Who Will Review the Reviewers?


Or: Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Upton Sinclair, W. E. B. DuBois, Star Wars, and Me.

by Ed Blum

Billy Sunday is doing one of three things right now: 1) wrestling with the devil in a death match; 2) sipping some ginger ale while Jesus drinks wine and the two cheer for the Cubs; 3) rolling over in his Chicago grave because Jean Bethke Elshtain recently compared him with “Eli Sunday” (or “Eli Watkins” as he is called in Upton Sinclair’s Oil!) in that wonderful journal Books and Culture. I’m guessing that Billy Sunday – the baseball-playing, fighting with demons, stomping, shouting, tough guy revivalist of the early twentieth century would not appreciate being likened to the sniveling, effeminate Eli Sunday of There Will Be Blood. And I’m also guessing that Upton Sinclair, whose character in Oil! was named “Eli Watkins” and who, according to Matthew A. Sutton, modeled this character after Aimee Semple McPherson (or at least one of her followers), might be irritated by the misunderstanding.

Mistaking Billy Sunday for Aimee Semple McPherson – whether on the part of the filmmakers or on the part of Jean Bethke Elshtain – may not seem like a big deal (on a side note, Jean Bethke Elshtain writes that Eli Sunday was “Upton Sinclair’s representation of the famous evangelist Billy Sunday in his novel Oil, on which the film is very loosely based”; to be truthful, there is no character in Oil named “Eli Sunday”). Weren’t they both powerful and inspirational revivalists? Didn’t they both help fashion a new form of Protestantism in the early twentieth century? Sure, but if we care about gender and if we care about geographical space (let alone historical accuracy), then it certainly matters.

Take a look at Sutton’s analysis of Oil! in his Aimee Semple McPherson and he Resurrection of Christian America (it begins on page 143). For instance, Sinclair wrote of Eli that his preaching “had thus become one of the major features of Southern California life.” Or then again, the Watkins family believed in the “Old Time Religion … the Four Square Gospel.” Then later, reports broke that Eli had drowned at a local beach. Doesn’t this sound exactly like Billy Sunday? Who was it that initiated the Four Square Gospel and put a stamp on southern California and was supposedly lost at sea? (the answer is not Billy Sunday).

If Sutton is right and Jean Bethke Elshtain is wrong, then we must ask Sinclair would cast the McPherson figure as a man. It’s an important question, but also one that leads to why McPherson has so often been left out in discussions of the rise of the moral majority. Why must a female presence be banished either from formative stages of southern California or from the moral majority’s long history? And now with name choice in There Will Be Blood and Jean Bethke Elshtain’s review, it is more than the tale of an effeminate fictional character representing a genuine woman; it is now a real Midwestern minister of a masculine gospel represented by a feminized southern Californian.

I’m not sure how these types of “mistakes” (if it is a mistake, which I might be mistaken about) can be corrected. I have no idea how reviewers can be reviewed. To be perfectly honest, I wish that I could take back most reviews that I wrote before my first book was published. It was not until then that I realized that the first task of a reviewer was to admire and appreciate, and then to critique and challenge. Before my first monograph, I first wanted to prove my mettle and then perhaps celebrate the hard work of an author. In the next month, a forum review of my religious biography of Du Bois will come out with the Journal of Southern Religion. One of the reviewers thinks that I am wrong to call Du Bois a prophetic figure (as did a previous review by Curtis Evans), yet does so with no evidence or even theory to contradict my portrayal of Du Bois. Almost every page of my work either has Du Bois using prophetic language and tropes or has his contemporaries referring to him as a prophet, as one who “reveals” hidden realities to them, or as one who speaks with religious insight against the powers that be.
Sadly, there is no Woodrow Wilson to walk softly and carry a big stick. Or was that Theodore Roosevelt? Who cares… they both lived in the Progressive Era. Then again, sadly, there is no Bill Clinton to propose a “Star Wars” program that could defend the United States from Soviet attacks (and also all unjust reviews from being published). Or was that Ronald Reagan or Senator Hillary Clinton? Again, it doesn’t matter; Clinton and Reagan were both Presidents around the same time and Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton have the same last name.

Religion in the African Diaspora: CFP

Conference on Religion and Religious Identities in Africa and the African Diaspora

Ed Blum

Here is a conference that I think blog folk should know about:

CALL FOR PAPERS: Conference on Religion & Religious Identities in Africa and the African Diaspora. Kalamazoo, Michigan, October 9-12, 2008.

Religious beliefs and identities have among other things shaped the nature of human experience in Africa and the African Diaspora. It is also a known fact that religious beliefs and identities have influenced human behavior in both religious and non-religious ways in different societies. These influences have included positive and negative consequences in the ordering of society in Africa and the African Diaspora. Another critical aspect in trying to explore the concept of religion is what constitutes religion and religious beliefs? To date, scholars of religion have divergent views on this issue. To what extent is this applicable to Africans and peoples of African descent? What roles have religion and religious identities played in nation-building efforts in Africa and the African Diaspora? This conference will explore these and other related issues. In addition, participants are invited to explore other topics such as, but not limited to the following:*

* Religion, gender and sexuality issues
* Religion and conflicts
* Religion, health and wellbeing
* Religion, State and political participation
* Religious denominations and community development
* Current scholarship on religion and religious Identities
* African religious identities in the Diaspora
* Religious identities in immigrant communities
* Pentecostalism in Africa and the African Diaspora
* Inter-religious encounters in Africa and the African Diaspora – Islam, Christianity and African Traditional Religions
* Religion, Education and the making of the nation.

Conference participants are encouraged to submit abstracts (300 words at most) on any aspect of the broad themes identified above. The deadline for submitting paper proposals is August 29, 2008.

All abstracts should include title, the author's name, institutional affiliation, address, telephone number, and email address. Please submit all abstracts by e-mail to: Onaiwu W. Ogbomo, Western Michigan University Kalamazoo, onaisu.ogbomo AT wmich DOT edu, and Joseph Bangura, Kalamazoo College, bangura AT kzoo DOT edu.

Jeremiah Wright on PBS

Art Remillard

To compliment to Professor Murphy's post and other Wright-related discussions on this blog, I would encourage those interested in the subject to watch Bill Moyers' interview with Jeremiah Wright. If nothing else, it offers insight into the person, his life and ministry.

While watching the interview, I was surprised to learn how significant a role Martin Marty has played in the intellectual formation of Wright. Marty wrote about this, and the controversy in general, in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Below are his concluding thoughts...

It would be unfair to Wright to gloss over his abrasive — to say the least — edges, so, in the "Nobody's Perfect" column, I'll register some criticisms. To me, Trinity's honoring of Minister Louis Farrakhan was abhorrent and indefensible, and Wright's fantasies about the U.S. government's role in spreading AIDS distracting and harmful. He, himself, is also aware of the now-standard charge by some African-American clergy who say he is a victim of cultural lag, overinfluenced by the terrible racial situation when he was formed.

Having said that, and reserving the right to offer more criticisms, I've been too impressed by the way Wright preaches the Christian Gospel to break with him. Those who were part of his ministry for years — school superintendents, nurses, legislators, teachers, laborers, the unemployed, the previously shunned and shamed, the anxious — are not going to turn their backs on their pastor and prophet.

Guest Post: The Jeremiad and Race in America

Today's guest post comes to us from Andrew Murphy, Professor of Humanities and Political Philosophy at Christ College, the Honors College of Valparaiso University. Most recently, Murphy is the author of Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9-11, forthcomng from Oxford University Press this year.

