Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Jonathan Z. Smith at CU Boulder: The Future of the Study of Religion Over the Next 40 Years

The following announcement comes to me from Deborah Whitehead, Professor of Religious Studies at CU-Boulder, and is especially directed for blog readers along the Front Range, Denver, Boulder, and northern Colorado.

Religion in the 21st Century: Renowned Scholar of Comparative Religion
Jonathan Z. Smith to Lecture at CU-Boulder, April 12-13.

Jonathan Z. Smith, distinguished professor of religion at the University of
Chicago, will visit CU April 12-13 as the Cox Family Visiting Scholar for 2010,
hosted by the Department of Religious Studies. Professor Smith will deliver a
lecture, "Now you see it, now you won't: The Future of the Study of Religion
over the Next 40 Years" on Tuesday, April 13, at 7pm in HUM 150. Prof. Smith
will also participate in a roundtable discussion on Monday, April 12, from 3-
5:30 pm in Old Main Chapel. All are invited to attend both events.

Jonathan Z. Smith's academic career at the University of Chicago has spanned
more than forty years. For a dozen years he served as Dean of the College. As
the Robert O. Anderson Professor of the Humanities, his consistently
provocative work has deeply influenced the academic study of religion. Having
powerfully shaped the last forty years of the study of religion, Smith's Cox
Family Visiting Scholar Lecture embarks on the bold venture of charting the
future of the study of religion over the next forty years. His distinguished
career includes the publication of seminal works on religion including Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (1978),
Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (1982), To Take Place: Toward a
Theory of Ritual
(1987), and Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion

For more information please contact the Department of Religious Studies at the
University of Colorado-Boulder, (303) 492-8041, or email AT colorado DOT edu.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What if Jesus Had Come to Earth as a Cucumber? American Religious History Counterfactuals

Randall Stephens

The above was Erasmus's tongue-in-cheek version of counterfactual scholastic flimflammery. He reduced his angel-dancing-on-pinhead opponents to stuttering monkeys.

Certainly, not all counterfactuals are worth their weight in imaginary gold. Plausibility is important. That seems to rule out the cucumber incarnation. John Lewis Gaddis writes that "the use of counterfactuals in history has got to be highly disciplined. . . . You can't experiment with single variables that weren't within the range of the technology or culture of the times" (Landscape of History, 102). No crusaders with tommy guns. No famous atheists in 17th century Boston.

Some, like John Luckas have called into question the very term and thrown doubt on the whole enterprise: "In any event, 'what if?' or 'if it had happened otherwise' are better terms than the clumsily cobbled word 'counterfactual' about which much nonsense has been recently written, as for example Virtual History by Niall Ferguson, so often too clever by half. . . . Good history does not need counterfactuals. Good history is the result of good historians" ("'Counterfactual' is Wrong," Historically Speaking, Nov/Dec 2005, 3).

Still, I think that counterfactuals make useful thought experiments. So, Maura Jane Farrelly and I emailed back and forth and came up with a handful:

What if the Shakers had thrived (through recruitment, ya know) and were still 6,000 strong? What sort of causes and handiwork would they have put their hearts and hands to? Karate? (Might break that plausibility rule.)

What if Flannery O'Connor had not died of lupus in 1964? What would she have made of the the post-60s American religious landscape? Would she have become politicized?

What if Walker Percy had not contracted tuberculosis from one of the cadavers he was working on? Would he still have converted to Catholicism? Would he still have left medicine to devote his life to fiction?

What if Joseph Smith had not been martyred in 1844? Would Mormonism have looked significantly different?

When Ellen White, founder of Adventism was nine, she was struck in the head with a rock and fell into a coma for three weeks. What if she had died as a result of that injury? How would America's breakfast table look? How would grrrrrrreatness be defined?


Monday, March 29, 2010

The Evolution of Religion, on The Really Big Questions

Paul Harvey

Can science explain the evolution of religion, or why there is religion at all? The somewhat obscure public radio show The Really Big Questions, hosted by Lynn Neary, explores this. Just caught the show this weekend, and it was a terrific hour of radio which summarizes a lot of the contending thought on applying evolution to the study of religion in human societies. Hear it here. A bit more on the show below:

Wherever we look, in every corner of human history, we find religion. No other living species has it—why do we? How did it evolve, and what’s it for? Scanning the globe, The Really Big Questions explores the power of religion to create nurturing communities and vengeful armies, to console sufferers, and control non-conformists. We meet scientists searching for the underlying causes, and theologians, secular scholars and ordinary believers, who argue that these scientists are asking the wrong questions about the wrong things. Why do religions insist on truths that are either objectively false or unverifiable? Why is science unable to speak intelligibly about God, or Spirit, or the Divine? And can scientists trying to “explain” religion really do what they say?

