“We can only connect the dots we collect”

Recently, it was pointed out to me that my curriculum vitae is “eclectic.” The comment reminded me of a recent post at Explore blog that affirmed “creativity necessitates eclecticism.” The post can be found here, but it is also reproduced below:

-the beatles
-the beach boys
-michael jackson
-cyndi lauper
-MTV in general, esp watching 120 minutes
-the cure
-the legendary pink dots
-nick cave
-my parents & step parents (all 5 or 6 of them)
-they might be giants
-john hughes’ movies
-the wall (the film and the album)
-santa sangre (the film)
-the doors (the band, that is, not the things you use to separate rooms)
AND not so obvious (and less “credible”) things that influenced me:
-my parents copy of “the joy of sex”
-the brady bunch
-judy blume
-weird al yankovic
-the choir music i sang in the episcopal church (aged about 6-13)
-one single novel by jackie collins called “rock star” that i read when i was 12
-the woods outside the house i grew up in-
-my next door neighbor anthony
-my older brother karl’s record collection, which i dubbed almost in it’s entirety
-my older sister, HUGELY (for better or worse)
-the porn magazines i managed to get a hold of
-all radio and television commercials everywhere (this one freaks me out. i can sing TV commercial jingles that i –
-have memorized but haven’t heard since i was like 7, but i often forget the lyrics to MY OWN FUCKING SONGS).
-that weird shit on backs of cereal boxes
-the graffiti on the side of that abandoned house on the walk to school
-the boxes in the attic

Amanda Palmer‘s influences – more proof that creativity necessitates eclecticism – from a Reddit Q&A about the record An Evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer.

In her beautiful meditation on creativity as dot-connecting, Palmer said, “We can only connect the dots that we collect” – and what wonderfully diverse dots she has collected.

Report from the Field Follow-Up: Standing upon the Shoulders of Giants

This is a crosspost from the Religion in American History blog. It was originally posted here on November 28, 2012.

As many gather together with family and friends to give thanks and, perhaps, enjoy a long weekend, some appropriate writing advice popped up on my twitter feed:

Seeing yourself as a part of a creative linkage makes you feel less alone in your art.

The advice comes from Explore blog, a cross-disciplinary site edited by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings that examines what it means to be creative and encourages creative thinking in science and art. I follow it for its long running series on writers and their writing process as well as other thought-provoking insights and innovations. Today’s tweet, a throwback from the original post earlier this year, is particularly fitting as my conference-filled week at the Danforth Lectures Series and the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting comes to a close. As David wrote yesterday,  AAR/SBL staged an embarrassment of riches. Between #aarsbl and #danforthlectures there is much to reflect on, particularly with respect to our “creative linkages” and our art (or is it a science?) of writing.

As I mentioned last week, the John C. Danforth Center gathered together scholars and bloggers to take part in its inaugural Distinguished Lecture Series. David Hollinger was the guest of honor, giving two lectures that provided the focus of the three-day event. In between these two lectures three invited speakers–Jon Butler, Darren Dochuk, and Molly Worthen–gave a public response to Hollinger’s first lecture, “The Protestant Boomerang: How the Foreign Missionary Experience Liberalized the Home Culture.” As L.D Burnett from the U.S. Intellectual History blog described in detail, these three responses were engaging, constructive critiques that highlighted not only the breadth and depth of their historical knowledge but also their skill at crafting and performing a scholarly debate.

While not challenging Hollinger’s basic argument (that liberal Protestant foreign missions had a “boomerang” effect, liberalizing and secularizing American culture at home), Jon Butler emphasized the longer history of Protestant missions. Reminding the audience of the enduring tradition of Protestant missions, Butler cautioned against focusing on the twentieth century as an extraordinary example of the challenges and changes that arise through missions. Although Hollinger’s assessment of these mid-twentieth century liberal Protestants can revive the study of missionaries in an earlier era, Butler explained, we must not lose sight of the points of comparison and difference among different historical periods; instead, he continued, we must ask questions of cause and effect for each historical context. Similarly, Darren Dochuk questioned the linearity of Hollinger’s narrative, asking “is “boomerang” descriptive enough for the relationship between missions and mid-twentieth century social reform?” Not merely critiquing, but thinking through the possibilities of alternative narratives, Dochuk asked Hollinger and the audience if reciprocity was a more fitting theme. Would this provide a better account of how missions changed home culture but are also effected by it? This came in a series of questions posed by Dochuk who also wondered if Hollinger’s boomerang thesis emphasized enough the connections between liberal Protestant social reformers, like for instance those fighting against Jim Crow, and the sources/systems of discrimination that led to their desire for social reform in the first place. Of particular concern for Dochuk was the seeming rigidity of evangelicals. In this telling, Dochuk posited, liberal Protestants appeared contingent, willing to change based on their circumstances, and evangelicals–perhaps because they are in the background of this narrative–appear static. Rather than dwelling on this point, Dochuk gave the floor to Molly Worthen.

