George Washington's Religion, the Founding, and the Perils of Glorified Self Published Books


I'm pleased to guest post a contribution from Jon Rowe, who normally blogs at American Creation and at his own blog as well. Jon has done a lot of reading on religion and the American founding, and has the following thoughts on a popular history text, George Washington's Sacred Fire by Peter Lillback, which has stormed from Glenn Beck's show onto the top seller lists. On Glenn Beck's show, they had the following conversation:

BECK: Yesterday, it was like 475,000 on I think it was two or three when I checked.

LILLBACK: Up to two now. Thanks to you. Boy, I'll tell you, you're the best publicist in town.

BECK: This is — America, this is a book that every house should have. Buy this book. It is an avalanche of information. It so discredits all of the scholars and it's amazing. Best — best book on faith and the founding I think I've ever read.

Wow -- "all of the scholars" are wrong! With Fox News street cred like that, who could ask for anything more? Immanent Frame has more on this bizarre story
here (the story notes a silver lining, which is the attention given to the excellent historian Thomas Kidd after his appearance to talk about George Whitefield and the Great Awakening).

Review of
George Washington's Sacred Fire

by Jon Rowe

Peter A. Lillback’s
George Washington’s Sacred Fire, now a top seller on thanks to Glenn Beck’s promoting it, attempts to overturn wisdom conventional in scholarly circles that George Washington was a Deist, but rather argues Washington was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. Lillback is President of Westminster Theological Seminary and a notable figure in the “Christian America” movement.

That “the masses” are buying the book in great numbers is ironic. Most ordinary folks will not, like me, finish or even read a fraction of a 1200 page book with 200 pages of fineprint footnotes. No, this book aims squarely at respected scholars, notably experts on Washington's life, from Paul F. Boller to James Flexner, who claim Washington was some kind of Deist.

George Washington & Religion, among respected historians, is the generally accepted standard-bearer work of scholarship on the matter. And Boller claims Washington some kind of "Deist," that evidence lacks for his Christian orthodoxy.

To his credit, Lillback is familiar with almost every claim Boller makes and seeks to answer them. Most "Christian America" scholars asserting Washington’s devout Christianity simply ignore such evidence, like for instance that Washington refused to take communion in his church such that his own minister termed him a "Deist" or "not a real Christian.”

Lillback does answer the claim that GW was a strict Deist, that is one who believes in a non-interventionist God and categorically rejects all written revelation. Though some notable scholars have so claimed, Boller did not. And Lillback didn’t need to write 1200 pages to demonstrate Washington believed in an active personal God. Michael and Jana Novak and Mary V. Thompson both have written books in the 300 page range that prove Washington’s belief in an active Providence.

Indeed, Boller admits that Washington’s Grand Architect “Deist” God was an active intervener. Here Lillback rightly objects that terming such theology “Deism” when that term, to too many modern ears, connotes a non-interventionist God, is problematic. George Washington was a theist, not a Deist.

But Boller rejects Washington’s “Christianity” because, as he put it,
[I]f to believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ and his atonement for the sins of man and to participate in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper are requisites for the Christian faith, then Washington, on the evidence which we have examined, can hardly be considered a Christian, except in the most nominal sense.

So Boller and Lillback both agree that Washington believed in an active Providence. They disagree on whether Washington’s creed is properly termed “Deist” or “Christian.” And Lillback, to solidify the case for Washington’s “Christianity,” disputes Boller’s above passage and terms Washington “orthodox.”

The problem is, the evidence Lillback offers from Washington’s mouth, though it shows belief in an active Providence, fails to refute Boller’s challenge. Instead, Lillback strives mightily to "read in" orthodox Trinitarian concepts to Washington's more generic God words, and otherwise to explain away evidence that casts doubt on Washington’s belief in orthodox Trinitarianism.

In over 20,000 pages of Washington’s known recorded writings, the name “Jesus Christ” appears only once. One other time Jesus is mentioned by example, not name. And both of these were in public addresses, written by aides but given under Washington’s name. Nowhere in Washington’s many private letters is the name or person of Jesus Christ invoked. Though Washington’s private correspondence mentions “Providence” and other more generic God words very often.

Why this is so, Lillback can only speculate. And Lillback slams Boller for enaging in similar speculation. For instance, Lillback,
not Washington himself, claims GW didn’t discuss Jesus because he was afraid of profaning Jesus’ holy name. When pondering why Washington let the one references to Jesus written by an aide pass, Boller claims Washington must have been pressed for time, or would have revised the document before he signed it. Lillback terms Boller’s speculation “feeble.” If so, Lillback’s speculation on why Washington avoided mentioning Jesus’ name is equally “feeble."

Though Washington didn’t, as far as we know, identify as a “Deist,” Lillback can marshal only one letter, to Robert Stewart, April 27, 1763, where Washington claims to have been a “Christian.”

More often, he talked of Christians in the third person, as though he weren't part of that group. The following statement of Washington’s, to Marquis De LaFayette, August 15, 1787, is typical: "I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest, and least liable to exception."

Or, to Edward Newenham, October 20, 1792: "I was in hopes, that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far, that we should never again see
their religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of Society." (Emphasis mine.)

Since Lillback can’t prove Washington’s Trinitarian orthodoxy from his words, he instead turns to GW’s membership in the Anglican/Episcopalian Church. Since that body formally adhered to orthodox Trinitarian doctrine, Lillback argues, Washington, as an Anglican, did as well.

Indeed, Lillback charges if Washington were a member of an orthodox church, at times taking oaths to its officially orthodox doctrines, but didn’t believe in those doctrines, he was a hypocrite. And he saddles more “secular” or “skeptical” scholars with smearing the Father of America as a hypocrite. As we will see below, Lillback’s logic falters.

Lillback doesn’t do well with the reality that deistically and unitarian minded figures abounded in the churches that professed orthodoxy in that era. Washington’s church attendance of, on average, once a month is consistent with such reality. Further, the two American Presidents who followed Washington, without question, fit that description. And the three who followed them likely did as well.

