Islam and American Religious History

by Phillip Luke Sinitiere

As a corollary to Kelly's
previous post on Edward Curtis's work on the NOI, in a recent H-AmRel post he announced a new encyclopedia on Muslim-American history.

The post reads:

How have Muslims shaped American religious history and U.S. history
overall? I am looking for writers--professors, graduate students, or
talented undergrads--to contribute my 1000 pp. Encyclopedia of
Muslim-American History, a reference that will show how Muslims have
mattered to American life since the colonial era. I know we are all
pressed for time, but let me appeal to your sense of public outreach.

"Muslim" continues to be read as "foreign" and "unassimilated" not only
in Islamophobic genres (including the recent film "Obsession," 28
million copies of which were distributed for free in swing states [see
further]), but also in mainstream media
outlets. The exotic, overly-religious, first-generation, "fresh off the
boat" Muslim too often stands in for all Muslim Americans in newspapers
such as The New York Times. Such forgetting writes tens of thousands of
Muslims out of the historical record.

We have a chance to correct that by analyzing--not exaggerating--the
presence of Muslims in the Americas. The work will be published by Facts
on File, which has great success marketing their products to high
schools and community libraries. It will have an impact at the

You needn't be an expert to participate in this project. After editing
this project for a year now, I can tell you that there are virtually no
experts on Muslim American history, with the exception of those who are
trained in African American history. Most Islam in America experts are
concerned only with today, or with the history of Muslim America post

In addition to documenting "religion," this reference will chart Muslim
involvement in U.S. politics, business, music, sports, agriculture, the
military, literature, the visual arts, poetry, social movements, and
more. It will cover the biographies, events, places, themes, and
institutions that have shaped a Muslim-American community diverse by
race, ethnicity, class, and national origin. Five hundred entries will
shed light on everything from Georgia's Sea Island Muslims and the
Muslim sodbusters of the Dakota plain to Ahmet Ertegun's influence on
the music industry and the hundred-year-old legal struggles of Muslims
in U.S. courts.

If you are willing to write even 500 words, that would be a great help.
contact me off list, and I will send you the list of entries and
other information. Thanks very much for your consideration.

This will no doubt be an important work, and serve as a great resource for classrooms at all educational levels. I look forward to seeing it in print and using it in the future. As for teaching, readers might also consult Curtis's great article on Islam and the U.S. history survey in the January 2008 issue of the
OAH Magazine of History (John Turner posted on this, too).

In other news, Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd's latest work, American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism, is scheduled for release in November. Here's a brief description:

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, many of America's Christian evangelicals have denounced Islam as a "demonic" and inherently violent religion, provoking frustration among other Christian conservatives who wish to present a more appealing message to the world's Muslims. Yet as Thomas Kidd reveals in this sobering book, the conflicted views expressed by today's evangelicals have deep roots in American history.

Tracing Islam's role in the popular imagination of American Christians from the colonial period to today, Kidd demonstrates that Protestant evangelicals have viewed Islam as a global threat--while also actively seeking to convert Muslims to the Christian faith--since the nation's founding. He shows how accounts of "Mahometan" despotism and lurid stories of European enslavement by Barbary pirates fueled early evangelicals' fears concerning Islam, and describes the growing conservatism of American missions to Muslim lands up through the post-World War II era. Kidd exposes American Christians' anxieties about an internal Islamic threat from groups like the Nation of Islam in the 1960s and America's immigrant Muslim population today, and he demonstrates why Islam has become central to evangelical "end-times" narratives. Pointing to many evangelicals' unwillingness to acknowledge Islam's theological commonalities with Christianity and their continued portrayal of Islam as an "evil" and false religion, Kidd explains why Christians themselves are ironically to blame for the failure of evangelism in the Muslim world.

A brief portion of Chapter 1 and the Table of Contents are available from
Princeton University Press.

Both Curtis and Kidd have added and, it appears, will continue to offer much to the collective understanding of Islam and American religious history.

Sweet Land of Liberty

Paul Harvey

Here's an advance note for a book that probably will be the most important work of American history published this year, or near the top anyway: Thomas Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. I'm currently reading it and will be doing a full review of it in a few weeks, but just wanted to mention it briefly here in advance of its official publication in November.

This is, of course, not a "religious history" book per se, and I had no plans to blog on it here. As I read, I had expected some sort of contrast between a highly religious, non-violent southern movement and a much more secular northern one. As it turns out, that is not the case at all. Indeed, religion turns out to be a far more central part of the struggle in the North than most understand. Religious figures people this book to a degree that surprised me. Further, Sugrue details an alliance of the religious and secular left, especially in the pre-World War Two years, that is even more important than I had realized.

Keep your eye out for this work; it's going to be a big one, and sure to be much discussed in American history circles.

That Very Old-Time Religion

Randall Stephens

What is religion? American religious history professors spend the first day of class going over that question. Profs round up the usual suspects for quotes: Plato, Thomas Aquinas, the two Ludwigs—Feuerbach and Wittgentsein—Freud, Clifford Geertz, Woody Allen . . . (Finding images of each for the requisite PowerPoint presentation is no trouble.) Religious studies departments offer whole courses that ponder the “what is” question. Of course, you can define religion in many, many ways.

So, I was intrigued when I watched National Geographic’s provocative special, the Neanderthal Code, which shed new light on that old, old question/subject. “Who were the Neanderthals? How human were they?” the program asks. “For 150 years the fate of our closest relatives has been a mystery. But now scientists can start answering these questions—with the help of DNA.” The special looks at how Neanderthals may have interacted with Homo sapiens and considers the possibility of genetic overlap.

What drew my attention more than anything else, though, was a discussion of what may have been the religious beliefs of these now-long-gone human cousins. Reviewing the program in Archeology Zach Zorich comments:

Some of the most interesting parts of the documentary were the insights it provided into the lives of Neanderthals. The placement and preservation of certain Neanderthal remains indicates that they may have buried their dead. If that interpretation holds up it would show they believed in an afterlife. Likewise, chunks of the black pigment manganese dioxide have turned up at some Neanderthal sites showing signs of use. If the Neanderthals were using pigments to make paintings or to adorn themselves, it shows a previously unknown capacity for creating art.

Others have been skeptical about the archeological record, which represent some of the earliest burial sites in the world.

And so that brings me to the little diorama I created with Photoshop (the image posted to the right. Click to enlarge). My friend Bryan Zimmerman and I were talking about the possibility of Neanderthal religion and Neanderthal conceptions of God. Would they have had a Neanderthal-centric view of God or something altogether nebulous? (I went with the former for the diorama because I thought it was funnier.) Does a God or do Gods survive the death of the faithful? Bryan described that as the lower case “g” god. Who/what did the Hittites believe in again?

Randall's Reach (across the pond)


Apparently we aren't the only ones who like Randall Stephens' The Fire Spreads. It just received a nice review in the Times Literary Supplement (UK). The reviewer called it a "strikingly imaginative account of riotous religious competition." Congrats Randall! You can read the full review here.

Religious History Job at University of Michigan

Paul Harvey

Some good academic jobs are out there this year. Here's a posting for another:

UM Department of History and Program in American Culture Joint Appointment Search

NORTH AMERICAN RELIGIOUS HISTORY. The Department of History and the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan seek qualified applicants for a tenure-track university-year (9-month) position to begin September 2009 in North American Religious History. The specialization is open, but the departments are seeking to supplement–not to duplicate–existing strengths that lie in early American religion in the Atlantic colonies and states. We seek applicants, in other words, from any specialties that fall outside the area traditionally conceived of as colonial and revolutionary America.

We are interested in transnational approaches, interdisciplinary concerns, and/or work at the intersections of gender, race and class, giving North America the broadest of definitions. Applications should be sent to Chair, North American Religious History Search Committee, c/o Connie Hamlin, Department of History, The University of Michigan, 435 S. State Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1003, or by email to chamlin AT mich DOT edu.

Candidates should furnish a placement dossier that includes a writing sample, at least three letters of recommendation, a statement of teaching philosophy and experience, evidence of teaching excellence, and a statement of current and future research plans. Review of applications will begin November 1, 2008, with plans to conduct interviews at the American Historical Association annual meeting in January 2009, and will continue until an appointment is made. Women and minorities are encouraged to apply. The University of Michigan is supportive of the needs of dual career couples and is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer.

Bridget McBruiser and American Religious Prejudice -- From our New Contributing Editor!



Kathleen Sprows Cummings is an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame. She is also the Associate Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, and she holds concurrent appointments in the departments of history and theology. Her teaching and research interests include the history of women and American religion and the study of U.S. Catholicism.

Her first book, New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era, will be published by University of North Carolina Press in January 2009. Other recent publications include “The ‘New Woman’ at the ‘University’: Gender and American Catholic Identity in the Progressive Era,” which appears in The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past, edited by Catherine A. Brekus (University of North Carolina, 2007). She is a regular contributor to Commonweal, America, and American Catholic Studies.She has also written an essay about teaching at the intersection of gender and American Catholic studies, which will appear in Passing on the Faith, Passing on the Church, edited by Margaret McGuinness and James T. Fisher, and under contract with Fordham University Press. At present Cummings is working on a book-length study of women and American Catholicism.


Remembering “Bridget McBruiser”: Racial and Religious Prejudice in American History

Kathleen Sprows Cummings
University of Notre Dame

In his op-ed piece in last Sunday’s New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof referenced a recent Pew survey that indicated only fifty percent of Americans are certain that Mr. Obama is a Christian. Meanwhile, 13 percent of registered voters say that he is a Muslim, compared with 12 percent in June and 10 percent in March. Kristof argues, convincingly I think, that this data signifies that religious prejudice is becoming a proxy for racial prejudice. “In public at least,” he writes, “it’s not acceptable to express reservations about a candidate’s skin color, so discomfort about race is sublimated into concerns about whether Mr. Obama is sufficiently Christian. The result is this campaign to ‘otherize’ Mr. Obama. Nobody needs to point out that he is black, but there’s a persistent effort to exaggerate other differences, to de-Americanize him.”

Kristof’s piece prompted me to reflect anew on the ways racial and religious prejudices have been intertwined in American history. In my Gender and American Catholicism class today, we analyzed several anti-Catholic and anti-Irish cartoons originally published in the mid to late 19th century. My students, many of whom are Irish American Catholics, were astonished to learn that Notre Dame’s beloved mascot, “the fighting Irish” leprechaun, bears a striking resemblance to the depictions of “Paddy” that regularly appeared in newspapers and periodicals. Like the campaign to “otherize” Obama, the efforts to emphasize the racial and religious differences of Irish Americans were profoundly political in purpose. As Irish politicians began to wield more political power, cartoonists such as Thomas Nast raised fears about how their preponderance would threaten the American ideals of democracy. (In one of his most famous cartoons, “The American River Ganges,” Nast conflates Tammany Hall with St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome).

Aside from political considerations, these cartoons were also designed to evoke the racial inferiority of the Irish. Paddy’s simian features—prominent chin, hairy face, ape-like expression—were tied to the emerging science of physiognomy, whose adherents claimed that facial features provided clues to character. The implications were obvious: among their other liabilities, the violent and underdeveloped Irish were racially unfit to be good Americans.
Most U.S. history textbooks include a reprint of at least one “Paddy” cartoon. Lesser known but equally revealing are the depictions of Paddy’s female counterpart, Bridget. In “Bridget McBruiser,” which originally appeared in 1866, the contrast between the womanly Florence Nightingale and the decidedly unfeminine—indeed inhuman—“Bridget” underscored the “otherness” of Irish Catholic women.[1]

It is no coincidence that Florence Nightingale became popular in the United States at precisely the same time that Catholic women religious, many of whom were of Irish descent, were becoming more visible as nurses (during the Civil War, twenty percent of Army nurses were Catholic nuns). As was the case with Paddy, fears about Bridget’s influence were inextricably tied up in political concerns. When the crusade for women suffrage gained steam after 1890, the specter of both Paddy and Bridget figured prominently in the arguments advanced on both sides of the debate. White, middle-class suffragists argued that if African-American, uneducated, or “foreign” men were able to vote, than their votes were urgently needed as a counterbalance. (Although the racial and class biases of suffragists are now widely recognized by historians, few scholars have paid attention to the significance of the fact that the majority of the foreign and uneducated “undesirables” were Roman Catholic). Meanwhile, anti-suffragists pointed out that enfranchising women would only double the Irish Catholic vote. According to Margaret Deland, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1910, suffragists wanted “to multiply by two the present and unconscientious vote which many thoughtful persons, anxiously doubting democracy, believe is already threatening our national existence….we have suffered many things at the hands of Patrick; the New Woman would add Bridget also.”[2]

I explore the significance of these themes in the American past in my forthcoming book, New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era, University of North Carolina Press. But I wonder whether the legacy of Bridget McBruiser suggests it might be worthwhile to explore more fully the gender dimensions of contemporary racial and religious biases, especially considering the variety of ways in which both Obama and Palin are challenging societal definitions of masculinity and femininity.

[1] (James Redfield, "New Physiognomy, or Signs of Character," New York, 1866. In Dale T. Knobel, Paddy and the Republic, Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1986, following p. 156).

[2]Margaret Deland, “The Change in the Feminine Ideal,” Atlantic Monthly, March 1910, 299.

