Violence, "the Religious," and Black Power

Matthew J. Cressler

[Blogmeister editorial note: Congratulations to Matthew for finishing his Ph.D. at Northwestern and moving on now to a new position in the Department of Religion and in African and African American Studies at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. Congratulations, Matthew!]

"Instead of preaching the Cross for others and advising them to suffer patiently the violence which we sweetly impose on them, with the aid of armies and police, we might conceivably recognize the right of the less fortunate to use force, and study more seriously the practice of non-violence and humane methods on our own part when, as it happens, we possess the most stupendous arsenal of power the world has ever known."  Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence (1968)

I want to return to a question I raised to my last post. Why is Black Power usually imagined to be essentially secular (in juxtaposition to the religiousness of southern civil rights struggles)?  I'd argue that one of the reasons many people at the time (and most historians since) characterized Black Power as such had to do with deep-seated assumptions about the nature of "religion" itself.  What marked Black Power as symbolically different than civil rights was violence, both rhetorical and actual.  The prevailing images of civil rights were tired women and tireless youth marching peacefully - and stoically enduring suffering - for freedom.  Meanwhile, the prevailing image of Black Power was black men donning black leather and brandishing guns.  (This is, of course, not a fair characterization of either.) 

The problem with this second image, at least for some scholars, is that "religion" - one might say real religion, proper religion, or good religion - has long been presumed to be peaceful by its very nature.  To put this another way, "the religious" (people, institutions, ideas) is legitimate only to the extent that it does not threaten the stability of civil society.  When the religious enters the public sphere through violent means, it is immediately suspect insofar as its relative religiousness is concerned.

Satanism and Scholars of American Religion

John L. Crow

This week the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision has brought Satanism into the national conversation, again. Satanism has been in the news repeatedly over the last year for a variety of reasons. Looking at the news coverage has allowed me to identify something I have been struggling to articulate. This something is a problem I have noticed in the field of religious studies, one that is specifically American. To explain this, I must make a brief digression. I earned my master’s degree in Europe and this has afforded me the opportunity to look at the differences between the ways certain religious subjects are engaged in continental religious studies versus American. After years of observation and discussion with a variety of colleagues I have come to the conclusion that, in general, American religious studies scholars struggle to engage with the religious tradition of Satanism. When I write Satanism, I mean a large variety of religious phenomena including religious Satanism, Satanism as articulated by Christians, and Satanism as constructed and represented by the media. Recognizing that there is a difference is one of the issues that rarely gets highlighted in any discussion about Satanism. The point, regardless of the type of Satanism, is that scholars of religion rarely examine the history, cultural role, or the way Satanism is practiced in the contemporary religious marketplace of America. Because of this they are ill equipped to address the tradition when issues arise in public debate, such as the recent Satanic Temple press release.

Just to be clear, I am not really interested in Satanism itself. I am interested in the way people, in particular religious studies scholars, conceive of the tradition, study it, talk about it, or more often, ignore it. For instance, after the Hobby Lobby decision, numerous media, blogs, and news reports consulted scholars of religion for a variety of perspectives. This week’s coverage of the Satanic Temple’s press release about religious freedom has resulted in many news reports too. And while there are plenty of legal professionals who are quoted in the reports, I have yet to see one include anything from a scholar of religion. When Christians are involved, scholars of religion have a lot to say. When Satanists are involved? Silence.

Satanism is treated differently by both academics and the public at large. This point was made apparent to me a few semesters ago when a couple of my colleagues asked me to give a one day lesson on religious Satanism as part of their world religions courses. I kept the history brief, focusing mostly on institutional Satanism, looking at the atheistic Church of Satan and the theistic Temple of Set. At the end, I also talked about the ways Satanism is constructed by Christian churches and the way this construction is projected upon Satanists. To illustrate the point, I showed a portion of an interview between Bob Larson, Zeena Schreck, daughter of the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, and her husband, Nicholas Schreck, founder of a satanic school of magic called The Werewolf Order. The interview can be seen here on YouTube. What becomes apparent in the interview is that Larson’s conception of Satanism is quite divergent from the kind of Satanism that the Schrecks articulate. Numerous times Larson says what Satanists can and cannot do based on what he imagines are the rules by which Satanists live and practice. He says in satanic weddings, brides cannot wear white to which the Schrecks reply, why not? Larson claims that all Satanist believe something because it is in The Satanic Bible to which the Schrecks reply, it does not matter what it says in the book, and Satanists can do and believe what they want. Larson uses his understanding of Christianity as the basis of his approach to Satanism and he is repeatedly shown to be in error. Larson is not unlike many who approach Satanism, whether they are in the media, law enforcement, or scholars of religion. The way Satanism has been portrayed by Christianity colors the narrative, regardless of what the facts demonstrate. There are significant differences between the various kinds of Satanism but there is a scarcity of American religious studies scholars who can or will engage in any public discussion about these differences, a task that they frequently perform for other religions. 

