A Shakeup in the Guilds

Elesha Coffman

As I wrote back in January and April, the American Society of Church History is reevaluating its longstanding relationship with the American Historical Association. Because of administrative changes at the AHA, holding the ASCH annual meeting in conjunction with the AHA annual meeting has become more expensive and logistically challenging. The ASCH is in the process of surveying its members and other interested parties (watch this space!), and there will be an extraordinary business meeting in Atlanta in January to discuss future conferences. It's very important to those of us on the ASCH council to gather feedback and make careful, prudent decisions.

Meanwhile, our cousins at the American Academy of Religion are doing their own soul-searching as a result of the society's vice-presidential election. This year, both candidates for VP are Christian theologians, David Gushee at Mercer University and Kendall Soulen at Wesley Theological Seminary. Because the AAR VP goes on to become the president-elect and then the society's president, whoever wins this election will have a leadership role in the organization for the next few years.

Some AAR members have reacted strongly against this slate of VP candidates. Aaron W. Hughes of the University of Rochester boycotted the election and explained why in an open letter to AAR members. Michael J. Altman of the University of Alabama also refused to cast a vote, writing on his blog, "For members of the AAR who, like myself, do not do theological work, who do not engage in constructive work within a religious tradition, who approach religion as a social/historical/cultural/discursive construction, and who work within state universities, there is no representative candidate. I am not a theologian."

Because one of the options for ASCH would be to meet in conjunction with AAR instead of AHA, I'm watching this saga with a fair amount of interest. I have to say, AAR's looking pretty inhospitable right now.

I don't know whether the following statements are representative of the AAR membership, but they certainly give me pause. Hughes's open letter includes the lines, "Both candidates are Christian ethicists/theologians. While colleagues tell me that at least one of them is a 'progressive evangelical,' I remain uncomfortable with the choices put before us." It would seem, then, that Hughes is not only worried about the VP candidates' methodology but also about the content of their theology, specifically whether that theology is sufficiently liberal (or at least not un-progressive evangelical). Many of my fellow ASCH members would fail that ideological litmus test and, frankly, be offended by it.

Altman delivers an even sharper jab: "That many AAR members would consider a Baptist minister and theologian [Gushee] their subject of study rather than their conversation partner doesn't seem to strike either candidate as a problem." I'm pretty sure that ASCH members would rather be treated as scholars than as specimens at their annual meeting, and if AAR members would be unable to extend them that courtesy, then the AAR isn't nearly as big a tent as it fancies itself to be.

No decision has been made about ASCH annual meetings, and none will be made until after January. Affiliation with AAR is still, at this point, a possibility, and if ASCH goes that way I will make my peace with it. At least AAR has better receptions. The sting of having my scholarship and my institution sneered at might be eased by a few free drinks.


Samira K. Mehta said…
Elesha, is the business meeting at ASCH open? (I am not presenting at ASCH or AHA, but am considering heading to Atlanta in January if there is a chance to be part of the conversation about the fate of ASCH.)
Randall said…
Interesting conversation going on here. Thanks for posting about it. This all seems reminiscent of the AAR vs SBL issues from some years back. I wonder if larger professional bodies like this (and perhaps the AHA) will always struggle with coherence or direction.
Neither theologian, ethicist, nor confessional scholar of any kind, I nonetheless see boycott and protest as resurgence of allergies I thought we had outgrown or were outgrowing. Don't know the work of the VP candidates in question, but larger issues have come to the surface without much reference to their specific work. Discomfort with theology, not ballot diversity seems to me to really be driving this so far. I don't have all the answers, but I am certain there are more creative ways to think about this. There are definitely differences between non-theological and theological approaches (I see them up close and have to navigate them as a non-theological member of a department of theology), but "critical" and "un-critical" does not capture them. Neither does "deconstructive" and "constructive." No one is saying we can't take the new theological VP of the AAR as the subject of our study. Could he or she be our conversation partner too or will we all break out in a rash? I feel like theory is theory and we're all free to pick and choose those theories that shed light on things and to filter and adapt them in ways that we think will stand up to the kinds of scrutiny that we all welcome. I think of Omer's exchange with McCutcheon in JAAR as watershed moment toward something more honest and less polarizing, even if the issues were slightly different. For those in public institutions, I do understand the unique challenges you face, but I would hate to see one sector of study of religion thrown under the bus in acquiescence to the too simple 'yes or no' understanding of these issues that dominates in public sphere.
hillary kaell said…
Hear, hear. I agree with John. I don't think it's accurate to say that the comments cited in Elesha's piece are representative of AAR members. But they are certainly representative of a longstanding theology/religion debate that goes back to the creation of "Religious Studies." It rages at my university too, where we maintain separate Religion and Theology departments separated by a 20 minute bus ride. On another note, though, as a member of the ASCH I have also found an uncomfortable slippage where that organization is assumed to be mainly comprised of scholars who are (white) Protestants (e.g. Elesha refers to how ASCH members might be viewed as specimens - not a good thing, I agree. But that sentence should clarify that we're talking about SOME members who are ALSO Christians). The ASCH has been changing. But diversifying the membership and panels should still be a priority. Perhaps joining the Religious studies melee - debates and all - would be a good thing in that regard?
Unknown said…
Just wanted to third the comments made by John and Hilary. Positing two sides, and calling them something like descriptive or critical approaches to religion versus normative work or theology seems to miss the mark. Though, to be fair to the Altman/Hugheses, this is the language that both VP candidates used in their AAR statements. It's like our own never-ending mini-culture war, complete with persecution rhetoric on both sides...