Markets and Morality Conference

Paul Harvey

A few posts down I had some thoughts on markets and morality in American religious history. Guess I was on to something, because here's an announcement for what appears to be an incredibly interesting conference on said subject, dealing specifically with colonial America.


NOVEMBER 7, 2008


From the earliest years of subsistence, to the flowering of an expansive economy by the end of the colonial period, North Americans’ religious beliefs and communities played a central role in shaping emerging economies. Transnational and local religious networks shared values and kin-connections, and they were well suited to influence the extended Atlantic economy and the increasingly specialized interior trade. In turn, the challenges of new environments, work arrangements, encounters with slaves and Native Americans, and new social arrangements invited many early Americans to question long-established activities in markets that had derived from religious beliefs. By the post-Revolutionary era, the process of commodification—of labor, of the environment’s resources, of religion itself—accelerated reevaluations of the relationship of faith and economic behavior, reconfiguring beliefs about the morality of the economy. In the continually shifting parameters of this discussion, across many denominations and markets, no single resolution of issues emerged, a fact that reflects the complexity of the North American economy and the diversity of the religious marketplace.

This conference brings together scholars to explore various themes and uses a wide variety of methodological approaches to illuminate this central aspect of the American economy, representing both the breadth of Americans’ economic engagements and the diversity of their religious beliefs about the economy.

This conference is free and open to everyone. Please let us know if you will be attending by
registering electronically.

The Library Company of Philadelphia1314 Locust St., Phila., PA 19107 (TEL) 215-546-3181 (FAX) 215-546-5167

American Religion Job Advertisement at Stanford

Search ad for American Religions Position

Stanford University, the Department of Religious Studies and the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, invites applications for a tenure-track position at the rank of assistant professor in the field of American Religion, with a focus on ethnicity and race. The appointment will start September 1, 2009. A successful candidate will be expected to teach and advise students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Courses will include broad surveys introducing students to the study of religion in America and at least two courses through the Program in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity that will focus on race, ethnicity, and religion. The person appointed will be expected to interact with faculty and students who work in a variety of fields and methodologies both in Religious Studies and in the interdepartmental Program in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. Candidates must have completed their PhD by August 31, 2009.

Please send a letter of application and your dossier, which should include a CV, a statement of research and teaching interests, any available evidence of teaching ability, three confidential letters of recommendation, and a short writing sample to: American Search, c/o Prof. Hester Gelber, Chair, Dept. of Religious Studies, Bldg. 70, Stanford University, Stanford CA 94305-2165. Most of the interviews will be held between November 1 and 4 at the AAR. Deadline: October 7, 2008.

Liberation and Oppression: A Way out of the Maze?

Paul Harvey

Notes on and links to a couple of different pieces, entirely unrelated (but I'll try to relate them here), about cultural mazes.

The first is only marginally related to the subject of this blog -- but so what, I loved the piece, so here it is: "The Best Mind of His Generation," a lovely eulogy for and appreciation by A. O. Scott of the writer David Foster Wallace, author of the mega-novel Infinite Jest and an incredible variety of other work, dead by suicide at 46. The title of the piece, a reference of course to Allen Ginsberg's Howl (a central document of the American religious experience, in my estimation) suggests something both of Wallace's talent, and his torment.

"But he will be terribly missed by those of us who were lost with him in the maze of self-consciousness and self-doubt that defined our peculiar destiny. He illuminated the maze brilliantly, even if he couldn’t show us the way out."

Mark Noll helps readers find the way out of the maze of God and Race in American Politics, the title of his new book. My extended review of Noll's work is featured as the book of the week in Books and Culture. This is a short book, published from lectures given at Princeton, and is more interpretive synthesis than pathbreaking new material. I hope it will reach a wide audience. Just a brief bit here from a summary of Noll's conclusion, and back to the maze for a moment:

In the end, Noll concludes in some theologically based reflections, "reliance on the Bible" has produced "spectacular liberation alongside spectacular oppression." Thus, properly understood in all its complexity, "historic Christian faith," Noll suggests, offers the best standpoint "from which it is possible to see how much believers themselves have done to promote the evils of racism in American politics while at the same time recognizing how often they have offered hints of redemption as well."

I hope the review encourages you to check out the book, and the appreciation by Scott will lead you to read something by David Foster Wallace if you missed him (as I mostly did) during his too-brief career.

CFP: Undergraduate Conference at St. Francis University

"[If] the goal of higher education is to promote in the student a sense of self-reliance and the love of life long learning," concludes John Ishiyama , "there is no better way to inculcate these values then through the promotion of student research."

Amen! Of course, the working assumption here is that when students have ownership of their studies, they tend to work harder, value their experience, and feel intellectually challenged and transformed. I've overseen a handful of student research projects--some have gone well, others have failed miserably. While members of the latter camp frustrate me, I continue to seek out those motivated few who want to take control of their academic future. To give them a venue, I created an undergraduate conference, and this March marks our third installment.

I ask my friends (and enemies--I'm looking your way Pasquier) on this blog to consider: a) attending; b) attending and bringing some students along; or c) forwarding this CFP to others. While faculty aren't giving presentations, it is as much for us as it is for the students. Ideas, teaching strategies, research projects, and shared frustrations are all discussed between sessions and over lunch. Moreover, students like mine who find themselves in the minority at their respective institutions discover that they aren't alone. Yes, there are people in this world who care about Kant's categorical imperative!

Friday and Saturday, March 26-27, 2009
Saint Francis University, Loretto, Pennsylvania 15940


We cordially invite undergraduates to submit proposals on matters pertaining to philosophy and religion for the third annual North American Undergraduate Conference in Religion and Philosophy. Submissions are encouraged from students majoring in all academic fields to include (but not limited to), religion, philosophy, sociology, psychology, history, literature, the fine arts, and political science.

Although papers on all subjects will be considered, priority will be given to those addressing this year’s theme, “The Common Good.” The common good “refers to the sum total of all the social conditionals that allow people, both individuals and groups, to lead fully human lives. Among the essential dimensions of the common good are (1) respect for other people and their rights; (2) the development of the temporal and spiritual goods of society; and (3) justice, peace, and security for all people” (John T. Ford, Glossary of Theological Terms, 2006).

Paper proposals (roughly 250 words) should give a brief but concise outline of the presentation. The deadline for proposals is February 13, 2009. Please include your full name, paper title, institution, e-mail, phone number, and the name and contact information of your major professor. Presenters must submit their full paper by March 13, 2009 to be considered for conference prizes. Proposals and final papers should be sent via e-mail attachment to Arthur Remillard at aremillard[at]francis[dot]edu.

This year’s keynote speaker will be peace activist, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and author John Dear, S.J. His most recent books include, A Persistent Peace: One Man's Struggle for a Nonviolent World and Transfiguration: A Meditation on Transforming Ourselves and Our World.