Choosing to stand at the podium rather than sit at the table for her remarks, Worthen provided a pointed critique regarding Hollinger’s treatment of evangelicals. Worthen demonstrated her command of the material–and of the room–in an impressive display of public scholarship. Drawing upon the historiography of American religious history without losing the general audience, Worthen asked a simple and provocative question of Hollinger: why is this thesis about liberal Protestants alone? Evangelicals also modernized through their foreign missions, she asserted, noting as one example evangelicals’ protests of apartheid and other social concerns around the world. Worthen pointed to evangelicals’ embrace of multiculturalism and anthropology at institutions like Wheaton and figures like Billy Graham, contending that evangelicals also changed their message and methods at mid-twentieth century. If we are discussing the notion of change as a result of mission, Worthen contended, then this thesis is much broader than Hollinger initially described; if, however, Hollinger prefers to assert a narrative about particular types of social change, then, Worthen noted, these particularities must be made more explicit. Evangelicals, Worthen reminded the audience, invested themselves in social service and social reform as much as their liberal counterparts; their reform differed, however, because of their rejection of social-structural racism (instead of a rejection of social change itself). In the end, Worthen explained, it came down to opposing notions of culture itself–culture as pathway to conversion and culture as sin/salvation. Informative and energizing, Worthen’s remarks epitomized my experience at the Danforth Lecture Series.

There were differences of opinion. There were savvy critiques and responses. There were twenty-five scholars interested in hearing more. More from Hollinger, Butler, Dochuk, Worthen, and the invited guests. The Danforth Center positioned itself as a great host, providing space for guests to mingle, introducing invitees, starting conversations, and, perhaps most importantly, not directing the content of these conversations. I was particularly impressed by the array of participants: invited guests–ranging from full professors, assistant professors, doctoral candidates, and graduate students–Washington University faculty and students, and the general public (who made quite a showing at each lecture) engaged in lively discussion about religion and politics. Each attendee had different interests, but the Danforth Center managed to satisfy each of them. Two pictures during the event sum up my experience:

The first–besides displaying the awesome swag–is representative of the attention to the development of individual scholars. In the background, Lerone Martin and Mary Puckett discuss their projects before the invited guests have their larger seminar about their research on religion and politics. The second is the Umrath Lounge, the location of the seminar for participants and Hollinger’s second lecture. The space was beautiful, but also filled with a variety of people interested in the topic at hand.

This is an incredibly unique ability that is not only unrivaled by its resources, but also fitting for this particular moment in higher education. If our creative linkages make us feel less alone in our creativity, and presumably allow creative types to be more innovative in their work, then the Danforth Center could potentially be a resource for making those linkages and, by extension, the work to follow. I am particularly excited that the Center is choosing to link across traditional divides, helping to forge connections within the academic community but also beyond it through public events. Rather than a platform alone, the Center could also be–and through this events certainly was–a resource for scholars and the general public. Perhaps this could be a new standard set forth by the Center. Looking ahead on their event schedule, in Spring 2014 the Danforth Center will host Beyond the Culture Wars: Recasting Religion and Politics in 20th Century America, a conference that will be more focused in its topic, but will again pair established scholars and graduate students. Establishing creative linkages across and beyond standard divides (like barriers between institutions, disciplines, and academic social distinctions [i.e. tenured professors, public intellectuals, graduate students, and digital humanists talking as equal participants] could be the Center’s contribution to our shared life in scholarship.

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?

