A Trip to NYC and an Interview with Randall Balmer on Teaching American Religious History

Randall Stephens

So, I took the train down to NYC last week. Not to see Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party (which looks hilarious), but rather to present my work to the Columbia University Seminar on Religion in America. (I love trains and seminars. Better than plains, rowboats, and/or webinars any day.) The seminar, founded over ten years ago, “explores the role of religion in American society from cross-disciplinary perspectives, including history, anthropology, literature, sociology, theology, and material culture.” In a posh faculty house that looked like a country club, minus the golfers, I talked about my paper, “‘A great many theologians’: Premillennial Authorities and Modern American Evangelicalism.” I benefited tremendously from some wonderful critique and q and a. The questions that historians and religious studies scholars ask can be quite different. So, it’s always a plus to take in the advice of those in other, related fields. Some wanted to know how representative are the evangelicals my co-author and I focus on. Others wondered about what makes a given leader an “expert” or an “authority.” Was all very good food for thought. Dinner afterward—food for stomach—offered a nice chance to get to know those in attendance. (One of them, Daniel Vaca, a PhD student at Columbia, was a fantastic host.)

While in NYC, I also had some time to catch up with a close friend who works at Cooper Union and pop into McSorleys. In addition I had the pleasure of attending Randall Balmer’s survey course on American religious history at Barnard College. If you teach American religious history, you probably don’t have too many opportunities to bounce ideas off others who teach the same, or get new light on old topics from colleagues in the field. (Though, this is one of the most amazing benefits of the Young Scholars in American Religion program.) I
enjoyed hearing and seeing how Balmer conducts his class. It was filled with about 100 students from Barnard and Columbia. He covered the rise of utopian communities in the 19th century, bringing in the Shakers and the Oneida Perfectionists (the Shakers’ polar opposite? I wonder if any Shakers ever went over to John Humphrey Noyes’s unbuttoned camp). Then he concluded by showing part of Ken Burns's elegiac classic, The Shakers.

After the class, I sat down with Balmer in his office to ask him some questions about teaching the American religious history survey and to pick his brain about other courses he's offers. The interview here is divided into two parts (part 2 is here). Balmer speaks about drawing students into the story. He also describes some new courses he’s taught in recent years and focuses in on what he’s learned from a new course on Mormonism. His comments got me thinking a little bit about how teaching new courses can lead to surprising, new research interests. My course on America in the 1960s has certainly led me in some surprising directions. (I still have not perfected my plans to teach that class on Rosicrucian Trapeze Artists in Late-19th-Century Pennsylvania. There's always next year!)

Mormon History and Thomas Kane, Romantic Reformer

Paul Harvey

Over at Juvenile Instructor today is a nice list/compilation of recent and forthcoming works in Mormon history -- click here for it.

On the list there is a book that I hadn't thought of putting in this category, but certainly belongs: Matt Grow,
"Liberty to the Downtrodden": Thomas L. Kane, Romantic Reformer. Below is a description of this work from Yale University Press. Matt is in the current group of Young Scholars in American Religion, where he holds court with our blog contributor Everett Hamner and other rising stars in the field.

Thomas L. Kane (1822–1883), a crusader for antislavery, women’s rights, and the downtrodden, rose to prominence in his day as the most ardent and persuasive defender of Mormons’ religious liberty. Though not a Mormon, Kane sought to defend the much-reviled group from the “Holy War” waged against them by evangelical America. His courageous personal intervention averted a potentially catastrophic bloody conflict between federal troops and Mormon settlers in the now nearly forgotten Utah War of 1857–58.

Drawing on extensive, newly available archives, this book is the first to tell the full story of Kane’s extraordinary life. The book illuminates his powerful Philadelphia family, his personal life and eccentricities, his reform achievements, his place in Mormon history, and his career as a Civil War general. Further, the book revises previous understandings of nineteenth-century reform, showing how Kane and likeminded others fused Democratic Party ideology, anti-evangelicalism, and romanticism.

Appeal to Heaven

Paul Harvey

John Kang, "Appeal to Heaven: On the Religious Origins of the Constitutional Right of Revolution," 18 William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 281 (forthcoming 2010), has been posted here at SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This Article explores the religious origins of the right to alter or abolish government. I show in Part I that the right was widely accepted among the American colonies as expressed through their constitutions and, later, the federal constitution. In Part II, I usher the reader back in time and across the continent to seventeenth century England. There, I introduce two men who would have abhorred everything about American constitutional democracy - King James I and the philosopher Sir Robert Filmer. Both men, prominent in their respective domains of authority, devoted themselves to the governing axiom that kings were bequeathed a right by God to absolute rule. Part III sketches the seventeenth century arguments of two other Englishmen, also prominent--the philosophers John Locke and Algernon Sidney - who challenged James and Filmer. Locke and Sidney argued that God had never sanctioned the divine right of kings and instead had justified the people’s right to overthrow tyrants.

The arguments of Locke and Sidney will, as I show in subsequent sections, influence the American clergy who supported war against Britain and the right of revolution in general. Indeed, the development of this connection will occupy me for the remainder of the Article, but, in Part IV, I take a brief respite to summarize the historical circumstances that severely hampered governmental control over religion in colonial America and thus provided partially autonomous spaces for people to reflect on religion, including in ways that would inform their right to alter or abolish government. I illustrate in Part V how several prominent American clergymen, following Locke and Sidney, rejected as impossible the divine and supposedly infallible status of rulers. God, the clergy insisted, was the only one who could claim such infallibility; the clergy warned that rulers would do well to devote themselves to the people’s well being, not the former’s aggrandizement. In Part VI, I argue that, again echoing Locke and Sidney, a prominent group of American clergymen insisted that, contrary to the anti-democratic jeers of monarchists, God had given people the capacity for reason which enabled them to make meaningful decisions about their political future. I conclude in Part VII by illustrating how the federal and state constitutions following the American Revolution sought to protect conditions for the faithful to contemplate the religious meaning of the right to alter or abolish government.

