The Author’s Corner With Christopher Cameron

Black FreethinkersChristopher Cameron is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte. This interview is based on his new book, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism (Northwestern University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Black Freethinkers?

CC: Like countless scholars of African American religion, I began this project after reading Al Raboteau’s classic book Slave Religion. Toward the end of the work, he mentions that not all slaves “too solace in religion” and some could not believe in a just and all-powerful God who would allow his people to suffer under slavery. Raboteau’s discussion of atheism and agnosticism occupies just two pages yet was incredibly intriguing to me, as I’d encountered no other historians who explored religious skepticism in nineteenth century slave communities. This discovery led me to begin searching for examples of black freethinkers, both in the era of slavery and in the twentieth century, and what I found convinced me that black freethought was much more prevalent and important than scholars have realized.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Freethinkers?

CC: African American freethought began as a response to the brutality of the institution of slavery and developed in tandem with movements such as the New Negro Renaissance and Black Power. While freethinkers have constituted a small segment of the black population, they have nevertheless played critical roles in African American intellectual and political life since the mid-19th century.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Freethinkers?

CC: Probably the most common response I get when discussing this book with people is “I didn’t know that person was a freethinker.” This is the case when discussing lesser-known figures such as Louise Thompson Patterson or more well-known freethinkers such as Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. Black Freethinkers demonstrates that religious skepticism was prevalent among some of the most prominent voices in African American history, including Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Phillip Randolph, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Huey Newton. And these were not simply intellectuals and political activists who happened to be freethinkers but rather people whose political ideology/activism and literary production were profoundly shaped by their religious skepticism. Black Freethinkers thus helps us to more fully understand the intersections between religion and African American literary, intellectual, and political history, especially in the twentieth century.

JF: Tell me a little about your research and sources for the book.

CC: Following up on the discussion of atheism among slaves in Raboteau’s book, I began the research for Black Freethinkers by reading dozens of slave narratives. While historians have used these sources to document various aspects of slave religiosity, they are also useful sources to document the presence of religious skepticism in southern slave communities. For later chapters of the book, novels, poetry, memoirs, newspapers and other periodicals were key sources. I likewise found archival sources such as letters, unpublished memoirs, sermons, and records of liberal congregations such as the Harlem Unitarian Church to be incredibly valuable in writing the book.

JF: What is your next project?

CC: I have two projects in the works right now. One is an edited collection (with Phillip Luke Sinitiere) entitled Race, Religion, and Black Lives Matter: Essays on a Moment and a Movement. The second is a monograph entitled Liberal Religion and Race in America that explores African Americans engagement with liberal sects such as the Unitarians and Universalists from the revolutionary era to the creation of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism in 2015.

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

The Author’s Corner with Dale Soden

Outsiders in a promised landDale 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!

The Author’s Corner with Lincoln Mullen

51E0Jh31O6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Lincoln Mullen is Assistant Professor of History and Art History at George Mason University. This interview is based on his new book, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America (Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Chance of Salvation?

LM: Early in graduate school I had the good fortune to do a reading course in American religious history with Jonathan Sarna, who became my PhD director. After that course I wanted to tell as broad a story about American religion as I could muster. The theme of conversion offers the chance to both compare religious groups and observe their interactions, so it became my way to write that kind of history.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Chance of Salvation?

LM: Over the course of the nineteenth-century, pressures to convert, actual conversions between religious groups, and the possibility of having no religious affiliation at all changed the basis of religious identity from inheritance to choice. But that process played out very differently for different groups, so the chapters on black and white Protestants, Cherokee converts, Mormons, Jews, and Catholics see how the spread of that idea refracted through different religious traditions.

JF: Why do we need to read The Chance of Salvation?

LM: Different audiences will likely come to the book for different reasons.

I’d like for scholars in the field of American religious history to read it as a synthesis of nineteenth-century religious history on the basis of primary research on the topic of conversion. This book is hardly the first or only to attempt to put the field together in this way, but it isn’t a common approach either. Few books that aren’t textbooks try to bring so many religious groups together; most books are narrowly focused. So what other kinds of primary synthesis might scholars write?

