Listening Your Way Through American Religious History

Art Remillard

This fall I will be teaching an online section of Religion in the U.S., a course that until now I have done in a traditional classroom. Because shifting to the digital realm will take some tinkering on my part, I have been committing one day each week this summer to preparing the course. Along the way, I have assembled an ongoing list of podcasts that I might use as "discussion starters" during the semester.

Below, I have posted thirty of these podcasts, organized into chronological chunks of ten, and accompanied by a short description from their respective websites. I did not include any of mine from Marginalia or the JSR because it is just assumed that students will listen to, and memorize, all of them before the term begins. A reasonable expectation, right?

Anyway... I will not be using all of these shows, of course. They are potential candidates for inclusion. Also, I realize that some podcasts don't fit neatly within the their designated sections. The Backstory Radio shows, for example, tend to trace an idea through the centuries. The placement of these podcasts below, then, mostly reflects when I plan to address these topics in my class.

So if you are a fan of using podcasts in the classroom—or if you're just a fellow podcast junkie—I hope that this list is helpful. And please feel free share any favorites that I did not list. I am always on the lookout for new material!

  • On Point: Imperial Priest: California’s Father Junípero Serra—"Every California school child knows the story of Father Junípero Serra, the Franciscan priest who brought the mission system, New Spain and the Church north from Mexico and up the western shore of the New World. If you know San Diego, Santa Barbara and Santa Clara, San Francisco, you know his design. Build the missions, gather the natives, teach the Gospel, change the world. He is venerated for what he built, and...criticized for what he crushed." 
  • In Our Time: The Pilgrim Fathers—"Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Pilgrim Fathers and their 1620 voyage to the New World on the Mayflower."
  • Open Source: What would Roger Williams say… and do?—"In celebration of the Fourth of July, despite everything…Martha Nussbaum revives a dreamy vision of religious freedom. Jeff Sharlet paints the real bathos of our adapted political piety. I join them both in the pleasure of rediscovering Roger Williams (1603–1683) as a neglected American model of real religion, real freedom, real tolerance."
  • Backstory Radio: City Upon a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism—"From the Puritan vision of a 'city upon a hill' to the 19th century concept of manifest destiny; Woodrow Wilson’s early 20th Century vision of the United States as a model for the world, and Ronald Reagan's invocation of the Puritans in the 1980s, the notion of 'exceptionalism' has run through American history. In this episode of BackStory, the Guys go behind the rhetoric of exceptionalism to unpack its history and meaning." 
  • Backstory Radio: Wall of Separation: Church & State in America—"In this episode, the Guys explore the relationship of church and state across American history. We'll consider the meaning of 'freedom of religion' and find out why Baptists in 1802 actually favored Thomas Jefferson’s 'wall of separation.' We'll learn why the dramatic wartime deaths of three ministers–each of different faiths–shaped public ideas about American religion during the 1940s and 50s. And we'll explore how legal decisions about the relationship of church and state have shaped how Americans understand faith and what it means to have 'a religion.'"
  • On Point: 'Jefferson’s Qu'ran' And Islam In America—"Back in the founding days of this nation, ideas were big. The rights of Man. Democracy, and citizenship. And of course, freedom of religion. But the religious debates were mostly among Protestants. Catholics and Jews were the outliers. Muslims? Well they were beyond the pale. The Ottoman, the Barbary pirate. And, lest we forget, the American slave. But a new book says Thomas Jefferson thought about Islam and could see a day when Muslims would be a part of the fabric of American democracy."
  • The JuntoCast: The Great Awakening—"Ken Owen, Michael Hattem, Roy Rogers, and Mark Boonshoft discuss the Great Awakening, including its historiography, its relationship to the American Revolution, and its contemporary significance."
  • The JuntoCast: Religion in Early America—"Ken Owen, Michael Hattem, and Roy Rogers discuss religion in early America, including its relationship to the American Revolution as well as historiographical developments and pedagogical practices."
  • Research on Religion Podcast: John Fea on Religion & the American Founding—"Was America founded as a Christian nation?  Prof. John Fea...provides an unambiguous 'yes and no' answer to that question."  
