of difference for different groups, and it can function as a refuge for cultural particularity.  Michael Emerson is taking his research in a more nuanced direction, considering the role that the shade of one’s skin has on a person’s church attendance.  He suggested that history (!) has a lot to do with what he found: that if a black person can pass, he or she is less likely to go to church than a darker African American because light-skinned people have had more access to the goods of the American way; darker-skinned Asian’s have higher rates of church attendance than lighter-skinned ones; and Hispanic worship patterns don’t change based on skin color because of the Mestizo myth.  Kathleen Garces-Foley, who works on mainline churches and race, suggested that mainline churches are inconsistent and unfocused in their approaches to race, as they try to address developing multicultural churches, ending racism, and growing ethnic ministries.  Amazingly, some mainline denominations have recently moved to combine racial ministries with women’s ministries.  Does this mean that the denominations view women and minorities as “others” who need special ministries?  This seems odd, given the large number of women who participate in churches (and Ann Braude’s argument that women’s history is religious history).

 Finally, Samuel Perry explored the ways that religious participation affects interracial dating.  He used the concept of “embeddedness,” or how connected a person is to a particular social group, to explain why people who attend religious services have lower rates of interracial dating.  Apparently some sociologists will argue that religion can make people intolerant.  But Perry finds that the more often a person reads his or her Bible or prays, the more likely that person is to have dated interracially.  Why?  Since many churches are built on the homophily principle (despite the efforts of Garces-Foley’s mainline denominations to integrate), if a person’s relationships are embedded at church, he or she won’t date outside the church group (or date people who would not fit in that church group).

As you can see, it was a feast.  But I’ve done enough thinking about that.  Now to my post-AAR nap!


Curtis J Evans said…
thanks for this nice write-up. It was good to meet you and talk at length after my panel. I'm not quite comfortable with the language that these various organizations were trying to "reign in the masses." What I'm trying to do with my work on the FCC is point out that historians have to historicize in concrete social and cultural contexts who the masses or "folk" were rather than romanticize them as intrinsic carriers of rich traditions and cultural practices that resist the attempts of elites to discipline them and, in a different vein than my work, the homogenizing forces of a mass culture. I suppose it could be said that the FCC was trying to "reign in" those who supported or sanctioned lynchings, but what in reality was happening was a long-term and tedious effort to work with local churches and leaders. Lots of conversations were being had about how to get more people in churches involved, so as to empower lay people and locals to be responsible for their own communities. To be sure, yes, the FCC was trying to change attitudes, alter practices, and in fact institute and organize different liturgies and race relations so as to produce different kinds of persons than those who would justify or engage in lynching and/or burning alive another human being. But I'm trying to pay close attention to how complex the notion of "local cultures" can be when thinking about how fiercely various churches and communities themselves resisted efforts to change entrenched racial practices and tended themselves to create "others" by labeling them as outsiders or meddlers when they suggested different ways of organizing human relations. Finally, the expression "reigning in" reminds me of a reflexively "social control" argument, which all too often tends to demonize elite efforts at social change as disciplining mechanisms, and it also carries an implicit valorization of the "folk." I hope more detailed historical works can challenge these overly general explanatory models.

Popular Posts