Pluralism as Product: Ruminations on Religion and Foreign Policy: A Crosspost from Religion in American History

Since I don’t always have time to peruse the headlines every morning, I’ve set up a few Google Alerts to keep me informed of new articles, blogs, press releases, and videos related to my interests. My Friday mornings have become a luxury not only because I have much of the day devoted to writing, but because I can review the headlines relevant to my research. For instance, this morning, not only did I learn that Shaun Casey, director of the new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives at the U.S. State Department, will be speaking at Emory next week [colleagues in Atlanta, consider me jealous], but also that the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, held a rountable discussion on the role of female religious leaders in promoting religious freedom. The headlines, and this developing (and much more public) effort by the State Department to court religious figures and groups left me pondering the state of this field of research and its relationship to American Religious History.

The fact that religion has become a significant policy and diplomatic concern for the State Department and U.S. military, I think, places the field of American Religious History/Studies at an interesting historiographical moment. And here’s my wild assertion for the day: a field that has largely put Sidney Ahlstrom in its past is being confronted by his work in the present.

As I see it, Ahlstrom’s primary concern in A Religious History of the American People is to understand American religious pluralism. To do so, he provides a narrative in tension. On one hand, he presents a nation that possessed a diversity of traditions in its early years [let’s bracket for a moment the conversation about how accurate or successful he is at this] and, on the other, a nation increasing in diversity so rapidly as to call into question what precisely unifies it. Along the way–the long and scenic route, no doubt–he posits religious liberty paired with a concern for the public good as central to religion in America and, perhaps, democracy in America as well. Analysis of the argument itself as well as the following four decades of scholarship tell us that he gave preference to white, liberal Protestants as the arbiters and custodians of this impulse, leaving all other groups standing on the sidelines or as players waiting to be tapped to enter into a game where their role would be limited and they would be pressured to conform. After important and significant work in the correction of the idea that white, liberal Protestants are at the center of American religious history, the field seems to be returning to this idea, but with attention to its power in shaping conceptual frameworks and its susceptibility in being influenced by the secular things it claimed to challenge.

While our understanding of Ahlstrom, this thesis, and his evidence have changed–and here’s my assertion for the day–the “essence” he identified for American Religious History, for the United States as an imagined community a nation endures despite a robust historiography. The idea that America and/or American democracy is exceptional continues to be traced to this notion of a unique religious toleration, particularly a consensus about its basis in religious liberty + concern for the public good–a consensus that the State Department seems to be conflating with “real” religion.  Despite numerous scholars showing the emptiness of this particular argument, the idea that America’s exceptional identity is its freedom of religion endures.

As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd pointed out this week in “Losing Faith in Faith-Based Outreach,” the internationalization of this notion of American identity and statecraft has dramatic effects:

As well intentioned as these efforts appear, they raise serious concerns about government’s relationship with religion. Such projects require the government to decide which groups count as religious and worthy of engagement. Here the state must choose among vying sects and authorities, privileging some at the expense of others. There may be no agreement within a particular religious tradition on who speaks authoritatively for that tradition, who is in and out of favor, which texts and practices represent the core of the tradition and so forth. For the government to decide which groups are in and out grants sanction to some theological understandings and practices over others.

Drawing upon, perhaps, Talal Asad (and even Heidi Klum), Shakman Hurd points to the implicit power dynamics of these initiatives. Besides the issue that the United States and others are investing resources in religious communities, there is the issue of how they are doing so. For instance, Hurd directs readers’ attention to U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan to promote religious tolerance in which the military “has built religious schools and sponsored trips like the Voices of Religious Tolerance tour to Amman, Jordan, where influential Afghans toured mosques, parks and shopping malls to learn about life in a religiously tolerant country.”

It is efforts like these that seem likely to cause scholars of American religions to face Ahlstrom’s  questions again, but from outside the academy rather than within it. An e.g. of Hugh Urban’s (and David Chidester’s) methodological approach to the study of religion,  that “religion” is not “solely a product of scholars or academic institutions” but “an extremely complex historical process” occurring in the streets and, also to a significant degree, in government agencies.

Office for the Cultivation of “Beautiful Flowers from the Same Garden”: A Reflection on the State Department’s Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives

Last week two important professional events occurred: first, I graduated (thanks to everyone who flew/drove down to celebrate) and second, the Department of State announced a new office devoted to “faith-based organizations and religious institutions.” According to the Department, the creation of this office was motivated in part by religious persecution around the world, the presence of violence (curiously not associated with “religious violence”–a telling rhetorical move noted below), and the desire to spread religious freedom and interfaith dialogue.

