U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Why Academia Found God

i love religionForgive 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?

23 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I wonder how much this ‘religious turn’ is a distant effect of the rise of international Area Studies and the ‘repatriation’ of anthropology. Maybe I’m overthinking what is essentially a “ok, what’s left to study?” phenomenon, but the idea of a modern history that ignores cultural and religious ideas is largely absent from the regional studies scholarship I grew up in, and the idea that Western society was somehow “beyond” those things is one that a lot of non-western scholars have been sniping at for along time.

    • Fair enough, I characterize this trend as a re-discovery and certainly Jon Butler needles his colleagues in that essay to consider a field or lens that others had been using for quite some time. My larger point gets at the quality, not merely the existence or emergence, of the work being produced in the religious history. Does putting history into the narrative produce richer history and therefore better history?

  2. Thanks, Ray.

    I think the “religious turn” in American history is in many ways indebted to Jerry Falwell, or maybe J. Vernon McGee. Most of the work on religion that’s getting widespread attention is work that tries to “understand” the religious right/conservative evangelicalism, whether critically (Sehat) or from the “reluctant historian” position (Dochuk, Sutton). At least, this work so far seems to be overshadowing the “religious turn” in diplomatic history (see Preston’s magesterial SWORD OF THE SPIRIT, SHIELD OF FAITH) or the revival of interest in mainline/ecumenical Protestantism (Hollinger and Matt Hedstrom’s RISE OF LIBERAL RELIGION). How much are the culture wars and political partisanship determining which scholarship on religion gets the most press?

    (PS This is NOT a subtle jab at Sutton, Dochuk, and Sehat, who I have my students reading this very semester; their work is AMAZING and deserving of the highest praises)

    But you are certainly wise to zero in on the YSAR; many of the most influential names in American religious history come out of that program, they must be doing something right!

    • Mark, my experience–my point of comparison–is the rise of diplomatic history that I witnessed and in some sense participated in when I was in graduate school. John Gaddis attracted a parade of great senior and emerging scholars in this field at a time when the collapse of the cold war had put the study of dip his in some strange jeopardy. What happened in that field was the extraordinary diversification into international history, using archives in a number of places, languages, etc., and the writing of dip his from every conceivable angel–from Greg Grandin to Jeremi Suri. I think we are on the cusp of that with religious history if not already in it, from Ed Blum to Matt Sutton to you!

  3. The proportion of Americans who claim no religious affiliation continues to increase. Maybe the owls are flying because the sun has set. Of course there are always reports (prophesies?) of religious revival—an intellectual historian could get an easy publication by simply chronicling the cicada-like reappearance of God-is-back feature articles in Time magazine over the years, and maybe church attendance really will start coming back one of these days. Still, at least for the moment, the increasing interest in the role of religion in American intellectual life does seem to run counter to the sociological reality of continuing secularization.

    • A crucial insight, no doubt. Over at the the SSRC’s Immanent Frame, scholars have been riffing on this secularization debate for some time. See the roundtable on Taylor’s A Secular Age for a prime example. What distinguishes much of the religious scholarship today for me is the imbedding of the writing within the history of the ‘obvious’–whether that be oil (Dochuk), Walmart (Moreton), war (Ebel), etc. See the comment below for a really interesting way to address the point you raise.

    • We ought to be cautious talking about “the sociological reality of continuing secularization.” Secularization has been the bugbear of American religious culture from the beginning, and yet America marches on as a pious anomaly in the “Western” world.

      As intellectual historians in particular, we need to realize that the revivalist of 1830 might look at secularization in 2013 as a fait accompli while the Jeffersonian of a mere fifty years earlier might see religion as still tragically relevant in public life. This has less to do with the ebb and flow of religion, I suspect, than with the fluidity of the concepts of “religious” and “secular.” The “nones” you reference are, we should remember, entirely too secular for the evangelicals and yet still too religious for the New Atheists.

  4. I wonder to what extent this is also an effect of the so-called post-secular work of scholars like Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, who write critically of secular rationality in order to expose its tendencies toward subjection and a kind of imperialism of western rationality as the telos of freedom. In the American context, one might think of John Lardas Modern’s recent Secularism in Antebellum America.