Rebunking the Pilgrims?

[crossposted at the THS blog]
Randall Stephens

As Americans prepare to stuff their faces with turkey, pie, turkey pie, and all manner of bread-related foods, and clock in millions of hours of TV football viewing, it’s worth considering the Pilgrims, originators of America's holiday. (I was just thinking that a Martian would have a very hard time understanding how football and overeating are linked to an otherworldly religious sect.) How do Pilgrims fit into American history and religious history in general?

How low the founders of our national myth have fallen. Nineteenth-century Protestants celebrated the Pilgrims as hearty, pure-of-heart forbearers. Yet even in the 19th century Pilgrims had their share of detractors. Eli Thayer, the Kansas prophet, and the Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale fussed about the place of Pilgrims in American history. Every lowly Kansan (which I proudly count myself among) had more grit and determination and was more deserving of panegyrics than were the not-all-that-great Pilgrims.

In 1881, Mark Twain delivered an uproarious address, in the form of a plea, to the New England Society of Philadelphia. Why all this “laudation and hosannaing” about the Pilgrims? he asked his audience. “The Pilgrims were a simple and ignorant race. They never had seen any good rocks before, or at least any that were not watched, and so they were excusable for hopping ashore in frantic delight and clapping an iron fence around this one.” “Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims” was a classic piece of Sam Clemens’ contrarianism. As the whole country went mad with Pilgrim fever, Twain shouted, “Humbug!”

Good fun. But did Twain’s comic take on those “ignorant,” “narrow” Pilgrims win the day in the 20th century? And did it win the day minus the comedy? Historian Jeremy Bangs thinks so. In 2004, he wrote:

Those inspiring Pilgrims of my youth have taken a beating! According to today’s historians, the Pilgrims were among the least significant of England’s American colonists. Their tiny Plymouth Colony was soon absorbed by the larger and more prosperous Massachussets Bay. The Pilgrims were no friendlier to Indians than other Europeans in the Americas—which is to say, they were greedy, duplicitous purveyors of genocide. Nor did they invent democracy: the Mayflower Compact was just an expedient means of maintaining order in a new environment. And their first “Thanksgiving” was nothing more than a replica of a traditional, secular English harvest feast. The Pilgrims didn’t even call themselves Pilgrims, a term coined by the 19th-century Americans who invented these virtuous forbears out of thin air in an effort to grace the relatively new United States with a glorious past. Indeed, about the only aspect of my schoolboy Pilgrims that has survived this assault is their poverty.

The truth about the Pilgrims—and yes, I do still call them Pilgrims—is perhaps closer to the “myth” than to what we can learn from today’s textbooks.

So Bangs offers an erudite rebuttal to the Pilgrim’s modern-day cultured despisers. His Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners (General Society of Mayflower Descendants, 2009) sets the Pilgrims in their thick historical context. His well-written scholarly account has no rival as far as scope and detail goes. The book has a whopping 894 pages and by my reckoning weighs nearly 4lbs. As a bonus, it's richly illustrated with a variety of prints and photographs (Bangs has spent much time working on the material culture of English separatists.)

Bangs writes that Samuel Elliot Morrison, Darret Rutman, and Theodre Dwight Bozeman dismissed the Plymouth colony as insignificant, a backwater. Add to that Malcolm X’s turn of phrase: “We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters—Plymouth Rock landed on us!” (I'm not sure if Brian Wilson's immortal words count as a critique or a drug-related bit of wordplay: "Rock, rock, roll, Plymouth Rock roll over . . .") Since the 1970s, a simple formula has guided much wisdom on the Pilgrims: Indians = good; Pilgrims = bad.

Why do the Pilgrims deserve a new look? Their lives and the record they left tell us something basic about the European roots and the hot Protestant context of America’s first English settlers. The Pilgrims later significance, Bangs notes, also reveals a great deal about what future generations wanted to remember (and one might add, forget) about early colonial America. Bangs argues: “No history of the Plymouth Colony, no history of Leiden, no history of the Netherlands so far explains adequately the Pilgrims' defining experience in exile.” Travellers and Sojourners “undertakes the necessary task of starting over, not simply to add incrementally to what is already known about the Pilgrims in Leiden but instead to reconceive the question of who the Pilgrims were and what contributed to the choices that make them interesting historically.”

American Muslim Women: Divisions Within Unity


Paul Harvey

From the new edition of Choice, a short review of a book that should be of interest to some here, fyi.

Karim, Jamillah
. American Muslim women: negotiating race, class, and gender within the Ummah. New York University, 2009. 292p bibl index afp; ISBN 9780814748091, $75.00; ISBN 9780814748107 pbk, $23.00. Reviewed in 2009dec CHOICE.
Karim (religious studies, Spelman College), a second generation African American Muslim scholar, explores the complex relationship between African American Muslims and South Asian Muslim immigrants in the context of the larger US Muslim community, which is estimated to number three to six million people. Karim's focus is on women members of the African American and South Asian immigrant Muslim communities of Chicago and Atlanta and the way they experience and interpret their interactions as they come together in private homes, Arabic classes, and mosques. The author's interest is on how "religious identity influences race relations and how race affects religious identity" (p.6) and on what a shared religious identity as Muslims means in a racially divided society. In other words, does the notion of a universal Muslim community, the ummah, with its ideals of sisterhood and brotherhood and social justice, transcend racial and cultural differences? Drawing on her own life and the lives of the many women she interviewed, Karim reveals the subtle and uneasy ways in which racial, ethnic, class, and gender divisions in the US interact to challenge the idealized notion of a united Muslim community. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. -- A. Rassam, emerita, CUNY Queens College

Religion and Warfare: Does God Choose Sides?

Paul Harvey

A brief follow up to Matt's post from a few days ago, which raised a vigorous discussion of conservative/fundamentalist religion, the chaplaincy, and the military.

