Who Needs a Hug(ging) Saint?



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

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

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

(ajl) A: Well, the first time I was in India I was on the UW Madison College Year in India program in 1996-1997. I was living in Varanasi and researching Hindu ascetics, sadhu babas, and renouncers. I was trying to study female ascetics, but I had this old male brahman assistant who said simply: “They don’t exist. Every woman who is a female ascetic is doing so because her husband died or she has no other means of supporting herself.” But then later that year, I was in Kerala and it was there that I ran into this huge pink ashram and the famed female guru Amma or Mata Amritanandamayi. According to her hagiographies her life story goes something like this: Amma was born in 1953 in a small South Indian fishing village to a fisherman’s caste. As a young child she began to feel the suffering of others, and she began hugging people in order to alleviate their suffering. Many people found these hugs to be comforting, healing, and miraculous in some cases and a cult of devotees formed around her. Now she travels around the world hugging tens of thousands of people every single day without rest. She hosts public programs that are free and open to the public that will last for about 10-20 hours at a time, during which individuals line up and she hugs them one by one by one. Even though darshan is usually a visual exchange between a deity and a devotee, taking Amma’s darshan is a hug.
            I didn’t see Amma performing darshan until I went to Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago in 2004. There were maybe five to ten thousand there that night and I had no idea of what to expect. I immediately noticed two distinct groups of people who were there: Indian Hindus who were very traditionally dressed, often dressed up, there to take Amma’s darshan and then there were “alternative” looking American metaphysicals (spiritual seekers) who were neither Indian nor Hindu, but were very much taking a part of Amma’s darshan. The book then drew out of the central question of how are these widely disparate cultural groups of devotees working together? How are they finding resonance within the same stimuli in different ways? How and when do they come together and where do they fall apart into their culturally distinct communities? Those were the questions that struck me at the outset and they became the central project of the book. And then of course, the secondary aim was going back to my first question back in 1996 of how could a woman become a very famous guru even though the scriptures tell her that she can’t? In the most traditional Hindu moral codes (shastras), it’s not allowed. But here you have this very famous female guru who seems to be thumbing her nose at Hindu prohibitions regarding caste and gender all over the world - so what role do traditional hierarchies of caste and gender play in her religious authority and her global organization?
            One important point that I should mention at the outset is that for Westerners, many people think ‘oh, that’s nice, she’s hugging people – everyone wants a hug.’ But in India and in Hinduism, conservative Hinduism particularly, a hug among strangers is a radical transgression, especially for a woman of low caste to be hugging all persons regardless of gender, caste, illness, and so on. As Selva Raj put it, Amma’s hug is her “discourse of defiance.” This story emerges from my analysis of the ways in which Amma is publicly thwarting caste and gender restrictions that would prohibit such behavior.

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



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Paul Putz


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

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

A Balm(er)y Fall



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

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

Elesha Coffman

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

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

Interview with Nancy Wadsworth on Evangelicals Working for Racial Change, Part 2



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Karen Johnson
Since the 1980s, few evangelical Christians concerned with racial reconciliation and racial justice have mustered their efforts in the political arena.  Nancy Wadsworth's new book Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing explores this seeming paradox.  Last month I interviewed her about her new book and promised the second part of the interview this month.  Here is goes:


Karen Johnson: How central is the framing of race as a black/white binary in American history to the development of evangelical racial change efforts, and to today's on-the-ground reality?

Nancy Wadsworth: What we need to understand about the black/white binary is that while it is less relevant to race relations within Christianity today—because of course the American racial mosaic is complex and variegated far beyond black and white—it matters a lot for thinking about how the deep racial divide within American Protestantism developed, and why it has been so difficult to bridge. (Mind you, this is not just the case for evangelicals, though that is the focus of my book. The same patterns repeat within American Catholicism and the mainline denominations.)

