Deg's Dispatches, Part VI

Dispatches from LeConte Hall 323 – Part VI
by Darren Grem

For the past few weeks, we explored the coming of “modernity” and its impact on American religions. To start off, my students explored the impact of immigration on America’s religious landscape, looking at the “theologies of the street” that American immigrants created in urban centers like New York and Chicago. I’ve been a big fan of Robert Orsi’s since I read his work on the subject as an undergrad, and I tried to drive the students toward considering his conclusions about what “street theologies” can teach about the immigrant experience. Thus, they viewed A/V selections of the Italian festa, along with slides of Irish Catholic festivals and Jewish practices in the Hester Street community, analyzing how immigrants used public displays of religion to state something about their immigrant communities, their collective identities, and their relative status as religious insiders/outsiders. After this, I had them consider the impact of consumer capitalism on American Protestantism. To do so, I lectured on “economic modernity,” integrating into the lecture the conclusions they developed from reading selections from Russell Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds” sermon and Walter Rauschenbusch’s writings on the Social Gospel. Finally, we had a debate – lightly attended due to the coming of Spring Break – about religious nativism, looking at how and why certain Native American, Catholic, and Protestant observers conflicted over the definition of “mainstream” religious America.

Given that earlier in the term we spent nearly a week and a half on the creation of the “religious marketplace,” I probably should have spent more time on this important period in American history. Although their essays and A/V analyses showed that they “got” the major trends of the period, I thought that we should have studied it more thoroughly. Boiling fin-de-siècle America and its religious transformations into three days made the period go by too quickly for my tastes and, as such, I thought we only skimmed the surface of why the period matters. Our study of fundamentalism – which happened after Spring Break – perhaps granted more context, but, even with it I thought we over-focused on the particulars of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy. Instead of connecting it to the larger shifts in the era, I believe we treated it as a solitary conflict, somehow related to larger demographic, economic, and cultural changes but not clearly related to them. Missing a viewing of Sister Aimee, the PBS documentary based off Sutton’s book, due to some technical difficulties, didn’t help. That documentary lays out the context for fundamentalism quite nicely, and it was a real loss to have it go by the wayside.

Of course, I have yet to read their essays on fundamentalism, so I may be overstating the problem. My students have continually surprised me with how well they understood the major points of the document sets they’ve read, as well as how well they’ve connected them to larger trends we’re studying. Thus, my concerns may be allayed when I pick up the green and red pens for one more go-round. In addition, their debate on the matter of public funding for religious instruction was a pretty good one, showing that they knew certain “broader” reasons for fundamentalist/modernist conflicted over evolution then, plus how and why that debate has both continued into today.

With that debate (since it was our last), I also think that I can start draw some preliminary conclusions about the effectiveness of these historical simulations. First, I will certainly use the debate format again. They were a nice break in the flow of the class, and they yielded both some valuable frivolity and valuable insights on the part of my students. Second, in the future, I will institute some way to police students to ensure that they’re preparing properly for the debates. Like many open-floor exercises, there tended to be distinct talkers and sitters, and I want more of the former and less of the latter. Perhaps including a mandatory talk policy would help matters, decreasing the opportunity for students to sit back and let the more talkative (and, presumably, more well-read) students lead the way. Any suggestions on how to reframe these debates so students can get more out of them would be appreciated.

Up next: Religion and the “American Way of Life” (whatever that means).

Playing with God


Bill Baker’s newly published Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport offers a much needed comprehensive history of religion and sport, from the pre-European contact world of Native Americans to the present era of Faith Nights and Zen basketball. He demonstrates repeatedly how attitudes toward sports have been dynamic, subject to the ideological leanings of any given population. So while Puritans tried to purge sports from the colonies, muscular Christians made athletics central to their message. Where appropriate, Baker includes perspectives from Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and Muslims, drawing from noteworthy studies such as Julie Byrne’s O God of Players and Richard Ian Kimball’s Sports in Zion.

This is a perfect book for anyone interested in the subject but wary of the “religion as sports” approach, most recently employed by Craig Fortney in his The Holy Trinity of American Sports. I’ll be teaching a “Religion and Sport” course next fall, and Playing with God will be on the syllabus. Here’s the book description…

The spectacle of modern sport displays all the latest commercial and technological innovations, yet age-old religious concerns still thrive at the stadium. Coaches lead pre-game and post-game prayers, athletes give God the credit for home runs and touchdowns, and fans wave signs with biblical quotations and allusions. Like no other nation on earth, Americans eagerly blend their religion and sports. Playing with God traces this dynamic relationship from the Puritan condemnation of games as sinful in the seventeenth century to the near deification of athletic contests in our own day.

Early religious opposition to competitive sport focused on the immoderate enthusiasm of players and spectators, the betting on scores, and the preference for playing field over church on Sunday. Disapproval gradually gave way to acceptance when "wholesome recreation" for young men in crowded cities and soldiers in faraway fields became a national priority. Protestants led in the readjustment of attitudes toward sport; Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and Muslims followed. The Irish at Notre Dame, outstanding Jews in baseball, Black Muslims in the boxing ring, and born-again athletes at Liberty University represent the numerous negotiations and compromises producing the unique American mixture of religion and sport.

Faith Healing, and Failed Healing



There'll be whole lot of faith healing going on in this blog entry. Recently I was asked to review Heather D. Curtis, Faith in the Great Physician: Suffering and Divine Healing in American Culture, 1860-1900, one of the most thoughtful historical explorations of the topic I've seen. A little piece of my review follows:

“How believers should comprehend and cope with pain is a perpetual question in the history of Christianity” (3), Curtis writes in her thoughtfully rendered study of Christianity and divine (or faith) healing through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She argues that divine healers led a substantial body of American Christians away from an older ideal of “sanctified suffering” to a newer notion of “victory over affliction,” by which believers were prepared for “active service” in the world. In this way, “advocates of faith healing endeavored to articulate and embody an alternative devotional ethic that uncoupled the longstanding link between corporeal suffering and spiritual holiness” (5). Rather than endure Job-like suffering, they sought to remake the “meaning and practice of pain” (52). For believers in divine healing, “passivity and physical frailty were symptoms of a disease that needed to be cured, . . . not characteristics of Christian holiness that ought to be cultivated” (16). The obvious gendered conceptions of overcoming “passivity and physical frailty” meant that women were especially prominent in the divine healing movement. . . . .

. . . However unwittingly, divine healers of this era did prepare the way for the contemporary “Word of Faith” movement, the latest iteration of the irrepressible “health and wealth” theology that seems a constant of American evangelical history. Ultimately, showmanship trumped suffering, but also has overshadowed the more serious theology of the healing advocates whom Curtis so usefully documents.

Curtis remains deliberately agnostic on the "reality" of healings, focusing instead on the cultural meanings imparted to them. Shawn Francis Peters takes a different tack in When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law. Peters graciously sent me a copy of his work a few months ago; my apologies for being slow to get to it here. This paragraph from the book's web page covers the basic issues detailed in the work:

When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law is the first book to fully examine the complex web of legal and ethical questions that arise when criminal prosecutions are mounted against parents whose children die as a result of what experts term religion-based medical neglect. Do constitutional protections for religious liberty shield parents who fail to provide adequate medical treatment for their sick children? Are parents likewise shielded by state child-neglect laws that seem to include exemptions for faith healing practices? What purpose do prosecutions serve when it's clear that many deeply religious parents harbor no fear of temporal punishment? Peters devotes special attention to cases involving Christian Science, the source of many religion-based medical neglect deaths, and also considers cases arising from the refusal of Jehovah's Witnesses to allow blood transfusions or inoculations.

Peters documents in excruciating detail the consequences of parental religiously-based refusal of medical care for children, many of whom in this book suffered from curable maladies or relatively minor medical emergencies.

Here are some of Peters's conclusions, from p. 212: "secular political forces, whatever the noble intentions of the individuals who marshal them, still face an awkward task when they endeavor to police religious conduct. . . It is a testament to Americans' longstanding and fierce attachment to the principle of religious liberty that public officials have wielded this police power so infrequently and so reluctantly. Even when it apparently has cost children their lives, prosecutors have been skittish -- sometimes to a fault -- about zealously and consistently applying manslaughter and abuse laws to parents who have spurned medicine for prayer in their treatment of children."

