The "Catholic Difference" and Ecumenical Architecture

(As Director of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, I'm pleased to say that Cushwa staff and friends will be contributing to RIAH once a month, beginning with a post on her current research by our postdoctoral fellow, Catherine Osborne. As a former contributor to this blog, I have long admired its vibrant intellectual community, and I am delighted that the Cushwa Center will be contributing to it on a regular basis. --Kathleen Sprows Cummings.)

Catherine R. Osborne

I spend a lot of time meditating on that classic topic of American Catholic historiography, the "Catholic difference." It's an especially challenging question for me since the particular Catholics who are the subjects of my current project -- mid-20th-century modernist architects, artists, and critics -- often weren't quite sure themselves what difference maintaining an identity as a Roman Catholic made. Typically well-educated in non-Catholic graduate schools (although a few did attend the University of Notre Dame or Catholic University), and adhering to the norms of their professions, they argued over and over that it was these qualifications, not their religious convictions, that merited their employment. They routinely shared their workplaces and neighborhoods with non-Catholics, finding that they had more in common with (for example) their architectural partners than they did with the Catholic clients who looked askance at modernist aesthetics. Their political and aesthetic concerns and interests, in general, tracked very well with those of other educated American professionals of their time.

Yet just when I am ready to give up on the idea of Catholic difference altogether, I always remember that few of my subjects, despite their frustration with what they perceived as the Church's hidebound aesthetics and slowness to internalize the theological insights and liturgical reforms of the 1950s and 1960s, ever moved definitively away from a strong Catholic identity. (Reading through their letters as they lament yet another commission lost to someone who will do a "more conservative" job, I sometimes wonder why they didn't all convert en masse to Methodism; but they didn't.) As they designed churches and church fittings, they struggled with the meaning of their dual commitment to professional values and to Catholicism, but maintained that both commitments mattered, and were capable of integration.

Americolatry in Christian History Curricula


A couple months ago I sent out the tweet you see on the left. A few #twitterstorians jumped into the conversation, and one of them mentioned that John Wilsey might be willing to write a guest post on the subject since he was working on a book about American exceptionalism. The end result of that twitter conversation is this post. Wilsey is assistant professor of history and Christian apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is author of One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America (Pickwick, 2011) and a forthcoming history of American exceptionalism as an aspect of civil religion (IVP Academic, 2016).

John Wilsey

American exceptionalism, in the words of UVA political scientist James W. Ceaser, has “gone viral” in the past decade or so.(1) Whereas other generations may have used the term “American patriotism,” over the last twenty or so years, more and more Americans have used the term “exceptionalism” to cast America in special terms, set apart and superior to all other nations, past and present. Exceptionalism as a concept animated the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, both of whom wrote books casting themselves as noble champions of the idea.

Combine the idea of American exceptionalism with the Christian America thesis—the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation—and you have a potent brew indeed, a super-charged nationalism which has an exceptional quality all its own.

The Great and Holy War

Elesha Coffman

Back when I taught U.S. history surveys to undergrads, I did not do a very good job explaining the causes or significance of World War I. My textbook (Tindall and Shi, Brief 7th ed.) emphasized President Woodrow Wilson's ill-informed and impractical moralism, pressure from war profiteers, and entanglements with arrogant European empires as causes for American participation, with domestic social unrest and World War II as primary consequences. OK as far as it went. According to Philip Jenkins, though, the textbook and I missed the real story.

What if WWI is best understood as a crusade, during which the powers of Christendom sought--as they had in the medieval crusades--not just wealth and territory, but the kingdom of God? And what if the consequences of the war were no less than the end of the old religious world and the beginning of the one we now inhabit?

Dispatch from Urban History Association

Karen Johnson

Last weekend I was at the Urban History Association conference in Philadelphia.  Urban historians today are framing their work in terms of metropolitan areas, and not just urban centers or peripheral suburbs.  They are also seeking to break down urban/suburban dichotomies and emphasize the diversity of the suburbs, as well as the continuities between cities and suburbs.

The panel I was on linked religion with cities and suburbs, and we heard great papers from Peter Borg, a PhD candidate at Marquette University and Erik Miller, a PhD candidate at Case Western Reserve University, and comments from Darren Dochuk of the Danforth Center at Washington University in St. Louis.

Sources for the Survey: What Makes Your Cut?

Heath Carter

What are the essential primary documents for teaching the American religious history survey?  We all answer this question, more or less satisfactorily, every time we piece together a syllabus for the course. 

I'm facing it in a new way these days, as I've been charged with pulling together the latest edition of A Documentary History of Religion in America, first edited by Edwin Gaustad and most recently by Mark Noll.  I used the Gaustad/Noll reader one of the first times I taught the survey, because I liked the length and variety of the individual documents.  However, I haven't ordered it since, mainly because of the fact that it is two hefty volumes - a bit overwhelming, both in terms of cost and pages (1377 in total!), for my students.

This new edition will be a single volume that checks in at under 700 pages.  That's right, 700 pages.  That means a whole lot of documents are going to end up on the cutting room floor.  I don't expect you all to agonize with me over what should stay and what should go, let alone (gulp) what's missing and needs to be added into the mix (though, if you've used the Gaustad/Noll reader and have opinions, please don't hesitate to let me know!).

