Beinart: Secularism is Bad for American Politics


I am not used to seeing Peter Beinart write about religion, but his recent piece in The Atlantic makes sense to me.  Here is the argument:

As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

And a taste:

When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” A Pew Research Center poll last March found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.

Why did these religiously unaffiliated Republicans embrace Trump’s bleak view of America more readily than their churchgoing peers? Has the absence of church made their lives worse? Or are people with troubled lives more likely to stop attending services in the first place? Establishing causation is difficult, but we know that culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful. Since the early 1970s, according to W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, rates of religious attendance have fallen more than twice as much among whites without a college degree as among those who graduated college. And even within the white working class, those who don’t regularly attend church are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress. As Wilcox explains, “Many conservative, Protestant white men who are only nominally attached to a church struggle in today’s world. They have traditional aspirations but often have difficulty holding down a job, getting and staying married, and otherwise forging real and abiding ties in their community. The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Judith Weisenfeld

New World A Coming.jpgJudith Weisenfeld is Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton University. This interview is based on her new book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (NYU Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write New World A-Coming?

JW: I have been interested in the black new religious movements of the Great Migration period since I read Arthur Huff Fauset’s 1944 ethnographic study, Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North, in an undergraduate course. Fauset was concerned with questions about what the religious creativity fostered by the migration and urbanization of African Americans in the early twentieth century revealed about the dynamics of black religion, particularly with regard to connections to African religious traditions. In this way he was participating in a broader scholarly conversation among anthropologists about “African retentions” in African American culture. As I thought about revisiting some of the groups Fauset had profiled and my fascination with their charismatic leaders, distinctive theologies, and novel rituals and social organizations grew, it became clear to me that I brought different questions and tools to the project than had Fauset.

Two aspects of Fauset’s approach remained important for me as I researched and wrote the book, however. First, although a number of wonderful historical and ethnographic studies have been published in recent years examining the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, congregations of black Jews, and the Moorish Science Temple – the groups on which I focus in New World A-Coming – most examined a single group of a number of groups under the same religious umbrella. Like Fauset, I wanted to think comparatively and, as a historian, to think about what gave rise to these novel movements in the early twentieth-century urban North, about commonalities, and differences. Second, Fauset attended not only to the leaders of the movements and their theologies but to the members, asking questions about what appealed to them and what they gained in joining these groups. Trying to recover some sense of the experiences of members of the groups was what really motivated me to take up the project, and the challenge of finding sources to do so was both exciting and frustrating at times.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of New World A-Coming?

JW: Through attention to the theologies and religious practices of the leaders and members of these groups, I explore how people of African descent debated the nature of racial categories and discussed their impact on political, social, and spiritual opportunities. I argue that the appeal of the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews lay not only in the new religious opportunities that membership in them afforded, but in the novel ways they formulated an inseparable, divinely ordained religio-racial identity.

JF: Why do we need to read New World A-Coming?

JW: The book provides a fresh look at the black religious movements of the Great Migration period, emphasizing the experiences of both leaders and members who proposed new ways of thinking about black history, individual and collective identity, and sacred future. The book’s attention to African American religious diversity is also significant. Because religious African Americans have largely been affiliated with Protestant denominations, the field has focused on church history. Yet, African Americans have demonstrated great religious creativity and have challenged black Protestant orthodoxy in ways that have important implications for our understanding of the history of religion in American life.

New World A-Coming also adds to the literature on the history of race in the U.S. by highlighting the work of black peoples to challenge or redefine categories of race. Moreover, by locating religious identity and narrative at the core of the study, the book demonstrates the critical role that religion has played in shaping understandings of race in early twentieth-century African American life. As a study of modes of interaction between religion and race in the American past, the book also provides valuable insight into contemporary trends, particularly in light of racially-inflected religious discourse and religiously-inflected racial discourse in American public culture. Current discussion of America’s achievement of or failure to reach the status of post-racial society have taken place without full understanding of the complexities of black racial identity in nation’s past. The book breaks the limited binary of racial/post-racial and provides a more complex picture of racial identities and discourses.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JW: I came to the study of American history through Religious Studies. My undergraduate work as a Religion major at Barnard College explored the transnational history of black theology in connection with the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and, in deciding to go to graduate school in Religion, I knew I wanted to focus on African American religious history specifically. In fact, I proposed a project something like New World A-Coming in my application, but ended up writing a dissertation on another aspect of African American religion in the period: a history of African American women’s political and social activism in the New York City Young Women’s Christian Association. I remain fascinated by early twentieth-century African American religious history, particularly in arenas outside of churches and denominations, and I enjoy the archival challenges of telling these sorts of cultural histories.

JF: What is your next project?

JW: My current research examines late nineteenth and early-twentieth-century psychiatric discourses that connected race, religion, and mental illness among African Americans and explores how these racialized discourses shaped the approaches of mental hospitals, courts, and prisons to people psychiatrists deemed disabled by virtue of religiously grounded mental illness.

JF: Thanks, Judith!

The Author’s Corner with Emily Clark

aluminousbrotherhoodEmily Clark is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. This interview is based on her new book, A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write A Luminous Brotherhood?

