Exhibiting Faith: Religion & Public History, Part 1

Chris Cantwell

Historical Boston is held together by a thin red line. Running along the city’s cobblestone sidewalks from Boston Common to the Charlestown Navy Yard, this painted path binds scattered sites related to Revolutionary-era Boston into a historic district known as the “Freedom Trail.” Seemingly every iconic moment of America’s founding is included on this red line of liberty: Bunker Hill, Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere’s house, and the site of the Boston Massacre. But as anyone who has actually traversed the trail’s two-and-a-half-mile expanse knows, the Freedom Trail also includes a number of prominent religious sites. Indeed, seven of the trail’s seventeen landmarks have some kind of religious significance. From the King’s Chapel Burying Ground to Park Street Church, the Freedom Trail makes clear that the conservation of religious landmarks is intimately a part of “preserving the story of the American Revolution.”

Now to claim as the Freedom Trail does that religious institutions have shaped American history should come as no surprise—especially to the readers of this blog. As historian Heather Curtis smartly argued a while back in an essay on Massachusetts for Religion & Politics“States of the Union Project,” Boston’s Freedom Trail is perhaps the ideal metaphor for unpacking religion’s place in America’s past. But there is another reading of the sacred addresses along this patriotic pathway; an approach that looks forward as well as back. For as much as the Freedom Trail’s churches underscore religion’s importance to America’s past, they also reveal religion’s centrality to how contemporary Americans collectively remember, publicly commemorate, and culturally construct that past today. And this goes well beyond old Boston. Religion saturates the American commemorative landscape. From the historic markers affixed to old village churches, to the exhibits at denominational archives, to the to the Creation Museum, institutions, experiences, and ideas marked as religious both inform and animate America’s relationship with its past. Even a pseudo-museum like Disney World’s Hall of Presidents, as our own Elesha Coffman pointed out in a recent post, is permeated by spiritual themes like redemption and pastoral care. Religion, in short, saturates American public history.

Despite this overlap, public historians and scholars of religion rarely converse. Academics often do not accord neither the study of nor participation in the world of popular historymaking with the same weight as individual research. Indeed, because of the requirements for tenure the monograph often comprises a scholar's primary public engagement. Meanwhile, public history practitioners and educators are often reluctant to integrate religious studies scholarship into their work. Either a fear of reviving the “History Wars” of the nineties or a discomfort with the supernatural claims religious communities make about the historical record often lead many public historians to conclude that religion is best left out of the exhibit hall.

Such an overlap is unfortunate, for the two fields have so much to offer each other. American religious historians, for example, would do well to be more attentive to the ways collective memory and public commemorations have not only been a part of but have also helped constitute America’s religious communities. I’d argue, for instance, that the difference between Thomas Faunce’s efforts in 1741 to build a monument where the Puritans first disembarked and the Freedom Trail’s decision to include Park Street Church, which was founded nearly a generation after the American Revolution, is one of degree rather than kind. This is to say nothing of David Barton’s WallBuilders enterprise as a manifestation of this religious public history. Yet there’s more, for the steady introduction of public history practices within religious communities has also profoundly shaped the contours of American religious life. We cannot discuss the sex abuse crisis within the Catholic Church, for example, without discussing the role of diocesan archives. Nor can we understand the most recent Mormon Moment without considering the public display of Mormon art. And isn’t there a way in which we can read a pilgrimage to the shrine of a Marian apparition as a kind of walking tour? Or Passion Plays and the Hill Cumorah Pageant as historical reenactments?

At the same time, public historians would be better equipped to connect with their audiences if they considered how the ineffable shapes people’s engagement with the past. That the Creation Museum’s attendance rates are rising at the same time the Field Museum of Natural History’s are shrinking should be enough to give any curator pause. But even America’s seemingly secular civic sites are, as a growing body of literature is readily showing, inflected by a sense of the sacred. Americans have long approached Civil War battlefields, presidential birthplaces, and even Independence Hall as Holy Ground. They’re connection to and understanding of these sites and their significance is forged in a crucible of religious emotion. After all, isn’t the Freedom Trail a kind of pilgrimage?

I have been reflecting on this relationship between religion and public history quite a lot as of late. Next fall I’ll be joining the History Department at the University of Missouri at Kansas City where I'll be an Assistant Professor of Public History. I’ll be contributing to the department’s public history program while also continuing to research, write, and teach in my primary field of training, American religious history. In sharing this news among colleagues and friends, more than a few have asked if it will be hard to stay focused on my “real” research while teaching public history. As I hope I’ve suggested here, however, I see the two as intimately connected at the level of both theory and practice. Yet I think the relationship between public history and religious studies goes even deeper than scholarship. For in this age of educational austerity, where the humanities are in crisis and the relevance of the liberal arts is openly questioned, I also think it is incumbent upon scholars to make public engagement a vital component of their academic profile.

I’ll save the prospects of a public religious studies, however, for another post.


Mark T. Edwards said…
Congratulations on the new job, Chris! Personally, I love the Field museum, but I'm a follower so I guess I'll be heading to Petersburg next!! (Maybe someday I'll share my story of how I almost singlehandedly destroyed the Creation Museum project; still too embarassing).
Really well-thought-out post, Chris. And congrats, again, on the job. I really look forward to your doing socially responsible publicly engaged history. I would say that most of us think we are doing public engagement to some extent, however. Or maybe it's just the crowds I find myself in, but does anyone/can anyone afford to be an academic for "its own sake" anymore?

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