The Mormon Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

More provocative stuff on contemporary Mormonism, politics, economics, and race keeps coming out. In "The Mormon Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," at The New Republic, the historian Jackson Lears explores the longue duree of the transition from 19th-century communitarianism to 20-century capitalist boosterism in Mormon culture. Along the way (and more interestingly to me), he also discusses recent works by our friends Matt Bowman, John Turner, and others (he refers to Turner's biography of Brigham Young as "authoritative," and has kind words for Bowman's survey of Mormon history as well as Terryl Givens's work People of Paradox. I would also point you to, and highly recommend, the latest essay from the vital young scholar Max Mueller, over at Religion and Politics, responding to Andrew Sullivan's piece on Mormonism and race and leaving us with some wise words on the subject. 

And now today's guest post, which comes from Jennifer Polopolus-Meredith, a graduate student in American religious history from the University of Utah; she reflects on the architecture of Mormonism and capitalism in Salt Lake. 

by Jennifer Polopolus-Meredith

          As I sat at the New City Creek Mall in downtown Salt Lake City I found myself gazing on the golden angel Moroni atop the Mormon Temple. As I sipped a chai tea latte from the patio of the Nordstrom’s caffe, I realized the temple was directly across from the mall. A friend and I had just been discussing Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign and what it meant for Mormonism. Did his campaign symbolize an acceptance and blending of Mormonism into American society that the church has so long sought? As I looked at the temple, I wondered if the malls proximity to the temple was subtle part of the Mormon church’s campaign for acceptance.
            The Mormon church has embraced the media with marketing on the web and radio with its “I am a Mormon Campaign.” The ads show Mormons who have diverse lifestyles from a single school teacher, to a man with tattoos who likes to ride motorcycles. The ads demonstrate a shift in Mormon marketing to portray the church as diverse, inclusive, and all American. They challenge the image of Mormons as only white, married, and uptight. They play in cities where anti Mormon sentiment is thought to flourish, such as towns with a strong evangelical presence. I first heard the ads in Colorado Springs, Colorado home of New Life Church. These are the not so subtle attempt of the Mormon church to change misconceptions. The location of the mall might be a more subtle connection.

Call For Papers -- Conference on Religious Freedom and Toleration


No Person Shall Bee Any Wise Molested:
Religious Freedom, Cultural Conflict, and the Moral Role of the State

A conference planned for October 3 - 6, 2013, in Newport and Providence, Rhode Island, organized by the Newport Historical Society, the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, Salve Regina University, the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, the John Carter Brown Library, and Brown University to mark the 350th anniversary of the 1663 Rhode Island Charter.

What is religious toleration? What are its functions, effects, and limits in society? How has it manifested (or not) around the world in human history?

The 1663 Rhode Island Charter stipulated that no person “shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion.” This charter famously ignited the “lively experiment” that both reflected and shaped religious and political developments in the early modern world and has continued to influence global conversations about the role of toleration and religious freedom. The 350th anniversary of this charter provides a timely point of entry into a thoughtful consideration of a far larger set of questions about religious freedom in particular historical and present day contexts.

Far from exemplifying a simple narrative of “progress,” toleration and religious liberty have been contested, often resisted ideas that have proved surprisingly difficult to implement equitably. This is especially true when one looks outside the traditional boundaries of church-state relations to consider the lived experiences of religious dissenters, ethnic minorities, women, and enslaved and free people of color, including American Indians and indigenous populations around the world. The uneven adoption of such ideas in the early modern world, ongoing intolerance in the United States even after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, and the globalization and contestation of full religious liberty today suggest that a more comprehensive investigation of the meaning of religious liberty and toleration is an issue of particular urgency for the present.

Reviews from 30,000 Feet

Will Jerry Falwell Blame Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. for Hurricane Sandy?
Ed Blum

1979 was an annus mirabilis in American religious history. Working tirelessly along the east coast, three men responded to the racial, political, gender, technological, and cultural momentums of the past decades to create something that would transform the entire nation, if not the world. When they hit the airwaves, millions of Americans took notice. It began simply enough: “I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie / to the hip hip hop a ya don’t stop.” Fifteen minutes of rhymes followed and we’ve never been the same. The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” introduced countless Americans to the new genre of music, “rap” and the broader culture of “Hip Hop.”

Oh, and something else happened in US religious history in 1979. Three other east coast men, Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, and Richard Viguerie, incorporated the Moral Majority.

What does Hip Hop have to do with the Moral Majority? Or, to channel my inner Makaveli:

Does the H-H revolution
have any God talk to incarnate
for the graying M&M delusion
or do these two form naked hate?

what finger you gonna point
D’evil Falwell at Jay-Z
You both bad men to anoint,
Still no Jesus piece for me.