But I thought that, in the tried-and-true spirit of crowd-sourcing, it might benefit all of us to share some of those documents that we've found most helpful in the classroom.  I'll start.  One source I always love teaching is Thomas Bacon's "A Sermon to Maryland Slaves, 1749," which I first stumbled across in Jon Butler and Harry Stout's excellent reader, Religion in American History.  The document works well for any number of reasons, but perhaps the most important is that Bacon justifies slavery not in terms of race but rather divinely-ordained hierarchies ("God hath appointed several Offices and Degrees in his Family...").  By the time my students wrap their minds around that, we've made a lot of headway in terms of them realizing that the past is, indeed, a foreign place.

What about you?  Are there particular sources that you've found to be invaluable in the survey?  Others that you find difficult to teach?  What makes your cut?

Missions of Nonbelief: The Atheist Megachurch Movement


Charity R. Carney

Can I get a ‘Dar-win’?

Former preacher Jerry DeWitt engaged in this unusual call and response with participants at a recent Freethought Convention that I attended at a local university. This meeting was the first annual secular convention to take place in East Texas and it attracted hundreds of folks from the region who came to commune with likeminded atheists/secular humanists/skeptics. I went to observe and to hear a bit more about a new interest of mine: atheist megachurches. I’ve read a bit about atheist congregations in the news (the NYTimes had a good article last year) and growing international organizations like Sunday Assemblies (recently covered in Salon), which actually engage in missionary work to promote godless congregations. Evangelical atheism is hipster chic and oddly Christian corporate. And it’s just a little complicated. Are they “churches” (which is something that is debated within secular circles) and how do they fit in to the traditional concepts of “congregations” and “fellowships”? Much of their success stems from their emulation of popular Christian church designs—their services mimic Christian worship and congregations provide a sense of community and support for members. The difference is they do all of this in a “godless” environment. And that’s a big difference.

Spiritual Makeup: Religion and Cosmetics


Laura Arnold Leibman

1863 advertisement for
Laird's Bloom of Youth
For early Americans and Europeans alike, cosmetics carried spiritual and moral messages.  Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century beauty guides lauded the smooth complexions, vermilion lips, and white teeth cosmetics could provide; yet, ministers decried makeup's spiritual deception.  When the "compassionate conformist" John Dunton published Englands Vanity in 1683, patches, painting, and periwigs invoked his ire.  Dunton's derision was not solely aimed at Restoration dandies, though.  Jews also received his scorn for (1) supplying "hellish" luxuries like silks and velvet, (2) for aping Roman fashion in the era of Vespasian and thus bringing about the destruction of the Second Temple, and (3) for providing the example of Queen Jezebel, who had led Ahab in the Northern kingdom of Israel astray by painting her face (Dunton 86-90, 127, 139). For Dunton, Jezebel's face painting included her use of "black patches"--a practice that mirrored the silk patches popular among the French-influenced Restoration court, aristocrats, and upwardly mobile women of the 1680s (Dunton 86-87).  Even playwrights like John Webster at times engaged in anti-cosmetic moralizing by contrasting morally-suspect women who used makeup's art to deceive suitors with the unpainted faces of virtuous women who were naturally "decked with innocence." For Webster and other anti-cosmetic moralizers, health and labor--not paint--should bring vitality and beauty to a woman's cheeks (Karim-Cooper 89). Makeup reflected not only one's status and economic position, but also one's spiritual and moral inclinations.

"The looking glass in disgrace" (1805)
Note the patch on her upper cheek.
By the early nineteenth century, "the obvious, highly artificial makeup of the eighteenth century" had given way to a "subtle, natural, deceptive makeup" (Corson 291).  Makeup remained popular in both the Northern and Southern United States during the Jacksonian era, but when nineteenth-century Americans provided guidance on cosmetics, women at the country's spiritual margins once again served as a warning against makeup's misuse.  Older ladies who still used the white enamel and heavy rouge that had been popular in the eighteenth century were now satirized as pathetic, deceptive, and ill-tempered, the latter perhaps due to the poisons widely used in the earlier makeup (Corson 292; figure at right).  The young and fashionable eschewed patches, but continued to use more natural remedies. The Vermont Gazette warned in 1831 that "I've never seen a lady past her climax, retain her beauty unless...she was a stranger to cosmetics," (XLVIII. 2493, p. 2), but far more common in Jacksonian newspapers were the ubiquitous advertisements for Perfumery and Cosmetics, often emphasizing natural ingredients. Women were encouraged to use cold creams and cream of almonds for the "removal of freckles, pimples, etc." but in ways that underscored rather than covered their natural beauty (Cayuga Patriot, October 12, 1831). Virtuous use of makeup meant using it to enhance, not cover, one's natural features.

Americans Want More Religion in Politics?

Seth Dowland
Kate Bowler loved this image so much I had to include it

Last week, I spoke to a CNN blogger about the recent Pew Forum survey showing that a growing number of Americans want more religious involvement in political life. The change from the 2010 midterm season to the 2014 survey was small but notable. The survey reported a six-point increase (from 43% to 49%) in the percentage of Americans who say “churches and other houses of worship should express views on social/political questions.” Conversely, the survey found a four-point drop in the group who wanted churches to “keep out of politics.” The fine-grained data confirmed some of my expectations: Republicans and evangelical Christians were more likely than Democrats and mainline Protestants to call for religious activism in public life. More and more Americans believe the Obama administration is unfriendly towards religion. And 30% of white evangelicals believe themselves to be in a minority on account of their religious beliefs—higher than any other religious group! Christian Smith’s 1998 description of evangelicalism as “embattled and thriving” resonates still, even if Steven Miller’s recent book has shown the decline of the “age of evangelicalism.” 