Legislators and judges, too, "have been diffident as well, imposing remarkably lenient sentences on religious parents convicted for their roles in the neglect-related deaths of their children. Their tentativeness, grounded in a sincere desire not to infringe on individuals' First Amendment freedoms, has typfied the overcautiousness evidenced by all three branches of gvernment in dealing with crimes related to prayer-based healing rituals."

Peters concludes by pointing out the complementary aims of religious individuals and the state here: "Neither group wants to see children get hurt." Yet religious individuals face the dilemma of reconciling "their devotion to God with their duties as citizens"; in these cases, sacred and secular responsibilities conflict in dramatic ways, and in ways that the faith healers discussed in Curtis's text well understood. As John Alexander Dowie expressed it, faith healing believers "are Christians first, citizens afterward."

Uncoverage Revisited

I thought I would take some time from watching NCAA hoops and listening to endless Obama and Clinton television campaign ads (remember, I live in PA) to call your attention to a new OAH website. My friend Lendol Calder has become the guru of "uncoverage," an approach to teaching the U.S. survey in way that helps students to develop skills in historical thinking. He now has a website related to this way of teaching. I know Darren Grem has commented on this approach in the past, but I offer it up again as a new way of thinking about our survey courses.

Free Tour of Colonial New Orleans, Courtesy of Our Newest Contributing Editor



Hello Friends,

My name is Mike Pasquier. Currently, I’m a visiting faculty member of the Department of Religion at Florida State University. I’ll be joining the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Louisiana State University in the fall. But before I move to Baton Rouge, I’ll be spending a year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Until now, I’ve focused my research on the history of Catholicism in the American South, Catholic devotional culture, and the relationship between religion and colonialism in Louisiana.

I’m finishing a book manuscript tentatively entitled “Les Confrères et les Peres: French Missionary Priests and Frontier Catholicism in the United States.” And I’m conducting new research on the intersection of African religions, Native American religions, and European Christianities in the Lower Mississippi River Valley during the eighteenth century. I’m also co-editing (w/ Tracy Fessenden) a special issue of the
Journal of Southern Religion (on religion in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina). Here in my first post

My first post takes us on a tour of the colonial New Orleans explored in Emily Clark's
Masterless Mistresses.


(Also an introduction to religion in New Orleans via Emily Clark’s Masterless Mistresses)

I’d like to take us on a brief tour of New Orleans. No, this isn’t one of those silly “Haunted Tours,” although they are kind of interesting. And, no, this isn’t a chance for us to walk straight from the Fairmont Hotel (home of the Sazerac, the “original cocktail” to Bourbon Street, although I do recall not recalling similar experiences while an undergraduate student at Louisiana State University. Instead, let’s begin by standing on Decatur Street just outside the gates of Jackson Square while facing the St. Louis Cathedral with the Mississippi River about 100 yards behind us.

At the risk of belaboring a very tired metaphor, I would like for us to imagine standing at a crossroads—a historical and cultural crossroads. Behind us flows one of the longest running natural (and rather muddy) transporters of peoples, ideas, and technologies connecting the Atlantic and Caribbean worlds to the interior reaches of North America and indiscriminately cutting through our imaginary conceptions of regions like “the South” and “the West.” We are standing on Decatur Street, originally called Levee Street, literally steps away from over 300 years of human engineering and even more human disasters (recall the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and Randy Newman’s song “Louisiana 1927." Blocking our view of the St. Louis Cathedral is a statue of General Andrew Jackson, the American “savior” of New Orleans who led a coalition of Choctaws, free people of African descent, Baratarian pirates, Spanish and French Creoles, and militiamen from Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky against the British during the War of 1812.

Finally, we can contemplate the façade of the St. Louis Cathedral, built on the site of two previous Roman Catholic churches in 1794 and standing at the center of the French Quarter. But if we want to see French colonial architecture, we’ve got to walk up to the steps of the cathedral, take a right, and start walking down Chartres (pronounced “charters”) Street. You see, a fire destroyed much of the wooden buildings of the French Quarter (also called the Vieux Carré) in 1788, which meant that Spanish officials (oh yeah, Louisiana became a Spanish colony in 1763 after the Seven Years’ War) rebuilt the city, followed by thousands of American migrants building over what remained of French and Spanish structures following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

Whew! I’m already tired, and we haven’t even arrived at our destination. Just a few more blocks to go. Had we taken a left, we could have detoured down Pirate Alley and visited the former home of William Faulkner. But, alas, we’ve got no time to waste (this is a blog after all, where brevity is a virtue). As we begin our stroll toward Esplanade Avenue, you’ll notice the passing of Pere Antoine Alley, St. Ann Street, Madison Street, Dumaine Street, and St. Philip Street, until we finally reach the corner of Chartres and Ursuline Street. Look to your left and you will see General P.G.T. Beauregard’s home. Take a walk around the block and you’ll pass Brangelina’s new mansion on Governor Nicholls Street. Look to your right and you will see the Old Ursuline Convent. Built in 1752, the Old Ursuline Convent is the oldest example of French colonial architecture in the Mississippi Valley and the former residence of a group of Roman Catholic nuns who travelled from France to a minor colonial outpost called La Nouvelles-Orleans in 1727.

If you want to understand the historical and cultural context of everything we’ve seen up to this point, then you must read Emily Clark’s Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727-1834. Published in 2007 for the prestigious Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, Masterless Mistresses is a story about the first group of Catholic women religious to immigrate to a place that would become part of the United States. It is a story about early modern Europe, the Atlantic world, and the commingling of French, Spanish, and American interests in North America. It is a story about women in a world dominated by men, Catholic women in a world defined by anti-Catholicism, celibate women in a world where Protestant women valued motherhood and domesticity, and slaveholding women who also devoted themselves to the education and welfare of enslaved and free children of color. Clark calls the Ursulines “ideological outlaw[s]” and “mistresses without masters” because of the many relationships and conflicts that developed between the French (and later Spanish and American) nuns and everyone else they met in the streets of New Orleans. Clark also extends her discussion of the Ursulines to larger issues related to the retelling of early American history. “Gender,” Clark reminds us, “as much as race and class, gnawed at the fragile foundations of unified American identity. Weaving the Ursulines into the fabric of American history tellingly reveals that to us.”

Unfortunately, Clark’s masterful Masterless Mistresses is one of only a handful of other books that conceives of colonial Louisiana as something other than a peripheral sideshow to “the normative culture of British North America that prevailed in the young Republic.” Might New Orleans be more central to early American religious history than the historiography would suggest? Might the Mississippi River be just as important as, say, the Chesapeake Bay in delivering European and African peoples to a New World already populated by native peoples? Might we learn from Walker Percy—a Catholic convert who came of age in Greenville, Mississippi, and who became a National Book Award winner for his 1961 novel The Moviegoer—when he says that “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something.”

It’s strange to think that we historians of American religion—that is to say, people most likely to read this blog—are stuck in a realm of possibility when, all along, New Orleans and the rest of the Mississippi River Valley have been soaking in their deep, thick, gelatinous (yes! I used the word “gelatinous”) culture, seemingly content to let us experts of American religious history avoid the obvious.

But hey, New Orleans ain’t goin’ nowheres. Right?

God on the Brain

by Randall Stephens

How did religion evolve over the ages? That’s a loaded question for many of the faithful. Even to raise it seems to answer a host of other larger questions. Economists, neuroscientists, and psychologists who have devoted attention to the study of religion are undaunted.

According to a March 19th article, "Where Angels No Longer Fear to Tread," in The Economist, a new research initiative may shed some new light on the matter:

“Explaining Religion,” as the project is known, is the largest-ever scientific study of the subject. It began last September, will run for three years, and involves scholars from 14 universities and a range of disciplines. . . Religion cries out for a biological explanation. It is a ubiquitous phenomenon—arguably one of the species markers of Homo sapiens—but a puzzling one.

Of course, as a historian, this line of reasoning seems foreign to me. Historians and religious studies scholars tend to bracket out these larger issues in the interest of analyzing what people did or said. Maybe that’s a reaction to flatfooted 20th century functionalism, which tended to reduce religion to the product of something else. Perhaps, too, there is a suspicion among historians concerning the explanatory power of science. What can biology and neuroscience teach us about what we study?

