Is Diplomatic History Dying?: And Other Considerations in Preparation for the SHAFR Annual Meeting

With the annual SHAFR Meeting coming up in one week, I have diplomatic history on my mind. It may come as a surprise to some that I would be attending. I am a historian of American religion after all: a subfield that exists, ostensibly, alongside other subfields like diplomatic history. Based on the stereotypes, I study a subject that deals with the abstract, immaterial thoughts and, at times, unverifiable, subjective experiences of historical figures; diplomatic history, in contrast (and equally stereotypical), is practical and pragmatic, concerning itself with realpolitik, almost allergic to that which cannot be casually linked with empirical data and material evidence. Historians and American Studies scholars who concern themselves with religion in the U.S. have long been interested in the plurality of traditions throughout American history, focusing on groups marginalized by the white Protestant mainstream and figures who have been ignored, neglected, or overlooked by a continued emphasis on white, male clergy who have led periods of revivals. Whereas diplomatic historians remain interested in “great men,” elite and white, who steer the course of world events.

When described in this way, it would be surprising that I would look forward to the SHAFR meeting. This is the characterization Timothy J. Lynch, Editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History, gave diplomatic history back in May in his post “Is Diplomatic History Dying?” (to be fair, he does not evoke the stereotypes for religious studies I outlined above). In this piece, Lynch notes that most historians, and by extension undergraduates and the general public, tell a story of American history divorced from the people and events that populate diplomatic history. Citing Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as one the most popular textbooks, Lynch contends that much of American history has moved past the interests of diplomatic historians. American history is more liberal, leftist, and socialist; is less white, less male, and less elite; and (therefore, he seems to imply) revisionist in nature. Lynch writes:

“university students are increasingly presented with impersonal forces and told these are responsible for injustice or are, conversely, the locomotives of progress. Racism, economic deprivation, and gender inequality color the research agendas of a substantial number of historians. Ameliorate these forces and we can enter the sunny uplands of progress and equality. It is not individuals that move history but forces, pressures, classes, sexes, races, even climate. Nations, led by individual leaders, are made to matter less than the United Nations, led by supposedly progressive impulses.

The diplomatic historian, of course, may be in sympathy with some of this. But he or she must also acknowledge the elite nature of much of what he or she studies: the president and his foreign policy principals, ambassadors and military commanders. And that elite, until the era of Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, was overwhelmingly white and male.”

Lynch clearly sees diplomatic history at odds with the legacy of the social turn (or as he said earlier in the post “liberal hegemony”): individuals vs. impersonal forces, national leaders vs. United Nations, and “all the great commanders-in-chief” vs. “economic deprivation, and gender inequality.” These binaries, however, need not exist in the mind of the scholar. Individuals, especially US presidents, are not divorced from or mutually exclusive to race, class, gender, or “even climate.” Not only were/are these 44 men shaped by each (including, particularly, the construction and maintenance of whiteness), but each were/are also instrumental in shaping these “impersonal” forces. Not least of all US presidents’ conception of American citizenship (who is a full citizen and who is not—a subject intimately related to race, gender, and class) and national sovereignty (how and why “we” may intervene in another nation’s affairs is bound in issues of race, class, and gender—which borders may we penetrate and in what manner may we penetrate them). If anything, conceiving of diplomatic history as in opposition to the social turn is, what I argue, would push it to the sidelines. Assuming the primary subjects of diplomatic history exist outside of race, class, and gender reifies the power structures in which they existed and maintained through their positions of power; this approach to diplomatic history, I contend—and not the subject matter itself—is what keeps scholars and students away.

This need not be the case, however. Countless scholars (in fields like American Religious History, for example) are moving toward diplomatic history. The theme for SHAFR’S annual conference is “America and the World—the World and America,” a topic that interests many religion scholars who focus on America and those who do not. For example, the number of undergraduate courses and textbooks related to “World Religions in the US” is on the rise. Even when they do not contain this official title, there are instructors, like me, who focus on the role of religion in international affairs. Likewise, the number of American religion scholars interested in the role of the state in shaping religious life in US is also on the rise. Creighton University’s Kripke Center for Religion and Society, for example, is sponsoring a three-year seminar focused exclusively on Religion and US Empire to develop scholarship and theoretical frameworks for studying topics I imagine are of interest to diplomatic historians. Finally, the topic of religion itself may be a fruitful avenue for diplomatic historians looking to, as Lynch wrote, “bridge the divide” between the methodological stalemate some diplomatic historians find themselves in.

