Words, words, words (AHA2011 Day 1)

6 Jan

It’s the first day of the 2011 meeting of the American Historical Association in Boston, Massachusetts. It’s cold outside, but that matters very little when you can walk from your hotel (Marriott) through the mall (Prudential Center) to the conference center. This post comes to you today courtesy of the free wifi from the Hynes Convention Center. I’ll be sad when I have to move to other rooms in other places without such nice amenities.

Today’s schedule is light—one roundtable session from 3:00-5:00 and a screening of an episode from God in America from 5:30-7:30–and this is a blessing because I am still seriously jet-lagged from my Asian adventure. It’s hard to jump from Vietnam to Korea across the international dateline to Los Angeles and then to Boston. I’m sick and tired of airplanes–even ones with superior service like Asiana.

The first session is a roundtable discussion titled “Keywords in American Religious History: Diaspora, Sexuality, Liberalism, Pentecostalism, Islamic Fundamentalism” featuring presentations by Elizabeth McAlister (Wesleyan), Kathryn Lofton (Yale), Matthew S. Hedstrom (UVA), Randall J. Stephens (Eastern Nazarene), and David Harrington Webb (Temple). I attend with some bias because my own work is most concerned with Pentecostalism and I’ve enjoyed Randall J. Stephen’s works such as The Fire Spreads and blog posts on “The Immanent Frame” and the blog of The Historical Society.

Words. One of the more serious questions in the Q&A came from Yale historian Tisa Wenger, who wondered about the different ways that the panelists understood their how to deal with “keywords.” Is the best method to address how scholars or insiders have used the term? Or are we more concerned with defining the term. Both perspectives were present, sometimes even in the same 10 minutes, but Wenger’s query reminded everyone to take a step back and think about the method in the madness of organizing a panel about words in American religious history. It’s well to do that now before I launch into the particulars of each panelist’s contribution. The madness is deciding on keyword A over keyword B. Race, gender, class were cast aside. The method renewed the value of finding ways to highlight America’s religious strengths—a willingness to innovate, the vitality of our competitive marketplace, and the crucible of being a nation of immigrants.

Elizabeth McAlister gave a well-received presentation about the term “Diaspora” (Webb called it a “revelation” in the Q&A session). I began my day here, and I must confess that I was hardly ready after my vacation to follow her as she took off apace. Theoretically, she argued, we would do well to combine the uses of diaspora studies from its modern social scientific and historical genealogical quarters. Reminding everyone of the Judeo-Christian roots of the word Diaspora, we find the themes of community, memory, and homeland not just in the modern study of the term, but also in its origins. McAlister’s research has dealt with diasporic Haitian evangelicals, and she noted that that horizon or imagination of diaspora led more to self-identification as members of the Kingdom of God than to displaced or emigrated Haitians. To be in a diaspora is to make a place to stand, and we find time, space, memory, and culture forged in bubbles of shared imaginaries. These efforts transgress geographic boundaries as well as linear time, expectations of ethnic heritage, and cultural norms. It was a powerful reminder of the persistent links between identity and place, and its import for the study of America’s religious history is self-evident in a nation of immigrants on the move.

The chair of the roundtable, cagily introduced the second speaker by saying “Our next topic, Sexuality, will be delivered by, or, uh, addressed by Kathryn Lofton.” The audience and speaker were suitably amused. The topic was more serious. Sexuality is not, whatever else it may be, private. As a definition, we might turn to one that says that sexuality is a practice meant for responsible use within the boundaries of heterosexual marriage. Coherence and continuity is afforded by this definition and as it bends from the right and its conservative religious uses in American history we can lay more barely the historical roots of our sexual norms.  It returns to the Puritans as our sexual forebears before skipping to the changes evident in the early Republic. Prudes in act and desire for so long, we gave way to larger markets of sexual capital and expanded our desires. The excitement of revival? No less sexual than it was religious. I was intrigued throughout by the shift from gender, the bugaboo of many discussions of America’s religious history, to sexuality, and it was around this time in Lofton’s talk that the difference between these two issues hit its mark for me. There is, naturally, much discussion of sexuality in modern America. It’s a cornerstone of the conservative revolution, but we can easily overlook the ways early America was, uh, exciting.

