AHA Day 2: Young Scholars Retelling American Religious History

4 Jan

Yesterday I was fully immersed in the digital depths; today I was fortunate enough to get an exciting window into young scholarship in America’s religious history.

First, I went a very fine panel on the transnationalism of American evangelicalism. Heather Curtis (Tufts University) used examples of indigenous Christian charity work in India to show the ways that American evangelicals both inspired and learned from their global missionary work. Curtis was working against older models of imperial interaction where information and practices move one-way from colonizer to colonized. In his comments, Joel Carpenter suggested that India was perhaps a unique case because American colonial interests were not at play. I also wondered whether imperial theory was being given rather weak consideration, but Curtis’ example was very convincing as a demonstration that American interests were being shifted by their foreign colleague’s success abroad. Moreover, as an instance of the global flows at the heart of the panel, Curtis’ contribution was to suggest that imperial motivations (at the level of practice in say evangelism or philanthropy/charity) have never been particularly straightforward. The malleability of the models of imperial activity was not simply on the end of the colonized–the colonial agents brought much back with them that influenced practices at home.

This was also a very strong theme in Hillary Kaell‘s paper on American pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 20th c before Jerry Falwell’s famous tour in the late 1970s. She (of Concordia University) was make a revisionist move in her suggestions that we add Catholic lineages to the way Americans came to tour the Holy Land. Not only were Catholics the first innovators in recognizing and marketing to American evangelicals, their methods became essential to evangelical based tour businesses once they had “exposed” Catholic tour groups like WTI as “unChristian.” The dynamic here was of a strong global awareness that saw in America untapped religious business potential. The Catholic model from outside the US became easily applicable inside the US in the age of the jet plane, when the cost of pilgrimage had dropped from 70% of the average annual American salary to just 11%. This paper might have fit very well into the Catholic historiography panel I attended in the afternoon, but its effect in this global/transnational crowd was that mobility played a huge role in changing American evangelical interaction with and perceptions of Global Christianity. The globe and its religious sites (or mission fields) were radically changed by transportation technology–we often forget the revolution of the plane when discussing the 20th century. This was an excellent reminder (even if it was not quite that explicit in Kaell’s talk.)

The final paper was given by Kip Richardson (Ph.D student at Harvard University) on the global origins of the megachurch. By placing the history of megachurches within the church growth movement of Donald McGavran (and John Wimber and C. Peter Wagner and others of Fuller Theological Seminary). Church growth techniques are near and dear to my own work, and Richardson suggestively articulated the ways they may have helped bring “big church” thinking from the globe back into the U.S. Carpenter made the necessary reminders in his comments that big churches were nothing new to the U.S. or the world at the time of the emergence of the church growth movement or the megachurch movement. For me this was also worth mentioning because Richardson may have been playing a bit loosely with the definition of megachurch. That’s a discussion for another day, and Richardson said to me afterward that this was part of a larger dialogue that couldn’t be fit into a simple paper, so I’m definitely willing to cut him some slack. Most importantly, though, was the sense that the authors and patriarchs of much of the theological thinking in the mid-late 20c came from folks that had spent considerable time honing their skills outside the U.S. The lessons that people learned from David Yonggi Cho‘s sizeable church in South Korea, for instance, became essential to practices and thinking in the U.S. The mission field abroad became the mission field at home and thinking easily migrated across the transnational networks traced by missionaries.

In sum these panelists were quite excellent. They effectively highlighted the globalism that we increasingly perceive in American evangelicalism. It’s one of the, if not the, story of the 20th century. As Joel Carpenter said in his wrap-up, when we study the history of U.S. Christianity we are now increasingly doign world Christianity. This isn’t to say U.S. Christianity is world Christianity. In fact, part of the point of the panel was to show that the world has had just as much effect on the U.S. lately than the other way round. It’s a lesson we’ll all have to relearn when we’re talking about Christianity in the 20th c.

The second panel I attended was a fabulous Catholic historiography session. Bob Orsi couldn’t be there (he’s off in Tuscany, lucky fellow), but there was more than enough reasons to be delighted by the papers and the response to them by Jon Butler. Butler was the day’s provocateur, both literally and figuratively, as it was his 1991 essay on historiographical heresy that was the rallying point for the papers. Each attempted to find a place to stand in relation to that seminal essay, where Catholic history is positioned as a better tool for understanding American religious history than the conventional evangelical narrative.

Kelly J. Baker (U. Tenn at Knoxville) started off with a rousing discussion of the back-and-forth rhetoric of the Klu Klux Klan and its nativist attacks against Catholics. The Klan’s targeting of Catholics may have backfired, however, as Baker shows, because it was a chance for Catholics to position themselves as more American, more moral, and more religious than the slanderous Klan members. This reminded me substantially of the kind of argument made by R. Laurence Moore–a movement from the margins to the mainstream. Catholics, positioned by on the margins by the Klan, were able to effectively muscle their way into the mainstream by the Klan’s reckless characterizations. Butler may have suggested this in his reply, but he was firing off references so rapidly (seriously) that I may have misheard him. In line with the historiographic theme of the session, the point of the battle became precisely the Catholic-ness of the Catholics. It was in that religious identity that they proved their American identities, too.