The Economist piece describes the work of

Nina Azari, a neuroscientist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo who also has a doctorate in theology, has looked at the brains of religious people. She used positron emission tomography (PET) to measure brain activity in six fundamentalist Christians and six non-religious (though not atheist) controls. The Christians all said that reciting the first verse of the 23rd psalm helped them enter a religious state of mind, so both groups were scanned in six different sets of circumstances: while reading the first verse of the 23rd psalm, while reciting it out loud, while reading a happy story (a well-known German children's rhyme), while reciting that story out loud, while reading a neutral text (how to use a calling card) and while at rest.

Dr Azari was expecting to see activity in the limbic systems of the Christians when they recited the psalm. Previous research had suggested that this part of the brain (which regulates emotion) is an important centre of religious activity. In fact what happened was increased activity in three areas of the frontal and parietal cortex, some of which are better known for their involvement in rational thought. The control group did not show activity in these parts of their brains when listening to the psalm. And, intriguingly, the only thing that triggered limbic activity in either group was reading the happy story.

As someone who knows nothing about this sort of thing, but is intrigued, my first thought was, Huh??? Can historians and other scholars in the humanities use data like the above? How would they incorporate it? How would it inform their studies?

One clue might be in the work of Daniel Lord Smail, whose 2007 book, On Deep History and the Brain (University of California Press) called for:

fundamentally new ways of thinking about our past. He shows how recent work in evolution and paleohistory makes it possible to join the deep past with the recent past and abandon, once and for all, the idea of prehistory. Making an enormous literature accessible to the general reader, he lays out a bold new case for bringing neuroscience and neurobiology into the realm of history.

However, I have not seen this trickle into the larger profession.

Labors of Liberality

Paul Harvey

While we're on the subject of the Enlightenment and religion in eighteenth-century America (see the post just below, on John Fea's new book), here's some more good reading. The most recent Journal of American History features this article by J. M. Opal: "The Labors of Liberality: Christian Benevolence and National Prejudice in the American Founding" (History Cooperative access required). Here's a little appetizer:

Historians have also employed "liberalism" to make sense of early national Americans and their collective pursuit of happiness. "Liberal" in this vein connotes the rejection of aristocratic privilege and the embrace of progress, natural rights, and the good sense of the unsupervised people. Since the 1980s, there has been a tendency to fit liberal and republican values within broader traditions of early American thought and culture. James T. Kloppenberg, in particular, has called attention to another liberal tradition—familiar to Locke himself—that saddled the autonomous self with a range of duties derived from Christian morality. Perhaps, several scholars have suggested, the foundations of American politics have as much to do with Martin Luther and John Calvin as with Niccolò Machiavelli and James Harrington. Most recently, Philip Hamburger has demonstrated that while liberalism may qualify as the unwanted child of republicanism, throughout the eighteenth century, liberality signified "an elevated moral position." Far from an excuse for interest bartering or greed, liberality meant generosity and tolerance, the ability to approach problems with an open and candid mind.

This essay seeks to build on such insights by showing how the liberal "sensibility," as contemporaries knew it, contributed to both the political and ethical process of nation making during the 1780s. Liberality drew the religious, social, and economic aspirations of the Enlightenment into a devastating critique of "local prejudice," and for a brief period it dominated the public discourses and moral prescriptions of the newly United States. Despite their practical motivations and supposed disillusionment, the Federalists were the chief beneficiaries of this liberal ascendancy. Ministers and moralists such as Rev. Enos Hitchcock read liberality and "universal benevolence" into the origins and spirit of the Constitution, investing the federal design with the spotless values of unity and tolerance. But the victory they helped achieve during 1788–1789, combined with events in Europe and the Caribbean region during the next few years, gave rise to the most enduring prejudice of all: the belief that America was uniquely favored by God and that patriotism and other "religions of the heart" defined and delimited virtue. In short, a close study of liberality deepens our understanding of how and what the Federalists won and of the interplay between religion, politics, and nationalism in the founding period.

And here's the conclusion, one that allows us to comprehend both the "liberality" of the founding and the American triumphalism (and parochialism) which soon followed, one far away from the notions of liberality traced in this article:

The liberal values that Hitchcock faithfully upheld had played a vital role in the interval between the end of the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Constitution, often called the "critical period" of American politics, both in unifying Federalist interests and deflecting Antifederalist attacks. Traces of liberality lived on in a general ethos of democratic give-and-take in the new republic, as well as in a host of "benevolent" organizations. But the ascendant dynamic of nineteenth-century democracy was the free play of illiberality within the rigid and mutually reinforcing boundaries of family, faith, and nation. Ironically, "liberals" across the Atlantic world became nationalists, champions of self-determination for discrete peoples who claimed a special, if not a sacred, identity. Even more ironically, the celebrated centerpiece of American political society became the Constitution itself, along with a civil religion that presumed God's exclusive blessing. That faith continues to authorize an aggressive parochialism in the United States, an illiberal belief in the superiority—and universality—of American liberalism.

John Fea's Way of Improvement

by Paul Harvey

Our contributing editors are publishing machines! The latest announcement: the release of John Fea, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, University of Pennsylvania Press.

From the web page for the book:

The Way of Improvement Leads Home traces the short but fascinating life of Philip Vickers Fithian, one of the most prolific diarists in early America. Born to Presbyterian grain-growers in rural New Jersey, he was never quite satisfied with the agricultural life he seemed destined to inherit. Fithian longed for something more—to improve himself in a revolutionary world that was making upward mobility possible. While Fithian is best known for the diary that he wrote in 1773-74 while working as a tutor at Nomini Hall, the Virginia plantation of Robert Carter, this first full biography moves beyond his experience in the Old Dominion to examine his inner life, his experience in the early American backcountry, his love affair with Elizabeth Beatty, and his role as a Revolutionary War chaplain.

From the villages of New Jersey, Fithian was able to participate indirectly in the eighteenth-century republic of letters—a transatlantic intellectual community sustained through sociability, print, and the pursuit of mutual improvement. The republic of letters was above all else a rational republic, with little tolerance for those unable to rid themselves of parochial passions. Participation required a commitment to self-improvement that demanded a belief in the Enlightenment values of human potential and social progress. Although Fithian was deeply committed to these values, he constantly struggled to reconcile his quest for a cosmopolitan life with his love of home. As John Fea argues, it was the people, the religious culture, and the very landscape of his "native sod" that continued to hold Fithian's affections and enabled him to live a life worthy of a man of letters.

"Many historians of Revolutionary America have plundered the diaries of Philip Vickers Fithian, but until now no one has satisfactorily told the life story of this great diarist. John Fea's insightful book does just that—and yet more. By showing how Fithian pursued the values of a cosmopolitan Enlightenment, in concert with the values of Presbyterian Christianity and American patriotism, his study reveals much about an enduring American tradition."—Mark Noll, University of Notre Dame

"John Fea has given readers . . . a gift in this delightful biography of diarist Philip Fithian. . . . Fea has captured a multifaceted world that teachers of American history should rush to share with their students."—Dallett Hemphill, author of Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners in America

John Fea teaches history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.

Thrilla in Ozarka -- Round IV

by Paul Harvey

John Wilson continues Round IV of our discussion of Aaron Ketchell's Holy Hills of the Ozarks here; this continues from the previous post on the subject (or just scroll down a bit).

Aside from the particulars of the debate, I'll post here a brief excerpt which addresses a broader issue of scholarship in the field, one certainly worthy of further discussion and response:

Ketchell's book is representative of a broad trend in the study of American religion, and in particular the study of conservative Protestant believers—fundamentalists, evangelicals, Pentecostals. A growing number of scholars have produced what might be called ethnographic studies of such believers, seeking to understand how they construct their shared social world. Susan Friend Harding's The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics and Mitchell Stevens' Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement (which considers both religious and nonreligious homeschooling advocates) are two examples among many, and within this broad trend there are many subdivisions (emphasis on "material culture," for instance). But what links most of these books is an effort to understand.

Understand what? Well, in part the trend reflects the collapse of secularization theory (which still has its defenders, yes) and the simplistic understanding of "modernity" that went with it. So many of these studies seek to understand how various religious groups that were supposed to wither away are in fact negotiating the challenges of modernity. And for many—though by no means all—of the scholars working in this vein, the ideal is a kind of sympathetic detachment from the object of research, a studied "neutrality." But this ideal is in tension with another influential trend in the study of religion and in the academy today more broadly, encouraging "committed" scholarship.