The keynote address will be held on Friday evening, with a student discussion forum to follow. All student presentations will be given on Saturday from approximately 9:00 am-5:00 pm. This conference is open to the public and free for presenters and non-presenters alike. For more information, directions, contacts, scheduling, etc., please visit our website: This conference is organized by St. Francis University, PA and Westminster College, PA, with the support of SFU’s Campus Ministry, the Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies, the Institute for Ethics, and the DiSepio Institute for Rural Health and Wellness.

From Mounds to Megachurches

Paul Harvey

Since I'm in the South today, here's an appropriately southern-themed blog entry, on a new work from the University of Georgia Press, From Mounds to Megachurches. In this short work, centered on Georgia, David Williams take us through the remarkably diverse history of religious practices, institutions, and groups in the Peach State. The book reminds me of Walter Conser's recent work A Coat of Many Colors: Religion and Society Along the Cape Fear River of North Carolina, in the sense of taking the largest themes of southern religious history and following them in a very specific locales over a broad expanse of time. The result is a picture of religion in the region that is at once more diverse and expansive, and at the same time more dependent on place and locale, than we get from stories (including my own work) that feature the evangelical synthesis as the defining principle of southern religious history. Good stuff from good senior scholars deeply immersed in the histories of their own regions. Here's a description from the UGA webpage for the work.

From Mounds to Megachurches: Georgia's Religious Heritage, by David S. Williams

In From Mounds to Megachurches David S. Williams offers a sweeping overview of the role religion has played in Georgia's history, from precolonial days to the modern era.

Williams shows that colonial Georgia was a remarkably diverse place, populated by mainline colonial congregations that included Anglicans, Roman Catholics, German- and Spanish-speaking Jews, Salzburg Lutherans, and Scottish Presbyterians. It wasn't until much later that evangelicalism triumphed and Baptists became the overwhelmingly dominant denomination. Williams uses the stories of such important figures as Tomochichi, John Wesley, Jesse Mercer, Henry McNeal Turner, Lillian Smith, Martin Luther King Jr., and Clarence Jordan to portray larger historical narratives and denominational battles.
Race and religion were intertwined not only in such key movements as abolition and civil rights but also throughout Georgia's history. "In order to fully grasp the religious heritage of Georgia," Williams says, "we must return again and again to racial matters." Recently, Georgians have seen racial, ethnic, and religious diversity grow as Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Baha'i, and other communities have settled in the state. Williams explores how Georgians have dealt with contemporary issues of tolerance and how, at times, the state has taken center stage in our nation's culture wars.

Firmly rooting religious history in a social, cultural, and political context, Williams presents a representative and balanced account of Georgia's religious heritage. From Mounds to Megachurches sheds new light on what it means to be a Georgian by exploring an issue that remains central to life in the Sunbelt South.

David S. Williams is director of the Honors Program and Meigs Professor of Religion at the University of Georgia, where he has taught since 1989. He is the author of two previous books in religious studies.
October 2008

ISBN 0820331759 cloth • $26.95240 pp. • 6 x 9 in. • 16 b&w photos

"I know no other book that covers such a range of material, with such chronological sweep, in such short compass, for any southern state. Georgia and its citizens will be privileged to have such an accessible survey of their religious heritage available."—John Boles, William P. Hobby Professor of History, Rice University, and author of The Great Revival: Beginnings of the Bible Belt

"David Williams has written a masterful and remarkably concise synthesis of Georgia's religious odyssey. His title is no mere artifice of alliteration, for he does indeed take us from thousand-year old moundbuilders to modern megachurches, and from Moravians to Muslims as well, reminding us of a persistent strain of religious diversity while placing the emergence and evolution of a Protestant evangelical ethos at the center of Georgia's historical experience."—James C. Cobb, author of Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity

PBS Prayer in America

Darren Grem

In the spirit of Ed and Matt's interview about Pentecostal conceptions of divinity and revelation, I thought I'd post the website for the PBS documentary Prayer in America. I believe it was run last November, but I caught it in re-runs more recently. Although less focused on a history of prayer in America than James P. Moore, Jr.'s book on the matter, the documentary offers a nicely varied set of clips about prayer's contemporary prevalence and power. Great for classroom use, especially on matters related to public religious life and lived religion.

Going Home?


In the most recent Books & Culture, Lauren Winner contributes an eloquent review of our John Fea's The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Winner and Fea (with whom I'm having lunch today) describe the plight of Philip Vickers Fithian's quest to reconcile his love of his native southwest New Jersey with the universal ideals of the Enlightenment. As Winner interprets, many graduate students and faculty in far-flung corners of our land can readily commiserate with Fithian: "Fithian's problem is no less acute today for men and women whose education takes them geographically and imaginatively beyond their local communities." [I wish she'd offered a solution for this. Fea suggests that only his Revolutionary War death (serving universal ideals in his local regiment) allowed Fithian to reconcile these contradictory aims, which doesn't seem like an attractive real-world solution to me].

One non-Religion in American History thought: Perhaps we should elect Treasury Secretaries rather than presidents. The Bush administration, which curiously ended right after the 2004 election, has clearly given way to a temporary Paulson kingship.

Religion Bloggers Go On-Air Live!


This morning Ed Blum was featured on the KPBS (San Diego public radio) morning show to discuss Palin, pentecostalism, and politics. He was kind enough to let me join him. You can listen here.

And for those of you looking for holiday gifts for your friends and family, Amazon is now offering our books together for a discounted price on Ed’s page here.


Resources for Graduate Students

Paul Harvey

After a couple of smart-alecky entries from me, recess is over, time to get back to business. We seem to have a lot of graduate student readers of this blog, judging from my correspondence, so I thought I would feature this site, which is a compendium from the AHA of resources for graduate students (note to self: get this up on blogroll). Also, for those going on the ever-shape-shifting job market, make sure you check out Tenured Radical's posts on the cover letter, the preliminary interview, and all the wondrous joys of academic job-hunting (by the end of which you may be singing "when I survey the wondrous cross"). Having spent 6 years doing said job-hunting, feel free to consult with me for advice on mistake-avoidance -- I made all of them, so can speak from experience along the "what not to do" line. Like, for example, the day before your AHA conference interviews, don't get laringytis and then gurgle a shot or two (maybe more, I can't remember) of Wild Turkey to try to "clear up" your throat. Bad idea -- really, I'm not kidding. And yes, that applies at the AAR, the MLA, the ASA, the AAA, and all the other A's. Just don't do it; I mean it.

