The Theodicy of George Carlin

Paul Harvey

"Like so many of his cultural brethren, Carlin could not begin to uncurl his fingers from the rosary beads he spat upon," Kathryn Lofton writes in her piece Theodicy of George Carlin, just up at Religion Dispatches. Must reading as usual from our esteemed colleague, and must reading for all ambivalent fans (as I was) of Carlin.

Fruitcake Toss

Paul Harvey

Peter Montgomery, "Attacking Obama's Beliefs," discusses the campaign (one not confined to James Dobson's latest bile about Obama's "fruitcake" views) to slander Barack Obama. The negative response from many evangelicals (see this site, for example, which usefully contrasts Dobson's tendentious hyperbole -- i.e. lies -- with Obama's own plain statements) likely suggests that this attack will backfire. Montgomery writes:

The frantic and blustery attacks on Obama’s faith by Dobson, Tony Perkins, and other Religious Right leaders comes across as an increasingly desperate effort to prevent the ongoing shift of evangelical Christians away from the narrow abortion-and-gays focus that Religious Right leaders have demanded be the dominant priority for Christian engagement in the public arena. There has been plenty of evidence for the past couple of years that most Christians, including most evangelicals, don’t share Dobson and Perkins’ political priorities. And now, as those leaders rant and rave about the supposed deficiencies in Barack Obama’s orthodoxy, Pew has made clear that they can’t even stake a claim to faithfully representing the Christianity of most American evangelicals.

True, although Dobson, Richard Land, and other evangelicals of that stripe have decried the decline of faith even among evangelicals, part of their "persecuted minority" rhetoric, so I doubt the Pew survey will faze them. Its findings are woven already into their declension narrative.

Our local paper, the Colorado Springs Gazette, covers Dobson and this latest controversy in its story, "Evangelism [the paper means, conservative evangelicalism] May Be Losing Its Sway.

Eyes Wide Shut


Paul Harvey

Recently I mentioned my deep admiration for Erskine Clarke's Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic (which I've just recently, and very belatedly, gotten around to reading), and promised to blog some more on this richly humane and deeply affecting work (and, to repeat what I said earlier, Kelly Baker has blogged here about the work). It's the story of the lowcountry world of Charles Colcock Jones, the "apostle to the slaves," and his extended family, together with a parallel history of the slaves his family owned. That flat description scarcely captures the richness and pathos of this tale.

Before getting back to blogging on the book, I corresponded with a historian I admire: Beth Barton Schweiger of the University of Arkansas. Purely coincidentally, Beth sent me a review she had previously prepared of this work, but which did not as it turns out appear in print. So with her permission, I'm running her review here, which says pretty much (and much more eloquently) what I was going to blog more informally.

As a preview, here's my favorite paragraph, which provides me with this entry's title, "eyes wide shut":

Charles Colcock Jones died in the turbulent spring of 1863, lying on his bed at Montevideo fully dressed in black with a “pure white cravat.” Only his wife and daughter-in-law were with him at his death, but many of the slaves whom he thought he knew watched as the coffin, built by the carpenter Porter, was covered over with earth. Firm in the conviction of his sin and of his Savior, Jones died still closed to the full wisdom offered by his theology. Yet it was not that he saw the truth and chose to resist it. Instead, he grasped only a part of the truth even while he was convinced he had it all. “You can know a thing to death and for all purposes be completely ignorant of it,” a character in a recent novel opined. Erskine Clarke’s history warns us how little we can see, even when we would swear that our eyes are wide open.

Here's the full review.

Erskine Clarke, Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic. Yale University Press, 2005. Reviewed by Beth Barton Schweiger.

In the late winter of 1796, a Georgia planter sent instructions to his wife about a slave he had leased to a neighbor some years earlier. “Make Old Jupiter go to Mr. Dowses and bring old Silvey home and set her to work,” John Jones wrote. Silvey was Jupiter’s wife. After years of doing everything in his power to get her returned, Jupiter rejoiced when his master finally relented. After the couple was reunited, Jones wrote again. “Tell [Jupiter] that as he has now got his wife back I shall expect he will do his best for me,” he told his wife. (3)
The twisted paternalism of American slavery is on full view in these two lines. Two couples, one enslaved to the other, knew one another intimately in life and in death. The mistress bathed the fevered back of the sick slave, the slave delivered and suckled the woman’s child. Master and slave, men and women, sang hymns together, prayed together, and wept together over their dead. Yet they did not know each other at all. Slave and master were bound together in a relationship so complex and ambivalent, Eugene Genovese famously wrote, “that neither could express the simplest human feelings without relation to the other.”
[i] Indeed, John Jones needed his slave’s gratitude when he restored the precious thing he had so carelessly broken. And Jupiter felt the bitter edge of his joy, which laid bare his powerlessness to protect his family. Slave and master lived separate lives in a single place, unable to breach the terrible chasm opened when one human being claims complete power over another. John’s son Charles would later observe that masters “live and die in the midst of Negroes and know comparatively little of their real character.” (26)

In his Bancroft prize-winning book, Erskine Clarke shows over and over how the same event—a visit, a death, a birth, a purchase of property, a church service, a trip to town—meant one thing for the slave and another for the master. Leasing a slave was both a careless decision to bring in some extra cash and a wrenching end to marital intimacy. Clarke shows as no historian has done before that the history of American slavery should be written as a single narrative of “two histories of one place and one time.” (ix)

By far the more difficult of the two histories to write is that of the slaves. Clarke used an extraordinary collection of papers left behind by the family of the Rev. Charles Colcock Jones, scattered in archives from New Orleans to North Carolina. The family, one of the wealthiest families in one of the wealthiest slave societies in the world, meticulously recorded the births, deaths, sales, and movements of their slaves and many details of the material circumstances of their lives. In this, we are indebted to the paternalism that prompted such record-keeping. The voices of the slaves themselves are nearly always silent in these records, so Clarke draws on an anthropological model pioneered by the historian Rhys Isaac to reconstruct their experiences.

Accordingly, the book is filled with people moving across the landscape of coastal Georgia, which itself becomes a character in the story. There are carefully imagined meetings, conversations, and surreptitious gatherings by slaves on any one of seventeen plantations in the region. Most of these events are known to us only through accounts left by their masters, but Clarke richly reimagines them from the perspective of the slaves. One can only marvel at the exhaustive research and years of thought required to support such readings.

It is a cliché to say that a brief review cannot do justice to a book. Clarke’s beautifully-detailed history is as densely peopled and intricately plotted as a Russian novel, stuffed with magnificent detail. In these pages, we learn and relearn the epic of American slavery. Clarke writes unapologetically of a particular people in a particular place. We see the view across the marshes from the broad piazza of the big house at Montevideo and the view from the fires that burned in front of the cabins in the settlement at Carlawter. We watch as a Presbyterian session bowed to the absolute power of the master by declaring that Major, a church member, could marry again after his wife was sold away, as she was as good as dead to him. We see the only white man singing and praying with several hundred mourners at the slave preacher Sharper’s funeral, and watch as the ox cart bears the coffin down a dusty moon-lit road to the burial ground in the settlement. We see how the story of slavery moved towards bondage for the master and towards freedom for the slave, and how both master and slave were diminished.

The kind of slavery practiced on the Jones family plantations was not the only kind of American slavery. As Ira Berlin has emphasized, slavery changed dramatically in North America from generation to generation and region to region.
[iii] The free people of Liberty County, Georgia thrived off the labor of their slaves for more than a century and a half before Federal troops invaded during the Civil War. The stability and prosperity brought by the labor-intensive rice cultivation meant that slaves in the region were able, more than many American slaves, to live in relatively stable families, to negotiate the task system of work with their masters, and to create a rich Gullah culture out of remembered African traditions. Yet these relatively stable slave settlements were under constant threat in the early nineteenth century, along with the rest of the seaboard South, from a new kind of slavery practiced in the lower Mississippi valley. The massive migration of more than a million slaves to till the rich soils of the interior, named by Berlin the “Second Middle Passage,” put constant pressure on plantations in the older seaboard states. Long before the thundering of Federal guns threatened to end plantation slavery as it was practiced in the Low Country, it was being threatened from inside the South.