Deistically and unitarian minded members of orthodox churches were the ones who, like Washington, systematically avoided communion in said churches because they didn’t believe in what the act symbolically represented: Christ’s Atonement.

This was the explanation that Washington’s own minister, Rev. James Abercrombie, offered when he reacted to Washington‘s behavior. He noted, "I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace."

Lillback offers another explanation, which again, is sheer speculation: That GW didn’t commune because he had problems with “Toryish” ecclesiastical authorities. Instead Washington was a “low church,” latitudinarian Anglican, while still an orthodox Trinitarian Christian.

No doubt, as a leader of a Whig rebellion, Washington did have a problem with Tories. Lillback’s explanation, however, doesn’t avoid the charge of hypocrisy that he accuses skeptical scholars of making. Washington, when he became a Vestryman for example, didn’t take an oath to “low church” latitudinarian Anglicanism, but rather, those oaths were “high church” and demanded loyalty to the crown. And those oaths and doctrines demanded Anglican believers partake in the Lord’s Supper.

Many Anglicans remained loyalists precisely because their church taught a theological duty to remain loyal. Washington was in rebellion, then, not just against England, but against his church’s official doctrines. If not to believe in the official doctrines of your church, indeed, doctrines in which you took oaths, makes you a hypocrite, then Lillback unavoidably falls into a trap that he set for scholars who argue GW was not an orthodox Christian.

Lillback attempts to marshal other facts that prove Washington’s orthodox Christianity. As President, Washington communicated with many pious churches in a friendly manner, and friends and acquaintances often would send him sermons for which GW invariable gave perfunctory thanks.

Straining, Lillback sees this as evidence of Washington’s orthodox Christianity. True, Washington did seem to approve orthodox figures and sermons. But, trying to be all things to all people, Washington also seemed to approve heterodox and heretical figures as well.

For instance, Washington stated, “I have seen and read with much pleasure,” an address by Richard Price, a non-conformist minister and author, that slammed the Athanasian creed, the quintessential statement of Trinitarianism that Washington’s Anglican church used. Washington also stated to the Universalists, a notoriously controversial church that preached universal salvation,

It gives me the most sensible pleasure to find, that, in our nation, however different
are the sentiments of citizens on religious doctrines, they generally concur in one thing; for their political professions and practices are almost universally friendly to the order and happiness of our civil institutions. I am also happy in finding this disposition particularly evinced by your society. (Emphasis mine.)

Twice when speaking to uncoverted Native Americans, Washington referred to God as the “Great Spirit,” suggesting they all worshipped the same God. This is even more generous than claiming the Muslims’ “Allah” is the same God Jews and Christians worship -- a sentiment to which most “Christian Americanists” balk -- because Allah at least claims to be the God of Abraham, while the “Great Spirit” made no such claim.

Lillback, of course, tries to dismiss these as outliers. Yet the two times GW referred to God as the “Great Spirit” are exactly as many times the name or person of Jesus is found in Washington’s entire writings.

On Washington’s non-Christian death, where he asked for no ministers and said no prayers, Lillback likewise makes excuses. Indeed, in addition to a great deal of facts, “George Washington’s Sacred Fire” contains much idle speculation, illogical arguments, and redundant prose in 1200 pages. No respectable academic publisher would publish a book that length where so much could have been edited down. “Providence Forum Press,” the publisher, is part of a group of which Lillback himself is leader. This is essentially a glorified self published book.

The Naked Public Square, Revisited


by Steven P. Miller

Research for my next book has led me to read or view several evangelical classics “again, for the first time.” To be honest, despite my modest panel cred as a scholar of modern evangelical history, in some cases it’s just been for the first time. Perhaps there is no shame in confessing to never before having watched Whatever Happened to the Human Race? or the documentary version of The Late Great Planet Earth (the latter of which is less Orwellian than Orwellesian, Orson Welles being the host for this extended shuttle run between Jesus Movement apocalypticism and Seventies anti-growth liberalism). I’m a little more sheepish, though, about waiting until last week to read Richard John Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America cover to cover.

The significance of The Naked Public Square perhaps goes without saying, and I had heard the gist of its thesis a thousand times: The artificial divorce of religion from American public life imperils American democracy, not to mention millions of American believers. Conservative columnist George Will called it “the book from which further debate about church-state relations should begin.” Will seems to have received his wish.

My research interests lie in the major impetus for Neuhaus’ jeremiad—the arrival of what he called “the religious new right.” For Neuhaus, that phenomenon had “kicked a tripwire alerting us to a pervasive contradiction in our culture and politics. We insist that we are a democratic society, yet we have in recent decades systematically excluded from policy consideration the operative values of the American people, values that are overwhelmingly grounded in religious belief” (37). Note the use of “us” and “we,” an interesting slip since elsewhere in the book Neuhaus chides mainline Protestants for their reflexive use of the royal (that is, the custodial) “we” when denouncing the rest of American society. Neuhaus clearly wanted to tame what he, in the mid-1980s at least, saw as the potential for excess among those “evangelicals and fundamentalists who have lately come in from the cold of their sixty-year exile” (260).

Neuhaus thus positioned himself as a hostile critic of the new class left and a friendly critic of the religious right. In retrospect, his was an impossible balancing act. Even in the book, friendly criticism often morphs into legitimization (albeit somewhat condescendingly so). This is why I feel comfortable calling this book an evangelical classic. This also might be why Time magazine included the Lutheran-turned-Catholic on its 2005 list of "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America.” Charles Colson, who also made the cut, once likened The Naked Public Square to Augustine’s The City of God. A more sober comparison might be with Arthur Schlesinger’s The Vital Center.

