Four Questions with Chris Beneke

Randall Stephens

Chris Beneke is an associate professor of history at Bentley University in Waltham, MA. He completed his PhD at Northwestern University in 2001 and since then has written numerous essays, articles, and books on colonial religion, toleration, and intellectual history. His first book was Beyond
Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism (Oxford, 2006).  Since then he has edited, with Christopher S. Grenda, The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America (UPenn, 2011); with Christopher S. Grenda and David Nash, Profane: Sacrilegious Expression in a Multicultural Age (University of California, 2014); and with Christopher S. Grenda, The Lively Experiment: Religious Toleration in America from Roger Williams to the Present (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015). More recently he has been working on the First Amendment's religious clauses (his Free Exercise is forthcoming with Cornell University Press, exp. 2016).  In addition to that Chris has also written for The New Republic, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Huffington Post, and The Christian Century.

Randall Stephens: When and why did you decide to study American religion?

Chris Beneke: When I began graduate school, I thought I’d be studying political history, or the history of political thought. That plan didn’t survive my first semester. I got hooked on religious history while reading Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan. At some point during that same year, it occurred to me that many of the most illuminating questions about politics and social life in eighteenth-century America had been raised by people whose answers were often religious. I then a wrote an undistinguished master’s thesis on an obscure eighteenth-century clergymen. It was not auspicious, but it was a start.

I should confess that I don’t actually call myself a religious historian. During graduate school, I described what I did as intellectual history. I don’t do that anymore—it takes too much explaining. It also sounds pretentious. But I’m not exactly a religious historian either. I usually describe myself as a historian. If pressed, I say that I study religious toleration. That usually brings the conversation to an amicable close.

Stephens: What do you think is different about the field now compared to when you completed your graduate work?

Isaac Backus, Government and Liberty Described and
Ecclesiastical Tyranny Exposed
(Boston: Powars and
Willis, 1778). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Beneke: The study of lived religion and material culture was starting to blossom as I completed my graduate career, but I was mostly oblivious to their significance. I regret that, because some of the most stimulating work over the last couple of decades has emerged from historians studying both. In many ways the study of American religious history is now a sub-field of cultural history.

One of the things I liked about religious history was that it gave me an excuse to study theology. But of course, theology is often the thing that people, including academics, find least appealing about religion. The turn away from theology and ecclesiastical history has probably made religious history more engaging, as well as bolstering its credibility as an explanatory tool. So I’m not too sad about this.

As for the field of religious toleration in particular, it’s become a lot more interesting over the last two decades. That’s in no small part because it’s incorporated the experience of lived toleration (as my graduate school colleague Karen O’Brien called it) and because so many good scholars (like John Corrigan and Lynn Neal) have been writing the history of intolerance. Some of the most provocative questions are being asked about the intersection of church-state relations and social relations, e.g. the degree to which (what Monica Najar calls) “domestic liberty of conscience” existed in colonial and early national America. That’s made the sub-field of religious toleration a really exciting acre to till.

Stephens: How do you think theory should inform the study of American religion?

Beneke: I don’t make extensive use of theory myself, but it seems sensible for all of us to be well acquainted with it. Theory sharpens the questions we ask and raises new one that we wouldn’t have otherwise considered. I just think that we shouldn’t get carried away.

Ironically, some of the most useful theory now being applied has arisen from those studying secularization. Obviously that isn’t so much about religion per se, as its withering at certain places and times. Nonetheless, it has important implications for those of us studying religious toleration. What, after all, is the meaning of religious toleration in the absence of strong belief and high levels of church (I’m using that term generically) adherence? I’m also interested in how religious groups manage to get along with each other—or not—in specific historical circumstances. Sociologists and political theorists have clarified my thinking on these as well as other matters.

Stephens: What project(s) are you working on currently?

Beneke: Right now I’m writing a cultural history (what else?) of the First Amendment’s religious clauses, particularly the free exercise clause. That book looks at religious liberty in late eighteenth-century America from five different angles of vision. I’m trying to explain how legal provisions for religious exercise and the disestablishment of churches resonated with broader changes in American life. I’m also working on a synthetic narrative history of religious tolerance and intolerance in American history, but trying not to think about that too much while I finish the other book.