Charles Jones was a sincere Christian man, and by any meaningful measure, a benevolent master. He had agonized over slavery in his youth, particularly during his years of study at Andover and Princeton, at one time declaring it unqualifiedly against the laws of God. He eventually silenced his own fears by devoting his life to “the religious instruction of the slaves.” If slavery must continue, Jones reasoned, then it must be reformed and brought under the supervision of Christian people. Accordingly, Jones devoted most of his working life to evangelizing slaves on his own and neighboring plantations. His optimism about the possibilities of moral reform to wrench society into the shape he thought best matched the fervor of any northern moral reformer of his day. North and South, all Americans seemed convinced of their power over history. And yet, even the relatively benign and deeply Christian paternalism of Jones and his wife Mary could never completely dull the sharp assertion of power by owners over what was owned. “They are traitors who may pilot an enemy into your bedchamber!” Jones exclaimed of his slaves in late 1863 as Yankee gunboats sailed up a nearby river, prompting the boldest of them to take flight. (415) And as her life lay in ruins after the war, the widow Mary demonstrated how easily pious pity for the slave hardened into racial hatred for freedmen and women. “With their emancipation must come their extermination,” she bluntly declared. “They perish when brought into conflict with the intellectual superiority of the Caucasian race.” (444)

Clarke is not the first to use the rich papers left behind by the Jones family. Nor is it the first time a study based on them has won national acclaim. In 1972, the literary scholar Robert Manson Myers published an 1,800-page colossus, The Children of Pride, which featured a selection of Jones family letters written between 1854 and 1868.
[iv] The book was hailed by many critics and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 over some loud objections. One Georgia historian scorned the book’s warm reception by the “literate few in the fading Daughters of the Confederacy” and decried its “Gone With the Wind” southern apologetics, complete with “shadowy whites, invisible negroes, slavemasters of unbelieveable Christian rectitude, and flowers of chivalry.”[v]

Clarke’s achievement in Dwelling Place is to tell two histories where Myers told only one. The striking difference is apparent on every page of the book, but it is most starkly on display in the appendices. Children of Pride included almost 300 pages of a densely-printed “Who’s Who” of nearly all of the people mentioned in the Jones letters. Not a single slave appears in the hundreds listed there (although they do earn an index of their own by first name only.) By contrast, Clarke includes eight family trees of slaves owned by the Jones family. His painstaking work demonstrates visually what is made clear on every page of his book: that the slaves had their own family histories, that their low country settlements were composed “not simply of a mass of slaves, but of distinct men and women, people with names, with diverse personalities and personal histories.” (189)

Clarke’s contribution in this book extends beyond writing slaves like Jupiter, Sharper, Silvey, and Major and their masters into a single narrative. His book also reflects on the meaning of American Christian slavery and how best to write its history. Is the best history one informed by moral outrage? How much do we have a right to expect of the dead? Shall we use them only to measure our own progress? Historians of American slavery have long wrestled with such questions. Many who have claimed no interest in defending Christianity have been able to explain people like Charles Jones only by denying that they were Christians at all.

Clarke offers a different answer. He has expressed exasperation with those who deny that “Southern evangelicalism could be a part of an intellectual tradition worth exploring,” and like Donald G. Mathews, he takes for granted that “the slaveholding ethic was as natural an extension of Evangelicalism as was abolitionism.”
[vi] In this, he offers a sharp rebuke to any who might claim that the Church is a culture. Charles Jones was very possibly the best Christian master that the system of American chattel slavery might have created, and yet it is nearly impossible to claim him as one of our own. Clarke refuses to make excuses for Jones’s sincere and ultimately misguided piety, or to claim that he was merely a rank hypocrite. He takes the costlier path of trying to understand him, wisely acknowledging that we have much to learn from staring down Christian slavery for what it was. Clarke is hardly an apologist for the South. But as a seminary professor with deep roots in the Low Country and in Jones’ beloved Presbyterian tradition, it is not possible for Clarke to stand outside of Jones’s world and point a finger at this preacher’s folly. Instead, he chose the more difficult task of standing with him. And it is only in standing with him that Clarke can tell us what he sees—a blind, visionary, noble, arrogant, thoughtless, wise, brave, cowardly, heartless, loving, and mortal Christian man.

Charles Colcock Jones died in the turbulent spring of 1863, lying on his bed at Montevideo fully dressed in black with a “pure white cravat.” Only his wife and daughter-in-law were with him at his death, but many of the slaves whom he thought he knew watched as the coffin, built by the carpenter Porter, was covered over with earth. Firm in the conviction of his sin and of his Savior, Jones died still closed to the full wisdom offered by his theology. Yet it was not that he saw the truth and chose to resist it. Instead, he grasped only a part of the truth even while he was convinced he had it all. “You can know a thing to death and for all purposes be completely ignorant of it,” a character in a recent novel opined.
[vii] Erskine Clarke’s history warns us how little we can see, even when we would swear that our eyes are wide open.

[i] Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, (New York: Random House, 1974; Vintage Books, 1976), 3.
[ii] The Transformation of Virginia: Community, Religion, Authority, 1740-1790 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1982).
[iii] Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves, (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003).
[iv] Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972). Myers also published a book on Jones’s experience at Princeton and wrote a play based on the papers. Myers, A Georgian at Princeton, (New York: Harcourt, 1976) and Quintet: A Five Play Cycle Drawn from The Children of Pride (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991).
[v] Charles Crowe, “Historians and ‘Benign Neglect’: Conservative Trends in Southern History and Black Studies,” Reviews in American History 2 (June, 1974): 163-173.
[vi] Review of Heyrman, “Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt,” Theology Today 55 (July, 1998): 283-5; Religion in the Old South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), xv.
[vii] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2004), 7.

The Way of Improvement Leads to a Website and Blog

Paul Harvey

Our contributing editor John Fea has set up a blog and website for his book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Phillip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America. Here's the description of the book from the website:

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.

Here is some more information on John's article in the Journal of American History a few years back, which previewed the book:

In conjunction with an
article I published about Fithian in 2003, the Journal of American History put hundreds of pages of Fithian's writings on-line. The site, which is part of the journal's "Teaching the JAH" feature, includes the article and study questions suitable for the high school and undergraduate classroom. I will try to get a link to these writings on the book website soon.

And here's a preview of John's thoughts on the question on the relationship of the Great Awakening to the American Revolution, as well as the question of the "evangelical synthesis" in American history:

Some of my thoughts here, which I hope to develop a bit more later at "Religion and American History," deal with the idea, popular among many historians, that the First Great Awakening, the great evangelical religious revival of the 1740s, had something to do with the coming of the American Revolution. I do not address this question directly in
The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but I do imply that the enthusiasm and revival evangelicalism of the Great Awakening had little effect on the way Presbyterians such as Philip Vickers Fithian understood the Revolution. In fact, I suggest in the book that it was actually the reaction against the Great Awakening that had the most profound influence on the Presbyterian response to the American Revolution. (And this Presbyterian response was significant. Remember that George III called the American Revolution a "Presbyterian rebellion.").

God for Dummies, Literally

by Randall Stephens

Here is a debate that rarely, if ever, erupts in the quiet halls historians and religious studies scholars inhabit: Folks who believe in God are not the sharpest tools in the box. Or, God is for dunderheads . . . So, Mencken was right. The Chronicle Review recently brought up the research of Richard Lynn, University of Ulster psychology professor emeritus, who is both raising hackles and stirring up dust.