Other readers might be interested in the book because of their own religious commitments, or even because they are converts. Those readers will find the book’s story both strange and familiar. Familiar, I hope, because they will recognize themselves in some of the book’s many stories of converts. But I hope they also find the book strange because people like to talk about their religious choices as being free, but the book shows the ways those choices are obligated and constrained. It’s their story, but not the way they would tell it.

And if you come to the book because someone assigned it for class, at least you get to cover a pretty wide swathe of nineteenth-century religious history in one book.

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

LM: In high school I thought I would go into mathematics or the like. But there were more history books than math books around the house.

JF: What is your next project?

LM: I am working on two projects at the moment. I’m turning a digital history project called America’s Public Bible into a digital monograph that will be published by Stanford University Press. And with a team at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, I am working on a project called Mapping Early American Elections.

JF: Thanks, Lincoln!

Court Evangelical Robert Jeffress: “Why don’t we ever hear terrorists shout ‘this is for Jesus Christ'”

I am not excusing what happened in London this weekend. It was a tragedy.  I pray for the families of the victims, law enforcement, and our global leaders as they seek wisdom for how to deal with the threat of ISIS and other forms of Islamic terrorism.

But please Robert Jeffress, learn some history before you start spouting off on Twitter.

Just a quick scan of the “Christian terrorism” Wikipedia page reveals:

  • 1605: In the Gunpowder Plot Guy Fawkes and English Catholics try to assassinate James I and blog up Parliament.
  • 1860s and 1870s: Ku Klux Klan claimed to perform their acts of terrorism against African Americans in the name of white Protestant Christianity.
  • 1920s:  KKK again
  • 1971: A Catholic extremist group called Ilaga killed 70-100 Muslims worshiping in a Mosque
  • Since 1993, 11 people have been killed in attacks on abortion clinics in the United States.

And this is just a very small sampling.

None of these acts represent the true spirit of Christianity, which is a religion of peace and love for one’s enemies. But let’s not claim that terrorists have never acted in the name of Jesus.

I will agree with one thing in Jeffress’s tweet.  We need to pray.

The Author’s Corner with Robert Orsi

 

history-and-presence-199x300Robert Orsi is the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern University.  This interview is based on his recent book History and Presence.

JF: What led you to write History and Presence?

RO: Whenever I’ve said in a lecture that I believe religious history and contemporary cultures are constituted as webs of relationships between human beings and the various special figures of their respective religious traditions (gods, saints, ghosts, ancestors, the dead, etc.) present to each other in the circumstances of domestic and political life, with the special beings as agents in their own right, invariably the question arose what such a historiography would look like. History and Presence is my response to this question.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of History and Presence?

RO: History and Presence makes two interconnected arguments: The first is historical, (1) that the lived reality of special religious beings, their efficacious presence (in wartime, for example, or within families, or as agents of social discipline or of resistance), has been not only a bitterly contested matter since early modern debates between Catholics and Protestants over how Jesus is “present” on earth after his ascension into heaven; it has been constitutive of modernity itself, with the parties of presence—Catholics and those with Catholic-like understandings of relationships between humans and gods—relegated to the past of the species and the infancy of each individual. The second (2) offers a historiographical theory of presence and then uses it to explore how a concept of the “real presence” of the gods (an intentional borrowing of a Catholic theological term for theoretical purposes) provides an alternative to normative modern epistemologies and ontologies for the study of religion and history.

JF: Why do we need to read History and Presence?

RO: The critique of secularism as a religious project has inexplicably (to me) coexisted with the failure to conceptualize “religion” in any way other than on the terms of the normative modern or the secular. The normative modern/secular is like a finger trap; there seems to be no way of getting out of it, and the more we struggle, the tighter it gets.

I ask readers of History and Presence to try the thought experiment with me of approaching history and culture through what I call a “matrix of presence,” to see how such a perspective may surface and challenge their methodological and theoretical “unthought knowns,” the deepest level of their understandings of what the real is, and perhaps be generative of new insights in their respective areas of inquiry or reflection. This is explicitly to repurpose a concept (“real presence”) that was essential for establishing hierarchies and boundaries in modernity, among peoples, for instance, between civilizations, races, and classes, and among ways of being in the world, as a theoretical wedge to pry open those boundaries and disrupt these hierarchies.

