What Will American Religious Historians Say About the 2010s?


Over at The Anxious Bench, historian Philip Jenkins asks, “what will future scholars of Christianity highlight when they write the history of the 2010s?  What tremors reshaped the landscape of faith?”

Here is part of Jenkins’s answer:

I would start with the papacy of Francis in the Roman Catholic church, with all that has meant for controversies within the church, and the struggles for an against reform.

Within the United States, I would include, for instance:

-The Rise of the Nones, people admitting no religious affiliation, and what that might mean for secularization trends.

-The 2016 election and the conflicts within evangelicalism: charges that white evangelicals follow conservative politics at the expense of religious principles. See: a great many posts at this blog by multiple authors.

-Growing calls for women’s leadership within many churches, especially among evangelicals. See: a great many posts at this blog by multiple authors.

-The establishment of same sex marriage as mainstream social orthodoxy (the Obergefell decision 2015), with all the actual and potential clashes that sets up for churches, and for individual conservative Christian believers.

-Activism and concern about climate issues and global warming becomes a leading cause for US churches.

Read the entire piece here.

In addition to Jenkins’s mention of women leadership, I would add the influence of the #MeToo movement in evangelical churches and denominations. (Bill Hybels, Paige Patterson, John Crist, etc.)

It also seems that white churches are coming to grips with questions of structural racism like never before.

On Writing the History of the 21st Century


How would you write a history of the 21st century?  Historian and Anxious Bench blogger Philip Jenkins just finished such a work and he tells us how he did it here.  A taste:

I have just completed a book titled Rethinking a Nation: The United States in the 21st Century. Yes, that’s 21st, not 20th. The whole project raises some interesting questions about just what history is, how we define it, and how we separate it from (for instance) journalism or political science. This has important implications for how we define and study contemporary religious history, the kind of endeavor that concerns most of us at the Anxious Bench.

What a historian has to do, of course, is to rise above simple reportage to supply broad themes and identify key trends by which the larger story can be told. Often, that means making unsuspected connections between different forms of study – social and economic, political and technological, cultural and sexual.

But writing any history of “Only Yesterday” has potential pitfalls, as it can be difficult to rise above strictly contemporary concerns and obsessions to arrive at a balanced long-term perspective. When today we write the history of the 1850s or the 1950s (say) we know exactly the topics and individuals that demand to be covered, so that to some extent our narrative framework is pre-set. We know where the story is going, and the script is already written. That is simply not the case for the most recent era, where we rely on our individual judgments to determine the critical trends, and the most significant events. In a sense, I really am making it up as I go. Not, I hope, in a bad way.

Read the rest here.

Was the Obama Administration Scandal Free?

Obama Scandals

In a piece at The American Conservative historian Philip Jenkins answers “yes” and “no.” He writes: “The Obama administration did a great many bad things, but it suffered very few scandals. That paradox raises critical issues about how we report and record political events and how we define a word as apparently simple as ‘scandal.'”

Jenkins identifies three key components of presidential corruption:

First, there must be investigation by law enforcement or intelligence agencies, which can be very difficult when the suspects are powerful or well-connected. Facing many obstacles to a free and wide-ranging investigation, the agencies involved will commonly leak information in the time-honored Washington way. The probability of such investigations and leaks depends on many variables, including the degree of harmony and common purpose within an administration. An administration riven by internal dissent or ideological feuding will be very leaky, and the amount of information available to media will accordingly be abundant.

Second, a great deal depends on the role of media in handling the allegations that do emerge. Some lurid tidbits will be avidly seized on and pursued, while others of equal plausibility will be largely ignored. That too depends on subjective factors, including the perceived popularity of the administration. If media outlets believe they are battering away at an already hated administration, they will do things they would not dare do against a popular leader.

Finally, media outlets can publish whatever evidence they wish, but this will not necessarily become the basis of a serious and damaging scandal unless it appeals to a mass audience, and probably one already restive and disenchanted with the political or economic status quo. Scandals thus reach storm force only when they focus or symbolize existing discontents.\

He adds that the Watergate scandal “represented a perfect storm of these different elements.”

Jenkins concludes:

What you need for an apocalyptic scandal is a set of conditions roughly as follows: a deeply divided and restive set of bureaucrats and law-enforcement officials, a mass media at war with the administration, and a horrible economic crisis. Under Trump, the first two conditions assuredly exist already. If economic disaster is added to the mix, history suggests that something like a second Watergate meltdown is close to inevitable.

Read the entire piece here. What do you think?  Was Obama’s presidency scandal free?

How Does and Undergraduate Course in History Differ From a Graduate Course?


Philip Jenkins, writing at The Anxious Bench, discusses the differences.

A taste:

So how does a graduate course differ from an undergraduate? To some extent, this is a question of degree (pun intended) or proportion. By the time you are dealing with graduate students, you expect them to have a foundation in understanding how history is written and understood, and also to be able to undertake independent work. The role of the professor should fade to that of a coordinator and organizer, who sets goals and directions, while the students undertake the bulk of the enterprise. The professor identifies the broad scope of the course, and within that describes particular topics and topic areas, suggesting readings and sources. Thereafter, the main responsibility passes to the class…

So much is familiar, but there are a couple of matters that have become massively more significant in graduate teaching in recent years, which again need to be in pretty much every course to some degree. One is that of professionalism, of learning to work within the academic world, and preparing for an academic career (which might take various forms). If a student takes a course on Topic X, they should ideally be laying the foundation to teach within that area if and when they find an academic job, at whatever level. One outcome of the course, then, is that a student should leave it knowing the outline of that field, understanding what it entails, what the main issues and debates are, who the main figures are. It is preparing the way to state accurately and honestly in a job interview that Yes, I am qualified to teach Topic X, and all the better if that topic area is one that is not overrun by other applicants. No, one course in itself does not give that expertise, but it should be the foundation.