Richard Lynn . . . . has ignited a fresh dispute. In a forthcoming paper in the journal Intelligence—which was co-written with John Harvey, an independent scholar, and Helmuth Nyborg, a professor of psychology at the University of Aarhus, in Denmark— Lynn argues that there is a strong correlation between high levels of intelligence and disbelief in God.

What would it look like if a historian of American religion bought this argument? (Might that amount to professional suicide, or, at least, maiming?) Would he or she dust off ye olde secularization thesis?: “Since the 1960s, believers have been dumb and dumberer.” Would the model work for 19th or early 20th century history?: “Pentecostals—intense believers—were thicker than a block of wood. They may or may not have been dispossessed, but they certainly were stupid.” Sounds like the old mainline chestnuts from the 1950s.

Lynn’s previous arguments concerning race, gender, and intelligence are damning enough. And the comments the Chronicle has culled from newspapers and blogs are telling. It seems that few academics and commentators, regardless of their own take on the matter, want to jump in Lynn's boat.

Born Again History?


Paul's last post on Clifton's book and John Turner's comment about Jon Butler and the "evangelical synthesis" really struck a chord with me since I have been thinking about this historiographical trend for the past several months in light of some of my current work in early America. I had planned to write a series of posts on this in the next few weeks, but I think the time is right to jump in at this juncture.

Back in 1994 Butler gave a paper at the OAH entitled "Born Again History?" (I do not think he ever published the piece--at least not in this form or by this title). In his own provocative way Butler argued that the so-called evangelical sythesis has not only come to be the dominant paradigm for understanding American religious history, but has become the dominant paradigm for understanding much of American history as a whole. He notes how evangelicalism is used by historians to explain the coming of the American Revolution, post-war republicanism, antebellum social reform, the family, abolitionism, 19th century women's culture, foreign policy, race and the South, populism, progressivism, the post-Watergate presidency, conservatism, and the list goes on. (All one has to do is read the archives of this blog to see that this is still a predominant approach to understanding the American past). Butler, as many of our readers know, is highly critical of this approach and has offered what I think is a sometimes helpful corrective to the evangelical synthesis.

In the time frame that I know best--the period between the First Great Awakening (roughly 1740) and the American Revolution (roughly 1789)--this evangelical synthesis dominates the field. Butler argued strongly against the connection between the Great Awakening and the Revolution in Awash in a Sea of Faith and elsewhere, but it almost seems as if historians (and I am talking off the top of my head, correct me if I am wrong) have completely ignored him. (John Murrin's 1983 classic "No Awakening, No Revolution?: More Counterfactual Speculations" is an exception and I could probably think of a few more if I took the time to do so). Over the last decade or so, most of the work in this area continues to embrace a direct connection between the great evangelical Awakening and the Revolution.

I will stop there for now, but I hope to follow up this post with a "part two" that will be more specific on the way the evangelical paradigm has influenced this period. (I will try to name titles). Then, if I find the time, I would like to add a third post on some alternative (and new?) ways of thinking about this period after spending a fruitful spring and early summer in the archives.

Wicca and Paganism Text


Paul Harvey

Here's an offbeat choice for a course text: Chas S. Clifton, Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America (AltaMira Press, 2007). From the book's website:

The history of any religious movement can get murky. But the history of American Paganism--with so many invented lineages, so many solitary practitioners, so much resistance to staid definition, so much hiddenness--is especially hard to decipher. But here in Her Hidden Children Chas Clifton tells many never-before-told stories of the origins of Paganism and Wicca in the United States. The people, publications, and organizations that allowed Paganism and Wicca to set roots down in American soil and become "nature religion" are revealed in delicious detail. With a timeline, glossary, and photos of important figures,Her Hidden Children is compelling and important for any student of Paganism or American Religion.

Sean McCloud, author of Divine Hierarchies, has reviewed the book for H-AMSTDY. He writes:

In seven chapters, Clifton utilizes primary source books and magazines, personal interviews, and secondary scholarly works to produce a historical narrative of Wicca's (particularly) and Paganism's (secondarily) modern births and transformations. Though not explicitly fronted in his book, Clifton's narrative suggests a persuasive three-part historical periodization. First, in the 1950s and 1960s, the American movement reflected its debt to English occultism by presenting itself as an ancient mystery craft of the British Isles. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wicca's American branch came to view itself as an earth-based "nature religion." The decade of the 1970s saw the influential rise of American feminist Wicca, which combined with the new nature religion identity and moved back across the Atlantic to shape British Wicca and Paganism. In this manner, the small occult tradition became the rapidly growing new religious movement.

The history of alternative religious traditions is booming, including the new book by Molly McGarry on Spiritualism recently noted here on the blog, and encapsulated as well in Catharine Albanese's synthesis on America's metaphysical religions and Leigh Schmidt's recent work on American spiritualities. I wonder if this bespeaks something of a response to, or even backlash to, the dominant evangelical synthesis that has been so influential in American religious history in the last generation?

Jacob on the Golf Course

Art Remillard
Every now and again, I see a modern rendering of Jacob's dramatic wrestling match with an angel (or God, or Esau, or his "dark twin" pick). Consider, for example, a recent professional golf tournament. Playing on a ruptured ACL and two stress fractures in his leg, Tiger Woods endured 5 days and 91 holes of U.S. Open competition before claiming victory. Afterward, we learned of his injuries and that Woods will be unable to compete for the rest of the season because of them. Fans and journalists remain astonished, and the golfer has become the object of pious adoration. “The simple fact,” gushed one sportswriter, “is there are no words to explain satisfactorily what we saw . . . ; no ordinary measure of achievement by which to judge Tiger's [success]; and no way of really knowing just how much mental and physical agony he went through.”

Like Jacob, Woods struggled through a laborious competition despite a painful leg injury. But I saw the shadow of Jacob fall more directly over Woods’s unlikely challenger, Rocco Mediate, who one golf analyst remarked, “looks like the guy who cleans Tiger's swimming pool.” (Classy, eh?). By most standards, Mediate is an average professional golfer. He’s 45 years old, at the end of his career, has few wins to his credit, and suffers from a bad back. Nevertheless, Mediate nearly won. During the tournament, fans slowly grew enchanted with the unassuming golfer. And since his loss, Mediate's endeavor has reached legendary status. One sportswriter called him “the every man’s hero,” and another concluded, “Tiger may have won, but Mediate showed more control, character and guts than any Woods challenger in memory.”

Mediate did not win in the traditional sense, but neither did Jacob. This suggests that a noble loss can be just as compelling as a thrilling victory. Why? “People talk about looking for the meaning of life,” Joseph Campbell once remarked, “what you’re really looking for is an experience of life. And one of the experiences is a good fight.” What a sporting event can do, he continued, is showcase a “good fight,” contain the violence, and give people an exhilarating experience of life. No doubt, Mediate’s heroic accomplishment wasn’t defeating the giant, but rather standing up to him and fighting the good fight.

Reviews: Transcendentalism and Religion and African American Novels


Kelly Baker

Two recent H-Amstdy reviews tackle two different issues of interest for our blog, Transcendentalism and religious writing. Tara Robbins Fee reviewed Barbara Packer's The Transcendentalists, which focuses upon the philosophy as well as larger social connections of Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and others. Fee writes:

A graceful storyteller, Packer introduces her audience to major and minor figures through elegant, winsome readings of primary sources and analyses of ideas and actions. Her account is particularly well suited for pedagogical application in its breadth and in the simultaneously fine detail of its purview: it begins with a search through Congregational and Unitarian history for Transcendentalism's point of origin, traces the new movement's major players through their battles with the religious establishment and efforts toward social reform, and closes with their "diaspora" and the diffusion of their ideas into the larger antislavery movement. Providing a comprehensive sense of Transcendentalism's scale and significance, this volume would complement well for classroom use a collection of primary source materials and/or other recent compilations of scholarly essays, such as Charles Capper and Conrad Edick Wright's Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Context (1999). Capper and Wright's collection beckons toward new readings of the movement; Packer's engages current questions while establishing the significance of its classic treatment.

