Dale Soden is Professor of History and Director of Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith and Learning at Whitworth University. This interview is based on his book, Outsiders in a Promised Land: Religious Activists in Pacific Northwest History (Oregon State University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Outsiders in a Promised Land?
DS: I decided to research and write Outsiders in a Promised Land after publishing a biography of the most influential religious figure in the first half of the 20th century in the Pacific Northwest—the Reverend Mark Matthews (University of Washington Press, 2001). Most historians had neglected the role that religious activists, including Matthews, had played in the Northwest largely because of its reputation as the least-churched region of the country. However, it became evident, that beginning in the mid-19th century, religious activists played key roles in trying to shape the culture of the Northwest through the establishment of schools and colleges as well as lobbying for the passage of laws that would shape behavior. They led the way in the struggle for not just the prohibition of alcohol, but as the century wore on, the advocacy for civil rights and other issues of social justice. All of this was largely untold by previous historians.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Outsiders in a Promised Land?
DS: The argument for Outsiders is that in the period between the mid-19th century and the 1930s/40s, religious activists (Protestants, Catholics, and Jews) exercised outsized influence on the culture of the region as they tried to mitigate the early influence of largely young adult males who were mainly interested in gambling, prostitution, and alcohol. The second half of the book is focused on the cultural war between largely conservative and liberal elements within the middle class after mid-century; this war largely focused on whether more conservative social values should prevail within the Northwest or whether more liberal values that emphasized pluralism and social justice should predominate.
JF: Why do we need to read Outsiders in a Promised Land?
DS: Outsiders helps us understand two fundamental questions: What was the role of religious activism in the history of public life in the Pacific Northwest, and secondly, Outsiders helps explain the larger trajectory of religion in public life not just in the Northwest but in the context of the larger American story. This book is unique in the sense that it should help reveal how a region of the country can express elements that are unique to that region, but also elements that are familiar across the American landscape. As we attempt to understand the culture wars that continue to dominate many of the country’s political dynamics, having a better understanding of how these culture wars evolved from the mid-20th century to the present should be helpful perspective.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DS: I decided to become an American historian several decades ago in graduate school. It was only after I taught a couple of courses in American history that I decided to make that my emphasis. In general, I was drawn to American history because of how evident it was that my father, who had lived through the Depression and fought in World War II, had such a different experience that I who was living through the ‘60s with the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. I wanted to understand him and myself more fully.
JF: What is your next project?
DS: I’m currently working on a comparative study of the role that predominately African-American churches and pastors played in the struggle for civil rights on the West Coast. I’m looking at churches and pastors in Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area and Los Angeles. I’m most interested in how these pastors, many of whom went to school with Martin Luther King Jr., or knew him directly, navigated the influence of Black Power on their own ministries and efforts to work for social justice.
JF: Thanks, Dale!