Native American Religious Freedom: An Interview with Tisa Wenger

Paul Harvey

My colleague in the Young Scholars in American Religion program, Tisa Wenger, has had quite a year. First she had baby Dylan; then she (as of the last month) gave birth to her long-awaited new book; and this fall, she will be having a new job: as Assistant Professor of American Religious History at Yale University Divinity School!! Congratulations to Tisa on all three counts.

Earlier we had posted a preliminary notice for her (then) forthcoming book We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (University of North Carolina Press, 2009); now that it has forthcome, I'm happy to post this blog interview with the author, who discusses her background growing up in Africa, her interests in the field of religious studies, and her work on Native American religions.

(on a related note, here's a great slide show on Native artists and art during the New Deal era in Santa Fe, from an exhibition last year).


1) Tisa, you have an unusual background, as I recall as a "missionary kid" in Southern Africa. Can you say something about your background and how it has influenced your scholarly choices in terms of topics, approaches, or whatever?

Being a missionary kid has absolutely shaped my work, from the decision to go to graduate school in religious studies to the kinds of questions that I am working on today. I was born in Sierra Leone, in West Africa, where my parents taught English for three years, although we returned to the U.S. when I was only two. Most of my early childhood memories are from the small country of Swaziland, where my family lived when I was five to eleven years old (from 1975 to 1981). We were very aware of the politics of apartheid in neighboring South Africa; as Mennonite missionaries with a reputation for opposing apartheid my parents could not obtain visas, so we never visited, but the responsibility of the church to act against apartheid was a constant topic of discussion. My father's primary assignment in Swaziland was to provide training and leadership development for the Swazi independent churches, and I will never forget attending all-night services with what seemed like endless sermons, prayers, and most of all the singing and dancing that is so characteristic of African churches. Midway through our time there the Swaziland Council of Churches invited my father to become its General Secretary, a position he tried to refuse on the grounds that it should be held by a Swazi person. The Anglican bishop, a Swazi man, informed him that since he had come to serve the churches in Swaziland he must now do as he was told. He took the position, but I remember his discomfort with doing this as a white American. We left Swaziland a year earlier than planned because he realized that this was the only way that the council would make a serious search for a suitable replacement, and he was very gratified when the council chose a well qualified Swazi woman for the position. After I left home my parents returned to Africa, spending six years in Tanzania with the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and then six more in Mozambique with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). In all of these assignments my parents were very conscious of the legacy of missionary involvement in colonialism, and of the ongoing racism and global systems of inequity that placed them in positions of power. In line with the current policies of the Mennonite agencies they did their best to undercut these dynamics by serving only at the invitation of African churches; as MCC country representatives in Mozambique they worked with local church organizations who wanted missionary teachers, doctors, nurses, agricultural workers, etc.

My interests in topics of missionary history, race and religion, and religion and politics developed through these experiences. For various reasons I wanted to situate my own research within the United States, looking at these dynamics within American culture and the complex relationship of racism, colonialism, etc. with American Christianity. Methodologically I suppose these experiences have made me very concerned with presenting the full complexity of any given story. Like most missionaries my parents never fit the negative stereotype of missionaries, and there is almost always more going on than the familiar narrative of missionary complicity in colonial and imperial projects would suggest.

2) How did you become interested in the topic of your book WE HAVE A RELIGION? Take us through your process, from initial conceptualization to finished book.

WE HAVE A RELIGION is a major revision of my dissertation (Princeton University, 2002), which began with a question about how missionaries and anthropologists represented Native American religion. This topic brought together my growing engagement in the cultural history of the study of religion (investigating the social contexts and implications of developing conceptions of "religion") with my ongoing research interests in the intersections of religion, race, and colonialism. Rather than asking this question in general I wanted to ground it in a very specific historical case, and was looking at the American southwest as a region mostly neglected in U.S. religious history. I finally decided to focus on the Pueblo Indians because the amount of attention they had received over the years from both anthropologists and missionaries created a very interesting story and meant there was a rich set of sources.

Early in my research I ran across the Pueblo dance controversy of the 1920s and determined that this little-known yet historically important dispute would allow me to address all my theoretical concerns in a focused and compelling way. As I worked on the topic I became more and more interested in the perspectives of the Pueblo Indians themselves in these events, and was able to find Pueblo voices from that time in the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, the New Mexico state archives, various reform agencies, and the Doris Duke American Indian Oral History Project (completed in the 1970s). The Pueblos' resourcefulness in a very tough situation deserves recognition, and the implications of their appeal for religious freedom became one of the most interesting aspects of the story. More and more the book became about the difficulties for Native Americans of gaining religious freedom, and about the cultural bias of the religious freedom ideal. Religious freedom is based on conceptions of religion-- as a matter of individual conscience, and as something separable from other spheres of life-- that really do not make sense for Native American traditions. WE HAVE A RELIGION shows the impact of these notions of religion on the Pueblo Indians at a time when, in order to protect their ceremonial traditions from government suppression by appealing to religious freedom guarantees, they increasingly spoke of these traditions as a religion (for various reasons they had not done so previously, as my first chapter explains).

Secularism and secularization are themes that emerged rather unexpectedly in my writing. The anthropologists and artists who romanticized Pueblo religion and fought for Indian religious freedom in the 1920s were also fighting against a virtual Protestant establishment that had long dominated Indian affairs, and they sought to replace Christianity with secular/scientific sources of authority. They were eventually successful in that effort, though it was a very gradual process, and an important step was their valorization of Indian traditions as religions just as legitimate as Christianity. But I also came to see that the new more "secular" regime maintained many of the same cultural biases regarding religion as an individual and non-political sphere of life. By the 1930s the government formally recognized Indian ceremonies as religion with the right to constitutional protection, but in many ways this recognition only strengthened the pressures to "modernize" other aspects of Indian life by clearly separating this newly identified religion (now the designated repository of tradition) from tribal governance and other aspects of tribal life.

3) Religion in the Southwest is certainly, I think, a neglected topic in the more general field of religious history. The establishment of Santa Fe, after all, preceded Jamestown and Boston. Can you say something about how you conceptualize studying religion in the very specific and unique historical context of the current-day American Southwest?