EC: A Luminous Brotherhood is a much-revised adaptation of my doctoral dissertation. Initially my dissertation was a huge (way too huge) telling of religion and race in New Orleans with a focus on Afro-Creole communities. New Orleans Afro-Creoles were primary Catholic, often bilingual (or even trilingual), often educated, and many of them were free during the antebellum period. The Cercle Harmonique, the name the Afro-Creole Spiritualist community gave themselves, was only going to be a chapter of the project. They practiced Spiritualism from 1858 as the country was on the verge of a civil war through the end of Reconstruction in 1877. The dissertation I envisioned myself writing went beyond a group of men holding séances for 19 years, but as I began to read their séance records I realized that they told a much bigger story.

The spirits communicating with the Cercle Harmonique included Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, John Brown, Voltaire, Toussaint Louverture, Robespierre, Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Jesus, and Confucius to name just a few. Their messages covered issues of politics, gender, racism, equality, poverty, power, and social injustice. Messages responded to local massacres of black politicians, the death of beloved martyrs for black rights, and issues of religious corruption. The Spiritualism of the Cercle Harmonique situated their practice in their immediate world of New Orleans, the region of the American South, the nation-state of the U.S., the politics of the Atlantic world, and issues of cosmic proportion. Their séance table opened up a vast and complex world.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Luminous Brotherhood?

EC: This book contends that the Cercle Harmonique envisioned the proper social, political, and religious ordering of the material world through communication with a wise spirit world. Through their séances the Cercle Harmonique connected with an idealized society whose members provided the Afro-Creoles with a republican ideology to combat politically destructive forces on earth and create a more egalitarian world.

JF: Why do we need to read A Luminous Brotherhood?

EC: A Luminous Brotherhood weaves together a number of threads about the long nineteenth century in America: race, liberal religion, politics, anti-Catholicism, the Atlantic world’s age of revolutions, reform, utopian impulses, republican thought, slavery, and more. Though it focuses on a small group of Afro-Creoles, the story it tells is much bigger. The practice of the Cercle Harmonique allows us to sharpen our conclusions about those topics.

The Cercle Harmonique articulated a strong critique of racism and white supremacy that still has resonance today. They and the spirits they communicated with argued that racial identity had no real meaning. Bodies were only material envelopes that temporarily encased our spirits. Bodies only had meaning in the material world, whereas our spirits existed long after. One spirit even wondered if people would have followed Jesus had he been black. White supremacy was a real problem for the Cercle Harmonique and remains one today. The Afro-Creole Spiritualists I studied offer a rich example of the intersections between religion and race in America, and A Luminous Brotherhood provides a close look at how religion can provide strong critiques to societal norms and injustices. The book also reveals how religion simultaneously supports such societal norms and injustices. As I tell my students, American religion is complicated, and my book reflects that too.

Additionally, A Luminous Brotherhood is the first full-length study of the New Orleans Cercle Harmonique and one of the first academic texts on American Spiritualism to provide a close look at the practice and records of a nineteenth-century Spiritualist group. Previous works on American Spiritualism typically focus on major figures and ideas but fail to offer a deep look at the everyday practice of Spiritualism. Since much of the Cercle Harmonique’s séance records are intact, A Luminous Brotherhood looks at the spirits who communicated with the Cercle Harmonique, explores the significance of their presence, and situates them in the context surrounding their communication. The book examines what the spirits said and asks why.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EC: I’m not so sure that I decided to become an American historian but rather just became one. During my time as an undergraduate student at Austin College and then an M.A. student at the University of Missouri, I was drawn to the interplay between religion and culture but not from a historical perspective. It wasn’t until I started my doctoral work at Florida State University that I began to study American religious history proper. I describe myself as being haunted by the stories that archives hold and feel the need to tell them. I encourage my students to consider the historical context of every source we examine. Just about all my academic work and class materials examine people, trends, communities, practices, ideas, and conflicts from America’s past. Even now there are times that I think of myself as a historian—I am trained in historical methods, after all—but I also think of myself squarely in the field of religious studies. I’m not surprised that I’ve become an American historian, but I think of that as one element of my academic identity.

JF: What is your next project?

EC: I have a couple projects in the works. I’m working on two edited volumes, one on digital humanities and material religion and the other on race and new religious movements. I’m also in the early research stages of my next full-length monograph, Jesuits, Native Americans, and Colonialism in the Pacific Northwest. While the historiography on Jesuit missions typically focuses on the seventeenth-century evangelists in New France, this work will interrogate the interactions between Native Americans and Jesuits in the Pacific Northwest. Unlike those earlier Jesuits, the Italian Jesuits out west operated more systematically and as part of the federal push to “civilize” and evangelize Native tribes in this region.

JF: Thanks, Emily!

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Harper

the-end-of-daysMatthew Harper is Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Mercer University. This interview is based on his new book, The End of Days: African American Religion and Politics in the Age of Emancipation (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).  

JF: What led you to write The End of Days?