Like Hilary, I don't think the comments mentioned here are representative of most AAR members. I think even the fields that historically might be most averse to explicitly normative, theological work, like those working in queer and feminist theory, actually include LOTS of fascinating, critical, constructive, descriptive, explicitly normative and theological work through their spread of AAR panels -- and have for along time. Granted, an evangelical like Gushee might not recognize this work as theology or even as Christian (I really don't know -- in no way trying to guess what he'd think, just raising a possibility). But if we started here in looking at AAR, then it hardly appears to be inhospitable to theological work. (And, likewise, this work hardly appears to be anti-theoretical or noncritical).

I'd love to see ASCH team up with AAR -- it would be fun to have so many strands of American religion scholars under one (bar's) roof, with a few free, well-deserved drinks for Elesha.
Elesha said…
Samira, I think the meeting will be open. I'm also trying to make the surveys (there's likely to be an online one before the meeting and a paper one at the meeting itself) available to all comers. Thanks for your interest!

Hillary, yes, absolutely, only some ASCH members would potentially come under the "specimen" scrutiny. Some ASCH members already have dual membership with AAR and seem completely comfortable in both environments. But I don't know that the suspicion emanating from the AAR side regarding their VP candidates is so specifically targeted at white, Protestant Christians. Maybe it is, as both candidates fit that designation. But the shudder that someone who works within a religious tradition (or even merely within a confessional institution) might be considered a "serious" scholar of religion could apply much more widely to ASCH members.
Matt Hedstrom said…
I think a lot of the anxiety about the AAR candidates stems from two factors: 1. they are same in so many ways -- not just two theologians, but two white male Protestant theologians, so this can seem like a smoke-filled-room power grab; and 2. the way they each framed their candidacies, as moves toward a bigger tent, as if the study of religion had become inhospitable to them. It does seem, from their statements, as if they see this in culture war, or at least culture skirmish, terms. And to have two white male Protestants present themselves as beleaguered outsiders in a professional society dominated by white male Protestants, and some would argue still operating on implicit notions of religion that derive from Tillich or other liberal Protestant assumptions -- that's not just bad taste but bespeaks a serious intellectual failure, and a worrisome one for those who would lead the world's premier religious studies organization.

All that said, I have no doubt that some of the reactions stems, as well, from liberal academic allergies to evangelicalism. If the two candidates were normatively orientated Buddhists there would not be the same reaction, for good reasons (see above about the still powerful Protestant bias in the AAR) and for ill reasons (evangelicals are the wrong kind of religious people to many secular or liberal academics.)

Lastly -- on the ASCH moving to the AAR. I hope that doesn't happen, though I understand there are pragmatic considerations. The ASCH is church history (with a still strong emphasis on history, even as "church" becomes more and more attenuated). Many of us are committed to history as a methodology in ways that the AAR just doesn't care about, and in some cases is hostile to. It's not a good intellectual fit.
Unknown said…
Super helpful comments, Matt. Your reservations about the demographic makeup of the candidates put so well my own anxieties about these two candidates in particular, squaring off.

About ASCH -- I really like having it paired with AHA, too. But I thought the problem here had to do with AHA and money? I could totally be wrong. I'm just remembering that last year we who presented with ASCH had to fork over a ton of money (to join both AHA and ASCH and then pay conference reg fees for both as well), which makes their pairing quite difficult, especially for grad students and those of us who attending 2 or more meetings per year. And again I could be wrong, but I think that fee hike had to do with a recent change that AHA made. Elesha, please do correct me if my info is wrong!
Matt Hedstrom said…
Yes -- my understanding from Elesha is that money is the main thing. I don't think the multiple conference thing is an issue, because many ASCH folks would rather go to the AHA than the AAR, but the fees and such with the AHA is a problem.

Also, I forgot to say above -- I hate the talk about religious "data" that some hardliners in the critical study of religion camp toss around, and especially about viewing fellow academics as data, but really about viewing any human being as data. Religious studies is not a science, not even a social science -- it's an interpretive, humanistic enterprise. We have sources and evidence -- and, most especially, conversation partners -- but not data.
Elesha said…
You're basically right, Anthony. ASCH folks--or members of other affiliate societies, like the American Catholic Historical Association--do not need to purchase an AHA membership to attend the January conference, but they do have to pay a higher non-member registration rate--unless they're presenting, which means they can register at the "presenting non-member rate," which I think is the same as the member rate. They then pay an additional fee ($50 this year) for ASCH sessions.

