Report from the Field: The Inaugural Danforth Distinguished Lecture Series

This is a crosspost from Religion in American History. It was originally posted on here on November 21, 2012.

This week I had the pleasure of attending the Danforth Distinguished Lecture Series hosted by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. As the invitation explained, this lecture series brought a distinguished scholar to Washington University in St. Louis to spur conversations on campus, but also among a broader community by welcoming guests who “provide added nuance to the subject and facilitate lively and informed discussion.”

The three-day event centered upon “Protestant Foreign Missions and the Secularization in Modern America,” highlighting David Hollinger as the distinguished guest as well as his significant body of work, especially his latest book, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History (drawn from his 2011 OAH presidential address, previously mentioned on RiAH here, here, and here). In addition to two thought-provoking lectures from Hollinger, the Danforth Lecture Series included a symposium with critical responses from Jon Butler, Darren Dochuk, and Molly Worthen as well as discussion from approximately 20 invited guests, ranging from graduate students, doctoral candidates, professors, and bloggers (you read that right–bloggers [like me!] invited to blog by an academic institution as a contribution to scholarly inquiry and an educated citizenry…a recognition of an academic digital community that makes me wonder: have you signed up for THATcampAAR?

Since I was invited to represent RiAH, I will recap the event and draw attention to what may be of interest to RiAH readers. Fortunately for all, the Danforth Center will post videos of the lectures on its website in the coming weeks. So stay tuned to the Center’s video lectures and also R&P.

In these outstanding and engaging lectures, Hollinger’s focus was familiar territory to those who read RiAH. His concerns are our concerns in this corner of academia. Hollinger emphasized the relationship between secularization and liberal Protestants–at times, concentrating more narrowly on liberal Protestant missionaries and their children. In two lectures, Hollinger drew attention to what he referred to as the “boomerang effect”: the way in which foreign missions changed culture at home. First, in “The Protestant Boomerang: How the Foreign Missionary Experience Liberalized the Home Culture,” Hollinger emphasized how the children of Protestant missionaries invested themselves in social change in the United States. Exposure to other cultures taught liberal Protestant missionaries’ children to view the world, and especially the United States, differently than their conservative counterparts, their co-religionists who remained in the U.S., and the broader American culture. Highlighting figures like Pearl Buck and Colonel William Eddy, Hollinger asserted that Protestant missionary enterprises produced a new set of ideals that reshaped the way these Americans thought about what it meant to be American and Christian, leading to their protest of Jim Crow, support for the feminist movement, and advocacy work for colonized peoples around the globe. This effect, Hollinger contended, liberalized and secularized American culture generally and American Christianity more specifically.

In his second lecture, “Liberalization, Secularization, and the Dynamics of Post-Protestant America,” Hollinger concentrated on how mid-twentieth century liberal Protestants and religious liberals more broadly legitimate what he called the “classical” secularization theory, those developed in the 1960s forward. Secularization, in Hollinger’s rendering, referred to the slow and steady move away from the authority of religious texts and the conviction that one’s religion is an exclusive expression of religious truth. Hollinger asserted that education, particularly exposure to a variety of philosophical thought, empirical inquiry, and at least a general knowledge about the rest of the world, caused Christians to move away from religion and toward a more secular identity (understood in this case as decreased church attendance and an erosion of doctrinal convictions). This phenomenon–the religiously affiliated becoming less affiliated to their religious institutions as a result of the outward expression of their affiliation–is Hollinger’s focus. He cautioned the audience to tread carefully around distinctions between “real secularists” and those who affirm Christianity yet are liberal or secular in their religiosity, reminding those present that we must not worry about protecting liberals’ Christianity from the critiques of their conservative counterparts.

Between these two lectures, the Danforth Center hosted a symposium with critical responses to Hollinger’s first lecture. Jon Butler, Darren Dochuk, and Molly Worthen supplied fascinating critiques to Hollingers work. I will not do these presentations justice as well as friend of RiAH and fellow invited blogger L.D. Burnett did over at the U.S. Intellectual History blog. You should read her recap.

The Danforth Center also provided a platform for the invited guests to introduce themselves and their work to each other as well as the distinguished guest. If these guests are any indication, then the study of religion in American in History, Religious Studies, and American Studies will continue to consider the issues Hollinger raised for some time. The major themes from these scholars’ work revolved around “secularization”–its parameters, its history, and its relationship to religion–and foreign relations, including but not limited to missions. By my count, almost half of the invited guests were working on dissertations or monographs that placed their study of American religious history in a global context, including RiAH’s own Mark Edwards, Michael Thompson, who traveled all the way from Sydney Australia to share his work on US in the World during the interwar period,  and Scott Libson, who is interested in intersection of capitalism and imperialism through fundraising efforts for foreign missions during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Others were concerned with “post-Protestantism” and social change, like Heather White, who is considering the use of Protestant church space by gay rights activists in New York, and Julie Yarwood, who is researching over 13,000 letters from clergy members to President Roosevelt regarding the New Deal. These are but a few of the fascinating projects introduced during the Lecture Series. I expect we will hear more from these invited guests here at the blog as well as the AAR this weekend and AHA/Church History in January. As I head to Baltimore for the long weekend, I’m left wondering if “secularization” the new organizing theme of American Religious History and, if so, what does that mean for our narratives, those that are “grand” and those that are geographically or chronologically local?

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