Putting it All on the Table

by Cara L. Burnidge

This week, during his first overseas trip as Secretary of State, John Kerry talked to German students about the virtues of the United States:
"As a country, as a society, we live and breathe the idea of religious freedom and religious tolerance, whatever the religion, and political freedom and political tolerance, whatever the point of view.

People have sometimes wondered about why our Supreme Court allows one group or another to march in a parade even though it's the most provocative thing in the world and they carry signs that are an insult to one group or another.

The reason is, that's freedom, freedom of speech. In America you have a right to be stupid--if you want to be. And you have a right to be disconnected to somebody else if you want to be. And we tolerate it. We somehow make it through that. Now, I think that's a virtue. I think that's something worth fighting for."
The focus of the news headlines and the attention of his German audience settled on the statement that "in America you have a right to be stupid" (See NPR's brief report and the audio from Reuters). But what captures my attention is Kerry's description of American virtues. This is a fascinating turn of phrase for a Secretary who succinctly stated that "foreign policy is economic policy," giving fuel to the historiographic debate that ideology has a second class status in foreign relations history.

The Places in Which We Work

by Brantley Gasaway

To what extent should the places in which we work--not the institutions, but rather our local communities and their religious landscapes--influence our scholarship and especially teaching of religion in America?

I have pondered this question from the vantage point of my own place: Bucknell University, located in the Susquehanna Valley of central Pennsylvania and about an hour north of our capital, Harrisburg. As I moved here and settled into my job and daily life, I began to think about what it meant to be a teacher and scholar here in this place. In other words, what difference did it make that I was teaching about and studying American religion in the middle of Pennsylvania rather than in North Carolina (during my PhD program) or at Drake University in Iowa (during my first job)? And that's when I began to think about the "plain people."

The Politics of Religion

by Emily Suzanne Clark
This past weekend was the 12th annual Florida State University Graduate Student Symposium (#fsugss on Twitter). Dr. Aaron Hughes from the University of Rochester was this year’s keynote speaker, and this year’s conference theme was the “Politics of Religion.” There were many great panels that took place over the weekend, and the presented papers covered all sorts of topics in the field. I’ll focus my reflections here on discussions of theory issues in our field; so, if theory isn’t your bag, this post may not be for you. However, as Dr. Hughes told us Friday evening, it doesn’t matter what tradition or area you focus in, if you study religion, you should be aware of the debates in theory and method.

 Professor Hughes’s keynote address was entitled “The Politics of Theory and Method.” In it, he explained how the study of religion, discussions of  theory, and various scholarly methodologies are political. It was a great keynote and could be a looooong blog post in and of itself, so I’ll focus on just a few things. The embedded politics in theories of religion and theoretical approaches to the study of religion was one thread of his keynote that struck a chord with me. In 1903, the Association of Biblical Instructors in American Colleges and Secondary Schools was founded, an organization that changed its name to National Association of Biblical Instructors (NABI) in 1922. Most, if not all, members of NABI were not only Bible instructors, but also Protestants committed to the text’s theological value and saw sharing that value as part of their task. In brief, religion could be celebrated in the classroom. This is the organization that would become the American Academy of Religion.

Comment Moderation

Paul Harvey

 Dear all -- due to a current deluge of spam from "anonymous" (like, a couple of hundred a day), I am having to require that commenters be identifiable for the time being. Once "anonymous" runs out of pharmaceutical and financial services products to sell, hopefully can resume open commenting. Sorry about that.

Religion and Water in America

Michael Pasquier

The Oscars are tonight. Beasts of the Southern Wild—one of the breakthrough films of the year—is up for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Among other things, it’s about the relationship between people, land, and water in an environmentally endangered region of the United States. It’s also about religion. I reviewed Beasts for Religion Dispatches. I also wrote about the predecessor to Beasts—the short film Glory at Sea—on this blog.

I think about religion and water a lot.

I edited the book Gods of the Mississippi with a group of historians as a way to explain how the physical and imagined features of the Mississippi River contributed to the development of religious ideas and communities throughout American history. 

More Books I'm Excited About

Mark Edwards

Just came across this forthcoming must-read, must-own yesterday: David Hollinger is republishing his recent OAH Presidential address on ecumenical Protestants, along with a number of other essays featuring new introductions, a new preface, and a can't miss new epilogue.  After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History (Princeton April 2013) is already garnering significant praise from E. J. Dionne and many others.

Finally, I'd like to recommend an edited collection by Andrew Bacevich, The Short American Century: A Postmortem (Harvard, 2012).  Besides boasting an all-star line-up, it also features a new essay by Christian Critics (Cornell 2000) author Eugene McCarraher on the "eschatology of corporate business."  Good stuff.