It is easy for us to forget that almost all American denominations fractured over, first, the question of slavery, and then, with emancipation, the issues of citizenship, integration, and civil rights for African Americans. These were core questions around which Protestants, like the nation and as the largest religious group within it, fought virulently. With Native Americans effectively relocated to the margins of American life by the mid-Nineteenth Century, racial fractures within American Christianity developed along the black-white binary. And to a very serious degree, whites developed their racial identity and sense of superiority in contrast to the group designated as their opposites: blacks, whose humanity was so disregarded that enslaving them was seen as not only justified but also, in many cases, as a prerogative of good Christians. That is why most of the denominations we know today, especially on the Baptist and Methodist side of Protestantism, literally were created based on their defense or repudiation of slavery. Black denominations grew directly out of that fracture, on the liberation side. The SBC, for example, was explicitly founded on the pro-slavery side of the racial divide. Similar fractures occurred in the Pentecostal tradition as it split over questions of integration in the early twentieth century.

When Women Don't Marry: Single Blessedness and the Shidduch Crisis



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Laura Arnold Leibman

"Save our desperate daughters," proclaims the cover article in issue 521 of Mishpacha [family] magazine, an English-language, ultra-orthodox journal. Although distributed via mail worldwide and featuring articles from from around the world, the magazine is based in New York and Jerusalem and is primarily aimed at a U.S. audience, as well as English-speaking Jewish-American ex-pats living in Israel.  The choice of English (rather than Yiddish) as the common tongue speaks both to the magazine's desire to appeal to Sephardic Jews and to the increasing number of people who taken on orthodox practice as adults. Magazines like Mishpacha help build community and become a stage upon which American orthodoxy performs its values and concerns.  Two key concerns are marriage and gender roles.

Many ultra-orthodox Jews believe in a limited engagement with the internet; thus, in-group magazines have become a crucial way to track of current events and forge a sense of community that extends beyond U.S. national boundaries and links families living in the U.S., Israel, and Europe.  Although nominally one publication, the magazine comes with three separate components: one aimed primarily at men, one at women, and one at children.  Interestingly, the August 6, 2014 (521) issue of the magazine, in which the article on the crisis for young Jewish women appeared, was placed in the men's portion of the magazine, and was was filtered through the gaze of an important Jewish male philanthropist, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz.  What was the crisis "that's breaking Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz's giant heart" and required attention from readers?  The lack of marriage partners for young orthodox women.

Advertisement for Segulah (Remedy) for
Shidduchim, Mishpacha Magazine (2014)
As Mr. Rechnitz notes, "Everywhere I turn, and at most Shabbos [Sabbath] tables, eventually the topic turns to the Shidduch Crisis. What is causing the Shidduch crisis? What can we do to solve the Shidduch Crisis?"  Given the magazine's audience, Rechnitz claims regarding the crisis's ubiquity are almost undoubtedly correct. While the "crisis" (or catastrophe as Mr. Rechnitz renames it) may be news to readers of the RAH blog, few who read Mishpacha magazine would be surprised or doubt the Shidduch Crisis's existence.  Indeed the magazine often features advertisements for ways to get a segulah (remedy, charm) for Shidduchim (matches; see this brief list of popular segulot and prayers and the image at RIGHT).  For the non-orthodox this may seem mystifying.  What is a shidduch anyway, and why is it suddenly causing a crisis for young Jewish American women? Moreover, the historian in me wants to know, is the shidduch crisis actually new? If not, can the past offer any guidance to current situation?

Muscular Christians and American Football



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Seth Dowland

Like many football fans, I watched aghast at the news coming out of the NFL this week. The horrific video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee (now wife) Janay Palmer came out the morning after a full slate of Week 1 games. A series of Nixonian statements from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell followed, in which Goodell denied reports that the league office had seen the video months ago (as if the previously-available video of Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of the elevator—and Rice’s own admission of punching her—hadn’t already made clear what happened). To finish the week, Minnesota Vikings superstar Adrian Peterson was indicted on charges of child abuse, after admitting to bloodying his son with a tree branch.

Incidents like these don’t occur among the majority of players, and it’s hard to draw solid causal links between the on-field violence of football and the off-field behavior of its players. Researchers have produced increasing amounts of evidence that concussions lead to permanent and debilitating brain damage, though this week’s incidents probably had little to do with head trauma. Still, such a week raises the question of how much fans will be willing to tolerate, as we learn more and more about how our most violent major sport affects the modern-day gladiators who play it.

