Forgive me for pointing out the obvious: there has been a “turn” toward or, perhaps better, a “tsunami” of scholarship on religion. We might locate one of the key moments in this movement with Jon Butler’s often-cited essay, “Jack-in-the-Box Faith: The Religion Problem in Modern American History,” published in the Journal of American History in March 2004. Butler noted that recognition of the role religion played in early American history was matched by the lack of or sporadic recognition of the role religion played in modern American history. Oh, how scholarly times have changed. The exact opposite is now true. We get a sense of this in recent prizes given out: Darren Dochuk won the 2011 John H. Dunning Prize from the AHA and the Ellis Hawley Prize from the OAH for From Bible Belt to Sunbelt; Matt Sutton just won the prize for the Brinkley-Stevens prize for the best essay in the Journal of American History for his essay “Was FDR the Anti-Christ?”; David Sehat won the Frederick Jackson Turner prize from the OAH for his Myth of American Religious Freedom; you get the idea. And the tide will grow stronger still, for soon we will have David Hollinger’s After Cloven Tongues of Fire.
The story of how this turn happened will take more that blog post to cover…obviously. And if we consider two very different interpretations of this turn in two recent posts here, I am not even certain if we can talk about the “religious turn” in coherent terms. Tim Lacy wonders where all the Pope studies are in American historiography. Kevin Schultz mentions a few sources on the subject–but only a few, thus proving Tim’s point. LD Burnett very smartly points out that we might consider the fascination that historians have with discovering the metaphysical as a reaction to the perception that the academy is spiritually vacuous. LD writes in the comment section under her post: “What makes these ‘religious undertones’ [in intellectual history] so interesting is that they are in one sense thoroughly secular.” What I find especially intriguing about her observation is that in a stunningly counter-intuitive way, she has located what might explain the richness of recent books on religious history and the seemingly endless interest in them. In one of the sharpest ontological discussions of “why we write,” LD contends:
The “culture wars” that erupt on this blog from time to time seem to me to be of (at least) two kinds: internecine conflict between the “high church” and “low church” practitioners of our “faith” (the social history of “intellectuals” and their texts v. the history of ideas in whatever texts they may be found) and conflict between the “incarnationalist” (idealist) and “gnostic” (materialist) practitioners.
So, for example, if I took my own taxonomy seriously (which I *barely* do), I would class myself as a “low-church incarnationalist” — meaning, first of all, that I have the broadest understanding of where ideas can be found and do not feel that I must respect some hierarchy of merit with “complex” texts at the top and outhouse graffiti at the bottom; secondly, that I am convinced that ideas find immanent, intimate expression in and through the lives of people and the world we make, and are not epiphenomenal.
If I want to understand why so many of us in academia have found religion so fascinating, I wonder if a big part of the story is not that we are enamored with the subject because it at once satisfies our interest in the physical construction of history and our desire to want to write about people who take seriously how they find meaning in their work of constructing history. To use an example readily at hand, David Chappell’s book A Stone of Hope seems so convincing to me because he welds together a history of a crucial social movement to the ideas, ideals, and metaphysics of the people who created that movement. To wit: my students are tired of hearing me ask, why did these people in the movement believe in what they were doing? They took their faith seriously, constructing a physical historical movement that we take seriously. But, Chappell asks, why haven’t we taken their faith quite as seriously as the construction of the historical movement for which they are known?
As a gesture toward investigating my own question, I am interested in doing research on a program that I think gets close to the center of this religion tsunami: IUPUI’s Young Scholars in Religion Program. Its director for the last decade has been Philip Goff, a historian of modern American religions and the editor of one of the most indispensable books on American religious scholarship: The Blackwell Companion to Religion in America. While I have come to know personally a number of the people who have gone through the YSR program (my colleague Marian, William Mirola, was in the first couple of groups in the 1990s), I think many of us have great respect for the many of fine books and essays of the people who have been part of this program. You can peruse the different classes of YSR over the years through the link above. I have a hunch (that needs testing) that one of the keys to the success of these scholars has been offering a place where they get a chance to explore how to be both savvy and serious about a subject that they will offer to the ostensibly secular academy. In other words, has Philip Goff and the YSR program created a space in which to wrestle with the ontological dilemma LD poses in her post?