MH: I was researching something else, what probably would have been an uninspired account of black institution building in the post-emancipation period, when I kept running across black writers’ references to the millennium or the end of days. Each time, I would make a note and tuck it away in a separate file. The small file kept growing, until eventually, it was bigger than my main file. I threw out the first project. And the more I dug into black political conversations after emancipation, the more I found talk of the end times, of God’s unfolding plan for human history. I couldn’t ignore it. I became fascinated with the experience of emancipation as a dramatic intervention by God. How did slaves imagine a social order drastically different from their own? How did they make sense of multiple reversals of fortunes in their own lifetime?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The End of Days?

MH: Black Christians prophesied emancipation and when it occurred they became convinced they were living in the end of days when God would inaugurate a new era. In the following decades, when black southerners debated politics—be it a question of voting rights, land reform, temperance, Populism, migration, or segregation—they argued about what exactly they thought God had done and would do in human history; so we’d be hard-pressed to understand their politics without also understanding the theological meaning they gave emancipation.

JF: Why do we need to read The End of Days?

MH: In the political conversations I describe in the book, we see a lot of disagreement. Fist-fighting even, in one case. Black Christians argued about the meaning of emancipation, deployed competing biblical narratives to make sense of their circumstances, and chose quite different paths. I think it’s tempting to look at the sources, to see lots of references to biblical stories, and then to argue simply that religion helped inspire black political activism. We end up with monolithic descriptions of “the Black Church.” But if we do that, we skate right past what I argue is most interesting about religion and politics: that different religious ideas led to different political strategies. 

It’s also tempting to narrate the decades after emancipation as a long descent into the dark night of Jim Crow. But the people in my book resisted that kind of declension narrative. For them, God’s work in emancipation overshadowed the work of white supremacists. Even in the 1890s, they lived in the Age of Emancipation, and I hope we can tell a story that they would recognize.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MH: Strange as it may sound, I took a historiography class in high school, which cemented my desire to become a historian. But if you ask my mother, she’ll tell you that I was checking out African American history books from the library when I was 8. I was always curious about people. Growing up in small southern towns where schools were integrated and churches weren’t, I had plenty curiosity about religion and race. Reading stories about people and places were they only way I could get at the complexity of what I saw.

JF: What is your next project?

MH: It’s too early to give a precise answer, but I’m investigating the Baptist War in Jamaica in 1831. I’m still asking the question, how did slaves imagine a world radically different from their own? And there’s nothing more intriguing about the relationship between religion and politics to me than a black Baptist deacon leading an uprising of tens of thousands of slaves while the British Parliament debated abolition.

JF: Thanks, Matt!

“Police Calm Baptist Riot”–August 30, 1930


R.C.  Austin (third from left) was tricked out of his right to run in the election

Over at the Black Quotidian blog, proprietor and Arizona State history professor Matthew Delmont calls our attention to a headline in the August 30, 1930 edition of the Baltimore Afro-American:

While much of the bitterness, exposes, and even bloodshed expected to culminate at the Golden Jubilee of the National Baptist Convention was sidetracked, near casualties developed a the election of officers when followers of the Rev. J.C. Austin sought to establish the fact that he had been tricked out of his right to run in the election.  A battle, in which chairs and fists were used, and knives brandished, and women fought with pocketbooks, ended when six policemen, answering a riot call, rushed to the scene.  In twenty minutes order was restored.

I am sure some of my  readers will have a field day interpreting this.

Sylvester Johnson Talks African American Religion

The Author's Corner with Sylvester JohnsonSome of you may recall our Author’s Corner interview with Sylvester Johnson, Associate Professor of African American Studies and Religious Studies at Northwestern University. Johnson is the author of the recently published African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

In this interview with LA Review of Books, Johnson talks about his book with Monica Miller and Christopher Driscoll.

Here is a taste:

MM/CD: Historian of Religion Dr. Charles Long, whom many regard as the father of the academic study of African American Religion, has long argued that American religion and Euro-American religious impulses and discourses cannot be adequately understood without specific, focused attention to black religion. In other words, until (all) scholars of American religion take a long look at black religion, something will be missing from “their” work, and the story of American religion more generally. African American Religions works to cover much of this ground, conclusively demonstrating that the story of black religion is a story as much about Euro-American empire, as it is counter-narrative and response to empire and colonialism. As the book developed, who did you have in mind as your primary audience, and in what ways does African American Religions deconstruct long-held, uncritical, and racialized assumptions that tend to treat black religion with a kind of disciplinary segregation—as only significant for black people or scholars of black religion? What, if any, sorts of disciplinary interventions are made possible by the numerous epistemological interventions posed in and made by your book?

SJ: I wrote the book with scholars of religion in the Americas and African American Studies in mind. I also intended the book to address important questions about the material history of democracy and empire that might be of interest to political theorists. Because the book focuses on the intersection of religion and empire, it is meant to invite scholars of religion to consider the inextricable ties of that subject to colonialism, and vice versa. At the same time, the book is meant to deliver an overarching account of African American religions. Thus the title. I suspect that many people who might find the book quite relevant to their own work will forego doing so because of the title if they assume they are not interested in Black religions. As you indicate in your question, that is an unfortunate consequence of treating White religion as an unnamed universal (viz., American religion) while conceptualizing Black religion as overly particular, as a more provincial object of intellectual study.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Julius Bailey

DownintheValley.jpgJulius Bailey is Professor of Religions at University of Redlands. This interview is based on his new book, Down in the Valley: An Introduction to African American Religious History (Fortress Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Down in the Valley?

