More on Religion and the Historical Profession

Last week I wrote about the revival of interest in religion among professional historians. A recent study by the American Historical Association has shown that religion is the most studied topic among its members.

Immanent Frame is running a forum exploring this so-called “religious revival.” The participants are Jon Butler, David Hollinger, John Schmalzbauer, Jonathan Sheehan, and Grant Wacker. Each participant was asked to explain why religion has captured the attention of so many historians.

Here is a summary:

Butler: Religion is hot because the “secularization thesis” cannot explain recent world history. Religion has also built off of solid work in intellectual history by scholars such as Patrick Allitt, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Richard Fox. He also credits various Pew and Lilly-funded initiatives that have promoted this kind of scholarship, particularly in the area of American history.

Hollinger: Praises the fact that “the religious” are no longer the only ones writing “religious history.” (I agree with Hollinger, but I think his piece neglects the fact that most of the best scholarship on religion in history, especially in American history, is done by people who are religious or at least sympathetic to the traditions that they study).

Schmalzbauer: Warns that we can make too much of this “religious revival” in the historical profession. He writes: “According to the American Historical Association survey, just 7.7 percent of historians expressed an interest in religion. In other disciplines, the proportion is even smaller. If there is a comeback of religion (and I believe there is), it is limited in its size and scope.”

Sheehan: Discusses the emergence of “religious history” as a distinct field of study amid the general decline of social and cultural history.

Wacker: Religion is growing in the historical profession because of its growing role in public life, the resistance of religion in the midst of secularizing forces, and the emergence of a distinguished group of religious historians who have brought the subject into the mainstream of history.

2 thoughts on “More on Religion and the Historical Profession

  1. James: I think you are right about this. I occasionally teach future secondary teachers how to teach history and this often comes up. Many of them think that if they bring up religion in their high school American history courses that they are somehow violating the First Amendment or something of that nature. How can you teach American history, especially the pre-1877, without discussing religion?

    The course evaluation quotes are classic. Another reason for why they should not be taken too seriously in the tenure and promotion file.

    Thanks for reading and posting.


  2. Is it just the professionals? Students are often reluctant to deal with religion in my history classes, thinking it forbidden to include it even as an object of study. This includes even religious students.

    BTW, one of my favorite pair of course evaluation comments came from a single class, from students who must have been sitting together: one wrote, “too much religion, not enough history!”, while the other wrote “too many ideas — not enough history!”


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