Religion in the U.S. west as a whole has not received much attention either from religious studies or from the burgeoning field of western history, which has tended to focus on economic and environmental questions without much acknowledgement of the importance of religion to those topics or for its own sake. The southwest is a distinctive region in its own right, given its long history as part of New Spain and then Mexico, and its ongoing status as a borderland between the U.S. and Mexico. As such it raises a set of crucial issues for the study of American religion. Some of these are faced by all American historians: to the extent that we conceive of our field as "American history," our narratives perhaps necessarily focus on the formation and development of the United States, starting with the British colonies and the patterns set in the early republic. How then can we do justice in survey texts and courses to the distinctive histories of regions that were relatively late additions to the union? As a field we are still struggling to shape new narratives that do not reinscribe the old grand narrative of white Protestants moving westward to "conquer" a continent, but convey something of the scope and diversity of experiences and actors that have made America what it is. Some of the answer may be in the trend in American studies away from the focus on the nation, to look at issues of transnationalism and globalization; perhaps a rich history of the southwest that is not exclusively oriented around U.S. nationhood is another side of that trend. The nation is far from irrelevant, but surely there are other stories to tell as well.

Studying religion in the southwest requires us to abandon the assumption of Protestant dominance, although the role of Protestants in the nation as a whole remains an important part of the story. Catholics have a much longer history here, and there are many layers of Catholic presence (Spanish, Native American, Mexican-American, European immigrants moving west) that have never been adequately studied. Racial dynamics and racial categorizations are also quite different here than in most of the country: Native Americans are far more visibly present than in many other areas, Asian Americans are very important especially in California, and of course Hispanics were here long before "Anglos." Thinking about the intersections of race and religion in the southwest therefore requires thinking beyond (without losing sight of) the black-white duality that is otherwise so important in American racial formations.

Many people in Arizona, where I have lived for the past five years, are recent arrivals; in many ways the region epitomizes the transient and immigrant qualities of the country as a whole. It would seem important then to look at the significance of religion in the context of this transience, and how people may construct religious identities and seek out religious communities to address feelings of instability and unrootedness, while others quite happily leave formal religious affiliation behind but may find meaning in alternative or individualized spiritualities. At the same time there are the much longer and deeper histories of Native Americans and Hispanics in the region, histories of which many of the newer arrivals seem blissfully unaware. Whether or not our work focuses specifically on the west or the southwest, it would seem extremely important to integrate these dimensions into our general narratives of American history and religion, not just as a "regional" story but as crucial and revealing parts of the larger whole.

4) One big interest of yours is the category of "religion" itself -- how it has been defined historically, and the problematic nature of those definitions. Can you say something about how your background in Religious Studies influences your focus on religion as a category of analysis in your scholarship?

Yes, many of us in religious studies have been engaged recently in these questions about the category of religion, and in many ways WE HAVE A RELIGION is intended as an intervention in that debate. Most important in my thinking was a series of works, most importantly Talal Asad's GENEALOGIES OF RELIGION, arguing that there can be no final definition of religion because the category of religion itself is the product of a specific historical context, that what is considered "religion" changes over time, and that every configuration of this category has political implications. The concept of religion emerged in Europe as part of a cluster of social/cultural configurations associated with modernity, and the very identification of religion implied a separation of that newly identified religion from other spheres of life (politics, art, education, economics, etc). The effort in western modernity—-and arguably this has always been more of an ideological programme than an accomplished reality--has been to define religion as a private and individual affair, the realm of tradition, that must be kept strictly separated from (and is implicitly irrelevant to) "modern," "public," and "secular" affairs of government and business. (Some like Bruce Lincoln have taken the current backlash from Islamists and fundamentalist Christians against such concepts of religion as evidence that only a privatized religion is workable for western democracies. I would argue instead that the effort to privatize religion created the conditions for such a backlash, and that longer-term solutions will require alternative configurations of religion and its relationship to other spheres of life.)

One of my interventions in this book is to point out the rather obvious fact that although "religion" may originally have been a Western construct, many groups of people around the world have made it their own. Religion may not have been an indigenous category centuries ago, but Native Americans in the United States today certainly do understand and describe their indigenous traditions as religion. They began to do so for obvious reasons, in part to claim constitutional protection from government suppression under the First Amendment, and more broadly because identification as religion provides a certain legitimacy and status in America's cultural and legal systems. This happened at different times for different tribes across the United States, and WE HAVE A RELIGION looks specifically at how this process occurred among the Pueblo Indians of the early twentieth century. I tried to convey the full complexity and ambivalence of the process: on the one hand the Pueblos successfully defended their dance ceremonies; on the other hand the conceptual apparatus of religion and religious freedom only exacerbated a variety of "modernizing" pressures on tribal life. More specifically, government officials increased their demands that the Pueblos treat ceremonial participation as a matter of individual conscience and choice rather than as community obligation, and that they generally separate ceremonial life from tribal governance. Their story provides a glimpse into the process of cultural change in colonial conditions. But it is important to see that Native Americans have also made the concept of "religion" their own and in many ways have used it to their own advantage. Such conceptual categories are always shifting and multivalent, and I think it's a mistake on many levels to suggest that "religion" is inherently or universally a tool of colonial control or of western domination.

5) Like the work of Emma Anderson featured previously on our blog, your topic has painful contemporary application, particularly in terms of Native religious practices that are either unprotected by law, or are commodified, or both. To what degree did these kinds of more present-day concerns impact your work?

The final chapter of the book traces a few of the major religious freedom battles waged by Native Americans over the course of the twentieth century, asking how dominant conceptions of religion and religious freedom have affected these struggles, and to some extent how useful these categories have been to larger indigenous quests for sovereignty and self-determination. WE HAVE A RELIGION did not start with present-day concerns in mind, and my research was entirely historical, but I have become more and more aware of the contemporary importance of these issues and was careful to consider how my work might impact Indian religious freedom struggles today. I was very careful, for example, NOT to imply that the constructed nature of the categories made Indian religion or religious freedom claims somehow illegitimate. On the contrary, I would advocate for more expansive understandings of religion in order to strengthen such claims, but also would support efforts (and many already exist) to look beyond religious freedom for additional legal and cultural tools that might improve the status and living conditions of Native Americans today.

5) More generally, what do you think Religious Studies scholars have to teach historians, and vice-versa?

In my experience, religious studies scholars are necessarily conversant with a variety of approaches to religion, and so they tend to have a broader theoretical and methodological toolbox and spend more time problematizing the concepts and categories with which they work. Not all historians have this level of interdisciplinary theoretical engagement, and especially those interested in any dimension of the study of religion can learn from religious studies in this way. On the other side, folks in religious studies sometimes need to be reminded to keep their work carefully grounded in historical context, and to avoid treating religion as if it somehow existed in isolation from other cultural, social, economic, and political developments.

6) What kinds of future plans/writing projects do you have in mind?