"Religion and Warfare: Does God Choose Sides," from the radio program "To the Point," features a discussion between Jeff Sharlet, Mikey Weinstein, and several others on the role of religion in the military, evangelical proselytization, and the Ft. Hood shootings. Here's a description and rundown of the participants; you can listen to the segment of the show (about 30 minutes) by following the link above.

Religion and Warfare: Does God Choose Sides? (12:07PM)

A Senate committee is conducting a high profile investigation into the Fort Hood shootings, and the Pentagon is investigating the extent of Islamic radicalism in the military. Meantime, others warn about the growing presence of another kind of widespread religious fundamentalism that's not just condoned, but encouraged by some senior officers: evangelical Christians who proselytize soldiers, Marines and sailors--promoting the idea of "holy war." Critics concede that Evangelicals don't advocate killing, but contend that they undermine military morale and send the wrong message in Muslim countries. We talk about the separation of Church and State, freedom of speech and the impact of religious fundamentalism on national security.


Heroic Failures

by John G. Turner

Sometimes we encounter books we wish we had been able to read ten years ago.

I used to assign my introductory students an essay that required them to analyze the respective views of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois on Reconstruction. After reading chapters from Up from Slavery and The Souls of Black Folk, listening to one or two lectures from me, and discussing the closing scenes of Birth of a Nation, they had to make a case for either BTW or Du Bois as presenting the more accurate or compelling interpretation of the time period.

Along the way, I would give them some biographical information on the two men. I had only dipped into Louis Harlan's biography on Washington, and I can't remember what I used for Du Bois, as I haven't read David Levering Lewis's book. (Our Ed Blum has since furthered my understanding of Du Bois).

If I ever revive this assignment (students found it challenging), I will be ready with a much fuller understanding of the "Wizard of Tuskegee." Robert J. Norrell, quietly in the text and forcefully in the epilogue, challenges in Up from History what he considers overly critical evaluations of Washington from contemporaries like Du Bois and influential historians such as Harlan and C. Vann Woodward. Many others have sought to at least partially rehabilitate Washington, but Norrell's biography easily surpasses previous efforts.

As other historians have done, Norrell documents Washington's longstanding commitment to full political equality for African Americans and his steadfast support for lawsuits and other relatively quiet forms of protest and activism. Norrell, though, truly excels at fully contextualizing the toxic political climate in which Washington operated. On the one hand, Washington lived in an Alabama which several well-to-do African Americans were forced to leave, often without the least provocation. Racial violence was commonplace; lynchings peaked during the years of Washington's leadership. Tuskegee's size, relative wealth, and mission always generated a certain level of resentment among local and state whites. White supremacist politicians from Tom Watson to Alabama congressman Tom Heflin aimed many of their barbs and threats directly at Washington.

At the same time, Washington's critics, increasingly including Du Bois, criticized the impotency of his leadership whenever racial violence erupted, whether in the Sam Hose lynching, the 1906 Atlanta race riot, or the 1908 riots in Springfield, Illinois. After reading Norrell's biography, it is hard not to at the very least appreciate Washington's dogged persistence under a politically impossible situation and constant stress. Under the circumstances, Norrell's "fox" did what he could and then some.

Norrell often sympathizes with Washington when describing his political battles with Du Bois and other critics, but he also recognizes Washington's own limitations: his maladroit handling of his alliance with Theodore Roosevelt, his inability to change tacks as he aged, and his awkward and unconvincing explanations for his March 1911 presence in a somewhat disreputable Manhattan neighborhood. The latter led to allegations of Washington having visited a white mistress or having engaged a prostitute.

Norrell's Up from History is expert political biography, occasionally prying inside Washington's often inscrutable mind but primarily performing the same sort of task for Washington as Michael Kazin did for William Jennings Bryan several years back. One realm Norrell presumably found inscrutable or unimportant was Washington's religious opinions. While noting Washington's rejection of overly emotional religion, he describes his faith and "cool" and "detached." The very spare treatment surprised me, partly because Washington spent so much time with white liberal Protestant donors and, I presume, worked closely with many African American allies who were more openly Christian. In some of these relationships, Washington must have expressed himself on religious matters. I thought the subject at the very least deserved more speculation.

While Washington's religiosity or lack thereof may merit more attention, I was pleased -- nearly elated -- to read the forum on Taylor Branch's civil rights trilogy in the October 2009 American Historical Review. Clayborne Carson uses materials from the sixth volume of King's Papers to flesh out King's early religious thought, suggesting that Branch might have more fully understood King's theological and political beliefs had he used such documents alongside his own later interviews. Michael Kazin, in the forum's opening essay, believes that Branch rejects "the image of the Sixties as a secular era." From Branch's book titles, portraits of religious figures, and -- more simply -- his narrative focus on a Baptist preacher, Kazin concludes that "academic historians have just begun to appreciate how central religion ... was to shaping American society in that era." A nice conclusion to see in the AHR.

Kazin's essay also briefly but persuasively contextualizes racial "backlash" within a larger story of a conservative response to the totality of King's radical socioeconomic vision. Kazin believes that Branch "misses the hard truth that, at least to date, King's more materialist and more audacious dream has not come to pass." In this reading, King -- somewhat like Norrell's Washington -- ended his life as a heroic failure.

American Prophet in Paperback!

by Matt Sutton

Cornel West said the following about Edward J. Blum’s W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet:

"This book is a marvelous probing into the unknown and unexplored dimension of the great W. E. B. Du Bois's life and work: his self-styled religious and spiritual temperament. Edward Blum is to be congratulated for this grand contribution!"

Paul Harvey, in turn, said the following: "Blum illuminates the entire range of Du Bois's writings, showing him as a prophetic thinker at times, a deliverer of jeremiads, a composer of creeds, an appreciator of the spirituality of everyday folk, and a visionary who anticipated trends in black theology and womanist theology. A truly valuable contribution to African American and American religious history."

Who should you trust? At least Cornel West, even if the credibility of Harvey, who is rumored to have gone on the road with Palin’s book-tour entourage, is suspect.

Last and least, I too think American Prophet is a phenomenal book.

And now, just in time for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Festivus, it can be yours in paperback. More important, it can be your students’ for a low, low price. Assign this book!—by the way, it works best in classes of 5,000 students or more.

Congrats Ed!

New Book on John Wesley and Methodism

Randall Stephens

Cambridge University Press has a marvelous series called the Cambridge Companions to Religion. Of particular interest to readers of this blog will be: Dana Evan Kaplan, ed., The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism (2005); Stephen J. Stein, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Edwards (2006); and John Coffey and Paul C. H. Lim, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism (2008).

The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley (2009), edited by Randy L. Maddox and Jason E. Vickers, is the latest installment in the series. Wesley, of course, has had an enormous influence on American Christianity. His religion of the heart "strangely warmed" continues to exercise evangelicals, members of mainstream churches, and modern-day social gospellers. Wesley once tellingly wrote: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” Over one hundred years later, Holiness folk and Pentecostals said, "amen and amen!"

CUP summarizes Wesley's impact and describes the The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley as follows: "A leading figure in the Evangelical Revival in eighteenth-century England, John Wesley (1703–1791) is the founding father of Methodism and, by extension, of the holiness and Pentecostal movements. This Cambridge Companion offers a general, comprehensive introduction to Wesley’s life and work, and to his theological and ecclesiastical legacy. Written from various disciplinary perspectives, including history, literature, theology, and religious studies, this volume will be an invaluable aid to scholars and students, including those encountering the work and thought of Wesley for the first time."


Introduction Randy L. Maddox and Jason E. Vickers; Part I. Wesley's Context: 1. The long eighteenth century Jeremy Gregory; Part II. Wesley's Life: 2. Wesley's life and ministry Kenneth J. Collins; 3. Wesley in context David N. Hempton; Part III. Wesley's Work: 4. Wesley as revivalist / renewal leader Charles I. Wallace; 5. Wesley as preacher William J. Abraham; 6. Wesley as biblical interpreter Robert W. Wall; 7. Wesley as diarist and correspondent Ted A. Campbell; 8. Wesley as editor and publisher Isabel Rivers; 9. Wesley's engagement with the natural sciences Randy L. Maddox; 10. Wesley as adviser on health and healing Deborah Madden; 11. Wesley's theological emphases Jason E. Vickers; 12. Wesley's emphases on ethics Rebekah L. Miles; 13. Wesley's emphases on worship and the means of grace Karen B. Westerfield Tucker; Part IV. Wesley's Legacy: 14. Spread of Wesleyan Methodism Kenneth Cracknell; 15. The Holiness/Pentecostal/charismatic extension of the Wesleyan tradition Randall J. Stephens; 16. The African-American wing of the Wesleyan tradition Dennis C. Dickerson; 17. Current debates over Wesley's legacy among his progeny Sarah H. Lancaster.

Recreating a Lynching, Part I


Kelly Baker

In Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television, Matthew Bernstein, a professor of Film Studies at Emory, examines the retelling of the Leo Frank trial (1913) and Frank’s subsequent lynching (1915) in film and on television. (For a quick primer on the Leo Frank trial and lynching, see "Marietta's Shame" and "The Trial of Leo Frank"). Like many others, Bernstein writes about the lasting interest in the trial as well as documents the difference between historical record and dramatic renderings of the story. The fascinating book begins with a discussion of this particular lynching. Frank, after all, was white and Jewish, and the usual victims of lynching were African American men. It still befuddles some that Frank became a victim of such a horrific crime. Speculation about the case and what actually happened still runs rampant with popular claims now that Jim Conley, a janitor at the pencil company where Phagan worked and Frank managed, as the responsible party. (However, the grandniece of Mary Phagan previously made claims that Frank was the murderer).

For Bernstein and other scholars of this particular case, Frank’s fate was sealed because of his religion not because of class or geographic location. Moreover, Bernstein categorizes the “obsession” with this historical event as overwhelming considering the other events of the time period. Bernstein rather than rehashing the case for analysis instead looks at artistic representations of the trial to see how the Frank trial was perceived in both cinema/television and popular culture. The recreations illuminate why trial has such lasting quality. Why were audiences from the 1920s to the 1980s (and now 2009) interested in the lynching of a Northern Jew? What does this story highlight about the American South? Or what does it suggest about the nature of the South that still holds appeal/disgust? Screening answers these questions and provides illuminating discussion of how history is portrayed and the consequences and advantages of these portrayals. Additionally, Bernstein meticulously points about inaccuracies in recreations as well as reasons for creative license taken with the story.

The Frank trial’s allure comes from the sensationalism as well as the ability for the story to be represented so well visually. Bernstein writes:

It is a murder mystery, a detective story, and a tale of cynical and sensational journalism.It has courtroom drama and features an extraordinary sacrifice by a politician. It involves a devoted married couple torn apart by external events. It features the perturbing qualities and multiple ironies of a “wrong man” story…(21).

The Frank trial appeals especially to modern audiences who watch CSI: and its many competitors with something akin to devotion. More importantly, Bernstein’s work questions the dichotomy placed between history and film. Historians like to dismiss the docudrama, but Bernstein pushes historians to realize that are so different from their film counterparts. Rather historians and “visual storytellers” both shape the historical record to present their tales, and this shaping includes representation and elaboration. What I find most interesting about this discussion is Bernstein’s claim that film is able to take “idealized facts of the case” make them authoritative. This would not fly in published accounts but gives the film “greater power and resonance than one based on a fictional work” (23).