Liberal Protestants, Evangelicals, and Israel

Mark Edwards

In case you haven't come across it yet, Caitlin Carenen's The Fervent Embrace: Liberal Protestants, Evangelicals, and Israel (NYU Press, 2012) is well worth checking out.  Carenen dispenses with the notion that premillennial Protestants have always enjoyed a "special relationship" with Israel.  Rather, it was liberal and mainline churches who first helped secure American support for Jewish statehood.  Not surprisingly, Carenen's work has been receiving alot of attention, including at First Things and Christianity Today.  I recently presented on an panel with Caitlin at the AHA, which was reviewed by Ray Haberski over at USIH.  I was instantly envious of the clarity and rigor of her research.  Not only is this a myth-shattering work, it's also an example of writing religion and politics at its finest.  Carenen's work will be a great classroom resource; at least I know I will be assigning it in several of my courses.

After the break, you can read the glowing review of the book from the October 2012 issue of Choice.

Converts, Colonialism, and “Trans-Imperial” Questions

Carol Faulkner

For my graduate research seminar, I recently had the pleasure of reading two books outside the field of American history. You may wonder at the insanity of assigning these new (to me) books. In this case, the reason is that each student comes from a different field, and I try to assign something for everyone. For these books, it was an especially worthwhile endeavor. Though focused on extremely different periods and different places (16th-17th century Venice and 20th India), both books discuss empire, citizenship, and the way religion helped define these geographic and political boundaries. The authors raise interesting questions for American religious historians about the social and imperial context of conversion, missionary politics, and the complicated, uncontrollable impact of certain books.

E. Natalie Rothman’s prize-winning Brokering Empire: Trans-Imperial Subjects between Venice and Istanbul looks at different “trans-imperial subjects,” including commercial brokers, converts, and translators, to show their agency in shaping the political, religious, and linguistic boundaries of the Venetian empire. I found Rothman’s discussion of converts (Muslims, Protestants, and Jews) to Catholicism especially compelling. She deemphasizes conversion as an individual experience, instead focusing on the importance of institutions, employers, patrons, and social networks. Rothman argues that “conversion should be studied as a set of historically shifting social practices rather than as individual spiritual choices.” In her chapter on the House of Catechumens, which educated converts for baptism, she writes,
I underscore how religious conversion formed a web of social practices that were deeply imbedded in processes of subject-making and imperial consolidation. The house of Catechumens was instrumental not only in mediating the ongoing relationship among converts, their patrons, and the early modern Venetian state but, more broadly, in articulating categories of religious and juridicial difference. As such, it is best understood as a trans-imperial, rather than a strictly local, Venetian institution.

Resources for those Researching Spiritualism and Occultism in American History

John L. Crow

Since 2009, Marc Demarest, Pat Deveney and others have been working to collect, digitize, and post various important Spiritualist and Occult periodicals that have only been available previously in archives or on microfilm. The effort is called the International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals (IAPSOP) and was established as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Recent additions include The Banner of Light from 1857-1894, Proceedings of American Society for Psychical Research, Journal of American Society for Psychical Research, The Spiritual Scientist, and much more. Although there are a great number of periodicals already online, there is more coming available in the future. In addition to IAPSOP, Demarest operates the Emma Harding Britten Archive which includes numerous resources regarding Britten in particular and Spiritualism in general. These resources include an e-list which discusses the field of research on Anglo-American Spiritualism. Recently Demarest published an edited and annotated edition of Britten’s Art Magic (Typhon Press 2011) , and is currently working on revising and annotating Ghost Land. Lastly, he maintains a blog about his research into Britten entitled, Chasing Down Emma: Resolving the contradictions of, and filling in the gaps in, the life, work and world of Emma Hardinge Britten. IAPSOP, the blog, e-list, and other resources are well worth checking out for those interested in the history of Spiritualism and Occultism in America.

Early American Music Featured in Common-place

David W. Stowe

Many readers of this blog will take delight in the beautifully designed and illustrated issue of the online journal Common-place just published this week.

You'll find a forum of reflections and actual performances of early American music by the likes of Hesperus, Newberry Consort, David and Ginger Hildebrand, Norumbega Harmony, and Christian Wig.

Featured articles include Christine DeLucia on "Music of King Philip's War and Memories of Settler Colonialism in the American Northeast," April Masten on "Dancers, Musicians, and Negro Jigs in Early America," Jeanne Eller McDougall on "Musical Encounters between Kikotans and English, 1607-1610," Carol Medlicott on "Gender and Collectivity in the Music of the Shaker West," and Nara L. Newcomer on "The True Story of a Manuscript Hymnal Attributed to the Father of Methodism."

All in all a wealth of new research and useful teaching materials which I've only begun to explore.  From one of the introductory essays, by Steve Marini:

Music, with or without words, has an extraordinary capacity as an agent of ritualization to make symbolic sense of a changing world. All the essays in this issue treat music that registers quintessentially American processes of cultural change—encounter, innovation, contestation, reconfiguration, transfusion. Accordingly, it seems valuable to read them also with an eye to how ritualization contributed to their creation of cultural meaning.