    • That is an excellent observation and one that YOU should write on here! I have just gotten into Modern’s book and I am frankly blown away. An excellent writer meets some very rich material. I have the sense that part of what drives the YRS program is a kind of subversiveness–that they have taken seriously a substratum of life that undermined and underscored what we might have accepted all too blithely as a master narrative of American power. Brian, you are writing on post-secularism, correct? Develop your comment further. Do you know if this is an argument being pushed forward among a certain set of American religious scholars?

  5. I’m presently reading Beyond Good and Evil and in one of those cases of fortuitous timing that happen once in a while, yesterday I came across the following passage from the third part of the book, entitled “The Religious Disposition.”

    On the part of pious, or merely church-going people, there is seldom any idea of HOW MUCH good-will, one might say arbitrary will, is now necessary for a German scholar to take the problem of religion seriously; his whole profession (and as I have said, his whole workmanlike laboriousness, to which he is compelled by his modern conscience) inclines him to a lofty and almost charitable serenity as regards religion, with which is occasionally mingled a slight disdain for the “uncleanliness” of spirit which he takes for granted wherever any one still professes to belong to the Church. It is only with the help of history (NOT through his own personal experience, therefore) that the scholar succeeds in bringing himself to a respectful seriousness, and to a certain timid deference in presence of religions; but even when his sentiments have reached the stage of gratitude towards them, he has not personally advanced one step nearer to that which still maintains itself as Church or as piety; perhaps even the contrary. The practical indifference to religious matters in the midst of which he has been born and brought up, usually sublimates itself in his case into circumspection and cleanliness, which shuns contact with religious men and things; and it may be just the depth of his tolerance and humanity which prompts him to avoid the delicate trouble which tolerance itself brings with it.

    Obviously, Nietzsche was writing a long time ago in a completely different context. But it seems to me that if you replace “German” with “American” he does describe something of the attitude that the “tsunami” of work on religion had to overcome to be possible. That’s just my impression, though. I could be totally wrong about that. I’m sure no expert about the history or historiography of American religion.

  6. This may come off much more polemically than I intend, but did academia find God, or did it find Christianity? I think we can track very different historiographical, political, and institutional trends depending on if we really see this as a turn toward religion broadly, or toward Christianity.

    I certainly do not mean to slight the immense diversity of the Christianity being studied, but I would like to point out that (as far as I can tell) only one of the Young Scholars from the IUPUI program for 2010-2012 principally publishes on something other than Christianity (Jeff Wilson). The works mentioned above are also all centered on Christianity, even if they include some considerations of Judaism or free-thought.

    Again, I am not trying to be polemical–just specific. I think that in the classroom, there probably has been a much broader turn toward religious practice, experience, and meaning, but so far that seems to have issued mainly in publications on Christianity.

    • A couple of points on this apt observation, Andrew: first, if you check out the different classes in the YSR program they offer syllabi that are broader than just courses and readings in Christianity. Second, my point about the recent publications was to observe that awards given out by the big historical associations have picked people from this program, not that the program only produces or accepts scholars who do Christian history in America. With that said, the program does focus on religion in America and attracts young scholars who are developing courses at a wide variety of institutions, many of which will want them to teach survey courses or courses specifically on the most dominant faith traditions in the US.

  7. Good point, Andrew.

    Don’t wanna give a spoiler, so think of it more as a preview/teaser, but I think the upcoming forum on Kerwin Lee Klein’s From History to Theory will illuminate many aspects of this discussion as it is evolving in Ray’s post, my earlier post, and some conversations on Twitter. Klein sees a “drift toward the language of reenchantment” within the university; his book poses the question, “What conditions made possible the reenchantment of historical discourse?”

    I think this question, rather than the question of which historians are paying attention to which religions, is, at bottom, what Ray and I are taking somewhat different tacks toward. Klein connects this “re-enchantment” in at least some respects to an overt effort by Christian historians (as opposed to “historians of Christianity”), but that is not the sole/chief source of the turn. Still, Ray’s focus on this particular group in this post seems to me to point toward a larger underlying phenomenon (I was going to say “problem,” but that would be polemical) of a deliberate effort to (re)turn the explanatory schemes of history to a specifically Christian framework. The motives for such efforts vary, and I tend to view the, um, phenomenon with less than full enthusiasm. To mix some metaphors from a variety of (ir)religious experiences: sure, we can let a thousand flowers bloom, but let’s try to keep that damn snake out of the garden, for heaven’s sake.

