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?

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.

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.


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”?