More New Lights ... Sonia Hazard and Brett Grainger

Edward J. Blum

This is part 2 of my post-AHA/ASCH interviews with graduate students who seem to me will be altering how we think about our discipline during the next 10-20 years. The answers come from Sonia Hazard, a PhD student at Duke University, and Brett Grainger, a doctoral candidate in American religious history at Harvard University. Check out his recent article in Church History

Religion in Animatronic History


Elesha Coffman

Surprised by a mid-day, 20-degree temperature drop at Disney World last month, my daughter and I took shelter in the Hall of Presidents, an exhibit we probably would have skipped otherwise. The show consisted of a film, narrated by Morgan Freeman, and animatronic figures of all 44 presidents, of whom only Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama had memorable speaking parts. The overall presentation was short on overt religious references—I caught a few mentions of God by Lincoln, a photo (not commented upon) of LBJ with Billy Graham, and a chorus of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the finale—but it instead provided an interesting perspective on the president as, in the recently controversial words of Atlanta pastor Andy Stanley, the nation’s “pastor in chief.”

Revisiting the Secret, Power, Magic, and, of course, History of New Thought

John L. Crow

At the last AAR conference in Chicago, I picked up a copy of John S. Haller, Jr.’s recent history of the New Thought movement published by the Swedenborg Foundation Press: The History of New Thought from Mind Cure to Positive Thinking and the Prosperity Gospel (2012). I just got around to reading a portion of it this weekend and I was immediately reminded of the fascinating history of this under studied movement. This is the newest comprehensive review I am aware of since Charles S. Braden’s Spirits in Rebellion: The Rise and Development of New Thought: The Story of the Beginnings and Growth of New Thought and Kindred American Metaphysical Healing Movements (1963, 2nd ed. 1984). The foreword by Robert C. Fuller states that “Haller provides the perceptive eye we need to make judicious sense of America’s long-standing interest in the power of mind and thought” (viii), and he is right, although I wonder if Haller’s heavy emphasis on Swedenborg’s influence on New Thought is an artifact of his audience and/or publisher. Nevertheless, his history makes the recent success of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (Atria, 2006) more understandable.

Catholicism and Civil Rights, 1968

Karen Johnson

On Thursday, April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  By Friday night, April 5, nine black men in Chicago, ages 16-34, were dead and the city’s west side was on fire.  At least four of those men had been killed by police, carrying shotguns loaded with shells packed with extra shot.  A Sun-Times reporter suspected the four dead were innocent bystanders, targeted by police who had little regard for black life.  While tragic, this type of deadly police violence against black citizens was not uncommon.  But it was hardly noticed by white Americans.

The following Monday, however, Chicago’s Mayor Daley said something that white Americans could not ignore.  Daley described his now-famous “shoot to kill” order.  He said, “I have conferred with the superintendent of police this morning and I gave him the following instructions, which I thought were instructions on the night of the fifth that were not carried out. I said to him very emphatically and very definitely that [he should issue an order] immediately and under his signature to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand in Chicago because they're potential murderers, and to issue a police order to shoot to maim or cripple any arsonists and looters--arsonists to kill and looters to maim and detain.”  Daley’s comments provoked an uproar of complaint, especially from the nation’s African Americans.  Later, Daley’s press secretary said that the reporters should have printed what Daley meant – that the police needed to protect women and children – not what Daley said.  But the damage was done.

Black people were appalled that Daley would so devalue black life.  His comments sparked black Catholics to form at least two black power organizations after the riot.  Those organizations were the Afro-American Patrolman’s League (AAPL) and the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus.

Wait a minute.  Black Catholics formed Black Power organizations? 

American Religion at OAH

Heath Carter

The Organization of American Historians' 2013 annual meeting is just under two months away.  I've gone ahead and assembled a list of panels pertaining to American religion, hoping that it might spur some of you who are on the fence to register.  There are going to be some very engaging conversations happening, as you'll see after the jump.   I hope you'll consider joining me - and many fellow blog contributors - in San Francisco in April.  Finally, if you notice any relevant panels that I've missed, please feel free to add them in the comments.

American Masters Features Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll

Paul Harvey

I already know what you're going to be doing Friday evening, February 22nd. Here's what you're going to be doing: at home, watching this "American Masters" documentary on the incomparable Sister Rosetta Tharpe. A little excerpt from the promotional material:

American Masters opens its 27th season with the story of African-American gospel singer and guitar virtuoso Sister Rosetta Tharpe (March 20, 1915 – October 9, 1973). One of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Tharpe may not be a household name today, but the flamboyant superstar, with her spectacular playing on the newly electrified guitar, played a pivotal role in the creation of rock ’n’ roll. Emmy®-winning filmmaker Mick Csáky uncovers her life, music and lasting influence in American Masters Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Rollpremiering nationally Friday, February 22 at 9 pm (ET) on PBS (check local listings) in honor of Black History Month.