When is a Jeremiah not a Jeremiah?
The Jeremiad and Race in America

by Andrew Murphy

I thought how I would set you among my children, and give you a
pleasant land, the most beautiful heritage of all the nations. And I
thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following
me. Instead, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so you have been
faithless to me, O house of Israel, says the Lord. A voice on the
bare heights is heard, the plaintive weeping of Israel’s children,
because they have perverted their way, they have forgotten the Lord
their God: Return, O faithless children, I will heal your
faithlessness. (Jeremiah 3: 19-22)

It’s not every day that one hears a pastor exhorting his congregation to sing “God Damn America.” The firestorm of controversy over the comments by Barack Obama’s senior pastor and spiritual mentor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright – and the address on race that the comments prompted Obama to deliver on March 18 – have stirred up a hornet’s nest of accusation and recrimination. But if Obama’s speech on race is as historically significant as many of us think, then perhaps the credit ought to go, in part, to Rev. Wright, for (unwittingly, to be sure) prompting the conversation.

What did Wright say? One set of comments had to with the September 11 attacks:

We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye…We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost…

When attempting to sort through the controversy over Wright’s remarks, there seems little reason to linger over the comments about September 11, which do not differ greatly from those offered by a noted white pastor, Jerry Falwell. Falwell, as many will recall, laid the attacks at the feet of those who have pursued a secular public square in the United States.

The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked….[T]he pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen.”

For both Wright and Falwell, the attacks of September 11 can be traced to some basic consequences of something the United States, as a political entity, did. For Falwell it was secularizing the public square and legalizing abortion. For Wright, it was supporting state terrorism and using atomic weapons. To be sure, Falwell was widely criticized for his remarks, and issued a rather tepid apology. But he certainly was not repudiated or renounced by leading Republicans. To the contrary, John McCain practically fell over himself this year seeking a reconciliation with Falwell, whom he had labeled as an agent of “intolerance” during the 2000 primary campaign. (McCain claimed that his earlier comments had been made “in haste.”)

Far more provocative and interesting, to be sure, were Wright’s suggestion that his congregation should not sing “God Bless America”:

The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people…God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.

Now it’s one thing to say that September 11 was related to American foreign policy; it is quite another to damn the nation entirely. “God damn America” strikes at something close to heart of American identity: the notion that the nation has a special place in God’s plan for human history, that God has blessed the United States and will continue to bless it, if it continues to do God’s work. Such a view has deep roots in American history, and has underwritten some of our most significant social movements, including, but hardly limited to, abolitionism, suffrage, temperance, civil rights, and the Cold War.

Many commentators have linked Wright’s remarks to the tradition of the “jeremiad,” the prophetic vocation of speaking truth to power that has deep roots in white as well as black American Christianity. According to this characterization, Wright is fulfilling the prophetic role, highlighting the nation’s failings in an attempt to shock the nation to action.

In the Bible, Jeremiah spoke out in protest of the Israelites’ falling-away from the covenant they had sworn with God at Sinai, and called the people to repentance for their sins lest God send further misfortunes on them. Jeremiah, and others in the prophetic tradition, generally did three things: 1) lamented the community’s present state (its neglect of widows, orphans, and the poor; its chasing after false gods); 2) hearkened back to a time of faithfulness, when the community upheld its covenant and walked with God; and 3) called for reform, repentance, and reformation in order to regain God’s promised blessing. Much was expected of a chosen nation, and the prophet’s role was to insist that the community mend its ways, ask God’s forgiveness, and reclaim its original promise.

When the Puritans journeyed from England to America in the 1630s, they brought this sense of chosenness with them: John Winthrop famously told his fellow settlers that “we shall be as a city on a hill.” Explicit parallels with the Israelites filled their early sermons – the ocean crossing as a kind of Exodus, the wilderness all around them filled with natives to be dispossessed so that a godly nation could arise in the American wilderness. Time and again, New England clergy – Jeremiahs of their own time and place – railed at their compatriots, lamenting their falling-away from the piety and godliness of the first generation, their frenetic pursuit of luxury and material success, calling them back to faithfulness and their covenant with God and each other. These presuppositions were deepened and strengthened by the events of the 1770s and 1780s, in which the notion of an American Israel throwing off oppression in order to take up its national mission settled ever more deeply into American public rhetoric. This link was only strengthened by the Revolutionary experience, the great evangelical revivals of the early nineteenth century, and the nation’s first movements westward.

Nor did the jeremiad go away after the founding era. Time and time again, critics raised their voice in the name of founding American principles, lamenting the continuing obstacles standing in the way of their full realization, and calling Americans to reform their practices and claim the nation’s foundational promises. Frederick Douglass told an audience on July 4, 1852, that “[t]he principles contained in [the Declaration of Independence] are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” He, and countless white critics like him (including, perhaps, President Abraham Lincoln), saw the Civil War’s carnage as a kind of chastisement visited by God on a sinful nation who had too long tolerated the sin of slavery. In the twentieth century, Franklin Roosevelt, too, looked back to the spirit of the founding in making a case for an “Economic Bill of Rights,” arguing that “Political tyranny was wiped out at Philadelphia on July 4, 1776….Since that struggle, however, man's inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people…Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.” And during the twentieth century, Martin Luther King powerfully “refuse[d] to believe” that the bank of American justice was bankrupt, and brought his dream to Washington. It was, he told his audience, “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” King – America’s twentieth century Jeremiah – called a nation to honor its deepest commitments, to pay the promissory note that was written at the nation’s founding.

The most recent example of such an understanding was in plain view on March 18, when Barack Obama voiced his view that although the nation’s founding document “was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery,” nonetheless “the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution.” His dream, like King’s, was deeply rooted in the American dream. Obama--and King, and Roosevelt, and Douglass, and Lincoln--offered a jeremiad that we might call “progressive” – one that asserted a deep faith in the nation’s promise, articulated at the founding but always painfully incomplete. It is a jeremiad because the prophetic vocation here is being exercised – speaking truth to power in the service of reclaiming the community’s fundamental goodness and promise. It is progressive because, without being saccharine, it asserts that progress does happen--slowly, painfully, and never easily--and that progress is due, in large part, to two things: the powerful potential of American ideals, and the courage of American citizens.

There are, of course, other ways to play Jeremiah. Christian Right leaders like Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the like have themselves used a jeremiad to mobilize millions of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians into political life since the 1970s. They lament developments in American society and politics since the 1960s –the sexual revolution and the acceptance of homosexuality, the legalization of abortion, the removal of prayer from public schools, the increasing prevalence of violence and degrading sexual content in the media. This jeremiad looks to the past as well, not so much for ideas and principles as for concrete aspects of past practices: traditional “family values,” prayer in public schools, a friendly relationship between church and state, heterosexual marriage. For these Jeremiahs the nation’s misfortunes stem from its turning away from traditional beliefs and practices that dominated in earlier times, and to which they seek to return. Much of it is nostalgia, to be sure, but the point here is that there was a time when things were rightly done, and we have lost that, and need to get it back.

All of this seems far, far away from Jeremiah Wright, however. The biblical Jeremiah’s vocation, after all – and Douglass’s, and King’s – was not to damn the nation, but to call the faithful back to a right relationship with God and each other, one that, on some level, they acknowledged in their founding promises. In this way, the jeremiad can often claim, with good reason, to represent the most loyal patriotism even while engaging in the most strident dissent, since it anchors itself so deeply in founding virtues. King had no illusions about social realities at the time of the founding, but he located the power of the Constitution in the American ideals of liberty and justice for all, in the radical potential of the American founding. Passing civil rights and voting rights legislation would represent a vindication of those founding promises.