If we do not examine the fundamental role of the denial of “real presence” in constituting so many domains of modern knowledge and practice, among them constitutional law, conceptualizations of religious freedom, strategies and disciplines of nation building, approaches to art and hermeutics, as well as the study of history and religion, then we will be destined to reproduce these limits and hierarchies over and over again, in this way contributing to the normative work of modernity in endless repetition.

If we already always know that religion: 1) is a medium of social coherence, although in “cult” or “sect” form occasionally media of social disruption; 2) that certain ways of being religious are irrelevant to the study of modern history other than as data; 3) that special religious beings are figments or fragments of something else but unreal; 4) that religion’s historical and cultural role is functional and that religious practice and experiences grids neatly onto other social categories (race, class, gender among them as well as the public/private distinction)—then why bother studying it?

This is another answer to question one: I wrote History and Presence because I was frustrated by the always already known quality of so much writing about religion, history, and culture (although there are exceptions), their utter predictability.

The theory of abundant presence offered in History and Presence may contribute as well to altering the place of religious studies and theology in the humanities and social sciences, from being always the dependent variables to disrupting the unthought knows of these various domains of inquiry and in this way produce new knowledge about history, experience, and culture.

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

RO: I’m a scholar of religion in history and contemporary practice with Catholicism as my case study for developing theoretical approaches to history, religion, human subjectivity, and culture. Pretty quickly it became apparent to me that Catholicism was a potent vantage point from which to look at modern history and religion more broadly. Catholics are surprisingly absent from US history.  A recent history of New Orleans, of all places, references Catholicism only on a couple of pages and ignores the role of Catholic orders of women and men, such as the Ursulines and the Jesuits, in the making of the city. This is hardly anomalous: although Catholics comprised the largest populations of modern US cities, they are all but absent in histories of US cities and theories of urbanism. This absence, as I argue in the book, is one of the long enduing consequences of those early modern debates about real presence, as Catholics and others whose religious imaginations resembled the polemical version of Catholicism, were written out of history. But again to look out from this place offers a revealing perspective on what is always already known in the study of modern history and culture, and to challenge it.

What is your next project?

RO: As of September for the academic year 2016-2017, I will be a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, where I will be working on a study of the implications of real presence in the clergy sexual abuse crisis and its cover-up in modern Catholicism, looking in particular at how many (not all) men and women abused by priests—who in Catholic theology are closely aligned with the real presence of Jesus, Mary and the saints—struggle with this ontology over their lifetimes. This extends the work I begin in the last chapter of History and Presence, called “Events of Abundant Evil.” (The Catholic author of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty, once wrote that if there are demons, there must be angels, and I go on the assumption that the reverse is true as well.) I want to set the CSA crisis in relation to wider historical, cultural, sexual, theological, and religious environments, again not to fit it snugly into them, but rather to see how it may complicate what is already known about religion and sexuality, for instance, the boundaries and excesses of religious bodies, the sexual understanding of children and adolescents in 20th century US history and in Catholicism, and the place of the gods in sexual and religious violence.

JF: Thanks Bob!

Is Great Britain a Christian Nation?

Some of you have been following this debate occurring across the proverbial pond. Callum Brown concluded that “Christian Britain” is dead.  Prime Minister David Cameron disagreed. Rowan Williams landed somewhere in the middle.

If you want to get caught up on this debate I encourage you to read Brantley Gasaway’s recent post at Religion in American History.  Here is a taste:

For those of us who study American religion, this recent British debate can remind us once again of the ambiguity of identifying a country as a “Christian nation.”  What qualifies a country as “Christian”?  Is it the official establishment of a Christian church (but if so, then is Great Britain “Christian” while the United States is not)?  Is it a matter of the historical influence of Christianity upon a nation’s laws, politics, and culture (but if so, when does this historical influence matter less than the contemporary relevance of Christianity in the public sphere)?  Is it a matter of demographics (but if so, does a simple majority of self-identified Christians qualify a nation as “Christian”)?   Is it the close alignment of a country’s policies with the Christian ethics of peace and justice?  Or it is the number of references to God in a country’s passport?

As some of you know I took a shot at this whole issue in the context of the United States.