As I read his book, Neuhaus wanted to create a kind of vital religious center, even though he criticized Schlesinger-style liberalism for presuming a secularized brand of American democracy. As I read the remainder of Neuhaus’ career, though, what he helped to create was a more vital religious right, which during the next two decades set the tone for how Americans discussed religion and society. One reason, no doubt, was that mainline Protestants either did not heed Neuhaus’ call or did not offer a salable alternative to it. But surely another reason was, quite simply, that Neuhaus positioned himself as a political conservative. Neuhaus could still paint himself as an unaffiliated soul in the mid-1980s, yet he made several moves pointing toward an enduring home on the right: downplaying economic justice issues (as if to leave that sector of the public square to the economists’ decidedly secular curves), suggesting that “pluralism” really was just a synonym for “secularism,” and likening opposition to abortion to support for civil rights.

Nowhere was Neuhaus’ reach more evident than in the subtitle R. Marie Griffith and Melani McAlister chose for their introduction to the American Quarterly’s powerhouse September 2007 issue on religion: “Is the Public Square Still Naked?” Griffith and McAlister note how Neuhaus’ thesis eventually resonated even in liberal political circles (most influentially, within the Obama campaign). “We will not be rescued by religion,” Neuhaus warned toward the end of his book, yet the watered down version of the other 263 pages often has amounted to an assumption that religious-folks-are-good-and-therefore-good-for-public-life (260). This formulation resembles Martin Marty’s famous (and pithier) “religion-in-general.” Neuhaus’ book, however, suggests why generic “religion” arguably now has a more evangelical feel that it did in postwar America. “How strange is this historical moment,” Neuhaus declared, “in which talk about the public role of religion is thought to be conservative” (156). As it were, he helped to make the strange seem normal.

How Sweet It Was: Sights and Sounds of Gospel's Golden Age


Paul Harvey

NPR this morning featured a new CD/DVD collection put together by the outstanding gospel music scholar and producer Anthony Heilbut: How Sweet It Was: The Sights and Sounds of Gospel Golden's Age. A brief description from amazon:

A best of the best compilation covering a span of over 40 years. Compiled by Gospel music expert Anthony Heilbut, this exciting multi-facted package offers great film of Gospel icons as well as many all-time classic music tracks. The 26 track CD covers the period of the 1940s through the 1960s and features many all time greats such as: Mahalia Jackson, Rosetta Tharpe, Marion Williams, Swan Silvertones, Clara Ward, Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, Soul Stirrers, Dixie Hummingbirds and much more including 9 previusly unissued performances. The DVD, also 26 tracks, features a comparable all-star lineup (filmed in the early 1960s) including: James Cleveland, Alex Bradford, Rosetta Tharpe, Marion Williams, Soul Stirrers, Sensational Nightingales and many more. A 32-page booklet includes biographical notes, a Gospel music history overview (both written by Anthony Heilbut) and many rare period photos.

The first of three reviews (presently) from amazon gives a thorough description of the contents of the set. HEre's the first paragraph:

In perhaps his most diverse gospel compilation to date, producer and gospel scholar Anthony Heilbut presents a satisfying panorama of the Golden Age of Gospel with this CD/DVD/Booklet package including some of the most passionate music America ever produced. Though the window of what is considered Black gospel's "Golden Age" is small, an all-too-brief fifteen years, the various soloists, groups and quartets peopling its story are large in number and broad in style. How Sweet It Was has the best-loved gospel Divas: Clara Ward, Marion Williams, Mahalia Jackson, Dorothy Love Coates, Rosetta Tharpe; the quartets, from the polished jubilee inspirations of Ira Tucker and the Dixie Hummingbirds to the hard, unapologetic squalling of Archie Brownlee and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Female quartet is also here in great form with excellent recordings by three of the idiom's greatest: the Famous Davis Sisters, Dorothy Love Coates & the Original Gospel Harmonettes, and Albertina Walker & the Caravans. In addition, the CD features noteworthy recordings by more obscure vocalists like Professor J. Earl Hines, Lois Russell and The Famous Blue Jay Singers. Though all of the recordings included are worthy of place in any gospel collection worth its name, there are of course several standouts unavailable or hard-to-find elsewhere that make obtaining one's own copy of How Sweet It Was not simply desirable but genuinely requisite.

The NPR story online features a video recording of the incomparable Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Up Above My Head," as a sampler of what's on the DVD, not to mention a sampler of the next fifty years of guitar playing in popular music.

Speaking of Faith in the New York Times

Paul Harvey

Today's NY Times features a nice piece about Krista Tippett, host of the engaging radio program Speaking of Faith (which we've featured a number of times on the blog, including reflections on the show's programs about evolution and religion on television). Tippett and I both grew up in Oklahoma (at almost exactly the same time), the product of conservative Baptist backgrounds, so while we've never met I feel some kinship with the sense of searching that is always palpable on the show. Here's a taste of the article:

Despite being broadcast in most markets in the God ghetto of 7 a.m. on Sunday, “Speaking of Faith” draws nearly 600,000 listeners on 240 stations across the country, a sixfold increase in both measures since 2003. The show also gets 1.3 million downloads a month.

With both a Peabody Award and a best-selling book to her name, Ms. Tippett has become identified with a particular public-radio program the way, say, Ira Glass is with “This American Life” or Terry Gross with “Fresh Air.”

The Tippett style represents a fusion of all her parts — the child of small-town church comfortable in the pews; the product of Yale Divinity School able to parse text in Greek and theology in German; and, perhaps most of all, the diplomat seeking to resolve social divisions.

“My background as a diplomat is as important for this subject as my training as a journalist,” Ms. Tippett, who contributed reporting to The New York Times from Germany in the 1980s, said in an interview in her studio in St. Paul. “Religion is a touchy subject. You’re really getting at the core of people’s identities, an intimate place. This religious sphere in our public life is very charged, and I want to disarm that.

Tippett's recent book Einstein's God features a selection of her radio conversations about religion and science. It's very nice to see Tippett and the program doing so well.

Christianity, Interracial Marriage, and American Law

Paul Harvey

The history of race and marriage has been the subject of many books in recent years by Peter Wallenstein, Renee Romano, and many others. Here's a new entrant in the field, which puts religion front and center of the subject; I'm reprinting here the review from Choice, for the new work by Fay Botham, one of the current participants in the Young Scholars in American Religion program:

Botham, Fay
. Almighty God created the races: Christianity, interracial marriage, & American law. North Carolina, 2009. 271p bibl index afp; ISBN 9780807833186, $35.00. Reviewed in 2010jun CHOICE.
Incorporating history and law in the US regarding interracial marriage, Botham (Univ. of Iowa) addresses the effect that various legal decisions had on marriage post-Civil War. Botham's book is divided into two sections: history of US law on interracial sex and marriage, and states' rights and antimiscegenation laws. She begins with a rich discussion of the junction of religion, region, and law. Botham notes that in order to completely understand the role of Christian beliefs in California history, she must "first examine the colonial development of laws on interracial sex and marriage in America and their relationship to racialized slavery." The second half of the book is devoted to states' rights issues. Botham explains, as clearly as any legal scholar can, the argument that most segregationists/racists gave against interracial sex and marriage: religion requires that the state follow the dignity and divine purpose of marriage. Botham's work is a must read for scholars interested in law and marriage. She writes without judgment or condescension and allows the data to show the role law played in discriminating against interracial couples. This book's creativity makes it a necessity for graduates and laypeople interested in interracial sex and miscegenation laws in the US.Summing Up: Highly recommended.

A bit more information, from the book's webpage:

In this fascinating cultural history of interracial marriage and its legal regulation in the United States, Fay Botham argues that religion--specifically, Protestant and Catholic beliefs about marriage and race--had a significant effect on legal decisions concerning miscegenation and marriage in the century following the Civil War

Botham argues that divergent Catholic and Protestant theologies of marriage and race, reinforced by regional differences between the West and the South, shaped the two pivotal cases that frame this volume, the 1948 California Supreme Court case of Perez v. Lippold (which successfully challenged California's antimiscegenation statutes on the grounds of religious freedom) and the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia (which declared legal bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional). Botham contends that the white southern Protestant notion that God "dispersed" the races, as opposed to the American Catholic emphasis on human unity and common origins, points to ways that religion influenced the course of litigation and illuminates the religious bases for Christian racist and antiracist movements.

Baylor Oral History Research Fellowship Grant


From the AHA website, information on a grant I had some years ago that led to some very fruitful research time:

Grant of the Week: Oral History Research Fellowships from Baylor University

The Baylor University Institute for Oral History welcomes applications for one annual fellowship for the academic year 2010-11, open to individuals in any field who can benefit from the holdings of Baylor’s oral history collection. The fellowship is designed to bring scholars to Waco, Texas, to work with oral history materials (covering topics of religion, Central Texas history, Texas Baptist history, Baylor history, civil rights, music, theater, historic preservation, judicial history, business history, and rural life) housed in The Texas Collection special library. The fellowship carries a stipend of $3,000. The deadline for applications is June 11, 2010. See the fellowship page for more information and instructions on how to apply.

Worker Justice Reader

Paul Harvey

We've blogged here before about the Interfaith Worker Justice project, important work organized by Kim Bobo. Just a quick note here about their new publication, A Worker Justice Reader (Orbis Books), which collects writings both historical and contemporary about religion and the labor movement. From the book's website:

The national organization Interfaith Worker Justice has gathered together key writings that identify and explain essential labor and economic issues fromthe perspectives of a variety of faith traditions, including Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim.

The readings are organized in five parts:
• Crisis for U.S.Workers
• Religion-Labor History
• What Our Religious Traditions Say about Work
• Theology and the Ethics of Work
• The Religion-Labor Movement Today

Designed for educational use, whether in traditional courses or community outreach, a number of the selections include sidebars, tables, illustrations, and suggested readings.

For those concerned with contemporary issues facing labor and the role religious traditions play, A Worker Justice Reader offers a wide range of data and detail for study, reflection, and action.

Interfaith Worker Justice is a Chicago-based network of more than 70 interfaith groups that mobilize the religious community in the United States on issues and campaigns that will improve wages, benefits, and conditions, and give voice to workers. IWJ's founder and Executive Director, Kim Bobo, has been named one of the "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World" by Utne Reader.

The work is designed especially for courses in seminaries, workshops, and nonprofit leadership seminars. As Bobo explains in the preface:

Why aren't we learning about worker justice in our seminaries? This was the first question asked at the end of Interfaith Worker Justice's initial Seminary Summer program.

A sampling of course outlines on religion and labor, and on worker justice, may be found here.

Lost in Thought About Lost

Art Remillard
(Warning: Lost spoiler alert!)

Yesterday, Lost resolved six seasons of mystery not by bluntly revealing every secret, but by emphasizing that the road to individual redemption passes through a community. In a Flannery O'Connor-esque manner, many of the characters reached this point of enlightenment only when facing death. In transcending their own interests, characters made individual sacrifices for the common good. I think there's something to this O'Connor connection, since in a previous season we saw one character reading Everything that Rises Must Converge.

Anyway, the finale concluded with a mawkish family reunion, bearing all of the traces of a heavenly scene, but avoiding heavy-handed theological prescriptions. (So will Newsweek's Lisa Miller's Heaven will get a post-Lost boost?) While I went to bed ambivalent about this scene, I awoke thinking otherwise. The writers left us with an emblem of Lost's central theme: "live together, or die alone." Yes, they were literally dead, but they were metaphorically reborn through their bonds of friendship.

At first, I was tempted to see Lost as a jab at Jean-Paul Sartre--"Hell is other people." There's no lack of philosophy in the show. But I learned that Sartre had something else in mind when he wrote this, something very Lost-ish.

"Hell is other people" has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because . . . when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, . . .we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters. . . . But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.