A few of the report’s findings surprised me. The recent increase in the percentage of Americans who believed religion should become more involved in political life stood out most notably, but I was also curious in the rise among people who believed homosexuality was a sin and the relative unimportance of abortion, birth control, and gay marriage. The latter three issues ranked last in a list of eleven issues voters identified as “very important” for the 2014 elections (the economy and health care topped the list). 

Latest Issue of Fides et Historia, Summer/Fall 2014

Randall Stephens

By all accounts, the recent Conference on Faith and History meeting at Pepperdine University was a great success.  (See some of the many reports on it from: John FeaChris Gehrz, Jonathan Yeager, Jonathan Den Hartog, and here.)  Kudos to Loretta Hunnicutt and Jay Green for putting together such a dynamic, interesting program.

To follow up on that success I'd like to draw attention to the current issue of Fides et History (the journal of the CFH.)  A roundtable in the issue traces the organizing theme of the September meeting in California: "History and Audiences Outside the Academy."  Jacob H. Dorn's article considers the intersection of Catholicism and socialism during the Gilded Age and Progressive eras.  Another roundtable considers Amanda Porterfield's influential, revisionist Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New Nation (University of Chicago Press, 2012).  Below is the table of contents.

From the Editor
Donald A. Yerxa   

Comrade Father Thomas McGrady: A Priest’s Quest for Equality through Socialism
Jacob H. Dorn

Roundtable: History and Audiences Outside the Academy

The Moral of the Story: Writing for Audiences Outside the Ivory Cellar
Robert Tracy McKenzie   

Millennials and the Question of a Valuable Future

Michael Hammond

With the fall election season upon us, the White House rolled out an initiative to connect President Obama with “millennials,” those voters who were born since 1980. This included an appearance at Cross Campus in Santa Monica, California--a creative, collaborative workspace for entrepreneurs. The centerpiece of this effort is “15 Economic Facts About Millennials,” a nearly 50-page report by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. The verdict: the economy will make things tough for these idealistic students, but they will be much better off in the future, because they will at least have health care insurance. The challenges of finding value in future career fields is nothing new for traditional-aged college students. But these studies point to a frustration for idealistic students who seek to use technology to accomplish "big things" with their lives. 

The White House report is a useful study for interpreting the values of traditional-age college students, especially when compared with a nearly 150-page 2010 Pew Research Center Study: “MILLENNIALS: A Portrait of Generation Next- Confident. Connected. Open to Change.” Both studies highlight the entrepreneurial spirit of young people who came of age in a time when Internet and smartphone technology were ever present. But the obstacles to seeing this generation reach its potential include massive student loan debt and irrelevant college degrees that do not match up with the marketplace needs of the future.

Mark Noll, John Lardas Modern, and Our “Transitional Moment”


Sonia Hazard, Dana Logan, and Caleb Maskell

Hold on to your hats, religion nerds! At this year’s American Society for Church History, the eminent historians Mark Noll and John Lardas Modern will join a conversation about American religious historiography—its past, current contentiousness, and future. The distinguished Laurie Maffly-Kipp will chair. Four graduate students will get things rolling with thematic presentations. It's going to be a blast. See the end of this post for full program details.

Why now? In her 2013 ASCH presidential address, Maffly-Kipp described the field of church history in the midst of a "transitional moment." Tensions are mounting between more traditional ecclesiastical paradigms and the theoretical developments of religious studies. Readers of this blog know that American religionists feel these tensions especially strongly. New works like Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America, among others, put pressure on many of the commitments and conventions of our discipline.

Yet though American religionists may greet the arrival of Secularism with caution, they cannot easily ignore it. Modern responds directly—if not always affectionately—to church historians and to Mark Noll in particular. The book is deliberately provocative, posing all sorts of challenges to the central paradigms of our field.

Religion at the 2014 US Intellectual History Conference

Janine Giordano Drake

I wanted to take this opportunity to congratulate RiAH's own Cara Burnidge and Mark Edwards on the terrific US Intellectual History Conference which they have planned for this long weekend!

In addition to a plenary by the indomitable Katie Lofton, the conference this year features many other panels which concern religion.

Check out the program here!

Does Chelsea Clinton's Baby Look Jewish?


Samira K. Mehta

On September 24, 2014, Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky was born, and Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky became parents. They became something else as well: interfaith parents. The couple has not made any announcement about their plans for Charlotte’s religious upbringing, and, because she is a girl, no bris (or lack thereof) has given the media a hint about their plans. Regardless of whatever the parents choose for Charlotte (and whatever Charlotte ultimately choses for herself), just as the Clinton/Mezvinsky wedding provided a moment to reflect on the status of interfaith marriage in the United States, Charlotte’s birth provides an opportunity to take the temperature of the country on the question at the heart of interfaith marriage: What about the children?

In some ways, the responses to Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky’s birth and prospective religious upbringing tell us nothing new. Orthodox Jewish newspapers such as The Jewish Press announced the birth with the explicit headline “Chelsea Clinton Gives Birth to a (Non-Jewish) Baby Girl.” This article takes the position of Jewish law, as understood by the Conservative and Orthodox movements, that Judaism is transmitted matrilineally: Chelsea Clinton is not Jewish and therefore neither is baby Charlotte, although either one would be free to convert.