The God Fearing Klan


Kelly Baker

John Grisham's
A Time to Kill (1989) explores the fraught racial relations in the small fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi, where two white men, James Louis Willard and Billy Ray Cobb, rape, torture, and leave for dead a young African American girl. I read the book at least ten years ago, but I caught the cinematic version (1996), with Matthew McConaughey (a real Southern accent), Samuel L. Jackson (a bad Southern accent), and Kevin Spacey (I am not sure what he was trying to do with his accent), a couple nights ago on my newly upgraded cable. McConaughey plays the idealistic attorney who defends Carl Lee Hailey (Jackson) after he murders his daughter's rapists in the local courthouse, and Spacey is the grand-standing district attorney who thinks the case will be easily won. As anyone who has read Grisham's works before knows, the case is never a slam dunk.

What caught my attention was the introduction of the Ku Klux Klan as a vital piece of the story. The plot of the film revolves around the racial tension that the trial produces, including the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan. The male relatives and friends of the rapists contact the Grand Dragon of Mississippi to avenge their loved ones and set up their own Klan. Granted, anything that mentions the Klan merits my attention, but
this fictionalized account briefly focused on religion. Freddy Lee Cobb (Kiefer Sutherland) wanted revenge for his brother's death, and he lamented the supposed lack of the Klan. One of his friends assured Cobb that the Klan still existed. To which, Cobb responds with something like, "I don't mean Neo-Nazis, I mean the God fearing Klan." Cobb meets up with the still existant Klan of Mississippi and its Grand Dragon, and he launches a campaign of terror on anyone that helps in Hailey's defense. God fearing disappears, and the stereotypical violence of the Klan is showcased with burning crosses, semi-accurate costumes, and homemade bombs. Grisham and the filmmakers were obviously influenced by the drama and violence of the 1960s Klan.

What was most striking to me was the mention of the Klan as religious institution and the assumption that other white supremacist movements were not. First, whoo-hoo! The film recognized that the Klan was tied up with religion. Second, other white supremacist movments are religious. To present them as somehow irreligious is a common misconception in the public sphere. Recent scholarship provides a remedy to this popular notion and documents the presence of religion in many of these groups. Mattias Gardell's
Gods of the Blood explores the world of white supremacist pagans who have reclaimed ancient religious practices that are not tainted by Christianity or racialism. This includes Aryan Nations, which might be thought of as a secular movement, but it embraces paganism and degrades the racial character of Christianity. Various works showcase that the Klan, through out its long history in the U.S., embraced (Protestant) Christianity. Though contemporary Klan movements have become more varied in religious practice. Some Klans and other hate movements have adopted Christian Identity as their religious system, which is a racist form of Christianity that suggests that whites, not the Jews, were the original chosen people of God. Michael Barkun's Religion and the Racist Right illuminates the historical trajectory of Christian Identity from its origins in British Israelism to the current pastors and churches that promote these beliefs. Religion has been alive and well in the white supremacist circles, and in some instances, it has been the motivating factor for membership as well as a justification for racist beliefs. My own work on the 1920s Klan demonstrates that Protestantism proved essential for both the order's nationalism and its racial theories. -->

In his article “Religiosity and the Radical Right,” (which appears in
-->Kaplan and Tore Bjørgo, eds., Nation and Race: The Developing Euro-American Racist Subculture), Jeffrey Kaplan suggests that religion might offer the most “promising path” for white supremacists to accomplish their dreams of soley white nations. Religion that uplifts whiteness and a new world order, for Kaplan, replaces the need for a nation state and allows for the creation of an imagined community of like-minded supremacists. These religious beliefs have begun to bind disparate groups together in their quest for a world filled with whiteness, and technology, especially the internet, allows for these groups to contact one another and build virtual communities dedicated to their cause. The Klan, after all, is not the only God fearing one, and we need more of the above-mentioned scholarship to see clearly the role of religion in white supremacist movements. To understand the unsavory ties between religion and racism, scholars must delve into the belief systems of these movements. The divine appears, it seems, in many unexpected and not-necessarily-pleasant places, and scholars get to follow.

Obama's Mama?

Art Remillard

This election just keeps getting weirder and weirder. Click here to watch one strange tirade about "Obama's Mama" (I tried to embed the video, but it didn't work--Internet gremlins). When viewing this for the first time, I crossed my fingers, hoping it was an example of authentic fakery (à la David Chidester). Nope. James Manning, the pastor of Atlah World Missionary Church in Harlem, is the real deal (theoretically).

God, Guns, and . . . Whatever

Paul Harvey

A friend sent this photo of a tattoo, which he wants to use as a cover for his book. And, it's just pretty dang awesome, so I'm sharing it.

Updated: see the comments section for more explanation behind the image.

Intellectual Confessions and the Book of Mormon



If you’re like me (and I hope you aren’t, because that would mean double or triple or quadruple the insanity I already bring to the world), you are an American religious historian who has some intellectual confessing to do. You may have never read Bob Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street; you may secretly like revival meetings; you may think that “women’s history” is not “religious history” (or vice versa). For me, the first of my confessions is that I have never read The Book of Mormon. I teach about the Church of Latter-Day Saints all the time; heck, I even have friends who consider themselves part of the tradition. But I’ve avoided the Angel Moroni; I’ve steered clear of Alma and of Nephi.

This will all change now. Penguin Classics just released a beautiful new edition of The Book of Mormon with an introduction from one of the finest American religious historians of the past twenty years: Laurie Maffly-Kipp. The cover is gorgeous and the introduction drew me not only in the world of early 19th century America, but also into the tradition of a truly “American” faith (or is it profoundly unAmerican? ... I’ll let the historiographical slugfest continue with perhaps a twist to that question: if “women’s history is religious history,” as Ann Braude claims, then how does the history of Mormonism fit into American women’s religious history?).

Randall Stephens, Top Young Historian

Our contributing editor Randall Stephens is the latest on our contributing editor list to be named to the History News Network's Top Young Historians list. Congratulations, Randall! Click on the link for a fuller profile of our newly-recognized rising star.

What's the Matter with Colorado? or, Who's Zooming Who?

Paul Harvey

I’ve recently been reading reviews and hearing interviews about Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. I know this is not a blog about economics per se, but bear with me for a moment.

Here’s the beginning of an excellent review by economist Jeff Madrick in the New York Review of Books:

Only recently has the situation outlined by Steven Greenhouse in his new book,The Big Squeeze, been getting serious attention from politicians. Average wages for American workers have been largely stagnating for a generation. Some six million more Americans have no health insurance today than did seven years ago. The distribution of income in the United States is as unequal as it was in the Roaring Twenties. With the country facing a possibly deep and painful recession, unemployment rising, and mortgage defaults at record levels, the poor state of the economy is finally high on the list of American concerns and is the leading presidential campaign issue.

No big news there, but the remainder of the review summarizes Greenhouse’s appalling account of worker mistreatment in the workplace, from Sam’s Club locking in nighttime employees and denying them medical care, to a consistent record of compelling overtime work and erasing hours worked from the log books, to (in the most recent instance) none-too-subtle threats in mandatory employee meetings that a vote for Obama is a vote against the company. (To his credit, Greenhouse also covers counter-examples, companies who engage in responsible behavior, notably including Costco and Patagonia).