Sartre and Lost almost have a similar message. The relationship between the individual and community is hard work and sometimes hellish. But it's also necessary and fundamental to life. More than any show that I've seen, Lost captures this message.

One final note... I've spent far too much time this morning thinking and reading about Lost. By far, the most insightful analysis I've seen comes from S. Brent Plate over at Religion Dispatches. It is worth reading even if you know little about the show. He concludes, "The greatest fiction of Lost is the apocalyptic tale that we are individuals, that it is survival of the fittest. Lost then, is the antithesis of Lord of the Flies, but also of the so-called reality television shows that extol the individual 'dancers,' 'idols,' and 'survivors.' Those are the real fictions. Lost reveals itself as reality."

It's In the Blood: Religion in Reconstruction and WW I

by Ed Blum

I live exactly 0.92 miles from the beach. I know this is the precise distance because my dumb running watch always tells me how far I’ve gone and how slow I am (how can I be at 10 minutes already?!?). Recently, as I labor up and down the boardwalk of Pacific Beach, I’ve been listening to the sly lyrics and driving rhythms of AFI, an alternative band that was the hit of 2006. My favorite is “Love Like Winter.” It pulsates through my eardrums as I bop along the beachfront. It’s a fun song, and I won’t even try to explain the lyrics (“For of sugar and ice I am made, I am made” … perhaps the narrator is suggesting that he is a snow cone). It’s the repetition of one line that grabs me: “It’s in the blood, it’s in the blood, … She wanted love, I taste blood.”

For some reason, these lines have led me over and over to reflect upon two new books in American religious history: Derek Chang’s Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century and Jonathan H. Ebel’s Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War. Both books deal with blood – but in very different ways. Chang examines missions among African Americans and Chinese Americans in the years after the Civil War and finds that religion had much to say about notions of what’s “in the blood.” Ebel joins American soldiers on the battlefields of the Great War and looks at how they religiously responded to the blood soaked worlds around them. Both books continue to demonstrate how religious history is leading the way in revisions of American history writ large.

Chang’s work takes us into the world of Baptist home missions on the East and West coasts of the late nineteenth century. He details the efforts and ideologies of the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) as they reached out to newly freed African Americans in North Carolina and Chinese Americans in Oregon. Chang suggests that white missionaries and supporters of missions linked faith and citizenship in a concept of “evangelical nationalism” where an American identity was built upon Protestant (or perhaps Christian) faith. Underneath this seemingly-open nationalism, however, were assumptions about “evangelical” and “American” that were rooted in race and class. If African Americans or Chinese Americans were to become members of the nation, then they must conform to certain white demands. They must express adoration for white guidance, embrace the norms of middle-class domesticity, and accept some form of second-class citizenship because of their alleged racial differences and inferiorities to whites.

Chang also narrates a counter story, where African Americans and Chinese Americans recast and re-envision their place in the nation. African Americans pushed for their own models of leadership and for control over their institutions. Chinese Americans, and particularly several Chinese Christian missionaries, expressed confidence and authority. As communities, African American and Chinese American Christians enacted their place in the nation by occupying space and performed their spirituality through community songs and events. Perhaps heavy in ideas and light in evidence, Chang’s Citizens of a Christian Nation is a critically important book in American religious history and Reconstruction studies. First, he follows the lead of Daniel Stowell (to whom all scholars of religion and Reconstruction are indebted) in drawing more attention to the important place of faith, churches, and spirituality in the dilemmas and difficulties of Reconstruction. Second, Chang connects East to West via the ABHMS and points American historians to the importance of remembering the West (as Heather Cox Richardson has done in West from Appomattox for Reconstruction and as Tisa Wenger has done in We Have a Religion for religion; click the link for our interview with Wenger about her book).

Ebel brings us into the twentieth century and onto the bloody battlefields of WWI. He examines religion in WWI from the perspective of the soldiers and those who supported them. Ebel wants to understand (and to help us understand) how soldiers understand war. He finds that while American combat troops and war workers differed slightly in their approaches to the war, most found “redemption” in it. He brilliantly points out that “redemption” could have many different meanings. We know this is the case from Reconstruction – where redemption meant to southern white Democrats the return of their political and social rule; for African Americans, which John Giggie has detailed majestically in his pathbreaking After Redemption, “redemption” meant something very different in the late nineteenth century). For some in WWI, the war would mean worldwide redemption as God’s forces of good would defeat the demonic Kaiser and Crown prince. Or the war could bring national redemption. It could alleviate the conflict caused by massive immigration, for instance. Or for others, the war would redeem middle class and upper class men from the debilitating effects of overcivilization. Redemption could also function at the individual level, leading men to find “Truth” amid the war.

With a dizzying array of interesting points, Ebel provides a list of new avenues of study. In one chapter, he focuses upon the religious responses to the war by African American soldiers. In another, Ebel looks at the ways women understood the war spiritually. I thought the most interesting discussion in Faith in the Fight was the debate at the time over whether combat soldiers earned salvation merely by dying in battle. A “doctrine of immediate salvation for the fallen” emerged in the war, one that clearly revised evangelical approaches to salvation where faith in Christ was somehow necessary. Those interested in theology will find plenty of bloody meat here. Ebel efforts to determine the ways soldiers made theological sense of war, how they connected to liberal and fundamentalist theological trends, and how race and gender influenced religious worldviews. Faith in the Fight is an impressive book that all scholars of twentieth-century American religious history should read and that should be incorporated in all subsequent studies of WWI. (I’ve already used material from it for a few paragraphs in my current projects!)

The wheels of the American religious history bus keep rolling. Whether in Reconstruction or in WWI, Chang and Ebel show that religion can open our eyes to what’s “in the blood.”

Channeling Susan B. Anthony


Janine Giordano

Last week, Sarah Palin addressed the “Susan B. Anthony List,” a Christian, Republican, pro-life political action committee in D.C. She was preceded by singing about “the power of a mother’s prayer,” and introduced as a fighter in the “battle for life.” She spoke of her own experience of motherhood—her unexpected pregnancy with a special needs child—and ultimately her hope of a building a new “conservative feminist identity.” The Susan B. Anthony list, she encouraged, was “returning the women’s movement back to its original roots.”