Valentine’s Day Ambivalence

by J. Michael Utzinger
Those familiar with Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Consumer Rites (1995) certainly know that Valentine’s Day has been big business in the United States since the 1840s.  What interests me is the ambivalence with which religious Americans have greet this particular holiday.  It seems that religious individuals and groups use occasions like Valentine’s Day to express their discomfort with Christians generally, Catholics particularly, and the transforming power of the cultural (and economic) marketplace.  It also would appear that anything with the name of a saint or embraces love (broadly defined) has the potential to be sanctified, especially by marketers anxious to make a buck.-

None of this is new.  Take this small blurb from the Western Christian Advocate (10 February 1879):

  It Is very fitting that the men and women who add notes of grace and beauty to the song of life should be remembered as the ages pass, and that, year by year, some day should be set apart forever sacred to their names. That they belonged to another sect than ours cannot bar them out or the temples of our hearts, in which we venerate their memory. Perhaps their legend has almost vanished: who may tell the tale of old "Saint Valentine?" We only know that, in the calendar of the Catholic Church, the 14th of February is observed as his "'day"— and that, according to tradition, cherished from century to century, he was a presbyter in the diocese of Tortosa, was arrested and Imprisoned by Emperor Claudius, who sought, by aid of Asterius, to shake his faith in Jesus, and win him back to the worship of the older gods. But good Valentine, it is said, brought sight to the blind daughter of Asterius, and, instead of being convinced of error, converted Asterius and baptized his entire family. The emperor, indignant at Valentine's defiance, commanded his minions to beat him with clubs and behead him. And so, on the famous Flaminian Road, on the 14th of February, Valentine was executed. Perhaps, however, the day is observed, not so much in honor of the martyr, but as a "Galentin" Day— "galentin" having its root in the word "galant." Now "galant" means "honest, tasteful, genteel"— and "galanteric" means politeness, compliment. If, then, the 14th day of February is the day of "galentin," it ought to be a day of politeness, honesty, gentility, tastefulness— the more so that, in the beginning, it was a day In which lovers sent their sweethearts bits of verse, expressing their love — a day of heart affairs, in which men and women, under the beautiful guiding of affection, opened to each other the sacred wishes of the pure life. As such, the day is beautiful in its meaning; but Instead of honesty, gentility, there is now dishonesty, discourtesy, craft— and abuse of the post-office. Instead of dainty missives, breathing pure affection, there are coarse caricatures; and instead of heart-joy, there is pain. Why may there not be a revival of a truer Saint Valentine's Day— an honoring of the old saint, whose gracious ministry brought happiness to home and hearth— an exchange of sweet and sacred expressions of love- even the husband giving to his wife some tenderer word of love, so that the joy of life may be shared with deeper gladness?—H

Religion in the PNW: Alaska Airlines' Prayer Cards


By Seth Dowland

Tacoma: City of Destiny
Since moving to Tacoma, Washington, in July 2011, I’ve been fascinated to explore a new American subculture, especially given that I spent my first three-plus decades living entirely within the old Confederacy (Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina). I knew some of the obvious differences before my move: there’s more gray weather and grunge; the summers are immeasurably better than the South’s, and the scenery is to die for. 

But some of the differences surprised me—especially in the realm of religion. While there are more “nones” in the Pacific Northwest, there is an impressive religious infrastructure in urban areas, as well as a preponderance of evangelical mega-churches. In the Puget Sound we have nationally famous preachers like Casey Treat and Marc Driscoll; a recent award-winning documentary on Tacoma’s Life Center Church featured a nationally competitive “Bible Quiz” squad. In general, I’ve found Christianity quite a bit more prevalent than I expected when I moved here. (If anything, I have to work harder to convince my students that history is important than I do in convincing them to pay attention to religion. One of my colleagues described the Pacific Northwest to me as the place people move to in order to forget the past—which is not exactly how I’ve heard the South described.) 

So, as we launch Religion in American History version 3.0, I thought I’d launch my own personal series on sightings of religion in the Pacific Northwest. I’ll write about my new region every month on the 13th, unless something else grabs my attention.

I’ll start the series with a story about Alaska Airlines’ longtime habit of serving up Bible verses with their in-air meals. Alaska is the much-beloved dominant airline in Seattle. That’s not without reason: prices are competitive, and customer service is almost always good. Plus, the Alaskan Amber they serve on board is far superior to other airlines’ alcoholic offerings, and the $6 cheeseburger is the best in-flight meal I’ve ever eaten in coach. But I’ve never gotten a Bible verse with my burger. Alaska stopped serving scripture last February, in response to customer complaints. 

What floored me was this: Alaska would be nearly the last airline I’d guess was giving out the gospel. I know the Pacific Northwest has more religion than I suspected, but surely a self-respecting Bible belt airline like Delta or Southwest would be more likely to offer up the good news. Nope: it was Alaska that continued the practice till 2012. As best I can tell, a marketing executive got the program started back in the 1970s as a way of distinguishing Alaska from its competitors. In the last few years the practice was garnering far more negative or bemused attention than it was praise. Still, the decision to do away with in-flight prayer cards met with some resistance. Notably, Sarah Palin, who gave the airline a “shout out” in her autobiography Going Rogue, wrote a Facebook complaint about Alaska’s decision. (I can’t imagine Palin’s disapproval will dissuade many Seattleites from flying Alaska.) 