Damned Souls and Damned Nation -- Damned Good



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Paul Harvey

Today I hope to call your attention to two books -- one older (published 2000) and one just out now – for the simple reason that I heart both of them; they are both about hell; and they are both fun as hell to read. The first is Edward L. Bond's Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony (published in 2000); the second, just out with Oxford, is Kathryn Gin Lum (aka, The Notorious KGL),  Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction.

Edward L. Bond’s study Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony (Mercer University Press, 2000), is one of those books that takes a fresh approach to a subject (in this case, emphasizing the strength of religiosity in seventeenth-century Virginia, contrary to how the usual accounts go) and supports that approach with a wealth of primary source research that will keep you returning to the footnotes for years. I came to appreciate that latter fact more this summer as I worked through my ideas about religion in early Virginia, and returned time and again for help to the primary sources listed in the footnotes from Bond’s book, as well as Rebecca Goetz’s The Baptism of Early Virginia – two books that are pursuing different subjects and arguments, but ultimately work in tandem. 

Legacies of Faith and War in the Republic of the Savior, El Salvador



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Michael Hammond

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

The Quetzaltepec volcano rises over San Salvador
Historians often guide students to view the study of history as a trip to a foreign land, following the suggestion of L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel.  After starting my fall semester classes in August, I spent nine days in El Salvador to teach an intensive course on Latin American history to a group of U.S. students. Within that class, the “Hartley concept” went “meta,” as the imagined visit to a foreign country actually took place within a foreign country.   

This group of students is part of an internship and study program partnering with ENLACE, a non-governmental organization committed to community development and poverty relief throughout El Salvador. There is a Christian element to the work of ENLACE, which gave opportunities to reflect on the role of religion in Latin America as well.

Archbishop Oscar Romero's Toyota Corona
Semester abroad experiences often prioritize historical study because of its usefulness to interpret the culture during the time in the foreign country. This is also why students take intensive courses in the native language. In an environment where the understanding of the role of history and the humanities is fading, it is tempting to justify historical study by its pragmatic worth. Universities spotlight programs of relevance, immediate application, simple concepts, and raw skills. History and the humanities push us closer to the facts and reality of the story of people. The closer we get to the details, the more fragmented and frayed that story becomes. We can magnify the story, or retell it to get a better focus. But clarity often eludes the realities of Latin America—and history done well. Real history is messy, and not reconciled in a 60-minute documentary. History can leave us with more questions than answers. But the experience of thinking about that history can also change us. Our quick week of history brought these students a deeper understanding of the Cold War, Latin American religion, and the culture of El Salvador.

Announcement: _Water Like Stone_ DVD Now Available



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We are happy to announce that Water Like Stone is now available on DVD!


Water Like Stone is a documentary by Zach Godshall and RiAH contributor Mike Pasquier. Using Leeville, Louisiana as a case study in life in coastal communities, Water Like Stone provides a window into "what it's like to live in a dying landscape." This film is part of Mike's larger body of work, which gives us all insight into religion and water in America, an area of study that several contributors continue to develop.

Readers can purchase a copy of the film here.

The Cold War as an Historical Contingency



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Janine Giordano Drake

In my "Cold War and American Culture" course this semester, we have been spending a good deal of time examining how Harry Truman "sold" the American public on the Cold War. As Michael Hogan and Thomas McCormick remind us, many Americans, especially Congressional Republicans of the 1940s, were not easily convinced that it was worthwhile to dedicate so many American resources to Europe and the rest of the world. While World War II saw the dramatic expansion of the American government and military industrial complex, Congressional Republicans largely wanted to make it stop. Franklin D. Roosevelt's high-sounding rhetoric of the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms sounded patriotic during the War, but many Republicans feared FDR was a fascist. Truman had to sell the idea of the Cold War war, over and over again.

In order to get students to appreciate this historical contingency, I spent the first few days of the class asking students to crawl into that historical place where Americans' default position on world politics was that the US had no business being making entangling alliances overseas. We talked about Wilson's vision in the Fourteen Points, and how he couldn't get Congress to approve US membership in the League of Nations. We talked about all the pacifist ministers and conscientious objectors of the 1910s and 1920s who believed (and often preached in their churches) that building up militaries and stockpiles of weapons was the opposite of the Christian calling on earth. My students read the Catholic priest John Ford's "The Morality of Obliteration Bombing" and tried to imagine themselves in the shoes of religious and other Americans who were not easily sold on the prospect of a huge, standing military.

Now, I currently live an teach in Great Falls, Montana, a city whose entire social, cultural, and religious infrastructure is built around the Malstrom Airforce base--and the fact that we have nuclear missile silos somewhere secret, yet very close by. Many of my students are either in the military or married to folks who are. To these children of 9-11, a world wherein a huge, standing, and volunteer military is not taken for granted is an exercise in historical imagination.

From this platform, we read Andrew Preston's essay, "The Faith of Harry Truman and the Theology of George Kennan," in Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith in conjunction with primary sources from from these leaders. I asked students if they thought Truman's moral rhetoric--talk of protecting individual freedom of worship and self-determination, and defending Christianity in the world-- would have convinced them to support Truman. What if they were Catholics who followed John Ford? What if they had been Quakers? Would Truman have persuaded them that Communism was a different kind of enemy altogether? Do Truman and Kennan convince them that communism was in fact a different kind of enemy, all together?

My students tell me that they've never done so much textual analysis in a history class before. I don't think I've ever done so much textual analysis in any of the history courses I've taught or taken, either. But, both Andrew Preston and Jason Stevens (in God Fearing and Free) have convinced me that the Cold War really was won and lost on the solidarity politicians had to continually build with the American churches. I am trying to get students to see the Airforce base here not as a natural backbone of Western small-city economies, but as the unpredictable result of successful political messaging.

Registration for THATCamp AAR2014 Now Open!



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Chris Cantwell

Gifts awaiting THATCampers
As I announced earlier in the summer, The Humanities and Technology Camp (THATCamp) will be making a return to the American Academy of Religion's annual meeting. And I'm thrilled to announce now that registration for THATCamp AAR2014 in San Diego is now open! Register here.

For those of you who are not familiar, THATCamps are "unconferences" devoted to considering how technology is changing the way humanists research, teach, and share knowledge. Where most conferences focus on the presentation of prepared research, THATCamps focus upon collaboratively learning new tools and techniques that individuals can take back to their research and teaching. And where selective program committees determine the agendas for most academic conferences, the program of every THATCamp is created by the campers themselves. In the month leading up to our gathering, campers will propose the sessions they'd like to see on the THATCamp AAR2014 blog. First thing we do when we meet is then vote on the sessions that will run that day. To see the sessions AAR THATCampers have proposed before, check out the last year's blog.

Like last year, THATCamp AAR2014 will be held the day before the AAR's annual meeting, on Friday, November 21 from 9am-5pm. We'll also again be treated to coffee through the generous sponsorship of DeGruyter Press. And like last year, THATCamp AAR2014 will feature the typical mix of user-generated sessions mentioned above and pre-planned directed workshops. This year's workshops will include: 
  • The technical, logistical, and programatic methods of running a podcast on the study of religion.
  • Using Voyant to mine religious texts so you can do the kind of cool visualizations our own Michael J. Altman showed in his recent post on Hindu/Hindoo.
  • A roundtable of nonprofit program officers, journalists, editors, and bloggers who will discuss how the internet and new media provide allow scholars of religion to reach audiences beyond the academy. 
 Spaces is limited, so make sure you head over tothe  THATCamp AAR2014 blog and register today!

Book Review: Religion, Food, and Eating in North America



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Today's guest post is written by David S. Walsh. David is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology of Religion at Arizona State University. He has lived, worked, and shared in the foodways of the Tłįchǫ Dene in the Northwest Territories, Canada, since 2011. He has conducted ethnographic research on Dene worldviews, foodways, religion, and relationships with nature. Today, David reviews Religion, Food, and Eating in North America (Columbia, 2014), a book first previewed by Paul here at RiAH. David gives us more insight on the book's strengths, its weaknesses, and how we might use it in the classroom.

David S. Walsh

Those in search of a fruitful and, dare I say, tasty collection of essays on religion and food are promised satiation for their hunger in the book Religion, Food, and Eating in North America, edited by Benjamin E. Zeller, Marie W. Dallam, Reid L. Neilson, and Nora L. Rubel. The editors have drawn from a diverse range of traditions, topics, and approaches to the study of religion and food, weaving together a ground breaking collection that frees us from the traditional studies of prohibitions and taboos, and reveals the importance of privileging food in the classroom, in research, and in our very understanding of what is religion in North America.

I was first introduced to this book by Samira Mehta at the fantastic Donner Symposium on Religion and Food in Turku, Finland (see Samira’s post). Samira contributed a thoughtful, accessible, and fun chapter to the book on food as a conduit for blending Jewish and Christian traditions in mixed families. Ben Zeller, an editor of the collection, gave a thoroughly engaging keynote at the symposium that reflected his chapter contribution on quasi-religious food movements among vegans and locavors (see Zeller’s interview).

I was inspired in my own work by the combination of the symposium on Religion and Food, followed closely by reading Religion, Food, and Eating in North America, to understand food as an overlooked but highly influential factor for religion in North America. Since this is my first time on the blog, I should say that I am currently writing a dissertation (if my advisor asks, yes I’m working on it) on the indigenous Dene of northern Canada and their spiritual relationships with caribou. I ask how an analysis through foodways and the necessity of sustenance may alter the ways we understand indigenous relationships with nature: what does it mean when the primary motivation for spiritual, ritualistic acts is not to commune with the divine, nor for a sense of identity, but for survival and the basic need to eat? I have found some answers to my questions in Religion, Food, and Eating in North America; specifically in how the book frames food as central to religious traditions, and food as a common denominator that permeates across religions.

Religion and the Fall Semester



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Jonathan Den Hartog

Much of my thought in the past weeks--as, I suspect has been the case with many readers--has been dedicated to preparing for the fall semester. (This is apparently a teaching week--thanks, Michael Graziano and Charlie McCrary!)

This fall I have the opportunity once again to teach my "Religion in American History" semester-long course. Due to scheduling issues and a sabbatical leave, it has been several years since the last time I had offered it. It has been invigorating to go back to my syllabus, recall what had worked, and figure out how to refresh and enliven the topic.

It has been good to go back to some reliable resources, old academic friends. I'm happy to use again the great teaching tool which is Edwin Gaustad and Mark Noll's Documentary History of Religion in America. It is hard to go wrong with Chaim Potok's The Chosen. I also think Mark Massa's Catholics and American Culture teaches quite well, while at the same time introducing theoretical concepts in an accessible way (bonus points that it features the University of Notre Dame football team). I even think I'll still have a few things to say about the significance of religion and the Federalist party.

At the same time, it has been great to rework some pieces of the syllabus in light of new scholarship in the field and conversations even from this site. As I indicated this spring, I'm assigning George Marsden's Twilight of the American Enlightenment, both for its picture of the 1950s and because it ties into themes we'll be developing in the course. To point students to contemporary debates, though, they will also have to respond to several pieces from Molly Worthen. I hope this will produce some good discussion. I'm also excited to be teaching Larry Eskridge's God's Forever Family, on the Jesus People movement. Although my students might be too young to resonate with the book, I think it brilliantly captures a moment of important development for American evangelicalism and the nation as a whole.

that's our quad...really!
It has also been good to rethink teaching strategies. I have doubled-down on putting the onus of discussion on the students. These upper-level students should be well-equipped to wrestle with the readings, and so I expect them to take the lead, repeatedly. Further, it's important to me to keep students writing and thinking, through a variety of forms.

I'm glad we'll have chances to practice hospitality, as we welcome outside speakers into the class.

Historical Perspectives on War, Peace, and Religion - CFP



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Trevor Burrows

The Peace History Society has issued a CFP for their 2015 conference. The conference's theme is "Historical Perspectives on War, Peace, and Religion," and will be held at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut. The full CFP follows below:


The PEACE HISTORY SOCIETY invites paper proposals for its ninth international conference: Historical Perspectives on War, Peace, and Religion, October 22-24, 2015 at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut, U.S.A. The theme focuses on the interrelationships among war, peace and religion. This conference seeks to shed light on the relationship religious traditions and beliefs have had with the making of war and peace in all areas of the world.  We are most interested in papers that take a historical approach to this topic. We welcome panel and paper proposals that compare different historical periods and geographies as well as those that focus on a particular event, person, place or time-period.  Paper proposals about peace history not related to the conference theme will also be considered.