I have pondered a series of possible topics for the next book, such as the role of religion in developing notions of whiteness in American history, or the significance of American Protestant home missions for cultural formations of race, religion, and pluralism. But what I've started working on now is the issue of religious freedom in nineteenth and twentieth century America. A familiar narrative of progress charts the expansion of religious freedom from the time of the Pilgrims, to the founding of the new republic and its guarantee of religious liberty to all, to the gradual inclusion of Jews, Catholics, and eventually (at least in theory) adherents of any of the world's religions. I have no desire to disprove this narrative as such, but I do want to make the picture more complex by showing some of the contradictions and limitations of the religious freedom ideal. Ironically, for example, America's very self-identification as the bastion of liberty (along with Protestant certainties about the Protestant origins of liberty) often provided ideological justification for the marginalization of religious minorities, particularly of Catholics, who were repeatedly condemned as the enemies of liberty, as well as for imperial conquests and invasions around the world. Further, as I've shown for Native Americans in WE HAVE A RELIGION, the very ideal of religious liberty carries cultural assumptions about the very nature of religion, assumptions that have continued to push religious minorities to fit into the dominant mold. Religious liberty is of course a laudable ideal and I would not want to abandon it, but we need to grapple with the problems of bias and exclusion that may actually be intrinsic to its historical and theoretical formulations.

More Democratic Virtues

Paul Harvey

Our previous post, on Jon Shields's Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right, sparked an interesting discussion. I mentioned in that post that I hope to do a comparative blog post this summer on Jason Bivins's Religion of Fear together with Shields's work. Will be a while before I can get there, but in the meantime, Jason Bivins has agreed to let me post his comment on the Shields book; this won't count as a guest post, as Jason's guest post will come sometime soon we hope. In the meantime, this is just to continue the conversation:

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for a while. It is, of course, a fascinating subject and I’ve only read the sample chapter PUP has put online.

Just to respond to Paul’s mention of my recent book in his post, what strikes me on my incomplete engagement with Shields’ work is that the sorts of “democratic virtues” he’s out to uncover in a *certain* sector of NCR politicking aren’t necessarily inconsistent with the political religions of fear. Rather, what seems to be most salient about post-1960s conservative Christianities in the U.S. is their very polymorphousness, the way in which certain features of liberalism are used against other features, or the way in which doomy declension narratives can necessitate (even demand) the kinds of engagement Shields is describing.

What fascinates me is not just that there exists in the NCR an ethos of civic engagement; there is a rich literature which acknowledges this (Nomi Stolzenberg, Jeff Spinner-Halev, even my own Fracture of Good Order, and others) and to which Shields is making an important and distinctive contribution. Rather, what compels me are the modes of coexistence between the participatory impulse and its more frightful counterpart, and how they’re strategically (selectively) framed. Here, the world is doomed and cannot be reshaped; elsewhere, a reformist spirit is championed. Here we encounter strident intolerance; there we hear references to MLK and “just getting a seat at the table.” Both orientations and both discourses exist simultaneously in these cultures, at least from where I sit and write, and the way they’re given emphasis and deployed is where the action is. Just my two cents.

All of which is to say that I think Shields is right, too, and that the complexity he documents (and which Paul notes) is also there when seen from the other, more frightful side. I’m eager to dig into the book, and congrats to Prof. Shields on both publication and publicity!

The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right

Paul Harvey

Jon Shields (a former colleague of mine in the Poli. Sci. Department at the University of Colorado, since moved up in the world to Claremont McKenna College) has published (with Princeton U. Press) a book sure to spark attention: The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right. His new work is reviewed by Peter Steinfels in today's New York Times.

“The vast majority of Christian-right leaders,” he writes, “have long labored to inculcate deliberative norms in their rank-and-file activists — especially the practice of civility and respect; the cultivation of dialogue by listening and asking questions; the rejection of appeals to theology; and the practice of careful moral reasoning.” . . . .
Still, critics will pit his account against negative reporting on the Christian right and the anti-abortion movement. And his book recognizes the tension in his ideal of a democratic politics at once participatory and deliberative: “Social movements will never cultivate deliberation in the fullest sense, because they are ultimately driven and maintained by strong moral convictions.”

The book's webpage has a sample chapter, if you want to dip into the work a bit. Here is just a bit of it:

First, many Christian Right organizations have helped create a more participatory democracy by successfully mobilizing conservative evangelicals, one of the most politically alienated constituencies in twentieth-century America. This has been a startling development. After all, it was the New Left that emphasized the importance of opening up American democracy to alienated citizens. What is more remarkable, this participatory revival took place in an era in which social scientists have been increasingly anxious about the erosion of civic life. Yet as the ink dried on Robert Putnam’s now-famous “bowling alone” thesis, conservative Christians were turning out to vote in record numbers.

In mobilizing Christian conservatives, the Right achieved another important New Left goal. It realigned American parties and public debate around contentious moral questions that animate citizens rather than bureaucratic, technical, or economic issues that tend to bewilder and subdue them. The Christian Right has therefore helped to reinvigorate American democracy and eliminate the end-of-ideology politics that the New Left held in such contempt.

[Update: serendipitously, the new issue of Books and Culture has just this moment come into my hands, and in it is our own John Turner's review of the book, which I highly commend to all. Turner praises the virtues of Shields's work, but points out that while "the Christian Right may possess underreported democratic virtues, . . . it has been a public relations disaster, especially because of the need for incendiary rhetoric to raise money and mobilize volunteers"].

I've long contended (as do lots of historians now) that conservatives were in some ways the true victors of the 1960s, as they were far more successful ultimately in long-term grassroots organizing than was the liberal left -- it just took a couple of decades before that became clear. Moreover, the history of grassroots conservatism from the 1960s forward has become something of a commonplace in historical literature, despite the hackneyed complaints about liberal bias, how conservatives get ignored, yada yada. Enough already with that (even Steinfels's review has a bit of imagined liberal horror at Shields's conclusion, playing into this very stereotype).

So I'm initially at least in accord with Shields on the success of Christian right democratic political organizing. On the other hand, as we have just blogged about recently, the "politics of fear" motif in the evangelical right has been awfully strong, and it does not exactly encourage "democratic deliberation." So, a substantial portion of the evangelical sub-culture tends towards a kind of millennialism that engages people most deeply in emotional or sub-rational ways, even while the kinds of organizations that Shields has studied quite masterfully have learned the arts of patient, rational organizing [that's a variation of the point John Turner makes in his review]. Sounds like a good blog comparing Jason Bivins's study of the evangelical politics of fear together with Jon Shields's study of the evangelical politics of democratic deliberativeness may have to be a summer project here!

In the meantime, congratulations to Jon for getting such good notice today -- and Jon, if you happen to see this, sorry I didn't get to know you better during your brief sojourn in Colorado Springs.