Reading about Alaska’s prayer-card practice triggered two competing thoughts. First, this seems right in line with the soft-sell evangelicalism practiced by fast food franchises like Cook Out and In-and-Out, which feature Bible passages on their cups and bags. Second, the origins of Alaska’s practice in a marketing department suggest a savvy business strategy rather than a heartfelt evangelicalism. Alaska may be one of the last airlines where I’d expect to find Bible verses on my meal tray, but marketing Christianity has rarely been a bad business strategy in the United States. 

Call for Panelist: IMAGE AS ARTIFACT


Call for Panelist:  AAR 2013 (Section TBD)


DEADLINE: February 18, 5pm

Panel Abstract:

Photographs are more than visual fields to be mined for symbolic meaning, ethnographic data, or historical reference. They are objects embedded in histories of production, circulation, and beholding. This panel works to position photographs from a variety of archival contexts as material artifacts that speak beyond the frame to the haptic experiences of beholding. The panel is conscious of the changing profile of photography in the digital age and is invested in historicizing the medium’s rich history of materiality. As researchers and educators we are furthermore attentive to the heterogeneity of images, to their simultaneous operation as icon and relic. Photographs can reference religion and they can disclose it. Working from a variety of methodological approaches, the panelists each incorporate the “thingness of the visual” into their analyses of a photographic archive that contributes to the study of American religion.

The panel is currently comprised of three papers and is seeking a fourth panelist to contribute to the discussion.  If you are interested, please send a current c.v. and brief paper proposal (250 words or less) describing your project and its relevance to the panel to Rachel Lindsey (rmlindsey@fsu.edu) or Mike Pasquier (mpasquier@lsu.edu) by Monday, February 18 at 5pm.

The Book of Mormon in Fifteen Days

by John G. Turner
After years of studying the history of Mormonism, I finally resolved to read the tradition's founding scripture in short order: the Book of Mormon in fifteen days. Because of its large print and easy-to-read format (I'm not quite as old as that makes me sound), I chose Royal Skousen's The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Yale, 2009) for the task. I've also kept David Hardy's Understanding the Book of Mormon on hand as a reference guide.

So that I can fit it in a blog post, here's a very short reaction to each book (I gave myself only fifty words per book).

1 Nephi. Major action here -- Lehi's family flees Jerusalem, takes a boat to the "land of promise." Of note: plates, Christ, dark skin as a curse, visions (of Christ "above that of the sun at noonday"), stock characters, prophecies about the New World. Finally, I understand the "Sword of Laban" references.

Christian Nightmares: An Interview with the Creator of the Popular Blog

Randall Stephens

Several years back an intrepid soul founded a blog called Christian Nightmares.  Since then this anonymous individual has been compiling the best-of-the-worst Christian kitsch, bad-tracking Christian music videos, and all sorts of scary rubbish from recent evangelical, Catholic, and fundamentalist history.  Wanna know the latest on Indiana's rogue pastor Jack Schaap?  Looking for that perfectly frightening Christian TV show featuring an off-kilter clown?  (Are there any on-kilter clowns?)  Want to know more about the latest Pat Robertson controversy?  Then Christian Nightmares is the place for you.

The site is a treasure trove of Christian pop culture.  Most from the gutter.  Viewing all the detritus on the blog these last few years I think of Colleen McDannell's Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (Yale, 1995) and Jason Bivins' Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (Oxford, 2008). McDannell cataloged and made sense of all the clutter: "Jesus junk. Holy hardware. Christian kitsch. Perhaps only televangelists have been maligned as much as the material culture of contemporary Protestants. Walk into any Christian bookstore and you will be faced with T-shorts parodying advertising slogans, frilly covers for Bibles, and pewter miniatures of biblical scenes"(222). More than a decade later, Bivins explored the dark, horrifying dimensions of this world.  (I'm doing some related work, with my new project on rock and religion from the 1950s-1970s.  And here Christian Nightmares has proved a useful resource.  It contains plenty of anti-rock diatribes, screaming  crusaders, and clips from VHS tapes warning of the pleasures of the flesh.) Some of the material on Christian Nightmares ranks as silly, weird stuff.  Other videos and stories could certainly be classed in the dreadful, tragic, horrifying category.

I recently caught up with the blog's creator for a q and a.

Randall Stephens: You started the blog some years back.  I wonder if you could say something about the purpose of it and how it's changed since you first launched it.