Teaching Religion & Law in U.S. History: Part II



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Michael Graziano and Charlie McCrary 

Note: The first part of this series is available here

While there is no shortage of avenues to explore religion and law, we decided to focus this semester’s course on the theme of pluralism. There is no better idea through which to explore the contradictions of American jurisprudence on religion. We also started the course with a guiding question: “How did we get here?” That is, to take one recent example, how did American religion law reach a point where closely held corporations can successfully claim First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion?

We began with Hobby Lobby, a case that made headlines this summer. On the first day we assigned Winnifred Sullivan’s excellent piece on the decision (which was not, through a great feat of humility and restraint, titled “I Told You So”). One of the arguments we will be making in the course is that the First Amendment has always been caught in a torturous contradiction: empowered to protect all religious expression while selectively, strategically, infringing on others. After World War II, with the expansion of rights to other religious minorities, the internal contradiction was laid bare for those previously in the majority to see.

The course is a timely one. The Supreme Court has (yet again!) been generous to Americanists with an interest in law during their most recent term. McCullen v. Coakley, Town of Greece v. Galloway, and (of course) Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. were all decided during the Court’s 2013 term. And, promising more excitement to come, the Court ended with the Wheaton College injunction as a kind of judicial mic drop. These cases provide a fascinating look at where we’ve been and where we’re going. They are also excellent fodder for discussions in class.

Teaching Religion & Law in US History: Part I



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Michael Graziano and Charlie McCrary

This semester, we will be co-teaching a section of Religion and Law in U.S. History. We’re both quite fond of the subject matter, and we thought it might be interesting to take a day to talk about why scholars of American religious history may find it beneficial to pay attention to American legal history, and more specifically to the history of religion law.

The intersections of law and religion provide an important data set for historians of American religion. They allow for attention to institutions and state power, especially in conjunction with more common ARH concerns like minority voices, secularism, pluralism, and disestablished “lived” religion. For us, there are at least three reasons the study of law and religion is compelling: (1) it’s a way to do tangible studies of historical formations of the category religion; (2) the object of study provides a framework for a structured approach to history which allows for synthetic, grand narratives by paying attention to institutions; and (3) it helps scholars of American religion incorporate debates about the category “religion” in religious studies by taking the state’s definition of “religion” as its frame of reference.

Hindoos, Hindus, Spelling, and Theory



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Michael J. Altman

What is the relationship between spelling and theory? I often tell people my research is about "Hinduism in nineteenth century America." But it's really not. It's not about Hinduism at all. It can't be because the idea of "Hinduism," a world religion comparable to other world religions, isn't invented until the late nineteenth century. That's kind of the point of my research. Most other scholars writing about this period will still use the term "Hindu" to describe the people that Americans or Britons were describing during this period. But when an American missionary or Unitarian pastor refered to the people in India doing something that they recognize as religion they most often used the term "Hindoo." Hindoo--that double O of colonialism.

So, here's the question: Is the difference between Hindoo and Hindu just a matter of spelling? Or is there more going on here?

Why turn to conscience?



1 comments
It is my pleasure to introduce Peter Cajka for today's exciting guest post.  Peter is a PhD candidate in the Boston College History Department. He studies religion in American history. He is a Graduate Fellow with the Clough Center for Constitutional Democracy.