American Society of Church History's Awards & Prizes

Cara Burnidge

The American Society of Church History offers a number of awards and prizes each year. While many deadlines have already passed for this calendar year, nominations for the Jane Dempsey Douglass Prize are due this Friday (August 1, 2014). According to the ASCH website, the Jane Dempsey Douglass Prize is an annual award in the amount of $250 for the author of the best essay published during the previous calendar year on any aspect of the role of women in the history of Christianity. (While this award may be of interest to RiAH readers, please keep in mind that it is open to any historical period and is not limited to an American focus only.)

Per ASCH guidelines, those who wish to make a nomination should send an e-mail to the Executive Secretary ( The nomination should include the following: 1) the author’s name; 2) the author’s affiliation (or designation of "independent scholar," if appropriate); 3) the author’s contact information (mailing address and e-mail address); 4) the title of the author’s work; and (5) a copy of the article.

Bullet The Blue Sky--Again: Immigration, Contagion & the Lost Land

Arlene M. Sanchez-Walsh

See across the field 
See the sky ripped open 
See the rain comin' through the gapin' wound
Howlin' the women and children

Who run into the arms
of America

"Bullet the Blue Sky," by U2 from The Joshua Tree, 1987

I came of political age in the 1980s, attended my first political rally against the Reagan Administration's policies in Central America, wrote op-ed's for the late great L.A. Herald, and even supported the Sandinista government in Nicaragua with my modest college-age wages.  With the stories of the Central American children crossing the border and being met with invective, insults and generally appalling behavior, my mind went back 90 years, to more appalling behavior, perpetuated by U.S. officials under the guise of public health--the fumigation of Mexican workers and immigrants, some of those crossing back and forth were Pentecostal missionaries, this is one of their stories. I think it demonstrates that the regulation of Latin American peoples, whether 90 years ago or today, is fraught with danger, colored by nativism, and usually anything but the idealized site of refuge where people fleeing violence can find relief.

Janet McKenzie's Art in Vermont

Edward J. Blum

If you find yourself in Vermont this August, I highly recommend taking a look at the exhibit listing below.

Holiness and the Feminine Spirit  

3- The Child McKenzie - small
The Waitsfield United Church of Christ will exhibit the paintings of Vermont artist, Janet McKenzie, during the Vermont Festival of the Arts in August. The exhibit Holiness & the Feminine Spirit is an exhibit of fifteen paintings modeled on two groups (women and people of color) that have been under-represented in traditional Christian imagery.  Her painting Jesus of the People will be on view, offering a rare opportunity to see the original painting.  Selected First Place Winner of the National Catholic Reporter’s global competition for an image of Christ for the new millennium, the painting invariably generates conversation.   Janet’s paintings reflect her hope for greater love among all of us, for seeing with honest eyes, having an open heart, and an open mind.  She strives to create art that celebrates our inherent similarities rather than our differences. What lies beyond skin and gender, within the depth of our universal soul is more alike than we’ll ever know.

Exhibit hours and events:
August 2-30, 2014
Thursdays-Mondays, 12 noon – 5 pm
Artist Talk – Saturday, August 2, 3:30 – 4:30 pm
Opening Reception/Book signing – Saturday, August 2, 4:30 – 6:00 pm 

Assigned Reading

Emily Suzanne Clark

Though the summer still feels in full swing, the fall semester is rapidly approaching, and it’s thinking about my fall teaching schedule that led to this post. This fall semester I’m teaching a new course for me to a student body that will also be new to me (going from Florida State University to Gonzaga University). This course in particular has been on my mind. More specifically, and more generally, I’ve been thinking about what I assign my students to read and why. And I’m curious to hear from fellow bloggers and readers of the blog about this: what do you assign and why?

 What I ended up going with for this course (African American Religions) was: Al Raboteau’s A Fire in the Bones (a collection of reflections and essays), Milton Sernett’s African American Religious History (a documentary reader), and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (2 short essays from the early 1960s). I’m supplementing this with a variety of other readings: excerpts from the FBI files on the Moorish Science Temple, theoretical articles on the field, black liberation theology, and material from my own research on Afro-creole Spiritualism in New Orleans. I like using lots of primary sources, and I think that will work especially well in this class. Right now the enrollment is small; in fact, the smallest class I’ve had to date. I’m looking forward to organizing some of our meetings more like a seminar than a typical undergraduate class and have group discussions about the conclusions and interpretations we can make based on the primary sources we have.