Also see this review by Thomas Frank in the New York Times Book Review, which addresses the market forces compelling "the squeeze," and what alternatives exist (basically, he says the social compact that left the social safety net to corporations via company health plans and the like is no longer workable; it was an accident of a very particular moment in history, and is not sustainable now).

Just before reading this piece, I saw this article in our local paper documenting the activism of our friends at Focus on the Family on behalf of Amendment 8 in California, which would circumvent recent state Supreme Court decisions and invalidate gay marriages in the state. Here’s the relevant portion:

Focus on the Family is turning out to be a top donor to backers of a California ballot initiative that would outlaw same-sex marriage, according to California Secretary of State's Office records. In June, the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Proposition 8, if passed, would essentially circumvent the court's decision by restoring the state definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.

Between Dec. 2007 and July, Focus donated $448,406 to support Proposition 8, with most of the money going to, a California-based coalition. Its largest donation, $250,000, came in June, one month after the court ruling.

Focus is the seventh biggest donor among Proposition 8 supporters, according to the California Secretary of State's Office.

Other major donors are Elsa Prince, a Focus board member ($450,000); the American Family Association ($500,000); Fieldstead & Co. ($600,000); the John Templeton Foundation ($900,000); and the National Organization for Marriage ($941,134.80).

The top donor is Knights of Columbus, which is based in New Haven, Conn., and acts as a political arm of the Catholic Church. The group has given $1.275 million in support of Proposition 8, the secretary of state's records show. . . .

Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, said Proposition 8 is "the Super Bowl of the same-sex marriage issue. " "For good or bad, what happens in California is transferred to the rest of the country," he said.

Aside from the local angle covering the activities of Focus, it was interesting that the Knights of Columbus leads the pack in giving on the issue. The conservative Catholic-Protestant alliance seems as strong as ever.

The money pouring into California on Amendment 8 is no more surprising than are the activities documented by Greenhouse’s expose (one confirmed by many other accounts). No more surprising, as well, is that the focus on the former not only precludes, but usually contradicts, a serious engagement with the latter, never mind that the market forces compelling "the squeeze" also squeeze families beyond the breaking point, as Greenhouse documents.

I know there are religious responses to the worker exploitation seen in Greenhouse’s book, and I could enumerate them here. But one hardly hears of them, and they seem to have no impact comparable to the Knights/Focus coalition. What would Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, and Monsignor John Ryan do?

Update: Posting this reminded me of a conversation I had recently with someone of a conservative religious persuasion, who had worked on (among other things) the history as well as the historiography of marriage. In our talk, it turned out we shared a sense about the social effects of the unregulated market -- me for the kinds of economic issues noted above, this person for the too-easy dissolution of marriage as a social bond, with its deleterious consequences especially for children of lower socioeconomic status. We chuckled over the fact that we were in agreement even though I'm a commie-pinko-leftist-radical-America-hating-professor (just ask David Horowitz) while this person (I would surmise) is a values voter.

We'll never agree on the gay marriage issue, for sure, and for the life of me I just don't understand the conservative obsession with it (I can name all the reasons, fears about the undermining of norms of gender and sexuality and all of that; but still, come on, get a grip, conservatives, the Republic will survive, just as it did when miscegenation laws finally fell in 1967). But thinking over that conversation again made me wonder how common ground on issues of significance could be found.

Maybe it can't; but it seems to me conservatives who worry about the unraveling of social bonds have to come to terms with the market's potential and actual role in that process, while progressives can and should recognize that liberalism contains within it assumptions that can erode the bonds that underlay it, and that a mere reliance on the liberal ideal of autonomy and freedom of choice, while good and necessary, has its limits, and cannot answer deep-seated communal concerns.

I keep hoping that a public figure will emerge who can articulate this sort of morality, one that draws from the legitimate insights of conservative values rhetoric and a liberal focus on inequality and exploitation; but it seems when they do, they are so vilified by political enemies that dialogue stops before it can ever start (ok, yes, I admit I'm thinking Obama here -- his line about the "ownership society" meaning, in effect, "you're on your own," hits at what I'm getting at here) . So, now I'm depressed again. Anyone got any alternative candidates they want to put up?

Evolution of Southern Religious Conservatism

Paul Harvey

For readers in/around the University of Alabama or in Birmingham or environs, an announcement.

I'll be giving a public lecture on "The Evolution of Southern Religious Conservatism," at the Gorgas LIbrary, Room 205, University of Alabama, Monday Sept. 22, 4:00 p.m. A flier for this talk is here. The talk is sponsored by the U. Alabama History Department, the Summersell Center for the Study of the American South, and the University of Alabama Libraries.

This will be my first time at the U of A. Roll Tide!

Religion and the Election in the Classroom

Paul Harvey

Jim Bennett of Santa Clara University has posted the following query to H-AMREL:

An excellent post by Paul Harvey ("Religion and Politics at the Rotary Club") on his Religion in American History blog made me curious how others teach religion and politics, and especially how people plan to integrate the election this year. Do you have particular excercises, readings or resources that you've found particularly helpful oreffective in teaching the topic, whether it is providing historicalcontext or exploring contemporary issues? Those of us on the quarter system who are still fine tuning our fall syllabi would grateful for any suggestions. Thanks in advance.

Jim's query has generated plenty of replies and interesting classroom ideas from a variety of perspectives. Click here for a sampling, starting with Sept. 12 and going forward.

Mormon History Association

Posted from H-AMREL

Mormon History Association
2009 Springfield Illinois Conference
Call for Papers
Mormonism and the Land of Lincoln: Intersections, Crosscurrents, andDispersions

The forty-fourth annual conference of the Mormon History Association will be held May 21-24, 2009, in Springfield, Illinois, at the AbrahamLincoln Hotel located in the historic center of Springfield. It has been nearly two decades since the last MHA conference was held in Illinois.The MHA executive board selected Springfield as the location for the conference to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the birth ofAbraham Lincoln (1809-1865).

Corresponding with this historical anniversary, the theme of the 2009 conference will be Mormonism and the Land of Lincoln: Intersections, Crosscurrents, and Dispersions, a theme which encourages studies of Mormonism within broad historical contexts. In October 1830, the first Mormons passed through Illinois on their wayto preach to the Indian tribes west of Missouri. During the 1830s Illinois became a major thoroughfare for Mormons traveling between Missouri and Ohio and other points further east, and as early as 1835 the first branches were established in the state. With the expulsion ofthe Latter-day Saints from Missouri in 1839, Nauvoo served as the mainplace of Mormon gathering until 1846. However, by this time, hundreds of Mormons were living in numerous branches established in other counties throughout the state. Significantly, after the main body of the Church departed under Brigham Young, those Saints who chose to remain looked to others for leadership and established Restoration churches and communities which continue to the present.