JB: Having taught the introduction to African American Religions course several times, I was always searching for a central textbook for the course.  When I was unable to find one, I decided to write a textbook that would combine the latest research in the field of Religious Studies with the classic studies of African American religious life.  My hope is that students will be excited about the vast variety and diversity of African American religious life.  While the study of African American religious history has tended to focus on Christianity, my goal was to write a book that engaged the diversity within black churches, the various world religions that black Americans have been a part, as well as black new religious movements that have sometimes been marginalized in the study of African American religions.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Down in the Valley?

JB: Rather than trying to definitively define the boundaries of “authentic” black religion, searching for African retentions, or determining how “American” it is, employing a hybrid approach that blurs the boundaries of each of these identities allows one to move fluidly between the big picture umbrella term “African American Religions” and the amazing diversity across traditions and localities.

JF: Why do we need to read Down in the Valley?

JB: Down in the Valley provides an unprecedented comprehensive approach to the study of African American religious history beginning with the various theoretical frameworks that scholars have brought to the study of African American religions and moving historically from African Traditional Religions, the religious life of enslaved Americans including rare glimpses into the lives of black Muslims, African American religious institutions including spiritual churches and Roman Catholicism, enduring themes in nineteenth-century African American religious life like Back-to-Africa Movements, African American new religious movements such as the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple, and contemporary developments in African American religions like the rise of black megachurches.  While many surveys of African American religions end with the Civil Rights Movement, Down in the Valley expands the time frame that most books cover beginning with African Traditional Religions and bringing the central themes and issues into the twenty-first century and Obama’s presidency.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JB: I decided to become an American historian as an undergraduate in college.  Working on my senior research project that sought to think of creative and unexpected sources for the recovery of African American voices from the past that are all too often silenced or marginalized in the study of American history confirmed for me that it had to be my chosen profession.

JF: What is your next project?

JB: My next research project is on the history of black churches in the American West.

JF: Thanks, Julius!

Brantley Gasaway: Diversity and Debates With the Social Gospel Tradition

GasawayBrantley Gasaway of Bucknell University offers another dispatch from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.  See all  of his AHA 2016 posts here.

While historians devote much of our time to critically examining the past, we also ask critical questions about the ways in which previous scholars have interpreted this past. As a result, numerous sessions at professional conferences such as this one are devoted to historiographical issues, re-examining familiar narratives, concepts, and interpretive categories. The first session I attended on Thursday was devoted to reassessing the concept and history of “culture wars.” Today, a panel of historians presented papers that sought to “Rethink the Social Gospel(s).”

In the earliest historiography, scholars portrayed the Social Gospel as a movement developed and led by elite white Protestant liberals, popular primarily in urban centers, concerned most with the deleterious consequences of industrialization and urbanization, and ebbing in influence after the 1930s. In recent decades, however, historians have challenged this characterization by showing how the theology of Social Gospel was adopted and adapted by a variety of religious and racial activists in many different locales and for many different purposes. Today’s panel continued this trend.

Curtis Evans, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, delivered a paper that examined the efforts of the Federal Council of Churches’ (FCC’s) Department of Race Relations as a manifestation of the Social Gospel. This initiative was founded upon one of the Social Gospel’s core theological principles concerning “the fatherhood of God” and the “brotherhood of man.” As an ecumenical and cooperative organization of liberally-inclined Protestants, the FCC inherited the Social Gospel tradition and, from the early 1920s through the 1950s, extended their commitment to address social problems to racial injustice. Through the participation and leadership of African-American ministers, the FCC developed concrete programs designed to change not only individual attitudes but also systemic racism as embodied in economic, educational, and legal structures. Because the FCC concluded that the realization of the Kingdom of God required the eradication of racial injustice, Evans concluded, the work of the Department of Race Relations deserves a place in narratives about the Social Gospel.

Arlene Sánchez-Walsh of Azusa Pacific University focused on the labor activism of Emma Tenayuca and the 1938 strike of Chicana pecan shellers in San Antonio. The vast majority of the workers were Catholic, while a sizable minority were converts to the Assemblies of God tradition. Nevertheless, both the Roman Catholic hierarchy and Assemblies of God leaders opposed the strike for a variety of reasons, including labor leaders’ association with communism. As a result, Tenayuca, who had indeed joined the communist party, and other workers were forced to draw their inspiration and justification from sources outside of traditional religious institutions. As Sánchez-Walsh explained further during the discussion period, she found no influence of the traditional “Social Gospel” theology and liberal Protestants in her case study.

Paul Putz, a Ph.D. student at Baylor University, focused on two controversies during the Gilded Age in the Midwest. In 1894, the commencement address given by Christian Socialist George Herron at the State University of Nebraska created public debates concerning the Social Gospel’s legitimacy and limits. In 1900, Charles Sheldon, author of the classic Social Gospel novel In His Steps (that introduced the question “What Would Jesus Do?”), assumed editorial responsibility for the leading paper of Topeka, Kansas for one week and pledged to run it according to Social Gospel principles. Despite their initial enthusiasm, local black leaders criticized Sheldon for virtually ignoring issues of racial injustice. For racial minorities, attention to racial problems represented the sine qua non of Social Gospel activism. Thus, Putz concluded, historians must pay attention not only to familiar leaders such as Herron and Sheldon but also to other Social Gospelers and their priorities.