  • New Books in Religion: Interview with Glenn Crothers—"Deservedly or not, the members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) are often portrayed as one of history's Good Guys. The Society was the first organized religious group to condemn slavery on moral and religious grounds. In Quakers Living in the Lion’s Mouth: The Society of Friends in Northern Virginia, 1730-1865 (University Press of Florida, 2012), Glenn Crothers probes below that simple idea to study how Quakers in a slave society–a lion's mouth –coped with the inevitable tensions."
Nineteenth Century
  • On Being: Joe Carter: The Legacy of the African-American Spiritual—"The spiritual is the source from which gospel, jazz, blues, and hip-hop evolved. The organizing concept of this music is not the melody of Europe, but the rhythm of Africa. And it also conveys a theology, a potent mix of African spirituality, Hebrew narrative, Christian doctrine, and an extreme experience of human suffering. Joe Carter performed for more than 25 years in opera and musical theater, and he sang the folk music of many cultures. He portrayed Paul Robeson in a one-man musical and traveled to Africa and Siberia as a performer and goodwill ambassador. And he introduced thousands of people around the world to the spiritual."
  • Backstory Radio: American Spirit: A History of the Supernatural—"Halloween–despite its solemn Celtic roots–has become a safe way for Americans to transgress social norms and toy with the idea of ghosts in a family-friendly fashion. But for some, spirits from another plane have always been a very real part of life on this plane. So this episode of BackStory delves deeper into Americans' ongoing fascination with the supernatural, and explores why witches, spirits, and ghosts have haunted American history." 
  • Backstory Radio: Heaven On Earth: A History of American Utopias—"The New Year is here and many of us have resolved to make this one better than the last. But throughout our history, some Americans have set their sights a bit higher: building transformational communities from the ground up. In this episode, we explore their efforts: from a transcendental, vegan commune in the 1840s to a Gilded Age factory town dubbed 'The Most Perfect Town In The World.'" 
  • Diane Rehm Show: John Demos: The Heathen School—"In Cornwall, Conn., in the early 19th century, a group of Protestant missionaries created a unique school they thought would save the world. Derisively known as 'the heathen school,' the project recruited boys from Native American nations and around the world, including China and Hawaii. The multicultural school prospered for years and several graduates became famous. But in a new book, historian John Demos reveals the school's disruptive impact and how it set off a chain of events that culminated in the Trail of Tears."
  • Research on Religion Podcast: Robert Delahunty on Alexis de Tocqueville and Religion—"Back in the 1830s, a young Frenchman by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the United States to write a report about its prison system.  Although he did write such a report, the trip became more notable when Tocqueville put pen to paper and generated a two-volume set of observations about American political and social life known as Democracy in America. While the book contains many profound observations, we invite Prof. Robert Delahunty (University of St. Thomas) to discuss Tocqueville's thoughts on the importance of religion in a democratic society."
  • On Point: Too Much Self-Reliance?—"Early in the heart of the 19th Century, young America was in trouble. A brutal economic bust. Banks collapsing all over. Confidence, wavering. And here came the brilliant transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, like a blazing star.Trust yourselves, he said. Look inside. Speak what you think in hard words. Above all, embrace self-reliance. And boy did that go deep. ...Maybe too deep, says my guest today."
  • Interfaith Voices: Looking Forward to Jesus' Second Coming: "In 1844, a religious movement called the Millerites predicted that Jesus would return on October 22nd of that year. The day came to be known as 'The Great Disappointment.' Nearly twenty years later, a break-away Millerite founded the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Although they’ve been waiting 150 years, the Adventists still believe the apocalypse is imminent. But they’ve learned their lesson: only God knows the true date."
  • To the Best of our Knowledge: Matthew Bowman on The Mormon People—"Matthew Bowman talks to Jim Fleming about his book, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith."
  • To the Best of Our Knowledge: Debating Darwin—"Polls show that nearly half of all Americans believe the Biblical story of creation, while only a quarter accept evolution. The philosopher Daniel Dennett thinks we need to 'break the spell' of religion. But creationist Paul Nelson says evolution simply can't explain certain mysteries. In this hour of To the Best of Our Knowledge it's Debating Darwin."
  • On Point: Robert Green Ingersoll: The Great American Agnostic—"Nearly a third of Americans under 30 now say they have no religious affiliation.  They might want to read the works of Robert Green Ingersoll. He's not as famous as Americans Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine in enshrining no religion. But in the late 19th century, the country knew him well as The Great Agnostic–the free-thinking unbeliever who championed the secular face of America's founding." 