Two new books had me riveted on the topic during my recent trip to and from upstate New York. As I traveled to enjoy the company of Richard Bailey at Canisius College, Josh Dubler at the University of Richmond, Dai Newman and the graduate students of Syracuse's religious studies program, and the race and secularism gang at Syracuse University, I carted along Ebony A. Utley’s Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God and Matthew Avery Sutton’s Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right: A Brief History with Documents. Both were a treat on their own, and when brought together showcased how dynamic the past forty years have been vis-à-vis religion in the United States and how many ways there are to study it.
Utley’s work asks “why do rappers include God in their raps about murder, misogyny, and mayhem?” Examining rap lyrics, videos, and liner notes, she suggests that God and devil talk allow rappers to address a series of problems, including the history of urban crises, drug culture, urban violence, government withdrawal, and the emergence of the carceral state. Rappers invoke a God “out there” (importantly not “up there”) and also a God “down here” as ways to address problems of power, agency, and social traps. For male and female rappers, God as a father figure holds important, although often conflicted, meanings. When it came to the devil, he came in various forms: sometimes as a white man who offered wealth and authority; sometimes as a sexy woman who could derail the rapper from other delights; and sometimes as the rapper himself who wielded demonic strength. At the end of Rap and Religion, Utley provides statistical data from a survey of religious views about rap from students at CSU-Long Beach and interviews with several scholars, choreographers, and music producers.

Perhaps the best example in Utley’s book is Ice Cube’s “When I Get To Heaven” (1993). In it, as Utley points out, Ice Cube “lambasts Christianity for its hypocrisy, moneygrubbing, and racism.” The church is a fashion show; the priest is a beast; and the minister loves materialism. Ice Cube’s God is a “killer from the start,” which in the rap universe is not necessarily bad (who is killing, why, and who is being killed matters – just as the metaphorical killing of another can simply mean besting).

Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious RightJerry Falwell probably never listened to any of this music, but he did like the Christian “rap” group DC Talk, and his ilk certainly expressed concern over it (which means attacking it). Matthew Avery Sutton places Falwell at the center of the nexus of religion and politics during the late twentieth century, and the findings are tremendous. After a short introduction where Sutton maps out Falwell’s life vis-à-vis larger shifts in American history such as the civil rights movement, political scandals of the 1970s, contests over women’s rights and shifts in normative family definitions, reproductive and individual rights, and the relationship between “the church and the state.” Sutton’s book is part of the Bedford/St. Martin’s series that has some of the best teaching volumes out there.

Sutton’s volume is definitely teachable (and I’m using it for my US history survey in the spring). We are brought into the evangelical universe of political, social, and cultural problems. How shall they engage society, the new evangelicals ask the old fundamentalists? How will they respond to racial integration that is forced upon them (or at least desegregation if any women or men of color want to join) by a federal government that also wants to ensure that these churches, organizations, and colleges are not defrauding investors? How should they respond to abortion, since it has typically been a prominent issue for Catholics? And should they reject public schools, the domains that had been so important in developing the patriotic fervor many of them had felt as youths? Sutton’s documents illuminate all of these problems and more, and I cannot wait for my students to wrestle with the evangelicals’ positions and how they continue to impact contemporary politics.

Religion, Race, and Citizenship: Crosspost Great Reads

Paul Harvey

From our friends at Religion and Politics, a couple of great reads.

First, historian Alison Greene takes on Mississippi, once described as "the closed society," and finds it a lot more open, and certainly more complex in its relationship of religion and politics, than commonly perceived. A little excerpt:

Why didn’t pundits, politicians, and activists stop to ask how they had been so wrong about the voters in Mississippi? The answer is that when Mississippi doesn’t hew to simple narratives, Americans no longer know how to talk about it. In the national imagination, Mississippi is the state of extremes: the poorest state, the fattest state, and the most conservative state. But especially when it comes to Mississippi’s place as America’s most religious state, there is rarely room, it seems, for a more complex narrative. The Personhood amendment’s unexpected failure demonstrates that there are complicated social and political realities in Mississippi, realities that are not captured in political prediction models that assume that exceptionally high rates of church attendance and professions of faith redound to knee-jerk social conservatism in the voting booth.

Second, Judith Weisenfeld takes on the "post-racial America" myth with an analysis looking at the complex interplay of race and religion in American history:

The complex tangle of race, religion, and citizenship requires more nuanced analysis than the reductive binary that post-racial or not post-racial provides. Without question, this is a difficult cluster to disentangle—if such a thing is even possible—made so by the fact that race, religion, and national identity have been bound up together in complicated and shifting ways across American history. Religious beliefs have contributed to the production of ideas about race in American history by helping to interpret inconsequential physical differences through a moral lens and, at times, conferring divine authority on racial hierarchy. Similarly, ideas about race have contributed to evaluations of the religious possibilities and faith claims of differently racialized peoples in American history. These intertwined constructions of race and religion have developed in a context in which both contribute to ideas about American national identity and citizenship. Declarations of post-racial achievement obscure the multidimensional operations of racial thinking in American history as well as the rich spectrum of approaches that people of African descent (who most often bear the burden of “race”) have taken to understanding the relationship among race, religion, and Americanness.

