Engines of Change and Chronology in American Religious History

Cross-posted from Religion in American History

While we are all aflutter over this weekends’ American Academy of Religion, I would ask us to take a moment and turn our attention to another scholarly society–the American Society of Church History. Earlier this month the ASCH launched its very own blog that is open to contributions from any of its members (ahem, AAR are you listening?) So far there has been some quite interesting content covering Christian history in America. Yesterday’s post from W. Clark Gilpin, “Wanted: A New Chronology of American Religious History,” especially caught my attention.

Gilpin points out that one of the central tasks of the historian is to track change over time and this requires some sort of chronology. How one builds that chronology, though, will depend on what one sees as the engine driving change.

In no small measure, decisions about periodization depend on the issues that a given author or group of authors have identified as the principal engines of change. Historians who link American religious history to immigration are likely to produce a different chronology from historians focused on the intersection of religion and politics, or the history of religiously motivated movements of social reform. And yet, a moment’s reflection will also suggest that these three sets of concerns display interesting chronological convergences, for example, with changes in U.S. immigration law and movements for civil rights during the 1960s.

The entire post is worth a read, but this point was especially interesting to me. As we think about the narratives we tell about religion in America, what are the engines driving our chronologies? What do they allow us to see? Where do they give us blindspots? For my current work I’d have to say “religious difference” drives the narrative. Gilpin names immigration, politics, and reform. Lately on the blog we’ve been talking a lot about the market. Are there other engines we’ve yet to put to use? Where could they take us?

NIMBY Mosques and the Taxonomies of Religion in America

Cross-posted at the Religion in American History Blog

In case you missed it, there are plans to build a mosque in New York two blocks from the the site of World Trade Center attack.  The proposed mosque has ignited a variety of discourses about religion in American culture.  Opponents of the mosque have various reasons for their opposition but a recent ad from the National Republican Trust PAC offers the most obvious examples of the “us” and “them” language opponents are employing.

The ad was rejected by by CBS and NBC.  As Entertainment Weekly reports:

CBS and NBC have rejected an ad by the National Republican Trust PAC that seeks to rally viewers against a proposed mosque that would be built two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York City. The one-minute spot (embedded below) begins with the words “the audacity of JIHAD” flashing on the screen followed shortly thereafter by the image of a plane flying into the World Trade Center; an accompanying voiceover declares that “to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at Ground Zero.”

The national spot “didn’t meet our broadcast standards,” said a spokesperson for CBS, confirming the network’s decision not to run it. An NBC spokesperson also confirmed the decision to reject the spot, but did not offer an explanation why. Nonetheless, EW obtained a letter from NBC Universal advertising standards manager Jennifer Riley to the NRT PAC explaining that: “An ad questioning the wisdom of building a mosque at ground zero would meet our issues of public controversy advertising criteria. However, this ad which ambiguously defines ‘they’ as referenced in the spot, makes it unclear as to whether the reference is to terrorists or to the Islamic religious organization that is sponsoring the building of the mosque. Consequently the ad is not acceptable under our guidelines for broadcast.”

As I read it, the basic message of the ad is “If the mosque gets built then the terrorists win.”  Patrolling the borders of acceptable religion has been a mainstay of American culture: colonial Quakers, nineteenth century Catholics, twentieth century Communists, and now, twenty first century Muslims  What is remarkable about this ad is just how unremarkable it is in its rhetoric.  The same strategies always work.  Slap on a foreign label (“Jihad” or “Papist” or “Pinko”), add violence (terrorism, nuclear threat, licentious priests and nuns), predict the downfall of “American values” (read Anglo Protestantism) then stir until a nice foment of emotionalism forms.

Continue reading

What theories and theorists guide your work?

The Religion in American History Blog has a discussion question on their Facebook page about theories that guide scholars work.  Kelly Baker asked, “How do you all approach American Religious History? What methods, theories or theorists guide your work?”

I posted an answer there but I thought I’d copy it here as well. What about you? What are your guiding lights for your work, religious studies or otherwise?

Here are the three strands I try to pull together in my approach to American religious history:

1) Emile  Durkheim: Those who know where I am and who I’m working with ought not be surprised here. The category of “the sacred,” for me, offers a chance to look at a whole host of things previously left unconsidered in American religious history. Burning Man, sports, and all the other usual examples are just the start. Recent work on Oprah points the way to more and more places we can reconsider “American Sacred History.”

2) Thomas A.Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling:  I really like Tweed’s focus on positionality and his focus on the movement and motion of religions. I think it adds a dynamism to our study that has been lost in an under-theorized notion of culture and snapshot approach to religions.

3) Foucault, Said, and post-colonial theory generally:
In thinking about religions in American history I’m always wanting to find ways to rigorously account for power. In my current diss. research on representations of Hinduism in America I’m realizing more and more the ways “religion” as a category functioned in the deployment, maintenance and organization of power. I think religious historians are often wary of reducing religions down to “just power” without thinking about the ways religions function to channel power, resist power, and basically move it around and (dis?)organize it.

So, that’s my triparte answer. Wow, Kelly, really good question. I’ve never thought it through like this. Helpful.