Twentieth Century to the Present
  • In Our Time: William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience"Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James."
  • On Being: Anthea Butler and Arlene Sánchez-Walsh: Reviving Sister Aimee—"A look back at the closest thing the early 20th century may have had to Oprah Winfrey. The flamboyant Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson was a multimedia sensation and a powerful female religious leader long before most of Christianity considered such a thing. The contradictions and passions of her life are a window into the world of global Pentecostalism that touches as many as half a billion lives today."
  • On Being: Paul Elie, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Robin Lovin: Rediscovering Reinhold Niebuhr—"We explore the ideas and present-day relevance of 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, an influential, boundary-crossing voice in American public life. Niebuhr created the term 'Christian realism:' a middle path between religious idealism and arrogance. Exploring his wide appeal, three distinctive voices describe Niebuhr's legacy and ask what insights he brings to the political and religious dynamics of the early 21st century."
  • New Books in Religion: Interview with Ray Haberski—"Americans are simultaneously one of the most religious people on earth and prone to conflict and war. Ray Haberski is interested in how this paradox has shaped the nation's civil religion. His book, God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945 (Rutgers University Press, 2012), examines how three contemporary wars have shaped Americans understanding of God and their relationship to the Almighty."
  • Journal of American History Podcast: Interview with Matthew Sutton—"Ed Linenthal...speaks with Matthew Avery Sutton, author of 'Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age.' The essay appears in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of American History."
  • Radio Times: Revisiting King's Letter from Birmingham Jail—" In his new book, Gospel of Freedom, King scholar Jonathan Rieder tells the story of King's letter while providing a snapshot of its author at a time when King thought the civil rights movement was destined to fail."
  • To the Best of Our Knowledge: Tom Shachtman on Rumspringa—"Tom Shachtman's the author of Rumspringa: To Be or Not To Be Amish. He tells Jim Fleming about this Amish custom of allowing sixteen year olds a period of total freedom to experience the temptations of the world before they choose the strictures of a traditional Amish life."
  • Remapping Debate: Serving God and Wal-Mart—"Univeristy of Georgia historian Bethany Moreton discusses her book, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. While closely following the history of Wal-Mart, Moreton investigates how free market ideology and Christian faith became 'strange bedfellows' in recent American life and politics."
  • Interfaith Voices: We're Not the Same...And That's Okay—"Stephen Prothero says the leaders of the interfaith movement have a problem: call it the Kumbaya Effect. Instead of grappling with our religious differences, he says they gloss them over, creating a 'pretend pluralism' that does more harm then good."
  • To the Best of Our Knowledge: Atheists, Believers & The Secular—"Atheists are finally coming out of the closet, and in some cases denouncing religion. Others still crave a sense of the sacred even though they don't believe in God. Do atheists have something to learn from religion?  Why do so many people call themselves 'spiritual but not religious'? And why did bestselling novelist Anne Rice split very publicly with the Catholic Church?"


cg said…
From New Books in History, you might add Luke Harlow's recent interview about his new book.
Thanks so much for sharing this great list/resource. I love this kind of open notebook pedagogy.

I'm writing from a tablet and so don't have the links on hand, but here are a few others to add to your list.

Kristian Peterson runs a great podcasts on New Books in Religjon. It's international so there are a lot of books that won't fit. But there are some good interviews with US historians on there.

Another I'll mention is Nate Dimao's "Memory Palace." He's got an amazing show on spiritualism (which Backstory ran).

And finally, This American Life has some really good episodes on the contemporary religious scene. They have an episode on apocalyptic communities, a battle with the religious right in a small WI town, and one on the Mexican-American migration to chicago that features how Catholic parishes dealt with the transition.

Thanks again and hope these help.
Paul Harvey said…
Adding to the This American Life reference, the episode "Pray" is a classic, set in Colorado Springs. Great for classroom use (especially if you live in COS :) )
Elizabeth M. said…
A wonderful resource. Thank you!