The four recreations of case highlight the trauma of the event in an attempt at comprehension, and each tells a different version of the story. For instance, Bernstein notes that Frank’s Jewishness does not appear in either of the films but appear in the television versions. In addition, the story becomes more complete as directors had more access to historical resources. Jim Conley’s role in the trial moves from witness to the actual guilty party of the rape and murder of Mary Phagan that The People Vs. Leo Frank (2009), not included in Bernstein’s work, suggests very strongly. In the early 1960s, the portrayal of Governor John Slaton suggests that he was a selfless white hero, who braved the angry mob calling for Frank’s death. The portrayal of Southerners in these visual retellings sometimes turns to caricature and other times downplay sectionalism all together.

Two things in particular from Bernstein’s work are of interest to our readers. First is the troublesome issue of how to portray anti-Semitism. Some of visualizations ignore the issue entirely. In Profiles of Courage (1964), an episode devoted to Governor Slaton downplayed anti-Semitism as the cause of the lynching but this rendition was one of the first to even present anti-Semitism at all. Instead, the episode highlighted demagoguery of Tom Watson who created “phobias” in the Southern populace. What is striking here is the inaccuracy with the historical record because Watson’s sentiments about the trial highlighted his virulent anti-Semitism. Interestingly, The Murder of Mary Phagan (1988) toned down Watson so that the miniseries was not overwhelming about prejudice against Leo Frank as a Jew. Anti-semitism appears in the miniseries in trial scenes. The docudramas presented by Bernstein illuminated the unease at how to portray the trial and lynching with prejudice as the basis. Thus, playing down prejudice to make audiences more comfortable was acceptable. Yet highlighting the shocking fact that Jim Conley, an African American man, was believed over Frank, a white man, seems to be central for all the recreations. Perhaps, Frank’s Jewishness gets in the way of retelling by complicating presentations of race and ethnicity. It might just be easier to suggest that Frank was white, and only present his Jewishness as religious affiliation.

Second, the focus on how to recreate a lynching and discuss such violence is also central to Bernstein’s book. Visualizing a lynching proved difficult for the films and television programs. To present the trial, directors also had to present a lynching. Thus, they provided glimpses of the act and Profiles showed a picture of Frank’s body, though The Murder of Mary Phagan recreated the whole act. Moreover, audiences might not be able to stomach the recreation. Yet audiences might like to imagine the chaos and spontaneity of a lynching rather than to see the planning and organization by firmly middle class leaders of Georgia communities. If we only see Frank hanging, we are somehow able to avoid thinking about the careful precision of his demise. The Murder of Mary Phagan illuminates the precision, which, I think, enhances the brutality. This miniseries, however, shows a much smaller crowd that gathered to see Frank’s body. People watched and “consumed” lynchings, and the death of Frank was no different. For those interested in the Frank trial or simply interested in how film renders history, Bernstein’s book is a worthy read.

Next week, I’ll continue the discussion of Leo Frank while reviewing the new docudrama, The People Vs. Leo Frank.

Know Your Editor: An Interview with Elaine Maisner

Randall Stephens

Over six years ago William Germano wrote a savagely witty essay in the Chronicle titled “If Dissertations Could Talk, What Would They Say?” They would whimper, perhaps. Or, they would drone on about things that few cared about. “Why are dissertations, the firstborn of the academic tribe, so dull?” he asked pointedly. “What does it mean when the best minds can create book-length work that commands so little interest? The answer, as we all know, is that dullness is safe. . . . A real book manuscript doesn't look over its shoulder, worrying that Foucault is running after it in a hockey mask."

I read this piece as I was finishing up my dissertation. The article, frankly, scared the living daylights out of me. What if my dissertation sucked, as they say? What if it was as readable as a phonebook, or, worse, as readable as a higher math dissertation? Could I put the “fun” into fundamentalism and could I unleash all that was pent-up in Pentecostalism? Or would my writing style and laborious arguments drain whatever life there was out of those vital religious movements?

I think history and religious studies scholars who are now finishing their dissertations still have some of those questions hanging over their heads like so many dark clouds or daggers. I’ve always been interested in hearing what editors have to say about the matter. Trade and university press editors often work with first-time authors and they are well acquainted with the challenges freshly minted PhDs face. (See Paul's post below on NYU Press's terrific new series.)

To get an editor’s take on publishing and converting that dissertation to a book, I interviewed Elaine Maisner (Senior Editor, University of North Carolina Press) a couple weeks back at the AAR meeting in Montréal. Maisner focuses on religious studies, Latin American and Caribbean studies, and regional trade books. (She offered great advice on academic publishing some years back in an article for Perspectives: “Getting Published by a University Press.”)

Here I ask her about readership and proposals, and I talk with her about some UNC books in American religious history that she thinks worked quite well.

I hope to do one or two similar interviews with an editor(s) at the AHA. Let me know if you have any suggestions regarding whom I should contact, or questions that you think I should pose.

North American Religions: New Book Series

Paul Harvey

Three excellent scholars are initiating a new book series on North American Religions, with New York University Press. I'm posting information on this below. The "Religion" category of the NYU Press blog "From the Square" can be found here; it's a nice introduction to the kinds of books and topics that the press has treated lately.

North American Religions

General Editors:

Tracy Fessenden (Arizona State University)
Laura Levitt (Temple University)
David Harrington Watt (Temple University)

In recent years a cadre of industrious, imaginative, and highly intelligent scholars have focused their attention on North American religions. The books and articles that they have produced have transformed the field. Scholars’ understanding of North American religions is far more subtle, expansive, and interdisciplinary than it was just a couple of decades ago.

North American Religions will build on this momentum. The series will focus primarily, but not exclusively, on religion in the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The editors of the series seek to cultivate books that explore a wide range of topics in intelligent and original ways. We welcome creative, adventuresome, and challenging books that are carefully researched and compellingly written. We wish to further scholarly conversation on such topics as lived religion, popular religious movements, representations of religion in the media, religion and social power, religion and cultural reproduction, religious and governmental institutions, and the relationship between secular and religious practices.