Many feminist historians are, understandably, outraged. Most vocally, Ann Gordon and Lynn Sherr, the editor of Anthony’s papers and the author of her biography, wrote a letter to the Washington Post/Newsweek which fluttered all over Facebook this week. “We have read every single word that this very voluble - and endlessly political - woman left behind,” they declared with gravity. “Our conclusion: Anthony spent no time on the politics of abortion. It was of no interest to her, despite living in a society (and a family) where women aborted unwanted pregnancies.

But Marjorie Dannenfelser, Susan B. Anthony List president, wrote back with a half dozen separate, cited quotes. One editorial of the National Woman Suffrage Association, signed “A” and thereby assumed by Anthony, apparently entreated: “No matter what the motive, love of ease, or desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; but oh, thrice guilty is he who… drove her to desperation which impelled her to the crime!” She found evidence that Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in a letter to Julia Warde Howe, “When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed as we see fit.” To Dannenfelser, the feminism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw abortion as a crime against women, a cruel product of the patriarchal system.

I have to admit, if I were one of those people who hated "cultural elites" for all their authoritative braggadocio, this exchange would feel thrilling. Who has the right to define Susan B. Anthony's intentions: first, second, or third "wave" feminists? Dannenfelser demanded that her movement represents a "shift back to the traditional roots of a Susan B. Anthony feminism that empowers women through their strength to give life even in the most difficult and unexpected circumstances.” Feminist scholars today may know this as the politics of maternalism: women arguing that society needs a particularly feminine influence that is only accomplished through motherhood. However, did Susan B. Anthony really believe in the social and political importance of motherhood? Or was this just strategic language levied in the context of her times? Feminists For Life has a “Herstory Worth Repeating” page with links to magazine articles featuring various century-old feminist leaders and their rallying cry for “motherhood” and unborn children. The group speaks also of abortion as a consequence of a patriarchal system.

Is the real question what Susan B. Anthony said and did in the late nineteenth century, or what she ultimately would have wanted for American women? Among ourselves, social historians usually do not take the liberty to speculate so freely, but it seems we scarcely turn down the opportunity when we have a national audience before us. Gordon and Sherr conclude their letter by suggesting that one thing that definitely divides these new conservative feminists from the First Wave Feminists is their religious authority. They write, "Susan B. Anthony, a lifelong Quaker, included Mormons, Catholics, Christians, Jews and atheists in her movement. But she firmly believed that religion had no place in politics. "I dislike those who know so well what God wants them to do," she said, "because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."

There is definitely a difference between not liking when others are so extremely sure about the voice of God, and believing that religion has no place in politics. Didn't Elizabeth Cady Stanton, out of frustration with the way religion was working in politics, speak back to that world with a counter-narrative of women and religion, the Woman's Bible? Indeed, Stanton and Anthony disagreed on this feminist strategy and the two ought not be conflated, but let us not over-simplify the complex relationship that this women's movement had with religion in our attempts to make easy political points for the present.

Sherr and Gordon put their finger on something real about these new conservative feminist movements when they point to religion, but both the Susan B. Anthony List and the Feminists for Life movement are surprisingly quiet about their religion. They claim to channel Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Francis Willard, white Anglo Saxon Protestants--sure--but they too, like their adopted foremothers, seek partnerships with Mormons, Catholics and Jews. This channeling of late nineteenth century maternal authority may be painful for some of us third wave feminist, social historians to hear. We're not used to sharing the narrative authority of the history of feminism, or interpretation of the historical record, with "conservative feminists." But I say we should be happy--in a way--that social history has finally begun to empower social movements outside of the academy. After all, who needs the authority of God to back you up when you have the power of the historical record?

Twitter (USReligionBlog)


Kelly Baker

We now have a twitter account, so please start following us there, on facebook, or just by browsing here. Twitter and facebook means that we can reach you as soon as a new post is up. For those of you who incessantly check the blog to procrastinate, we are bringing procrastination to you automatically (Or is that just me?). How cool is that?

So, please spread the news that our blog is more technologically entrenched. Cheers!

Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age

Paul Harvey

Quite a number of excellent scholars, including my friends Tisa Wenger and Winni Sullivan, have essays in this very important new volume to call to your attention: Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age (Macmillan, 2010). Tisa's piece, which I was privileged to read in draft form, is entitled "God and the Constitution: Towards a History of American Secularisms"; in it she discusses a number of nineteenth-century groups who fought to establish "secularism" as a viable philosophy in a very evangelical United States -- including atheists as well as people who effectively could be described as "Protestant but still secularists." What becomes clear, at least from the portions of the book I looked at, is that defining "secularism" is about as tricky as defining "religion," and that, like juxtaposing slavery and freedom, the one cannot be defined without the other.

The book's description:

omparative Secularisms in a Global Age
explores the history and politics of secularism and the public role of religion in France, India, Turkey, and the United States. It interprets the varieties of secularism as a series of evolving and contested processes of defining and remaking religion, rather than a static solution to the challenges posed by religious and political difference. It features essays from leading scholars from across disciplines, secular and religious traditions, and regional expertise. The volume illustrates a new approach to the hotly contested relation between political authority and religious tradition.

The Colored Embalmer: Homegoings, Capitalism, and African American Civil Rights

Paul Harvey

Let's move from the ridiculous (see yesterday's post) to the sublime:

A really fine new book to recommend, more about religious history than I would have guessed initially: Suzanne E. Smith, To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death.

I always like it when a book tells me about a subject I presumed to know a fair deal about, but (as it turns out), as I read along I realize the half ain't never been told. This is one of those books.

First, a more general summary, then I'll focus a bit on the parts that most intersect with this blog's interests. "Throughout African American history, death and funerals have been inextricably intertwined with life and freedom,” Smith writes in this vigorously argued survey of African American death “homegoing” practices from slavery to the twenty-first century. Smith provides fascinating details about diverse subjects while mounting an important argument about the central paradox of black funeral home direction: “that one needed to both fight racial discrimination and cultivate race patronage.” The author explores the role of the black funeral home industry in twentieth century black capitalism, and the central place behind the scenes of black funeral home directors in the civil rights movement. From the key role of black funeral director pioneer Preston Taylor in organizing a boycott of segregated streetcars in early twentieth century Nashville, to the Floridian Robert Miller’s sponsorship of Mahalia Jackson’s early career (when she sang for $2.00 a funeral), to the famously public viewing of the mutilated body of Emmitt Till in Mississippi, to black tycoon E. G. Gaston’s mediation during the crusade in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, black morticians have quite literally embodied African American history.

Now, a few notes more specific to this blog's interests. The early parts of the work, in a chapter entitled "From Hush Harbors to Funeral Parlors," discuss the origins and meanings of slave funerals, and the close connection of funeral practices and rites with the origins of African American churches. The connection between those two remains in focus through the books. White authorities certainly recognized the potential threat posed by this. Hence, they surveiled black funerals, and dishonored/mutilated the bodies of black rebels. The black funeral tradition came about in part as a means to honor bodies that had been dishonored in life.

In the post-civil war years, as the new science of embalming and other techniques took hold, the black funeral industry grew up, providing embalming/funeral services to a black clientele. In 1888, Preston Taylor, a former slave and Baptist minister in Nashville, opened Taylor and Company Undertakers and later created Greenwood Cemetery (which white authorities later tried to close down) "to provide Nashville's black citizens with a dignified burial ground." In the early twentieth century, Taylor teamed with Richard H. Boyd, founder of the largest black-owned publishing house (the National Baptist Publishing Board) in the country, to organize a boycott of Nashville's newly segregated streetcars, and to organize an independent streetcar operation. Here, black funeral homes and churches were intertwined in providing the capital and the personnel for early freedom struggles in the Jim Crow era, a theme that will reappear throughout the book.

In a chapter entitled "My Man's An Undertaker" (from a clever Dinah Washington song) Smith follows the close connection of black funerals and the early history of black gospel. Robert Miller, first president of the Independent National Funeral Directors' Association (INFDA, the nationwide trade organization for black funeral directors, who were not allowed to join the equivalent national organization for whites), drove Mahalia Jackson around in his hearse to her early singing engagements, and hired her to sing at funerals, where the emotional depths of the music could be fully expressed. Funeral directors also "sponsored gospel music radio shows as a way to promote the music and tastefully advertise their services."

As the funeral industry and the number of black undertakers grew, so did allegations (sometimes justified) of price-gouging, fraud, and hucksterism. The shyster undertaker came to have a reputation akin to that of the jackleg preacher. Each was dependent upon, and learned to exploit, a captive audience, enriching himself in the process. Miller and other figures in the INFDA fought to preserve the reputation of their industry. At the same time, their industry basically depended on a segregated economy, and it was the official policy of the black undertakers' organization to actively discourage white competitors from seeking out black bodies to service.

(A little off topic, but worth noting: the book has fascinating discussions of various black funeral directors' organizations and controversies within them, as well as a section about The Colored Embalmer, the first African American trade publication).

Black funeral directors proved instrumental during the civil rights years. They weren't usually in the public eye, but for that reason they could serve to provide meeting facilities, post bail, comfort the families of the murdered, and (at times) negotiate with white authorities from a position of strength. Black undertaker C. W. Lee, a funeral director in Montgomery, Alabama, served as treasurer of the Montgomery Improvement Association, and was instrumental in organizing financing for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He and others in the civil rights era cemented the relationship between religion, race, and civil rights. As churches were bombed, funeral directors offered their facilities for civil rights organizing meetings, including one attended by James Farmer of CORE. Stuck in jail in Louisiana during the March on Washington in 1963, Farmer organized protests in Plaquemine that nearly resulted in his life; he managed to escape a lynch mob, using as his getaway vehicles two hearses from the local funeral home, which sped him out of town and on to New Orleans.

There's much more in the later chapters of the book, including extended discussions of the funerals of Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, as well as the fate of black funeral homes in recent years.
Jessica Mitford's famous expose of the industry received surprisingly little discussion among black funeral home directors, who simply had more pressing matters to contend with in the 1960s. In the 1990s, the consolidation of the industry into mega-conglomerates challenged the role of independent black entrepreneurs, and gang shootings at funeral homes brought senseless death into places that historically had brought meaning to death. "Today," Smith concludes, "African American funeral directors continue to serve the living while burying the dead; in so doing, they continue to remind us of the role that death and funerals have always played in the long quest for freedom."

OMG! Jews and Muslims Are Taking Over America! Poor Poor Pitiful Me.

Paul Harvey

First, Patrick Buchanan complains that there are too many Jews on the Supreme Court, and it's about to get worse with Elena Kagan. (N.B.: Someone calculated that 32% of Supreme Court Justices have been Episcopalians, who represent under 2% of the population, but never mind). White Protestants and Catholics are, of course, the "targets of liberal bias."

Now Daniel Pipes is all upset that there are too many Arab-American Muslims such as Rima Fakih winning beauty contests (and yes, of course the Presidency as well) -- heavens, even Anisah Rasheed, the new Miss North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University! Affirmative action run amok! My oh my, what is the world ever coming to? (Oh, and the runner-up to Fakih, Miss Oklahoma, apparently was "discriminated against" because she said she was a "strong believer in states' rights"; I'm glad to see Confederate shibboleths make an appearance at Miss USA).

I didn't realize Warren Zevon wrote his songs about the decline of American Christianity, but I guess he did:

Well I lay my head on the railroad track,
Waiting on the Double E.
But the train don't come by here no more,
poor poor pitiful me.