Packer treats the movement's early years with the energy that suffused the period, writing animatedly of the conflicts between the Transcendentalists and their many opponents. She explains cogently the dominance of Lockean philosophy in New England's institutions of higher education; against this backdrop, the intellectual revolution instantiated through the young Transcendentalists' "appetite for Romantic literature" (p. 21) and critique of Locke is thrown into relief. She also describes Transcendentalism's transatlantic origins and its points of connection with British and Continental thinkers. In this discussion especially, her manner of explication is worth noting, particularly for scholars interested in using the book in the classroom: beyond simply arguing for the significance of the intellectual exchange, she accounts for how personalities and chance occurrences at meetings affected that exchange. (Click here for the rest of the review.)

Carolyn M. Jones explores Tuire Valkeakari's Religious Idiom and the African American Novel, 1952-1998. She writes:

Valkeakari does not want to argue whether African American writers, in thinking about religion, have stayed within denominational boundaries; neither does she want to do "myth criticism" (p. 12). Her task is to examine cultural mixings and the development of hybrid forms to understand a unique and varied African American production.

I was particularly impressed with the work on female ministry. Valkeakari looks at the role of the African American woman as minister in Beloved, The Healing (1999), and Octavia Butler's Parable series. African American women historically have been spiritual leaders in their communities and there is a long tradition of African American women in the evangelical tradition, and Valkeakari shows us the important emphases that Morrison, Jones, and Butler bring forth in their works--the body, the "talking cure," and community. All these function to break the kind of exclusion and exclusiveness that Valkeakari looks at in her final chapter on Morrison's Paradise (1999). Cutting across boundaries opens possibilities of renewal and regeneration. Equally impressive is the discussion of African American Christ figures, like the Invisible Man, Pecola Breedlove, and others. The figure of sacrifice and what that figure contains, represents, and ushers in for person and community is an important strain of thought throughout the work.

Valkeakari's themes come into focus in her final chapter, an examination of the significance of Toni Morrison's Paradise. The tension between paradise and home is a subtheme throughout Valkeakari's work and an element of the religious thematics of the African American novel. The issues of renewal, the scapegoat/Christ figure, and the hybrid forms that African Americans "made" in relation to the Judeo-Christian message they received all focus on the questions of "What kind of future may we hope for?" and "Where is home--now and in the future?" and "How do we preserve our freedom?" Avoiding the exclusionary forces of racism, sexism, ageism, etc. is the promise in African American signifyin(g) on the sacred. (The full review is available here).

Stop the Presses! Or Not.

Darren Grem

How much of a role younger, white evangelicals will play in the November elections remains to be seen, but they're certainly flying around in pre-season reports. Reporters seem devoted to the notion that younger, white evangelicals are either apolitical or now ready to slap Obama stickers right next to the magnet Jesus fish donning their vehicular posteriors. To be sure, there's some Pew research to back these notions up in a very basic, general way, although it comes with some big caveats. Often overlooked in fly-over accounts was that the Pew Center concluded that younger, white evangelicals were "Less Republican, [But] Still Conservative," noting that they weren't much different than most conservatives (or Americans, for that matter) who are fed up with the Bushies. In turn, they remained more conservative than counterparts their age on questions concerning Iraq, law and order, abortion, and (I would proffer) free market capitalism. As such, though the opportunity is there, Obama probably shouldn't expect a windfall of younger, white evangelicals falling into his camp. John Green said as much, pointing out: ". . . Relatively few of the evangelicals who have moved away from the Republican Party have become Democratic, most have become independents." The numbers don't lie. In 2001, 55% of young, white evangelicals held Republican affiliations and, in 2007, only 40% do (still, that's a decently large minority). In the same period, Democrats only picked up a measly three percentage points while independent affiliations rose by six percentage points. I guess that means that if I ran as, say, a Bulldawg Party candidate, I'd be getting more younger, white evangelical votes than Obama.

What does this all mean come November? I'm willing to bet a case of Milwaukee's finest that it won't be an election maker or breaker since Bush has handily alienated more Republican constituencies than just plus-30 evangelicals and more swing voters than their Facebooking counterparts. Try as he might, McCain probably won't be able to overcome that fact. I'm also willing to argue that, in the long run, it won't be the cultural shift that some folks think it will be. To be sure, younger evangelicals might not jump in as short-list, "issues voters" as fervently as their parents' generation, but whether they will continue a drift leftward or middle-ward remains to be seen, especially as they get into their thirty and forty-somethings, have families, get corner offices, and start paying property taxes. As I believe John Turner has mentioned on this blog before, in four to eight years, we might be seeing report after report about the "revival of the Religious Right."

Meanwhile, James Dobson has officially thrown his two-cents in. I'll see your hermeneutics and raise you, sir!

Ghosts of Futures Past

Paul Harvey

Spiritualism continues to haunt and invigorate American religious history and studies. Despite excellent works by Anne Braude, Brett Carroll, and several others, there's much more yet to say about the far-reaching implications of the practice in the nineteenth century and beyond. Here's a new, innovative, dense and difficult, but rewarding new work for your interest (especially for you American studies types): Molly McGarry, Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth-Century America (University of California Press).

From the book's description:

Ghosts of Futures Past guides readers through the uncanny world of nineteenth-century American spiritualism. More than an occult parlor game, this was a new religion, which channeled the voices of the dead, linked present with past, and conjured new worldly and otherworldly futures. Tracing the persistence of magic in an emergent culture of secularism, Molly McGarry brings a once marginalized practice to the center of American cultural history. Spiritualism provided an alchemical combination of science and magic that called into question the very categories of male and female, material and immaterial, self and other, living and dead. Dissolving the boundaries between them opened Spiritualist practitioners to other voices and, in turn, allowed them to imagine new social worlds and forge diverse political affinities.

Nineteenth-century Spiritualists were the “other within,” McGarry suggests, in this cultural studies reading of Spiritualism: the widely popular practice of conjuring up spirits and ancestors of the past, often through the “mediumship” of younger women who could embody the voices of the disembodied. Mostly white and middle-class Americans, Spiritualists “claimed mysticism for white America, creating a spiritual practice out of a communion with difference.” They were harbingers of America’s first “New Age,” and practitioners of what Catherine Albanese has termed the tradition of “metaphysical religion.” Spiritualists identified with the other – men with women, whites with Indians, straights with “queers”; in this way, Spiritualists practiced transgressive politics, spiritualities, and sexualities, earning them the ire of Anthony Comstock and all those who searched for obscenity in every piece of mail.

This is a difficult but effective work; the combination of both is suggested by the chapter titles, which puzzle but tantalize:

1. Mourning, Media, and the Cultural Politics of Conjuring the Dead
2. Indian Guides: Haunted Subjects and the Politics of Vanishing
3. Spectral Sexualities: Free Love, Moral Panic, and the Making of U.S. Obscenity Law
4. Mediomania: The Spirit of Science in a Culture of Belief and Doubt
5. Secular Spirits: A Queer Genealogy of Untimely Sexualities

McGarry is at her best in the last chapter, in which she takes on reigning academic theories of secularity and new sexual categories (including that of the “homosexual”), and explores the relationship of religion and sexuality. Her subjects used “spiritual theories of embodiment and forms of memorialization” to find “transfigurative affiliation, consolation, and connection.”

Blum on Religion Dispatches

Paul Harvey

Religion Dispatches features an interview with our Contributing Editor Ed Blum. Of the professional motivations for his work W. E. B. DuBois, American Prophet, Blum says,

Professionally, I felt drawn to write about religion in Du Bois’s because it filled two important historical gaps. First, he was basically ignored by American religious historians who tended to write more about Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, Billy Graham, or Martin Luther King, Jr. I wondered about the religious insights of a man who refused to become a minister. I found that Du Bois’s life and insights probably tell us more about the power and place of religion in American society than any of these others. Second, American historians have written extensively about Du Bois but have basically ignored his interest in religion. I felt shocked to read book after book about The Souls of Black Folk that focused on the word “folk” in the title but not on “souls.” This struck me as a blind spot in the profession."

Birthday Blog

Paul Harvey

Happy Birthday to Us!

Our blog is one year and some 60,000 plus unique hits old. So, happy birthday to us! I hope you’ll forgive a few birthday reflections. Here are my top 5; I invite more from anyone else who has read this blog, or from any of our editors.

1) This is way too much fun to be a mere time-waster and procrastinator, though it surely serves that purpose quite well thank you very much. All the same, its quotient of fun is directly proportional to its voluntary nature. As a friend of mine wrote when I asked this person about becoming a contributing editor, “whenever anything becomes remotely obligatory, I immediately resist doing it.” That kind of reassured me. This isn’t like grading papers or serving on “curriculum and requirements” committees: here, we don’t have to do anything other than whatever we want to do. If that happens to interest people, great; if not, then it still serves as playtime. So, for those who wonder why we don’t cover this or that topic, here’s my response: feel free to make any suggestion you want, but better yet, start your own blog so your item of interest gets full and daily coverage.

2) All of #1 being acknowledged, I feel strongly about promoting our field, new books, articles, reviews, and items of interest. I know if something like this has existed in my graduate school days, I would have felt that much less adrift and working on my own.

3) Controversy draws people like schoolyard fights draw crowds. Whenever we’ve had fights here, usually with someone else out in the blogsosphere, readership shoots up. That seems in part to be the nature of the medium; blogs are kind of made for quick arguments. It also seems to illustrate the schoolyard principle in action. This leaves me with some mixed feelings. Argument is good, and sometimes we’ve had that amongst our various contributors. At the same time, blog wars have left me feeling a bit sullied at times, like I’ve just watched too much reality television. When conflict fascination meets conflict aversion, ambivalence reigns.

4) Blogs operate against a basic principle of academic communication that I’m otherwise pretty good about following: take a deep breath before going on the attack, as you’re likely to regret just typing out the first thing that comes to your mind when the blood is up. Email can have the same effect, of course, which is why we have books about email etiquette proliferating now. Anyway, I’ve thought about attaching a testosterone meter to my computer, sort of like a breathalyzer; thus, no emailing while drunk, and no blogging when what you really want to do is box. I’ll give this rule about a week before dumping it in the same corner where all the other new year’s resolutions sit mouldering in their graves.

5) I’ve met, virtually and in real life, more interesting folks over the past year than I could have ever hoped for, so all this procrastination has paid off well in that sense. I look forward to meeting more of you this year. Stop by more often, send us your comments, and send us your posts on subjects of religion in American history that interest you.

P.S.: For the many, many of you who have commented on the cat, suffice to say, he’s yours to have, come by and pick him up anytime. He needs a good home. Just be prepared with scads of paper towels and “pet spotter” spray.

Massacre at Mountain Meadows

John G. Turner

Anyone with an interest in Mormon History should order a copy of the long-awaited Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Oxford University Press, release imminent). Written by a team of scholars (Ronald Walker, Richard Turley, and Glen Leonard) employed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and many years in the works, the book's release is of both contemporary and historiographic importance.

Massacre at Mountain Meadows chronicles in minute detail the horrifying murder of roughly 120 pioneers in southwest Utah on September 11, 1857. Since soon after the massacre, rumors have persisted about the culpability of the church hierarchy -- namely president Brigham Young -- in both ordering and covering up the massacre. Will Bagley's 2002 Blood of the Prophets argued for Young's responsibility on both counts. Having read an advance review copy of Massacre at Mountain Meadows from Oxford, I am persuaded that the massacre was, as the authors portray, a local affair. The details are far too complex to present here, and I lack the expertise to fully assess the relevant sources. Massacre at Mountain Meadows does not chronicle the long investigation into the massacre, perhaps leaving that story for a second volume. I recommend that those interested in assessing the question for themselves read both MMM and Blood of the Prophets.

The publication of MMM is a major event for contemporary Mormonism and has already attracted considerable attention in Salt Lake newspapers and the Mormon "bloggernacle." For a taste of just how controversial the topic remains, look at this detailed review and 182 (and counting) comments on one of my favorite websites, By Common Consent. The comments include some of the brightest stars in Mormon history, including Bill MacKinnon, Will Bagley, and Ardis Parshall (no offense to anyone left out). The review by Jonathan Stapley and Brad Kramer is of first-rate quality.

A New Ultramontanism


Recently, I’ve been reading quite a bit about ultramontanism. Just in case you’re wondering what in the heck I’m talking (I mean, writing) about, look no further than Félicité de Lamennais, French philosopher and political activist committed to the restoration of Roman Catholicism to its rightful place of authority in post-revolutionary France and the rest of Europe. Followers of Lamennais imagined the pope as the ideal patron of a Catholic renaissance during the nineteenth century. They considered the papacy to be the ultimate source of truth and the only acceptable arbiter of human reason that could stand down the arrogant threats of the Enlightenment, classicism, and rationalism. Literally, the word “utramontanism” refers to support for those “beyond the mountains” (ultra montes), in this case, the popes on the other side of the Alps.

Now, before you begin to think that the title of this blog has changed to “Religion in French History,” may I remind you that any discussion of Roman Catholicism in the United States requires at least some reference to non-American persons, places, or things. Such is the case when you’re trying to keep track of hyphenated folks like Irish-American Catholics, Italian-American Catholics, Polish-American Catholics, Latin American Catholics, African American Catholics, and Mel Gibson-American Catholics.

But just when I’m about to resolve myself to the fact that I’m not going to be able know exactly how many ways there are to be Catholic in America today, I overhear a couple of guys in a coffee shop complaining about how most Catholics just don’t understand that there is only one way to be Catholic, and that’s true traditional orthodox Roman Catholicism. I’ve italicized “true traditional orthodox Roman Catholicism” (and now I’ve put it in quotation marks) because that’s what my unsuspecting conversation partners finally agreed was the best way to describe themselves. “It’s the pope, man. It’s all about the pope,” the gentleman in the blue t-shirt said to the other gentleman in the purple polo shirt. “I mean, what else is there. He’s the man,” Mr. Blue T-Shirt continued. To which Mr. Purple Polo Shirt replied, “Yeah, I mean, if it’s the truth, it’s the truth, right?” At this point, I think it would be best that I stop giving you the actual dialogue of the conversation and stick to the gist of their thoughts, which basically boils down to the notion that if the Roman Catholic church is the only true church, and if the pope is the infallible leader of that church, then there is only one way to be Catholic, and that’s the Roman way. Or, to distinguish it from ethnic or cultural forms of hyphenated Catholicism, it’s the true traditional orthodox Roman Catholic way.

I should mention that all of this talk about the authority of the pope at a coffee shop started because two men were excited about their first experience of a Latin mass one weekday morning in June. As far as I could tell, Mr. Blue T-Shirt and Mr. Purple Polo Shirt had just attended a Tridentine mass for the first time. In case you were wondering, there has been quite a conversation, if not a debate, happening in Catholic parishes throughout the United States ever since Pope Benedict XVI issued the papal letter Summorum Pontificum last July on the use of the Roman liturgy of 1962—the liturgy that preceded the reforms of Vatican II, restricted the use of the vernacular in mass, and required that the officiating priest celebrate mass facing the tabernacle above the altar instead of the congregation. In another letter, Benedict insists that a return to the Tridentine mass should not be interpreted as a reversal of Vatican II’s 1963 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium. He justifies a return to the pre-Vatican II liturgy on the grounds that there is an urgent need to repair “divisions” in the church by uniting all Catholics in mass.

Benedict doesn’t specify what he means by “divisions.” Instead of guessing what he means (though I think we all have our own hunches), I’m reminded by my little episode with Mr. Blue T-Shirt and Mr. Purple Polo Shirt just how fascinating the idea of the pope really is. The pope can be anyone to anybody—Peter’s successor, living saint, prophet, anti-Christ, opium dealer of the people. In this case, I listened to a couple of Cajun Catholics expressing their popular ideas about official church matters. Isn’t it always the case that popular and official forms of religion have a way of devouring each other the second they take the form of thinking, feeling, moving human beings in contact with the world around them? So keep your eyes peeled and your ears opened for a Tridentine mass(goer) near you. It’s on the minds of a lot of Catholics in the United States.

I’d like to make two more points before I sign off. First, Walker Percy once said that one of his favorite pastimes was to sit and listen to people talk at the local Waffle House, so don’t judge me. Second, toward the end of their conversation, Mr. Purple Polo Shirt turned to Mr. Blue T-Shirt and said, “Don’t get me wrong, I love Jesus, but I love his mama a little bit more.” One word: Awesome!

New Blog: American Creation

John Fea

Our readers should be aware of the folks over at American Creation, a new group blog "to promote discussion, debate and insight into the religious aspects of America's founding." They have an eclectic group of contributors who do a great job of scouring the web for materials related to Christianity and the Founding. It looks like part of their mission is to debunk the "Christian America" myth circulating among certain sectors of American evangelicalism. One of their contributors, Jon Rowe, is the most dogged critic of the Christian America thesis I have ever run across and I have learned much from reading his own blog over the last few years.

As some of you know, I am writing a popular book for the church tentatively titled "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Primer for Christians," so needless to say I will be checking American Creation often.

Deist Monsters and Divine Hierarchies

Paul Harvey

The latest Journal of American History features a terrifically interesting piece by Christopher Grasso of William and Mary: "Deist Monster: On Religious Common Sense in the Wake of the American Revolution (subscription required for link). Besides following a murder mystery in the Early Republic, Grasso concludes with an exploration of what a philosophical reliance on "common sense" meant in the constitutional era, and how it tied into ideas of Deism. His conclusion:

Beadle [a Connecticut merchant who in 1782 murdered his family and then killed himself, and who was thought to have done so after embracing "Deistical beliefs"] had raised troubling questions that could not be easily brushed aside, shouted down, or answered simply with a "thus saith the Lord." Without the guidance of the scriptures, did deism collapse the relation between God and man into fatalism—turning a moral agent into merely God's machine? That may have been true for Beadle, but the same was being said of Calvinism. Did deism instead encourage man to overemphasize his free will, divinize the self, and supplant God? Even those who derided Ethan Allen's arrogance did not misread him to such an extent. Without the Bible, was sanity itself threatened? Yet Beadle had seemed to his neighbors a reasonable and virtuous man until that final morning. What, then, was the relation between religious belief and public virtue?

The deist provocations of Ethan Allen and William Beadle expose the cultural politics involved in the making of American religious common sense. Public champions of Christianity realized that given the social, cultural, and economic disruptions the Revolutionary War had caused, and in the new political environment the Revolution had created, making the United States a Christian nation would require more than the simple perpetuation of a religious heritage. To maintain Christianity as the foundation of a nation that had rejected traditional authority by appealing to self-evident truths, many American Protestants felt compelled to defend scripture by invoking common sense, insisting that the Bible's divine origin was obvious to any sensible person. Most invocations of common sense by antideist writers in the 1780s were not yet intentional references toward the logical edifice of Scottish philosophy; they were rhetorical attempts to claim that the divine inspiration of the scriptures was a fact that could not be contested by reasonable American citizens. Mentioning common sense, though, could be a double-edged sword. The philosophy that readers might associate with that term (whatever the writer's intentions) grounded ethical reasoning on universal moral instinct or on the epistemologically trustworthy faculties of normal human perception; it could therefore be seen as threatening to scriptural authority. Common Sense philosophy had been embraced by some political thinkers, especially those who had been influenced by John Witherspoon at the College of New Jersey. But before the last years of the eighteenth century, most orthodox Christians and evangelicals avoided resting too much weight on this mode of thinking because doing so seemed to flatter sinful human nature and to render God's revelation in the scriptures unnecessary. In short, Common Sense philosophy could seem more deist than Christian. So while defending Christianity against deism in a new political climate pushed apologists toward the rhetoric of common sense, for theological reasons many in the 1780s were still wary of the philosophy being attached to that term.

In for a rhetorical penny, however, the defenders of a Christian America were soon in for a philosophical pound. America's Protestant theologians and educators would draw from Scottish thought and learn to finesse the problem, showing, to their satisfaction at least, how Common Sense philosophy and the Bible were mutually reinforcing. The subsequent dominance of Common Sense philosophy in American intellectual history from the 1790s to the Civil War grew out of the broader cultural strains and conflicts laid bare in the 1780s. The deist monster helped bring to the surface fundamental concerns that this christianized common sense would eventually (if temporarily) answer—concerns about the moral nature of the new American citizen and about how the newly united states could secure religious liberty and yet create a society still beholden not just to Nature's God but to the God of the Old and New Testaments.

The same issue has my review of Sean McCloud, Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies, a new work that we've discussed on the blog before.

Finally, J. M. Floyd Thomas of Texas Christian University reviews Ed Blum's W. E. B. DuBois: American Prophet. In this appropriately admiring review, he concludes:

As the first significant examination of Du Bois's religious thought, Blum's work powerfully evokes both the spirit and substance of Du Bois's moral vision in ways that will greatly benefit students and scholars of American religious and intellectual history for years to come.

Radio Religion

Kelly Baker

This American Life is my favorite NPR show. Since I am currently in a lull (no more writing or editing the dissertation just waiting for the defense), I find myself listening to the show more and more often via podcast and audiobook. So, I thought I would promote my favorite episodes on religion, people figuring out religion, and the American religious landscape. (The podcast is free to listen to from the website.) These could also be excerpted quite well for classes. I have started using some of This American Life's podcasts for my gender and religion class, and I will incorporate them into my Religion in the U.S. class for Spring 2009.
How does the Devil work? We hear stories from five different people who say they found themselves inexplicably doing something random and bad, something which made no sense to them at all. Host Ira Glass explains why this might be, cadging a bit from C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. (This episode discusses Hell House and the Amish rite of rumspringa).
At a time when House Majority Leader Tom Delay calls for enacting a "Biblical world view" in government, when Christians are asserting their ideals in the selection of judges, in public school science classes and elsewhere, This American Life spends an hour trying to remember why anyone liked the separation of church and state in the first place. (A fascinating look at advocates for a "Christian" amendment to the Constitution, perspectives on the "wall of separation," and an interview with Isaac Kramnick, the co-author of The Godless Constitution.)

Carlton Pearson's church, Higher Dimensions, was once one of the biggest in the city, drawing crowds of 5,000 people every Sunday. But several years ago, scandal engulfed the reverend. He didn't have an affair. He didn't embezzle lots of money. His sin was something that to a lot of people is far worse: He stopped believing in Hell.