    • LD, expand on what you mean by the “snake.” As I said by way of a comment to Andrew’s observations, is this program I mention at the crux of the…phenomenon or is it the fact that the biggest historical associations (and more general book awards) recognizing a certain stream in religious scholarship? My point was also to wonder whether there is an important point to make about gathering together a group of young scholars who do different things with religious scholarship to discuss how to approach their collective field. The fact that this program seems to be working pretty well for at least a decade or more is interesting to me. It suggests a model for institutional support as much as intellectual shaping.

      • You know I don’t believe in threading — against my religion — so I will reply below…

  8. Doesn’t it seem that there is a relation between the university finding Christianity (per Andrew’s observation) and the post-2008 breakdown of the neo-conservative coalition? During the 1990s and early 2000s it seemed like religion itself was politically loaded. The embattled left became associated with equally embattled atheist and agnostic minorities whereas conservatism became the realm of Christian and Jewish religious fervor. But with the 2008 Obama election and the struggles of the Republican party to hold together the the neo-conservative coalition in light of changing demographics and a lack of charismatic candidates, it seems like religion has depoliticized somewhat. I think historians have jumped on the new opportunities of religion to be an instrument of liberation and change post-2008, to look at how religion was a limiting, conservative discourse during the 20th century.

    • I’m with Matthew. I think the “finding of God” is related (and the correlation in studies is certainly there) to the rise in interest in relation to understanding The Right and Conservatism in the post-war American scene. So I think the question is whether politics is driving the interest (which is remarkable considering the cultural turn in the 1980s and 1990s), or, maybe, a re-enchantmetn with religion is driving political studies. In any case, I’m thinking that politics and—Andrew Hartman will love this—the Culture Wars are driving things. – TL

  9. I was working up some comments when I noticed that LD had made a connection to Kerwin Klein. One locus for discussion might be Klein’s references to Walter Benjamin [125, 131] in the chapter on memory and spirituality, and what John Modern does with him — and Herman Melville and Geertz and Bob Dylan — in “Walter Benjamin’s 115th Dream.”

    The spiritualized role Modern gives historians may be another reason for the popularity of religious studies. Or not.

  10. Ray writes, “LD, expand on what you mean by the ‘snake.'”

    It’s both an ironic swipe at the effort to re-enchant historical discourse as the (re)introduction of the serpent into a secular paradise, and an ironic comment on the fact that the Fall into fideism seems inevitable, since Modernity is its own worst enemy. There is no keeping the snake out of the garden — it’s a package deal. And as soon as we figure that out, well, cue the re-enchanters/snake-charmers, offering the tempting fruit of godlike knowledge that can rise above historicism.

    So in lieu of St. Patrick, we have to make do with David Hollinger, as I mentioned in a post last year:

    Calls from confessing historians to make space in the secular academy for “confessional” history are like so many snakes in this garden, and Hollinger proceeds to chase them into the sea.

    I must say that I have never met a confessing historian that I didn’t like, present company (potentially) included (I have no idea who confesses what around here, to be honest). And the project of bringing multiple perspectives to bear upon a historical problem seems like a good way to proceed — that’s the “let a thousand flowers bloom.” But the project of using secularism to undermine secularism — that scheme has plenty of the serpent’s wisdom, but none of the dove’s repose.

    • And I don’t at all mean to imply that the program to which you’ve referred has tasked itself with churning out “confessing historians,” or to suggest that the AHA or OAH are warming to the notion. I’m more aiming at the suggestion by one of my pals on Twitter that Christian historians are persecuted in the secular academy. I tend to think not — but bad historians might be.

  11. To join my initial post to Andrew’s excellent observation, it’s not just Christianity, but a particular KIND of Christianity, theologically and politically evangelical Christianity, that is in the spotlight. How much of this is former evangelicals themselves trying to exorcise some demons? I’m not casting stones, my own interest in the Niebuhrs was in part to put the “mental” in my separatist fundamentalist upbringing.

  12. Point of information: has anybody tracked the amount of money religious foundations are putting into the system? After the 60s, wealthy conservatives made a concerted effort to create right-wing think tanks and support right-wing intellectuals, and this financial input surely played a role in the conservative resurgence of the last 30 or 40 years. Was there a parallel effort on the spiritual front? The New Atheists may be noisy; but so far as I know, they aren’t very well heeled and there isn’t any anti-Tempelton foundation.

    Just asking.

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