God is not Dead

by Matt Sutton

In 1966, Time magazine made waves by proclaiming that “God is Dead.” Now Newsweek is trying to do the same thing. Last week’s cover story is entitled The Decline and Fall of Christian America,” by editor Jon Meacham. The story is based on the American Religious Identification Survey (which we have blogged about below). “This is not to say that the Christian God is dead,” Meacham writes, “but that he is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory. To the surprise of liberals who fear the advent of an evangelical theocracy and to the dismay of religious conservatives who long to see their faith more fully expressed in public life, Christians are now making up a declining percentage of the American population.” As much as I appreciate Meacham’s interest in religion and the fact that he sells a helluva lot more books than me, his articles never seem to be as original or as profound as he thinks they are. While numbers of adherents are changing, I am not yet convinced that religious conservatives are losing their ability to mobilize their troops or to raise the money they need to influence the political process—especially since the survey shows that the mainline denominations are faltering, not evangelical churches. In fact, we might read the survey the other way. While Christianity is becoming more polarized itself, conservatives are becoming increasingly dominate.

Nevertheless, Meacham was not the only one burying the idea of Christian America last week. Speaking in Turkey, President Obama said "one of the great strengths of the United States" is that it does not consider itself "a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."

Hmmm. On the one hand I am glad that Obama is decoupling the nation-state from an explicit religion. After all, how can a nation be “Christian?” I have long wondered what makes any non-human entity Christian. Is there a Christian hamburger? My vote would have to be for In-N-Out burgers (monster style) since they put Bible verses on the bottoms of their Coke cups. What about a Christian football team? We know the Denver Broncos are no longer “Christian” since they made the Antichrist their new coach and then he traded their savior to Chicago. But the more significant point Obama raises is Americans’ common commitment to a particular set of “ideals and a set of values.” What are those values? After two-plus decades of culture wars, and a few years of torturing our prisoners, do we really have a fundamental set of ideals and values? No. The nation is as divided as ever.

God is dead, however, to former Los Angeles Times reporter William Lobdell. The New York Times has a fascinating new review of his book detailing his conversion to Christianity and then his move away from the faith. In the same issue, the Times has also reviewed God is Back, which, of course, challenges the idea of Christian (and religious) decline.

So what have I learned in the last ten days? To dream that someday In-N-Out will make it to eastern Washington and to start shopping for a new football team. Those are my values.

Reclaiming America's Soul, and Islam's Soul

Paul Harvey

From different perspectives, two eloquent reminders that looking forward sometimes requires looking backward.

Paul Krugman's "Reclaiming America's Soul," makes the case for investigations of the practices of torture documented in the recently released memos, as well as the falsities of the march to war in Iraq:

America is more than a collection of policies. We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals. In the past, our government has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding those ideals. But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for. “This government does not torture people,” declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world knows it.

And the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how that happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.

Stephen Prothero, "Muhammad on the HIgh Seas," calls for Muslim involvement in crafting religious solutions to piracy:

Just as Christians of good will have a duty to revisit age-old practices and beliefs that have no place in the modern world (e.g., anti-Semitism), Muslims must reckon with and revise traditions of Islamic interpretation that can be used to justify crimes on land or, in this case, at sea.

Religion of Fear

Paul Harvey

Sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read (as soon as the semester is out), is the new book by Jason Bivins, Religion of Fear. Jason is one of the Religion editors for the Religion in the Americas section of COMPASS, Blackwell publishers online journal. Anyway, here's a nice review of his book in CHOICE, just a preview until I can read and prepare a more substantial blog later. Also, here are ten questions for the author, with his answers.

Bivins, Jason C. Religion of fear: the politics of horror in conservative Evangelicalism. Oxford, 2008. 317p bibl index afp ISBN 0-19-534081-7, $27.95; ISBN 9780195340815, $27.95. Reviewed in 2009 may CHOICE.

Recent political engagements of conservative Christians of an Evangelical bent have led to success in political offices' public policy. Bivins (North Carolina State Univ.) explores factors and forces that lie underneath--and produce and sustain--the religious endeavors in political activities. The focus of his analysis is the creators of Evangelical products: the cartoons of Jack Chick and their militant social criticism of American culture; the denunciations of rap and rock music with their Evangelical demonology; the theatrical Hell Houses that portray the consequences of sin that await sinners; and the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, preoccupied with the rapture. Fear is the theme that Bivins finds in all these instances of the New Christian Right's activities, deriving from the overwhelming sense of being under siege by the forces of secularism and displaying the conviction that American history exhibits a decline from the Christian origins of the founders. Hence the New Christian Right adopts a combative stance that pervades Christian Evangelical thought and behavior. Well-written and clearly argued, Religion of Fear makes a major contribution to the study of religion in American culture. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-level undergraduates and above; general readers. -- L. J. Alderink, emeritus, Concordia College

God and Politics: NY Times Review of Steven Miller's Biography of Billy Graham

Paul Harvey

Hi ya'll, it's been a while. And it's going to be a while more, as I plow through 42 senior thesis rough drafts and 27 graduate seminar drafts, and some health situations in the famille. More regular blogging should resume around the end of the month.

Until then, enjoy this nice review in today's New York Times book review section of Steven Miller's new book Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South. Congratulations to Steven for the great notice for his book, which originated as a Ph.D. dissertation at Vanderbilt. Reviewer Ross Douhat (soon to be a regular columnist for the Times, so I gather -- presumably replacing the egregiously bad William Kristol) gets it right in the review, I think. Here's a little excerpt:

a similar combination of theological principle and careerist caution meant that Graham’s critique of segregation never went nearly as far as civil rights activists wanted him to go. He stressed individual conversion over political change, supporting legal reform in lukewarm terms while insisting that only the Gospel could really improve race relations. He maintained strong friendships with segregationist clergymen and politicians, and his attacks on racism were always tempered by deliberate hedges and straddles — denunciations of extremists on “both sides” of the debate, suggestions that race relations were worse in the North than in the South, and so forth. Where Martin Luther King used eschatological language as a spur to political change, Graham used eschatology to emphasize the limits of politics. “Only when Christ comes again,” he reportedly said after King’s speech at the March on Washington, “will the lion lie down with the lamb and the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with the little black children.” . . . .

In one story, Sun Belt Republicanism was a coalition forged in cynicism and denial: it perpetuated real injustices while denying they existed and relied on the votes of bigots to achieve political dominance. In another telling, though, the majority that Nixon built managed to achieve something that seemed impossible at mid­century — using the rhetoric of Christianity and colorblindness to reconcile the white South to a legal and social revolution, and confining the once-ubiquitous support for segregation to a lunatic fringe.

Again, as with Graham, both of these stories are true. And Steven Miller’s book offers a valuable contribution to the debate precisely because it manages to tell them both at once — to emphasize not only the black and white of a polarizing era, but its many shades of gray as well.

Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of Fire and Brimstone

Randall Stephens

Jerry Lee Lewis to Sam Phillips on the perils of rock and roll, Sun Records Studio, Memphis Tennessee, 1957

Jerry Lee Lewis: H-E-L-L . . . that’s right. It says “MAKE MERRY with the JOY OF GOD, only.” But when it comes to worldly music, rock and roll, anythin’ like that, you’re in the world, and you haven’t come from out of the world, and you’re still a sinner. And you’re a sinner. You’re a sinner unless you be saved and born again, and be made as a little child, and walk before God, and be holy. And brother, I mean you got to be so pure, and no sin shall enter there. No SIN! Cause it says “no sin.” It don’t say just a little bit. It says “no sin shall enter there.” Brother, not one little bit. You got to walk and TALK with God to go to heaven. . . .

Sam Phillips: Now Look, Jerry . . .

Lewis: Mr. Phillips, I don’t care . . . it ain’t what you believe, It’s what’s written in the BIBLE! . . . .

Phillips: Nah, gosh, it’s not what you believe it’s how do you interpret the Bible?

I’ll stop right there. It’s just so much more fun to hear this on youtube. A transcription can’t capture the accents and folk wisdom entailed, ya hear? I don’t even think Mark Twain could render the conversation justly. Hat tip to Joe Lucas (Historically Speaking) for making me aware of this fly-on-the-wall treasure. (How many other famous pop icons discussed hermeneutics with their producers?!?)

Hearing the above, I thought about work I’ve done, albeit very little, on rock, pop music and holiness-pentecostalism. At the suggestion of Bland Whitley while in grad school, I read an essay on famous pentecostal musicians (Stephen R. “Pentecostalism and Popular Culture in the South: A Study of Four Musicians,” Journal of Popular Culture 16 [Winter 1982]: 68-80.) Few have looked at pentecostal rock and rollers and country singers as Tucker did all those years ago. The evidence from interviews with performers, autobiographies, and secondary work is pretty stunning.

Elvis Presley, like “The Killer,” attended an Assemblies of God church. Johnny Cash spent some harrowing Sundays in a fired-up Church of God. Tammy Wynette did, too. There are other links between black pentecostalism and B.B. King and Little Richard. The latter’s autobiography will blow your hair back. All that to say that the connection between sanctified religion, gospel quartets, shouting preachers, and rock is not a mere coincidence.

Here’s are a couple questions I’m interested in, and this speaks to the above audio clip: If, as the Louvin Brothers reminded the faithful in 1960, “Satan is real, working in spirit . . .” then how does one square the devil’s music with holy living? That dilemma worried Jerry Lee, and, to a lesser extent, Elvis. How much of the vibrancy and ecstasy of early rock was a result of a religious tension? Maybe much more than most realize.

I said a little bit about this in the last chapter of my book. It’s worth quoting David Wilkerson (of Cross and Switchblade fame) who wrote about Lucifer’s rock trickery in a 1959 issue of an Assemblies of God magazine. For every Youth for Christ rally “Satan is now staging a rock and roll rally!” he said. Even worse, “Satan has used rock and roll to imitate the work of God at Pentecost! In these last days Satan has come down to baptize with an unholy ghost and unholy fire!” Rock shows looked like upside-down pentecostal revivals: “the shaking, the prostration” of the saints “are imitated by this unholy baptism—as far even to speaking in vile tongues!”

I learned that lesson in a BIG way as a young teen when my youth group watched the late-80s Christian documentary Hell's Bells: The Dangers of Rock 'n' Roll.

1st Biennial Religion and American Culture Conference

1st Biennial Religion and American Culture Conference
June 4-7, 2009
Omni Severin Hotel, Indianapolis

The Religion and American Culture Conference is scheduled for June 4-7 at the Omni Severin Hotel in downtown Indianapolis. The first of a series of biennial conferences to be sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, this meeting will provide a summit to take stock of the study of religion in North America and discuss potential future directions of the field.

Participating panelists range in background from departments of history, sociology, religious studies, and political science, as well as from various teaching backgrounds, including divinity schools, law schools, schools of government, and schools of public policy. Panelists will each take 15 minutes to offer their ideas, then each session will operate as a town hall meeting, with total audience participation in order to broaden the conversation.

Conference Schedule

Thursday, June 4

Registration 6:00-7:30 p.m. Reception, Severin Ballroom

Friday, June 5

How did we get here? A discussion of disciplinary lines, how we in American religious studies are divided into groups and subgroups, the forces that keep us separated or encourage interdisciplinarity, the role of funding in all of this.

Welcome: Philip Goff, Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and Department of ReligiousStudies, IUPUI

Host: Stephen Stein, Department of Religious Studies, Indiana University-Bloomington

Panel: Jon Butler, American Studies, History, and Religious Studies, Yale University; Jay Demerath, Department of Sociology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Paula Kane, Department of Religious Studies, University of Pittsburgh

Competing and complementary approaches in American religious history. How seriously do historians take religion, or religious studies scholars take history? Whence goeth monographs? The rise of ethnography. What about grand narratives?

Host: Peter Thuesen, Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and Department of Religious Studies, IUPUI

Panel: John Corrigan, Department of Religious Studies, Florida State University; Dennis Dickerson, Department of History, Vanderbilt University; Robert Orsi, Department of Religious Studies, Northwestern University

Competing and complementary approaches in Social Scientific studies of religion in America. Are the important divisions less those between social scientists and humanists and instead those that divide social scientists into quantitative and qualitative? What role do non-sociological social sciences play in the larger picture?

Host: Arthur E. Farnsley II, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, IUPUI

Panel: Penny Edgell, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota; Rhys Williams, Department of Sociology, University of Cincinnati; Jerry Park, Department of Sociology, Baylor University

Saturday, June 6
Explaining Religion in America: What can we learn from each other? What can those working in the humanities learn from social scientists, and vice-versa? How do we view one another? What do we consider the other to be doing right and wrong?