Place and time connect Mormonism with Lincoln. Significantly, in March 1830, about the time Joseph Smith organized the Church of Christ in NewYork, twenty-one-year-old Abraham Lincoln settled in Illinois, and he then began his political career, first in New Salem and later in Springfield. By 1840, as Nauvoo was rising on the banks of the Mississippi, Lincoln had distinguished himself as a skillful lawyer, a member of the Illinois state legislature, and a leading figure in the state's Whig party. In addition, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives the month before the last Saints still residing in the City of Joseph were expelled following the 'Battle of Nauvoo.'

The 2009 program committee invites interested historians, scholars, and individuals to submit proposals for papers, panel discussions, or presentations for the conference. We especially encourage proposals related to the conference theme. However, proposals on other Mormon topics and themes are also welcome. All proposals must be submitted in electronic format.

Proposals should be directed to: Alexander L. Baugh,Associate Professor, Church History and Doctrine, BYU atalex_baugh AT byu DOT edu. Deadline for submission is October 1, 2008. Notification for acceptance or rejection will be December 15, 2008. Additional instructions for submitting proposals will be available onthe MHA website at

Best Paper Prize: ASA Religion and American Culture Caucus


Kelly Baker

Here's the call from Matt Hedstrom:

The Religion and American Culture Caucus of the American Studies Association is pleased to announce our 5th annual best paper competition. Any paper that will be presented at the 2008 ASA annual convention in Albuquerque, and that addresses matters of religion, broadly understood, is eligible for consideration.

The deadline for submission is Friday, September 26, 2008. Please email a complete version of the paper to Matthew Hedstrom at mhedstrom (at) rwu (dot) edu. The winner will be selected by a panel of distinguished scholars in the field, and announced at the Caucus business meeting on Friday, October 17, 2008.

For more information on the Caucus, please see

The Politics of Jesus


Material culture meets politics meets religion! Apparently this shirt is selling like hotcakes among Democrats and was mentioned on the floor of the House.

New Journal and Historiographical Revelation(s)


by Phillip Luke Sinitiere

I recently received word about a new journal that may be of interest to readers here at Religion and American History: The Journal of World Christianity. This journal is on-line and it is free (at least for now).

Here's the brief table of contents:

Introducing the Journal of World Christianity
The Editors

World Christianity: An Introduction
Dale T. Irvin

Doing Theology in World Christianity: Different Resources and Methods
Peter C. Phan

Repensando la función social y ética de una historia del Cristianismo Mundial
Ana Maria Bidegain

Rethinking the Social and Ethical Functions of a History of World Christianity
Ana Maria Bidegain

The Avenger and the Redeemer: Christianity & the Cultural Matrix
Lamin Sanneh

The journal is of course not only looking for readers, but authors and book reviewers as well. Here's part of the journal's "focus and scope" (Read the full statement here.):

World Christianity is a field of study that encompasses analysis of the histories, practices, and discourses of Christianity as is found on six continents. The Journal of World Christianity is particularly concerned with comparative studies of both local forms of Christianity in the areas in which it has historically existed or presently exists, and with the place of Christianity in inter-religious dialogue, the history of interactions between Christianity and persons of other faiths, and interactions between Christian groups separated by confessional, ecclesiastical, geographical, or geo-political divides.

Emanating from the Jerusalem of the first century BCE, carried through diasporic movements of persons and communities, Christianity has for two thousand years been expressed through diverse ecclesiastical traditions. It has been shaped by diverse linguistic and cultural practices, and has been informed by a multitude of world historical and cultural experiences. It is not a ";Western religion,"; and in that sense no more natural to Italy than to China. The academic field of World Christianity hence seeks to apply the resources of various academic disciplines in which scholars now operate to further understand both the diversity of local expressions of Christian life and faith situated in the world, and the variety of ways that these interact with broader histories, movements, and discourses. It is both critical and constructive.

The presence of this journal suggests some interesting questions about reframing the history of Christianity within the field of American religion. Here I have in mind the kind of reframing Thomas Bender writes about in Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History (2006). He essentially calls for an internationalizing of national histories, placing events in a global context. Here are a couple of quotes from Bender's book: "If historians want to educate students and the public as true citizens, they must think more profoundly about the way they frame national histories…in ways that reveal commonalities and interconnections..." and "If we begin to think about American history as a local instance of a general history, as one history among others, not only will historical knowledge be improved, but the cultural foundations of a needed cosmopolitanism will be enhanced.”

I'm not sure about the extent to which scholarly histories of Christianity in America today possess the kind of triumphialist, nationalist impulses Bender identifies and critiques, but it is interesting to think about telling the stories of this history in a global context. Among others, Charles Cohen suggests something along these lines in a September 2003 Church History article: "The Colonization of British North America as an Episode in the History of Christianity," and as Art brought to our attention in May, Charles Reagan Wilson frames his thoughts on Southern missions in a global context. And last fall Kelly blogged about the September 2007 issue of American Quarterly and its theme on religion and politics; some of the articles deal with American religion in a global perspective.

And for what it's worth, the American Historical Association's annual meeting theme for 2009 is globalizing historiographies (and I know that there were several religion panels proposed), and the theme for the 2009 World History Association annual meeting is merchants and missionaries in world history (like the AHA, I know of at least one panel proposal that considers topics in American religious history as world history).

That's all.

Kinsey and Religion

Kelly Baker

The September issue of the Journal of American History contains an article by R. Marie Griffith on Alfred Kinsey, the infamous sexologist, and his encounters with religion and with religious peoples, both liberal and conservative. Here's the article's description:

Following the publication of Alfred C. Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), his critics branded him as a foe of religion and an enemy of American Christian values. But, as R. Marie Griffith shows, Kinsey had ties to important liberal Protestant leaders. She analyzes Kinsey's impact on religious ideas about sex in both liberal and conservative religious circles. (For the full article, click here.)

Evangelical Locomotion

Paul Harvey

A so-called "friend" sent this and writes: "Trying to find a scholarly analysis on this could be tricky, but it's too much of a 'jaw-dropper' to go unnoticed... kind of a Backstreet Boys meets Jerry Falwell sort of vibe." Do the (Evangelical) Locomotion.

The Lived Religion of the Nation Of Islam


Kelly Baker

One of the many books I picked up to read recently was Edward Curtis's Black Muslim Religion in the U.S., 1960-1975. The book proves to be a wonderful introduction to the diversity of practice with the Nation of Islam as well as the movement's engagement with Islam, Christianity, and larger culture. University of North Carolina Press describes the book:

Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam came to America's attention in the 1960s and 1970s as a radical separatist African American social and political group. But the movement was also a religious one. Edward E. Curtis IV offers the first comprehensive examination of the rituals, ethics, theologies, and religious narratives of the Nation of Islam, showing how the movement combined elements of Afro-Eurasian Islamic traditions with African American traditions to create a new form of Islamic faith.