William James and the Divorce Between Science and Religion

Cross Posted at Religion in American History

William James has always interested me because I’ve often wondered why his brand of knowledge production never took off.

Jonathan Rée has a great piece on William James that I found thanks to Ralph E. Luker.  As a whole, the article is a thoughtful review of James’ life and work, including his interest in religion and science.  Below is my favorite paragraph of the article but I suggest you read it in full.

James was not unsympathetic to religion, and on occasion he was prepared to call himself a Christian, though in a thoroughly secular and untheological sense. His abiding intellectual passion was a love of open-mindedness and a corresponding distrust of dogmatism and metaphysics. We should never forget, he said, that all our opinions – even our “most assured conclusions” – are “liable to modification in the course of future experience”. But he warned against allowing a distrust of dogmatic metaphysics to harden into a metaphysical dogma of its own, as seemed to be happening with some of the evangelising atheists of his day. He admired the evolutionary biologist T H Huxley and the mathematician C K Clifford, for example, but when they used the idea of “science” as a stick to beat religion with they were in danger of behaving like high priests of a new religion – “the religion of scientificism” – and defending it with the same intolerant zealotry as any old-style religious fanatic. Knowledge, for James, was not so much the pre-existing premise of human inquiry as a hoped-for future product, and science was more like a tissue of fortuitous insights than a monolith of solid fact. We would not have much chance of stumbling into truth if we let ourselves get too anxious about falling into error, and the first rule of an unillusioned epistemology should simply be: Relax! “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things,” James wrote: “in a world where we are certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness.”

I’ve always found James compelling as a figure in American history because he lived and worked at the edge of an era where science and religion still saw each other as friends and companions in knowledge.  James died in 1910, and by the 1920s and 30s “truth” would be split between “empirical science” and “religion.”  James is a figure that is worth revisiting and rethinking in the midst of many current cultural debates.  It’s worth at least considering his “pragmatic, pluralist, empiricist approach to truth – what some would call his humanism.”

Burning Man, Green Acre, and Ritual in U.S. Religious History (Cross-Post))

This is a cross-post from the Religion in American History Blog.

This morning I came across an interview with Lee Gilmore at Religion Dispatches where she discusses her new bookTheater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man (UC Press).  The full interview deserves a read, especially the story of how she came upon the books title, but what jumped out to me were the following portions:

This decadent ritualism, which can be both sincere and satirical, casts the festival as a semi-religious cultural happening. Furthermore, many participants describe Burning Man as a “spiritual” experience, but deny that it constitutes a new religious movement as such. Organizers too explicitly hope that the event will “produce positive spiritual change in the world,” even while they also stop short of characterizing the event as “religious.” My work sought to explore the tension between “spirituality” and “religion” in the narratives of Burning Man participants in order to better understand how religio-cultural systems operate and adapt.

The popular term “spiritual but not religious” only goes so far in describing an event like this. I think Burning Man shows us the enduring importance of ritual as a vehicle through which humans connect with one another and as well as with a mysterious “more,” while also showing us how these expressions are increasingly displaced outside the bounds of the dominant Western cultural concepts of “religion.” Burning Man is on the vanguard of contemporary religious movements that resist easy classification by favoring eclecticism and hybridity. Yet in articulating a clear ethos that places a core emphasis on building and supporting community—both inside and outside the confines of the week-long event—Burning Man manages to be individualistic and idiosyncratic without being solipsistic.

I haven’t read Gilmore’s book, though I’m really excited about it after reading the interview, but it did remind me of something I had just finished re-reading.  I’m in the midst of that wonderful summertime project known as “studying for comprehensive exams” and I just finished going back through Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Restless Souls: The Birth of American Spirituality.  In that book, Schmidt has a great chapter on the Green Acre community founded by Sarah Farmer in Eliot, Maine.  But when reading the chapter recently I was struck by what little material Schmidt gives on the ritual practice of the community  There are a few mentions of morning walks on the dewy grass and meditation and a great narrative of the history of the community and its participants but I never got a picture of what life was like on daily basis within the commnunity.  Perhaps that information just isn’t in the record and I don’t mean to take pot shots at an important book.  Rather, I merely want to speculate that the same ritual life represented by Burning Man has antecedents in Green Acre.  I bet Schmidt would grant that, as well.

But to push it further, as Lee makes the point above, certain rituals associated with the “spiritual not religious” challenge the notion of what counts as “religion” in American culture and, I would argue, push historians of religion to reconsider ritual as the central category for these post-non-Protestant forms of the sacred in America.  The point that belief has been central to narratives of American religious history is worn out, but I think that as we begin to reconsider and write the history of religion in America during the latter half of the 20th century into the 21st we may have shift our consideration to ritual.  Many people have done this and continue to do this.  But the challenge is not to simply adopt existing definitions of ritual and write them into our histories, but rather to use the diversity of sacred phenomenon in American history to reconsider the category of ritual and its relationship w/ things like belief, myth, identity, etc.

Look out for more on this when I get my hands on Lee’s book.

Know Your [Digital] Archives

I have  a new blog post up over at the Religion In American History Blog entitled “Know Your [Digital] Archives” that comments on the Making of America Collection at Cornell/U-Michigan and the 19th Century Schoolbooks Collection at U. of Pitt.