John Turner's Crusade


by Paul Harvey

Hope everyone has had a chance to follow the excellent discussion in the comments section, in Jon Pahl's post below, between Ed Blum, John Turner, and others.

This provides a perfect opportunity to take appropriate note of our contributing editor John Turner's first book, which is due out in a month or so: Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America. Here's hoping it attracts the attention it deserves in this season of discussion about evangelicalism, culture, and politics.

A description of the work, from the UNC Press website:

Founded as a local college ministry in 1951, Campus Crusade for Christ has become one of the world's largest evangelical organizations, today boasting an annual budget of more than $500 million. Nondenominational organizations like Campus Crusade account for much of modern evangelicalism's dynamism and adaptation to mainstream American culture. Despite the importance of these "parachurch" organizations, says John Turner, historians have largely ignored them.

Turner offers an accessible and colorful history of Campus Crusade and its founder, Bill Bright, whose marketing and fund-raising acumen transformed the organization into an international evangelical empire. Drawing on archival materials and more than one hundred interviews, Turner challenges the dominant narrative of the secularization of higher education, demonstrating how Campus Crusade helped reestablish evangelical Christianity as a visible subculture on American campuses. Beyond the campus, Bright expanded evangelicalism's influence in the worlds of business and politics. As Turner demonstrates, the story of Campus Crusade reflects the halting movement of evangelicalism into mainstream American society: its awkward marriage with conservative politics, its hesitancy over gender roles and sexuality, and its growing affluence

Here's a brief review of the work, posted on amazon, from Publisher's Weekly:

A familiar presence at universities, Campus Crusade for Christ exemplifies for historian Turner the type of nondenominational parachurch organization that has contributed to the surge of evangelicals' political and social influence since the mid-1970s. Bill Bright founded Campus Crusade, focused chiefly on evangelism, at UCLA in 1951; in his 50 years as president he turned it into a worldwide organization. Turner, a professor of American history at the University of South Alabama, uses Bright's story to dig into the early postwar roots of evangelicalism, including its ties to conservatives, anticommunism, use of sales techniques, painful split from fundamentalism, ambivalence towardcharismatic Christians and unresolved tensions with mainstream American culture. Most interesting are the influence of Henrietta Mears, director of Christian education at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, on Bright's generation of evangelicals, and Campus Crusade's counteractivism at Berkeley in the 1960s.

CFP for 2009 ASCH

[CROSSPOSTED FROM LISTSERV, from Eric Rose, University of South Carolina]:

I am looking for contributors to a panel on the racialization of popular religion in American churches. I would especially like to incorporate any papers or commentary on race and theology, spatio-temporal segregation of the worship experience, burial grounds, religious discourse as production of status, catechism as social control, etc. My own contribution to the panel will be a paper on the segregation ofworship space and its meanings for the Protestant congregants of Charleston, SC during the 1830s. I would like to submit a proposal for the entire session to the American Society for Church History, for presentation during their 2009 meeting in conjunction with the AHA. Submissions are due to the ASCH by April 11, so please send abstracts and CV's to me [ERIC ROSE, EMAIL ROSEE at SC dot EDU] no later than April 7.

Proposals for individual papers should include (a) a summary of the paper not to exceed 250 words with the subject, argument, and evidence clearly detailed;(2) a biographical paragraph or CV summary of the presenter (not to exceed 250 words); and (3) a current mailing location, email address, and phone number for the proposed presenter.

You can contact me off-list at: rosee AT sc DOT edu.
Eric Rose University of South Carolina

Youth Ministry in America

[Editor's note: Jon Pahl's thoughts on Jeremiah Wright and the African American jeremiad are posted just below, in the next blog entry. Good time, then, to put in a plug for Jon's recent book Youth Ministry in Modern America, for which he sends the following description--the link below takes you to an excerpt]:

"Youth Ministry in Modern America takes on Joseph Kett's assertion that Christian youth ministries faded away in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries. By chronicling, comparing, and setting in context four twentieth-century Christian youth movements: The Walther League (Lutheran); the Young Christian Workers (Catholic); Youth for Christ (Evangelical); and African American congregational youth ministries (Methodist, Baptist, United Church of Christ), Jon Pahl traces the changes, continuities, and enduring significance of youth ministries in individual lives, and across American culture."

A brief excerpt:

In his ground-breaking 1977 book, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present, Joseph Kett accurately documented how Christians helped to “invent adolescence” in the nineteenth-century. With consistent disdain, however, Kett dismissed the Christian construction of adolescence as a “self-contained world in which prolonged immaturity could sustain itself,” where Christian leaders limited youthful choices and substituted “adult-led training” in place of voluntary associations of young people. Indeed, Kett argued, “Christian youth organizations of the late nineteenth-century downgraded not only voluntarism but intellectuality and spirituality as well.” Youth ministries were “vapid” and “naive,” by-products of the “intellectual decadence” of Victorian Protestantism. Surely they would soon fade away, for Christian youth ministry constituted “the final act of a melodrama which . . . had exhibited sundry attempts . . . to ‘save’ youth from cities, gambling dens, grog shops, and bawdy houses.”

When he turned to the twentieth-century, Kett saw the “fortresses of morality” that Protestants had built for youth come crumbling down. “Between 1920 and 1950,” thought Kett, “the reformers and clergymen who comprised the original architects of adolescence passed the scene.” A few vestigial pockets of Christians interested in “training” youth remained here and there, but they offered youth only “conformity,” “hostility to intellectuality,” and “passivity.” Indeed, Christian youth ministries were part of a by-gone age, through which young people were segregated into a “separate sphere” that kept them ignorant of the complications of adult life, and that supposedly inculcated in them some mysterious qualities of “citizenship,” “leadership,” or “character.” Such “youth-training institutions” were essentially “negative” in their intentions, and were doomed to fail in their efforts to promote moral purity.

Now, on one level Kett was surely correct. As Sydney Ahlstrom pointed out, the Puritan age of American religious history has ended.
And yet, on another level, Christian youth ministries have not only endured, they have in many cases flourished in the last half of the twentieth-century. How they did so across several streams of denominational tradition is an important and largely untold aspect of American religious history. The history of Christian youth ministry, in fact, opens several windows onto key changes in the cultural history of the United States. More specifically, in sexuality and gender relations, in class awareness and economic status, in acceptance of popular culture and media, and in concern for racial equality and civil rights, youth ministries survived over the past seventy years not by holding to a negation driven purity program, but by adapting a variety of practices to mobilize youth for various causes. That this mobilization brought its own ambivalent outcomes in American cultural history does not lessen the significance of the movement from purity to practices as a whole, or of the agency and significance of youth ministers and young people in history. Youth ministries, at the least, have been telling sites where social change and intergenerational relations have been negotiated.

Jon Pahl on Jeremiah Wright

The Lynching of Jeremiah Wright
Jon Pahl, Ph.D.

Barack Obama has already issued his important, eloquent, and historic speech on race here in Philadelphia. In it, he carefully and clearly defends Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. from the unfair treatment his former pastor has received in recent days. At the same time, Obama beautifully stakes out a higher road than Rev. Wright's admittedly inflammatory rhetoric.

But it would be a mistake to overlook the dynamics that led to the focus on Rev. Wright in the first place. After all, it's Holy Week. Lynching time. And the recent treatment of Rev. Wright demonstrates to a perfect "T" the scapegoating, exaggeration, and violence Christians remember in this sacred season. It would be ironic if it weren't so tragic.

The right wing press first "broke" the story of Rev. Wright's supposed "anti-Americanism" and "anti-Semitism." Sean Hannity started the mob moving. But the mainstream press, without any apparent critical thinking or additional homework, simply accepted the Willie Horton film-clips. Even a little research might have suggested that Rev. Wright was a slightly more complex figure than the sound bites suggested.