As Secretary of State John Kerry explained in his remarks earlier this week, the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives stems from a working group on religion and foreign policy. Dr. Shaun Casey, Professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary and leader of the the working group will head the new office. Secretary Kerry has remarked that Casey is “perfect” for the job and Michael Kessler, Associate Director of the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, told the Washington Post that Casey ““brings a lot of gravitas to the position” because he “has an extensive religious network that he will be able to leverage.” [I hope “leverage” rings in your ears for a moment.] While this may seem as a surprise to some, the creation of this office is a predictable step by the State Department, which has been openly rethinking religion and its place in international affairs for some time now [Yes, I’m being vague about the timeline on purpose].

As one can imagine, religious scholars are weighing in, especially after Secretary Kerry admitted that if he could go to college again he would major in comparative religions. Before we put a “W” in the Humanities column, some one should inform Kerry that the academic study of comparative religions is not akin to Gandhi’s assessment of the world’s religions being “beautiful flowers from the same garden” or Reza Aslan’s view that all religions are “saying the exact same things, often in exactly the same way” because they draw from the same source . Michael J. Altman gave it a try to disabuse this notion, noting that three major assertions of his religion class reveal the shortcomings of the office and the troubling aspects of its creation. What Altman’s students will soon learn, The Immanent Frame has provided to the general public in an engaging roundtable discussion with 17 scholars offering their insights to the creation of this office. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd challenges the assumption that the US government can “take religion seriously” at all due to its own history and the theoretical assumptions made in the formation of the Office alone. Helge Årsheim, Pasquale Annicchino, and Maia Hallward, among others, point to the troubling nature of the State Department establishing an office dedicated to advancing religious freedom and Melani McAlister rightly notes that the policy advanced mirrors a particular–and not universal–understanding of religion in the public sphere. …which leads some, including Austin Dacy at Religion Dispatches, to ask “Why is the State Department Opening an Office of ‘Religious Engagement'”?

While others are discussing the new and different aspects of this office–as well as its uncritical approach to “religion”–I find myself reflecting on the century-long continuity in the federal government’s approach to religion and foreign policy. There will be more posts to come (so much for my unplugged post-graduation vacation), but the short list includes the following [quotes can be found in the transcript of the Remarks linked above]:

  • Religion as primarily institutional affiliation. While the emphasis on “communities” implies “on the ground” engagement, it seems likely that the Department will work with “traditional” brick-and-mortar institutions and, primarily Abrahamic traditions. More importantly, the State Department will likely see only what it is looking for. Rather than stay attuned to the ways in which the naming and claiming of “religion” creates and sustains power dynamics among communities and nations, the Department, it seems, will marshal resources to specific faith-communities.
    • “I want you to go out and engage religious leaders and faith-based communities in our day-to-day work. Build strong relationships with them and listen to their insights and understand the important contributions that they can make individually and that we can make together. You will have the support of this Department in doing so, and you will have great leadership from my friend, Dr. Shaun Casey, who is going to lead the charge to integrate our engagement with faith communities with our diplomacy and with our development work.”
  • Religion as synonymous with “morality” or “virtue.” The operating assumption of this office and the State Department generally is that all religions are “good” and exist to promote the “common good” [what that is we somehow intuitively know]
    • “All of these faiths are virtuous and they are in fact, most of them, tied together by the golden rule, as well as fundamental concerns about the human condition, about poverty, about relationships between people, our responsibilities each to each other. And they all come from the same human heart.”
  • This assumption about the virtuousness of all faiths contributes to the trend of the State Department identifying “true” religion or “real” religion (i.e. “good” religions”) from “bad religions,” and therefore participating in the active classification of theological truth. Note, for example, the way in which Secretary Kerry dismisses the possibility of violence performed in the name of religion (it’s own kind of rhetorical and authoritative maneuver), in this case with Islam.
    • “our religious leaders who work to heal, we learn a great deal, which stands in stark contrast to violent extremists who seek to destroy and never talk about building a school or a community, or providing health care or succor to anybody” [“violent extremists” are not and cannot be themselves “religious” leaders]
    • “And I have talked at length with people like King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, or even King Abdullah, Prince Ghazi of Jordan, and others who are engaged in interfaith efforts, all of whom recognize that their religion, Islam, has to a large measure been hijacked by people who have no real depth with respect to what the faith in fact preaches, but who interpret it in ways that lead people to conflict and even to violence.” [Note how faith can be “hijacked” and when that hijacking occurs it is based on an “interpretation” and not “facts.”]
  • Identification of America as religiously plural yet primarily evangelical and, somehow as as result, distinct from “the Muslim world.”
    • “I had the privilege of giving an address at Yale University a number of years ago to a gathering of evangelicals from around America and imams, muftis, ayatollahs, clerics from the Muslim world – an improbable gathering you might think at first blush. And for three days people worked and struggled with the effort to find the common ground.” [Note also the notion that there is such a thing as “common ground” and it exists in the singular “the common ground.”]
  • “Religion” as based on a particular Protestant normativity (white, elite, and liberal in its theology) that bases its Christianity on an ethic of service for the greater good, presumes this ethic to be universal, and considers all other beliefs/identifications as not truly religious if it/they disagrees with this ethic or its theological basis. 
    • “what we are doing is guided by the conviction that we have to find ways to translate our faiths into efforts that unify for the greater good. That can be done without crossing any lines whatsoever.One of my favorite passages from the Scripture sums up what Shaun and I think this effort is really all about. It’s a familiar Gospel of Mark in which Jesus says to his disciples, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many.”
    • “I believe that public leadership is now and always has been and should be a form of service. It requires a bona fide effort to give to others and to do for others. And it is the kind of commitment that Shaun has exemplified throughout his life, which has been selfless and devoted and heartfelt.So each of us, I believe, needs to do our best to answer this call of service and to help each other to hear it in a common spirit of obedience, humility, and love. I’m enormously grateful that Shaun has answered that call, that he has been willing to come here to the Department to help us integrate these policies, and really to magnify, augment, grow our capacity to meet the challenges of this planet.”
    • “I’m convinced that all of you will agree that one of the toughest challenges that we face in terms of global diplomacy and relationships around the world between peoples nowadays, from sectarian strife to the challenges of many intractable, frozen conflicts, to the challenges of simply understanding people – one people to another – or even monumental challenges like the sectarian strife that we see tearing countries and regions apart, as well as the enormous challenges of things like global climate change, which really is a challenge to our responsibilities as the guardians – safe guarders of God’s creation.”

It is that final bolded fragment (emphasis added) that reflects the role of religion in US foreign policy in long twentieth century. As astute consumers of information, we all see the connections to 9-11 and the US government’s heightened awareness of Al-Queda and sectarian violence; but the operating assumption of the US as a guardian of “God’s creation” has a longer history, one that I see as clearly connected to President Wilson who pledged  the nation’s resources to illustrate how America was the “champion of mankind” almost 100 years ago.

“America may make peaceful conquest of the world. And I say that will all the greater confidence, gentlemen, because, I believe, and hope that the belief does not spring merely from the hope, that, when the present great conflict in Europe is over, the world is going to wear a different aspect. …I believe that the spirit which as hitherto reigned in the hearts of Americans, and in like people everywhere in the world, will assert itself once for all in international affairs, and that, if America preserves her poise, preserves her self-possession, preserves her attitude of friendliness towards all the world, she may have the privilege, whether in one form or another, of being the mediating influence by which these things may be induced.

I am not now speaking of governmental mediation. I have not that in mind at all. I mean spiritual mediation. I mean the recognition of the world that here is a country that has always wanted things done that way, and whose merchants, when they carry their goods, will carry their ideas along with them, and that this spirit of give and take, this spirit of success only by having better goods and better brains and better training will, through their influence, spread the more rapidly to the ends of the world.” [1]

Obviously, I’ll be keeping a close eye on what develops, so stay tuned. The reactions by conservatives and conservative evangelicals proves promising for future posts.



[1] Luncheon Address to the Chamber of Commerce of Columbus Ohio, 10 Dec 1915, Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), 35:327.

What Does It Mean to Be Religious?