And finally (and unrelated to the above, but this is a grab-bag of good reading post so what the hell), I've been following a graduate student at Duke on Twitter, A. T. Coates, but somehow hadn't gotten to his blog until today. Coates writes excellent posts reflecting, in "quick hit" fashion, on new scholarship in the field, like I would do here if I was less lazy and therefore reliant on linking to good stuff written by others. (And for you graduate students, this is great oral exam preparation technique here, wish we had this stuff back in my day, but back then we barely had writing implements). Most recently, he has posted a summary and his thoughts on Matt Sutton's article on FDR and the birth of anti-statist Fundamentalism, from the Journal of American History, and on John Modern's Secularism in Antebellum America. I've linked him to our blogfavs now to remind me, and the rest of you, to check over there periodically for fresh reflections on work in American religious studies. 

Mitt Romney and Mormon Theology


Editor's Note: As the election approaches, the subject of Mormon Theology and its influence (or lack thereof) on Mitt Romney has been the subject of a number of provocative essays. Best known probably is Andrew Sullivan's piece, on the conflicted history of Mormonism and race, here, which should be read accompanied by Joanna Brooks's significant dissent from it here, and Matthew Bowman's historian's perspective here, which concludes that "Mormonism is not so simple as a quirky version of American conservatism, and both Mormons themselves and their fellow Americans would do well to notice."

Below is Jon Pahl's view, which contrasts with all of the above. The discussion continues.

By Jon Pahl, Ph.D.

            Much has been made of Mitt Romney’s apparent flexibility with the truth.  But what if this is not intentional disregard of facts, but rather stems from a theological point of view that sanctions “creative” knowledge? 
            There are beauties to behold in Mormon theology that I am sure Latter-Day Saints can and will clarify.  And one cannot forget the persecution and violence inflicted on the community in its early decades.  And, finally, Mormons can be found across political parties, as the distinguished career of Senate majority leader Harry Reid and the existence of makes clear. 
But implicit in the First Amendment’s prohibition of the establishment of religion is the requirement for citizens to question how religious and theological claims shape the public policies of those who would represent us in leadership.  Few have hesitated to question President Obama’s religion, albeit alternately depicting him as a Muslim, and/or in disparaging his social-justice oriented Christian pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.  

Interview with Lynne Gerber


Kelly Baker

Today's interview is with Lynne Gerber, the author of Seeking the Straight and Narrow: Weight Loss and Sexual Reorientation in Evangelical America. This fantastic ethnography compares First Place, a Christian weight loss program, and Exodus International, a constellation of ex-gay ministries. This comparison illuminates the problem of excess, of body weight and sexuality, with contemporary evangelicalism. Rather than adhere to narratives of evangelical opposition to American culture, Gerber showcases how connected American and Christian obsessions about weight and sexuality really are.
1. Can you tell us how you came to this research project? Why did you choose to compare Christian weight loss programs and ex-gay ministries? What drew you to this comparison?
The roots of this project are both personal and intellectual. Personal because I’ve had a fascination with evangelical therapeutic culture since I first got hooked listening to James Dobson’s daily Focus on the Family broadcast some time in the 1980s. I spent years listening to him trying to figure out why it was so much like feminist therapeutic culture (not a term I would have used then) yet so politically opposed to it. But it was personal, too, because I wanted to a project that would allow me to delve into the moral signification of body size and fatness. My own life has been shaped deeply by being fat and trying to understand how and why it has such a strong moral charge in American culture. I wanted to use the opportunity of a dissertation to raise those questions, but I needed a concrete context within which to explore them.

Intellectually, I was sparked by an argument Pierre Bourdieu makes about the body in social movements. He writes about how important the body is as a site for the accumulation of social knowledge and power and that for social change to be effective the body needs to be a site of change as well. The example he uses is feminism and the 1970s practice of “consciousness raising.” Raising consciousness is all well and good, but he suggests that for change to be more longstanding, feminism would have benefitted from strategies that undo how female subordination is somatized. The argument made me think of a documentary I had seen on the ex-gay movement that depicted it as just this sort of experiment, with training on bodily postures and bodily comportment as a way to eradicate homosexuality. And I wondered what he would think about that.

But the comparison really came together for me reading Marie Griffith’s Born Again Bodies. I didn’t know there were such a thing as Christian weight loss groups before reading the book. As I read it, it became clear to me that a productive comparison could be made them and ex-gay ministries. Here were two cases of faith based efforts at bodily change that had limited records of success but strongly resonant moral messages about the dangers of excess. Both dealt with groups of people who had faced strong social stigmatization because of their bodily traits, but one, homosexuals, has been far more successful at challenging that stigmatization and resignifying the meaning of homosexuality. And both groups were active within a reasonable distance from my home, which helped.

Tracing My Texas Roots

Arlene Sánchez -Walsh 

I took a road trip to central Texas recently--the first time anyone in my family had gone back to Rockdale and Dimebox in nearly 70 years.  I have spent most of my life enrapt in my urban identity as a 4th generation Latina living in Los Angeles--growing up in East L.A. and cultivating that identity to the detriment of the much longer rural history of my extended family.  But this trip, first to a town of 300 people where my grandmother was born in 1915 schooled me, as they say down here, that I’d gotten way above my “raisin’” by ignoring the land that my family had worked.  That my family has been tilling soil of various kinds for decades--first in the cotton fields of Central Texas, and today in the agribusiness factories of Corcoran, California disappeared from my historical memory as had the importance of the Catholicism that has guided my family for over a century. In the census, I met my great-grandfather, Jesús Flores, who immigrated from Durango, Mexico in 1904. According to my father, who has the vaguest memory of him, Great-grandpa Jesús wore a cowboy hat and had a big handlebar mustache, ( my fertile imagination thinks Antonio Banderas, I know he’s a Spaniard), but I have no idea.  I do know that Great-Grandpa Jesús raised a family in DimeBox, Texas, and that the kids, one of whom was my grandma Guadalupe, all worked the fields.