Matthew J. Cressler (Ph.D. student at Northwestern) was up next (after being called a “great guy” by Kelly) to talk about black power and black Catholics in Chicago during the 1960s and 1970s. The African-American Police League (AAPL) and the awkward position it was placed in by Chicago mayor Daley and his use of the police to quell racial tensions in the city. Catholic leaders in Chicago worked with and against the AAPL as they tried to bring a moral element to the Black Power movement in Chicago. This is a *very* substantial revision of the narrative taught most often in history courses (and religious studies courses) on the character and style of the Black Power civil rights members. (I am certainly guilty of setting up a dichotomy along these lines with MLK and Malcolm X with samples of their speeches.) Recognizing the Catholic character of the Black Power movement in Chicago significantly shifts the way we tell the story of Catholic involvement in the civil rights, as well as the way we tell the story of the religious dimensions of the Black Power movement.

Finally, Brian J. Clites (also a graduate student at Northwestern, and did you have to have a middle name with a J to get on this panel?) gave a compelling talk on the way in which Catholics dealt with the child sex abuse scandals of the recent past. Primary activist groups like SNAP and VOCAL were founded by lay Catholic women with social justice and legal backgrounds, and these groups were influential in establishing a new climate for dealing with sex abuse in the U.S. This climate meant a substantial shift in how say, Penn State abuses, were dealt with versus earlier cases. Swifter action, greater emphasis on survivors and their well-being, public outrage, legal success–these were all enabled by sustained Catholic action against their own denomination’s failures. Moreover, it became a way for a strong lay challenge to Catholic authority that has recently spread worldwide. This, Butler said afterward, may be singularly American in character, in a way that few Catholic products can be said to be. More on this in a second.

The star of the panel, however, was Jon Butler himself. While his nearly 25 year old essay was the elephant in the room, Butler took the response as a chance to free-wheelingly talk about American religious history. Let me see if I can even begin to do justice to his comments (and this is all poorly paraphrased with none of Butler’s excellent humor):

If we go back as far as Weber and Freud, we can tell that we’re still struggling with what it means to be modern and religious. Those early theorists argued we would become increasingly secular. They were wrong. Or at least, they weren’t exactly right about it. Either way, we see more and more evidence that religion plays an inescapably central role in American history. Perhaps it is Puritan roots things–like a scarlet A that highlights our shared cultural suspicious about doing things the right way. Or maybe it is a product of historiography. After all, we used to say it was all about Puritans and Calvinists. Then it was all about the growing body of evangelicals. Then it was all fundamentalists. Who knows if we’ve finally gotten to the point where pluralism is legitimately forcing the discussion to include what’s religious about religion. We can have that now that we can see that religion isn’t going to go away. So the question that remains is whether any of what we think is catholic in American Catholicism is actually American. Likewise we can wonder what makes things distinctly “catholic” here in America. They’re still open questions and these panelists did a good job showing that while we’re more sensitive to the historical value of Catholicism and Catholics, we’re still not answering these questions so well.

At least, that’s the gist of Butler’s response. [What I'll really remember is his comment that Puritans were shorter than historians. I mean, seriously. Have you ever been to Plymouth Plantation, he said. Have you tried to duck through those doorways? They were tiny folk.] I think the challenges (and provocations) of his original piece remain. The panelists *were* pretty good evidence that we’ve shifted the conversation, but Butler (and the panelists) agreed that we still all-too-often work within a definition of religion that prefers and prefaces itself with a Protestantism that is hard to escape. The vestiges of American religious history (and religious studies) and their long connections with Protestantism are still very apparent. It is a work in progress to reclaim a more neutral or less biased place for the field. Revisions are necessary.

So, all-in-all it was a wonderful day for young scholars in religious studies or American religious history at the AHA. I’m glad I was here for it. You can also check my twitter for a more detailed (140 character) play-by-play of the panels. See you tomorrow.

(P.S. If there are errors anywhere in here, please excuse them while I head to dinner. I’ll find them later and fix them immediately.)

3 Responses to “AHA Day 2: Young Scholars Retelling American Religious History”

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  1. AHA Day 3 — Sun Belts & Biographies « A Lively Experiment - January 9, 2013

    [...] AHA Day 2: Young Scholars Retelling American Religious History (mcconeghy.wordpress.com) [...]

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    [...] AHA Day 2: Young Scholars Retelling American Religious History (mcconeghy.wordpress.com) [...]

  3. American Historical Association 2013 Roundup « A Lively Experiment - January 11, 2013

    [...] is with focus this that I said of day two: How do we add complexity and still say “big” things about [...]

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