Reflections on Christian Historians and Social Media

Jonathan Den Hartog

From September 24th to 27th, 300 historians met on the idyllic campus of Pepperdine University for the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. This year's program, organized by Jay Green, Eric Miller, and John Fea, sought to raise the issue of "Christian Historians and Their Publics."

Pepperdine: Hard to capture its beauty, on-line.
In response to the conference theme, I assembled a panel to address the theme of "Christian Historians and Social Media." The panel consisted of John Fea, Modern European historian Chris Gehrz, and RiAH's very own Paul Putz. The presenters were spectacular, as was the conversation that followed. We wanted to continue the conversation--and demonstrate how our talking about social media might make a larger contribution in the social media world. To do that, we decided to share our comments online last week and then wrap up the session here, with this post.

We hoped our panel would contribute to a larger discussion that has been going on on-line, as well as at panels at places like the meeting of the Organization of American Historians and which will continue at the American Historical Association meeting and the American Society of Church History meeting (including a panel with Chris Cantwell) this coming January.

CFP: Mormon Studies Conference, "Authority, Community, and Identity"

Call for Papers: Authority, Community, and Identity

The Religion Department at Claremont Graduate University is pleased to announce its annual Mormon Studies Conference, to be held March 6 and 7, 2015 in Claremont, California.  We encourage proposals from graduate students and faculty of all disciplines.  There are limited travel subsidies available for graduate student presenters.  The theme for this year is “Authority, Community, and Identity.”

The study of Mormonism requires an exploration of what it means to be a religious person.  Individuals exist within a community where they negotiate and maintain their identities.  The conference organizers are open to a wide range of paper proposals, including but not limited to topics suggested by the following themes and questions:  How do people negotiate their Mormon identity in joining or leaving Mormonism?  How does ritual impact community maintenance and religious authority?  How have developments in communication changed methods of creating orthodoxy and heterodoxy?  In what ways have changing norms and debates regarding gender and sexuality impacted identity and community?  How have communities of doubt influenced claims to authority and identity?   How has Mormon identity and community developed regionally and internationally?  What role does tradition play in different geographies?  How has secularization altered Mormon community formation and institutional authority?

While this conference will focus on Mormonism in particular, we encourage comparative papers, or papers on related traditions in which the theories or insights developed have some bearing on Mormonism.

Please email paper proposals and a CV to by November 15, 2014.  Proposals should be no longer than 250 words and should be attached as a Word or PDF document.  Please indicate in the email if you would like to be considered for travel funding.

Coming Soon to a High Court Near You


Michael Graziano

The Roberts Court turns ten on Monday. With a new term about to begin, I thought it would be helpful to preview upcoming cases that might be of interest to readers of the blog. The previous term provided no shortage of data for scholars interested in the legal construction of religion in the United States (most notably in Greece v. Galloway and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby), and this term promises to continue that trend. Last term witnessed an increased emphasis on the protection of religious exercise, and it is clear that the Court will continue dealing with similar issues in the months ahead. Instead of looking at religious corporations, though, the Court will be dealing with prison law and, well, Abercrombie and Fitch. Both of these cases involve the religious exercise of American Muslims, and it will be interesting to see how expansive this renewed protection proves to be.

Holt v. Hobbs 
Holt v. Hobbs offers the clearest parallel to Hobby Lobby. Gregory Holt, a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas, requested a religious exemption from the prison’s grooming policy, which forbid facial hair unless medically necessary. Holt is requesting permission to grow a half-inch beard, which he argues is a compromise between his religious dictates and security concerns at the prison. His request was denied by the Arkansas Department of Corrections. The case wound up at the high court under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law descended from the legal tit-for-tat between Congress and the Supreme Court after the Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990).

Call for Papers: 14th FSU Graduate Student Symposium

Andrew McKee

Hot off the presses is the CFP for the 14th annual FSU Graduate Student Symposium. It might just be because I am directing it, but I think this year will be especially grand. So please, get the word out, and your abstracts in.

Call for Papers:

The Florida State University 
Department of Religion
14th Annual Graduate Student Symposium

February 20-22, 2015 • Tallahassee, Florida

The Florida State University Department of Religion is pleased to announce its 14th Annual Graduate Student Symposium to be held February 20-22, 2015 in Tallahassee, Florida.

Last year’s symposium allowed over 45 presenters from over 15 universities and departments as varied as History, Political Science, Philosophy, Religious Studies, and Classics to share their research, learn from one another, and meet many of their peers and future colleagues. 

This year’s symposium will be centered on the theme “Resistance and Religion”

Due to our commitment to collaborative scholarship, students from all fields with interdisciplinary interests in the study of religion and at all levels of graduate study are encouraged to submit paper proposals.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to: Subversion of Authority, Power and Hierarchy, Practice and Ritual, Conflict and Violence, History and Myth Making, Emotion and Healing, Textuality and Control, Space and Dominance, Gender and Identity.

Presentations should be approximately 15 to 20 minutes in length and will receive faculty responses.  In addition, every year respondents select the best graduate paper to receive the Leo F. Sandon Award, an endowed award named for the Religion Department's former chair. 

Proposals including an abstract of approximately 300 words, a list of key terms, and a one-page CV should be submitted by December 12, 2014 for review.  Final papers must be submitted by January 18, 2015.  Please send proposals to Beena Butool at <>.

Thank you for your interest.  We look forward to hearing from you or your students and seeing you at the 2015 Graduate Student Symposium at Florida State University.