My grandma was a difficult person, she died a few years ago, and unlike just about any other funeral I have attended for my large large extended family--the Catholic priest who presided over the funeral mass, had no idea who she was, tried very hard to make her seem like a loving matriarch, and ended up upsetting most of my immediate family with  tales about her that we knew just were not true. My family even asked me, as the resident religious geek, (two things we don’t discuss in my family, my conversion to Pentecostalism, or my profession, both things are equally baffling to them), to write a letter to the Archdiocese complaining that the priest had committed, what my irreverent brother coined, “some kind of sacramental malpractice.” I never wrote that letter, but I did try to explain to my family that the priest, probably feeling intense pressure from the grandma’s side of the family, to say nice things.  

When God Wrote to Abraham (Lincoln)


Paul Harvey
Check out Edward J. Blum's piece for the New York Times "Disunion" blog (a favorite of Civil War classroom instructors everywhere), "When God Spoke to Abraham (Lincoln)," just posted today. A little excerpt:

Lydia Smith’s letter to Abraham Lincoln.

In early October 1862, Abraham Lincoln received a letter from God.

"I am your Heavenly Father and the God of all Nations,” it began. God had particular explanations and instructions for the president, whose entire term of office had been defined by war. “I am the cause for the disruption between the North and the South,” he continued, and the point was to destroy the “horrible state of affairs” that man’s “selfish nature” had brought. “I am not partial and have no respect of persons.” Coming just weeks after the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the letter made it clear that God wanted to destroy slavery. 

For further instructions, God told Lincoln to gather six of his best men and meet in person “my instrument the Messenger of Peace the Christ of this day.” Conveniently, the “Christ of this day” was not only staying in Washington, but lived just a few miles from the White House, at 476 Pennsylvania Avenue. At the meeting and through the medium, God would explain “what to do that will speedily terminate this Devilish war.”

A Wire Runs Through It


David W. Stowe

This week Yale unveiled an intriguing three-sited exhibition on the Jewish eruv. What is an eruv, you ask?  “An eruv is a partnership created within a boundary to enhance the observance of the Jewish Sabbath,” explains the website of Yale’s Initiative for the Study of Material & Visual Cultures of Religion (MAVCOR).  

“Rabbinic law, enunciated in the Talmud, interprets the biblical imperative to ‘do no work’ on the Sabbath as forbidding the carrying of objects from a private space into a public space on that day. Because, however, the injunction against carrying would seem to contravene the biblical command that the Sabbath be ‘a joy,’ the rabbinical corpus characteristically mediated between strictures and joy by instituting the eruv. During Shabbat, the eruv border operates to transform a community into a shared dwelling place. In practice, the eruv allows an orthodox Jew to carry prayer books to the synagogue, to push strollers and wheelchairs, and to allow children to play outside.”

As befits an exhibition concerned with the extension and delimiting of social space, the exhibition sprawls across New Haven.  Up on Divinity Hill, the ISM Gallery of Sacred Arts includes photographs and artworks in a variety of media, including an installation Kafka in Space (Parsing the Eruv) which, according to curator Margaret Olin, “brings out the dystopic notion of the eruv suggested in Kafka’s aphorism on which the piece is based: ‘The true path leads across a rope that is no suspended on high, but close to the ground. It seems more intended to make people stumble than to be walked upon.’ When read with Kafka’s comment on the Warsaw eruv quoted in the [catalog’s] introduction, it suggests a society made up of unwieldy rules that are, for lack of a better word, Kafkaesque.”   

Moral Minority: Interview with David Swartz on the Evangelical Left (Part II)


Brantley Gasaway

Here is the second installment of my two-part interview with David Swartz, author of the newly released Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (University of Pennsylvania Press). For part I, click here

Brantley Gasaway (BG): One of the most pressing questions concerning the evangelical left is, of course, why they became marginalized and overshadowed by the Religious Right.  Among the several contributing factors that you suggest—fracture caused by identity politics, skepticism from the political left, and the right's strategic focus abortion—does any one stand out as most important?

David Swartz (DS): Abortion played an important role in both pushing evangelicals away from the Democratic Party and pulling them into the Republican Party. Prior to the 1970s the Democrats were arguably more pro-life and pro-family than the Republicans. But activists enforced a pro-choice orthodoxy on the Democratic Party in the 1970s. At the same time, Republicans enticed a newly energized religious right with a pro-life orthodoxy. Consistent life evangelicals and Catholics were left without a political home. Many pro-life Democrats—like John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, Mario Cuomo, Bob Kerrey, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Joe Biden, Paul Simon, and Al Gore—flipped to a pro-choice position. Those not willing to flip, including very many potential progressive evangelicals, found refuge in the GOP.