There are also shows on "consciousness," "emotion," and "death" available for download at the site. You can read more on all of this also at the website The Evolution of Religion: The Adaptive Logic of Religious Beliefs and Behaviours.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Immigration and Religion in America

Paul Harvey

Surveying the books reviewed in the new Journal of American History gives a quick overview of the variety and vitality of American religious history. From the eighteenth-century Moravians, to Catholic feminism, to W. E. B. DuBois, to Holiness/Pentecostalism, to the memory of the Salem witch trials, to religion in the life of George Washington, and much else instead, even a quick scan and assessment of these newer titles suggests continued strength in the field.

Here's a title I was completely unaware of, and haven't seen yet, but looks promising:

Immigration and Religion in America: Comparative and Historical Perspectives. Ed. by Richard Alba, Albert J. Raboteau, and Josh DeWind. (New York: New York University Press, 2009. vi, 407 pp. Cloth, $78.00, ISBN 978-0-8147-0504-9. Paper, $26.00, ISBN 978-0-8147-0505-6.)

Immigration and Religion in America: Comparative and Historical Perspectives

The book pairs comparisons of earlier and more-studied immigrant groups (Italians, Japanese, Jews, and northward-migrating African Americans) with newer immigrant communities (Mexicans, Koreans, Arab Muslims, and Haitians). Each pairing comes with an introduction focusing on the religious history of the groups. Here's a bit more, from the review (access required for History Cooperative):

Several essays stand out. The sociologist David Lopez's "Whither the Flock? The Catholic Church and the Success of Mexicans in America" argues that, unlike the Italian case, "it is difficult to point to any important ways in which the church has facilitated their climb up the ladder of success" for Latino Catholics (p. 71). In "The Shaping of Arab and Muslim Identity in the United States," however, Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad shows evidence of Islam facilitating the acculturation of Muslim Arabs—much as Judaism did for Jews—by providing women the opportunity to participate in public life. Elizabeth McAlister and Karen Richman's "Catholic, Vodou, and Protestant: Being Haitians, Becoming American—Religious Pluralism, Immigrant Incorporation, and Transnationalism" illustrates the complicated ways that varied religious traditions and history provide meaning for Haitians in a new land.

Two essays challenge the notion that declining participation in religious rituals means that immigrant religious roots are less important to later generations. Despite the decline of traditional Buddhism among the Japanese, Jane Naomi Iwamura's "Critical Faith: Japanese Americans and the Birth of a New Civil Religion" argues that "what has emerged from the collective experience of war and internment is a faith that is tied to no particular religious tradition but that takes racial-ethnic identity as its starting points" (p. 137). Calvin Goldscheider's "Immigration and the Transformation of American Jews: Assimilation, Distinctiveness, and Community" suggests that for Jews the issue is not how much they have assimilated but "what factors sustain ethnic and religious community" (p. 198). He argues that the economic stratification of education and occupation, built on the demography of the first generation, allows this immigrant group to challenge the assumption that Jews (as a group) have become secularized in America.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Church and New Media: CFP

Note: if interested in this CFP for a piece in an edited book, you can contact Stefan Gelgren, associate professor at HUMlab (, Umeå University, Sweden,

CFP for an edited book on

Editors: Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess

Background and Rationale

This book brings together, for the first time in five years, a collection of key articles in the area of religion and the Internet, particularly as new media relates to church, mission, interfaith and ecumenical dialogue. In light of the increasing mediation of everyday life in many parts of the world, this book approaches online religion with a fresh perspective, to account for contemporary developments in media and spirituality, with implications for faith and other civic organizations.

Arguably, as institutionalized religions and movements rush to leverage the Web to improve their reach, religious communication on the Internet takes an increasingly significant role alongside more traditional venues for such discourse. It may be, however, that religious use associated with new media problematizes established faith rituals, and religious community building in both its conception and operationalization. Changes in the Church can also be conceived as intertwined with a range of other forms of social and political developments, such that new media acts as an agent and practice to challenge and transform the influence and authority of the Church. Furthermore, as “new” media is a moving target, there may be past concepts that are more able to explain the nature of church life (such as evangelical mission and systematic theology) or new concepts that are being developed that are better able to address the diversity and complexity of contemporary social and religious life (such as the ideas of social networking, viral marketing and church branding).

This edited collection aims to address and inform such issues and debates. It will draw on contributions to a major international and multidisciplinary conference, “Church and Mission in a Multireligious Third Millennium”, held in the Center of Contemporary Religion, Aarhus University (January 27-29, 2010). The conference has attracted key, internationally known, plenary, panel and paper speakers. Several contributions including a keynote address and panels devoted to “The Church in Cyberspace,” offer new empirical, theoretical, and theological insights into how religious life continues to transform and be transformed by these new communication technologies. Current contributors, together with the editors, include Knut Lundby, Heidi Campbell, Mark Johns, Jørgen Straarup and Timothy Hutchings.

We wish to collect these contributions in a new book: at the same time, we hereby invite proposals for additional chapters (particularly in the historical and theological sections as explained below) that will complement and expand upon these contributions.

Aims and Scope

In particular, we are soliciting manuscripts in the following areas that fit the four proposed sections of the book

Section I: Theoretical Approaches

This section maps the range of theoretical perspectives on religion and new media. A number of different theories, both more comprehensive (e.g., Walter Ong’s understanding of the “secondary orality” accompanying the shift to electronic media) and more focused (e.g., Stig Hjarvard’s use of remediation, Heidi Campbell’s use of Social Construction of Technology approaches, etc.), have proven useful for researchers and scholars – but new media also challenge our theoretical frameworks and categories. How far do current theories “work” in helping us research and understand the complex interactions between religious life and new media – and how far are new theoretical understandings needed? And: what might these new theoretical understandings “look like” – i.e., are new theoretical frameworks and categories available that have yet to be fully explored by scholars and researchers that can be argued to be potentially fruitful?

Section II: Historical Perspectives

This section discusses the presence and significance of historical perspectives in church and new media research. Transformations in communication media are deeply interwoven with the history and theology of Christianity. In light of this history, how do churches respond to the continued expansion of contemporary communication media? Since its inception, the church has always engaged with “new media”, beginning with the transition from the primarily oral traditions of the earliest communities to the use of written and visual texts such as letters, Gospels, illustrations etc. How we experience and communicate with God, whether we primarily hear, read or “see” the Gospel appears to have a strong, if not defining influence on individual, communal, and institutional understandings of self, community, the meanings of the Christ event and the mission of the church. Likewise, are we now witnessing a transformation of our sense of identity to more relational selves – precisely the sorts of selves best facilitated through the multiple communicative possibilities of new media?

Section III: Empirical Investigations

This section reports on the empirical research studies that investigate emerging media and social media practices related to the Church. Disciplines represented include but are not restricted to: sociology of religion, ethnography and online ethnography, linguistics, and the social sciences and humanities more broadly as represented within the field of computer-mediated communication. Contributions may focus on, but not restricted to, contemporary uses (successful and not so successful) of new media in the life of religious communities (local, national, international). Guiding questions for such research and studies include: Do the possibilities and affordances of new media lead to genuinely new and demonstrable impacts on the life of congregations? What factors appear to accompany whether or not a given community or institution embraces or resists specific media? What factors are at work in both successes and failures for faith believers and organizations to adopt and adapt to new media? How does religiously related new media use interact or affect the offline practices of established religious organizations?

Section IV: Theological Reflections

The last section of the book provides theological reflections on the Internet, to forward the development of a theology of the Internet which is a budding field of research. Although practical perspectives and guidelines for Internet use have been published, a more thorough theological analysis of new media is missing. The need for theological clarification is apparent since web-enabled applications challenge churches with difficult questions, for example, is the community of believers bound to physical presence in shared time and space, or can church in a meaningful way exist in cyberspace? Can sacraments be shared on the Internet? In addition, does the individualized and sometimes even anonymous way of using the Internet call for new Christian or interfaith ethics? Furthermore, the internet also poses challenges for the role of the pastor, as an epistemic authority of sacred texts. Finally, the Internet has been embraced as a tool for mission, but how does theology inform our understanding of e-vangelization and cyber conversions?

Submission Details

Please submit a 500-700 word abstract (including important and initial references) to the editors as an email attachment to no later than April 15, 2010. Authors of accepted abstracts will be notified by May 15, 2010, and will then be invited to submit a full paper to the editors. Final manuscripts should be no more than 6,500 words, including notes and references, prepared in APA style.

Important Dates:

April 15, 2010 Deadline for abstract submission

May 15, 2010 Announcement of results and full paper invitations

August 31, 2010 Submission of full papers

Inquiries should be addressed to:

Pauline Hope Cheong

Associate Professor of Communication

Hugh Downs School of Human Communication

P.O. Box 871205, Stauffer Hall 462 Tempe, AZ 85287-1205

Arizona State University

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Goshen College Gets (Civil) Religion

by Steven P. Miller

Mennonites usually appear in the headlines when someone has confused them with their close (but very different and more interesting) relatives, the Amish. This week, though, The New York Times, MSNBC, and other media outlets chose to cover a novel event in my part of Mennoworld: the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at my alma mater and temporary place of employment, Goshen (Ind.) College. This was a first for the 116-year-old institution, affiliated with the Mennonite Church USA, a historic peace church.

My alma mater is extremely sensitive to criticism, which usually comes from groups to the theological right of this traditional bastion of Mennonite liberalism (Put it this way: I’ve heard stories of evangelists declaring that the sewers of Goshen are “clogged with fetuses”). Still, Mennonites are fond of having conversations (as opposed to conflicts), and in that spirit I will venture forth with a few observations/teachable asides about L’Affaire Anthem.