Host: Brian Steensland, Department of Sociology, Indiana University-Bloomington

Panel: Courtney Bender, Department of Sociology, Columbia University; David Hall, Harvard Divinity School; Stephen Prothero, Department of Religious Studies, Boston University

Politics, Secularization, and the Public Square
Host: Sheila Suess Kennedy, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, IUPUIPanel: Daniel Walker Howe, Department of History, UCLA and Oxford University; Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, University at Buffalo Law School; and Mark Silk, Department of Religious Studies, Trinity College

Race, Ethnicity, and Religious Pluralism

Host: Edward Curtis IV, Department of Religious Studies, IUPUI

Panel: Helen Rose Ebaugh, Department of Sociology, University of Houston; Rudy Busto, Department of Religious Studies, UCSB; David Wills, Department of History, Amherst College

Where do we go from here?
Host: Sylvester Johnson, Department of Religious Studies, Indiana University-Bloomington
Panel: James Lewis, Louisville Institute, Louisville Theological Seminary; Amanda Porterfield, Florida State University

6:00-7:00 Reception

7:00-8:30 Hosted Dinner, Severin Ballroom
Guest speaker: Daniel Walker Howe, 2008 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Sunday, June 7 Depart

Register for the conference

Notre Dame's Laetare Medalist, and Catholic Women's Identity

Notre Dame’s Laetare Medalist
by Kathleen Sprows Cummings

In the midst of the controversy surrounding the invitation to President Barack Obama, few people have remarked on the other person slated to address Notre Dame’s class of 2009: Mary Ann Glendon, winner of this year’s Laetare Medal. The Laetare Medal, regarded by some as “the most prestigious award conferred annually on American Catholics,” was instituted in 1883 to honor a person whose witness to the Catholic faith has shaped his or her public endeavors. Let me state upfront that Glendon is an accomplished and faithful woman who well deserves this honor. It’s also high time a woman was named. Aside from Peggy Steinfels, who received the award jointly with her husband in 2003, the last female recipient was Sister Helen Prejean in 1996. The preponderance of male Laetare medalists of late marks a departure from the medal’s early years, when women were honored much more routinely.

One of these early winners was Katherine E. Conway, the Laetare Medalist of 1907. Conway was a prolific writer and successful journalist who became the first woman editor of the Boston Pilot. Conway was also an anti-suffragist, a label that at first seems counterintuitive. As an educated, ambitious, and professional woman, what could she possibly have had against women’s enfranchisement? It turns out that Conway’s aversion to suffrage was rooted in her belief that she was far more marginalized as a Catholic in American society than she was as a woman in the Church. In 1893, she “marveled” that other Catholics had even raised “the woman question,” pointing out that the sanctuary and the pulpit were the only doors the Church had kept closed to her. As a Catholic in the United States, by contrast, she felt herself to be the victim to “utterly unfounded prejudices, misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and downright slander.”

Conway and her contemporaries grasped what many historians have since missed: the suffrage movement, whose core members were white, middle-class, Protestants, replicated the religious biases of the larger culture in many respects. Conway, like many of her contemporaries, was highly attuned to the anti-Catholicism embedded in suffrage arguments. This is not to say that she was entirely unaware of the way her life was circumscribed by gender. But at the end of the day, it would be religion, not sex, that would override all other alliances.

Acknowledging this has significant implications for the historiography of American women. While it is old news that “sisterhood” could be splintered by race and class, scholars have not sufficiently acknowledged the power of religious identity to undermine alliances based on sex. I am hardly the first person to make this observation. Ann Braude, a scholar I admire deeply, recently urged historians of U.S. women to transcend “the Protestant frameworks embedded in the field,” noting that “Protestantism often functions as an unmarked category in women’s history because religion is not analyzed as a source of difference, just as whiteness disappears when the impact of race is only considered for non-whites.”

Braude’s challenge raises interesting questions: If women’s historians taught us that men have a gender, and scholars of African-Americans prompted explorations of how whites are shaped by race, is it possible to make an analogy in terms of the study of religion? By studying a minority religion, might we understand how religious difference has impacted the members of the majority religion? Are many of the movements or people historians have assumed to be secular in fact Protestant? And if so, how deeply did biases against Catholics shape their rhetoric and actions? The answers to these questions go a long way in explaining why most Catholic women in the early 20th century believed that women’s rights were best secured “in the Court of Rome,” not through the ballot box.

If Conway and other Catholic anti-suffragists can help explain the American religious past, they might also offer clues to help us understand the presently embattled relationship between religion and feminism. Mary Ann Glendon, for example, has been very critical of feminism, often implying that it is at odds with religious faith. In 1995, commenting on John Paul II’s Letter to Women, Glendon suggested that “a Catholic woman impatient with the pace of change might consider asking herself: “Where in contemporary society do I feel the most respected as a woman, whatever my chosen path in life?” Asserting that she could not “think of any institution that surpasses the Catholic Church in these respects,” Glendon replicated the argument Conway made a century earlier: it is the Catholic church, not secular feminism, that is the best protector of women’s rights and interests. One could argue, and I have elsewhere, that this position was more defensible in 1893 than it is now. But the point remains: Catholic women who refused to join woman suffragists in the early 20th century offer a provocative pre-history of the choice Glendon and many other religious women make to ally themselves with the men who share their faith, rather than with the women who do not.

In Remembrance of Julia Walsh

Paul Harvey

Some years ago I was fortunate enough to meet Julia Walsh, then a finishing graduate student under Vernon Burton; I read her dissertation concerning religion and working-class politics in Augusta, Georgia in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, enjoyed it, and made much use of it in my own work. I kept in touch with her for several years; the last time I saw her, if I remember correctly, was at a Southern Historical Association meeting in New Orleans, where she, her husband, and myself stood and listened to the youngest Marsalis brother lead a good jazz ensemble at a SHA reception.

I was shocked and saddened today to get the message of Julia's death, reposted below. She was indeed a warm and generous person and a fine scholar. I'll never forget having bbq in Birmingham with Julia, Daniel Stowell, and a few other folks, nor our wonderful conversations about religion and labor in American history.

The editors and board of H-South with heavy hearts convey the death of Julia Walsh (PhD, Illinois, 1999), an editor of this list and a contributor to H-Labor. Julia, who had been suffering from the effects of early-onset Parkinson's Disease for many years, died in her sleep on April 1, 2009. She is grieved by her husband Tom Jordan (Phd, Illinois, 2000), a specialist in Latin American labor history at SIU-Edwardsville, and by her young daughter Norah.

The daughter of Irish immigrants living in England, Julia was a graduate of Cambridge University and attended the University of Illinois for graduate work in Southern and working-class history. Her dissertation, "Horny-Handed Sons of Toil": Workers, Politics, and Religion in Augusta, Georgia, 1880-1910," was directed by Vernon Burton. She had published a number of articles before being disabled by her illness.

Julia taught for many years at Webster University in St. Louis. Julia was, along with Terry Finnegan and Henry Kammerling, part of the original H-South editors from its inception in the early 1990s. A gracious manner and skillful writing were her professional hallmarks. Julia was as warm and generous a person one could hope to meet. She and Tom presented a supportive social center for Illinois graduate students in the late nineties and they carried that goodwill with them to St. Louis where Julia was much loved in her department. Her scholarship was outstanding and added signifi=antly to our understanding of the American South.