Moral Minority: Interview with David Swartz on the evangelical left (Part 1)

Brantley Gasaway

Today I am pleased to post the first of a two-part interview with David Swartz, author of the newly released Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (University of Pennsylvania Press). David is an assistant professor in the History Department at Asbury University in Kentucky, and he began this project while working with George Marsden at Notre Dame. 

I first encountered David's work just after each of us defended our dissertation on the evangelical left in 2008. You can imagine our surpriseand initial consternation!to discover that another scholar was working on the same general topic with many of the same materials. But as we communicated and read each other's work, it became clear that our studies would be complementary rather than directly competing or conflicting. My own forthcoming book analyzes the public theology that inspired the political positions and persistent activism of progressive evangelical leaders from the 1960s through the present. David's book analyzes the genealogy of the evangelical left beginning in the mid-twentieth century; its trials in the 1970s and 1980s; and why, despite initial promise, it failed to take substantial shape electorally as the Religious Right rose in prominence. 

As the first scholarly treatment of the evangelical left, Moral Minority is already receiving lots of attention (see, for example, Molly Worthen's review in the New York Times). I'm pleased that David took time to answer these questions. Come back tomorrow for the second part of the interview.

Brantley Gasaway (BG): Many people are interested in how authors come to study their subjectstell us what led you to write about the evangelical left. 

David Swartz (DS): Like any enterprising graduate student slogging through comprehensive exam lists, I was on the lookout for a gap in the scholarship of American religious history—and archival materials to exploit that gap. When I read a piece by progressive evangelical activist Ron Sider online suggesting that some “enterprising graduate student” take a look at the Evangelicals for Social Action archives, I knew immediately that I had a project. 

On a more personal level, this project was an attempt to figure out my own parents (history is ultimately autobiography, right?). They had grown up in the 1970s. They ran a pretty egalitarian marriage. They sang “They Will Know We Are Christians by our Love” during worship services and would have been dismayed by an American flag in the church sanctuary. I ate food my mother (and father!) cooked out of More-with-Less, a cookbook with lots of vegetarian recipes. And I knew many like them, church-goers who were not comfortable with the idea of American as a Christian nation, a budget that prioritized the military over poverty, a punitive criminal justice system, and the like. And yet they shared their faith and lived out the kind of warm piety so common among evangelicals. This was an idiosyncratic combination that I never read about in news reports and scholarly books. I was curious about how typical they were—and why they seemed so marginalized in the public eye.

BG: Over the past several decades, the Religious Right has loomed large not only in popular perceptions but also in the historiography of evangelicalism. What factors beyond the greater visibility and apparent success of conservatives have led to the lack of research on the evangelical left?

DS: You’re right that the historiography has been preoccupied by research on politically conservative strains of evangelicalism. It makes sense. Scholars have been working in the midst of a resurgent conservative movement. The administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have had close ties to right-wing evangelical activists. But this weight of journalistic and scholarly attention has effectively created a caricature of evangelicalism as a monolithic political bloc. On the other end of the spectrum, historians have ably charted religious progressivism within mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Quaker circles. These discrete historiographies obscure connections between progressive politics and evangelicalism. 

Mormonism in Athens, Ohio

By Michael J. Altman

A friend of mine, photojournalist, and fellow product of the College of Charleston religious studies department, Priscilla Thomas, has produced a really interesting multimedia look at one Mormon family, the Crawfords, in the town of Athens, Ohio. "Raising Faith" is one story in the larger Swing State project produced by the Soul of Athens at Ohio University. Swing State attempts to give Ohio voters a voice on four major sets of issues: land, liberties, health, and the economy.

"Raising Faith" falls under the liberties category of the project and consists of an article about the Crawfords and the larger place of Mormonism in American culture and two brief videos that try to take an intimate look at the small community of Mormons in Athens. For those looking for a quick way to address the "Mormon Moment" and/or the election, this story and the site as whole can be a great resource. Below is a taste of the article and the accompanying video.

I encourage you to check out the entire project. It's a fascinating look at the diversity of a swing state and a model for creative multimedia journalism. Ohio is more than a blank outline on electoral college maps.

Recent transplants to Athens, Ohio, Cory and Rebecca Crawford previously lived in larger urban communities in Massachusetts and Utah. Their transition to small town life has come with some surprises. After moving into their home, the Crawfords began extensive renovations to the property. Understanding of their situation, church members offered to open their homes to the family until major repairs were completed.
“We would come home covered in dust and dirt from working and this neat, wonderful lady would say ‘Eat dinner with my family,’” Rebecca recalls. “She’d treat us like we were one of the family. And feed us dinner. And they loved our kids and they spoiled them like they were grandparents.”