The criticism of the new anthem policy within Goshen circles has some interesting parallels to how the “young evangelicals” of the early 1970s interpreted Robert Bellah’s famous “civil religion” thesis. That is, they focused almost exclusively on the priestly, rather than the prophetic, side of American civil religion. Such an approach might work as theology, but it does not suffice as history. In the classroom this semester, I have tried to get my students thinking about the multiple meaning of American-ness (and claims to American-ness) by using a modified form of Gary Gerstle’s civic vs. racial nationalism rubric, which I’ve long thought also is relevant to the study of American religion.

I’m intrigued to hear criticism of the anthem policy coming from other than Mennonite circles. It’s as if Goshen had some sort of obligation to be the foil for Christendom. Where did these high expectations come from? My best guess is the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, a vocal fan of Mennos who hitched his highly influential post-liberal vision to the spirit of the very Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.

As the above thoughts might suggest, I’m not terribly bothered by the new policy—a fact that puts me in the minority among my alumni friends. In deciding to play the anthem before most sporting events, the college unquestionably is abandoning a source of Mennonite distinctiveness. On the other hand, no one who attends a Goshen baseball game—and hears an announcement of the school’s core values (three of which are “Global Citizenship, Servant Leadership and Compassionate Peacemaking”), followed by a musical version the anthem, followed in turn by the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi—will mistake the place for Patrick Henry College. Besides, our nickname is not “Crusaders,” not “Flames”; it’s “Maple Leafs.”

"Thieves break through and steal" at the Methodist Archives

Paul may indeed be right that "Methodists just aren't that cool," but historical documents stolen from their archives still apparently fetch a hefty sum on the black market. Just ask William John Scott, Drew University freshman and (former) employee at the school's United Methodist Archives and History Center, who was arrested last week on charges of stealing several valuable documents from the archives (including 21 of the 23 Wesley letters the school owns, and "roughly 11 other important and historical documents, ... including letters from five United States presidents"). Scott is currently being held on $50,000 bond and could face up to 10 years in prison.

From the report in the New York Times:

The university became suspicious, according to an account provided by prosecutors, after an antiques dealer in England alerted officials in its library that he had been approached by someone offering to sell him original letters from the Wesleys. Ten of the letters arrived on March 3, via FedEx, according to the complaint, with two suffering some damage in transit.

Prosecutors said the unprofessional way the valuable documents were shipped did not sit well with the dealer, who then consulted Drew officials, given their expertise and collection of Wesleyana.

After a quick search of its archives, the university estimated that 21 to 23 of its Wesley letters appeared to be missing and contacted the F.B.I. The missing lot included a valuable letter, worth more than $5,000, from John Wesley to a friend and supporter, George Merryweather, dated Dec. 20, 1766. ...

University officials had not been aware that the presidential letters were missing until the search of the dorm room. But they were optimistic on Monday that they would ultimately recover any lost items. “For Methodists, these are treasures and so we’re hoping to get them back,” said Christopher Anderson, the Methodist librarian at Drew.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Methodists, Elizabeth Warren, the Financial Crisis, and Free Market Fundamentalism

Ask Elizabeth Warren, scourge of Wall Street bankers, how they treat consumers, and she will shake her head with indignation. She will talk about morality, about fairness, about what she calls their “let them eat cake” attitude toward taxpayers. If she is riled enough, she might even spit out the Warren version of an expletive.

“Dang gummit, somebody has got to stand up on behalf of middle-class families!” she exclaimed in a recent interview in her office here.

Yes, it’s true, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about Methodists lately. Sure, I farmed out John Wigger’s new biography of Francis Asbury out to a couple of our blog contributors, and recently I was surveying a manuscript of a journal article which discussed the red-baiting spewed at some Methodist Church leaders in the 1950s (one of whom responded with admirable humor and restraint, I thought). But Methodists seem so, umm . . , nineteenth century somehow -- that was the Methodist century, after all. Even my several weeks at the Methodist archives at Drew University were spent in the service of a larger project that had less to do with Methodism per se than religion and civil rights more generally. Methodists just aren't that cool.

All this struck me today while reading about one of my contemporary heroes -- Elizabeth Warren, a Methodist Sunday school teacher, professor of law at Harvard Law School, congressional overseer for the TARP program, and the best-known advocate for the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency (opposed unanimously by Senate Republicans -- thanks, guys, plus Olympia Snowe and what’s-her-name from Maine, for your heartwarming diplay of bipartisan spirit on a major national issue). The Senator from my home state, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, is apparently too busy fulminating about denying Viagra to sex offenders to worry about a consumer financial watchdog agency. I mean, why spend time worrying about the national housing crash, predatory lenders, pay-day loan scams, and the entire structure of too-big-to-fail “insurance” companies (yeah I’m talking about you, AIG) when there is the slightest possibility that some dude somewhere might snooker his physician into getting him some Viagra. And of course the other congressional wingnuts have been preoccupied egging on the very same Tea Party protesters who hurled racial and homophobic insults at John Lewis and Barney Frank, and are now targeting Rep. Betsy Markey in my current home state of Colorado -- check Sarah Palin's Facebook page, and you'll see that I mean the term "targeting" quite literally. There's a bullseye on you, Betsy, that will make you regret voting for a very modest, limited expansion of health care to some uninsured people.


Apropos of that, I believe it is Warren that I first heard point out that medical costs were the number one cause of bankruptcy in America -- reasonably common knowledge now, not so much a few years ago when I saw her explain that.

A brief description of Professor Warren:

She is an Oklahoma native, a janitor’s daughter, a bankruptcy expert at Harvard Law School and a former Sunday School teacher who cites John Wesley — the co-founder of Methodism and a public health crusader — as an inspiration.

I’ve heard Ms. Warren on the radio, and seen her on television a number of times, and she seems equally at ease on both Jon Stewart and on Dave Ramsey -- the latter being the current reigning guru of radio financial advice. (Confusingly, Ramsey mixes sound financial advice and common-sense platitudes about staying out of debt with near-daily nonsensical screeds against Social Security and in favor of the kinds of market fundamentalism which have, in part, created the legions of people calling into his shows seeking emergency financial advice). Warren seems equally able to piss off the right-wingnuts and Timothy Geithner at the same time, an unusual quality right now.

In her pitch for a consumer financial protection agency, she speaks forthrightly to Congress, fear of failure be damned:

If that happens, Ms. Warren will still have her own platform, starting with her nearly constant stream of television appearances. Hosts and cameramen love her: she has the friendly face of a teacher, the pedigree of a top law professor, the moral force of a preacher and the plain-spoken twang of an Oklahoman.

Historically, Methodists have been pretty resistant to fundamentalism, and perhaps that helps explain why Warren, an old-fashioned and principled conservative in many ways, has emerged as the strongest proponent of consumer protections against free market fundamentalism.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Millennialism and Providentialism in the era of the Civil War -- Repost of CFP

Call for Papers

Millennialism and Providentialism in the Era of the American Civil War

October 1-2, 2010

Rice University

Houston, Texas

The Department of History at Rice University invites proposals for a special conference focusing on millennialism and providentialism in the era of the American Civil War and Reconstruction to be held on the campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas on October 1-2, 2010. An opening address will be given by Robert Abzug of the University of Texas at Austin on the theme of antebellum millennialism and providentialism in the coming of the American Civil War. Edward J. Blum, Associate Professor at San Diego State University will likewise offer a concluding address on the postbellum era.

Millennial energies imbued antebellum American culture with both apocalyptic eschatology and zeal for reform rooted in an optimistic belief in social improvement. In addition to forming the basis of eschatology, millennialism and providentialism set the limits of human and divine agency, explained causation in the past, and defined the possibilities of the future. Recent studies have emphasized the importance of the Civil War in recasting the millennial spirit and providential expectations that coursed through antebellum culture. Yet recent historiography leaves pressing questions unanswered as to the fate of these energies after the War. It is to this end that the history department at Rice University seeks to initiate a critical reconsideration of millennialism, the Civil War era, and American culture.

Proposals may consider a variety of topics relating to millennialism, providentialism, and/or expectations for the future during the nineteenth century. Proposals should include an abstract of approximately 300 words and a single page CV. Submissions from graduate students and junior scholars are encouraged, as are those that draw on interdisciplinary methods that challenge the traditional boundaries of historical study. Presented papers will also be considered for publication in an anthology on the same topic. A limited amount of funding for travel may be available to students and scholars who are unable to obtain funding from their own institution. Proposals must be received by April 16, 2010 and should be sent by email to or by post to 2010 History Conference; c/o Ben Wright; Rice University History Department; 6100 Main Street, MS—42; Houston, Texas 77054.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Rival Revivals: Some Religious History at the OAH

Paul Harvey

Those of you going to the OAH in Washington, D.C., April 6-9, should find much of interest in religious history to select from. Just wanted to point you to a couple of sessions of particular interest:

Here's one on religion in the Great Depression, a subject which is undergoing a sustained re-examination in a number of recent works:

Thursday, April 8, 8:30 a.m. (in the Hilton Washington Headquarters Hotel -- does anyone know why the room locations of these sessions are not printed?)

Rival Revivals: Religion, Politics, and Labor in the Great Depression

Chair: Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University

Revival or Revolt: Religious Foretelling at the Dawn of the Great Depression
Alison Greene, Yale University

“The Gospel Sends You Home Mad”: Rebellious Religion and Rural Protest in the 1930s South
Jarod Roll, University of Sussex

Was FDR the Antichrist? The New Deal and the Rise of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism
Matthew Avery Sutton, Washington State University

Comment: Ken Fones‑Wolf, West Virginia University

I've read Matt and Jarod's stuff that they're presenting here, and word on the street is that Alison's dissertation is terrific, so this promises to be a great session on some of the best new work from this period.