3 Hypotheses About "American Religions" and "American Religious History" That I Can't Get Out of My Head


Michael J. Altman

Lately I've been thinking about the fields of "American religions" and "American religious history." I did some of that thinking on Twitter and Facebook. 

I got some pushback, some encouragement, and some bemusement. I was also accused of navel gazing. So, at the risk of yet more navel gazing, I want to use this post to put forward three hypothesis that I've been mulling over. I've yet to really dig into these hypothesis. Right now they are research problems. They are rabbit trails. I see them leading off into the woods and I'm curious to know where go. I'm also curious to get more pushback, encouragement, and bemusement from the RiAH community, so feel free to congratulate me or thoroughly denounce me in the comments. 

Is America Losing its Religious Vitality?

John L. Crow

Over the last week, I have been seeing a confluence of concerns regarding religious vitality in America, specifically pointing to the diminishing numbers of “cults” appearing in the news media. In the New York Times Op-Ed section, Ross Douthat lamented the loss, and pointed to others, stating “The decline of cults … might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large.” Douthat links to a talk Philip Jenkins gave this summer at Baylor where Jenkins stated, “the first symptom we might expect of genuine American secularization would be the disappearance of cults, and a precipitous decline in activism and enthusiasm on the spiritual fringe, which is exactly what has taken place over the past two decades.” In each case sounds a jeremiad regarding American religious vitality, and we are told the center of American religiosity is at stake. But is it?

I have to admit that I find these claims unconvincing. Instead I think there is something else going on beyond a mild shift towards a secularizing public. The first is the continued diminishment of Christianity’s, particularly Protestantism’s, claim to be the religious center of America and the continued expansion of a diverse religious marketplace. Second, we need to take into account the legal changes, and its mandates for tolerance and accommodation. Lastly, we need to recognize the different religious patterns in the youth of America, and their reluctance to join groups of any kind, established or marginal. Combined, these three factors have made objecting to newer religious groups socially unacceptable, and have pushed Gen Y and Millennials to eschew joining any group, but instead, to create their own religiosity, remaining spiritual but not religious.

There can be no doubt that America is greatly diversifying its religious environment. As a recent internet meme made apparent, while Christianity may be the most common religion in every US state, the second most common religion is surprising to many. America’s promise of real religious freedom has spawned a nation of significant religious diversity. Add to this many Christians who promote tolerance, accommodation, and diversity and you have a formula for fewer complaints about fringe religion. In a tolerant religious marketplace, new religious movements are not seen as threats, but just one more option, an option that is barely worth noticing or making a big deal over. It certainly is not cause to go to the media, abduct people to “save” them, or claim people are being brainwashed.

Walking Where Jesus Walked: A Conversation with Hillary Kaell

Rachel Gordan

The following is a conversation with Hillary Kaell, Assistant Professor of Religion at Concordia University and the author of the new book, Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and the Holy Land Pilgrimage (NYU, 2014). Millions of American Christians have been traveling to the Holy Land since the 1950's. Kaell's study asks why.

RG: How do you envision this book contributing to a course on American religion?

HK: Walking Where Jesus Walked ties together a few themes that could contribute to a course on American religion. It focuses on how Christians conceptualize the Holy Land, encounter people and places abroad, and then assimilate the experience upon return.  So it offers a great entrée into discussing the links between U.S. religion and “the world,” perhaps paired with readings on foreign policy or missions. In fact, one of the things I found so compelling about the project is that the pilgrims are not “global citizens,” like diplomats or missionaries. Many of them have rarely if ever left the U.S. before. How global encounters and exchange happen in that context, how they are mediated, how they reverberate at home – that could spark a great classroom conversation.

I could also see the book prompting students to think about how American religion happens in “in between” places. What I mean is that the pilgrimage is undertaken alongside, or even apart from, one’s usual church/congregation/worship. But it is not completely personal either. There’s an important institutional framework that makes these trips possible. Pilgrimage – and religious leisure more generally – is a great example that complicates the imagined binary between “traditional” church and “free-floating” seeker.  And I should add that leisure is important in and of itself because growing numbers of Americans “do” religion through things like tourism. In either context, I could see assigning the book alongside a classic text tracking changes in US Christianity, like Robert Wuthnow’s work on the growth of small groups.

Last, the book foregrounds how materiality and money operate for American Christians. So it could also fit well in a syllabus that is looking to upend normative assumptions about how Protestants use “words” and Catholics use “things,” for example, or how commerce and tourism are antithetical to “the sacred.” I also try to complicate this question of commerce – the exchange of money for things – by exploring how Americans use a discourse of “commercialism” to mark religious difference.

RG: Your book has terrific thematic chapters. How did you choose them?

HK: For methodological and theoretical reasons, most studies of pilgrimage focus on the shrine site, such as the Holy Land or Jerusalem. From the beginning, I wanted this book to be a complicated and textured account of the pilgrims’ lives. They are, of course, American Christians long before and after the trip itself so it was an easy decision to set up the chapters such that readers followed the pilgrims before, during, and after the trip. Once I had settled on that structure, I drew out the themes bit by bit as I worked through the material – both what I was finding in my fieldwork and the archives, and also the kinds of questions that surfaced as I read more scholarship on the topic.

RG: I was surprised how little Christian-Jewish relations seemed relevant to this study. It was the Protestant and Catholic distinctions that weighed on pilgrims' minds as they surveyed the Holy Land and thought about what it meant to be Christian. How did actually being in the Holy Land highlight these differences between Protestants and Catholics for the pilgrims?