I first learned of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. through research for my book Youth Ministry in Modern America. What I discovered is that the program for young people at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago (then led by Rev. Wright) was extraordinarily creative and comprehensive. Youth at Rev. Wright's church were not treated as some sort of idealized "future," segregated off into some separate sphere. They were fully woven into the fabric of the congregation. They participated in the church through teaching, preaching, rites of passage, and the whole range of being a Christian and a citizen. If you want to understand Barack Obama's extraordinary appeal to young people, it wouldn't hurt to start with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

A great strength of the Black Church since its inception has been the ability of congregations to link sacred with secular concerns. This linkage was necessary to protect African Americans from a brutally oppressive society. And anyone who thinks this oppression is over has not looked at economic or prison statistics lately--as Obama's speech makes patently clear. For all of the success of the Civil Rights Movement, racial inequality that exacts real suffering in the lives of African Americans continues to be a fundamental problem in American society.

Consequently, Rev. Wright has been a tireless advocate for social justice. The list of "ministries" on the web site for Trinity United Church of Christ runs to five pages. Active Seniors and Friends Ministry, Drug and Alcohol Recovery Ministry, HIV/AIDS Ministry, Legal Counseling, Prison Ministry--and much more constitute what's really going on at Trinity United Church of Christ. Anyone can see with a little research that these ministries serve "the least among us," and thereby serve the entire society. They are faith-based activism at its best. And as Obama's speech clarifies, that's why such a church was attractive to him, not because of some supposed anti-Americanism or anti-Semitism of the pastor with which he is now being "associated."

Rev. Wright's comments about state-sponsored terrorism, 9/11, and the violence of U.S. policies toward Palestinians are hardly unique to him. Noam Chomsky has said the same thing. "The current U.S. leadership is . . . quite frankly and openly committed to the use of violence to control the world," Chomsky said in a May 21, 2002 interview. And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous Riverside Church speech against the Vietnam War, lamented that "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today [is] my own government."

To assert, then, with the Rev. Wright that America has a violent history is not a radical or anti-American "perspective." It's a fact. The violence that built this nation is evident to anyone without a blinkered nationalist view of history--from the Native American removals, through slavery, to the stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction, to Iraq.

As many commentators have pointed out, Rev. Wright's passionate remarks fit well into the long history of Judeo-Christian prophetic preaching. After all, the rabbi Jesus was not a nationalist. Any Christian who tries to make him into a pro-American patriot misses the rather significant detail that the Roman Empire found it expedient to put him to death. Jeremiah Wright has incarnated the prophetic tradition that calls nations to be accountable to God. In that context, even his statement "God-damn America" makes sense. Prophets say such things. God is beyond any nation. And when a nation doesn't treat its people justly, then prophets resort to the rhetoric of divine damnation to try to change the people of a nation.

So, in the end, Rev. Wright is neither anti-American nor anti-Semitic. He does tell the truth about American violence--out of love for the nation's best ideals. He is unapologetically a Christian. He is unashamedly Black.

Those are features to admire, not condemn. Such loyalties to one's particularity, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has argued in The Dignity of Difference, can uplift us all and strengthen the social fabric. The proof of that is in the hope inspired by the Obama campaign. Such hope is founded in the faith, integrity, and courage--despite human flaws, of a man like the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.

That such faith-based hope would inspire fear on the part of some in our society is no surprise. What is surprising is that the mainstream press so uncritically joined the mob.

Jon Pahl is Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He is Visiting Professor of Religion at Princeton University.


WWSAD: What Would Sister Aimee Do?

by Ed Blum

[Warning: humor ahead]:

Since the moment I began graduate school, I hoped to get my name into Books and Culture. I have always enjoyed thoughtful evangelical writers, from Mark Noll and George Marsden to David Bebbington and Margaret Bendroth. And in 2006, I got my wish. I had the privilege of reviewing Harry Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation which had so many connections to my own Reforging the White Republic of the previous year. Now, alas, I’ve gotten my name into B&C again, but this time as part of a response by its editor John Wilson (let me say incidentally here that I have utmost respect for Wilson, the work he does at B&C, and his defense of the review). Responding to my comments to a post by Matthew Sutton, Wilson wrote: “By the way, one of the writers who commented on Sutton's post at Religion in American History was Ed Blum, who has written for B&C and has another piece in the queue (and reviews of two of his books in the mag are pending). Blum took Sutton's assertions at face value—evidently he didn't bother to read the article himself—and added a bit of moralizing of his own. Is this how good intellectual conversation proceeds?”

I was shocked; had I been moralizing? had I accepted Sutton’s assertions at face value? Is this what friendship with Sutton brings to people? Perhaps my wife was right, that I pass moral judgment without even realizing it and that I’m amazingly naïve at the same time (she says that only when we’re really fighting).

So I looked back at my comments. Interestingly, neither had much to do with Sutton’s challenge of the B&C book review. I commented first: “I'm fascinated by so many reviewers mentioning the contents of acknowledgments. Where were these folks for decades when male professors would thank their wives for 'typing' their manuscripts, but never for anything else (such as using their ideas or insights)? Reviews are short enough as it is, and books usually have enough interesting ideas to interact with - I'm all for leaving acknowledgments alone.” I would hate, for instance, for someone to mock me for thanking my dog in my books (see picture of him next to my name in comments). I do find his snoring cute, and I find it therapeutic while I’m writing. And then after another response, I commented: “Thanks for chiming in Professor Ketchell; if there is no other place to clear up some points, then surely this blog serves that purpose. As fascinating as your parochial education was (and is, I'm sure, in your memory) I could see why you wouldn't belabor the point.”

I want to respond to Wilson in two ways: first, rationally; and second, as Aimee Semple McPherson would. First, I think it is quite clear that both of my comments were about reviews and blogs in general. I do think it is inappropriate to attack people for their acknowledgements; and I do think blogs are fantastic places for authors to talk about their books. Hopefully I can find my way back into Wilson’s good graces and out of the B&C doghouse (as you can guess from comment above about marital life, I know my way to the doghouse).

And now, what would Sister Aimee do?
Based upon my reading of Matt Sutton’s amazing book, perhaps she would attack B&C as un-American or unChristian (or both) in a sermon or on the radio; perhaps she would accuse Wilson of trafficking with socialists; or perhaps Sister Aimee would direct attention away from the controversy. She could hold a huge dramatic Easter pageant with camels and horses and fireworks and face lifts for everyone. Actually, I think we all know what sister Aimee would do. She would fake her own kidnapping with Paul Harvey and rush to Tijuana (perhaps to play some basketball?). They would to be found weeks later, drunk as skunks somewhere in downtown San Diego. Hmm… that doesn’t sound so bad.

[Editor's Note: Dear Sister Aimee, please wait until March Madness ends to stage said kidnapping. Yours, Paul]

Ed Blum's Interview in Newsweek

Our contributing editor Ed Blum appears in Newsweek online, in a feature interview. He explains his take on Barack Obama, "the speech," and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. A brief excerpt -- but make sure to click above and read it as a whole:

[Newsweek Questioner]: So you're saying something good may have come out of Jeremiah Wright's inflammatory remarks?

[Ed]: His rhetoric is certainly problematic and troubling, but prophets, whether it be Wright or W.E.B. Du Bois, are necessary. They dream dreams, they cast visions, they challenge the world as it is. In 1904 Du Bois said that God is made of one blood, and that all men are brothers. That was absolutely treasonous talk in 1904. But of course you look back now and say his vision was right.

Holy Hegemony, Part III

Editor's note: Pete Townshend sang of Going Mobile, but here we're going all Meta- on you.

Part I of this blog discussion between Matt Sutton and John Wilson is
here, featuring Matt's problems with a critical review of the book Holy Hills of the Ozarks in Books and Culture; Part II, John Wilson's response to Matt's defense of the book in question and takedown of the review, may be found here.

Now on to Round III, Matt's response to John Wilson's criticisms of Matt's original critique. Ed Blum also has responded, that's coming up next. As they sing in the film The Apostle, "let the church roll on!"

John Wilson's War
by Matt Sutton

Let me begin with a warning—for those of you who have better things to do with your time than read two scholars picking fights with each other about two other scholars (which is probably all of you), don’t read any further. While common sense and my wife tell me not to respond to John Wilson’s blog about my blog, I cannot help myself. So, since Frederica Mathewes-Green misrepresented Ketchell, and I apparently misrepresented Mathewes-Green, and Wilson has misrepresented me, what’s the harm in taking the misrepresentation one step further? Someone still needs to misrepresent Wilson.