“Liberalism,” a term more often seen today in derisive political commentary, was tackled by Matthew S. Hedstrom, who argued that despite its polemical uses, Liberal is a term of great value and import in America’s religious history. From its resplendent glory in the Enlightenment to its seeming poverty in modern religious traditions, no other term can be said to so aptly describe both an accurate political and religious trajectory. Thomas Jefferson, standing in for the Enlightenment on the whole, falsely predicted our nation would become yeoman Unitarians as he cut out the non-rational portions of the New Testament to make his Bible. There is a natural affinity even in this early National period of political and religious liberation. The tension between these two spheres would later enable liberalism to simultaneously excoriate slavery and produce scientific theories such as eugenics. Progressive folks forged in a broader liberal culture were at the heart not only of major religious movements (Spiritualism and Transcendentalism) but also social movements (Abolition, Temperance, Civil Rights). But where are the studies of religious liberals and liberalism rather than political progressives? It is sad work for us to turn to progressive social history and neglect progressive religious traditions themselves. Hedstrom called on the audience and the field to give back to Liberalism its interpretative power. Time to put it back to work!

And what should we make of the Pentecostals? Sister Aimee, Randall Stephens explained, was the red-hot rockstar of early Pentecostalism. Derided by journalists, the “bacchanalian” temper of charismatic worship experiences produced the fastest growing and most successful religious movement of the 20th century. Avoiding extremes and their natural exaggerations, Stephens feels on balance the movement is restorationist and turns to its particular reading of the Bible for its emphasis on healing (having departed somewhat from its apocalyptic leanings in the early 2oth century). What was available to the earliest Christians is available today to Christians in America–including persecution and social marginalization. This is a reasonably diplomatic reading of Pentecostals, and it allowed Stephens to include the radically progressive elements of the movement that all too easy to ignore such as the ways Pentecostals have adopted and pioneered technology such as radio, TV, and now online media. Are we all Pentecostals now? Their marketplace is full of wares and folks are eagerly queuing up to buy. The Q&A naturally called into question the divisions between evangelicals, charismatics, and pentecostals. Which are the larger categories and how might we measure the numbers of believers in these groups? Are they exclusive or overlapping? Stephens seemed to suggest that the big success story of the 20th century was the transition from pentecostalism’s pariah status to our inability to distinguish it effectively from other major Christian divisions. The story of religious outsiders gaining acceptance and finding their place in American norms is, as R. Laurence Moore has argued before, an essential feature of American religion.

David Harrington Watt stepped in for an absent presenter to speak on “Islamic Fundamentalism.” Keywords are resources for interpretation, but they also often instantiate artificial boundaries. Fundamentalists emerged as the opponents of modernists. This was a discrete group of Christians in America that shared a particular view on the state and fate of religion in America. Today this can hardly be said of the adulteration of the term fundamentalism in “Islamic Fundamentalism.” Public studies by folks in our field such as Martin Marty have clearly asked scholars to apply the American-rooted term to religious groups outside of the U.S. (See the Fundamentalism Project which asked scholars about fundamentalist currents in various global religions.) In this instance we might consider using another word such as extremists or radicals, but changing terms would make no difference, Watt argues. The products of the lens would remain a binary of good vs. evil Muslims, and we should demand a more nuanced approach to global Islam and its many faceted national and regional differences. Rather than ask, as politicians are want to do, Are Muslims dangerous? We would do well instead to ask, Which Muslims or what kind of Muslims might pose a danger to America and others around the world? The kind of intellectual project that sees fundamentalism as a keyword that can be comparatively deployed to any religious situation is a kind of violence that we shouldn’t encourage or engage in. Yet Watt is not yet ready to abandon the term altogether. When a commenter in the Q&A inferred that he was ready to abandon the term, he indicate that the desire was there to stop saying “Islamic Fundamentalism,” but that he hadn’t decided that it was appropriate yet. It left me wondering when we would be ready to abandon this dangerous and unrefined keyword. What watershed will lead us to there?

More tomorrow when I go to a session on “Revisiting the Teaching of Religious History”!


2 Responses to “Words, words, words (AHA2011 Day 1)”


  1. Surveying Surveys (AHA2011 Day 2) « A Lively Experiment - January 8, 2011

    […] [Please feel free to read my comments on a roundtable about keywords in American religious history from the first day of the AHA.] […]

  2. Faith and History (AHA2011 day 3) « A Lively Experiment - January 12, 2011

    […] On Keywords in American Religious History […]

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