SHEAR, STEM, and Subfields

Charles McCrary

Last weekend I was in Philadelphia for the Annual Meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). (See here for the program and here for Monica’s RiAH post highlighting the “religion” panels.) I presented on a panel on “Mobility and the Making on Early National Religious Idenity,” with Shari Rabin and Roy Rogers. This was my first SHEAR conference, but I doubt it will be my last. The overall quality of papers was the best of any conference I’ve attended. Friday morning’s session on “Faith, Politics, and Law After the Founding” was especially thought-provoking. Also, I attended a reception for contributors to the American Yawp, which is a great project that you should check out if you haven’t already. Anyway, SHEAR is great; you should go. American religioushistory was well represented at the conference. However, one of the most generative aspects of the conference, for me, was the intermingling of various subfields. Clearly there were a number of “religion panels” (and, Shari and I noted, upon not leaving our seats for a few panels in a row, there was something of a “religion room” where those panels were held.) Nevertheless, within those panels and others not explicitly “religious,” most papers bridged subfields skillfully. Perhaps one reason for this was the tight chronology to which most panels kept. When scholars are able to focus in on a specific time and/or place, the connections between categories becomes more apparent.

The Theological Turn at U. S. Intellectual History

Mark Edwards
Detroit Photographic Co., "Army and Navy [Soldiers and
Sailors] monument, Indianapolis, Indiana," Library of
Congress, Prints and Photographs Online.

The sixth annual meeting of the Society for U. S. Intellectual History (S-USIH)  will take place October 9-12 at the Omni Severin Hotel in Downtown Indianapolis.  More information can be found here, including the conference schedule which will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.  Readers of RIAH will note a number of familiar names on the program, including Kathryn Lofton, who will be delivering the keynote address on Bob Dylan and the search for belief in history.  Lofton will also be joining the omnipresent Ed Blum and several others on a plenary session, What is U. S. Intellectual History?  If that alone is not worth the price of admission, the conference will host a roundtable on what is being called the "theological turn" in American history.  This panel is the brainchild of Lilian Calles Barger, the author of Eve's Revenge who just recently completed a wonderful dissertation on liberation theology at UT Dallas.  Joining Barger will be Molly Worthen, K. Healan Gaston, Matthew Hedstrom, and Andrew Finstuen.

Review of Brian Connolly's Domestic Intimacies

Carol Faulkner

Subtitled Incest and the Liberal Subject in Nineteenth-Century America, Brian Connolly's book
historicizes the incest prohibition. This is a tough, tough subject, and he succeeds admirably. In the nineteenth century, theological, legal, literary, reform, and physiological discourses surrounding incest were in transition. The religious proscriptions of Leviticus and the Anglican Church's Table of Kindred and Affinity (1563) diminished in power and persuasiveness, and they had yet to be replaced by eugenic theories of reproduction or the taboos developed by the fields of anthropology and psychology. Further, as Connolly argues, incest was inseparable from constructions of the new middle-class, sentimental family. At the center of nineteenth-century American society, the family nurtured the nation's citizens, and offered a moral refuge in an increasingly mobile, capitalist society. Even as it offered protection,  the nuclear family's affectionate domesticity facilitated and even encouraged incest. Families had the contradictory responsibilities of regulating individual desire and providing for its expression. Within the family, according to Connolly, incest placed necessary, if shifting, limits on the individual.

Readers of this blog will be especially interested in Connolly's chapter on "Theology," which covers a debate known as "the marriage question." Involving the Presbyterian, Congregational, and Dutch Reformed churches, clergy and their parishioners debated the restriction on husbands marrying their (deceased) wife's sister (a wife marrying her brother-in-law did not seem to cause as much outcry). In the early republic, states began narrowing the list of prohibited relationships. In 1785, for example, Massachusetts removed the wife's sister from their marriage restrictions. Furthermore, American notions of individual liberty, particularly marital choice, began to clash with religious proscriptions. Charged with incest for marrying his wife's sister, Presbyterian minister Archibald McQueen protested the church's demand that he "separate myself from the woman whom I have chosen as my wife" (59) as disruptive of stable and virtuous families. In their defense of the marriage prohibition, theologians invoked the specter of a sexualized extended family, in which every member was a potential sexual partner: "Would not every family become a school of abominable impurity, where the youthful mind would be initiated in the worst mysteries of vice, and long before it obtained years of discretion, turn out a giant in profligacy?" (71). For many church leaders, the Table of Kindred and Affinity was the only bulwark against a sexual free-for-all, but Americans rejected such infringements on their liberty.