Cara Burnidge of the University of Northern Iowa gave the final paper and offered the most explicit reflections on Social Gospel historiography. Her paper analyzed how Social Gospelers’ theology concerning the “brotherhood of man” led Washington Gladden, Lyman Abbott and other leaders to support the United States’ international interventionism and participation in World War I in order to spread the democratic ideals vital to social salvation. Burnidge urged historians to focus not only on Social Gospelers’ goal of social salvation but also upon the diverse means they championed in their efforts. In her case study, she highlighted leaders’ desire to work through the United States and its foreign policies to realize the Kingdom of God as a global reality. As such, Burnidge concluded, Christian interventionism in global affairs represented an important impulse of the Social Gospel movement.

Heath Carter, a professor at Valparaiso University and author of the recently published Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (Oxford, 2015), responded to the panelists by asking how their research contributes to historiographical accounts of the Social Gospel. With so much diversity and internal debates, is it still useful to talk about the Social Gospel, or is it better to describe Social Gospels? Is the Social Gospel best understood as a “movement,” a “tradition,” or a set of emphases?

While much of this discussion lies beyond my specialization, I left with a sense that it is most useful to differentiate between the self-conscious Social Gospel movement of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and the practices of many Christians in a wide variety of contexts who drew upon Christian principles in diagnosing and redressing social problems. Perhaps this latter category is best characterized as “Social Christianity” in order to distinguish it from “the Social Gospel”—a suggestion made during the audience discussion by Mark Edwards (based upon, I think, the work of Gary Dorrien). I look forward to seeing how this session’s participants and other scholars write about the Social Gospel in the coming years.

The Author’s Corner with Sylvester Johnson

Sylvester Johnson is Associate Professor of African American Studies and Religious Studies at Northwestern University.  This interview is based on his new book African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write African American Religions, 1500–2000?

SJ: I wrote the book because my research on religion and race kept leading me back to two issues: the vast significance of colonialism—not just slavery and racism—in the formation of religions during the past few centuries and the ambivalent nature of the political order of democratic freedom.


Concerning the first, scholars of religion in the Americas typically devote scarce attention to colonialism. But several important works have engaged seriously with religion and colonialism—among these are studies by Charles Long and David Chidester. I wanted to reframe the narrative logics that typically guide research into studying Black religion and, by doing so, develop an account of religion and race insofar as they have been shaped by colonialism.


The second issue, freedom, is arguably the most important idea in contemporary global politics. But freedom is not merely an idea. It is a complex of institutions, practices, and regimes. And virtually every narrative account of Black religion handles freedom as a major touchstone of racial and religious history. Most of us are conditioned to think of freedom in opposition to slavery and the biopolitics of governing human populations  through race. But enough work has been done by scholars such as Orlando Patterson and Michael Mann to demonstrate that freedom, like slavery, is an institution, and not a benign one. If freedom had hands, they would be coated with the blood of the unfree and less free. I wanted to explain how freedom has worked to shaped religion and politics in harmony with colonialism, slavery, and the creation of racial states that ensure life and prosperity to some through killing and dominating others.


This book, I hope, will contribute in a meaningful way to that larger aim.


JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of African American Religions, 1500–2000?


SJ: The central argument is that colonialism, not merely slavery and racism, has been a profoundly decisive factor in the formation of African American religions. The political order of colonialism has generated both state practices of racism and democratic freedom, which have become enduring themes in Black religion.


JF: Why do we need to read African American Religions, 1500–2000?


SJ: This book examines United States empire in a serious way within the context of Atlantic geographies to explain five centuries of Black religious history. This is not a survey but a monograph that proffers an extended argument about religion, race, and politics. It is fair to say that most of us are fans of democratic freedom. After completing the research for this book, however, I have been moved to tender my resignation as an uncritical devotee of democratic freedom. Freedom is actually a colonial project. That might sound absurd at first, but I hope readers will sit with the book and the related studies that other scholars have produced to understand what I think is the single most important institution of our time (freedom). I think that’s a good reason to read the book.


SJ: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?


JF: It’s obvious from my first two books that historical methods are very important to how I execute my research, but I also draw on other methods and disciplinary practices. I identify as a scholar of religion and of African American Studies. These are interdisciplinary disciplines that have been optimal spaces in which I have produced my work. I have found that the status of being a “historian” proper is largely reserved for history PhDs, which I am not. That said, it should be patent that studying the past is not the exclusive reserve of history PhDs; otherwise, there would be very little for everyone else to study. Since I was an undergraduate, I have enjoyed using archival sources and other forms of data contemporary to periods under study. It brings challenges, of course. It’s similar to piecing together a puzzle without ever seeing the picture on the puzzle box. It should come as no surprise that historical studies generate varied and at times conflicting accounts of “what happened.” There is another element that I enjoy as well—the interpretation of cultural history. It is easier to agree on isolated factoids but more difficult to discern the larger meaning of it all. This second type of work requires serious attention to social theory. This is how I approach the work of producing a historical study—as a theoretical contribution. My ultimate aim is to engage with the big questions that transcend specific disciplines and to offer some rejoinder that might advance our understanding of why, for instance, democratic freedom has been such a singular feature of racial states.


JF: What is your next project?


SJ: I am co-editing a volume on religion and the FBI (with Steven Weitzman of U Penn), and I’m writing a monograph on race and US empire. My collaboration with Tracy Leavelle (Creighton University) and over a dozen other scholars examining “religion and US empire” has been very generative for my research on that score. I have also begun researching the challenge that machine intelligence (commonly called artificial intelligence) is raising for theories of the human, concepts of objecthood, and the future of governing through race. It’s a new direction, but one that is quickly raising new questions for humanities scholars as the research and development of cognitive machines continues apace.


JF: Thanks, Sylvester.  Great stuff!

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"–Tuskegee Institute Singers, 1914

From Library of Congress National Jukebox<!– 

  • Recording Title

    Swing low, sweet chariot
  • Other Title(s)

    • Primitive Negro chant (Title descriptor)
  • Vocal group

  • Baritone vocal

  • Bass vocal

  • Tenor vocal

  • Genre(s)

  • Marketing Genre(s)

  • Category

  • Description

    Male vocal double quartet, unaccompanied
  • Language

  • Label Name/Number

    Victor 17890
  • Matrix Number/Take Number

  • Recording Date

  • Place of Recording

    Camden, New Jersey
  • Size

  • Duration

  • Notes

    For takes 3-5, the singers are listed as a quintet in Victor ledgers. Disc label shows double quartet.
    Dixon/Godrich/Rye notes the 9/20/1915 session as taking place in New York City. Victor ledgers do not list a specific location.

John Gloucester: Former Slave and African-American Presbyterian in Early 19th-Century Philadelphia

I need to know more about this guy.

Over at the website of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in a series called “History Hits,” Daniel Rolph tells Gloucester’s story.  Here is a taste:

Many people are familiar with the contributions to early American religion by such African-Americans as Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. However, fewer are acquainted with the name of the Rev. John Gloucester and his life and contributions to the Presbyterian religion, primarily in Philadelphia, from 1807 until his death in May of 1822. 

John Gloucester, or Jack as he was originally known, was born sometime enslaved during the early years of the American Revolution in Kentucky.  He was later purchased by Gideon Blackburn of Tennessee, a Presbyterian minister and ardent evangelist among the Cherokee Indians. Through legislation in Tennessee, Blackburn was able to not only free Jack, but to have his name changed to John Gloucester and successfully authorize him to preach the Presbyterian faith “to the Africans.” Therefore, as early as 1807, the Presbytery of the Union Synod of Tennessee had recommended to the General Assembly at Lexington, Kentucky, that a “slave should be licensed to preach among colored people.”

Christopher Graham on "Religion and the American Civil War"

The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondent Christopher Graham offers some notes on this star-studded panel on religion and the Civil War. –JF
The turnout for the Religion and the American Civil War: History and Historiography panel exceeded the organizers’ expectations. So many showed up that we all migrated to a larger room, and participants still overflowed into the hallway, where additional chairs were set up. Mark Noll presided and Allen Guelzo, Harry Stout, George Rable, James McPherson, and Laura Maffly-Kipp spoke. The title of the panel suggested a broad reconsideration of the historiography of religion and the Civil War but the individual papers did not amount to as much.
Stout discussed how his interpretation of Lincoln’s relationship to God has changed since the publication of his On the Altar of the Nation. Guelzo explored the historiographical view of Lincoln’s religiosity and concluded that because of scant and contradictory evidence, Lincoln disappoints all doctrinaires. McPherson spoke on evangelical efforts to sponsor freedmen’s schools, and Maffly-Kipp considered religion’s place in the African American interpretation of the Civil War as a battle in a longer warfare waged by slavers on the enslaved. In short, the combat over bodies also was a combat over souls.
George Rable recognized the considerable wave of scholarship on religion in the war that has been produced in the last ten to fifteen years, and sketched out seven topic areas that require further examination. They go something like this:
1. The relationship between the Bible and the American Civil War. Politicians, editors, preachers, and soldiers all utilized scriptures as a justification for war and a comfort for its victims. He said that if there is an American Jesus, there just might be a Civil War Jesus, and suggested that such a title would sell.
2. The role of military chaplains is unexplored, from the problem of their recruitment, to their performance, to the often-fraught relationships between chaplains and soldiers. He suggests that there are loads of unexplored sources on this.
3. Some attention has been given to wartime revivals, but more needs to be done. Further study might reveal conflicting religious views between officers and men, or soldiers and civilians. To that end, Rable called for more research on how the war changed attitudes toward piety, including communion, baptism, and the idea of blood sacrifice and atonement of sin.
4. How did civil religion change? How did days of prayer and thanksgiving and attitudes toward them change?
5. In a catchall on “society and war,” Rable asked how the war touched domestic religious ideals, what activities the religious undertook, how the print culture changed, or rises or declines in church membership. He even suggested there might be value in doing good old-fashioned denominational histories, which produced some bemused groans from the audience.
6. He called for an examination of the international aspects of religion during the war.
7. Finally, he wants further work on the relationship between religion and larger social issues during the war. He admits that this work is already underway, but the more the merrier.  
The discussion produced a few interesting nuggets. For instance, the panel generally agreed that millennial thinking largely did not appear in the rhetoric of religious people during the war. Stout thought it was because to have a millennial construction, a rhetorical anti-Christ is necessary, and the war was simply seen as a Protestant-on-Protestant fracas. Guelzo suggested that participants simply could not articulate a good expression of millennial thinking and when they tried, the results were often muddy.
Guelzo contended that the Civil War ate away at religious people’s confidence in revelation. After watching carnage, many people found it impossible to believe again in Godly order. Even folks who did not witness carnage, like Charles Hoge and Charles Finney, felt the same way. Rable disagreed and suggested that the war did not cause a shattering of belief but instead drove people further toward a reliance on God’s promises.
Finally, one questioner asked how religion figured into the memory of war. Inexplicably, no one in the room mentioned Ed Blum’s Reforging the White Republic. Myself included.

Dispatches from the American Academy of Religion 2013–Part 2

As part of The Way of Improvement Leads Home‘s commitment to covering major academic conferences, we offer Adam Parsons‘s second dispatch from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore. Read Adam’s first dispatch from the AAR here.

Adam is a doctoral candidate in American history at Syracuse University working on a dissertation on modern American evangelicalism with Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn.  He is an editor at the Red Egg Review: An Orthodox Christian Quarterly of Society, Politics, and Culture –JF

It is COLD in Baltimore! I had planned to attend a session today on publishing strategies for graduate students, but when I found out it was in another building, I decided to go to my backup panel. (This is exactly why I always choose a backup panel at large conferences). The choice, as it turns out, was serendipitous, as I ended up seeing my favorite paper of the conference so far. Dennis Dickerson, of Vanderbilt, gave a fantastic and provocative paper in the Wesleyan Studies Group in which he argued that the split between the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church was not primarily about race or the issue of slavery. Rather, he argues, the founders of the AME thought that white Methodists’ piety was declining – a sentiment with which Francis Asbury agreed (he suggested, in fact, that the Methodists, on coming to America, should have gone first to African-Americans, not to whites). White Methodists’ lack of opposition to slavery was not the cause of the division, but the most visible symptom of the cause. Going further, Dickerson argued that the historically Black Wesleyan churches have maintained a more thoroughly Wesleyan piety and practice than the United Methodists, and that piety was fundamental to African-American social action.

I couldn’t decide which late-afternoon panel to attend, so I went to half of both I was interested in. The first, on apocalypse and authority in Pentecostalism, attempted to bring Pentecostal history to bear on Weberian conceptions of authority. I was most interested in Jeremy Sabella’s paper on charismatic evangelicalism in Guatemala, in which he tried to contextualize and explain the bizarre-seeming phenomenon of Efraín Ríos Montt, charismatic pastor and, briefly and famously, President of Guatemala. While Montt has since been implicated in genocidal attacks during the country’s guerilla war, during his presidency, he was remarkably popular in segments of the West. Ronald Reagan lauded him, and Luis Palau held a massive rally with Montt in Guatemala which was claimed to be the second-largest gathering of evangelicals ever held. Evangelicalism in Guatemala grew explosively throughout the 1980s – even after Montt’s removal in a coup – but tapered off in the 1990s. Sabella sought to explain this by situation its growth in Montt’s particular style of evangelicalism, which was shaped by the Jesus Movement missionaries who had converted him. Steeped in apocalyptic sensibility and promise, Sabella argued, this faith was appealing to a Guatemala shattered by a massive earthquake and civil unrest, and looking to rebuild. Promising a new Guatemala, it offered a safe haven in the present and a hope for a profoundly different future. However, with the end of the Cold War, the broader geopolitical context for this instability vanished, and the existential need for stability ceased to be such a major factor.

I left this panel early, so that I could hurry to the other end of the convention center and catch part of Wendell Berry’s session. He received the Martin Marty Award for Public Understanding of Religion, and, as part of the award, gave an extended interview with Duke’s Norman Wirzba. The audience was the youngest I’ve yet seen at the conference, including a few young children! Mr. Berry read several poems, and discussed his work with the Land Institute. At the end of the panel, he received a standing ovation, at which point he chided the audience and urged them to be more critical.

In other news, Random House is selling paperbacks here for $3, so I picked up copies of two books on my to-read list: Andrew Preston’s Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith and T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back, which should give me something to do on the ride to Ohio for Thanksgiving. Other than those, though, I’ve resisted the urge to purchase books – which is good, because the list I’ve kept of books I want is about to run onto its second page!

Tomorrow’s sections look good, so I should get some rest. (I’m dreading going outside again, but we do what we must).