Recently, Lauren Markoe of the Religion News Service posted an article, “Report: Americans hold different views of what ‘religious’ means.” Markoe explained,

There is a lopsided divide in America about what it means to be a religious person, with a majority believing that it’s about acting morally but a strong minority equating it with faith. Nearly six out of 10 Americans (59 percent) say that being a religious person “is primarily about living a good life and doing the right thing,” as opposed to the more than one-third (36 percent) who hold that being religious “is primarily about having faith and the right beliefs.”

[These statistics were the result of research completed by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution.] The point of the piece was that even though Americans may agree generally about the importance of “religion” or “being religious,” there is little agreement on what that actually means. In many ways, those familiar with the academic study of religion should not be surprised. Few scholars agree on the definition of religion, let alone if there is something to define at all. Students of religion in America in particular should know that Americans have rarely agreed on what “counts” as religious practice or “real” religion. Nevertheless, findings like this can sometimes catch readers off guard.

This is precisely what happened to my students at Florida A&M in spring 2013. Although they had not read this piece, we held our own discussions that led to this conclusion. As an exercise to examine the class’ assumptions about what it means to be religious, each student wrote their own definition of religion at the beginning of the semester. I collected their definitions and created a word cloud based on the compilation of all definitions.

Screen Shot 2013-01-20 at 7.21.57 PM

Although it’s not scientific, it certainly was a valuable talking point for the class. Until they saw this graphic, the class was mostly pleased that nearly all students agreed that religion was an important part of people’s daily lives, universally across cultures. [In my experience, this class was an outlier compared to other classes I have taught. I had no skeptics who participated in class discussion] After looking at the graphic, they started to realize the distinctions within and among those who call themselves “religious.” Their own definitions reveal that, as a class, they fall into the minority of the above study, thinking that religion “is primarily about having faith and the right beliefs.” More importantly than falling into one camp or the other, we had a way to begin a semester long conversation about the variety of ways that religion is defined and why.

“Religion-related News from Around the Web”: Giving a Critical Eye to Your Sources

Lately my mind has been on curriculum development and learning goals as I re-vamp my fall syllabi. I think I discovered a new assignment for my Introduction to Religion class. This morning, as I scrolled through the tweets on my feed, The Pew Forum (@pewforum) asked: “#Religion news junkie? Our “Religion News on the Web” feature allows you to filter articles by topic and region: pewrsr.ch/ZNBEKX.” Perfect.

In the past I had assigned students to read current events, news stories, blogs, etc. and “find” religion. Often students found the “Religion” section or blog of a popular outlet like the New York Times, or CNN”s Belief Blog, or “Religion” at the Huffington Post, all of which gave plenty of material, but, I thought, was too “obviously” religion for what I had intended and, therefore, didn’t present much of a challenge to write about. Essays would be broad summaries instead of critical reflections. Rather than fight their urge to discover “religion” [the category] by searching for the word “religion,” the Pew Forum’s “Religion News on the Web” inspired me to embrace their impulse. Here’s today’s run-down as of 10:00 AM.

http://www.pewforum.org/Religion-News/Religion-News-on-the-Web.aspx accessed 7/10/2013 at 10AM
http://www.pewforum.org/Religion-News/Religion-News-on-the-Web.aspx accessed 7/10/2013 at 10AM

“Religion-related” means clergy (nothing is more religious than the Pope, right?), a “religious” group (duh, it’s Islam, right?), and abortion. Wait. Is abortion an inherently “religious” topic? Why? (issues of life and/or death are always religious…?)

The intent of the original assignment was to get students to notice the way in which the category of religion is socially constructed and employed in various ways (by writing sympathetically of certain religious groups, but not others, for instance). The assignment worked for some, but mostly didn’t. I still think the assignment can be effective, so now I’m thinking I’ll tweak it to ask students to think of outlets, like the Pew Forum, as curators of information, defining “religion-related” topics in their own way and presenting them to the public. Their task would be to figure out what “religion” means to the source and the consequences of that presentation. Hopefully, it can be a tool for critical thinking, reflection, and deepen their understanding of the social construction of “religion.”

4th of July Reminder

In case any one has the summer teaching blues, here’s a quick reminder of how much colleges and universities need their U.S. History courses, Religion in American History courses (civil religion, much?), and America in the World classes:

screenshot via Pinterest.com

And because context is key, check out the link the original poster (thankfully) supplied with the image: kissmysouthernsass.com. One would think a continuous narrative of “*America* running the world” might be complicated by a discussion of the South, but I suppose it’s different when it falls under the rubric of “Southern Sass,” as another tee shirt says, “Southern is a State of Mind.”  