Dumpster Diving


Rachel Lindsey

In July 2012 readers of the New York Times were introduced to Nelson Molina, a 58 year-old sanitation worker who curates a gallery on 99th Street in Manhattan. A gallery of garbage. The venue for Molina’s “Treasure in the Trash” is the second floor of a Sanitation Department garage and, as his title suggests, each piece in the extensive collection—he estimated close to 1,000 pieces at the time Elizabeth Harris wrote the article—was retrieved from the city’s refuse during sanitation workers’ daily tours of the city. Harris described Molina’s collection (exhibit? archive?) to her readers:

Over here is a portrait of a grumpy-looking Winston Churchill, and over there, a very nice pastel copy of Henri Matisse’s “Woman With a Hat.” There are photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge; landscapes done in watercolor; ancient tricycles and toy trucks; and four electric guitars, one without pickups, another without strings, arranged around a Michael Jackson poster and gold-sequined tie. There is even a Master of Business Administration diploma from Harvard hanging by a window.

When asked why he not only culled but collected, catalogued, and curated New Yorkers’ discarded stuff, Molina explained that “I love collecting stuff, I love hanging stuff and I love to decorate. . . . It doesn’t matter what it is. As long as it’s cool, I can hang it up and I’ve got a place for it.”

In the months since completing my doctoral dissertation I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to surmount the central methodological dilemma of material culture analysis: how do I get from this object to the person who touched it, saw it, neglected it, worshiped it, who maybe thought it was meaningful or maybe didn’t think much about it at all? How do I discern humor, irony, subterfuge, or delight in the material fragments of the past? What are the ethical responsibilities of deploying these fragments as historical evidence?

Why Social Gospel History Still Matters: Newest Christian History Magazine Issue

by Janine Giordano Drake

 Historiographical debates on the origins of the Social Gospel movement used to strike me as irrelevant. Why does it really matter, I thought, whether the Social Gospel movement was a Protestant "response" to changes in industrial America, or whether Protestant church leaders had been addressing the importance of justice and equity for years?

Whether or not their interest in charity and a living wage was a recent turn of the early twentieth century, I thought, white male Protestants were still quite far from radicals. They still saw themselves as the only ones fit to rule in the early twentieth century, and were not shy about admitting this. If Josiah Strong, the ardent nationalist and not closeted racist, could be friends with George Herron (the Christian Socialist) and Lyman Abbott, the racist defender of the Prosperity gospel, could be identified as a "liberal Progressive" because of his stance on science and Biblical interpretation, then the Social Gospel was really just another name for the more "charitable" minded middle class Protestant ruling classes.

New Digital Resource: The Chicago Foreign Language Press Survey

Chris Cantwell

Add this to your list of unexpected but important resources. The Newberry Library's Dr. William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture is pleased to announce the release of its newest digital resource, the Foreign Language Press Survey.

The FLPS is a collection of nearly 50,000 translated newspaper articles from Chicago's foreign language press published from the 1860s through the 1930s. The project began as a WPA project, and when it finished it had translated over 120,000 pages for articles. For decades this collection of articles has been housed at the University of Chicago's Regenstein Library, where it has been an important resources for scholars interested in the history of race, ethnicity, and the city.  But as a collection, the FLPS was initially very difficult to use. Articles were broken down broadly by ethnic group and subject matter, but there was neither a finding aid nor an index to really know what lay in these hundreds of thousands of papers.

Well, not anymore. In 2009 the Newberry received a grant to digitize and encode the entire press survey. The new FLPS site presents the original translations in fully searchable form, which can be mined for specific terms or be looked at by date, ethnic group, or subject matter.

New Blog Layout

Kelly Baker

Readers: just so you know, we're currently modifying the layout on the blog. In the interim, the site might be a little wonky while we work things out over the few days.

Thanks for your understanding!

Rapture Culture

Kelly Baker

This semester, I am (again) teaching my course, The Apocalypse in American Culture, in which we interrogate the proliferation of apocalypticisms within religious movements as well as in popular culture. My goal is to help students understand what kind of work millennialism does for various people and groups as well as to understand how the apocalyptic mode of interpretation functions. The course surveys doomsday prophets, Ufology and aliens, conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, punk music, zombies, Jonestown, Marian apparitions, and Left Behind. The course is one of my favorites because I rely on the apocalypse as a mechanism to analyze the ubiquity of the end in religious culture and popular culture. Why the end? Why now (or then)? Why are these ends often catastrophic? This class proves to be particularly poignant after the "Mayan apocalypse" supposedly failed. The course addresses several main questions: Why is the apocalypse, the end, so enduring in the American fascination? What does this longing for the end of the world tell us about American culture more generally? What are the consequences of these perpetual yearnings for the end? What does it mean if the apocalyptic is an American mode of engagement, an interpretative schema, of our world in both the past and the present?

The first unit engages Amy Johnson Frykholm's excellent Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America, an ethnography of the readers of popular Left Behind Series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Frykholm documents the many ways that readers approach the series: how they agree or disagree, how they apply the books to their lives, and how they interpret contemporary events. One of the strengths of the book is that it does not give into the common assumption that readers acquiesce wholeheartedly to this particular form of the end and its political ideology. Frykholm demonstrates how readers contradict, complain, and contest how the books portray the premillennial dispensational view of the end.