Poor, poor pitiful me
poor poor pitiful me
Oh these boys won't let me be,
Lord have mercy on me.
Woe! Woe is me!

Memo to Pat and Daniel: This week is National Brotherhood Week. Remember, be kind to those who aren't as good as you.

Divided by Faith: Conference and CFP

Conference Call for Papers
Divided by Faith: A Decade Retrospective

The John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University invites proposals for an interdisciplinary conference commemorating the tenth anniversary of Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith’s groundbreaking book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, to be held on the campus of Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana, on October 15-16, 2010.

The conference will begin Friday evening with a dinner and panel discussion with Michael Emerson on the impact Divided by Faith has had on scholars and church practitioners. Professor Emerson will also present a closing address Saturday afternoon.

Divided by Faith’s influence has been felt among a variety of academic disciplines. Over the past
decade, scores of historians, sociologists, and theologians have produced scholarship intersecting
with the book’s theme of the power of race in American religion. American religious historians
have explored the roots of segregated churches, sociologists have undertaken further investigations into ethnic and racial divisions of American congregations, and theologians have produced works suggesting that the days of racialized evangelicalism are numbered.

Ten years after its publication, the scholarly ground initially tilled by Emerson and Smith’s book remains fertile for researchers from multiple disciplines. In recognition of the growing scholarship being generated in this area, the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University invites scholars working broadly on the overlapping topics of race and American religion to participate in this conference marking the tenth anniversary of Divided by Faith’s publication.

Successful proposals may consider a variety of topics related to the general theme of the
intersection of religion, race, and American society. Proposals should include an abstract of
approximately 500 words and a CV. Submissions from scholars and advanced graduate students
working in sociology, history, theology, or other relevant fields are encouraged. Presented papers
may also be considered for publication in an anticipated interdisciplinary volume on the influence of race in American religion. A limited amount of funding for travel may be available to students and scholars who are unable to obtain funding from their own institution.

Proposals must be received by July 15, 2010, and should be sent by email to or by post to John Wesley Honors College c/o Rusty Hawkins; Indiana Wesleyan University; 4201 S. Washington; Marion, IN 46953.

The Core of Lutheran CORE

Paul Harvey

Several posts down I put up an interview with our contributor Jon Pahl, my former colleague at Valparaiso Univ. and author of
Empires of Sacrifice, just out with NYU Press.

Jon has another piece, more specific to some issues within contemporary Lutheranism but I think of interest to some of you here (especially to the anonymous commentator who has complained about our lack of coverage of Lutheranism in the past): "The Core of Lutheran CORE," from the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. Jon's piece is a blistering critique of this movement for reform within the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America). Apart from a specific controversy within Lutheranism (especially, I gather, over sexuality, something like the same fights that are going on within Anglicanism and many other traditions), there are also substantive issues of the history of religious demography. A taste:

And, finally, in several recent jeremiads, Lutheran CORE leader Robert Benne imagines that the ELCA is in decline because it has accommodated itself to American "liberal Protestantism." "Skewed commitments," by which Benne means the liberalism of Lutherans in the ELCA, "led to dramatic membership losses."14 Apart from the fact that this is lousy history, it also reveals again American millennialist and dualistic scapegoating — someone must be to blame for declension — as a founding assumption underneath the movement.

[13] Historically speaking, in fact, immigration patterns and birth rates have far more to do with Lutheran membership ebbs and flows in America than anything else. It's not as if Lutherans used to be great evangelists and theologians and have now become lousy at both. Instead, as E. Clifford Nelson's classic
The Lutherans in North America documents, Lutheran growth in the United States can be traced directly to the waves of immigrants from European countries that hosted Lutheran majorities.15 Most of these early Lutheran immigrants to America also procreated enthusiastically; it was necessary to have large families to counter high infant mortality rates and to provide laborers for the farms most Lutherans worked to make a living.

[14] In recent decades, and especially since the dramatic changes in immigrant law established by Congress in 1965, immigrants to America have come primarily from Latin America, Africa, and from South and East Asia, and decidedly
not from Scandinavia and Germany.16 Couple that with the fact that in the late twentieth century Lutherans began to practice birth control and to have smaller families (to their moral credit, globally and ecologically speaking), and the causes for Lutheran "decline" clearly take root not in some imagined Lutheran doctrinal purity or its absence, but in documented demographic shifts.17

[15] Furthermore, it is not just liberal churches that are suffering numerically. Even culturally "conservative" churches associated with European enclaves (such as the LCMS and the Roman Catholic Church — if you subtract Latino/a membership increases due to the new immigration) are now losing numbers across North America.
18 And perhaps most substantively, for many decades, if not centuries, Americans have chosen churches less for their theological heft than because of their ethnic identity, geographical convenience or entertainment value.19 The millennial (if not apocalyptic) rhetoric of declension that marks Lutheran CORE masks demographic causes for change that can explain, without blame, why Lutheran congregations are closing and denominational budgets shrinking.

Robert Benne, a board member of CORE, responds to Jon's critique here. He writes:

But the strife over homosexuality is symptomatic of the larger debate, which has to do with the nature of the Gospel in its larger sense, the role of the Law in the Christian life (of which there seems to be none in Pahl’s rant), what is authoritative in the life of the church, how that authority is exercised, and what is central and what is peripheral in the life and mission of the Lutheran church. A large number of people in the ELCA — including some its most devout members — are deeply disturbed about the direction of the ELCA on these matters, and CORE takes them up as genuine concerns.

25 years ago Joan Scott published her well-known article "Gender: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis," a staple of history graduate course readings still. I don't think she had religious history much in mind in that piece, but I'd like to see someone develop an article-length equivalent for religious history, something like "Gender as a Religious System: A Useful Category for American Religious History." That would shed much light on the coalescing gender/sexuality divisions that are so central to American religious institutions today, and certainly something I saw fought out emotionally and searingly during my two year sojourn at Valparaiso.
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