Religion, as a socially constructed category of human experience, shapes race, class, gender, nationhood, and internationalism; as individual actors employ their conceptions of “the good” or “God’s divine order” on national and international levels, their thoughts and actions become scriptualized and naturalized. Rethinking “religion” as a morally neutral social construct—rather than creeds, churches, or NGOs that only contribute to nonviolent, peaceful, and altruistic ends—is another avenue in which scholars of American religion can help bring diplomatic history into this “social” focus while even maintaining an interest in predominately white, elite, male actors. More and more scholars of American religion are concerned with power (see Katie Lofton, for instance, on the topic of “higher power”) and diplomatic history is, primarily, a story of power–how it is constructed, how it is maintained, how it is negotiated over time. Paying attention to these aspects of religion in American history offers scholars interested in diplomatic history a framework with which they can situate their work among recent decades of historiographical development and reach out to scholars across a number of interdisciplinary divides. Frustrations and feelings of being left behind, ignored, or circumvented are not evidence of an intellectual turn away from diplomatic history but of, it seems to me, an identification with and internalization of the concerns of our historical subjects and their place in the narrative of American history.

The SHAFR program can be found here:

Dissertation Written, Submitted, and Defended…with Distinction!

In the month since my last post, there has been much to celebrate. At the top of the list is the successful defense of my dissertation, “A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, the League of Nations, and the Great War of American Protestantism.” Not only did I pass, but I passed with distinction.

It felt like this:

followed by this:

Thank you to everyone who supported me along the way, especially my colleagues at Florida State University and my family in the 4-state area (Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas).

Crosspost Links: Disestablishment of American Religious History

Although there has been a delay in posting here, posts and fruitful conversations have been happening elsewhere.

Lately, I’ve been involved in a robust conversation at U.S. Intellectual History Blog. Ray Haberski wrote an interesting post on “Why the Academia Found God,” pointing readers to the “tsunami” of books about religion in American History and, in particular, the Young Scholars of Religion Program. John Fea, in turn, considered if biography plays an important role in this flood of scholarship in “Biography and American Religious History.” For a response to these two posts, Andrew Hartman invited me to write a guest post. It can be found here: The “Disestablishment of American Religious History.”

*Editor’s Note: Since posting John Fea has written a response to “Disestablishment,” “Response to Cara Burnidge.”

Considering National Grief

A couple days ago, at the Historical Society’s blog, Glenn Alan Cheney considered “How a Nation Reports its Grief” and the surprising amount of primary sources he found related to the nation mourning the death of the Abraham Lincoln. He wrote, “But I soon realized I was witnessing—not reading about but witnessing—the most traumatic moment in American history. The assassination of Lincoln had shocked North and South alike.”

Similarly, I never intended to focus on the death of a president in my own work. I thought my dissertation would concentrate on Woodrow Wilson’s second term in office (1917-1921), particularly those three years in which the United States entered the Great War and then attempted to negotiate the post-war terms of peace. While I do talk about those things, my first archival trip to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Museum & Library added a few twists and turns. Not only did I encounter incredibly interesting sermons given in Washington, D.C., London, and even China following President Wilson’s death in 1924, but also I had new questions in front of me: precisely what was going on? Why were all of these sermons, in the United States and outside of it, comparing Wilson to Christ as a “Savior of Humanity.”

It did not take me long to realize that the death of the President revealed, among other things, the way in which Americans began to frame their recent past, their shared experience of the Great War. Take for instance, the official memorial service given by the United States Congress. Edwin Anderson Alderman, the President of the University of Virginia, contended–to a Congress newly controlled by Republicans as a result of public backlash to Wilson’s work at the Paris Peace Conference:

“As Lincoln with supreme wisdom planted his policy not on slavery but on union, Woodrow Wilson with a similar greatness tied his policy to the idea of the United States, the most powerful of states, should be a servant, a minister, a friend, not a master among nations. Never before in the history of mankind has a statesman of the first order made the humble doctrine of service to humanity a cardinal and guiding principle in world politics.”