Making the invisible visible: An idea for the classroom

I’m a little late in noticing, but this past week was George Orwell’s birthday. To commemorate the day, some clever fans of 1984 placed party hats atop surveillance cameras around Utrecht.


This celebration was posted at FRONT404 who, according to the website, is a “Dutch duo of artists consisting of Thomas voor ‘t Hekke and Bas van Oerle.” The team “tries to surprise people, taking them out of their daily reality. Using humour and playful interaction they offer new perspectives and ways of looking at the world.” They explained the Orwellian birthday party as follows:

By putting these happy party hats on the surveillance cameras we don’t just celebrate Orwell’s birthday. By making these inconspicuous cameras that we ignore in our daily lives catch the eye again we also create awareness of how many cameras really watch us nowadays, and that the surveillance state described by Orwell is getting closer and closer to reality.

The bolded phrase (my emphasis added) caught my attention. As I’m trying to rethink my Introduction to Religion and World Religions syllabi for the fall, I’ve been spending considerable time trying to think of new ways to engage students outside of reading and post-reading discussions. Front 404’s creative approach to rendering what is normally invisible visible again leads me to think I need to put a camera in my students’ hands. Fortunately many of them already have cameras on their person 24/7. I wonder what will happen if I ask students to capture “religion” that they encounter in their daily lives. I have no idea what I may get in return, but that sounds like the making of an intriguing and exciting conversation that can begin our semester long examination of what precisely “religion” is, how we’ve come to think that is what it is, and how its presence/absence shapes our lives in ways large and small. How exactly I’m going to do this, I haven’t decided yet, but I welcome any comments or suggestions.

Crosspost: On the Road Again: Encounters in American Religious History

This is a crosspost from the Religion in American History blog.

The first weekend in June I spent 14 hours in a car driving to Indianapolis for the Religion in American Culture Conference. Despite the long drive, it was well worth it as Emily’s summary attests. Not getting my fill of road trips or summer conference season, I made another 14 hour drive ten days later. This time I headed straight up I-95 to Arlington, Virginia to attend the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). A relative newcomer to the Society this was my first meeting and it will not be my last. In addition to the lovely mid-afternoon coffee and snacks between sessions (you had me at “complimentary coffee break”) and the dinner and dance Friday night (yes, that’s right. There was a dance. I promise it did not resemble a middle school wallflower stand-in nor was it a Miley twerk fest), there were a number of panels and papers of interest to RiAH readers.

In the final panel of RAAC, “The Future of the Study of Religion and American Culture,” John McGreevy listed three directions for the future of the field: 1. the category of “nones” (those claiming no religious affiliation) and, correspondingly, secularism; 2. global and transnational studies that place the United States in a global context and/or explorations of points of contact, fluidity, and movement between America and the rest of the world; 3. religion and political history. In identifying these three areas, McGreevy noted scholarship that exemplifies or encourages research in these areas, but he also asserted the increased importance of these three areas in years to come. After three days at SHAFR, however, I am convinced that McGreevy’s future is here and scholars of American religion, especially the historians among us, have important conversation partners outside the AAR and within SHAFR.

Diplomatic History is the journal of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. More information about it can be found at http://history.colorado.edu/programs-publications/diplomatic-history


My interest in SHAFR started with Andrew Preston’s seminal article “Bridging the Gap between the Sacred and the Secular in the History of American Foreign Relations” (Diplomatic History 30, no. 5 (2006): 783-812). This piece summoned many historians to take religion seriously in diplomatic history; so seriously, in fact, that Preston noted at the most recent AHA meeting that it probably could not be printed today. His recent book, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith (Knopf, 2012), makes it difficult to argue that religion doesn’t “matter” to US foreign relations. (Blake Renfo’s RiAH review can be read here) The panel devoted to “Evangelical Projections” at this year’s SHAFR conference, chaired by Preston, made a strong case for religion as not just an “influence” in diplomatic history, but a “force” to be reckoned with. For example, Lauren Turek presented fascinating research on the way in which Pat Robertson served as a tacit spokesperson for Rios Montt’s regime in Guatemala in the 1980s. Turek demonstrated how Montt’s “Project David” campaign to ensure a “moral” government that exposed communist sympathizers received such strong support and coverage from Robertson and his followers that President Reagan could not ignore evangelicals’ demands that the United States support the regime. Also bringing a global context to American religions, Melanie McAlister drew attention to the Southern Baptist Convention’s response to apartheid, illustrating the power of Southern Christians outside the United States and an understudied area of global, social justice concern among this evangelical group. The final presentation was by Benjamin Brandenburg who explained Billy Graham’s “global footprint” through his tour of the Soviet Union. Complicating the simple narrative of evangelicals despising “godless” communists, Brandenburg asserted a sort of Cold War conversion in Graham’s position toward confronting communism.