There seems little of this in Wright’s comments. Now this is not to say that what Wright says is not true; in fact there is, as Obama himself put it, an understandable sense of suspicion and distrust that black Americans, particularly black Americans of Wright’s generation, hold toward the nation. But Wright does not offer a jeremiad. His words evoke not King’s dream, but a rather different set of religious voices from American history that have denied the nation’s fundamental promise. William Lloyd Garrison called the nation “diseased beyond the power of recovery,” and famously burned a copy of the Constitution, referring to it as “an agreement with hell.” Or consider Stephen Douglas’s denial, in his debates with Lincoln, that American founding documents had any promise whatsoever: the authors of the Declaration of Independence, he claimed, were speaking only of whites, of “British subjects on this continent being equal to British subjects born and residing in Great Britain.” For Douglas, as for Garrison – as, it seems, for Wright – the nation’s racial promise is limited to the concrete details of its past – the narrow, literal wording of the Declaration; the failure of the Constitution to do away with slavery once and for all.

So this Jeremiah is not quite the Jeremiah that some would have us believe. He offers a trenchant and much-needed critique of American race relations past and present, but seems unable or unwilling to offer a vision of an American future that might transcend that past.

Obama made just this point:

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made, as if this country…is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know – what we have seen – is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.

Of course, proclaiming that the nation can change, and actually seeing such change happen, are two quite different things. Perhaps the great service of Reverend Wright’s controversial remarks will turn out to lie not in the sentiments he voiced but in the response he evoked from his most famous parishioner. That would be a call and response worthy, not just of the African-American religious tradition, but of all Americans.

Andrew R. Murphy
Associate Professor of Humanities and Political Philosophy
Christ College, the Honors College
Valparaiso University

Proctor and Gamble, Out of the Closet

and the Burnt-Over District sisterhood

As a special end-of-the-semester treat, As The World Turns has finally given its viewers the demanded embrace between Noah and Luke. For those worried about super-delegates and electoral tallies, this is a story that gives hope again to the democratization of Christianity. Through Hershey kiss campaigns, online petitions, and wails to Proctor and Gamble, celebrants of on-screen love got the goods. Now the struggle will be that age-old drama: how to keep it hot. Fans of Moonlighting wish them well.

Deg's Dispatches, Part VIII

Dispatches from LeConte Hall 323 – Part VIII
by Darren Grem

Things are winding down in our “uncoverage” study of American religious history. Breaking into the late twentieth century this week, we studied the religious underpinnings of political activism, focusing on the civil rights movement and women’s movement. Another selection – Freedom Faith – from the PBS documentary This Far By Faith started us off. I wanted students to consider more than just the notable leaders of the civil rights movement, so they took notes on how this film portrayed the religious activism of African-Americans in the rural and small town South of the 1960s. By giving them some leading questions to guide their note taking, I tried to tie this film back to what we had studied previously about African-American religions and politics, as well as more theoretical concepts like the “religion of the American Way of Life” and “civil religion.” They were more successful at the former analysis than the latter, sometimes skipping completely over questions about how these activists both criticized and utilized notions of “religious freedom,” “religious individualism,” and “civil religion.” Only a few students caught on to these more conceptual connections, and this problem continued as they analyzed documents from the civil rights movement and women’s movement. Utilizing selections from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Malcolm X’s “Letters from Abroad,” and Mary F. Daly’s Beyond God the Father, I wanted them to consider the overlap between notions of “religious freedom” and “religious liberation.” How are the two connected? How might the former notion, however defined in various religions, inform similar or different interpretations of the latter notion? Oddly, our discussion of these matters was decidedly unsatisfactory, at least from my seat. Even though I graphed out some of their ideas on the board, this didn’t enliven our discussion much in either the morning or afternoon class. When thinking back, I believe I was asking the wrong questions – or too vaguely put questions – to elicit responses that helped them understand - or debate - the nuances of the material better. But I think their difficulty with this section was also symptomatic of another issue I’ve been having recently with certain aspects of this course’s “uncoverage” design.

Most history classes flow from lectures into discussions. “Uncoverage” works in the reverse, starting with discussions of “raw” history and then following with a concluding lecture. Although I think this reorganization is great for jolting students out of their comfort zone early in the term, I’ve increasingly come to believe that it grants diminishing returns later in the term. Students need scaffolding, and, frankly, nothing like straight-up lecturing grants that. That’s not to say that I’m going to return to a lecture-driven pedagogy for smaller classes like this one; rather, I want to reintroduce lectures at the beginning of specific sections of the class, particularly ones where I think the broad historical context is a necessary foundation for understanding a given set of documents, a film, etc.

There’s a number of other edits that I want to make to the course, but I’ll relate those later, after I get back the end-term course evaluations. We’re moving through our last section of the course – Religion in “Culture War” America – this week, and will finish things off with their writing portfolios and final assignment in the next. Until then…

Political Primaries, C.S. Lewis, and Remembering the Sun

Art Remillard

As I drove through my small western Pennsylvania town this morning, the campaign signs reminded me that six weeks of political frenzy have mercifully come to an end. To be sure, the election battles will continue, not only through November but into future elections as well. At times, I find myself hoping for the next election day to come, to put an end to the endless predictions and speculation. But at the same time, I lament this impulse to speed through life and risk overlooking every day's hidden treasures.

So I read with great interest this morning an editorial from New York Times columnist David Brooks. He reminds me that sometimes, as folk singer Pieta Brown said, I just need to “remember the sun.”

Below is an excerpt. If you're a C.S. Lewis fan, you'll appreciate both this and the reference to Michael Ward's essay in Books & Culture.

Over the past 15 months, I’ve been writing pretty regularly about the presidential campaign, which has meant thinking a lot about attack ads, tracking polls and which campaign is renouncing which over-the-line comment from a surrogate that particular day. But on my desk for much of this period I have kept a short essay, which I stare at longingly from time to time. It’s an essay about how people in the Middle Ages viewed the night sky, and it’s about a mentality so totally removed from the campaign mentality that it’s like a refreshing dip in a cool and cleansing pool.

The essay, which appeared in Books & Culture, is called “C. S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem,” by Michael Ward, a chaplain at Peterhouse College at Cambridge. It points out that while we moderns see space as a black, cold, mostly empty vastness, with planets and stars propelled by gravitational and other forces, Europeans in the Middle Ages saw a more intimate and magical place...

There’s something about obsessing about a campaign — or probably a legal case or a business deal — that doesn’t exactly arouse the imaginative faculties. Campaigns are all about message management, polls and tactics. The communication is swift, Blackberry-sized and prosaic. As you cover it, you feel yourself enclosed in its tunnel. Entire mental faculties go unused. Ward’s essay has been a constant reminder of that other mental universe.