While there is certainly pageantry and grandiose statements at play with the presidential funerals, Alderman’s assessments of Wilson as the nation’s President, along with similar assessments that occurred around the nation, illustrate how Americans wanted to view themselves as much as they wanted to remember Wilson. Even more remarkable are the numerous scrapbook pages compiled by Wilson’s widow, Edith, that document the telegrams, letters, calling cards, and other memorabilia sympathetic citizens sent to their former First Lady.  These scrapbooks are but a fraction of the Library of Congress’ files related to the Scholar President, which explains why few have mentioned this portion of the archive. More consideration is certainly warranted, considering that Wilson is the only President entombed in a church, at Washington National Cathedral.

Woodrow Wilson’s tomb at Washington National Cathedral photocredit: Tony Fisher Photography,


“Kerry Admits It”: Setting up the Dominoes in Foreign Relations History

Last week Senator John Kerry received his nomination to replace Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State. During his confirmation hearing, Kerry turned the tables on Congress saying, “I’m particularly aware that in many ways the greatest challenge to America’s foreign policy will be in your hands, not mine.” He continued,

“I am especially cognizant of the fact that we can’t be strong in the world unless we are strong at home – and the first priority of business which will affect my credibility as a diplomat working to help other countries create order, is whether America at last puts its own fiscal house in order.”

And then, rather bluntly, he said, “foreign policy is economic policy.” (Video of his full testimony can be found here.) As Ira Chernus pointed out in his post “Kerry Admits It: Economic Policy is Foreign Policy,”  you can almost hear some historians of US foreign policy cheering. They have been waiting for this moment of intellectual affirmation. Chernus explained,

“Scholars of the “revisionist” school have been attacked, reviled, and marginalized for decades simply for saying what Kerry seemed to say: Economic motives are the main drivers of foreign policy. So when revisionists hear a top government official say it out loud, it’s like discovering gold: It’s hard evidence that their view is correct.” And now these scholars can rest assured that a person in leadership put their scholarly hunch on record in public testimony. No further inquiry needed. Follow the money trail and you’ll learn what you need to know about foreign relations history.

Chernus isn’t satisfied with this explanation and neither am I. Whereas Chernus insists that Kerry is another example of myth-making in the upper echelons of state power, I think Kerry offers an opportunity to explore a fundamental principle of historical research: the history of foreign policy cannot be boiled down definitively to a single cause. Looking for a single causation–and, at times, I would argue focusing exclusively on causation–can lose sight of the greater context from which policies develop as well as the broader implications of those policies. Tracing the relationship between economic policy and foreign policy certainly contributes to our working knowledge of what happened or why it happened the way it did, but it risks focusing too narrowly on the order of dominoes and the way they fell to produce foreign policy initiatives. Association, as we all know, does not imply causation. So, to those who find themselves cheering, we might ask: assuming economic strength, how do we explain why we spend money on this instead of that? Ideologies play in important role in determining the parameters of “good” policy  versus “bad” policy, even if the consensus is that they are not the direct cause of the choice.

None Confusion

As the nation prepares for President Obama’s second term in office and the 113th United States Congress assembles, much attention has been drawn to the new religious milieu of Capitol Hill. Earlier this month the Pew Forum released the data on Faith on the Hill. While Protestants still dominate Congress, the Pew Forum noted that they lost seats held in the previous session, as did Jews. In contrast, Catholics gained 7 seats and Mormons stayed about the same. Here’s the interesting point made by PF:

“Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Mormons each make up a greater percentage of the members of Congress than of all U.S. adults.”

Not only are there more Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Mormons in Congress compared to the U.S. public at large, but also there are significantly less of the religiously unaffiliated on Capitol Hill. Whereas 1 in 5 adult Americans identify as holding no religious affiliation, only 1 member of Congress–Representative Krysten Sinema, D-Arizona–identifies as unaffiliated. Since she is the only member of Congress to remain unaffiliated to a religious organization, many atheist organizations and individuals claim her as their own. Sinema, however, has distanced herself from these organizations, stating that she is and will remain religiously unaffiliated.