The harder jobs are to find, the more essential this component of graduate teaching becomes.

Also, a course in humanities must to some degree teach about writing and publishing, even if there is no simple equation between the volume and quality of publication and the likelihood of finding a tenure track job. So much of the course involves reading and discussing books and articles, but these must never be seen as if they dropped from the skies. At every stage, readers have to ask how and why this particular author got a book or article into print, and why in that particular outlet.

Read the entire post here.

Baylor Professors Will Challenge "Secularization Myth" at the National Press Club

On November 10, 2015 several Baylor University professors affiliated with the  university’s Institute for the Study of Religion will give presentations at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. challenging the idea that world is becoming more secular.

Here is the press release:

WACO, Texas (Nov. 3, 2015) — Religion scholars from Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion(ISR) will refute surveys that report the decline of American faith during a Nov. 10 conference in Washington, D.C.
The event — “The End of Religion?” — will be from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the National Press Club, 529 14th St. NW and is hosted by the Baylor in Washington program.
“In recent years, religion’s decline and imminent fall has been a source of intense interest to media and academics alike. Repeated surveys have been cited as showing the decline of American faith, the growth of atheism and of the number of people admitting to no religion – the famous ‘Nones’ – so that once famously religious America seems set to secularize on the lines of Godless Europe,” said Byron Johnson, Ph.D., director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.
But that representation is “so multiply flawed as to be close to worthless,” he said. “To say this is not to reject the methodology or conclusions of any one particular survey or projection, but rather to challenge the working assumptions of all of them . . . Whichever approach we use –statistical, historical, comparative, sociological – the secularization narrative falls apart. A gulf separates what can reliably and responsibly be said about future projections of religion and the interpretations offered.”
Topics and speakers will include:
  • “A Godless American Founding?” — Thomas Kidd, Ph.D., associate director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion
    “Some books on the American Founding have argued that it was a ‘godless’ Founding, led by skeptical Enlightenment figures. The truth is more complex and more fascinating. Although the Founders had a wide range of personal beliefs, they broadly agreed on public religious principles such as liberty of conscience and equality by creation. It is true that Revolutionary skeptics such as Thomas Jefferson predicted that the end of traditional religion was at hand in America. He could not have been more wrong.”
  • “Godless World? Signs of a Global Religious Revival” — Rodney Stark, Ph.D. co-director of ISR
    “The world is far more religious than it has ever been. Around the globe, four of every five people claim to belong to an organized faith and many of the rest say they often attend worship services. In Latin America, Protestant churches have converted tens of millions, and Catholics are going to Mass in unprecedented numbers. There are more churchgoing Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa that anywhere else on earth, and China may soon become home of the most Christians. Meanwhile, although not growing as rapidly as Christianity, Islam enjoys far higher levels of member commitment than it has for centuries, and the same is true for Hinduism, and perhaps for Buddhism too. Furthermore, in every nook and cranny left by organized faiths, all manner of unconventional supernaturalism are booming — 38 percent of the French believe in astrology.”
  • “Godless Europe?” — Philip Jenkins, Ph.D., co-director of ISR’s Program on Historical Studies of Religion
    “By all accounts, Europe seems to be the world’s best case study of rapid and extreme secularization. Yet even here, we find far more signs of religious involvement and active interest in spirituality than we might expect from the standard stereotype. Even in Europe, the alleged graveyard of faith, Christianity still shows signs of unexpected vigor, and faith takes unexpectedly traditional forms.”
  • “Godless Lives: Does Religion Matter for Our Well-Being?” — Jeff Levin, Ph.D., M.P.H., epidemiologist and director of ISR’s Program on Religion and Population
    “Religion exhibits a mostly positive influence on human well-being, across religious and demographic categories, and has done so consistently and undiminished for decades. Thousands of studies have investigated the impact of religion or faith on dimensions of physical and mental health and well-being. Most of these studies have found positive, statistically significant effects. These findings are consistent and increasing over time, indicating a salutary impact of faith on well-being.”
  • “The Myth of American Piety?” — Byron R. Johnson, Ph.D., director of ISR
    “Much of what we hear about American religion is simply inaccurate or misleading and often tends to be based either on no data, selective data, bad data or misinterpretations of solid data. What we know about American religion — based on decades of rigorous national data — is rarely featured in media accounts and confirms in unambiguous ways the remarkable vitality of American religious life.”
  • “Toward a Godless America?” — J. Gordon Melton, Ph.D., ISR Distinguished Professor of American Religious History
    “Recent coverage of American religious life, by focusing on the decline of some of the larger denominations and the new organized life of non-theistic communities, have missed the larger story that since World War II, religion in the United States has grown spectacularly and ahead of the population curve. America is now the most religious it has ever been with Church membership at an all-time high and relatively new worshipping communities representing the spectrum of the world’s religions now spread across the urban landscape. As a nation in which the great majority of its people have affiliated with a religious community, without government coercion, America is possibly the most religious country that the world has ever seen.”
    To register and learn more, visit www.baylorisr.org.
  • 2105 *Christianity Today* Book Awards

    Congratulations to all of this year’s winners, but especially the winner and runner-up in the field of history.

    Winner: Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

    Award of Merit: Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade

    Want to learn more about Marsh’s book?  Check out our Author’s Corner feature on him.  (In other words, he and this book were famous well before this award!).