Here are Wilson’s criticisms of my blog post:

1) Wilson writes: “Let's note to begin with that Sutton gets Mathewes-Green's title wrong. There's an exclamation point ("Holy Hegemony!"), alluding to the formula frequently employed by Robin in dialogue with Batman.”

Indeed, I missed the exclamation point. Holy Punctuation Batman! While I was quite aware of the allusion to Robin, Wilson’s response ignores my larger point. Who is really practicing hegemony here? The men and women of Branson, Ketchell, or Mathewes-Green?

2) Wilson: “But if you speak of ‘Christianity Today's Books & Culture’ in a sentence making the risible claim that the ‘culture wars are alive and well’ in the pages of B&C, a sentence moreover that gratuitously drags Jerry Falwell and James Dobson into the conversation, you hint at a vast right-wing conspiracy, the orders coming from on high down to me, the editor.”

Wow—a vast right-wing conspiracy organized by John Wilson. The thought never crossed my mind. All I was saying is that on the pages of B&C Mathewes-Green wrote a bad review that reads out-of-date culture-war paradigms into a book that had little to do with the culture wars.

3) Wilson: “In short, this opening paragraph sets the tone for Sutton's response, which is characterized by remarkable sloppiness and inaccuracy, humorlessness, and self-righteous huffing and puffing.”

Maybe. Or maybe Wilson is indeed part of a vast right-wing conspiracy that has mastered the art of the personal attack. :) (A smiley face in case my meager attempt at humor is read as culture-war mongering, humorlessness, or self-righteous huffing and puffing.)

4) Wilson: “I didn't remember any reference in Mathewes-Green's article to Ketchell's acknowledgments.”

I stand corrected. This was indeed sloppiness on my part. The issue at hand, which Wilson conveniently leaves out of this section of his blog (and you would too if you were part of the vast right-wing conspiracy) is Mathewes-Green’s raising of Ketchell’s childhood Catholicism. Ketchell mentioned this in his introduction, not his acknowledgments. That does not change the fact that it is irrelevant to Ketchell’s argument. Either Ketchell recognizes that something material can also be sacred, or he doesn't (and the book demonstrates that he very much does).

5) Wilson: “Blum took Sutton's assertions at face value—evidently he didn't bother to read the article himself—and added a bit of moralizing of his own.”

Forgive me Ed for leading you astray.

6) Wilson: “I started to wonder as I read if Sutton was under the misapprehension that Mathewes-Green is an evangelical.”

I wasn’t. And I don’t care. Unlike Mathewes-Green and Wilson, I hoped to keep this discussion in the realm of ideas, not personal religious commitments.

7) Wilson, regarding Mathewes-Green’s criticism of Ketchell’s writing style: “Indeed, one wishes that the editor for this book at John Hopkins University Press—one of the foremost university presses in the country—had read Ketchell even half as attentively as Mathewes-Green did.”

I agree. The copy editors at Hopkins dropped the ball, and Ketchell’s writing could have been sharper. Nevertheless Mathewes-Green could have made this point without belittling Ketchell across multiple paragraphs of her review.

In sum, what Wilson has ignored in his blog is the point of my criticism of Mathewes-Green’s review. He can take his shots at me, as Mathewes-Green took her shots at Ketchell, but these have nothing to do with the fact that Mathewes-Green, in her effort to position Holy Hills as on the wrong side of the culture wars, completely missed Ketchell’s argument. Holy Hills is an important book that, mixed metaphors aside, makes a significant contribution to the scholarship on American religion.

God Bless America, or God Damn America?



As promised, here are Ed Blum's " 'God Damn America' in Black and White" and Ralph Luker's "Jeremiah." Both explain the historical origins of some of the rhetoric of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, lately of Barack-Obama's-minister fame. Both of them, in their own different ways, make the point Blum summarizes here:

What is striking, historically, is that there is nothing new in Wright’s sermon and how often African American perspectives on so-called American Christian nationalism are ignored. If we look closely at African American perspectives of Christian nationalism, we find Reverend Wright firmly in a long oppositional and rhetorical tradition.

Luker puts Wright in the tradition of Vernon Johns and other African American "Jeremiahs":

"The Almighty God himself is not the only, not the, not the God just standing out saying through Hosea, 'I love you, Israel.' He's also the God that stands up before the nations and said: 'Be still and know that I'm God, (Yeah) that if you don't obey me I will break the backbone of your power, (Yeah) and slap you out of the orbits of your international and national relationships.' (That's right)."

Those words from a jeremiad sound like something by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. He's much quoted this weekend as having said: "
God damn America." But the first quotation comes – not from Wright, but from Martin Luther King's first address to the Montgomery Improvement Association on 5 December 1955. Both African American preachers understand prophetic biblical preaching far better than those who feign shock at and condemn Jeremiah Wright's words.

Prophecy and politics can be difficult to mix, which, presumably, is why Obama is backpedaling a bit. But without prophecy, then politics loses something it can't do without.

Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory nails it here: In the end, I don't see much of a difference between Wright's pronouncements and the following by Frederick Douglass: "What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?" Or consider the following from Martin Luther King: "[T]he greatest purveyor of violence in the world today [is] my own government."

By the way five years ago this week George Bush made a decision to invade a foreign country that was not a threat to the United States. There is still no end in sight. Stop worrying so much about Wright's words and focus on a man whose words and actions have resulted in the deaths of close to 4,000 servicemen and women along with countless innocent Iraqis.

Just to add a bit to that: today's Wall Street Journal features an excellent extended piece by Gina Chon, "Iraq, 5 Years On, A Nation of Refugees," which details the immense costs of the war, including the four million Iraqis internally displaced or forced into refugee status outside the country. Never mind the $2 trillion (that's a T), and counting, cost at home. Embrace your inner jeremiad, and count the cost of hubris and mendacity, buried in the ground.

Holy Blog Wars


Earlier on the blog we guest-posted Matt Sutton's counterblast of a review of Aaron Ketchell's Holy Hills of the Ozarks in Books and Culture, which included a reference to Matt's own (and more positive) review of the book in Christian Century; the comments section included some thoughts of the author of the book. Click above or scroll down to read.

John Wilson has responded to the post here. I've invited Matt to respond, and will post that here if he chooses to write something in return.

Coming soon: thoughts of Ralph Luker, Ed Blum, and others on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his relationship with Barack Obama.

Fear of Judging



As we look forward to Charles Irons’s spectacular new work on the origins of proslavery ideology, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity, I wanted to mention that one of my San Diego religious history colleagues published a book on religion and antislavery last year. Ryan Jordan, who holds a PhD from Princeton, published Slavery and the Meeting House: The Quakers and the Abolitionist Dilemma, 1820-1865. Taken together, the works of Irons and Jordan remind me of Abraham Lincoln’s insightful remark during his Second Inaugural Address in March, 1865: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.”

Revisiting these words by Lincoln, particularly the ones about not judging, reminded me of the recent death of President Gerald Ford, how he was lauded for pardoning Nixon. Did Lincoln add to the penchant in American politics to avoid judgment and justice when it comes to wrongdoing rather than confronting it? Is this why we had to wait until 2006 for a “moral history” of the Civil War by Harry S. Stout? And now, back to my own fear of judging -- grading papers!

CFP: Practical Matters, Imagination, and Religious Practice



Practical Matters, a new online peer-reviewed journal designed to ask and provoke questions about religious practice and practical theology, is now accepting submissions on the theme of Imagination. We are a multimedia, transdisciplinary journal out of the Emory University Graduate Division of Religion, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.

Submissions should help us see interesting and/or novel connections between imagination and religious practice, past or present, in any context or tradition. That could take many possible forms – e.g. showing the relationship of imagination to ritual or religious community, exploring types of imagination (religious, theological, moral, pastoral, political), helping to clarify the connections between religion and artistic process, revealing dangers or perversions of imagination, etc.

Submissions from diverse disciplinary perspectives are encouraged. This includes, but is not limited to, work originating in religious studies, theology, history, ethics, anthropology, literature, cultural studies, sociology, psychology, political science, philosophy, media studies, the arts, journalism, or the sciences. We also encourage work about and from diverse religious traditions.

We welcome submissions of traditional academic papers and critical essays, but also are encouraging the submission of multimedia scholarship. This might include film, video, soundscape, new media, photography, art or performance, among other possible media. Do note that although exploring the possibilities of multimedia scholarship is part of our mission, we also are committed to working with scholars of varying levels of technical proficiency.