Happy Earth Day! (And the Count Down to the Eco-Apocalypse)


Kelly Baker

With local radio stations handing out saplings for Albuquerqueans to plant, various email
s on list-serves this morning proclaiming how to reduce my carbon footprint, and my terribly guilty conscience over driving a small SUV, I feel like Earth Day has hit me full force this year. One of the campuses where I teach has started a film series on the environment, and another has started a huge recycling campaign on campus. What has proved most interesting for the start of the Earth Day was a great article by Rebecca Onion at Slate on what she aptly calls "Envirogeddon." Onion explores the fascination of many environmentalist writers about Armageddon, eco-style, which would require the surviving humans to be kinder to the planet and her resources. The beauty of Onion's piece is that she traces this "wish" for an apocalypse back to eco-literature from the 1970s until today to show this continuing vein of thought. She takes on James Howard Kunstler's new novel, World Made by Hand, which examines the lives of survivors of calamitous events and their attempts to live in a ravaged world. Onion writes:

World Made By Hand takes place a couple of decades in the future, after a series of rolling catastrophes has left people without electricity, communications, or transportation infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of others have died of the "Mexican flu." Despite their burdens, the men and women of this imaginary world seem to have pretty good lives. Robert has lost his wife and children, but now he lives in an Arts and Crafts bungalow and makes his living as a carpenter—having been rescued, by the apocalypse, from an emasculating job as a software-marketing guy. The townspeople
replace the suburban infrastructure with ever-more creative and beautiful houses and hold lively square dances. A beautiful and much younger widow, needing protection, falls into Robert's bed and makes him chicken stew with new potatoes and peas for dinner. (Kunstler's post-apocalyptic women have given up trying to be involved in government for their true roles as cooks and sex partners.) Even the occasional bouts of violence are cleansing, putting hair on Robert's sunken chest. In short, thanks to the world's upheaval, Robert becomes a true man while the people around him become a true community.

Onion renders these apocalyptic tales as an attempt a new frontier story, in which the humans start over in various, earth-friendly endeavors. She opines:

This equation of emptiness with rebirth and human freedom was a new kind of frontier story—predicated not on distance from civilization but on the wholesale death of civilization itself. As such, it also forms the basis for Kunstler and Weisman's utopian visions. While the enviros of the 1970s worried about population, we worry about climate change, but the possibilities for post-crisis humanity remain rosy. Kunstler's glorious images of ripped-up strip malls and catamounts in empty houses echo Weisman's regenerating landscapes, and both recall the new eco-orders of Abbey and Wiley. In the perfect green apocalypse, population reduction leaves a world in which everybody wins—birds, bees, and people.

Her concern is that in many of these tales, the "green apocalypse" can only occur with
annihilation of humans to recover the damage. The haunting visions of a planet stripped of humanity and the stunning comeback of nature brings to mind the film, I am Legend. The main character played by Will Smith is the sole survivor of epidemic that kills most humans and turn some into light-sensitive zombies. Alone with only his dog, Sam, in New York City, he hunts for deer in an overgrown Times Square and fishes in the remnants of a reflection pool. A city, once densely populated, appears eerily quite in the day, but of course, the zombie-like beings hunt for humans to dine on at night. The movie's premise is that the population has been almost decimated by a vaccine, which proved to have disastrous results. The "green apocalypse" echoes religious visions of the end, but also provides a damning critique of human relationship with the environment. The film gives a glimpse of how the world might appear after such an event. (In an effort of full disclosure, the film proved to be quite disturbing to me, so I am not quite sure I can recommend it. My spouse liked it, but the isolation and despair of the film proved haunting.) The film provides visual impact to the words of various Envirogeddon writers.

If any of blog readers have come across scholarship on environmental visions of the Armageddon (and comparisons with other apocalyptic groups), please post the references in the comments section. This topic proves to be a fascinating distraction from grading and other work. Happy Earth Day!

Religion and Constitutional Thought Summer Seminar


This call for participants just came across the H-OIEAHC (early American history listserv). It looks like a great opportunity for graduate students and pre-tenured faculty.

The Institute for Constitutional Studies is pleased to announce its ninth annual residential summer research seminar, to be held June 8-14, 2008, in Washington, D.C. This year's topic is "The Influence of Religion on Constitutional Thought." Judge Michael McConnell (Tenth Circuit United States Court of Appeals) and Professor Mark Noll (University of Notre Dame) will teach the seminar. The application deadline has been extended to May 5.

Description: Religious thinking has influenced many of the most fundamental features of American constitutional thought. This seminar will explore some of those developments, with focused discussion of selected readings in the morning sessions and paper presentations in the afternoon. Among the topics that may be considered are: (1) Puritan and Reformed Protestant contributions to constitutionalism, republicanism, and revolution; (2) the colonial Great Awakening (Jonathan Edwards) and ideals of society; (3) William Penn and Quaker ideas of political order; (4) Anglicanism, constitutional monarchy, and Loyalist protest; (5) Presbyterian ecclesiology (e.g., John Witherspoon) and ideas of federalism and representation; (6) Baptist theology (including the rejection of infant baptism, e.g., Isaac Backus) and rising individualism and rejection of religious establishment; (7) Masonic ideas (and opposition to them) in the formation of early republican ideology; (8) varying religious appropriations of the Enlightenment; (9) the Second Great Awakening and the rise of voluntarism and civil society; (10) the religious roots of abolitionism and proslavery thought; (11) Lincoln’s theology; (12) women as leaders in church and state; and (13) the 19th-century Roman Catholic critique (e.g., Orestes Brownson) of liberalism.

Participants are not limited to these topics, but may prepare and present papers ranging across the modern history of constitutional democracy, based on any significant connection between religious and constitutional thought, broadly construed. For more information please visit our website.

bookporn, Chicago Edition


Paul Harvey

A little bit OT, but following from John's tribute to the unfortunately vanishing library periodical room (which are also places I love and gravitate to when I'm visiting other libraries):

Check out Rachel Leow's "bookporn" series, the latest edition being floor-to-ceiling photos of Chicago's Harold E. Washington library. Next time I'm in the Bay Area I should take one of UC Berkeley's reference room hall and also its cozy and lush Morrison reading room, where I spent graduate school years lounging in don't-worry-be-happy bliss. Only Yoshi's jazz club (then, this being the 1980s, in North Oakland, and featuring a half-price student ID discount that allowed me dozens of hours of live listening pleasure to Joe Henderson and scores of others) and Small's in New York City (usually around 1:45 a.m. in the late 1990s, the era of the original Small's, with the Jason Lindner big band wailing, Jason on piano, Myron Walden and others on sax, and Omar Avital taking his double bass to places no bass had gone before) could compare to put me in touch with some divine spark, if just for the moment. For now, Rachel's bookporn series and the occasional moment of musical genius that accidentally stumbles its way into Colorado Springs (and soon scrambles away) will have to suffice.

Free Exercise Clause


Paul Harvey

Notes on a new book of interest, from the Legal History Blog, Monday April 14:

Another book taking up religion in early U.S. history is The Free Exercise of Religion Clause: Its Constitutional History and the Contemporary Debate by Thomas Berg, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul/Minneapolis (Prometheus Books, 2007), just noted on SSRN. Here's the abstract:

This book, the second in a series published by Prometheus Books on the provisions of the Bill of Rights, collects excerpts from important recent academic scholarship on the Free Exercise Clause. The central question is that addressed by the Supreme Court in the Peyote Case, Employment Division v. Smith: the extent to which free exercise encompasses the right to be free from burdens imposed upon religious practice by laws or regulations not specifically directed at religious practice. Topics covered include, among others, the historical background of religious freedom in the founding era, the normative debate on whether and why religious practice merits special constitutional protection, the challenge of identifying principled boundaries between religious freedom and legal duties, the relative roles of legislatures and courts in protecting religious freedom, and the distinctive considerations raised by the free exercise claims of religious institutions as opposed to individuals. The book is intended to serve as a supplement to case materials on religion and the First Amendment. In addition, because recent debates have focused on whether free exercise is best protected by legislatures as opposed to courts, and by context-specific exemptions as opposed to general constitutional or statutory standards, the book should be of use to those studying the dynamics of governmental institutions and of civil liberties protection.