Considering everything from bean pies to religious cartoons, clothing styles to prayer rituals, Curtis explains how the practice of Islam in the movement included the disciplining and purifying of the black body, the reorientation of African American historical consciousness toward the Muslim world, an engagement with both mainstream Islamic texts and the prophecies of Elijah Muhammad, and the development of a holistic approach to political, religious, and social liberation. Curtis's analysis pushes beyond essentialist ideas about what it means to be Muslim and offers a view of the importance of local processes in identity formation and the appropriation of Islamic traditions.

I found Curtis's attention to material manifestations of NOI to be the most suggestive about their theology and strategies of resistance. Curtis relies upon cartoons, dress, food, print culture, and school lessons and texts to create a portrait of the movement that moves beyond the stereotypical presentation of NOI as a movement filled with racist and bizarre theologies that was somehow not Islamic. He explores the theologies of the movement, but more importantly, he shows how believers lived their faith and created a new form of Islam. By uplifting the material religion of NOI, Curtis illuminates how believers navigated the strict lifestyle and created their own renderings of the movement. For example, he discusses in detail the lengthy clothing requirements for women, which signified modesty and piety, and the labor of the women to construct these uniforms. However, women interpreted these guidelines in different ways that did not always conform to the strict renderings of gender in the movement. Women staked their claims of authority and spiritual leadership in how they wore their clothes. Food also became a battleground between leaders and believers. Strict dietary guidelines and recipes defined what should be eaten to cleanse the physical and the spiritual, but often believers tweaked the recipes to create better tasting food. What Curtis shows masterfully is not only a clear presentation of the system of NOI but also a balanced view of the lived religion of NOI adherents.

Trouble the Water


Paul Harvey

Following up on Mike's last post, and our previous discussion of the special Katrina issue of the Journal of Southern Religion -- the new film Trouble the Water appears to be a must-watch (has anyone here seen it yet?). The film captures Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts, two New Orleans Katrina survivors whose video camera provides an inside view of the days during and after Katrina. Of the film, Richard Corliss writes:

In the gritty, buoyant Kim they [the filmmakers] found a person who symbolized both the lower depths of urban life and the resilience, when faced with an impossible challenge, to rise to a level higher than flood tide. Maybe Kim, Scott and their crew were no angels before Katrina, but that doesn't matter--because in Trouble the Water, we see the lives of the saints.

The filmmakers recently were interviewed on Bob Edwards Weekend, and you can view the trailer above.

One Million Catholics Skip Mass


It’s just a guess, but I think a good guess, that approximately one million Louisiana Catholics skipped mass last Sunday. Over 95% of the population of South Louisiana, or around 2 million people, spent the Sabbath packed into automobiles, queued at gas stations and Home Depots, laying on cots and loitering in parking lots of public shelters, or stuffed into the homes of relatives and hotel rooms in anticipation of Hurricane Gustav’s landfall, to say nothing of the thousands of National Guardsmen and women, medical first-responders, law enforcement officers, and other civic leaders who stayed behind to oversee the evacuation and emergency response. Diocesan officials cancelled masses and urged their parishioners—about half the population of South Louisiana—to heed the advice of state and local governments to leave areas in the path of Gustav. No doubt, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were on the minds of everyone.

In the weeks and months leading up to Hurricane Gustav’s arrival on the morning of September 1, 2008—just three days after the third anniversary of Katrina and three weeks before the same anniversary of Rita—Catholic massgoers throughout the state recited a prayer to Our Lady of Prompt Succor, the Patroness of Louisiana, which read, “Our Father in heaven, through the powerful intercession of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, spare us from all harm during this hurricane season and protect us and our homes from all disasters of nature. Our Lady of Prompt Succor, hasten to help us. Amen.” The same prayer was recited in Catholic churches unaffected by evacuation orders on the day before Gustav landed, sometimes within eye-shot of highways and interstates streaming with many carloads of Catholics skipping mass.

Suffice it to say that Catholics living in Louisiana, from your regular churchgoer to the so-called lapsed variety, know that Our Lady of Prompt Succor is the Mary you pray to during hurricane season. Hear a story about the feastday celebration of OLPS on NPR here. It’s just one of those things that Louisiana Catholics do, like abstaining from the consumption of meat on Friday’s during Lent and gorging instead on crawfish, shrimp, and cheap beer. It’s also safe to say that most Louisiana Catholics—and historians of American religion for that matter—know very little about the history of the cult of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. I should know, I wrote a boring article on that very subject in the book Saints and Their Cults in the Atlantic World. Rebecca Carter’s article on “spiritual dwelling” in post-Katrina New Orleans in the Journal of Southern Religion is a better place to start thinking about personal devotions to Our Lady of Prompt Succor.

After evacuating from my residence in South Louisiana and as I enjoyed the company and hospitality of friends and family 200 miles inland, I couldn’t help but think how inconsequential my historical knowledge of the cult of Our Lady of Prompt Succor was to what was going on in the minds of millions of Catholics and non-Catholics as they worried about running out of gas, finding and then paying for a hotel room, feeding and sheltering their children, and when they would be able to return to their homes that may be destroyed. It’s hard to imagine even the most devout Catholic grandmother from Plaquemines Parish—the southeastern most parish (county) of Louisiana lined by the levees of the Mississippi River—focusing intensely on the Mary that was supposed to protect her home and family from disaster. It’s hard to imagine anyone keeping attuned to what scholars generally consider “religious” concerns in the heat of the moment.

It’s this “religion-in-the-moment” that is perplexing for scholars like me who were raised on books like Robert Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street and Thomas Tweed’s Our Lady of the Exile, perhaps the two most influential studies of Marian devotionalism in America. The evidence and data used in these sorts of books, however magnificent, are usually disconnected from immediate experience, when devotees are pressed to fill out questionnaires, contrive quotes for inquisitive interviewers, or send anonymous petitions to shrine newsletters. I have a difficult time thinking of ways to situate the religious experiences of hurricane evacuees in historical, social, and cultural contexts. The circumstances just seem too aberrant, too disjointed from ordinary time and space, to capture the religious experiences of the moment. Scholars of religious studies, myself included, tend to use phrases like “lived religion” and “extraliturgical religion” to describe religion outside the carefully scripted confines of “official religion” or “institutional religion.” But these categories seem only to get at the before and after the storm; the now remains elusive. I can’t help but think—actually, I know—that I’m missing something. The scholar in me wants to know what it's like, but every other part of my being never wants to know.
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