Then, at 1:45 on Thursday April 7 somewhere or other in the Hilton, we're going to have some fun dissecting the concept of religious freedom in American history:

New Approaches to Religious Freedom in American History

Chair: Tracy Fessenden, Arizona State University

History and Historiography in Church‑State Relations
Eric Mazur, Virginia Wesleyan College

Religion, Race, and Southern Ideas of Freedom
Paul Harvey, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

Native Americans and the Dilemmas of Religious Freedom
Tisa Wenger, Yale University

Comment: Tracy Fessenden

Then, finally, very annoyingly scheduled for EXACTLY the same time (1:45 Thursday April 8), is a great-looking session on teaching religious history; maybe I'll draft the other Paul Harvey to read my paper above so I can sneak off to this session:

Teaching American Religious History:
Challenges and Strategies

Chair: Judith Weisenfeld, Princeton University

Laurie Maffly‑Kipp, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Deborah Dash Moore, University of Michigan
Rudy V. Busto, University of California, Santa Barbara
Rowena McClinton, Southern Illinois University

The full OAH program can be accessed here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Religious Intolerance in America -- New Documentary History

Paul Harvey

This just in, from a flyer I received from University of North Carolina Press: John Corrigan and Lynn Neal, eds., Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History. Out in May in both hard and paper, and at 304 pp. very classroom usable.

book's website
all the details, and how exactly I had missed the fact that this work was soon to be in existence at all is beyond me. Anyway, this is the bailiwick of our associate editor Kelly Baker, so we hope she’ll have a chance to blog about this book more extensively down the road. In the meantime, here’s a brief description, and I look forward to delving much further into this work!"

American narratives often celebrate the nation's rich heritage of religious freedom
. There is, however, a less told and often ignored part of the story: the ways that intolerance and cultures of hate have manifested themselves within American religious history and culture.

In the first ever documentary survey of religious intolerance from the colonial era to the present, volume editors John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal define religious intolerance and explore its history and manifestations, including hate speech, discrimination, incarceration, expulsion, and violence. Organized thematically, the volume combines the editors' discussion with more than 150 striking primary texts and pictures that document intolerance toward a variety of religious traditions. Moving from anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan propaganda to mob attacks on Mormons, the lynching of Leo Frank, the kidnapping of "cult" members, and many other episodes, the volume concludes with a chapter addressing the changing face of religious intolerance in the twenty-first century, with examples of how the problem continues to this day.

New Media and the Reshaping of Religious Practice

Paul Harvey

Following up on its recent report "The New Landscape of the Religion Blogosphere," which features discussion of our little blog here along with many other more prominent ones, the SSRC and Immanent Frame have posted short responses from a variety of folks (including myself and more knowledgeable people in the area such as David Morgan and Stewart Hoover) on the question of how (or whether, or if) new media will reshape religious practice. More precisely:

how are new media—from blogs and social networking sites to mobile technologies and other forms of digital connection—shaping and reshaping the practice of religion?

My response (posted again below) speculated on blogging as an updated form of spiritual journaling, a practice familiar from the medieval world to the Puritans and to the evangelicals of the era of the awakenings (keep in mind that this was prepared for Immanent Frame's "Off the Cuff" series, and I take the series title seriously: these reflections are based on nothing more than vague impressions, written "without fear and without research," as somebody once said of a particular history text that we liked to trash in graduate school):

Blogs are becoming something like a combination of spiritual journals and diaries together with personalized newsletters, allowing for people to publicly express their daily thoughts and spiritual practices, for ministers to reflect on sermons past and present, for church members to discuss what their preacher talked about last Sunday, and for intellectuals to issue prompt analytical verdicts on religion in the news and religious trends as reported in the media. The result, I believe, is a continuation of a familiar theme in American religious history—the democratization of religious expression, the relative flattening of authority, and the basic impulse to internalize religious traditions in a personal way. Social networking may have some of that effect (I’m less familiar with religious social networking sites), but may work at cross-purposes as well. For example, Facebook fan clubs for religious celebrities accentuate, rather than flatten out, authority and promote well-known religious spokespeople, as opposed to the decentralized and anarchic world of blogging. Many bloggers, I have noted, keep a list of exercises (personal, academic, spiritual) and give daily or weekly accounts of how well they’ve kept up their disciplines—much like Sarah Osborn did in her personal writings in the eighteenth century, and countless evangelical believers did in the nineteenth. The difference, of course, is that the blog is there as a form of private confessional that holds one publicly accountable.

The technologies are new, but the impulse to personalize, record, and measure one’s spiritual devotion has gone on a straight line from the Puritans to the present.