The submission deadline is May 30, 2008. For further information and submission guidelines, visit:

Erskine Clarke's Dwelling Place



A week ago, I had the privilege of responding to Erskine Clarke's Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic (Yale: 2005) at the Southeast Regional meeting of the AAR. Dwelling Place won the Bancroft prize, and it follows the Jones family, plantation owning whites, and the family of Lizzy, black slaves. I cannot clearly state how much I enjoyed this deep social history of several plantations and their inhabitants. Clarke, a masterful historian as well as writer, peels back the layers of facade, animosity, and so-called benevolence to demonstrate the complicated relationships between blacks and whites and the renderings of place by both groups. This book, like many other quality books in American religious history, sucked me into the narrative and made me empathize with the historical actors, slave and free. During our conversations on the panel, one respondent noted her discomfort with central character, Charles Colcock Jones, who despite his best attempts at benevolence and Christian charity eventually surrendered to the peculiar institution. Clarke, in his commentary on our responses, responded that for him, the "horror" of the book was that even those plantation owners with the best intentions were corrupted by this system of physical bondage. By mapping plantation owners at their best, we can easily see the inherent evil of slave holding. For those of you, who have not picked up Dwelling Place, I highly recommend it because it puts a human face of the issue of slavery of both the owners and those who were owned. Here's a sneak peek at my response (the full response is located here, so make sure to scroll down to "responses"):

Dwelling Place is a masterful, p
erhaps magisterial, narrative of the intimate relationships between white plantation owners and the black slaves, who were necessary for the success of plantations, the running of homes, and crucially, economic gain of the owners. Erskine Clarke delves deeply into the lives of the Jones family and the lives of Lizzy’s family as they live side-by-side separated by the bounds of race. Clarke traces tragedy and the keen difference of loss for both families. The Jones family was marred by the loss of many relatives. The death of a plantation owner did not just impact his relatives, but also the slave families, who were separated and shuffled as property that was divided among the whites. This epic presents the Jones family, who sought to be benevolent owners, but the burden of the peculiar institution pressed heavy upon their shoulders. What this white family considered benevolent did not ring true with the slaves, who lost spouses, children, mothers, and fathers as plantations grew and declined. Benevolence contained a harshness, which the Jones family could not realize and, possibly, even admit to themselves.

Clarke, thus, takes us on a journey through the marshes, swamps, rice and cotton fields into the houses and churches of the “masters” to provide a much-needed in-depth study of lives of plantation owners and slaves. These two worlds, Clarke demonstrates, rested side-by-side, but one was a world of façade that hid the emotions and stark realities of the slave life. The other was the world of access to education, wealth, and cohesiveness built upon the backs of other humans. For Clarke, what becomes clear is that the slaves had a better vision of the incompatibility of these worlds, and the whites did not realize this truth until the death knell of the peculiar institution had sounded. At that moment, slaves did not necessarily have to follow the whims of “benevolent” masters and mistresses, and members of the Jones family expressed frustration and confusion that these black men and women did not continue their loyalty. Clarke’s epic traces the history of the Jones family and their slaves from 1805 to 1869, and using one narrative, he presents the stories of each to not only demonstrate the insidious nature of slavery, but also to show a three-dimensional portrait of a slave owner, Charles Colcock Jones, as he struggled with this institution in religious terms. Jones was not a Simon Legree, a violent, harmful master, but he was also not a proverbial saint. Charles proves to be a historical actor, who, despite his best intentions and his moral quandaries, eventually bows to the centrality of a place in his life. A Southerner by birth, Charles could never escape the bounds of his home, his aptly titled dwelling place. This place shaped him and molded his religious vision of the world. The region, it might seem, had power over the hearts and minds of the Jones family, and ultimately, their attachment was to region above all else.

In Clarke’s description of Charles Colcock Jones, he presented a man “deeply conflicted by the contradictions of this white ideology” (p. 52). On the one hand, Charles wanted to bring God to the slave settlements, so the inhabitants could experience divinity personally and understand the sacred nature of the cosmos similarly to their owner. On the other, Charles did not want the slaves to have access to one thing that he was granted by birth: freedom. They could worship the same God, but freedom was a guaranteed right of whites. This contradiction manifested throughout Charles’s life and ministry. He preached to the slaves on plantations as well as settlements and in schoolhouses converted a few evenings a week to small churches. He even created a catechism especially for the “Negro,” which clearly demarcated the boundaries between his world and their own. For this benevolent slave master, preaching Christianity to the slaves would make them more obedient to their masters. His argument for spreading the Gospel, which garnered white support, again harkened back to peculiar institution. He wanted slaves to know God as long as they knew their subservient place in God’s world. His wife, Mary, supported his ministry, and she also involved in teaching Sunday school to the inhabitants of her plantation. They were both committed to the religious education of slaves in general, but I could not help but wonder if their commitment was somehow unique among their Southern neighbors. Their effort appeared extraordinary. Were Charles and Mary different from their Southern brethren? Were other plantation owners as adamant and dedicated to the religious education of slaves? Or are they a unique case study of one family’s attempt to modify the peculiar institution? My main question is: How indicative are they of plantation owners in the South? Can their case study be generalized? If not, Charles and Mary might prove to be more “benevolent” than their friends and neighbors and their struggle with their place in the slave holding system might provide a “kinder, gentler” portrait of owners. Though, Clarke also alludes to the other owners, who were quick to rely upon brutality rather than Christian charity. The attempts of Charles and Mary to keep families together based of Christian principles might prove rare. However, this obligation did not guarantee stability because they also separated families, like the family of Phoebe and Cassius. Ultimately, they valued peace in the settlements over Christian virtue. How might we interpret these actions? Religion had value for crowd control, but not when slaves threatened the status quo? Their impulse as master and mistress, it appears, sometimes outweighed their Christian sensibility. How are we to understand this complexity? As slaveholders, Charles and Mary faced contradictions between their religious understandings of the world and the fact that they owned and controlled other humans for their economic livelihood. In spite of Charles’s early radical interpretations of slavery as a system, the more entrenched he became, the harder it was to maintain those early principles. His Christianity bowed to his plantation role.

Yet to be fair to Charles, there are moments in the epic when his religious sensibility was so incensed that he bristled at the bounds of slavery. When the tutor for his children, William States Lee, rapes Peggy, an attractive slave, Charles reacts with horror. Outrage overwhelmed Charles because the tutor had not only molested this young woman but also violated his trust. For the plantation owner, this action was criminal, but other whites, most importantly elders of the Columbus church, doubted the veracity of Peggy’s claim. Instead, they defended Lee by noting that slaves were known to be liars. Charles, then, was confronted by a problem. Slaves were disparaged because they were slaves, and white men were somehow above reproach. The institution, which Charles believed brought slaves to God, also guaranteed that slaves were treated as lesser humans and lacked the rights of their white brethren. In his defense of Peggy, he did not criticize the institution that allowed this to happen rather he centered upon the breach of trust he had with another white man. Slavery, like its white enforcers, appeared to be above reproach.

Clarke’s Dwelling Place lives up to its subtitle. It is an epic, the story of two families confronted by racial boundaries. It is a story of white privilege and black resistance, but more importantly, it is an in-depth study of the problem of slavery for both parties. This problem of slavery is represented again and again as a fierce bull alligator, or gator, which thrashes and chomps. At each stage in Charles’s journey, Clarke notes the ferocity of the gator because this missionary owner, despite his valiant attempts to benevolent to those he owned, cannot “domesticate” the predator. The gator is a dilemma. Can Charles focus upon the spiritual lives of his slaves while he owns their physical bodies? Can he separate spiritual and religious freedom? How could Charles argue for the morality of an institution of oppression? Instead of domesticating the gator, what becomes clear is that the gator overpowers the “Apostle to the Negro.” The evil of the institution outweighs the benevolence. This metaphor proved particularly striking to me. This gator might appear docile and still, but always, the predatory nature lurks under the surface. In his skillful epic, Clarke wrangles the bull gator with its jaws chomping furiously and its tale thrashing, and I would argue Clarke stands triumphant because he is able to present the complexity of these relationships of families intimately wed together through the bonds of slavery. Where Charles ultimately was beaten by his predatory foe, Clarke, at least in my mind’s eye, not only wrangles but also bests the gator by placing a human face on such a dilemma. With his wrangling skill, there is possibly another career awaiting Clarke in the swamps and marshes of Liberty County, Georgia or my native Florida.