Take a Stand for Peanuts: Thinking Out Loud About The Irreverent George Norris

Paul Putz

After finishing up my first semester of PhD work last December, I headed home to McCook, Nebraska for a couple weeks. McCook is a small town (pop. 7,652) in southwest Nebraska, roughly halfway in between Denver and Omaha. Its most famous resident for the vast majority of its 132 year existence has been George Norris, the legendary Ohio-born congressman who spent forty years serving Nebraska in Washington (1903-1943) -- thirty of those years as a senator.

Stamp issued in 1961
It's difficult to get away from Norris if you're from McCook. Kids going through McCook's school system make numerous field trips to his old house, which is now run by the Nebraska State Historical Society as the Senator George Norris State Historic Site. Main Street in McCook is "Norris Avenue" and the central park in McCook is "Norris Park." All of this for a man who was a progressive Republican, a champion of liberal ideas that McCook's residents now generally repudiate, at least rhetorically.

For an earlier generation of liberals, Norris was a saintly figure. His stubborn opposition to "monied interests," his belief that the government could be a positive force for good in people's lives, his reputation for integrity, and the fact that he remained a steadfast progressive throughout progressivism's 1920s nadir captured the imagination of idealistic young Americans. In the 1950s, a panel of scholars put together by the U.S. Senate to determine the five most outstanding senators in American history voted Norris number one. In 1957, "John F. Kennedy" "wrote" Profiles in Courage, featuring Norris as one of his Courageous Eight U.S. senators.

Norris's greatest hits are indeed impressive. He opposed Joe Cannon, J. Edgar Hoover, American entry into World War I, the Espionage Act, and the poll tax (this did not come until the end of his career). He championed the TVA, Norris-LaGuardia Act, 20th Amendment, Rural Electrification Act, and Nebraska's Unicameral. And perhaps most impressive of all, he used an eight-foot spider labeled "Wall Street" as a prop for a speech on the Senate floor
But what does all of this have to do with American religious history?

You Cannot Serve God and Gridiron

Elesha Coffman

"We determine to follow the line of principle and refuse to compromise with the world," declared the young president of a small Christian college. The year was 1925, the small Christian college was the University of Dubuque, and the issue on which the president refused to compromise was football. Or maybe the issue was religious freedom. Or maybe it was ethnocentrism. So many strands get tangled up in declarations of institutional identity.

The University of Dubuque (or "UD" as we call it around here) was founded in 1852 as a Protestant seminary for German immigrants. By 1870, its name reflected its primary constituency: the German Theological School of the Presbyterian Church of the Northwest. As often happened, instruction in other fields grew up around ministerial training, and a four-year liberal arts college was spun off from the seminary in 1904. A Mexican student enrolled, then a few Czechs. Within a decade, the school had a new, much larger campus, a more diverse faculty, university accreditation, an emerging powerhouse football team, and a simmering scandal.

Religion at the Urban History Association Conference

Karen Johnson 

This year, the Urban History Association is hosting its seventh biennial conference in Philadelphia from October 9-12.  I've put panels that might be of interest to blog readers below, excerpted from the program. 

Session 36: Religion and Migration in the Post-World War II North American City
Lila Corwin Berman, Temple University,“Liberal Judaism and the Creation of Metropolitan Urbanism in Postwar Detroit”

Elaine Pena, George Washington University,“Religion on the Move: Sacred Spatiality and Civic Engagement in Nuevo Laredo”

William Schultz, Princeton University,“The Making of Jesus Springs: Colorado Springs and the New Geography of Evangelicalism”

Commentator & Chair: Sarah Barringer Gordon, University of Pennsylvania

Session 44  Religion, Race, and Suburbanization
Peter Borg, Doctoral Candidate, Marquette University,“Milwaukee’s White Urban Churches in the Age of Suburbanization”

Karen Johnson, Wheaton College,“Religion and Suburban Integration”

Erik Miller, Case Western Reserve University,“The Fields Are Black Unto Harvest:” The Rise of Evangelical Inner City Ministries and the Remaking of Christian Conservatism in the Age of the Religious Right, 1976-1989”