We are interested in working with scholars who start from the premise that religion itself matters even as they pay attention to the cultural, social, and political contexts of religious beliefs and practices. We are open to a wide range of methodologies, including ethnography, historical study, and the close reading of literary and other texts.

To Submit Manuscript Proposals:

The majority of books are anticipated to be single- or dual-authored. All works submitted for consideration must be broadly construed and critically engaged, ideally blending theory seamlessly within arguments and supporting interesting contentions with clear evidence. The “big picture” contribution of the work must be clear. Writing must be both accessible and engaging. We anticipate most authors will be situated within religious studies or in closely related fields such as American studies, cultural studies, or cultural history.

A proposal should be at least 6–10 pages in length and should include:

A statement of the significance, need, and organization of the work.

Its intended readership(s), including particular disciplines, any likely course adoption into specific types of common classes, any likely audience(s) outside the academy, and any relevant organizations/associations whose members may be interested in the work.

A brief discussion of the closest 3–5 similar/competing works and how the proposed volume will distinguish itself.

An annotated chapter outline with 1–2 paragraphs describing what each chapter will discuss.

Ideally 2 or more sample chapters.

An indication of the time line for completion and the anticipated length. Typical manuscripts should be roughly 80,000–90,000 words in total.

A current copy of the author’s curriculum vitae.

Queries and proposals should be addressed to:

Tracy Fessenden
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ 85287-4302
tracy DOT fessenden AT asu.edu

Laura Levitt
Religious Studies
Temple University
Philadephia, PA 19122
llevitt AT temple DOT edu

David Harrington Watt
Department of History
Temple University
Philadelphia, PA 19122
david DOT watt AT temple. DOT edu

Jennifer Hammer, Editor
NYU Press
838 Broadway, 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10003-4812
jennifer DOT hammer AT nyu.edu

The Apocalyptic Visions of the Left

by Matt Sutton

While not busy watching the libertarians
skewer Harvey for daring to give us his take on a new book’s strengths and weaknesses (which last time I checked is what you are supposed to do in a book review, right libertarians?) or witnessing the continuing implosion of my fantasy football team (thanks for nothing this week Cedric Benson) I am finally catching up on some old reading. In the May issue of Harper’s Jeff Sharlet (of The Family fame) has a fascinating article entitled Jesus Killed Mohammed.” In it he examines the continuing problem of hyper-Christian rhetoric and ideology in the U.S. military, which is a particularly troubling phenomenon in the context of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I have two problems with the article; one petty and one more significant. First, the petty. He writes:

“Every man and woman in the military swears an oath to defend the Constitution. To most of them, evangelicals included, that oath is as sacred as Scripture. For the fundamentalist front, though, the Constitution is itself a blueprint for a Christian nation. ‘The idea of separation of church and state?’ an Air Force Academy senior named Bruce Hrabak says. ‘There’s this whole idea in America that it’s in the Constitution, but it’s not.’” Sharlet then condescendingly points out: “That’s technically true; it’s in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.”

This, of course is both inaccurate and not the issue Hrabak is raising here. As all readers of this blog—and Jeff Sharlet—are well aware, the establishment and the free exercise clauses have been interpreted in different ways over the centuries. The First Amendment may have meant “separation of church and state” in Thomas Jefferson’s mind, at least when he was writing to Danbury Baptists, but it has not always meant that and it has certainly never been consistently interpreted that way by American courts. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State can happily provide legions of violations of the supposed “high wall of separation.” Hrabak is not an idiot in making the claim above; Sharlet does him a disservice by not unpacking his statement in the context of the culture wars and competing views of the American past. It is not as if we good humanist liberals all agree on the meaning of the First Amendment
while the fundies keep making stupid sh*t up.

The larger question (problem?) I have with Sharlet’s work is the representativeness of the people he profiles. He certainly
finds tantalizing handfuls of rogue nuts and dozens of their asinine statements. Furthermore, he rightly points out that evangelical and conservative Catholic proselytizing of Jews, Muslims, and secularists in the military is a serious problem that needs to be taken seriously. But I am not sure that his evidence is sufficient to build the case that a secret group of behind-the-scenes and off-the-record fundamentalists lurking in the hallways of power (in Congress in his previous work, in the military here) will soon dominate the nation. Maybe he is right, but I suspect that most of the people, most of the time—even soldiers and former Republican presidents—know better than to tell Muslims that Jesus killed Mohammad. If they don’t than we really are in for a world of trouble.

Bethany Moreton at Demos in NYC

Darren Grem

Hear ye! Hear ye! For anyone in the New York City area, Bethany Moreton will be at Demos on November 23, 2009 to talk about her new book To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Harvard, 2009). Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family, will comment. Lew Daily, author of God's Economy, will be the discussion moderator.

In the spirit of service, here is a description of Moreton's book and a link to the event. All of the proceeds from Moreton's book go to the Economic Justic Coalition of Athens, Georgia and the InterFaith Worker Justice Center in Chicago.

Doctrine of Christian Discovery


Linford D. Fisher

I’ve just returned from Montreal and the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. As with most conferences recently, I found myself spending more time connecting with old and new colleagues in the field and exploring the host city than I did actually attending sessions (although in the future, I may try Randall’s time-passing exercise during dull sessions). Montreal, after all, is an amazing city with scads of culture, a cool topography, and a fascinating history. Best of all, it is saturated with pseudo-French/European culture. (Since my wife is a Francophile, traveling to Quebec is the next best thing to flying to France. And, at 5.5 hours away by car, it is a heck of a lot cheaper, too, especially if you are crazy enough to have four kids in tow.)

Most of the sessions I attended were—unsurprisingly—focused on issues related to North America’s indigenous populations, past and present. Two presentations stuck out to me. The first was by Steve Newcomb of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, titled “The Myth of Christian Discovery in Federal Indian Law,” which I took to be a summary of his 2008 book, Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum).