The continued statements by Sinema have garnered heat from many sides. Specifically, Chris Stedman took his shots at Sinema on the CNN Religion Blog in “My take: ‘Athiest isn’t a dirty word, congresswoman.” Stedman criticizes Sinema for her public statement clarifying her religious beliefs. When asked if she was a nontheist, Sinema’s campaign gave the following public statement: “(Rep. Sinema) believes the terms non-theist, atheist or non-believer are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.” Disappointed in Sinema’s explanation and not her self-identification, Stedman admitted:

“But as a proud atheist and humanist, I’m disheartened that the only member of Congress who openly identifies as nonreligious has forcefully distanced herself from atheism in a way that puts down those of us who do not believe in God.”

Assuming Sinema’s statement to tacitly put down atheism as an acceptable affiliation, Stedman makes a conflation that I find interesting and, it seems, common. The category of “Nones,” the religious unaffiliated in America, is so large and diffuse that it is easy to confuse those 1 in 5 persons with atheism or “nonreligion.” But that is not the case with the survey question nor, it seems, with Sinema. The religiously unaffiliated as it is written in Pew Forum surveys can include theists and the “religious.” As Steven Ramey has pointed out at the Bulletin for Religious Studies, the category “None” includes people who pray and those who don’t as well as those who believe in a “higher power” and those who don’t. For Stedman to assume that Sinema is “nonreligious” misunderstands the variety of people who fall within the category of “unaffiliated.” It seems plausible in this case that Sinema considers herself to be a “none” who prefers to remain unaffiliated with a religious organization, but still considers herself “religious” in some sense. A category of self-identification that begs the question: What precisely is meant when someone claims they are “religious”?

A Faith-Based Presidency

Despite two bestselling autobiographies discussing President Obama’s faith, many Americans remain confused and, frequently, skeptical about the President’s Christianity. Last week, John Blake tried to set the record straight at the CNN Belief blog. I recommend his thorough examination of President Obama’s religious beliefs in “The Gospel according to Obama.”

National Prayer Service during President Obama’s Inauguration with First Lady Michelle Obama, President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Dr. Jill Biden, former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State–designate Hillary Clinton, January 21, 2009. Photo credit: U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Adelita C. Mead

Blake rightly locates Obama’s religious identity in the history of liberal Protestantism, especially the Social Gospel, and African American Christianities. Blake sees the influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. more than, say, Rev. Jeremiah Wright:

The emphasis on community uplift – not individual attainment – may strike some Americans as socialist. But the emphasis on community is part of [Martin Luther] King’s “Beloved Community,” Bass says.

King once wrote that all people are caught up in an “inescapable network of mutuality… I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be.”

“When I listen to Obama, I don’t hear communism, I hear the Beloved Community,” Bass says. “But a lot of white Americans don’t hear that because they never sat in those churches and heard it over and over again. It’s the whole theology that motivated MLK and the civil rights movement.”

But many white (conservative) evangelicals see things differently. Conservatives from James Dobson to Glenn Beck have not only questioned Obama’s religious beliefs but even proclaimed them as un- and anti-Christian. For instance, according to Blake, Rev. Gary Cass, the President of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission insisted:

“I just don’t see or hear in his accounts the kind of things that I’ve heard as a minister for over 25 years coming from the mouths of people who have genuinely converted to Christianity,” says Cass, pastor of Christ Church in San Diego.

Quite tellingly, Cass explains his objections according to his own entrenchment in a particular Christian tradition. He “just [doesn’t] see or hear” progressive Christianity because remains insulated from a broader Christian history, assuming any  expression of Christianity other than his own as not “genuine.” Conservative Christian objections to Obama’s faith, then, have less to do with Obama making spurious claims to Christianity and more to do with their own claims of “true” Christianity.

Drawing the Line Between Being Religious and Being Insane

Writing for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, Joseph Laycock presents a peculiar intersection of religion and law with “The Curious Case of John Errol Ferguson” (Part I, Part II).

John Errol Ferguson was found guilty of 8 murders committed in 1977 and 1978 and is sentenced to death by the State of Florida. Suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and proclaiming himself to be the “Prince of God,” Ferguson occupies a puzzling space between what is considered insane and what is considered religious. Since federal law does not allow a mentally ill person to be executed, several psychiatrists have examined Ferguson to determine if he is, in fact, “truly” mentally ill. Laycock writes:

Christopher Handman, Ferguson’s lawyer, argued that Ferguson in no way met these requirements, explaining: A man who thinks he is the immortal Prince of God and who believes he is incarcerated because of a Communist plot quite clearly has no rational understanding of the effect of his looming execution and the reason for it.