HK: I decided not to place Christian-Jewish relations at the center of the book. One reason is that most studies of these trips have focused on Christian Zionism’s relationship to Jews. As I point out, the pilgrims themselves are rarely, in fact, neatly classed as “Christian Zionists.” Throughout I do note pilgrims’ conception of who Jews are and what they believe, which is often rather hazy and saturated with key symbolic tropes. That’s even more true of Palestinian Muslims and Christians. At the same time, the Israeli and Palestinian professionals with whom they actually interact are rarely confronted as religious “others,” we might say, because pilgrims don’t see them at worship. In short, the Protestant-Catholic distinction you picked up on comes through most clearly in shared sites where religion becomes a marked category, visible through the architecture of the place or the gestures and words of the Christians praying beside them. Ultimately, I point out that ecumenism is, at least in part, aesthetic. There is much less difference between American Catholics and evangelicals than between Americans and others, like Eastern Orthodox.

Research on Christian Homeschooling: Curricular Consequences and Organizational Power

Brantley Gasaway

As I was completing my first major research project over the past year (self-promotion alert: I just received a hot-off-the-press copy of Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice, so my book should begin to ship in the next few weeks), I turned to defining my next major project. Originally I had planned to write a monograph regarding the role of religion in the political career of former president Jimmy Carter—a topic closely related to my previous one. As you can imagine, after learning in 2013 that Randall Balmer was completing a biography of Carter focused on this very theme, I needed to search for a new subject. With several other smaller projects on the side, I have now begun research on a topic that has long interested me: Christian homeschooling. 

Although the modern homeschooling movement emerged from counter-cultural criticisms of public schools popularized by John Holt in the late 1960s, conservative Christians have constituted the majority of homeschooling families since the 1980s. Overall, the number of homeschooled children has risen dramatically over the past decade, with recent data indicating that over 3 percent of school-aged children (approximately 2.2 million) are being educated at home.  In some areas of the country, the percentage is even higher—for example, in North Carolina, nearly 6 percent of students are homeschooled, a rate that has now surpassed the percentage of those enrolled in private schools in the state. Although parents cite a variety of reasons in their choices to homeschool, reports from the National Center for Education Statistics reveal that over two-thirds indicate that “a desire to provide religious instruction” and "moral instruction" are two of their primary motivations. To be sure, there has been a recent increase in the religious and racial diversity of homeschooling families. Nevertheless, surveys indicate that theologically conservative Christians still represent the largest bloc. In addition, the most important institutions that influence public policies regarding homeschooling, such as the Home School Legal Defense Association, are Christian organizations. My research thus far has led me to consider two different types of analyses of Christian homeschooling. 

First, I am interested in analyzing the most popular religiously inspired curricula used by many homeschooling families. Even as more and more scholars have been examining homeschooling, most published studies have focused on the academic performances of homeschooled children and their social, emotional, and psychological development. Indeed, the majority of these studies seem to rely upon statistical analyses of standardized testing and ethnographic research. But few religious historians or religious studies scholars have examined the homeschooling movement, and apparently none have focused on one of the most fundamental features of home-education: the curricula. The production and distribution of textbooks and curricula for homeschooling is a billion dollar industry that is essential to the movement. Without these prepared materials, most homeschooling parents, who rarely have training in education or child development, would struggle to develop a structured educational program for their children.

As one may expect, because a majority of parents choose homeschooling based upon religious motivations, many of the most popular curricula—Sonlight, A Beka, Alpha Omega, Bob Jones, Ambleside Online, Apologia, Seton Home, Christian Liberty, My Father’s World, and more—integrate religious references into their materials and align their content with conservative Christian theology. Thus, these religiously inspired curricula are shaping the education and consequently the future of hundreds of thousands of children each year.  

Everlasting Gospel Mission Clovers

Emily Suzanne Clark

"... God's world will never pass away
God's world will never pass away, hallelujah
Well it makes no difference what the people say
God's world will never pass away, oh no
He's gone but he's coming back again
Yes, he's gone but he's coming back again
Well it makes no different what the people say
God's world will never pass away!"

This is part of Sister Gertrude Morgan's song "God's World Will Never Pass away" recorded in April 1971 in the Prayer Room. The Prayer Room was the front room of a shotgun house in the Lower Ninth Ward at the corner of North Dorgenois and Flood Street where Morgan lived and conducted small services. Very few people attended these services, and the services themselves followed no particular order. Morgan would sing, preach, paint, and exhort. Her message was a didactic one. I've posted here before about her unique apocalyptic message, which understood New Orleans as sinful and as the template for Revelation's New Jerusalem. She was both the "bride of Christ" referenced in Revelation, and additionally, she would play the role of John the Revelator.

The Prayer Room in her house at North Dorgenois was filled with her artwork. She painted the room all white, from the ceiling to the floor. And this matched her wardrobe. After God told her she was to be the bride of Christ, she wore only white - a visual reminder of her bridal status. The inside of her home was white with pops of color from her paintings, and according to those who knew her, bright four-leaf clovers covered her yard.

Morgan named her home the Everlasting Gospel Mission House. It was her home where she slept, ate, and died. It was her church where she preached. It was her studio where God instructed her to paint and sing. The lines between "sacred" space and "profane" space were blurred, both for her and for those who knew her and remember her. In 2008, I interviewed a few people who knew Morgan, and I saw what remained of the Everlasting Gospel Mission House. Morgan died in 1980, and her Everlasting Gospel Mission House became another's house until 2005. Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters pushed the house off its old foundation and into the building next door. It was demolished a few weeks before I took this photograph. What the floodwaters could not destroy where the four-leaf clovers that grew in her yard. And for some, it was the clovers that mattered. 

American Gandhi: An Interview with Leilah Danielson

Mark Edwards

The following is an interview with Leilah Danielson, Associate Professor of History at Northern Arizona University and author of the wonderful new book, American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).  Like all great biographies, Danielson’s work offers fresh insights on the major developments of Muste’s time, including the fortunes and follies of the American left, the formation of the civil rights and peace crusades, and (most exciting to me) the radical foundations of the mostly forgotten workers’ education movement of the 1920s.  This study should have broad appeal for historians of American leftism, labor, and politics, as well as for scholars of religion.

1. What first drew you to Muste?
I have long been interested in the history of social movements and the left and Muste seemed to appear everywhere I turned.  As an undergraduate, my senior thesis was on the cultural critic Paul Goodman, who frequently referenced Muste as a comrade and source of inspiration.  Then, as a graduate student, my first research project was on the civil rights leader James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality.  Again, it was clearly evident that Muste’s role in early CORE was fundamental.  The same thing happened again when I conducted research for my dissertation on the history of Christianity and American peace activism; Muste was the pivot upon which everything – theory, organization, and action – seemed to turn. 

2. You place Muste within the “liberal-left tradition” (p. 3) in America.  Could you elaborate a bit on that concept, as well as its connections to pragmatism?  To Communism?  To Christianity?
I borrowed this term from Doug Rossinow’s book, Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).  In it, he argues that the split between radicals and liberals in the Cold War represented a break from a dynamic history of left-liberal collaborations from the late 19th-century through the 1940s united by “a transformative concept of social progress.” (4) He also suggests that recovering this tradition offers the key to reviving progressive politics today.

The history of Muste’s career illuminates Rossinow’s thesis on a number of levels.  Ideologically, he often straddled the divides between liberalism and radicalism: As a socialist, he challenged liberals to recognize that collectivist implications of their egalitarian ideals, while, as a civil libertarian, he challenged labor and the left to pay attention to means as well as ends.

Like many radicals in the 1940s, Muste broke with liberalism over questions of war and U.S. foreign policy.  He also broke with communism, viewing it as a totalitarian ideology, and focused instead on building a “third way” of nonalignment and nonviolence.  Later, in the late 1950s, he attempted to resuscitate a left-liberal alliance yet faced tremendous opposition from anticommunist liberals and socialists alike; only the younger generation of civil rights and new left activists agreed with him that a non-exclusionary approach was necessary to reenergize the American reform tradition.  He would finally manage to build a liberal-left coalition against the war in Vietnam in 1966, but it was full of fissures and it broke apart soon after he died.

In the book, I posit the tension between liberalism and radicalism in terms of pragmatism and prophetism.  Doing so allowed me to highlight the role of Christianity in shaping Muste’s political commitments and concerns.  It also expresses my central thesis that Muste was both a pragmatist and a prophet.  He believed that ideals must be grounded in practice and the individual in community, which drew him to collective political projects and inspired a dialogic method of communication that brought different groups of people together.  The tension between the poles of pragmatism and prophetism, realism and idealism served as a source of creativity and dynamism, but also as a source of frustration that, over time, pushed Muste to assume a more prophetic posture.

Charity, Sylvia, and God

Carol Faulkner

Rachel Hope Cleves's marvelous book Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America is a dual biography of two women who lived together in Weybridge, Vermont, for forty-four years. Their relatives and neighbors recognized them as married in practice if not by law, with Charity's nephew William Cullen Bryant describing their connection as "no less sacred to them than the tie of
marriage." Demonstrating that toleration of same-sex marriage is not a recent historical development, Cleves attributes recognition of their union to the rural and frontier status of their community, and to the women's important economic and religious contributions to the town. As Cleves argues, however, this toleration depended on "a strategic silencing" of their sexual relationship. Rejecting this silence, Cleves explores both the public and intimate aspects of their marriage. Students of American religious history will be interested in how Charity and Sylvia, as pious women in the early nineteenth century, struggled with what they perceived as sin.

Cleves traces the backgrounds and marriage of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake in remarkable detail, piecing together town histories, family papers, their poems, and what remains of their correspondence (unsurprisingly, much was destroyed). When the couple met in 1807, Charity was 29, seven years older than Sylvia. Charity had several previous relationships with other women, but she and Sylvia quickly became inseparable. They moved in together, on property rented from a widowed female landlord, and supported themselves as tailors. At first, and for their relatives' sake, Sylvia was Charity's "assistant." Soon, the two women became equal partners, jointly running their business, and owning their house and personal property. In public records, Charity's name often appeared above Sylvia's, establishing her civic identity as the husband of the relationship, a household order that their neighbors understood. The couple shared a bed, a fact that would have been clear to early visitors to their one-room house, but they later built additions, establishing some privacy and upholding the community's reticence about their sex lives.

Who Needs a Hug(ging) Saint?

Ed Blum

Below is a transcription of a book discussion I had with Amanda Lucia last spring at the University of California, Riverside (home to so many fantastic scholars of American religious history in the present and the past). The audience comprised faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and members from the community.

(ejb) It is hard to find an analogue for Mata Amritanandamayi, the “hugging saint,” the “goddess,” or “Amma,” whatever you prefer to call her. Like Oprah Winfrey, she is a contemporary woman adored by millions who has the power to organize and distribute millions of dollars each year. Thousands upon thousands wait to be hugged by her, and while Pope Francis has become a media darling because of his class-leveling actions, she has embraced lepers. Recently, I sat with Professor Amanda Lucia of the University of California, Riverside, to discuss her fantastic new book Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace. The point of our conversation was not simply to receive a taste of her book, but also to consider how it connects with contemporary trends in the study of religion in the United States.

(ejb) Q: To begin, can you give us the “who, what, where, and when” of your book and Amma’s ministry?

(ajl) A: Well, the first time I was in India I was on the UW Madison College Year in India program in 1996-1997. I was living in Varanasi and researching Hindu ascetics, sadhu babas, and renouncers. I was trying to study female ascetics, but I had this old male brahman assistant who said simply: “They don’t exist. Every woman who is a female ascetic is doing so because her husband died or she has no other means of supporting herself.” But then later that year, I was in Kerala and it was there that I ran into this huge pink ashram and the famed female guru Amma or Mata Amritanandamayi. According to her hagiographies her life story goes something like this: Amma was born in 1953 in a small South Indian fishing village to a fisherman’s caste. As a young child she began to feel the suffering of others, and she began hugging people in order to alleviate their suffering. Many people found these hugs to be comforting, healing, and miraculous in some cases and a cult of devotees formed around her. Now she travels around the world hugging tens of thousands of people every single day without rest. She hosts public programs that are free and open to the public that will last for about 10-20 hours at a time, during which individuals line up and she hugs them one by one by one. Even though darshan is usually a visual exchange between a deity and a devotee, taking Amma’s darshan is a hug.

I didn’t see Amma performing darshan until I went to Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago in 2004. There were maybe five to ten thousand there that night and I had no idea of what to expect. I immediately noticed two distinct groups of people who were there: Indian Hindus who were very traditionally dressed, often dressed up, there to take Amma’s darshan and then there were “alternative” looking American metaphysicals (spiritual seekers) who were neither Indian nor Hindu, but were very much taking a part of Amma’s darshan. The book then drew out of the central question of how are these widely disparate cultural groups of devotees working together? How are they finding resonance within the same stimuli in different ways? How and when do they come together and where do they fall apart into their culturally distinct communities? Those were the questions that struck me at the outset and they became the central project of the book. And then of course, the secondary aim was going back to my first question back in 1996 of how could a woman become a very famous guru even though the scriptures tell her that she can’t? In the most traditional Hindu moral codes (shastras), it’s not allowed. But here you have this very famous female guru who seems to be thumbing her nose at Hindu prohibitions regarding caste and gender all over the world - so what role do traditional hierarchies of caste and gender play in her religious authority and her global organization?

One important point that I should mention at the outset is that for Westerners, many people think ‘oh, that’s nice, she’s hugging people – everyone wants a hug.’ But in India and in Hinduism, conservative Hinduism particularly, a hug among strangers is a radical transgression, especially for a woman of low caste to be hugging all persons regardless of gender, caste, illness, and so on. As Selva Raj put it, Amma’s hug is her “discourse of defiance.” This story emerges from my analysis of the ways in which Amma is publicly thwarting caste and gender restrictions that would prohibit such behavior.

Rally the Scattered Believers: Northern New England's Religious Geography

Paul Putz

I finished reading Shelby Balik's Rally the Scattered Believers: Northern New England's Religious Geography (Indiana University Press, 2014) a few weeks ago, and I've been reflecting on it often ever since. I think this is a book that will interest many RiAH readers, so I'd like to give it some attention.

Set in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine in the years between 1780 and 1830, Balik analyzed the religious geography of the region, or “the many ways in which denominations and churchgoers organized their communities spatially." In Balik's telling, two competing religious geographies battled (or rather, denominations representing those geographies battled) for power in the region. On one side stood the town-church system represented by the Congregationalists. Enshrined in laws and practices inherited from southern New England, in this system the religious community was "organically rooted in a particular place" with both believers and non-believers within the town's boundaries joined together in a "common spiritual endeavor."

A Balm(er)y Fall

It's hard to keep up with Randall Balmer, but this fall is especially frenetic. Oxford University Press just released a new, twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory (and the scholar who had his evangelical conversion take place at Word of Life Bible Institute and the other scholar who performed as Jesus there will both remain nameless). A special panel at the upcoming Conference on Faith and History will address the many publics of Mine Eyes (Saturday morning).

With Balmer, however, there is always something new to match something old. Last May, Basic Books released his Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. Today, Elesha Coffman begins our three-part series of responses to the book. Look out in the next few weeks for the next two. (ejb)

Elesha Coffman

To paraphrase Mark Noll, the scandal of the evangelical left is that there is not much of an evangelical left. It does exist, as David Swartz has recently and Brantley Gasaway will soon remind us. Still, most writing on the topic adopts a wistful tone, pondering what might have been (or might yet be) if evangelicals disentangled themselves from political conservatism. If only different voices had gained a wider hearing, especially in the 1970s. If only the money and the organizational prowess had tipped the other way.

Randall Balmer takes a step further in his spiritual biography of Jimmy Carter, Redeemer. He posits that there actually was a viable, coherent “progressive evangelical” tradition, but twentieth-century evangelicals betrayed it. Instead of what might have been, this approach begs the question, “Who are we talking about?”
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