Newcomb laid out how the “Doctrine of Discovery”—essentially the European notion that first “discovery” of new lands meant they held exclusive and transferrable rights to and dominion over the land, resources, and people that inhabited those lands—has a longer, specifically Christian history that is rooted in Old Testament notions of divinely-sanctioned conquest and a pervasive belief in the “chosen-ness” of a particular nation. More importantly, these ill-founded European beliefs, Newcomb argued, formed the ideological and intellectual rational for what is undoubtedly the watershed nineteenth century legal case regarding Native American land in the U.S.: Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), which proclaimed that the U.S. had acquired a free title to its lands through widely recognized standards of European colonization, thereby establishing the legal basis for U.S. occupation of lands and limiting the sale and purchase of additional Indians lands to the U.S. government, not to individuals. (Although, as Stuart Banner points out in How the Indians Lost Their Land, this process of centralizing land sales had been in motion since early colonial times.)

As I often do in some of these contexts, I found myself feeling like an outsider for all the reasons you might suspect. After all, there are (at least) two worlds of discourse regarding American Indians and their past and present role in American culture. The first is the more academic (read: distanced) discourse of people like myself who study these issues with care and concern, but who are also interested in presenting a “responsible,” balanced narrative of the past, often with only secondary interest in the present. The second is an often-sidelined world of Natives themselves who, for very good reasons, can no longer tolerate the even-handedness of the academy in the face of the simply scandalous and hypocritical treatment of natives, past and present, and who, indeed, often suspect that academics themselves have merely served to perpetuate the complacency and ignorance of non-Native Americans. (Non-Native, non-academic Americans possibly constitute a third world of discourse about Natives, namely one that operates in the realm of stereotypes, indifference, and blithe ignorance, although in truth, this is perhaps more a world of non-discourse discourse, since not much is usually said.)

I’ve increasingly been in conversation with this second world, this realm of discourse, this window into the lived reality of present-day Natives, for quite some time now. Nonetheless, I am always a bit taken aback by it. What struck me once again is the level of passion exhibited by the Native presenters, and, at times, what feels like over-the-top, sweeping rhetoric regarding the intentionality of the U.S. government and the average American relating to Indian mistreatment, past and present. Although I’d like to think that my classes on Native history and the colonial period are progressive and argue for a Native perspective on these issues, in comparison to this world, my reading lists seem tame, almost irrelevant.

A second paper presentation reminded me of the similar and, often, parallel experiences Canada’s indigenous populations have had and continue to have. Jennifer Reid of the University of Maine, Farmington, presented on “The Doctrine of Discovery in Canadian Law.” One of the examples she used was of the 1950s semi-forced removal of several hundred Inuit from Inukjuak in northern Quebec to a desolate tip of land in present-day Nunavut, deep into the Arctic Circle. Resolute, as the town is now known, is the second northern-most town in all of Canada, and has an annual average temperature of 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit (July highs are a balmy 35 F). In 1953, the Canadian government, in a Cold War attempt to assert sovereignty over and occupation in the extreme northern parts of Canada, decided that the best way to prove possession was to send someone to this dark and desolate part of the world. But who would go? No one, as it turns out, at least not willingly. So the government turned to the very indigent Inuit population who they mistakenly assumed would easily adapt to an even more difficult environment than the one they called home on the edge of the Hudson Bay. To make it more attractive, the Canadian government promised the Inuit all kinds of government assistance if they would kindly move north. As it turns out, those that did go immediately realized their mistake when they were dropped off in the middle of nowhere with none of the promised governmental support. To make things worse, the option of returning after two years never manifested. Instead, the group was essentially abandoned. In her presentation, Reid tied governmental policies in this case to the Doctrine of Discovery (and, in part, the precedent set by Johnson v. McIntosh), particularly to ideas about occupation and possession (along with the idea that native populations have often been seen as pawns of European governments).

Amazingly, this band of Inuit survived, although they are understandably a bitter bunch. The morning after this presentation, I opened up Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and found on page three an essay on the arrival of the Olympic torch to this very town in Nunavut (current population around 300). And—even more shockingly, it was in a whole section called “Indigenous Issues.” Hmmm. I’m not trying to idealize Canada here, but every time I travel north, I get the sense that aboriginal issues are far more mainstream in Canadian culture and legislation than in the U.S. I imagine there is a variety of reasons for this—population differentials (Canadian Natives make up approximately 4% of the population in Canada, compared to 1.5% in the U.S.), strength of advocacy groups, etc., but there seems to be something more, too. To be fair to the U.S., cultural awareness of Native communities and issues varies from region to region, usually related, again, to how numerous or vocal local Natives are. But still, something tells me that things are different when the U.S. President meeting with American Indian leaders causes such a stir in the national headlines, as happened on Nov. 5 of this year.

Either way, the problem is still this: How do we get these two worlds (Native and academic) to connect, and how can we find a middle ground to talk about issues like the role of religion in these past and present atrocities? Francis Jennings’s passionate The Invasion of America (1975) is passé for most historians of early America; his vitriol seems odd and out of place, as does Vine Deloria, Jr.’s admirable and timeless Custer Died for Your Sins (1969). But it is that passion, that seemingly over-the-top expose of European ruthlessness that is precisely at the center of most of the present-day rhetoric I hear heard time and again from Native activists and scholars. Does this feel uncomfortable to some of us because academics are trained to view things in a more nuanced, “balanced” way? Or is it in part because non-Indian academics have so little at stake in this conversation?

I am grateful that there are many excellent Native scholars who are either in Ph.D. programs or who are already teaching in universities around the country. Perhaps it is these individuals who can do the most to bring these various worlds together. (I’ve appreciated, for example, Ned Blackhawk’s prize-winning Violence Over the Land [Harvard, 2006]; there are many other great examples out there as well). I am also grateful for the chance to have two Navajo students in my seminar this semester on Indian and European encounters in early America. Their presence reminds all of us that the past is not really past, even when we are talking about the colonial period.