New Book on American Religious Liberalism

Just a reminder to pre-order Matt Hedstrom's The Rise of Liberal Religion, to be released by Oxford on November 23rd.  Here's some early praise for the book:

"An original and eye-opening study, planting liberal religion in the wider history of liberalism, including its middlebrow culture of print. Hedstrom shows how liberal religion keeps renewing itself by sidling up to secular culture, and by welcoming wave after wave of refugees from orthodoxy on the one hand and agnosticism on the other, all of them drawn to the premise of liberal spirituality that science and religion make excellent bedfellows."--Richard Fox, Professor of History, University of Southern California

"Hedstrom shows that the prevailing values of liberal Protestantism were widely disseminated through mass-market, 'middlebrow' books during the middle decades of the twentieth century, influencing ostensibly secular domains of popular culture in ways that no previous scholar has established. This is a strikingly original, crisply argued contribution to cultural and religious history."--David A. Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley

Nobody Knows the Curses We've Seen


The Untold Story of Black Mormons: DVD

Last week, I officially received my invitation to the “Mormon moment.” It came from Margaret Blair Young, a creative writing teacher at Brigham Young University. Author, editor, and film creator of several works on African American Mormons, Young has been presenting a series at Patheos on black Mormons (another good one here) that has been simply marvelous. This weekend, as my fantasy football team soundly defeated the only non-religious historian in our league, I took the time to watch her co-directed and co-produced film Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. It was definitely worth missing Derek Jeter break his ankle.

I watch a lot of religious history documentaries these days, at least more than I would like. I prefer my television to air shows like ESPN or films like Prometheus, but I’ll log the hours to watch God in America or that one on Sister Aimee from years back creatively titled ... wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, ... Sister Aimee. I like the music; I like the pictures; I find the aesthetic of Ken Burns-like documentary films quite soothing.  Nobody Knows has these many of these qualities. Music introduces chapter titles which then use voice-overs, panned-over photographs, video footage, and interviews to bring the viewer from the 1830s to the 21st century. Our senses are pit against one another from the very beginning. The slave spiritual "Nobody Knows" resounds as we read "What comes to your mind, when you hear the word ... Mormon?" Visually, an African American man smiles at us in a close up. Sight, sound, and text provide different markers of meaning and the goal seems to be dissonance, a dissonance the film will try to explain and negotiate.

Why Christ's Color Matters: Conversations with Friends at Religion Dispatches and Elsewhere

Paul Harvey

Lots of great and intense reactions to The Color of Christ, including an insightful review at the Englewood Review of Books here, some wonderful stuff coming up at Patheos, and a forum review at the Journal of Southern Religion featuring responses from Laurie-Maffly-Kipp, Jennifer Graber, and Darren Grem.

But here want to highlight an online conversation forum. Join esteemed scholars Anthea Butler, Joanna Brooks, and Andre Johnson for a conversation about The Color of Christ just posted at Religion Dispatches. Anthea takes us through a series of questions on which we conduct virtual conversations. A little excerpt:

Why is it important to discuss The Color of Christ now in 2012, when the election of President Obama was heralded as the beginning of the "post-racial society"?
Joanna Brooks_________ 
I think we're all agreed that post-racial just...isn't.
But I'm thinking too about the multidimensional influence of race on faith. The sociologist Stuart Hall once said, "Race is the modality through which class is lived." That's always stuck with me. I wonder if race is not also a modality through which faith is practiced. I think many people aspire to practice faith towards the end of eliminating or transcending human divisions like race. But race, class, gender, and sexuality profoundly shape the practice of faith and the different paths of faith people have to walk.
For Christians of color in America, for example, this may mean that being Christian requires pushing through the racism—deadly in so many precincts of American life—of an American Christianity that has colored Christ white towards claiming a God that looks more like home. For white Christians, it means pushing through what may feel safe—inherited privilege and blindness—to leave home and migrate towards images of God that do not look like us.

Interconnections: Gender and Race (and Religion) in American History

By Carol Faulkner

I’m happy to announce the publication of Interconnections: Gender and Race in American History, edited by yours truly and Alison M. Parker , the latest entry in our Gender and Race in American History series  at the University of Rochester Press. (By the way, we welcome inquiries from prospective authors!). The volume features articles by Meredith Clark-Wiltz, Kendra Taira Field, Rashauna Johnson, Vivian M. May, Michele Mitchell, and Hélène Quanquin. The goal of the collection is to apply the theory of intersectionality to research in American history, and topics include interracial neighborhoods in antebellum New Orleans, the slavery-marriage comparison among anti-slavery and women’s rights activists, African Americans in Indian territory, the NAACP’s struggle for integrated juries, the intersectional scholarship of Anna Julia Cooper, and idleness and sexuality in the Great Depression.
Readers of this blog will be especially interested in two essays: Michelle Kuhl’s “Countable Bodies, Uncountable Crimes: Sexual Assault and the Antilynching Movement,” which shows how the martydom rhetoric used by African American ministers in the anti-lynching movement helped marginalize the sexual assault of black women as a political issue, and Deborah Gray White’s “What Women Want: The Paradoxes of Postmodernity as seen through Promise Keeper and Million Man March Women,” which examines similarities between two 1990s social/religious movements: conservative evangelical women in the Promise Keepers and African American women who supported the Million Man march.