A memorial mass for Julia Walsh will be celebrated on Wednesday, April 8th, at 11:00 a.m. at Seven Holy Founders Catholic Church. A reception following the mass will be held at the Jordan residence and is tentatively scheduled from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m.

Jared Farmer's On Zion's Mount Wins Parkman Prize

Last week Harvard University Press announced that Jared Farmer's book has won the Francis Parkman Prize. Well deserved indeed.

Jared Farmer has been honored with the Francis Parkman Prize by The Society of American Historians for his 2008 book On Zion's Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape, which details how Mormon settlers in Utah endowed their new homeland with a spiritual geography—how they made themselves "native" in a strange land—and how their effort to confer meaning on their new dwelling place came at the expense of the Utes they displaced, people whom, ironically enough, they considered their "spiritual kin." Farmer, Assistant Professor of History at The State University of New York at Stony Brook, shows how this pattern, this imbuing of the American landscape with "Indian" lore that hadn't existed until Euro-American settlers showed up, was repeated time and time again across the United States, and how the legacy of these cultural acts remains with us today.

In January 2009 Farmer's essay, "Displaced from Zion: Mormons and Indians in the 19th Century," appeared in Historically Speaking.

Devout Racism

Paul Harvey

Many of you will be interested to read our contributing editor Randall Stephens's joint review of Mark Noll, God and Race in American Politics: A Short History, together with Charles Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia. The succinct and insightful review, from the Christian Century, is here. A brief excerpt:

Like all skilled historians, Irons and Noll expertly track change over time. C. Vann Woodward did the same in his classic The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), a work that showed how a new, crippling racism developed in the post-Civil War years. Race was not an eternal, changeless force, asserted Wood ward. History is contingent. Its course is not set. Good history can raise consciousness and inspire activism. Martin Luther King Jr. called Wood ward's book the "historical Bible of the civil rights movement." Like Woodward, Irons and Noll reveal the changing dynamics of race, politics and religion. They show how groups and individuals adapt to new currents and reevaluate and sometimes reify tradition.

Irons and Noll prompt readers to think historically about the hope of racial reconciliation and the tragedy of church-sanctioned race hatred. It's almost impossible to read these two books and not ponder what might have been or what could be in store for America's future.

Holy Mavericks

Below is the announcement for our contributing editor Phil Sinitiere's new book, written with co-author Shayne Lee.

Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace

"Introduces us to some of the most prominent religious innovators in the United States today—‘savvy spiritual suppliers,’ as the authors say—who are skilled at recalibrating their messages and ministries to fit particular audiences. Religious scholars will welcome the attention given to cultural themes in the analysis, and the emphasis on more than just individual choice; general readers will be enthralled by the creativity of the producers but also appalled at the captivity of religious faith to contemporary culture."--Wade Clark Roof, University of California at Santa Barbara

Table of Contents
Joel Osteen, Paula White, T. D. Jakes, Rick Warren, and Brian McLaren pastor some the largest churches in the nation, lead vast spiritual networks, write best-selling books, and are among the most influential preachers in American Protestantism today.
Spurred by the phenomenal appeal of these religious innovators, sociologist Shayne Lee and historian Phillip Luke Sinitiere investigate how they operate and how their style of religious expression fits into America’s cultural landscape. Drawing from the theory of religious economy, the authors offer new perspectives on evangelical leadership and key insights into why some religious movements thrive while others decline.
Holy Mavericks provides a useful overview of contemporary evangelicalism while emphasizing the importance of "supply-side thinking" in understanding shifts in American religion. It reveals how the Christian world hosts a culture of celebrity very similar to the secular realm, particularly in terms of marketing, branding, and publicity. Holy Mavericks reaffirms that religion is always in conversation with the larger society in which it is embedded, and that it is imperative to understand how those religious suppliers who are able to change with the times will outlast those who are not.
Shayne Lee has a joint appointment in sociology and African Diaspora Studies at Tulane University. He is the author of T. D. Jakes (NYU Press).

Phillip Luke Sinitiere holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Houston.

Comparative Ethnohistory -- Guest Post from Lin Fisher

I'm delighted to put up this guest post from Linford Fisher, currently teaching at IU - South Bend, but soon to join the History Department at Brown University. Lin is also the author of a chapter on "'Religious Encounters," in our recently completed reference work Columbia Guide to Religion in American History, to be published a year or so from now I hope. In celebration of his imminent move, I'm pleased to put up some of his thoughts on early American religious history and "comparative ethnohistory."

Comparative Ethnohistory
Linford Fisher

Lately I’ve been contemplating comparisons. Not just any old comparisons (the current deplorable status of my IRA compared to two years ago, for example), but rather comparative historical projects. And, even more specifically, what some scholars have termed “comparative ethnohistory.”

The phrase “comparative ethnohistory”—if it ever crosses your mind at all in the first place—might conjure up the parallel examination of two indigenous contexts in the colonial Americas, perhaps something along the lines of James Axtell’s The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (Oxford, 1985), in which Axtell elegantly compares Indian responses to French and English evangelistic efforts in New France and New England.

Margaret Connell Szasz, however, has something slightly different in mind as I learned recently when I picked up her book Scottish Highlanders and Native Americans: Indigenous Education in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Oklahoma, 2007). In her introduction, she positions herself in the emerging field of “comparative ethnohistory”—of which Colin Calloway seems to be the other primary representative. Intrigued, I read on (in part because I owed Scotia a book review, but also because my own work deals with indigenous evangelization).

Scottish Highlanders and Native Americans is essentially an examination of how one missionary agency in the eighteenth century—the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK)—focused their resources on two very different and yet surprisingly similar contexts in much the same way, namely, the Algonquian populations of northeastern North America, and the Gaelic speaking peoples of the Scottish Highlands. Both people groups, Szasz argues, were viewed by the SSPCK in much the same way, since they were both largely illiterate, had their own cultural and religious customs that were viewed as “barbaric,” and had both been subdued through a brutal process of colonization in the century or so prior to the formation of the SSPCK. Szasz artfully makes her case for this indigenous parallelism in the first chapter, highlighting local orality, kinship patterns, traditional religious practices, and then the intrusion of colonial institutions in the seventeenth century that were intended to civilize and Christianize both the Highlanders and Native Americans.