But wait, you ask, can't anyone at the conference attend ASCH sessions, whether or not they pay for the privilege? Yes--again unless you're presenting in an ASCH session, which I think gives the ASCH some leverage to charge you. I'm not entirely sure how that works.

Also, now that AHA manages the online registration, there's no option to bundle ASCH membership into your purchase. (I think you can, however, bundle in AHA membership.) In New York, ASCH was initially told that they couldn't even host a table to collect ASCH memberships. Overall, the AHA-mandated registration changes are making it cheaper and easier to just affiliate with the AHA and interlope on ASCH sessions. That would be a short-term win for the AHA, but it has the potential to either bankrupt the ASCH or drive it away. Hence the dilemma.

Elesha said…
This just in--an ACHA member said she didn't have to register for AHA this year. So maybe the changes only apply to ASCH? Last year, the AHA changes were presented to us as applying to all affiliate societies, but that might not be the case. I think that ASCH offers more sessions at the annual meeting than any other affiliate, so it might be in a unique position vis-a-vis AHA--though whether that's a position of strength or vulnerability I don't know. Sorry not to have better information for everyone.
Charlie McCrary said…
Thank you for connecting these issues, Elesha. I'm confused about the framing, though, particularly your comment about who might be sneering at your work. Are you saying that the AAR is hostile to historical work, as evidenced by its elevation of two theologians? Or that the AAR is hostile to churchy traditional work, as evidenced by the sentiments of Hughes, Altman, and others? Given that the AAR is split on this issue, I'm wondering which faction of AAR is hostile to church history. Maybe both!
Thanks for mentioning my post here, Elesha. I'd like to clear up one thing, if I can. I am not opposed to either candidate because they have a religious affiliation. I am certainly not opposed to Gushee because he is evangelical. I honestly don't care about religious affiliation or identity at all when it comes to the VP of the AAR. My complaint is that by putting forward two theologians who work within and for their Christian communities, there is no representation for scholars of religion who are not theologians and do not approach religion from within Christianity.

I'm not even saying that there shouldn't be theologians in the AAR. My statement about Gushee being "the subject of study" (notice that I avoided "data") was meant to distinguish that he and I are not doing the same kind of academic work. For example, if I was writing an article on evangelical debates about abortion I'd turn to Gushee's work as primary sources, not as secondary analysis. While I can certainly find a lot to talk about with an anthropologist or sociologist or historian about religion/culture/identity/discourse/etc., Gushee, and many theologians/ethicists, and I do not share the same goal or larger theoretical questions/interests. To say that is not to say that he, or any theologian, is not doing "serious" or "real" academic work. They are just doing very different work with a very different aim. I wouldn't say that a physicist wasn't doing real academic work just because we aren't conversation partners in my own academic projects.

So, when neither of the two options the AAR nominating committee puts forward are people who are not at all doing the same kind of academic work that I am doing then I think that is a problem because it seems to conflate the two very different sorts of working going on within the AAR. Whether a national organization should have such a big tent is a very different question and one that hasn't been answered since NAMBI became the AAR.

I actually think the ASCH would do well at AAR and I'd love for it to join. I agree with Matt that the AAR has a real problem with history and so I would welcome the ASCH members. I have been an ASCH member in the past and I've always enjoyed presenting and attending the conference. I honestly wish the Modern/Noll panel had been at AAR instead of ASCH so I could have attended.
Elesha said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elesha said…
I was mostly thinking of the latter, Charlie. The reaction to the two candidates' profiles suggested to me that a chunk of the AAR membership finds practicing Protestants unfit to join the ranks of "serious religion scholars." I don't sense from AAR the same kind of revulsion toward historical work, but I do sense a dismissiveness, as if anyone who didn't do comparative work or deeply interrogate the category of "religion" wasn't a serious religion scholar, either.

I'm overstating these points in an attempt at clarity. I have attended AAR, presented at AAR, and have lots of friends there. I know there's a (small) history of Christianity section and some great historical scholarship in North American religions. But I never felt welcome at AAR. I never felt connected to its big conversations or found very many sessions I wanted to attend. The flap over the VP election articulated, for me, some of the reasons I felt like an outsider. I have no intention to project my experience onto the ASCH membership as a whole, but I don't think I'm the only person who has these concerns.
Matt Hedstrom said…
Finbarr Curtis has posted some really good stuff about this -- especially his conclusion:


Unknown said…
Just to make clear--the ASCH is not on the verge of a decision about AAR vs AHA. Right now the most important thing is to provide the best information we can to ASCH members, recognizing that there are lots of known and unknown knowns in the new AHA arrangement. It's all fairly new. I should say I write as the lucky stiff who is ASCH president this past year, and am very grateful to Elesha and incoming president Ron Rittgers for much work and time devoted to the member survey. I hope it's a creative moment for "church history" and that the conversation continues.

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