But maybe, as usual, I'm just late to the party, having arrived after the cool people have left. That at least is the implication of the post by Elizabeth Drescher, who quotes surveys showing the decline of blogging among the younger set, and among those who tend to predict the future of media consumption. She continues:

For one thing, it seems to mean that if we want to understand how digital media practices are impacting emerging religious practice, looking at the religious blogosphere probably isn’t the first place to start. Demographically speaking, with the important exception of gender, the religious blogosphere as it’s mapped in the SSRC report is largely an articulation of mainline religious and academic institutional establishments. Wonderful as the blogs and blogsites studied may be as gathering places for academic and religious thought leaders with a lingering passion for reasonably extended reflection, their very inclusion means that they have participated in a process of institutionalization that is undermined again and again by the very nature of Web 2.0 practice and culture. Fan though I am of many of these blogs, their very status in the various rankings cited in the report places them at the top of a hierarchy that is relatively meaningless in the shaping of religious practice in America. The report, then, picks up the trail of religious change just at the place where it seems to be going cold.

Where might we pick up the scent? The answer, I think, is small: small clusters and communities centered around more or less exclusive and more or less organized social networks, and small communication forms like Facebook status updates and, especially for younger teen girls and young adults of all genders, Twitter feeds. Attending to these micro-forms is something we learned from Steven Johnson’s influential book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. An emergence, Johnson teaches, is lead by ants, not by queens. Small is where we’ll find the contours of new religious identity, community, and practice.

Also included here is a response from our own Randall Stephens, who as usual finds the most amusing quote and is generally wittier than everybody else.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

First Annual Conference on Public Intellectuals, 23-24 April 2010, Harvard University

Randall Stephens

Next month I'll be taking part in an interesting new conference on public intellectuals. (I've been working on public anti-intellectuals of late, so this should be fun.) The organizers Larry Friedman (Harvard) and Damon Freeman (UPenn) hope to draw interested parties to the conference. All sessions are open to the public.

Here's the summary:

In 1993, literary critic Edward Said defined the ideal intellectual as someone who stood outside circles of power while advancing knowledge and freedom for the wider public in "speaking truth to power." This first annual Conference on Public Intellectuals seeks to deepen and broaden Said's critique by providing an opportunity to scholars who are writing on public intellectuals.

The conference will take place over a period of two days, Friday and Saturday, 23-24 April 2010 at Harvard University. It is free and open to the public. The conference venue is in Room 1305 of William James Hall, 33 Kirkland Street on Harvard's campus. Sixteen papers are spread over four sessions: Public Intellectuals as Cultural Icons; Religion, Science, and Tolerance; and Race, Gender, and Protest, Parts One and Two. The conference also features two plenary sessions on Career Reflections. The conference is also working in conjunction with "The Future of American Intellectual History" symposium taking place Friday afternoon, 23 April in the Lower Level Conference Room at Harvard's Busch Hall.

See the full program here.

See this recent post on a conference exploring a related theme: CFP: “Intellectuals and Their Publics”: Third Annual U.S. Intellectual History Conference Sponsored by USIH and the Center for the Humanities, The Graduate Center, CUNY, New York City

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rick Warren meets the Jonas Brothers

by Matt Sutton

There were a lot of things (in addition to spilling seed) that infuriated my fundamentalist friends during the interwar era. These included: Christians (and not) who desecrated the Sabbath by attending movies; ministers who lured visitors to church with unholy amusements; and churches that commercialized religion. What would they think of this: Rick Warren (of “I am Bono’s friend and we will save the world together” fame) has just abandoned my U2-loving generation for the younger set. This year the Jonas Brothers will be playing Saddleback Church’s Easter service at Angel Stadium. What could be more (un)holy than that?

FYI, Angel Stadium is in Anaheim (Orange County); not in any way, shape, or form Los Angeles for you baseball fans duped by the Angels’ brass.

Randall: I presume you will be there reporting for us on the Jonas Brothers? And Ed, remember it is just a short drive from San Diego to the OC. You should be there too to keep Randall from crashing the stage.

Religion in American History Television: Popular Intolerance (Religious or Otherwise)

Kelly Baker

In my Religious Intolerance class yesterday, one of my wicked smart students (this class is full of sophisticated, clever students, which makes me very lucky) made the fateful mistake of asking me what I thought about American History X, the 1998 film about white supremacy and what happens when you try to leave hate behind. He, of course, didn't know that he tapped into one of my soapbox issues: popular representations of intolerant peoples (in this instance white supremacists).

This issue, which I have blogged about before, consumes me when I should be thinking about much more important things (like 1920s Klansmen and Klanswomen). My Intolerance class this semester, thus, revolves around popular culture and the media's representation of intolerance, but the more I teach about this, the more I am interested not only how the victims of intolerance are portrayed but also those who are considered "intolerant." American History X's portrayal of white supremacists, particularly Neo-Nazis, strikes me as both stereotypical and novel. The Neo-Nazis, of course, read Mein Kampf, sport shaved heads, and ink their skin with white supremacist symbols and swastikas. They are dysfunctional, violent, backward, and uneducated (except the leader). They are members of a prison gang, and they hate African Americans as well as Jewish people. (More often than not, they are also Southern.) This is standard fare. Almost all television portrayals of white supremacists render them as burly, uneducated dudes whose looming physical presence should signal their racist agendas. See, the film says, we can easily identify the bad guys, and these types of guys are always the bad guys.