The SSPCK was founded in 1709 for the “further promoting of Christian Knowledge, and the increase of piety and virtue, within Scotland, especially in the Highlands and Islands” (75), which it did with characteristic reformed vigor. By the 1730s, with more than eighty schools established in the Highlands and tangible results among the Gaelic peoples, the SSPCK capitalized on its vague charter statement about also spreading Christian knowledge “in Popish and Infidel parts of the world” by sending missionaries and teachers to North America to work among indigenous populations in the English colonies. Although the society was perhaps less successful in North America (as a relative latecomer to the scene, with the Puritan/Independent New England Company [1649] and the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts [1701] already active in many areas), it became well known primarily for its sponsorship and ordination of the most famous eighteenth-century American Indian minister, the Mohegan Samson Occom.

Szasz spends the last third of her book comparing Occom and his Gaelic Highlander counterpart, Dugald Buchanan. Like Occom, Buchannan was sent away for religious education at a young age, was drawn to the religious revivalism of the 1740s, and became a prominent example of the effectiveness of Scottish-style indigenous Christianization. Szasz’s overall framing and argument seems to be that in both contexts, indigenous populations were selective in their appropriation of Christian ideas and practices, ultimately using for their own ends cultural tools handed to them by the Scottish missionaries.

Szasz is a brilliant, careful scholar, and the book was a pleasant read. Telling the story from the perspective of the SSPCK definitely de-centers the typical narrative of Indian evangelism in the colonial northeast. Learning about the experiences of the Scottish Highlanders does expand one’s view of evangelistic activity in the British colonies. The nagging question, however, is this: how much did I really learn? One of my recurring frustrations with comparative projects is that they rarely satisfy specialists. Does the newness consist primarily in the comparison itself? I also couldn’t shake the feeling that, despite the similarities between the two contexts, the differences ran deep, and in important ways. I was reminded of Jonathan Z. Smith’s warnings regarding the potential pitfalls of comparisons in his essay “In Comparison a Magic Dwells”: “As practiced by scholarship, comparison has been chiefly an affair of the recollection of similarity. The chief explanation for the significance of comparison has been contiguity. The procedure is homeopathic. The theory is built on contagion. The issue of difference has been all but forgotten” (Smith, Imagining Religion, p. 21).

If Smith is right, comparative projects by their very definition seek to find similarities, often at the expense of critical differences. This doesn’t mean that I disliked Szasz’s book (I didn’t) or that I do not think that such comparisons are not valid (I do); it simply means that, for now, the jury is still out, even as I continue to contemplate comparisons.

Rush Limbaugh to Speak at Sojourners' Mobilization to End Poverty!

Rush Limbaugh to Speak at Sojourners' Mobilization to End Poverty

In an inspiring display of bipartisan bridge-building, talk radio personality Rush Limbaugh has accepted Jim Wallis' invitation to deliver a keynote address at Sojourners' Mobilization to End Poverty conference in April."I've always said the monologue of the extreme right is over, and a new dialogue has begun," said Wallis. "Well, that dialogue is about to get a whole lot louder."

Limbaugh, longtime champion of conservative media, announced his acceptance of the invitation on his daily radio show. Interrupted occasionally by call-ins of incredulous listeners, Limbaugh detailed months of off-the-record conversations with Wallis during which the two forged a deep friendship despite political, theological, philosophical, ideological, ecological, anthropological, eschatological, and soteriological differences.

That dialogue came to a head one night when an anguished and sleepless Limbaugh called Wallis after 3:00 a.m., seeking spiritual solace. "I responded like any good evangelical would," said Wallis. "I told him he should read his Bible. And then I hung up and went back to sleep. "Vexed but desperate, Limbaugh grabbed his trusty KJV, fanned it open at random, closed his eyes, and thrust his index finger upon whatever page it might find, landing upon this passage from James 5:

Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.

"I admit, of all the verses for him to read, this passage sounds a bit harsh—especially in the King James," said Wallis. "But with 2,000 verses on poverty in the Bible, Rush was bound to hit one of them."Limbaugh's response to the Word was swift and dramatic: "Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount."

As part of Limbaugh's dramatic change of heart, he has reciprocated Wallis' speaking invitation by naming him the new co-host for his daily radio show, giving it a more faith-based focus. "The way Kathy Lee needed Regis, that's the way y'all need Jesus," said Limbaugh. "That's what Jim will bring to the show on a daily basis—that good ole’ Red Letter Christian gospel!"Limbaugh further detailed his plans to team up with Sojourners and others to fight domestic and global poverty, issuing this challenge to all Dittoheads in a recent broadcast: "I want everyone within the sound of my voice to call upon their members of Congress to cut the number of Americans living in poverty in half in the next 10 years, and to support America's commitment to the Millennium Devleopment Goals. ... And always remember to recycle. ... Oh, and one last thing: fur is murder."

With Mobilization attendees and legions of conservative talk radio fans both reeling from this dramatic turn of events, many are asking what other surprises are in store for the Sojourners conference.Anonymous sources have confirmed that TV talk show host Stephen T. Colbert will be delivering the prayer of invocation to kick off the event. Also, Bono has cancelled the free U2 concert for emerging leaders due to lack of interest. Instead, band members The Edge, Larry Mullins Jr. and Adam Clayton will accompany Jim Wallis in leading the young people in a sing-a-long of church camp fireside favorites. "Arky Arky" anyone?

On Pardons and Penance

Art Remillard

On December 4, 1912, pugilist Jack Johnson wed an eighteen-year-old prostitute by the name of Lucille Cameron. While her profession raised some eyebrows, her white skin sparked outrage from the likes of Georgia Representative Seaborne Roddenberry. Seven days after the ceremony, rather than sending a wedding gift, Roddenberry proposed a Constitutional ban on the “un-American and inhuman leprosy” of interracial marriage. Allowing such unions, he averred, “will bring annihilation to that race which we have protected in our land for all these years.”

Roddenberry drew from an American and Southern civil religious discourse that demanded white supremacy for the sake of social order. Civil religion is a complicated academic category. So for the sake of simplicity, let's just focus on social values, or as Robert Bellah put it, the normative standards that “indicate what is a good society, what is good social action, what are good social relations, what is a good person as a member of society.” In 1912, in the eyes of Rep. Roddenberry, Jack Johnson’s marriage was not a good social action, his marriage did not lend toward good social relations, and he was certainly not a good member of society. Others must have agreed, since Johnson was convicted for violating the Mann Act in 1913.

Today I discovered that Senator John McCain is seeking a posthumous pardon for Johnson. "I had admired Jack Johnson's prowess in the ring. And the more I found out about him, the more I thought a grave injustice was done." I like to think that McCain is doing an act of civil religious penance, a symbolic gesture meant to atone for the collective misdeeds of the past, and mark a new era where America's social values require racial justice. To be sure, the nation still has work to do when it comes to race. But this is a good sign.

If you're interested, here's a portion of Ken Burns's documentary, which played a significant role in getting the pardon-ball rolling.

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