David D. Hall: Questions I’d Like to Be Able to Answer More Confidently

I continue to work my way through some of the papers from the recent conference on American religious history held by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. In my last post on this topic, I commented on Jon Butler‘s talk on theory and religious advocacy.

In this post, I want to call our attention to a talk by David D. Hall on what sociologists, religion scholars, and historian can learn from one another. Hall teaches at Harvard Divinity School. I have learned a lot from his work. Back in 1998 I participated in a week-long American Antiquarian Society seminar he conducted on the History of the Book in Early America. Though he probably does not remember, he once gave me a helpful set of comments on an essay I wrote on evangelical revivalist and Indian educator Eleazar Wheelock.

The part of Hall’s talk that is most interesting is a section on “Questions I’d Like to Be Able to Answer More Confidently.” He describes this section as “four aspects of American religious history I would like to understand better, the implied question being, where could I look for help in accomplishing that goal?”

Here they are:

1). The place of religion in nation building.

Hall writes: “By nation building I refer to the ‘grand narrative’ that encompasses the making and remaking of the American national state, the narrative that encompasses 1776, 1787, the election of 1800, the Mexican War, 1861, the ratifying of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, the ruse of social democracy as tentatively undertaken by the Progressives and undertaken more emphatically by the New Deal and the Great Society.” What role, Hall asks, did Christianity play in this process? Why has Catholicism, the South, and Fundamentalism never found its way into this narrative?

I was inspired to read this. I do a bit of this in the first four chapters of my manuscript, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation.”

2). Church and State.

Hall writes: “The truism that church and state are ‘separate’ is just that, a truism–but as Philip Hamburger and others have recently demonstrated, a thoroughly political truism, put to use by self-interested parties as a means of isolating/criticizing others, especially Roman Catholics.” He calls for more study of evangelical voluntarists, such as Philip Schaff, who sought to promote a Christian nation.

Again, this will be a major theme in the first four chapters of “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”

3). How does theology matter in American religious history?

Hall writes: “…we need a fuller grammar of how practice and theology fit together, recognizing as we take on this challenge that ‘fit together’ can also entail slippage, inconsistencies, and outright defiance.”

This is an interesting observation from a historian who has built a better part of a career pointing out the tensions between official theology and lived religious experience.

4). The “Americanness” of Christianity in the U.S.A.

Hall writes: “it is cause for concern that two major recent studies of religion in America, Mark Noll’s America’s God and Catherine Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit are both driven by the concept of ‘an’ American religion–and to juxtapose these two books is to appreciate how wildly different our appraisals of that religion can be. Surely we can do better, if only by declaring a truce and, as an act of will, bracketing the term American.” On this point I need to go back and read E. Brooks Holifield’s Theology in America, which I believe offers an interpretation of religion in this period that is not as driven by American exceptionalism.

It is always encouraging to hear senior scholars like Hall say that they still need to understand things better.