The psychiatrists, appointed by Governor Rick Scott, disagree with Handman, deciding that Ferguson is religious and not insane. Ferguson’s execution, then, depends upon the court system determining whether or not he is “authentically” religious or “genuinely” mentally ill. Again, Laycock explains:

On October 16, after hearing two days’ worth of testimony from psychiatrists, Judge Glant declared in his opinion that Ferguson’s “‘Prince of God’ delusion, as well as his religious beliefs in general, shows a man who has a remarkably clear and relatively normal Christian belief, albeit a grandiose one.” In other words, Ferguson was competent to be executed because his strange beliefs qualified as a religious viewpoint rather than insanity.

Ferguson’s story does not end here. This decision was appealed and on October 20 Ferguson received a stay of execution by Judge Daniel Hurley of the U.S. District Court, in part because Religion Scholars John Kelsay and David Levenson of Florida State University filed an amicus brief stating that Ferguson’s beliefs do not resemble Christianity. On October 23, however, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta lifted the stay ruling that Hurley had abused his discretion. Ferguson was served his last meal. Then the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and ordered another stay of execution, leaving the U.S. Supreme Court an opportunity to review the case.

In the follow up to his original story, Laycock insists that Ferguson’s case illustrates the need for Religion Scholars to reconsider the ways that they understand “religion” and, while they are at it, “madness.” He explains:

In The Principals of Psychology, William James argued that the supernatural claims of religion and the claims of “sheer madness” both represented alternative worlds separate from our shared world of “practical realities.” However, our legal system requires that these subjective worldviews––however we classify them––do have consequences in our everyday word of practical reality.

Indeed, scholarship on religion has consequences; however, it is not everyday that scholarship on religion directly effects an individual in such dramatic ways.

Much Ado About “Nones”

Today the Pew Forum released results from their latest survey of the American religious landscape. After almost ten years of making asides about the growth of this demographic in their annual reports, the Pew Forum announced: “Nones” on the Rise.”

Based on phone interviews conducted in June and July of this year, the Pew Forum finds that 1 in 5 adult Americans identify as having no religious affiliation [and, thus, the term “none”], a 5-percent increase in the past five years. A closer look at this demographic reveals that while 1 in 5 may identify as religiously “unaffiliated,” many hold what might be called “religious” beliefs, like believing in God (68%), or participating in “religious” activities, like praying everyday (21%). Interesting still, these “religious” characteristics do not lead “nones” to seek an affiliation. When asked, “Are you looking for a religion that would be right for you,” 88% answered “not looking.” Those in my Religion in U.S. History courses, who have tracked the Pew Forum before, may not be surprised to read that this demographic is noticeably larger when broken down by generation: 1 in 3 adults under thirty identified as having no religious affiliation. The changing religious landscape in America only provides further evidence that religion scholars need to stay on their toes and continue to re-consider the way in which they think about and research “religion.”

The full report can be found here and the US Religious Landscape Survey can be found here.

Press on the report can be found at NPR, PBS, USA Today, Huffington Post, and the Washington Post, to name a few. More to come.

Texas Religion

Texas appears to be gearing up for another court case about religion and free speech in public schools. This academic year, cheerleaders at Kountze Independent School District decided to include Bible verses on their banners and signs for their middle school and high school football games. During pregame festivities for the first game of the season, the Kountze football team ran through a sign that read ““I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.” The superintendent, Kevin Weldon, prohibited the cheerleaders from making more signs with religious messages and now finds himself in court. The cheerleaders, their parents, and the Texas attorney general argue that the school district is unfairly limiting the free speech of students. Weldon’s lawyers argue that although the superintendent personally agrees with the cheerleaders’ signs, he is merely upholding the law set by another Texas court case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, in which the Supreme Court decided that student-led prayer at football games was unconstitutional. We’ll have to wait and see what the Hardin County Court decides as District Judge Steven Thomas extended a restraining order on district officials for 14 more days, allowing the cheerleaders to display their signs for another two weeks, before the case proceeds.

Read the full New York Times article, “Cheerleaders With Bible Verses Set Off Debate,” here.