The Disappearing Periodical Room

Author's Note: I wrote this piece sometime last year and never got around to publishing it. It does not deal directly with religion and American history, but I hope it still might be useful to our readers. --JF

The Disappearing Periodical Room

By John Fea

Recently I was doing some research in the library at the college where I teach. It is a small library that is much in need of a facelift and a bigger budget; but what it lacks in physical and monetary resources it makes up for with a dedicated and gifted staff.

On this day I was in search of a recently published journal article. I headed straight to the new periodical room where I was sure I would find it on display, but as I scanned the titles on the shelves it was apparent that the library did not subscribe to the journal I needed. This did not surprise me since I know the library is operating with limited funds and as a result subscriptions to a few academic journals have been canceled.

What did surprise me, however, was the response I received from a librarian after she processed my interlibrary loan request. “We subscribe to this journal electronically,” she wrote in longhand on my form. And then she directed me to the database where I could access it.

I was thrilled, in a nerdy sort of academic way, by the fact that all it would take was a click of the print button to get the article into my hands. This meant that I would avoid having to take the journal to the copy room, opening it on the copier screen to the point of breaking the spine, and adjusting the reduction feature on the copier so that two pages of the journal would fit on one page of letter-sized paper.

I learned that day just how many on-line journals were available through my campus library. I could even access articles from home—an option that I knew would come in handy during my upcoming sabbatical. Sure I would push my printing budget to the limit (I prefer to read journal articles in hard copy form so I can mark them up), but it was worth it.

At this point I should probably pause to confess that I am a journal junkie. It all started when I wrote a divinity school paper on the history of American fundamentalism that my professor encouraged me to publish. When I asked him to suggest a few journals that might be interested in the piece, he told me to go to the library, peruse the new periodical shelves, and find a publication that was suitable.

That was all the incentive I needed. I spent the rest of the day familiarizing myself with dozens of journals, mostly in theology and religious studies. I had been in the periodical room before, to research a paper or read the sports page between classes, but now I started to look at this place with the eyes of a potential author.

From that point forward the periodical room became my favorite place on campus. Whenever I visited a new college or university I went straight to this section of the library. I found myself judging the quality of an institution by the size and scope of their journal collection. It would not be too far fetched to say that I learned the profession—in my case American history—in the periodical room of the university where I did my graduate work. I rarely left this place without a stack of journals carefully bookmarked with a slip of scrap paper, ready to be copied.

But most of the articles I looked at during these trips to the periodical room were not copied. They were merely perused. Over the years I turned journal browsing into an art form. In the process I was immersing myself in the field. I learned what kind of scholarship was hot by looking at tables of contents. I identified new scholarship by skimming book reviews. I gleaned the basics of how to submit an essay by reading submission guidelines. There were always new journals to explore and new articles appearing quarterly.

As I began to develop professional contacts, I could see what my friends and colleagues were publishing. I sometimes left the periodical room deflated because someone had already published the essay I had someday hoped to write. At other times I left excited about an article that gave me some new perspective on my dissertation topic. And, of course, I would be spurred on, as I still am today, about one my article ideas that seemed to meet the editorial needs of this or that journal.

Every now and then I receive an e-mail from one of my college’s librarians informing me that he would like to cancel a subscription to a hard copy journal because it is available at a reduced cost through an on-line service. I am sympathetic to these requests and usually tell him to go ahead and cancel. Journals are getting more and more expensive. (Did I mention yet that we do not have Harvard’s library budget?) It also seems to make sense environmentally to go this way. And think of the space on-line journals will save.

Yet I also wonder what might be lost in the decision to have the bulk of a college’s academic journals available only via the computer screen. Sure, scholars in a hurry will be able to find their materials faster and more efficiently, but the art of browsing will be lost.

I never went to library school, but I am convinced that college and university libraries should function as more than the academic equivalent of a convenience store. A library periodical room—no matter how small and budget-constricted-- invites us to feed our minds with a veritable feast of new ideas. Some of my most wonderful and unexpected intellectual discoveries happen when I allow my mind and body to wander in a place where I am surrounded by the published thoughts of others. This is a very different approach from the quick and easy information fix that most of us are after when we enter the library.

Periodical rooms invite us to let the life of the mind and the activities of the guild soak into our very being as we glance at footnotes, introductory paragraphs, and the institutional affiliations of authors and members of editorial boards. Librarians understand this, but their hands are too often tied by administrators and budget officials who just don’t get it.

In the everyday busyness of an academic life an hour spent reading periodicals may be an irresponsible use of one’s time. But in my experience the slow meandering through narrow aisles of scholarly quarterlies continues to shape me as a scholar and an intellectual. On-line journals are great, but let’s be careful to embrace technological progress with caution, always aware of unexpected consequences.

Opining Without Opinion


Recently a student came to my office hours, asking about the upcoming exam. The class, “Nicole, Monica, and Katrina: An Introduction to American Studies” uses the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, and Hurricane Katrina as documents in a study of U.S. spectacle. Most of the class is spent making a mess of things: elaborating the disastrous aftereffects of an unnatural disaster, examining the labyrinthine illogic of the Starr Report, and enumerating the compromised evidence and conflicting argumentation of Brentwood bedlam.

The student asked a couple ferreting inquiries about test topics, then laid in for the real. “So, I don’t really need to talk about the exam,” he said, “What I really want to know is, what do you think about all this?” He told me that he hated how professors don’t give their opinions, how it’s all messiness and purported objectivity. As I write this, it sounds a little tough on the guy, and I don’t mean to be. He was sweet, if a little digging. What did I believe, anyway? And why wasn’t I telling them? Did O.J. slaughter his ex on one hot night? Was Monica to blame for all that brouhaha? And did I despise Michael Chertoff?

I thought about that student, and that inquiry, as I read the latest CNN contribution to the FLDS exile: “Psychiatrist: Disobedience Equals Damnation In Sect.” Inside, we learn that the aforementioned psychiatrist is “Bruce Perry” a man who “has worked with families involved with groups such as the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, as well as some smaller groups.” His role in this case is testimonial, helping to determine who gets custody of the over 400 children removed from the ranch. Among his sterling insights is this delightful self-revelation: “While Perry said he considered the FLDS a separatist group, he acknowledged doing little reading on their doctrine and said he has not spoken to its leaders.”

I don’t know what to say about Perry. (That’s not exactly true. I do have many things to say about and to Perry, but for now I’ll merely offer that association with the Branch Davidian situation strikes me as a rather Arthur Andersen sort of reference.) I don’t know, yet, what one should or could say about these women and children. It is a very real debacle: mysterious phone calls, eerie images, painful patriarchy, and assumptive oppression. The stuff seeking Charles Bronson circa 1974 stepping in, coolly, to rescue the dark-haired dames and their precious, innocent children. But this isn’t film and it isn’t yet clear that any heroism might be culled from this sprawling compound of a mess.

Religious studies offers only more clutter to the cause, endorsing insider compassion and explanation, as well as outsider adherence to the criminal code and civil expectations of a society adjudicated by taxes and judicial determination. These two strategies (explication and adherence, examination and classification) are not always collaborative or constructive for the given political moment. But it is constructive for the intellectual moment. One of the admirable things about this enterprise, religious studies, is that it isn’t just one thing or another, it isn’t just exoneration or condemnation. It is the wobbling space between understanding and conversion, the space best described (today, by these semester-weary hands) as compassionate critique. It’s too early, way too early, to offer any one opinion on this multiple set of matters. So we watch and see, hoping that the fate of these women, these human beings, does not rest in Bruce Perry’s hands.

