U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is religious history no longer unfashionable?


I’ve been reading a rather unknown yet compelling book, Religious Advocacy in American History, edited by Bruce Kuklick and D. G. Hart. It’s a collection of essays by several religious historians: in addition to chapters by the editors, it includes essays by George Marsden, Mark Noll, Eugene Genovese, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, and Paul Boyer, among others. The book is largely an anthology of a 1994 conference hosted by Wheaton College (“the evangelical Harvard”) entitled the Consultation on Advocacy and Writing American History.

Although the diversity of authors preempts any monolithic message, a couple of themes emerge from Religious Advocacy and American History, as outlined by Leo Ribuffo in the afterward:

Four issues were jumbled together at the Wheaton sessions, and they still have not been sorted out in this book. These are, first, that historians of the United States pay insufficient attention to religion; second, that scholars of religious history are insufficiently respected by their colleagues; third, that these two problems derive primarily from a bias against religious faith by secular faculty; and fourth, that advocacy from a religious perspective—actually, from an evangelical or moderate Catholic perspective—is not only as legitimate as other biases now esteemed in higher education but also provides educational advantages.

The book, thus, has the culture wars written all over it. What several of the contributors seemed to want was what scholars of race and gender had already achieved in the academy: their identity taken seriously. This is a curious position, though, coming from Christians. It’s one thing for a feminist scholar to frame the past using a woman’s perspective, which is necessarily relativist. But doesn’t a true believer in Jesus want to avoid such relativistic understandings of the past?

The book also begs another question: should these religious scholars have been more careful about their wishes? In other words, it seems to me that religious history is no longer unfashionable. But religious advocates are not the ones writing the important new scholarship. I’m thinking here of Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart and our own David Sehat’s forthcoming The Myth of Religious Freedom, which I expect to be widely read. Does the mainstreaming of religious history require that it be written by mainstream historians (re: secular scholars)?

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew — an interesting post.

    I’m not familiar with the book, so a question I have is, do the contributors explicitly frame their position in terms of “identity,” or is that your translation of their claims?

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a “curious position” — wouldn’t it depend on the sort of Christian who’s making it? True, some feminists drew on post-structuralism to break down a falsely universalized epistemology that denied its gendered character; but some, such as Linda Alcoff, have continued to defend pluralized versions of “standpoint theory” to support claims to valid knowledge rooted in experience.

    Maybe they adopted a sort of “strategic relativism” to open space for new truths — which doesn’t seem completely different from ideology critique dating to the 18th c and earlier.

    Perhaps some religious people adopt a parallel position for similar purposes, and Peter Berger might be a pre-post example. Surely Social Construction of Reality is an ur-document of recent relativization, but all along he’s been hearing a “rumor of angels” and looking for a “world with windows” to the sacred. Maybe the fundamentalists, though, have a sharper sense of the slippery slope of relativization than the liberals. I don’t think the label “relativism,” whatever it is exactly, describes all the possibilities. For example, check out Hedgehog Review 12, 3, Fall 2010 – “Does Religious Pluralism Require Secularism?’ – including articles by Rajeev Bhargava, Craig Calhoun, Slavica Jakelic, and Charles Taylor. An interesting article too is Sidney E. Mead, “History and Identity,” The Journal of Religion 51, 1, Jan 1971. Mead links themes of identity as discussed at that time — Erikson, but also Berger and Luckmann — with problems of religioius identity in the pluralized, relativized modern setting.

    On your second point – I agree, mainstreaming may get you things you didn’t ask for. But it doesn’t have to lead to a simplistic “contributionism, ala Novick. At the other end of the assimilation-difference spectrum, again as per Novick, one could imagine “every religious group its own historian.’

    Bill Fine

  2. Andrew, an interesting post. I’m not familiar with the book, so I wonder, do the contributors explicitly frame their position in terms of “identity,” or is that your translation of their claims?

    I’m not sure it’s necessarily a “curious position,” partly depending on the sort of Christian who’s making it. True, many feminists drew on post-structuralism to attack the gendered character of modern thought; but some, such as Linda Alcoff, continue to defend a pluralized version of the notion that experience is a foundation for knowledge. They employed a sort of “strategic relativism” to open space for new truths, not to disavow any or all truth, which doesn’t seem radically different from critiques of ideology back to the 18th c.

    Perhaps some religious people adopt a parallel position for similar purposes, and Peter Berger might be a pre-post example. Surely Social Construction of Reality is an ur-document of recent “relativization,” but around the same time he was already hearing “rumors of angels” and looking for “world with windows” to the sacred. Maybe fundamentalists are more sensitized to the slippery slope of relativization than the liberals, though I think many would argue that they incorporate more modern elements than they are wont to allow. Also – how do you define “relativism” in the first place?

    Check out a recent issue of Hedgehog Review 12, 3, Fall 2010 – “Does Religious Pluralism Require Secularism?’ – including articles by Rajeev Bhargava, Craig Calhoun, Slavica Jakelic, and Charles Taylor. An interesting article too is Sidney E. Mead, “History and Identity,” The Journal of Religion 51, 1, Jan 1971 – Mead tries to link themes of identity as discussed at that time — Erikson, but also Berger and Luckmann — and the problems of personal and group identity in a pluralized, relativized modern setting.

    On your second point – I agree, mainstreaming may get you things you didn’t ask for. But it doesn’t have to lead to a simplistic “contributionism.” At the other end of the spectrum, tweaking Novick, one could imagine “every religious group its own historian.’

    If you’re exploring issues of religion and identity — important background for examining the culture wars — I’d suggest Kevin Schultz, and his “Religion as Identity in Postwar America: The Last Serious Attempt to Put a Question on Religion in the United States Census,” JAH 93, Sept 2006, 359-384; and “‘Favoritism Cannot Be Tolerated’: Challenging de facto Protestantism in America’s Public Schools and Advocating a Neutral State” AQ, 2007. In both he argues that in the creation of the modern liberal “procedural republic,” ala Rawls, the role of religious minorities needs to be considered along with that of other “identity” movements.

    Finally, have you developed a working definition of “culture wars?” Seems like it’s one of those topics endlessly discussed but rarely clarified.

    Bill Fine

  3. Andrew, Interesting post! First about relativism: Many evangelicals argue that they possess a “Christian worldview” that can be formally separated from other worldviews by their belief in God, in human capacity for good and sin, in the afterlife, etc. This might suggests an embrace of pluralistic perspectivalism and a consequent relativism, but I think evangelicals only intend the former. By first rooting their own belief in a particular perspective and by suggesting that that perspective is relevant and even determinative for their view of the world, evangelicals declare their belief as a foundational component of their identity and outlook that cannot be dismissed or reduced to epiphenoma. But such a claim does not, according to evangelicals, mean that they reject truth or think that all perspectives are equal. All other worldviews are degraded expressions of perverted reason and human nature that was damaged in the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. Because evangelicals make their belief so foundational to their outlook and identity, any academic exploration of religion that disavows advocacy, which in this case would mean acknowledging the explicitly Christian perspective of the academic writer, would be intellectually illegitimate–since how can someone separate themselves from their worldview?–and also a concession to the forces of corrupted reason and of evil that their worldview requires them to argue against. Further, by arguing that the university is not interested or amenable to the study of religion, they make it a place of evil that needs to be reclaimed from a Christian perspective.

    But you make an interesting point: what happens when academics do begin to study religion but do not do so from the perspective of the advocate? Do the advocates become upset? We don’t have to guess. D.G. Hart wrote a book about the subject: The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education (JHU Press, 2002). Hart–who I know from my time in seminary and who is an old-line Presbyterian (not an evangelical)–well, let’s just that that he’s not a happy with the development.

  4. Bill: Thanks for the comments and, again, the helpful bibliographic suggestions. I need more time to read! Quickly, my notion of relativism in this instance is merely of the social construction framework that historians employ regularly in the context of understanding identity. I agree that the culture wars are slippery, but I do indeed have a definition. Specifically when I talk about the culture wars I mean the series of public controversies that dominated headlines during the 1980s and 1990s, and remain with us today. The culture wars are best understood as the terrain that allowed Americans in the 1980s and 1990s to acknowledge, if not accept, the transformations to American life wrought by the tumultuous developments of the 1960s and 1970s. I know this perhaps does not satisfy, a product of the slippery concept.

    David: Thanks so much for your very helpful explanation of how evangelicals relate to secular realms such as the academy, and for the Hart citation.

  5. Andrew, thanks. That gives me a better sense of what you mean by “culture wars.” I seem to recall that James Davison Hunter, in Culture Wars, 1991, coined the term, and it was picked up by Patrick Buchanan. Don’t know if that’s right. Do you include debates about the therapeutic drift of American culture occasioned by Lasch’s book?

    Saw an interesting essay by Patrick Deer in Social Text, Fall 2009, that sees the culture concept as inherently conflicted from its beginnings. Referring to the culture wars of the 80s-90s, he says,

    The truth of the matter is that ‘culture’ wars are not about culture. They are about ideology and about attacking institutions and theories and practices held by those whose ideas are deemed illegitimate or “uncivilized.” Nor are the culture “wars,” as any military veteran could point out, real wars. They are ideological skirmishes in which words and cultural artifacts are used as weapons to serve other noncultural and worldly agendas. 89.

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