Chair and Commentator:  Darren Dochuk, Washington University in St. Louis

Session 77: Tenant Organizing in the Urban North: Empowering Residents to Improve Housing
Tracy E. K’Meyer,  University of Louisville, “The AFSC and the East Garfield Park Community Union: Organizing for Democratic Communities"

Jeffrey Helgeson, Texas State University-San Marcos, “Fighting Planners’ Blight: Renters, the Black Power Movement, and Urban Development in Chicago”

Charles F. Casey-Leininger, University of Cincinnati,“’Not the Most Dramatic of Slum Properties’: The Standish Apartment Rent Strike, Community Organizing, the Civil Rights Movement, and Civil Unrest in Cincinnati, 1964”

Chair: Amanda Seligman, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Comment:  Brian Purnell, Bowdoin College

For those who want to exercise a little at lunch while learning about religion and the city, check out these tours:

The Woodlands and West Philadelphia
This tour will begin at the Woodlands, the estate (turned cemetery) of early national Philadelphia’s preeminent connoisseur of plants, William Hamilton.  Hamilton’s mansion (ca. 1770-1795) is among the most important works of Federal Style domestic architecture in the United States and makes use of the surrounding landscape in ways reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.  After walking briskly through open areas of the house, we will stroll out into the surrounding Woodlands Cemetery, one of Philadelphia’s first “rural” cemeteries and the final resting place of Thomas Eakins, Paul Cret, and Napoleon III’s dentist.  Proceeding out the front gate, we’ll visit clusters of mid-19th c. suburban villas built on land that once belonged to Hamilton, then make our way to Penn’s campus, where St. Mary’s Church and Hamilton Walk reconnect us to the Hamilton story.

Beyond the Post-industrial City: Camden in Transition

Known nationally as one of the nation’s poorest cities, Camden has struggled for years to overcome structural restraints on its revitalization. Joining historian Howard Gillette, Mayor Dana Redd (invited) and Camden Redevelopment Director Saundra Johnson will point out elements of the city’s renewal, including neighborhood reinvestment in the shadow of an expanding health complex associated with Cooper Hospital, senior housing sponsored by Antioch Baptist Church, and a newly opened Kroc recreational center in East Camden, near a Hope VI site that has been expanded with the cooperation of the St. Joseph’s Carpenter Community Development Corporation.

Revisiting Du Bois' Seventh Ward

Walk the streets and alleys of the Old Seventh Ward, the neighborhood W.E.B. Du Bois studied for his 1899 classic, The Philadelphia Negro, and learn how the area that was once home to blacks, immigrants, and US-born whites across social classes has become one of Center City's most expensive residential areas. Led by social worker and planning professor Amy Hillier, director of The Ward: Race and Class in DuBois’ Seventh Ward project, highlights of this walking tour include a visit to Mother Bethel, the first African Methodist Episcopal Church founded by Richard Allen in 1794, and the story behind the painting of the mural "Mapping Courage" honoring Du Bois on South Street. We'll also hear a tale of murder, participate in a group poetry reading, and look at manuscript census records to learn more about the people of this historic neighborhood. We'll grab lunch along the way at one of South Street's many hip take-out restaurants.

LeBron James, Prodigal Son?

I'm pleased to guest post this from our occasional guest poster Jeffrey Scholes, co-author of the recently published book Religion and Sports in American Culture

Jeffrey Scholes
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

LeBron James announced his decision to return to his old team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, last Friday through a Sports Illustrated piece entitled, “I’m Coming Home.” This kind of statement is a far cry from his announcement to leave Cleveland in 2010 and “take his talents to South Beach” to play for the Miami Heat. Considered a ridiculous proposition two months ago as the Heat were poised to win their third championship in a row, James’ pronouncement sent shock waves throughout the sports world.

Interestingly, the predominant adjective used to describe James after his return to Cleveland in the media is “prodigal.” Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe writes that James is the “Prodigal Son, returning home to protect the rim.”  Prodigal son language is also couched in terms of the economic benefits that James will bring to Cleveland—hence another reason for the allusion of a “father” killing the fatted calf. The Onion succinctly summarized the feelings of many fans inside and outside of Cleveland with its satirical and blunt title, “Prodigal Asshole Returns.”

While the wayward son in Jesus’ parable found in Luke differs considerably from LeBron James (as does other facets of the two stories), associating the two makes some sense. James asks his “father” in Cleveland for a lot of money, spurns his hometown seven years later (and sadistically keeps the Cavaliers in the dark about his plans) for the big(ger) city lights of Miami, is hated in Cleveland with the kind of passion that produces holidays, but finally returns home to face the music.
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