By Popular Demand

by John G. Turner

End-of-the-semester busyness has prevented me from closely following the media firestorm resulting from the raid of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). Also, I'm not in any sense intimately familiar with either the legal details of the case or the history of government action against polygamist sects. However, in the interest of our loyal readers...

The amount of media coverage reflects popular fascination with both with polygamy and Mormonism (more on the latter below). When I read about the raid, I immediately thought of several historical precedents: the arrest of Mormon "cohabs" in the 1880s, the 1953 Short Creek (later renamed Colorado City) raid, and the 1993 Waco Siege. The latter had nothing to do with Mormonism but involved polygamy and child abuse as well as weapons violations. In my mind, none of these serve as good models for government action against allegedly deviant behavior.

Instead of following the legal details of the case, I'm interested in the reaction of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For example, see this press release from the church "Newsroom":

Elder Cook said it is very confusing to the public when some media use “Mormon” to describe the Texas-based polygamous group that is currently under investigation for possible incidents of child abuse. He reiterated that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with over 13 million members worldwide, is not connected in any way to sects that practice polygamy.

The Church's "Style Guide" encourages the media to make clear distinctions between the mainstream Church and offshoots like the FLDS:

When referring to people or organizations that practice polygamy, the terms “Mormons,” “Mormon fundamentalist,” “Mormon dissidents,” etc. are incorrect. The Associated Press Stylebook notes: “The term Mormon is not properly applied to the other ... churches that resulted from the split after [Joseph] Smith’s death.”

I can well understand the Church's desire to distance itself from current-day polygamists. I groan every semester when students ask me whether the Latter-day Saints still practice polygamy. I imagine a large number believe that they do (at least until I enlighten them). Any association with FLDS folks, moreover, casts doubt on the Church's more recent self-presentation as a mainstream American religion.

That being said, the term "Mormon fundamentalist" or "fundamentalist Mormon" still seems commonsensical to me as long as other proper distinctions are made. After all, these are Latter Day Saints who broke away -- or were forced out -- after the Church discontinued the practice of polygamy. The Church began excommunicating polygamists around 1909, and those who wished to continue the practice of taking additional wives eventually formed the FLDS and other offshoots. The FLDS church, to the best of my knowledge, understands itself as adhering to the fundamentals of the Restoration begun by Joseph Smith, Jr.

I know we have some Latter-day Saint readers out there. I hesitated to post on this issue because it is controversial and I don't feel on solid ground. However, for the sake of further discussion, I wanted to raise this issue of terminology. Any thoughts or suggestions?

For futher reading, I recommend this post by Jonathan Stapley at By Common Consent, one of my favorite Mormon blogs:


Texas Polygamy Case

Paul Harvey

[Bad-mood-in-the-morning post this morning: Commentors here were annoyed at the lack of discussion of the case in Texas regarding the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Memo to those in the comments section: this isn't a newspaper, we make no pretense of "covering" anything beyond what strikes our professional and sometimes personal interests in religion in American history, and perhaps most importantly, I'm busy grading a bottomless pile of student papers. I haven't followed this case and don't have anything of interest to say about it. The media's fascination strikes me as voyeurism.]

Update: this is what happens when you hit "post" before taking a deep breath. The commentors were just asking for insightful commentary here, so let me apologize to them for the little bit of pissiness this morning as evidenced above. And read above for the kind of commentary requested here.

And for those interested: Seth Perry has an excellent piece on the case; thanks to the commentor who provided the URL.

All Pope, All the Time

Paul Harvey

The New York Times rounds up Pope-in-America coverage here. The Pope will find students at the Catholic University of America to live a Catholicism that's not "in your face." As one student puts it, “It is as religious or as Catholic as you want it to be . . . It’s not really in your face.”

The article nicely fits the "transformation of American religion" thesis outlined by Alan Wolfe in his book of that title. Interestingly, in my class where we used that book, students split evenly on whether they thought Wolfe provided a fair outsider's assessment of the state of American religion, or whether he "patronized" his subjects--with the more religious students seeing the latter (partially because of Wolfe's icy words about content-free and vapid "praise music"and the Prayer of Jabez, compared to which, he says, Prosperity Theology is positively intellectually rigorous and demanding). I'm not sure if anyone else has had any experience going over that book with students; would be interested to hear of it here.

CFP: Christian Radicalism


CFP: Christian Radicalism

JSR: Journal for the Study of Radicalism invites article submissions for a special issue on Christian radicalism. We particularly are interested in articles that help to “map the terrain” in this area—topics might include the extreme pro-life movement, Christian separatist groups or individuals, Christian anarchism, communal Christianity, the “Jesus Freak” movement of the 1970s, Christian militia movements, or the intersection between radical or extremist groups or individuals and their Christian beliefs. Generally speaking, the journal’s historical focus is from the early modern period to the present, and the geographic range is global, so we’d be interested in articles discussing groups or individuals whose influence is international, though this is not essential.

JSR is an interdisciplinary journal, and we encourage articles from a range of disciplinary backgrounds. We are especially interested in articles that include some original fieldwork, for instance, interviews or use of archival sources.Submissions should be 20-30 pages in length and conform to the Chicago Manual of Style with endnotes. Please include a one-paragraph abstract, and a brief author bio. Images for possible use in an article should be 300 dpi, and authors are responsible for requesting and receiving permission to reprint images for scholarly use. Send queries, proposals, and articles here.

The deadline for submitting completed articles is July 1, 2008, and we encourage early submission to facilitate the review process. See the journal website here.

JSR—a print academic journal published by Michigan State University Press—is devoted to serious, scholarly exploration of the forms, representations, meanings, and historical influences of radical social movements. With sensitivity and openness to historical and cultural contexts of the term, we loosely define “radical,” as distinguished from “reformers,” to mean groups who seek revolutionary alternatives to hegemonic social and political institutions, and who use violent or non-violent means to bring about socio-political change. Visit the website at http://msupress.msu.edu/journals/jsr

Doesn't "Elite" Mean "Good"?


Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge's Idiocracy isn't a great movie. I wouldn't even call it good. But as this election cycle unfolds, I'm reminded of it's underlying social commentary, which suggests that current trends in anti-intellectualism will over time purge any hint of thoughtfulness from society. The main character, played by Luke Wilson, is average in every conceivable way. Through a predictable chain of events, he is frozen and forgotten about for 500 years. When he emerges, he discovers that humankind has become stupider with each passing generation. As a consequence, Luke Wilson is the most brilliant person on a planet where brilliance is not valued. Even his seemingly normal speech patterns earn immediate scorn from those who consider him improperly thoughtful.

This brings me to western Pennsylvania, where I supposedly live alongside many "bitter" people, as Barack Obama has infamously commented. Let me briefly conjecture that he is absolutely correct—there is bitterness in the region over unemployment and the economy. And this probably indirectly motivates the culture warriors who argue about religion, guns, and immigration. What's more distressing for me, though, is the unfortunate set of talking points that have emerged, collectively labeling Obama an "elitist." It's a good thing we have Jon Stewart, a comedian, who brings sanity to the situation, asking, "Doesn’t 'elite' mean 'good'?” Finally! Someone who can echo my thoughts by exclaiming before his many viewers, "I want someone who is embarrassingly superior to me!"