The Religious Frederick Douglass

On June 19 a 7-foot high statue of Frederick Douglass was unveiled at the U.S. Capitol.  Over at Religion News Service, Adelle Banks offers five religious facts about Douglass:

1.  He was a licensed lay preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Bedford, MA.

2.  He published The North Star from the basement of an AME church in Rochester, NY.

3. His home in Washington included images of Jesus and photos of Washington’s Metropolitan AME Church.

4.  He attended several churches in Washington.

5.  There is a church named for him in Elmira, NY.

The "Quandary of African American Evangelicalism"

Over at the Anxious Bench I have been wondering why there is not more scholarly work on the history of African-American evangelicalism.  See my posts here and here.

I am pleased to see that Miles Mullin of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a scholar who knows more about this subject than I do, has decided to weigh-in.  Check out his post, “The Quandary of African American Evangelicalism.”  Here is a taste:

In the twentieth century, African American leaders recognized that a successful struggle towards full equality depended upon solidarity, and they turned the racial identity hoisted upon them by others to their own purposes.  As they struggled towards full equality, they embraced race vis-à-vis any denominational or pan-denominational (e.g. evangelicalism) as their primary self-identity.  Early in the century, works written or edited by black intellectuals set the trajectory for this reality.  Volumes by W.E.B. DuBois (The Negro Church, 1903), G. Carter Woodson (The History of the Negro Church, 1921), and Benjamin E. Mays and Joseph Nicholson (The Negro’s Church, 1933) demonstrate the manner in which doctrinal differences were subsumed by racial solidarity.  Organizers and activists of a later generation followed in the same mold. Thus, Orthodox Presbyterian Minister C. Herbert Oliver, theologically progressive Baptist minister Martin Luther King, Jr., and atheist A. Philip Randolph all made common cause in the freedom struggle for African American equality.

These historical developments in the twentieth century shaped the historiography of both African American religious history and evangelical history of the late twentieth century in two important ways.  First, racial solidarity became the dominant historiographical lens through which African American religious history was assessed.  For instance, despite the fact that groups such the Nation of Islam (NOI) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) differed in practice, religious commitment, and goals, the hegemony of race as an interpretive paradigm led many historians to synthesize and find continuity between the groups.  Both Gayraud S. Wilmore’s acclaimed Black Religion and Black Radicalism and Baer and Singer’s useful African-American Religion in the Twentieth Century: Varieties of Protest and Accommodation serve as examples of this approach.  Religious particularities were subsumed under rubrics such as the “black church.”  Second, historians told the history of twentieth-century American evangelicalism largely without reference to African Americans. For example, one would be hard-pressed to find references to race or African Americans in the histories produced by Timothy Weber, George Marsden, Joel Carpenter, D.G. Hart and others in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.  As evangelical historians spilled much ink over the issue of evangelical identity in the 1980s and 1990s, they largely ignored race as an important element of that question.  Thus, history and historiography excluded African Americans from the twentieth-century evangelical narrative, just as it excluded any meaningful implementation of evangelical as a religious category from twentieth-century African American history.  As a result, there is a paucity of works on African American evangelicalism qua evangelicalism.

For all its foibles, the racial reconciliation movement of the last few decades demonstrates that there is something that draws evangelicals together across racial lines, and recent historical works give hope that things are trending in a different direction historiographically.  For example, A.G. Miller (Oberlin College) has written on Fundamentalist African American Bible Schools and studies of black Pentecostalism have proliferated, while historians of evangelicalism have intentionally embraced race as a category of analysis.  (Mark Noll’s American Evangelical Christianity and God and Race in American Politics are good examples.)  Hopefully, additional works of this sort will continue to emerge, eventually leading to a general work on black evangelicalism in the twentieth century.  If it does, I suspect we will learn some things about evangelicalism—black and white—that we did not know before.

This Week’s "Anxious Post" at Patheos: Where Are the Studies of Twentieth-Century Black Evangelicalism?

I am working on some revisions to an article on evangelicals and political engagement in the twentieth century.  If all goes well, the essay will find its way into a collection of essays stemming from a series of Catholic-Evangelical dialogues that have taken place over the last several years at Georgetown University.  One of the readers of an earlier draft of my manuscript noted that my story of twentieth-century evangelicalism was too “Anglo” and “white.”  It was a good point.  Much of the historiography of evangelicalism in the past century has focused on white actors.  I thus set out to do some reading so that I could strengthen the essay along these lines.

In the process I made another discovery.  While there are a lot of good books written about African-American religion and political engagement in the twentieth century, almost all of them focus on Black Protestants of the liberal or mainline stripe.  Where are the black evangelicals?  What were they doing during the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement?  How did Black evangelical congregations and denominations respond to Protestant fundamentalism, the rise of neo-evangelicalism, and the emergence of the Christian Right?  What do we know, for example, about the history of the National Black Evangelical Association (organized in 1963)?

Read the rest here.

In Search of a Good Primer or Synthesis on 20th Century African American Evangelicalism and/or Hispanic Evangelicalism

I am trying to finish up an essay on twentieth-century evangelical political engagement and need to say more about African American and Hispanic American evangelicalism in the 20th century (or in any more specific era in the 20th century).  What are the best books on the subject, keeping in mind that I want to learn more about evangelicalism and not liberal or mainline Protestant African American religion?