A Muslim woman persuades her husband that their family would be happier if they left the West Bank and moved to America. They do, and things are good...until September 11. After that, the elementary school their daughter goes to begins using a textbook that says Muslims want to kill Christians. This and other stories of what happens when Muslims and non-Muslims try to communicate, and misfire.

Happy listening!

Sued in the Spirit

John G. Turner

Healing ministries are potentially risky business.

According to an article in The Smoking Gun, a man is suing a Tennessee church because "catchers" failed to catch him when he collapsed under the power of the Holy Spirit:

Mr. Lincoln received the spirit and fell backwards striking the carpet-covered cement floor with the back of his head and back, causing him to sustain severe and permanent injuries ...

[Mr. Lincoln accuses the church of being] negligent in not supervising the catchers to be sure that they stood behind the person being prayed for and in front of the visiting minister to assure that they could catch someone should they have a dizzying, fainting or falling in the spirit as had occurred on many occasions before.

The above text is from the plaintiff's complaint. Evidently plaintiffs have occasionally won such cases before. I presumed people sued Pentecostal churches or ministers when the spirit failed to act, not when it did. Perhaps all folks asking for healing should have to sign some sort of disclaimer.

Thanks to Christopher Jones of The Juvenile Instructor for bringing this to my attention.

Religion, Culture, and Politics Redux

Paul Harvey

While we're still on the subject of religion, culture, and politics, here's a nice text that should be useful for many in the classroom: Mark Hulsether, Religion, Culture, and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States (Columbia University Press, 2008).

The book is explicitly meant as a classroom text, and throughout, Hulsether uses the concept of mapping and touring as student-friendly ways to suggest how to think about religion in more complexly textured ways than students usually bring to the subject.

The work begins with some reflections on religion, culture, and hegemony, which he defines here as achieving consent without coercion, and establishing a “common sense” for a culture such that socially produced norms and structures come to be seen as natural and inevitable. In this fashion, Hulsether gently guides readers, including undergraduates, into considering thicker descriptions and deeper analyses of religious belief and practice than normally come into the classroom. After a relatively lengthy introductory chapter providing a quick overview of religion in America to the twentieth century, Hulsether provides parallel chapters on “religion and social conflict” and “cultural aspects of religion” first for the earlier twentieth century, and then for the later twentieth century. The conclusion considers “consensus” models for religion in America (largely conservative normative visions of a Christian America) and pluralist models obviously favored by liberals. Implicitly rejecting both, Hulsether proposes his own model: to “analyze cases where religion, culture, and politics come together in terms of the hegemonic and counter-hegemonic goals that are in play.” Again, the scary academic words there immediately come in view with concrete cases and thoughtful questions: “Would it be better – especially for minorities but also for majorities – to live in a land where a live-and-let-live approach is hegemonic? Conversely, does a society that valorizes postmodern pluralism reflect the hegemony of consumerism and dog-eat-dog corporate values?” (238). Rather than beginning with “building consensus or celebrating diversity,” Hulsether suggests that his own model fosters the task of learning to “think wisely – in concrete cases – about both harmonious pluralism and intractable conflict, both diversity and power imbalance” (240).
Hulsether also provides numerous clear-headed analyses of numerous particular subjects. For example, Hulsether provides a nice summary of William Jennings Bryan’s role in the Scopes episode, showing how he worried more about how “evolutionary theory eroded democracy . . . strengthened militarism and Social Darwinism” as he did about defending the stories of Genesis; as well, he also “saw himself upholding the rights of local communities to set their own educational goals” (135). Again, this story has become familiar to scholars through the works of Edward Larson and others, but these understandings scarcely have reached a broader or student audience. In another useful section, Hulsether shows how Reinhold Nieburhian thought in practice “carried forward the tradition of religious support for U.S. foreign policy, as well as optimism about the US as the standard-bearer for progress in the world” (105), effectively puncturing those who would deify the Protestant theoretician of power. Finally, Hulsether nicely parses the overly hyped numbers of religious immigration, showing that the pluralist reveries of some recent commentators exaggerate the numerical impact of non-Christian immigrant religions, which collectively number about the percentage of the population that Jews did a century ago.

Scholars of U.S. religion will find this book a most useful and engaging survey text for their field, and one eminently adoptable for the classroom.

Religion in American Politics Reviewed

Paul Harvey

It's religion and politics season again, as can be seen in a number of recent posts here. For some historical perspective, Frank Lambert of Purdue University is always a good guide. Lambert's most recent work Religion in American Politics is reviewed by Aziz Huq here. One interesting passage in the review (reminiscent of the argument presented in Akhil Ahmar's study of the Bill of Rights):

Lambert does not consider why religious conflict did not break out to the degree that it did in other parts of the world. Surely no explanation can be entirely satisfactory. But several are worth exploring. Chief among them, in my view, is the role of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It is not, however, the Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom that has done the work. Rather, it is the original, and too often forgotten, consequence of the Establishment Clause, which insulated the federal government from formal capture by any sect. State establishments, by contrast, persisted until 1833. It was only the Reconstruction Amendments that extended the protections of the Bill of Rights to the states and thereby rendered state establishments beyond constitutional bounds. But by placing the national policy beyond religious demarcation at the very inception of the American project, the Framers wisely extinguished a source of potentially catastrophic conflict. The common emphasis on religious freedom or the propriety of religious arguments in the public sphere misses this key point.

Obama and the Gospel of Cal Thomas


By Art Remillard

When Cal Thomas had this picture taken, he must have told the photographer, “OK, I want something that just screams, ‘I am a self-righteous [fill in the blank].’’” Think I’m wrong? Then read his recent article, “Barack Obama is Not a Christian.” No, Thomas doesn’t run with the “Obama is a Muslim” canard. Rather, he references a 2004 interview Obama gave with Chicago Sun-Times columnist “God Girl” Cathleen Falsani (read the entire interview here). After his set-up, Thomas mentions an exchange on salvation...

Falsani correctly brings up John 14:6 (and how many journalists would know such a verse, much less ask a question based on it?) in which Jesus says of Himself, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That sounds pretty exclusive, but Obama says it depends on how this verse is heard. According to Falsani, Obama thinks that “all people of faith — Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, everyone — know the same God.” (her words)

If that is so, Jesus wasted his time coming to Earth and he certainly did not have to suffer the pain of rejection and crucifixion if there are ways to God other than through Himself.

Perhaps I have a different interview, but I couldn’t locate where, exactly, Obama said this. But I suspect Thomas was pointing to where Obama reasoned...

I find it hard to believe that my God would consign four-fifths of the world to hell. I can’t imagine that my God would allow some little Hindu kid in India who never interacts with the Christian faith to somehow burn for all eternity. That’s just not part of my religious makeup.

The Horor! Indeed, depicting a companionate God sounds pretty darn scandalous. This led Thomas to conclude…

Obama can call himself anything he likes, but there is a clear requirement for one to qualify as a Christian and Obama doesn’t meet that requirement. One cannot deny central tenets of the Christian faith, including the deity and uniqueness of Christ as the sole mediator between God and Man and be a Christian. Such people do have a label applied to them in Scripture. They are called a “false prophet.”

I hope some national journalist or commentator with knowledge of such things asks Obama about this and doesn’t let him get away with re-writing Scripture to suit his political ends.

TAKE THAT LIBERAL MEDIA!!!! But wait, I’m confused? Why does the esteemed columnist Thomas only want “the media” (boooo) to press Obama? Why not John McCain? Imagine this question in a press conference: “Senator McCain, do you find it unfortunate that your potential running mate, Governor Romney, will be burning in the fiery pits of hell for all eternity after he dies?” I mean, fair is fair, right?