Please watch the clip below and share it indiscriminately. I hope to God(s) that historians 500 years from now don't remember Mike Judge as the Nostradamus of our time.

What Hath God Wrought wins Pulitzer


By Kelly Baker

For reasons unknown, my scientist spouse received notification from Oxford that David Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. However the news appeared (veiled in mystery and strange email), it is always good news when a work of American religious history wins a major prize. What Hath God Wrought also won the New-York Historical Society American History Book Prize. Howe's epic is now a part of my ever-lengthening list of must-read books (all that I will read promptly after finishing my dissertation). Here's the description from Oxford:

Howe's panoramic narrative portrays revolutionary improvements in transportation and communications that accelerated the extension of the American empire. Railroads, canals, newspapers, and the telegraph dramatically lowered travel times and spurred the spread of information. These innovations prompted the emergence of mass political parties and stimulated America's economic development from an overwhelmingly rural country to a diversified economy in which commerce and industry took their place alongside agriculture. In his story, the author weaves together political and military events with social, economic, and cultural history. He examines the rise of Andrew Jackson and his Democratic party, but contends that John Quincy Adams and other Whigs--advocates of public education and economic integration, defenders of the rights of Indians, women, and African-Americans--were the true prophets of America's future. He reveals the power of religion to shape many aspects of American life during this period, including slavery and antislavery, women's rights and other reform movements, politics, education, and literature. Howe's story of American expansion culminates in the bitterly controversial but brilliantly executed war waged against Mexico to gain California and Texas for the United States. By 1848 America had been transformed.

What Hath God Wrought
provides a monumental narrative of this formative period in United States history.

Thoughts on the Compassion Forum

I hope some of you got to see the Compassion Forum last night on CNN. If not, CNN has posted the transcript. First let me say that this was a huge and exciting event for our campus community. Messiah is a Christian college with a mission that resonates with many of the compassion issues--poverty, global aids, abortion, Darfur, torture, climate change, etc...--that were raised last night. Like I told a few reporters after the event, I can't think of a better place, nine days before the Pennsylvania primary, to discuss these kinds of things.

As a historian, I was struck by

1). How far the Democrats have come on faith issues. I can't imagine Al Gore in 2000 or John Kerry in 2004 speaking at an event like this.

2). How far evangelicals have come. As we all know by now, there is a new generation of evangelicals out there who are trying to apply their faith to a host of issues beyond abortion, homosexual marriage, and stem-cell research.

3). How far Messiah College has come. Messiah, as some of you know, has roots in the Anabaptist community. Historically, Anabaptists have shunned political and cultural engagement. Messiah's Brethren in Christ roots are still important to the college, but there seems to be a new emphasis on engagement in public life here that may not have been as strong in previous generations.

As far as the Forum itself, I was a bit disappointed--both with some of the questions asked and with some of the candidate's answers. It was basically the same format, the same questions (and many of the same questioners), and the same answers that we saw at the presidential forum on faith and values sponsored by Sojourners and televised by CNN last June. Like Soledad O'Brien last spring, Campbell Brown and John Meacham seemed obsessed with asking personal and/or theological questions. It was nice to know, for example, that Hillary likes Queen Esther and Obama does not believe in a literal six-day creation, but more time could have been devoted to the way the faith of these candidates informed their thinking about policy matters. (Meacham had a particular fascination with asking strange and quirky questions and then chuckling like a giddy little kid who just stumped his fourth grade teacher).

When faith and policy questions were addressed, Obama seemed to offer insights that were deeper and more theologically informed than Hillary. Clinton at times seemed to ramble on endlessly without making any real point. I would invite you to go back and read the transcript and try to make sense of Hillary's answer to Rev. Joel Hunter's question about faith and presidential leadership.

Many have asked me about why McCain was not present. First, let me say that Messiah and Faith in Public Life (the organization who sponsored the event) pursued McCain very, very aggressively. I am not sure why he declined to show up. He said that he had a scheduling conflict, but we know that he spent the day at home in Arizona. My hunch is that the McCain camp is not yet prepared to address these religious issues. Perhaps they have some more homework to do, especially since faith-talk does not seem to come easily for the Republican nominee. Or perhaps this event was perceived to be linked to the "religious left." This is unfortunate because the sponsors made it clear that this would be a bipartisan event. Questions were asked by an evangelical megachurch pastor, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Vice President of the National Association of Evangelicals. Politically, I think McCain missed a great opportunity to define himself as the pro-life alternative to the Democrats and win over conservative Christians who have questioned his evangelical credentials.

Finally, let me say a few words about the buzz I heard from students. Many Messiah College students love Obama. When Hillary came out before the televised event to greet people she got strong applause, but it quickly dissipated. When Obama appeared the roar was deafening (at least from where I was seated) and it continued whenever Obama answered a question. Frankly, it is hard not to get caught up in the traveling rock star spectacle that is the Obama campaign. The guy has charisma.

There were also many students who were disappointed with the candidates pro-choice answers to questions about abortion. This issue is still very important, even to younger evangelicals who are tired of the culture wars.

I could go on, but I will leave it there. What do you think? If readers have any other specific questions about the event feel free to shoot me an e-mail or comment on this blog.

Compassion Forum at Messiah College this Sunday Night


Ed Blum may be tired of all the politics, but political junkies like myself can't get enough. If you are not doing anything Sunday night tune into CNN at 8pm to watch Obama and Hillary speak about faith and policy during the "Compassion Forum." (John McCain was also invited, but he declined the offer). The event is sponsored by an organization called Faith in Public Life and it will be hosted by Messiah College. Campbell Brown (CNN) and Jon Meacham (Newsweek) will be moderating.

I will be serving the college tommorrow as a media contact person. (This means I get to sit for two hours in a big room and talk to the national press about politics, evangelicalism, Messiah College, and anything else they are curious about). I will probably have no chance whatsoever of meeting either candidate.

I will try to post some of my reflections on this event next week.

Addendum: Here is a promotional op-ed piece I wrote for the event. A lot of it will be familiar stuff to readers of this blog.

Compassion and the Evangelical Vote
By John Fea

After John Kerry lost miserably among Christian voters in 2004, Democrats found religion. When they stopped thinking about evangelicals as part of a “right wing conspiracy” Democrats learned just how much common ground they shared with them.

Consider the work of Rick Warren, the pastor of an evangelical mega-church and a best-selling Christian author. He uses his fame and wealth to fight global poverty, disease, and illiteracy around the world, especially in Africa.

Rich Cizik, vice president for government affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, has tackled climate change. His activism drew heated rebukes from the leaders of the Christian Right, but Cizik has refused to back down from his conviction that Christians have a responsibility to care for God’s creation.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has praised the work of evangelical relief agencies in Darfur. He has also suggested that Christianity is behind democratic protests and human rights initiatives in China.

By championing these causes evangelicals are not abandoning their primary work of spreading the gospel around the world. Nor will they cease their opposition to abortion, a reform which many of them understand as a means of showing compassion to the unborn. But the days of choosing a candidate based solely on political party or on one or two moral issues seem to be fading, and it is also clear that the evangelical agenda is broadening.

Evangelicals cheered when George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 on the platform of “compassionate conservatism.” As the first openly born-again president since Jimmy Carter, Bush pledged to offer faith-based solutions to the social problems facing the United States and the world.

Things seemed to go well at first. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives provided grants to religious organizations working for social justice. He funded relief efforts for those around the globe suffering from AIDS and malaria. At home he defended his compassionate immigration policy against many in his party who opposed it.