Peter Cajka

With the exception of 1967, the Psychology Department at Fordham University had sponsored a conference every other year since 1955 as part of a running series called the “Pastoral Psychology Institute.” An edited volume of essays followed each conference: the 1961 meeting on “the teenager” became The Adolescent: His Search for Understanding; the 1965 conference on “Woman in the Church” appeared two years later as Woman in Modern Life. As the theme for the 1969 conference, the planning committee chose “Conscience: Its Freedoms and Limitations.” In his preface, the volume’s editor explained why, of all the topics that could have been discussed over the course of a week, the committee selected conscience:

… it seemed that this concept had moved recently into a central position both in the Church and in the world. With the Declaration of Religious Freedom of Vatican II, with the appeal to conscience in dissent from the teaching of Humanae Vitae on birth control, and with the raising of the entire question of the exercise of authority in the Church, it was quite evident that a consideration of conscience had become unquestionably central in the life of the Church. With the continuation of the war in Vietnam and with the rise of selective conscientious objection to the draft, together with the extensive increase in civil disobedience as a means of protest against the war and against “establishment” policies in general, it is hardly less evident that the conscience now occupies a central position in civic affairs as well.[i]

Looking at primary sources from the “Catholic 1960s,” I was likewise astonished at the enthusiasm Catholics suddenly held for conscience. In sources I analyzed for seminar papers – articles from Catholic magazines like Commonweal and America, bishops’ pastoral letters, key Vatican II documents, and lay people’s letters to magazine editors – I found an outpouring of interest in conscience, beginning around 1963 and exploding after 1968. But why, we might ask, did the conference planners and those, “in the Church and in the world,” turn to conscience? I began to wonder about what a history of the concept of conscience, and the broader turn to conscience, might teach us about American religion during and after the 1960s.

Women of Faith: A Conversation with Mary Beth Fraser Connolly



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Monica L. Mercado

Last semester, I taught a course on the history of women in Chicago -- a fitting coda to my graduate school years, as it turned out, and a way to explore a less familiar historiography, given my research on New York Catholics. So you can imagine my delight when Mary Beth Fraser Connolly, familiar to many of us as the Assistant Program Director of the Lilly Fellows Program at Valparaiso University, announced the publication of her new book, Women of Faith: The Chicago Sisters of Mercy and the Evolution of a Religious Community (Fordham, 2014).

Mary Beth's been busy -- she also co-edited the essay collection Empowering the People of God: Catholic Action Before and After Vatican II (Fordham, 2013) and blogs at One Solid Comfort -- but she made time this summer for a chat about the pleasures and perils of writing institutional history, and the need for nuanced stories of Catholic women religious.

Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 – A Review



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Kristian Petersen



With all of the turmoil currently happening in the Middle East many Americans are revisiting their understanding of Islam and the character of Muslims, especially those that are their neighbors. While the 24 hour news cycle covers the events in Gaza or Iraq the average American can turn to a more entertaining place for shaping their opinions about Islam, TV shows. American television has a number of shows that revolve around Muslims, 24, Homeland, Sleeper Cell, just to name a few. All of these programs rely on worn formulas in their representation of Muslims, repeatedly introducing angry terrorists and oppressed women. In this media context, hate crimes against Arab and Muslim Americans and governmental policies that target Islamic identities can make sense to perpetrators. We can pinpoint the role of Hollywood television in shaping American attitudes towards Muslims because it always represents Muslims in a negative light ...right? Or at least this might be your assumption in a post-9/11 world.

In fact, after 9/11 there have been a proliferation of sympathetic representations of Muslim Americans in the U.S. commercial media. Making sense of this puzzle was one of the motivating factors behind Evelyn Alsultany’s, Associate Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, recent book, Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (New York University Press, 2012). How are we to understand the discrepancy between numerous positive images of Muslims and the simultaneous enactment of racists policies central to the ‘War on Terror’ in a post-9/11 world? What are the effects of these depictions on American Muslims? Why may these positive images a surprise to us?

Ben Carson, Atheism, Bibles, and the Politics of Religious Neutrality



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Charles McCrary

Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, popular conservative commentator, and possible 2016 presidential candidate, recently wrote a short piece for National Review Online entitled “Atheist Absurdities.” Writing in response to the U.S. Navy’s removal of bibles from their Navy Lodge hotel rooms—a decision, prompted by pressure from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, that, prompted by pressure from other groups, including the American Family Association, they quickly reversed—Carson argues, “If they [FFRF] really thought about it, they would realize that removal of religious materials imposes their religion on everyone else.” The lack of a Bible is, ipso facto, a promotion of atheism, which, according to Carson and many others, is a religion itself. When I first read Carson’s piece, I took it as an example of how religious neutrality is becoming an impossibility—how “we are all religious now.” But I think it actually points to something different. Carson is not asserting a universality of religiosity, where there is no neutral nonreligious and the religious is constituent of our very material being. Instead, he seems to be declaring Christianity, or at least the Bible, as neutral ground. The presence of a bible, then, is equilibrium. The absence of a bible is an “infringement.”