George Will and American Religious History


Jonathan Den Hartog
The Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis is already humming along. With their wide array of outreach activities--including their web presence--they are definitely contributing to the public conversation.

Last December they hosted George Will for a public address. The video and text are here

The speech has gotten a lot of attention. Peggy Noonan described it as "the most important speech of the twenty-first century so far." Noonan's hyperbole aside, I decided I should check out the speech.

Will considers whether a republic needs religion (he believes it does) and whether religion is necessary for good citizenship (he believes it's not). To make this argument, Will takes a largely Straussian political philosophy view of the American founding, which he describes as a secular, Lockean endeavor. In the process, he describes contemporary debates over the American regime as the contrast between two graduates of Princeton--James Madison and Woodrow Wilson. Will, not surprisingly, champions Madison.

I'll allow the political theorists to evaluate the larger structure of Will's argument. As an historian, I'm always skeptical of boiling down the American Revolution to a handful of the leaders--and it does always seem to be the same five or so in the pantheon: Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton.

As a religious historian, though, I specifically wanted to counter Will's treatment of the attitude of the "Big 5 Founders" he cites toward religion. Will is at pains to describe each of them as publicly respectful of religion while not being very religious themselves. 

Not only is this territory a minefield, but it's also been an area of much academic study. With better reading, Will might have gotten a more nuanced view.

Kathryn Lofton's "The Methodology of the Modernists: Process in American Protestantism"

Trevor Burrows

The last few weeks have found me reading through some of the recent scholarship on both liberal Protestantism and religious liberalism. Thinking about such topics always leads me to questions of definition. What does it mean to be liberal in terms of religion and spirituality, Protestant or otherwise? Is it primarily a theological category? How does “liberal” relate to other aspects of religious life and practice? And how does liberal religion intersect with conditions of modern life and culture? As such questions have been gaining greater ground in scholarly circles as of late, I would like to call attention to an article that has helped me to broaden my own understanding of liberal Protestantism at the turn of the twentieth century.

Kathryn Lofton’s “The Methodology of the Modernists: Process in American Protestantism” (Church History, June 2006) provides a useful contribution to discussions of Protestant modernism and liberal Protestant identity. Lofton correctly observes that William Hutchison’s The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism still stands as the dominant historical exposition of modernist thought. Hutchison argued that modernists were defined by three characteristics: their emphasis on God’s immanence, what Lofton calls their “postmillenial progressivism,” and their unique understanding of the intimate relationship between religion and culture, a stance that compelled Protestants to actively adapt to modern cultural challenges and imperatives. It is this latter aspect of modernist thought - the willingness to engage and adapt to new knowledge and shifts in modern culture - that, for Hutchison, most distinguished the modernists from other liberal Protestants.

Creflo Dollar's Family Values

Kate Bowler

Televangelist Creflo Dollar is famous for his promises that God wants every aspect of life to prosper. Especially the family. His book series entitled The Successful Family tries show readers not only how to find domestic bliss, but how to build families that show God’s principles at work. But in this conservative religious world obsessed with “family values,” nothing seems harder on the family than the prosperity gospel.

Last week, charges were dismissed against Creflo Dollar for allegations that he choked his 15-year old-daughter during an argument over her attending a party. The famous televangelist and leader of the 30,000-member World Changers Church International, according to one court solicitor, must take anger management classes and pay the court fees associated with the charges of simply battery and cruelty to children.

CFP Reminder and Summersell Center Fellowship

Art Remillard

A note on two items of potential interest.

First, below is the CFP for an undergraduate conference that I organize. It will be held on March 22 and 23. The deadline for abstracts is February 20. Please feel free to distribute among your students. And if you are thinking of attending, let me know and I'll make sure that you get a free lunch.

As an added bonus, our friend Randall Stephens is the featured speaker! I will be taking the opportunity to do a JSR podcast with Randall about his recent scholarship. And since Joseph Williams will likely bring a crowd from Rutgers, I'll be talking with him about his new book, Spirit Cure: A History of Pentecostal Healing, which has just been published with Oxford University PressHere is the description...

Joseph W. Williams offers a compelling examination of the changing healing practices of pentecostals in the United States over the past hundred years, from the early believers, who rejected mainstream medicine and overtly spiritualized disease, to the later generations of pentecostals and their charismatic successors, who dramatically altered the healing paradigms they inherited. 
Williams shows that over the course of the twentieth century, pentecostal denunciations of the medical profession often gave way to "natural" healing methods associated with scientific medicine, natural substances, and even psychology. By the early twenty first century, figures such as the pentecostal preacher T. D. Jakes appeared on The Dr. Phil Show, other healers marketed their books at mainstream retailers such as Wal-Mart, and some developed lucrative nutritional products that sold online and in health food stores across the nation. 
Exploring the interconnections, resonances, and continued points of tension between pentecostal adherents and some of their fiercest rivals, Spirit Cure chronicles pentecostals' embrace of competitors' healing practices and illuminates their dramatic transition from a despised minority to major players in the world of American evangelicalism and mainstream American culture.
Second, Joshua Rothman of the University of Alabama (I hear they play football there) sends notice of a research fellowship from the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South.  In case you missed it, I podcasted with Josh last November on his new book, Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson.  In our conversation, Josh recounts the fascinating story of Virgil Stewart and John Murrell, as well as the gruesome details of Mississippi’s notorious wave of violence in the summer of 1835. He also reflects on how his research might raise valuable questions for scholars of southern religion.