Henry May In His Times

Paul Harvey

Over at U.S. Intellectual History, the outstanding scholar of antebellum American life and thought Charles Capper provides a beautiful tribute to the recently deceased Henry May as an intellectual and religious historian, but even more so as a writer, down to (in his 90s) marking up drafts of Capper's manuscript biography of Margaret Fuller. A little excerpt:

The Enlightenment in America (Galaxy Books)For May, on the contrary, the defining characteristic of the American Enlightenment was its oppositional but symbiotic rivalry with Reformed Protestantism, which he implicitly offered as a master pattern for American history as a whole. Yet even here his longtime fascination with the tensions of religion and secularism and intellectual mindsets and disillusioned idealism remained very much in play. Indeed, these themes played against the even more timely backdrop of student radical turbulence at UC Berkeley (toward which May characteristically was deeply ambivalent). I vividly recall the response of May, earlier a strong supporter of the Free Speech Movement, to a student leader of a university strike, standing up in a lecture class on Jonathan Edwards and demanding that it be canceled because what was important was the napalming of peasants in Vietnam: “Wrong—what is important at this hour in this room is Edwards!”

Sports and Redemption Narratives


By Seth Dowland

As a fan of both sports and good long-form journalism, I have been delighted by the emergence of websites like Grantland and Sports on Earth, both of which aspire to something greater than the mindless patter of sports television or the drudgery of game recaps. Grantland, in particular, has assembled a staff of top-notch writers who indulge all sorts of sports fans, from the stats geeks to the pop culture aficionados. A couple Grantland writers, Charles Pierce and Bryan Curtis, have even ventured into the territory covered on this blog: religion.

Pierce, the lead writer for Esquire’s politics blog, periodically offers his sharp take on American sports for Grantland. Some of his most pointed columns in the last year have focused on religion, including the only Tebow column I’ve read that invoked James Madison, Christopher Hitchens, and the Gospel of Mark. Pierce also skewered Penn State during the Sandusky crisis, making the oft-repeated comparison between the coverup there and the coverup in the Catholic Church with a theological reading informed by Neibuhrian thinking on institutional immorality. Pierce’s Catholic upbringing and attention to the details of religious belief has made him a great read when it comes to the intersection of religion and sports.

Curtis, whose work typically focuses on college football or movie sequels, recently offered a fascinating look at Josh Hamilton, the Texas Rangers star who won the 2010 American League MVP award. Hamilton’s story is well known to baseball fans: picked first overall in the 1999 amateur draft, Hamilton drank, smoked, and injected almost every illegal drug imaginable. He found himself out of baseball by 2004, his life wrecked by addiction. Rehab and a religious conversion helped Hamilton find his way back to baseball. He published his story in the autobiography Beyond Belief and has made plans for a biopic starring Casey Affleck. Hamilton has spoken to countless Christian groups, often with the introduction of his pastor, religious right activist James Robison. But the script of his story does not have a neat “happily ever after” ending: Hamilton had some well-publicized falls off the wagon, and he ended his 2012 season to a torrent of boos from Texas fans. In his smartly argued essay, Curtis sees Hamilton as a prisoner of his own conversion story, which allows for three acts only: rise, fall, and redemption. What happens after redemption – that messy fourth act of living one’s life – doesn’t fit neatly into the evangelical conversion narrative Hamilton has adopted. As a result, it's hard for evangelicals - and for Hamilton himself - to make sense of his recent mishaps. 

In articles like this, as well as in the smart scholarship produced by Clifford Putney, Julie Byrne, Bill Baker, and blog contributor Art Remillard, the messy boundary between sports and the sacred becomes a place of rich intellectual inquiry. As the subfield of religion and sports matures, I hope scholars and journalists alike will continue to probe the rituals, narratives, and bodily experiences of sports in order to see the religious valences covering the games we play. 

Reviews from 30,000 Feet

"A Mission from God"

When the Blues Brothers explained that they were: “on a mission from God,” they provided American religious historians about 10 years of cultural reference. From 1980 to about 1990, I imagine, scholars could mention the line and at least get one head nod (can you imagine Martin Marty doing this? I kinda can). But as we all know, most of our “please don’t think I’m a huge loser” cultural references last for only so long. It was a sad day for me when my students no longer recognized The Simpson’s references. So I watched South Park, and those worked for a while. Mean Girls has had some staying power, and Family Guy allusions (as hard and as crazy as they are to include) get some smiles of recognition. But alas, how quickly cultural icons bubble up and flame out makes it difficult to relate. I guess my students see more quickly the truth: their professor is a loser after all.

My recent reading at 30,000 feet, though, has me revisiting the Blues Brothers and their claim to be “on a mission.” This semester, I’m pairing the “old” with the “new”, and since I’m on another kind of mission, I thought it would be fun to begin with an old and a new book in studies of American missionaries. The old was (thanks to recommendation from Matt Hedstrom) William R. Hutchison’s Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions. The new came from UNC press’s new catalogue page for a book that really caught my attention: Sarah E.Ruble, The Gospel of Freedom and Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture After World War II.

Was Antebellum America Secular?