Then again, every now and then you meet non-Natives with that same passion. Last week I presented a rather critical re-contextualization of Henry Hudson at a Brown alumni event in New York City (given that NYC has been celebrating the 400th anniversary of Hudson’s “discovery” of Manhattan Island and of the river that now bears his name). Afterward, one alum strongly hinted that I should be doing something “real” with my time by getting involved in ongoing Native legal claims against the U.S. government regarding broken nineteenth century land treaties. Quoting an executive of Apple who was trying to recruit the head of Pepsi-cola in the 1980s, he told me: “Sir, you can either make sugar water for the rest of your life, or you can choose to do something real.” On some days, I agree; on others, I hope that we all are doing something “real” by teaching the next generation of leaders and lending our support in local situations as we have opportunity.

The LDS Church, Gay Rights, and Religious Freedom in Utah

Our newest contributor to the blog, Christopher Jones, needs no introduction. He has posted here before, and posts regularly at the excellent blog Juvenile Instructor. Chris is a Ph.D. student at William and Mary, where he plans to work on earlier American religious history, and down the road a bit he plans to post on John Wigger's new biography of Francis Asbury. But his first post today as our newest regular contributor concerns some big news coming out of Utah yesterday. Welcome to Chris!

Late last night, I received word from friends in Utah that an official representing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints read a prepared statement before the Salt Lake City Council declaring the church’s support of two measures aimed at protecting the housing and employment rights of the gay and lesbian community. Utah newspapers quickly picked up the story, and shortly after the statement was read, the City Council voted unanimously in favor of the ordinances. By this morning, national news outlets and political websites were reporting on this rather surprising development, especially given the heavily publicized involvement of the LDS Church in California’s Proposition 8 battle over the legality of gay marriage last year and the church’s recent history of not lobbying government officials in the form of public statements released from church headquarters.

While this certainly marks a momentous shift in LDS discourse on gay rights, those hoping that last night’s episode represents a small step toward the LDS Church recognizing the validity of gay marriages will be disappointed. The official statement was clear on this point:

The Church supports these ordinances because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage. They are also entirely consistent with the Church’s prior position on these matters. The Church remains unequivocally committed to defending the bedrock foundation of marriage between a man and a woman.

As reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, there is already some rhetorical backlash coming from Utah’s more conservative state legislators, which is notable not in and of itself, but rather because it points to the fact that with the LDS Church’s support, the push for nondiscriminatory laws could soon pass at the state level:

House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, said the press has been more active in talking about a possible legislative repeal than lawmakers themselves. But he said it would be "interesting" to watch how the church's statement moves public opinion.

"History has proven that the side of the issue [church officials] take has public-opinion sway," Clark said. "Public-opinion sway has a sway on legislators."

But while much of the media is focusing on this episode as a significant occurrence in the ongoing saga within Mormon (and Utah) circles over marriage rights (which it certainly is), the recent developments in Salt Lake City speak to larger issues, too. Perhaps most significantly, the ordinances passed last evening included a clause specifically protecting religious organizations. The inclusion of such clauses follows the precedent pioneered by the bill passed through New Hampshire’s legislature in June. It apparently is working to undercut one of the main talking points of advocates of traditional marriage---that the legalization of same-sex marriage (or, in the case of Utah, the enactment of housing and employment rights for the LGBTQ community) threatens religious freedom.

It will be interesting to see whether other cities and states follow suit and include similar clauses to protect religious freedoms as efforts spread to recognize the rights and marriages of same-sex couples. For students and scholars of American religion, this is particularly true, as the role of religion in public discourse and society continues to manifest its consistent presence and considerable influence.

Happiness is a Warm Gun


Paul Harvey

A couple of interesting new books, both reviewed in Sunday NY Times, to juxtapose in answer to the perennial American question about the pursuit of happiness. When that pursuit becomes a regimen, or a virtual mandate, then there's trouble in mind.

First, Hanna Rosin reviews Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Suffering through a surfeit of sentimentality which overwhelmed her while going through breast cancer, Ehrenreich's work is a paean to our right to be pissed off. One chapter covers relentlessly happy celebrity pastors:

This mystical positivity seeped into the American megachurches, as celebrity pastors became motivational speakers in robes. In one of the great untold stories of American religion, the proto-Calvinist Christian right — with its emphasis on sin and self-discipline — has lately been replaced by a stitched-together faith known as “prosperity gospel,” which holds that God wants believers to be rich.

I would just add: not just "lately"; this of course is a staple theme of much popular Protestantism from way back in American history.

Second, seemingly very different but addressing many of the same issues: a review of Rhoda Janzen, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home. After being ditched by her husband who fell into a gay online romance, and suffering an automobile accident, Janzen returned to her Mennonite community roots, and this wry memoir tells of the virtues of stoicism and toughness (and some really bad food) that came from her upbringing and her no-nonsense mom.

It’s the narrative voice of the person who grew up in an ethnic religious community, escaped it, then looked back with clearsighted objectivity and appreciation.

Also reviewed here by a Professor English at Goshen College (a Mennonite college in Indiana). An excerpt from the book is here.

Will the Real Classical Liberals Please Stand Up? A Documentary Survey of Race and Liberty


Paul Harvey

Partly, but not totally, OT -- my review of Jonathan Bean, Race and Liberty: An Essential Reader, has been posted here at Books and Culture "Book of the Week" site.

For those interested, this book is a documentary compilation of thinkers from the "classical liberal tradition," who believed in its "fundamental doctrines of individual freedom from government control, the Constitution as a guarantor of freedom, color-blind law," capitalism, and religious faith as a preserver of the moral order. The book contends that this stood in contradistinction to "left-wing liberalism, with its emphasis on group rights, government power, and hostility to free market capitalism" [and, usually, religious belief].

So what is Martin Luther King doing in a place like this? Click here to find out.

Update: Jonathan Bean, the editor of the book under review, has responded to my review and defended his book here.
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