Liberating the Founders


This week's Speaking of Faith features Krista Tippett's interview with Steven Waldman, who discusses at length Founding Faith.

From the Speaking of Faith newsletter, with more on the program:

Liberating the Founders

We liberate the founders from conservative and liberal captivity, by revisiting the real, messy history of religious history in early America with journalist Steven Waldman. We explore how this history might shake and reshape Americans' sense of what is at stake in current debates about the relationship between government and religion. Also, how a falsely harmonious sense of the American experience with religious liberty undermines the wisdom American history holds for developing democracies around the world.

Disspelling the Myth of Uninterrupted Triumph and Goodness

. . . Waldman reminds us that the genius of the U.S. founders was not in getting everything right from the outset, but in learning from their mistakes, with an eye out for the missteps of their own time. The first 150 years of colonial history, as he retraces it, involved a cascade of failed experiments with official state religions. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson both became champions of the separation of religion and state — albeit with very different emphases — in part through their revulsion at the intolerance and violence that marked these experiments. . . .

[Waldman] dwells with some insistence — for our collective edification — on the dark side of this early history. . . . The facts, as he tells them, are shocking. At the same time, he finds a way to forgive our confusion, and our gloss on history. We come by them honestly — as a direct inheritance from the founders themselves, who were equally confused, and imprecise, and muddied by the politics of their moment in time.

. . . . A self-righteous sense of U.S. history as an unbroken arc of triumph and goodness does not serve us well as citizens and leaders in the 21st-century world. More positively stated: an active, self-aware memory of the difficulty and struggle, the violence and mistakes, that accompanied the birth of American democracy — and that only gradually and fitfully led to the virtue we now prize of separation of church and state — could be a great gift and resource in helping young democracies around the world. Our own history seen in the light of fact, and removed from the distorting divides of our time, could be a source of our greatest wisdom and reason precisely towards what is difficult and dangerous in the contemporary world.

Kerber on Chairing


I know we have discussed this on the blog before, but in today's Chronicle of Higher Education on-line Linda Kerber has a nice piece on what to do and what no to do when chairing an academic panel.

Origins of Proslavery Christianity



My friend Charles Irons of Elon University is about to publish his long-awaited The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia; it's supposed to be out later next month, so get your post-Easter pre-Memorial Day book sale shopping list ready. Here's the description from Amazon:

In the colonial and antebellum South, black and white evangelicals frequently prayed, sang, and worshipped together. Even though white evangelicals claimed spiritual fellowship with those of African descent, they nonetheless emerged as the most effective defenders of race-based slavery.

As Charles Irons persuasively argues, white evangelicals' ideas about slavery grew directly out of their interactions with black evangelicals. Set in Virginia, the largest slaveholding state and the hearth of the southern evangelical movement, this book draws from church records, denominational newspapers, slave narratives, and private letters and diaries to illuminate the dynamic relationship between whites and blacks within the evangelical fold. Irons reveals that when whites theorized about their moral responsibilities toward slaves, they thought first of their relationships with bondmen in their own churches. Thus, African American evangelicals inadvertently shaped the nature of the proslavery argument. When they chose which churches to join, used the procedures set up for church discipline, rejected colonization, or built quasi-independent congregations, for example, black churchgoers spurred their white coreligionists to further develop the religious defense of slavery.

More on Steven Waldman, Founding Faith


John Fea gave our blog an extensive and thoughtful review of STeven Waldman's Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America here (or just scroll down).

Terry Gross's interview on Fresh Air with Waldman is linked here. An introductory blurb:

Fresh Air from WHYY, March 11, 2008 · Was America meant to be a Christian nation? Author Steven Waldman attempts to answer this and other questions related to America's religious history in his new book, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America.

Waldman is the co-founder of, a website devoted to spirituality and faith issues. In tandem with his book, Beliefnet has opened an online archive of historical documents related to the separation of church and state, and religious freedom in America.

There's also a short excerpt from the volume linked to the Fresh Air site.

Omnivorous American Religion


I've been reading a book with only a very tangential connection to American Religious History: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, whom the NYT describes as "a professor of journalism at Berkeley, and therefore by definition a liberal foodie intellectual."

This is the tangential connection: Pollan introduces us to Joel Salatin, a Bob Jones University graduate and alternative farmer in Virginia who describes himself as a "Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer." Salatin has opted out of "industrial agriculture" and instead practices intensive-grazing grass management, enabling him to grow chickens that taste like Chicken. Salatin turns off some liberal reporters with a Jesus fish on his door, but Pollan admirably perseveres. He even survives a "strikingly non-generic version of grace, [in which Salatin] offer[ed] a fairly detailed summary of the day's doings to a lord who ... was present and keenly interested."

The Omnivore's Dilemma made me feel intensely guilty about eating blueberries from Chile and suspicious that everything I eat might really be corn.

Pollan reaches this conclusion about American styles of eating:

Consuming these neo-pseudo-foods alone in our cars, we have become a nation of antinomian eaters, each of us struggling to work out our dietary salvation on our own.

The American diet sounds strikingly like American religion. We eat like we worship!

Visions of Progress


I recently returned from a Humanities Symposium in Boulder, where (among others), Wendy Brown, the Berkeley political theorist and contributor to the blog Immanent Frame, gave a brilliant analysis of Marx and religion, and the profaning nature of market culture, which is still buzzing in my head. Along the way, she discussed the religious iconography of the "Obama phenomenon." The gist of her paper can be found in her blog entry on Charles Taylor's new book on secularism, here (as she puts the discussion with Taylor there: He [Taylor] wants to think about who a secularist is and what secularism achieves and sacrifices in relation to belief, and I want to think about the subtle violences of the forces that we might call secularizing.

We've entertained considerable speculation on the blog about the fate of the so-called religious center/left, its possible (or mythical) resurgence, where Catholics fit in, etc.

Now for some excellent historical grounding for these speculations: The historian Doug Rossinow, author of The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (Columbia, 1998), which we've blogged about here before in our conversations with John Wilson about the historiography of the 1960s, is featured on HNN's "Outstanding Young Historians" page.

His new book may not get noticed by religious historians, but should be: Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America. He writes the following, of this new work:

I'm an historian of American politics. I never expected to be an historian of religion.

Actually, I never really did become an historian of religion, in any conventional sense. But I did acquire a lasting interest in the intersection of religion and political dissent-a connection I might have expected to encounter if I had undertaken a study of political radicalism in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century America, but one I did not anticipate exploring so deeply while investigating the political left in post-1945 America. Eventually I managed to compress about one-hundred pages on Christian existentialism down to a single chapter. I decided that was about what the topic deserved in the context of a study of white youth radicalism in Austin, Texas, which eventually took the form of a book, The Politics of Authenticity.

However, religion is something that pops up in unexpected places when studying American history. I have continued to explore what I call the prophetic dimension of American political radicalism in twentieth-century America-radical politics typically directed toward very nonreligious ends. And I still teach a course on religion and politics in American history.
In my new book, Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America, I've moved (for now) away from monographic research and toward a synthetic perspective. One of the things I learned in researching my first book is that radical and reform politics in U.S. history have sometimes had more in common than is usually recalled. The left and liberalism are neither mutually exclusive categories nor (as a Fox News viewer might think) identical categories; they are overlapping categories.

I emphasize that American radicals, between 1880 and the present, frequently have done the work of liberalism, trying to realize the liberal ideals of constitutional government, natural rights, and other things, while, during at least some of that period, plenty of liberal reformers took a more critical stance toward American capitalism than recent history would lead us to believe. The prophetic stance is visible, too, but in ironic fashion: consciously religious social criticism was pervasive within American reform as well as among radicals in the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and even later; but it became the more exclusive province of radicals during the cold war and after, even though recent American radicals have usually been ardently secular people. Go figure.

I recently got a message from a student at a seminary in Austin, saying that some folks there are interested in establishing an intentional religious study community. He had read about another such community in the 1950s in The Politics of Authenticity, and wondered if I could send him some documents I had cited in my book. Now I'm glad I held onto those dissertation research files.
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