Paul Harvey

Here's some hefty but rewarding reading for your Monday, courtesy of Immanent Frame: Michael Warner, "Was Antebellum America Secular," the best extended reflection I have seen on John Modern's   Secularism in Antebellum America, and a really good introduction to the ongoing current discussion of the very concept of secularism. This one's long enough that it's a good one to print out and persuse at your leisure. A little excerpt:

A reader who has not been following the recent literature on secularity will be surprised to find that Secularism in Antebellum America is mainly about evangelicals and spiritualists. The organization of the book would seem to put him in the “No” camp in response to the question of my title, with David Barton. But in Modern’s book the dialectical relation of the terms takes the form of paradox. Perhaps too much, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.
Modern’s most compelling chapter, titled “Evangelical Secularism,” lays out the paradox; even its title to most readers will seem oxymoronic. Modern beautifully analyzes one side of the semiotic ideology of antebellum evangelicals : its imagination of media and the social field. (I say “one side” because he does not take up the language of sincerity, conversion, and experience, as Webb Keane does so well in Christian Moderns.) Modern examines the tract and Bible societies, with their massive projects of publication and colportage, as well as the tracts themselves and such statements of evangelical theory as Robert Baird’s Religion in America (1842). Following such scholars as David Nord and Candy Brown, but giving their work a new critical analysis, he examines the imagination of the social behind the evangelical obsession with networks, technology, and communication. Evangelicals of the period equated true religion with a conversionist public discourse, which of its own logic required mass dissemination at the same time that it pointed to its own omnipresence as a sign of its spontaneous authenticity. Evangelical religiosity was fused with a modern semiotic ideology of connectivity and circulation as progressive forces capable of establishing a broad social and religious order by the unfolding of their own immanent dynamic principles. . . .  If America was in many important ways secular by the antebellum period, he concludes, it was so largely because of evangelicals themselves.
In making this argument, Modern amplifies a theme of Charles Taylor, who has argued in A Secular Age that the long history of secularity consists more of unintended consequences to reform movements within Christianity than to a hostile campaign of suppression or emancipation from without. In the American case my own current research has led me to go further and say that the evangelical normalization of conversionist discourse as a criterion of religiosity directly construed society as secular even before there were any secularists in the modern sense of that term. Evangelical conceptions of conscience and conversion, together with evangelical practices of the public sphere and the voluntary system, are not only the markers of evangelical modernity but the very conditions from which the default secularity of the social is projected.

New Worlds of Faith: Religion and Law in Historical Perspective

Paul Harvey

Here's a notice of a big conference next June that will interest many of you, hosted by Sarah Barringer Gordon at Penn Law School. The flyer is below; the link with information (forthcoming) is here

The Forgotten Prophet

 Ed Blum 

In recent years, historians of American religion have been paying more attention to notions of the prophetic. David Chappell's provocative Stone of Hope suggested that black prophetic religion (which was distinct from liberal concepts of progress) powered the civil rights movement, while John Stauffer and his friends have been re-envisioning the entire nineteenth century with a focus on prophetic figures and movements.

Now, from communications scholar Andre E. Johnson, the Dr. James L. Netters professor of Rhetoric & Religion and African American Studies at Memphis Theological Seminary (where David King is now a professor), has released The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the Black Prophetic Tradition. What I like best about Professor Johnson's book is how he provides various categories for prophetic speech and performance. He dissects different forms of prophetic posturing and analyzes how Bishop Turner deployed them in various circumstances.

Mitt Romney, the History of Marriage, and Polygamy

I am happy to present a guest post from Todd M. Compton, a prolific and sophisticated historian who interests range from Classics to Mormonism.

Among many great books, articles, and essays, I am a great admirer of Todd's landmark In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. The book is a wonderfully rich account of Joseph Smith's plural marriages, providing a very human portrait of the nearly three dozen women who married the founding prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Currently, Todd is writing a biography of Jacob Hamblin, a pioneer and Indian missionary, to name two aspects of his long and colorful life.

On May 12, 2012, three days after President Obama declared his support for legalizing same-sex marriage, Mitt Romney spoke to graduates at the conservative evangelical Liberty University, at Lynchburg, Virginia, and said, “marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.” Fox News reported, “The remark drew a loud applause for [Romney] who faced a big test in trying to win over evangelical voters.” On Mitt Romney’s website, he states, “When I am President, . . . I will fight for a federal amendment defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman.” Clearly, making same-sex marriage illegal has become a central issue in Romney’s efforts to win over social conservative voters in the Republican party, and distinguish himself from President Obama. Romney’s reasons for banning same-sex marriage therefore deserve careful scrutiny. In an interview with Fox News on May 10, 2012, he said: “I believe that marriage has been defined the same way for literally thousands of years, by virtually every civilization in history, and that marriage is literally by its definition a relationship between a man and a woman.”
Thus Romney appeals to history as the foundation of his position, which is an invitation to historians, such as myself, to become involved in this discussion. And any responsible historian will quickly agree that Romney’s statement, with its phrases “every civilization” and “literally thousands of years” is far too sweeping. The obvious practice arguing against Romney’s position is polygamy. Polygamy is accepted as legal in two of the foundational religious texts of civilization: the Jewish Bible and the Qu'ran (and is practiced in those books by the highest role models possible, prophets). While influential branches of Judaism banned polygamy in about 1000 AD, Muslims continue to practice plural marriage today.
newer post older post