Joshua Alston at Newsweek points out the popularity of "primetime supremacy" or white supremacy on television. Alston writes:

Maybe it's just my naiveté, but having lived in cities large and small, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon, I can't recall ever having seen a skinhead wash his car, or eat an ice-cream cone, or even glower from a dusky corner.... According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, membership in white-extremist groups is ticking upward, as downtrodden, angry Caucasians seek an outlet for their anxieties about a black president, illegal immigration, and a leaky economy. Still, the supremacy surge seems to be much more acute in Hollywood than anywhere else in the country.

Hollywood, it seems, has caught the supremacist bug. Popular television shows document your local skinhead menacing someone about something while these groups gain ground in our nation. Moreover, Alston thinks that these characters prove popular because Americans like to distance ourselves from "occupational racists" and then we don't have to address racism: if racism looks like this, then we are clearly not racist. He continues:

The reason the card-carrying white supremacist lingers in the public imagination is not just because he's scary, but because he fortifies our self-regard in an area where we all occasionally need some convincing. As the puppet of Avenue Q sang on Broadway, "everyone's a little bit racist." On some level we all recognize this, and to acknowledge—or even inflate—white supremacists is to assuage our guilt with the knowledge that there are people out there far more prejudiced than most of us could ever be. For writers, these characters have even more appeal. Their beliefs are so stigmatized, there's no need to bog down the story with motives and expository monologues. As Henry Rollins said of his skinhead [Sons of] Anarchy character, "I'm [playing] a white supremacist—I have no redeeming qualities whatsoever besides that I like my kids." Apparently there's some redeeming quality, or bald white actors wouldn't be getting so much work.

Redemption is fascinating language to use in this context because I disagree a bit with Alston's analysis. These characters because they are easy. We can clearly identify their moral wrongness and vituperative hate. The problem with the stereotypical presentation of white supremacists or intolerant peoples is that ignores the reality of modern white supremacist movements. These movements organize under the banner of religion, race, and common prejudice but they aren't as easily identifiable as television or film would like us to believe. These movements are not backward but savvy in both cultural and technological circles. Yes, there are members of these movements who might have resonance with their portrayal on TV, but many of the members are educated, non-tattooed (or at least covered), articulate and highly motivated. Movements like these contain David Duke as well as those who we expect to cling to base prejudices. On celluloid, the characters are not redeeming at all, but in everyday interactions, they are more likely to seem so. If only those who believed in the bizarre racial worlds of white supremacists were as easily identifiable as their movie counterparts, then it might be easier to discount the fantastic nature of their beliefs and practices. They look strange, the film says, they must be strange. Our everyday encounters with people that hold these beliefs are not so forward or obvious. By rendering the intolerant as obvious, film and television lulls us into believing that we can easily identify those with unseemly, clearly racist agendas. It is, however, not so easy.

As someone who studies the religious worlds of hate movements, the disconnect between white supremacy and religion in popular culture is even more disturbing. Scary white dudes make more sense visually than engagement with systems of belief. Moreover, religiously intolerant people are also represented as frothing from the mouth crazy instead of the more subtle forms of religious intolerance. For instance, HBO's vampire drama True Blood renders the Fellowship of the Sun (FOTS), the vampire hating and hunting church, as religiously quacky and dangerous. They spout salvation and collect weapons. The well-meaning but intellectually lacking Jason Stackhouse, the central character Sookie Stackhouse's brother, is wooed by the leaders of FOTS and lured into their rhetoric of danger of vampires despite his personal experience otherwise. FOTS members are young, evangelical, wholesome, and eventually violent and unyielding. They plan attacks to murder vampires while wearing camp t-shirts and good suits. They are intolerant, and it becomes obvious as they become kookier and kookier. Their religious theology is thin, but their hate is apparent. Again, the stereotypes focus on uneducated folks, but these members of the Fellowship are more well-meaning but confused than primetime supremacists. They are still fringe and small, like we hope all intolerant communities are. Alston calls this "hate's new look" but it is just the same old stock characters.

American History X, then, proves to be novel and unique in Edward Norton's transformation from white supremacist to a reformed man. He abandons the racist world view yet he is still bound by the tattoos on his skin. Every time he looks in the mirror, he confronts the swastika on his chest. His previous identity scars his skin and his past. Moving beyond hate proves to be hard to do. This is part of the brilliance of the film, handling the aftermath of supremacy and chains of violence attached to this world view. The portrayal of intolerant peoples on film and tv, however, generally stick to stock figures but Norton's character tries for redemption and doesn't necessarily succeed. Redemption is not necessarily the correct language about celluloid portrayals of intolerance. To engage the complexity of intolerance might prove too difficult for television or film, and audiences might not be receptive to the bad guys looking more like the rest of us.

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