While this session was clearly billed as the “religious” one, this was certainly not the only panel of interest to readers. Several papers along the way brought to mind scholarship discussed regularly here. For example, David Painter’s presentation at the “Teaching New Topics in American Foreign Relations” panel centered on the argument that historians must integrate oil (not merely policies about oil) into the history of US foreign relations. Hewing closely to research by Darren Dochuk and Mike Pasquier, Panter discussed the seven sisters of big oil and dated the significance of oil back to the Anglo-American switch from coal to oil during the 1920s and 1930s (a period of recent interest to many American religions scholars). On the same panel, Nicole Phelps introduced the audience to a case study she uses to illustrate the complicated relationships between local, state, national, and international politics: a court case (and others related to it) in which 11 Sicilians were lynched in NOLA…a flashpoint of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and class that reminded me of the complex study Emily is working on. In more cases than I expected these historians included “religion” and were encouraging others to pursue a rigorous study of religion as the future for their field. In the panel on “Teaching America to the World,” for instance, Sandra Scanlon explained that is often discussions of religion that draw her Irish students in and encouraged members to follow in Matt Sutton’s footsteps and apply for the Mary Ball Washington Professorship of American History. Finally, the Plenary Session on “America in the World in the Nineteenth Century” ended with the conclusion that there are two major themes primed to dominate the future of SHAFR: religion and empire.

What I was struck by most was not that these historians focused on religion, but that they focused on religion so much but did not consider themselves to be doing the work of religion/religious studies/religious history. Our colleagues at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion would have a rich data set to consider had I conducted a more formal ethnographic study, but, based on personal anecdotes, I was surprised at the number of folks examining the role of a missionary/mission and the way s/he/it influenced the State Department’s position toward another country OR conducting archival research on a person or group who invested in or profited from a religious organization, but did not consider themselves–as scholars–to be seriously researching “religion.” [“Personally, I’m a Christian, but that doesn’t factor into my work”; “You study religion? I guess I kind of do too. I study a missionary group in…”] Forget the “nones” and their refusal to self-identify with a religious institution and let’s consider for a moment the scholars who talk about “religion” and don’t consider their work to be about religion. For that matter, let’s think about the way in which I was/am convinced that these historians are doing religious studies work even though they do not self-identify as such.

Following up on McGreevy’s provocative list for the future of scholarship on American religion, as we collectively ponder secularism–its formations, its contours, its relationship to the State, the existence of a secular metaphysics as distinct from church or state–we seem to be turning toward “politics,” that is the set of actions conducted by the state, at various levels. This seems to be happening at the same time that historians of American foreign relations, at least, are acutely attuned to the importance of culture, “meaning-making,” and the like in their own work. Scholars of American religions recent attention to secularism/secularization has much to offer historians of American foreign relations. Likewise, panelists at SHAFR demonstrate an impressive immersion in primary sources that speak to the the actors, organizations, places, and themes central to the study of American religions. I hope our paths continue to cross.

Perhaps this can be a conversation had in the comments and next year at SHAFR. The 2014 conference is chaired by Andrew Preston and will be held in Lexington, Kentucky next June. Information about this year’s and next year’s conferences can be found here. For those interested in American foreign relations broadly, there are many opportunities and resources available through SHAFR. Though highly competitive, SHAFR offers dissertation research grants and fellowships at $4,000 and $20,000, respectfully. They also have fellowships available for grad students conducting research with sources in languages other than English, for recent graduates working on their first monograph, and for women.