You can find both announcements after the break.

What Do We Make of the World's Parliament of Religions?

Michael J. Altman

I got the World's Parliament of Religions on the brain lately.  A few weeks ago marked Swami Vivekananda's 150th birthday. That got me thinking about Vivekananda's role in American religious history and my dissertation, especially his famous speech at the Parliament and the thundering applause he received. Then I spent most of the day Friday revising the final chapter of my dissertation, the chapter all about Hinduism at the Parliament. As I was revising I re-read the following quote from one of Vivekananda's speeches at the Parliament.
 “We who come from the East have sat here on the platform day after day and have been told in a patronizing way that we ought to accept Christianity because Christian nations are the most prosperous. We look about us and we see England, the most prosperous Christian nation in the world with her foot on the neck of 250,000,000 of Asiatics. We look back into history and see that the prosperity of Christian Europe began with Spain. Spain’s prosperity began with the invasion of Mexico. Christianity wins its prosperity by cutting the throats of its fellow men. At such a price the Hindoo will not have prosperity. 

I have sat here today and I have heard the height of intolerance. I have heard the creed of the Moslem applauded, when today the Moslem sword is carrying destruction into India. Blood and the sword are not for the Hindoo, whose religion is based on the law of love."

I love this quote for two reasons. First, I love it because it completely undercuts two major interpretations of the Parliament in the academic literature. This quote is certainly not part of the "dawn of religious pluralism" in America. Nor is it an example of how the Parliament birthed comparative religion in America. No, it is a quote dripping with blood. It is anti-Christian and anti-Muslim. It's the sort of thing we hope a student doesn't say in an intro to religion course. The second reason that I love the quote is that it was hidden. John Barrows, a Presbyterian minister and the man behind the Parliament, did not include this particular speech in his history of the Parliament papers and proceedings. Nor does it appear in Walter Raleigh Houghton's anthology of Parliament papers. As far as I can tell it was only published in the Chicago Daily Tribune on September 20, 1893. The headline read "Hindoo Criticises Christianity."

American religious historians have not spent a lot of time or words on the Parliament lately. Around 1993 its centenary gave it a brief breath of new life. Most recently our blog's very own Kathryn Lofton offered her interpretation of the Parliament within a larger argument about the relationship between religious studies and religious history. But this lost quote gives me pause about any interpretation of the Parliament that doesn't render it as deeply conflicted and cacophonous. There seems to be a resurgence of studies of liberal religion in our field--a resurgence I welcome. So perhaps it is time to reevaluate the Parliament and its place in American religious history, American liberal religion, and comparative religion in America. What is the place of the Parliament in American religious history? I'd love to hear your answers. I'll get you my answer when I finish revising this chapter.

RiAH 3.0, or Let's Get This Party Started

Paul Harvey

February 1, 2013 is a big day in our blog's history, as we enter the era of RiAH 3.0!

The blog has taken some performance-enhancing drugs to help us with this: Kelly will soon roll out our new blog "style" (it's the "Espada" style in blogger, for you techno-geeks out there), which is a style that tries to make blogger look as much like Wordpress as possible. Yes, I know Wordpress is better, but we're too old to change now.

And more importantly, as of today we will be experimenting with a new blog schedule, with most of our contributors on the blogroll making contributions once a month, a few others less frequently, and a few free spirits just randomly posting whenever they feel like it. And we will still have occasional guest posts and the like. The motto for this changeover is: less Paul Harvey, more of everyone else. I figure, if Kobe would learn to pass the ball more, his team would be better, and the same goes for the blog (although Tebow rather than Kobe is probably the better analogy).

So, if all goes as planned, you can plan for an incredible variety of contributions, and contributors, each month. We still invite interested scholars, from advanced graduate students on forward, who want to post here to contact us and send us your posts for consideration; many of our contributors here started with a guest post sent randomly to me, and quickly worked their way into the starting lineup.

And now is a good time to remind everyone to friend us on facebook, and to follow us on Twitter. We have about 1200 facebook "friends" and over 800 Twitter followers, so let's set a goal to achieve 1500 on facebook and 1000 on twitter by our 6th birthday in late June! We have developed a pretty stable daily "hit" reading of 500 or so on average, and of course the more the merrier, so spread the word. You advanced graduate students out there -- I know you're out there, lurking, following, but not participating. Time for you to get involved, get your name and some of your thoughts on American religious history out there.

Bon voyage to RiAH 3.0!

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