Throughout his presidency Bush has managed to sustain some of these ambitious plans for faith-based reform, but as Lyndon Johnson learned during the Vietnam era, it is hard to provide butter when so much of the nation’s resources are invested in guns.

With Democrats speaking the language of faith and Republicans continuing to hold the support of many evangelicals, religion has played an unprecedented role in the 2008 presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton has identified publicly with her Methodist faith. Barack Obama speaks openly about his conversion experience at Jeremiah Wright’s church. John McCain
recently announced that he worships with the Southern Baptists.

But evangelicals want to hear more. Is faith just one of many talking points on the campaign trail or will it directly affect the way these candidates think about policy matters? Obama has said that “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.” If this is true, then evangelicals need to know, in specific terms, what exactly faith in the public square might look like.

The candidates will soon get a chance to address these topics of evangelical interest. On April 13, nine days before the Pennsylvania primary, Obama, Clinton, and McCain will have an opportunity to participate in the “Compassion Forum,” a bipartisan and nationally televised event where the candidates will be asked to talk about the way faith informs their positions on issues such as poverty, abortion, global AIDS, genocide, and human rights. The forum will be held at Messiah College, a school with a historic commitment to social justice and Christian compassion.

Compassion is at the core of how evangelicals practice their belief in the world. While it is a practice that transcends political parties and ideologies, is also one that evangelicals want their politicians, especially those who claim to be people of faith concerned with the common good, to take seriously. It is time that our candidates for president engage with the American people in a deeper, richer, and sustained conversation on these matters.

"But the Holy Father Is Coming"



Yesterday, a student asked me if she could be excused from class next week.  “But we’re going to review for the final exam,” I replied.  “But the Holy Father is coming,” she responded.  I have to admit I didn’t see that one coming.  However, I’m reminded by my devout student that the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States is a pretty big deal for many American Catholics.  It’s also an interesting moment for us religious studies types to observe the carefully choreographed collision of American culture and Roman Catholicism in the twenty-first century.  

Benedict XVI, formerly known as Joseph Cardinal Radzinger, will be visiting Washington, D.C., and New York City from April 15 through 19.  He is scheduled to meet President Bush and the First Lady, Catholic bishops, Catholic teachers, Catholics kids, non-Christian religious groups, Protestant groups, packed crowds at Nationals Park and Yankee Stadium, the United Nations, and Ground Zero. 

Here’s a quick tip sheet for things to look out for.

1. Immigration—In his “Video Message to the United States,” the pope spoke in both English and Spanish.  Today, almost 40 percent of the U.S. Catholic population is Hispanic.  You can read an interview with U.S. Ambassador Francis Rooney to the Holy See for some insight into the discussion over the issue of immigration, as well topics such as aid to Africa and the war in Iraq.

2. War and Peace—The pope will be meeting President Bush and other world leaders at the United Nations.  He will also be praying at Ground Zero in New York.  For some perspective on the Vatican’s responses to recent global conflicts, see Michael Sean Winters’ Washington Post editorial, “Wholly Different Angles on the World.”

3. Interreligious Dialogue—In addition to his controversial Regensburg lecture in 2006 and baptism of a prominent (ex)Muslim in 2008, the pope has also organized an interreligious dialogue between Catholics and Muslims to begin this November.  Francis X. Clooney, Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at Harvard, reflected upon the pope’s dialogical tactics in a Commonweal piece, “Learning to Listen: Benedict XVI and Interreligious Dialogue.” 

4. American Political Ideology—Many scholars (some more qualified than others, including myself) have commented upon the changing political face of Catholicism in the United States.  In my opinion, John McGreevy’s article in the American Quarterly on “Catholics, Democrats, and the GOP in Contemporary America” is by far the most careful examination of the current religious/political landscape.  But, if you want to get a first-hand account of what McGreevy is saying about the recent coalition of neoconservatives and some American Catholics, look no further than First Things, the publication of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’s Institute on Religion and Public Life, which describes itself as “an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.”  Read Neuhaus’s instructions on how to listen to Benedict.  Or watch him cover the pope’s visit on EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network).

I’m always fascinated by the scholarly and popular coverage of a papal visit.  From Samuel Morse’s conspiratorial diatribes against popery in the nineteenth century to Wolf Blitzer’s complementary commentary on the death of a Polish pope in the twenty-first century, it’s difficult to count the many ways in which people have represented popes and their messages.  There will be many people claiming to know what this visit means for the present and future state of the Roman Catholic Church around the world and in the United States.  I find myself enjoying the noise and confusion and debate and pontification (get it?).  And there’s usually a moment—a particularly poignant voice that silences the cacophony or an insidious gaff that creates an even louder disruption—when I’m reminded that all of this commotion matters.  But for the life of me, I don’t know how to make sense of it.

Studying Latino/a Pentecostals From a New Contributing Editor

Arlene Sánchez Walsh, our newest contributing editor, provides us with a glimpse of her work on Latino Pentecostals from Sojourners. Sánchez Walsh is an associate professor of Latino/a church studies and church history at Azusa Pacific University. She is the author of Latino Pentecostal Identity, which won the 2005 Hispanic Theological Initiative Book Award. She is working on a project for the Louisville Institute on race, ethnicity and American Pentecostalism and writing a textbook Pentecostalism in America (Columbia University Press). When she is not writing, she is kept very busy with an inquisitive five year old, and a not-so-sleepy 7 month old. Welcome aboard, Arlene!

A History of Separation
Arlene Sánchez Walsh

The article begins with a scene gleaned from a goldmine of resources for anyone interested in American Pentecostalism, especially the interaction between missionaries and Mexicans on the borderlands, Puerto Rico, and on the East Coast. Henry C. Ball is one of the more interesting missionaries, not because of any unique cultural/racial sensitivity (no doubt, Henry Ball was a missionary boss, racist, anti-Catholic, triumphalistic) but as a major figure in the Assemblies of God missions strategy of seeking Mexican converts on the borderlands, Ball needs to be reckoned with as a deeper figure than the pages of the Pentecostal Evangel would allow.

If we take Ball at his word, he was an eyewitness to many of the indignities that Mexican workers were subjected to throughout the early part of the 20th century: fumigation, unfair and unsafe work conditions, theft of wages, subtle racism and overt segregation. Ball's sympathies for his charges are intertwined with his disdain for their supposed sloth and hatred for their residual Catholicism. Ball never seeks to reconcile this cognitive dissonance, (not too different from most of us), with the earnest desire he claims to want to "save" Mexicans and partake in their new life as Pentecostals, one would assume that such magnanimous attitudes would dull the distrust, dislike, and out and out hatred Ball writes about throughout his career as an AG missionary (1912-70). Curiously, it does not. Content with denigrating Mexicans as he is trying to "save" them, Ball, like many early Pentecostal leaders (one might extend that to many of today's Pentecostal leaders), simply did not have the theological tools to develop a social conscience beyond coarse proselytism.

The Sojourners article takes the story of Latino/a Pentecostals in a different direction, it seemed proper though to note that one could make a major contribution to American religious history mining through places like the Flower Heritage Center at the Assemblies of God headquarters in
Springfield, Missouri. One could really begin to examine issues of race, ethnicity and power that fed into the rise of American Pentecostalism. Finally, if an enterprising scholar wanted to, they could move us all beyond the black/white dichotomy of American Pentecostal history and start writing a history of American Pentecostalism that begins on the borderlands and ends in a storefront in Newark, or a cemetery in East Los Angeles (don't get me started, I have too much to do already).
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