"I Hope Their Souls Will Soon Be White"

Paul Harvey

Hot off the presses, a terrific article and must read for American religious historians, by our contributing editor Michael Pasquier: “ ‘Though Their Skin Remains Brown, I Hope Their Souls Will Soon be White’: Slavery, French Missionaries, and the Roman Catholic Priesthood in the American South, 1789-1865,” Church History 77 (June 2008): 337-370.

Pasquier’s nuanced and well-researched piece argues this conclusion (among others):

“French missionary priests, who were immigrants for all intents and purposes, responded to the practice of enslavement as Catholics and ultimately justified the practice of enslavements as Catholics. They embraced the American institution of slavery by using non-American theological and philosophical arguments, ultimately finding commonalities in the conservative and authoritarian social orders of the American South and the Roman Catholic Church. But more important, they embraced the American institution of slavery because of their practical experiences as missionaries to enslaved persons and as owners of slaves. Put simply, the experience of evangelizing and owning slaves cannot be underestimated when explaining how ‘Catholics became American.’”

Later, he writes:

“The commonalities of southern Protestant and Roman Catholic social ethics hinged on a conservative understanding of the construction of a Christian social order. Despite their common conclusion, Protestant ministers and missionary priests developed their proslavery ideologies in different places and for different reasons. With the sectional conflict of the 1850s and 1860s, evangelical Protestantism and southern conservatism combined to produce an unintentionally common bond based on Christianity and slavery.”

And finally:

“the more French missionaries acted according to their understanding of Catholicism, they more they identified with southern culture and defended the institution of slavery.”

As it happens, I read this piece while making my way all the way through Erskine Clarke’s truly epic Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic, which traces the life of the family, white and black, surrounding the family of the “apostle to the slaves,” Charles Colcock Jones. Jones found himself inexorably compelled to support the very institution that he bitterly criticized as a seminary student at Andover and Princeton. More on this book in a blog post in the near future – in the meantime, read Kelly Baker’s review/conference presentation on this book, from her previous blog post.

My (Hopeful) Summer Vacation

Kelly Baker

Several years ago a colleague of mine suggested a road trip for the graduate students to the Holy Land Experience, What better way to relax for budding religious historians than a theme park that included recreations of Herod's Temple and Jerusalem as well as biblically-themed souvenirs? Orlando was not actually that far from Tallahassee, and I immediately fell in love with the idea (it would allow me to make a pilgrimage to the Mouse as well). However, the trip was not meant to be. My spouse could not imagine a worse vacation than hanging out with scholar-tourists in replicated religious environments, even if the park had ice cream.

Thus, my dream of the Holy Land Experience was delayed (possibly permanently). Luckily for me, Newsweek provides an interesting take on the park and its guests. In "Crucifixion and Ice Cream," Joan Branham, an associate professor of Art History at Providence College, tackles the aesthetic as well as audience participation. She writes:

Amid cell phones ringing, video cams rolling and ice cream melting under the Florida sun, a blood-spattered Jesus stumbles through the crowd on his way to Golgotha, where nasty Roman soldiers strip him, nail him to the cross and crucify him—while perspiring tourists look on in Bermuda shorts. After the resurrection sequence, visitors applaud and line up for a photo op, not with Mickey or Minnie, but a disciple or bloody-handed yet friendly centurion. Welcome to Orlando's most unusual theme park, the Holy Land Experience.

Built in 2001 at a cost of $16 million, the Holy Land Experience recreates the ancient city of Jerusalem to "take you 2,000 years back in time to the world of the Bible" where "it brings to life ancient Israel." Dominating the theme park is a towering replica of Herod's Temple, much like Cinderella's Castle just down Interstate 4. Also on display are recreations of the Qumran caves (site of the Dead Sea Scrolls), the Garden Tomb of Jesus, the Wilderness Tabernacle with an Ark of the Covenant light and sound show and a Byzantine Scriptorium where tourists learn about the history of Bible production. A gift shop sells Star of David necklaces with Christian crosses embedded in them and olive wood from the real Holy Land.
In 2007, Trinity Broadcast Network (the world's largest religious channel, based in Santa Ana, Calif.) bought the park and softened the language that once targeted Jews "to graciously proclaim to all people … the need for personal salvation through Jesus." TBN chief of staff Paul Crouch Jr. says "any and all are welcome" at the park. "All types have been there: Jewish, all Christian denominations, Catholic nuns, Mennonites … The park wants people educated in the Torah, the Wilderness Tabernacle, but there is a Messianic element."
(Newsweek also provides a video of the Crucifixion re-enactment and Branham's commentary. The audience, it seems, is not sure how to react to the event.)

So, I have yet to coerce my significant other into a trip to the Holy Land Experience, but his will seems to be slipping. My summer vacation, instead, includes a defense and teaching, but all the while I will be angling for a trip to a faux Jerusalem and a stopover at the land of the Mouse.

Child Poverty in Christian-Land

Paul Harvey

Colorado experienced nationally the largest growth rate in child poverty from 2000 to 2006, according to a study released yesterday: 180,000 children — 15.7 percent of the state total — were living in poverty in Colorado in 2006, a 73 percent increase since 2000.

Reading this study, I did a quick and admittedly unscientific web search to see what, if anything, religious right organizations in the Colorado Springs and Denver area (the epicenter, nationally, for these groups), from Focus on the Family to the megachurches to the dozens of other parachurch groups, had to say. The answer doubtless will shock you: nothing much, aside from generic statements about how marriage is good for kids and children in married families are less likely to be raised in poverty.

Fair enough; I would not dispute those statements, and there's a good argument that strengthening families is a good policy measure to combat poverty. Of course, in this world "strengthening families" has nothing to do with providing decent health insurance for the nearly 50 million uninsured, or providing the kind of post-natal support and parental leave common in European countries, or addressing critical state priorities in education, and on and on.

(Just to cite one random example: Higher education is one of the single greatest drivers of economic growth and lifting people's prospects, yet Colorado has ranked 49th in per capita higher education funding recently, just to cite one randomly chosen example. After a recent referendum in state tax policy allowing for the retention for a few years of "excess" tax revenue, I think we're all the way up to 44th now. Of course, the religious right locally opposed this change in tax policy).

I also know what we've gone through politically here in the last election cycles, and sure to be the case in this one as well: a frenzied focus on homosexuality, "the gay agenda," and especially gay marriage, sure to be worsened this time by the California Supreme Court decision and a statewide ballot measure banning gay marriage (similar to the one in Ohio in 2004). Again, scan the websites of these Colorado groups and you would assume that gay marriage will put the Republic in clear and present danger -- just as, in a previous generation, they portrayed miscegenation and the grave threat of interracial marriage, prior to the Loving case in 1967.

The disproportionate attention paid to these sideshow wedge issues has worked in firing up the base, but for how much longer? Even while evangelicals nationally appear to be waking up, belatedly, to a broader range of issues beyond the firebombs, Colorado's evangelicals still sound the same calls for culture wars.

Update: For evidence of my final statement above about some Colorado evangelicals, see this post from a local (Colorado Springs) pastor who sees complaints about poverty to be evidence of the "covetousness" of the impoverished. He writes: As Christians, we must look at the Bible's objective standards of poverty rather than at the federal government's poverty guidelines.

In other words, lack of access to affordable and decent food, health care, and education is perfectly biblical.

By contrast, we must
"fight the good fight" on the central battleground for our times -- that being, of course, fighting the "homo-agenda." Onward, Christian soldier.

All Aimee, All the Time

Paul Harvey

While we're on the subject of Sister Aimee, listen to Matthew Hall's interview with our contributing editor Matt Sutton, "commenting on everything from Sister Aimee to Rod Parsley," here on this podcast (linked to the post, look right at the bottom), and read Matt Hall's review of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America here.
newer post older post