Faith in War: An Interview with Matthew McCullough



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The following is an interview with Matthew McCullough, pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville and author of the excellent new book, The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U. S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War (University of Wisconsin Press, August 2014).  Readers will also want check out Paul Putz's wonderful review posted a few days ago, which McCullough responds to below.  (PS John Fea has scooped me; you can check out his interview with Matt here).


1. What led you to this time period and subject?

I can summarize this progress in three steps.  First, I’ve been interested in Christian nationalism since college.  It didn’t take much exposure to the history of American Christianity to recognize that the meaning and significance of the American nation has been a central preoccupation for American Christians for much of our history.  I entered graduate studies looking to understand how and why Christian nationalism has taken the shapes it has taken.  Second, times of war offer especially useful windows into Christian nationalism because it’s during such times that Christian leaders have been most prone to reflect on the significance of America, to define the nation in light of the cause for war and in contrast to whatever enemy has been on the other side.  Finally, I was drawn to the Spanish-American War in part because it had received much less scholarly attention than more famous wars before or since, and in part because—despite it’s brevity and it’s relative obscurity—this war marked a turning point for America.  It’s something of a hinge from the bitter, debilitating divisions of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras into a century of worldwide influence.  The Christian leaders who commented on this war saw it for the departure that it was and worked hard to justify the shift.

2. You argue that "this particular strand of American nationalism--this messianic interventionism--was embraced in the Spanish-American War as both Christian duty and providential destiny, first for liberation and then for subjugation" (5).  Could you explain what you mean by "messianic interventionism" and how it relates to your understanding of "Christian nationalism?"  Were one or both exceptional to this era?  Your reference to "subjugation" would suggest that messianic interventionism was an imperial ideology, no?

By Christian nationalism, I mean an understanding of and devotion to the American nation among Christians wherein the nation is believed to play a central role in the world-historical purposes of the Christian God.  By messianic interventionism, I mean a specific dimension to Christian nationalism.  When American Christians have discussed the American nation as an object of significance within their Christian worldview, they’ve commonly included some sense of national purpose, of how America would be used to benefit the nations of the world.  Messianic interventionism is one way of understanding this national purpose.  Before the Spanish-American War, the dominant understanding of America’s purpose was to win the world to ordered liberty by force of attraction, through the power of their example.  But in this war many came to believe it was America’s responsibility to intervene in the affairs of other nations to spread liberty by force of arms. 

I’ve called this ideology “messianic” interventionism because I believe the semantic range of the term nicely captures two dimensions to the prominent understanding and justification of this interventionism.  The two dimensions seem from our perspective ironic at best and outright hypocritical at worst.  But showing how they made sense to folks in 1898 is one of my main goals. 

First was the notion of national self-sacrifice.  What made this interventionism “messianic” is the widespread argument that America stood to gain nothing by this intervention, but was acting altruistically in the interests of the oppressed.  This notion didn’t come from thin air; northern interpretations of the Civil War emphasized liberation for the oppressed, and more recently some had called for American intervention to stop the slaughter of Armenians.  But this was the first concrete action—the first international war—framed in this light and the war’s distinctive features worked together perfectly to support the rightness of the idea. 


The second dimension was the notion of benevolent rule.  In its earliest biblical development, the messiah figure focused on kingly rule, an anointed one who would come and set the world to rights.  With some qualification, I’d say this was definitely an imperial ideology.  Weighing motives is always difficult, but my sense is most who celebrated the intervention genuinely believed it would be helpful to the Cubans and Filipinos and that America really was disinterested.  So I don’t believe messianic interventionism was developed self-consciously to support an imperialistic, conquest agenda.  But it was definitely an imperial ideology in the sense that it was easily adaptable to justify continued government over—and suppression of—those believed to be incapable of governing themselves.

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