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


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.


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: