Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

Tag: religion

The Year of Writing Dangerously

Well, folks, it’s the one year anniversary of this website, so it seems like time for me to think about what I’ve done.

I say that I’ve been “writing dangerously”  not because anything I’ve written here has been particularly provocative, but rather because doing anything other than keeping your head down and publishing your ass off is often framed as “dangerous” for young scholars, particularly those of us living life on the job market.

All in all, I’ve liked the space I have here, and I’ve liked what I’ve done with it. People often ask me if my writing here takes a lot of time, the unspoken question being “Does this take away from your real work?” I can honestly say no, it doesn’t take a lot of my time, but that’s mostly because the things I write about are things I’m already thinking about. Sometimes I poke at a draft of something for a while, but most of the time, I’ve thought it through in my head by the time I sit down to write.  Heck, the anniversary of this blog was actually two days ago, but I wasn’t ready to sit down and write this till today, so I didn’t!

I’ve written a lot on teaching, and some on the intersections between the past and the present, and now I write about both of those things on other blogs too: Teaching United States History and The Daily Context.  I have also written a bit on the strange historiographical and disciplinary conventions I find myself tangled up in. Those have been some of my favorite pieces to write, and they’re the ones that will always stay here, I think, because they’re so central to my scholarship.

I can’t say what any of this writing has done for anyone out there, but I think it’s done some things for me. It’s certainly helped me practice writing in a different voice, to such an extent that I can really feel the shift between this voice and the more scholarly voice I use in other forms of writing. Sometimes it feels like I have a bad kickdown cable, honestly. But I think being aware of these different voices has helped me refine each one, just a little.

It’s also just helped me think better. My high school had signs in all the classrooms that said “Writing is Thinking,” and I’ve done a lot of thinking through writing in this space. As a result, I’ve put a lot of in-process thoughts out into the world, which is sometimes tough, and I know that some might find it dangerous for an early career scholar. But really, isn’t every bit of writing we put out into the world unfinished in some way? As long as I don’t claim that what’s here is the equivalent of peer-reviewed writing – and it is most certainly not – I think I’m okay with it.

So, in this age of data, let’s look at what people read.

My most-read piece was this description of think-alouds, the assignment I use in my intro classes. Second, another piece on teaching, “Teaching religious n00bs and skeptics.” which also received the most comments by far. Both posts deal with something that I think we don’t talk about enough when we talk about teaching – the assumptions our students bring with them when they enter our classes and approach the texts we give them. I remember the Twitter conversations that erupted over the second post, mainly from scholars who were aghast at the lack of religious knowledge my students generally bring to the classroom. But my goal with both of these – and indeed with all of my posts on teaching – was never to shake my head at “kids these days.” I cannot claim to have figured out how to deal with my students’ assumptions and blind spots, but it seems fruitful to continue thinking about them and comparing notes with each other.

The #3 piece on my list of the most-read is one that I really liked, but that generated almost no response at the time, so I was really surprised to see it ranked so highly. I didn’t think many people read it! It was a piece I wrote just before Christmas about my frustration with the “Hillary didn’t win the working class” narrative, a narrative built on ideas about labor, race, and gender. She did win the working class, and she did talk about labor issues, but since the dominant image of “the worker” in America continues to be a white man with a wrench (or a coal miner’s helmet), policy proposals delivered by a woman that aimed to help workers who were also women, people with disabilities, immigrants, and non-white Americans were written off as things for special interests, not “American workers.” I actually think the piece holds up even better all these months later.

There are two pieces I wish more people had read and engaged with: last fall’s “The planks in our own eyes” and the more recent “Confessions of a horse shed historian.” The first dealt with my discomfort as a historian of Catholicism in the broader field of American religion, and the second with my discomfort as a historian of things non-religious in the field of American religion. I understand why some people might have worried that I was attacking their scholarly priorities; I can assure you that was never my intention. But I do think the people who engaged with both were generally those who, I suspect, feel these same discomforts in their own scholarly lives, and I hope my giving voice to them was helpful.

We’re always telling our students to think about audience when they read a text. When I started here, I wasn’t sure who my audience would be, or even if I’d have an audience. I’m still not actually sure on either count. But I’m going to keep doing it, and if anything I’ve written or anything I write in the future is interesting or helpful to those of you who do read, I’m going to count that as a win.

Confessions of a horse shed historian

David Hall famously wrote of the “horse shed  Christians,” those people in early New England who, during service, were just as likely to be out back by the horse shed talking about the price of wheat with their friends as they were to be in the church listening attentively.  I’m stretching the metaphor a lot for the purpose of this little essay, but I hope you’ll go with me.

Much of the time, I feel like a horse shed historian of American religion.

I am an editor for H-AmRel, I list religion as one of the things I study, I did a comps field in it. But while I’m usually always at the first service, by the second one I find myself out at the horse shed, talking about other things with other historians.

To some extent, we’re all like this. We often have a primary field and several secondary ones. Knowing a few fields well is key to formulating productive research questions, and usually those fields are defined by theme, by geography, and by time period. Specialization is not only the way the academic discipline works, it’s prudent.

I think about the history of the 19th century in America, including Americans abroad. I think about the history of women. I think about the history of ideas. I think about the history of social status. But it’s really only when operating in the history of American religion scene that I feel as though I’ll never be a full member, in the old New England sense.

I have discerned two distinct markers of full membership. They are not explicitly stated anywhere, and indeed many of you reading this might recoil at the suggestion that they exist and have power, but I hope you can hear me out. It strikes me that if a historian can manage one of these things, they can scrape by and get full membership. Having neither means I probably know you from the horse shed.

First, if you’re not a historian of mainline/evangelical Protestant Christianity or conversant enough not to embarrass yourself when talk turns to Protestant theology and church structure over drinks at a conference, you’re not a full member. Understanding Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, Buddhism, etc etc etc beyond a few notable events or figures is optional.

The argument one might make here is that, for better or worse, Protestant Christianity has dominated American public life and institutions. If you’re going to be a historian of religion in America, you have to know this stuff. And I’ll grant you that, to an extent. But the LDS church is about as American as you can get, and Catholicism is the largest denomination in the country and has been for a long time. Knowledge of neither is sufficient or even always necessary for membership.1)Most of what gets discussed on H-AmRel is Protestant-related, and anecdotally, I know that many of my friends who study American Catholicism don’t subscribe to the listserv. This is not to deny that people who study Protestantism and Catholicism and Buddhism in America have different goals and frameworks. I also know that there are historic reasons why the listserv is what it is. But it is something we should be aware of – the listserv about “American Religion” is not a place where many different religions get discussed.

Second, and to my mind more important, is that if religion isn’t the central topic and driving force of your scholarship, you’re not a full member. This, I find, is as applicable when I’m among historians of Catholicism as it is when I’m among historians of Protestantism. I find it more the case among historians of religion than any other historians I work with. It is also, unfortunately, much harder for me to articulate and explain, but I’ll give it a whirl.

We have all these fields, and most of us work across fields all the time, because people in the past lived “across fields.” But most of us have a place we start from. A thing that we want to know more about, more than anything. The framework in which we operate. Talking with other historians of religion, I have heard scholars (who were not there) described as “not really a historian of religion” or “not really a historian of Catholicism.” These comments indicated that religion was not central enough to a particular scholar’s work for it to “count,” that history of religion wasn’t the singular place from which the scholar formulated their questions and departed.

Religion often seemed pretty central to the books we were discussing, so at first I was confused. How could they not really be historians of religion? Sometimes, it was because the book wasn’t a certain percentage about religion. What was the right percentage? That was for them to know and for me to find out, apparently. Sometimes, it was because the historian had written a book in which religion played the central role but had also written a book in which religion didn’t play the central role, even if it was there. Sometimes, it meant that their work on religion didn’t give sufficient attention to The Institutions Where Religion Happened and The People Who Defined What Religion Was. Sometimes it was just that the history of religion was forced to share the page with the history of women.2)Who are not – I repeat, not – The People Who Defined What Religion Was.

This is why I find myself at the horse shed.  I didn’t go to grad school to study the history of religion explicitly, though I had done extensive work in American Jewish history in college. I didn’t have a department with any prominent historian of American religion. I listen attentively and hope no one asks me my thoughts when conversation turns to Joseph Bellamy. But I found a dissertation topic that interested me, and a good part of it was about religion. I wrote it, and now I’m revising it for publication, and I know it’s not going to be about religion enough to count. 3)Even when I’m doing religion, the people I study were Unitarians (but weren’t Channings) and Catholics, so I’m already sort of on the fringe.

My study of the history of religion has been and continues to be fruitful and fascinating, but I don’t think it’s ever going to get me to full membership because it’s never going to hit both of those markers. Moreover, I’m not actually sure I know whether there’s any topic that I always want to know more about, other than the 19th century in America, which might be a problem.4)A friend of mine in college who went on to do a PhD at Chicago once said to me: “It’s just that nothing after the 11th century really makes any sense to me, you know?” A much as I have felt compelled to convince historians who don’t focus on religion that what I study is important and worthwhile, a thing many of us have had to do, I have also felt that I had convince other historians of religion that what I study is enough about religion – and not too much about other things – for them to care about it.

Sometimes my students complain that there’s “too much religion” in US I, and of course I know that relative to how important religion was to the people I study, there’s actually far too little. Part of the reason that this issue of full membership is so frustrating to me is that it seems to work against the goal that many of us have: to help others understand how important – how integral – how integrated – religion was and is in the history of the United States. It feels like these markers of full membership exclude lots of people from scholarly conversations that would help further this goal. And to put it bluntly, if historians of religion are going to complain all the time that “regular” historians don’t pay attention to our work, I should never have to hear, or feel, like certain scholarship about religion isn’t about religion enough. That’s the stuff that sends me to the horse shed, folks. And you know what? It’s not bad out here.

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. Most of what gets discussed on H-AmRel is Protestant-related, and anecdotally, I know that many of my friends who study American Catholicism don’t subscribe to the listserv. This is not to deny that people who study Protestantism and Catholicism and Buddhism in America have different goals and frameworks. I also know that there are historic reasons why the listserv is what it is. But it is something we should be aware of – the listserv about “American Religion” is not a place where many different religions get discussed.
2. Who are not – I repeat, not – The People Who Defined What Religion Was.
3. Even when I’m doing religion, the people I study were Unitarians (but weren’t Channings) and Catholics, so I’m already sort of on the fringe.
4. A friend of mine in college who went on to do a PhD at Chicago once said to me: “It’s just that nothing after the 11th century really makes any sense to me, you know?”

The cowardice of “no strong convictions”

Many of us in Connecticut were horrified – but not surprised – at video of a post-election gathering at which someone in Klan robes rode around a bonfire waving a Trump/Pence sign while onlookers laughed and cheered. Some, however, including the first selectman, downplayed the seriousness of this.

A town leader downplayed the vile bash. “I think it was just some young people who made a big mistake trying to get attention,” East Windsor First Selectman Bob Maynard said. “I suspect they have no strong convictions and no really racial overtones — I think they were just enjoying the moment. That’s what I suspect, but we’ll have to see what they have to say.”

Now, one reason he might do this is because to him, this sentiment isn’t that weird. And anyone from Connecticut who has an honest bone in their body would certainly agree this isn’t surprising. Many of my high school classmates proudly wore Confederate flag belt buckles; we knew school was out every day when one classmate drove out of the parking lot and blew his horn, which played “Dixie.” I had no understanding of what any of it meant, because like many rural white Americans, I knew almost no black people and my education largely failed to impress upon me anything meaningful about the painful racial history of the country, and of my own state. East Windsor police were quick to point out that this wasn’t part of a Klan rally, it wasn’t “planned,” but that shouldn’t make anyone feel better. It should instead remind us of how readily available these symbols and behaviors are. Should we feel more comfortable with the fact that someone just happened to have these robes at hand for an election celebration? Or that someone thought “Before I go out, let me get some bedsheets and whip out my Singer sewing machine.”

Town leaders claim this is someone with no strong convictions. I would reframe that analysis a little. They’re certainly a coward, but they have convictions, and we need to be honest about that. If we aren’t, we’re even worse cowards.

The other thing that seems particularly important in understanding this incident is the history of the Klan in America. Most Americans think of the Klan as an anti-black organization in the years following the Civil War. That was the first iteration, but it was not the only one. The rise of the second Klan in the 1920s was built on anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and anti-feminist sentiment. That Klan found support in the industrial North, and it found political legitimacy. Many people in Connecticut now hold views or belong to groups who would have been seen by the Second Klan as un-American.

ct-klan-march

Klan march in Washington, D.C., 1926. Photo taken from the archives of the Library of Congress. 

If you are interested in learning more about this, a great place to start is with the writings of Kelly Baker. You can read an interview with her about her book Gospel According to the Klan here.

But I also offer you this, something that my students in US II read. This is Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans, writing in the North American Review in 1926, in a piece called “The Klan’s Fight for Americanism.” Take some time and look at the language used here. We don’t have to see organized Klan rallies to know that the fear and anger that impelled the Klan are still an important part of social discourse today. (ETA: This great post by Graham Stinnett at the UConn archives about the Klan in CT in the 1980s.)

The Klan, therefore, has now come to speak for the great mass of Americans of the old pioneer stock.  We believe that it does fairly and faithfully represent them, and our proof lies in their support.  To understand the Klan, then, it is necessary to understand the character and present mind of the mass of old-stock Americans.  The mass, it must be remembered, as distinguished from the intellectually mongrelized “liberals.”

These are, in the first place, a blend of various peoples of the so-called Nordic race, the race which, with all its faults, has given the world almost the whole of modern civilization.  The Klan does not try to represent any people but these.

There is no need to recount the virtues of the American pioneers; but it is too often forgotten that in the pioneer period a selective process of intense of rigor went on.  From the first only hardy, adventurous and strong men and women dared the pioneer dangers; from among these all but the best died swiftly, so that the new Nordic blend which became the American race was bred up to a point probably the highest in history.  This remarkable race character, along with the new-won continent and the new-created  nation, made the inheritance of the old-stock Americans the richest ever given to a generation of men.

In spite of it, however, these Nordic Americans for the last generation have found themselves increasingly uncomfortable, and finally deeply distressed.  There appeared first confusion in thought and opinion, a groping and hesitancy about national affairs and private life alike, in sharp contrast to the clear, straightforward purposes of our earlier years.  There was futility in religion, too, which was in many ways even more distressing.  Presently we began to find that we were dealing with strange ideas; policies that always sounded well, but somehow always made us still more uncomfortable.

Finally came the moral breakdown that has been going on for two decades.  One by one all our traditional moral standards went by the boards, or were so disregarded that they ceased to be binding.  The sacredness of our Sabbath, of our homes, of chastity, and finally even of our right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths were torn away from us.  Those who maintained the old standards did so only in the face of constant ridicule.

Along with this went economic distress.  The assurance for the future of our children dwindled.  We found our great cities and the control of much of our industry and commerce taken over by strangers, who stacked the cards of success and prosperity against us.  Shortly they came to dominate our government.  The bloc system by which this was done is now familiar to all.  Every kind of inhabitant except  the Americans gathered in groups which operated as units in politics, under orders of corrupt, self-seeking and un-American leaders, who both by purchase and threat enforced their demands on politicians.  Thus it came about that the interests of Americans were always the last to be considered by either national or city governments, and that the native Americans were constantly discriminated against, in business, in legislation and in administrative government.

What seems most important here is not what a particular iteration of the Klan stood for, but the ways in which it has expressed the fear and hatred of dominant groups who feel threatened by social change. In that sense, it should not be surprising to anyone that someone might put on the white robes in this moment. If the Klan is, and has been, a way for “real Americans” to assert their dominance, this incident in East Windsor shouldn’t surprise anyone. Sadly, the weaksauce condemnation and shock of town leaders and people around Connecticut isn’t surprising either.

shocked

 

No one’s shocked at what happened in East Windsor. But lots of people don’t care because to care would mean self-examination. And the willingness of so many to avoid self-examination is something to be ashamed of.

 

The weight of history

This election has led to a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the state of the electorate, and I’ve seen a lot of people arguing that the voting population in the United States needs more civics education. In many ways, I agree; I don’t think most voters could explain the mechanisms of our government or the reasons those mechanisms purportedly exist, and it would be great if they could. It would be great if people had more knowledge about “how the government works,” or rather how it’s supposed to work, but I don’t think that’s the solution.

We’re in the middle of this national conversation about what kind of country we want to be. People are thinking a lot about what it means to live in a pluralistic country. They’re thinking about what their vote means to them and to others. They’re thinking about the role the government should play in the economy. They’re thinking about the appropriate balance of power between the federal government and the states. They’re thinking about the importance of civility in political discourse. They’re thinking about gender relations and sexual assault, or trying very hard not to. They’re thinking about whether our government should prioritize the will of the majority or the rights of the minority.

These can be theoretical questions, and we can talk about the general consensus drawn from the values in our founding documents, and we can talk about how we would answer them now. But we don’t have to talk about them just as abstract issues, because they aren’t. And we don’t have to only think about how we would answer them today

This election has also led to a lot of historians freaking out. We’re not freaking out because “history repeats itself” (it doesn’t) or “we should learn history so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past” (ehhhh not really), we’re freaking out because we feel the weight of history in this election so acutely. The ability to feel the weight of history in everything you do is kind of exhausting, but weight exists because of gravity, and right now, the weight of history serves as a constant reminder of the gravity of the choices we and others make.1)I don’t think historians are the only ones who feel the weight, but I think we tend to have a broader and more detailed understanding of the past than most people.

So I don’t think it’s enough to know that we have the right to vote and we should use it. I think it’s important to also know that most of us wouldn’t have had the right to vote in the past. I think it’s important to know how hard those in power have worked to keep new groups from obtaining – and then exercising – the right to vote.  Without the history of Shelby County v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act, Jim Crow, the 19th and 15th Amendments, Dred Scott, Jacksonian democracy, and dozens of other things, the importance of the right to vote is missing so much.

I don’t think it’s enough to know that the electoral college exists and that creates swing states. I think it’s important to know why the electoral college was created – and why states even exist. Without the history of colonies, of the Articles of Confederation, of the Constitutional convention, the 3/5ths clause, the direct election of senators, and the ongoing discussion about federal vs. state power – including a civil war – the importance of the electoral college can’t be fully understood.

I don’t think it’s enough to say that religious liberty is a central right in this country. I think it’s vital to know the earlier drafts of the religious freedom clause, and that non-Protestants were excluded from office holding, and that there was a political party dedicated to keeping Catholics out of power because they were seen as un-American, and that the Klan hanged Jews, and that we’ve only had one non-Protestant president, and that people wanted to burn Warren in effigy over Abington v. Schempp. Without that, it’s easy to glibly say we’re a nation founded on religious liberty; I’d prefer we were realistic about how poorly we’ve lived up to that ideal, or whether that ideal has ever really been the ideal.

It’s certainly not enough to say we’re a nation of immigrants. We are, but Franklin worried about the influence of the German population, and native-born Anglo-Americans worried about the influence of the Irish, and they harassed and killed and banned the Chinese. To say we’re a nation of immigrants and celebrate that without acknowledging Know-Nothingism, anti-colonial activists who raised the specter of Filipino immigrants, the Asiatic Barred Zone, the Johnson-Reed Act, the Klan’s hatred of Italian and Jewish immigrants, the internment of Japanese-American citizens, the bracero program…that is to pointedly ignore the fact that we may be a nation of immigrants but we’ve never really liked it.

And to say this is a landmark election because one of the candidates is a woman…well, you’d stand out, because the gravity of that fact has not been acknowledged or even comprehended. Certainly there’s been celebration of the suffragists, and some mention of Shirley Chisholm, but without an understanding of coverture, of women’s unpaid labor, of anti-suffrage, of the racist and classist divisions within the suffrage movement, of women’s exclusion from jury service, of the use of gendered language to take down male politicians…without all of that, it’s easier to brush off this moment as not that historic. And if you know the history of women in America, you understand that people brushing off women’s excitement in this moment is pretty much par for the course.

This semester, I’ve had a lot of great conversations with students, in and out of class, about how coming to understand how people like them in the past were treated has led to a greater understanding of their place in America today. A Catholic student realizing people like her weren’t always considered American. A black student realizing the contradictions within the idea of paternalistic slaveholding, and the way that myth shapes discussions today. A class full of women realizing the level of physical and emotional violence and exploitation that was visited on women in Early America, and coming to the sickening realization that the way rape was framed at the turn of the 19th century is not too different from the discourse they know.  Almost all of my students realizing that they would have been excluded from voting until 1972, even though they were paying taxes and going to war.

Civics education is good, and we should have more of it.2)Though we should also acknowledge that many who are citizens historically would have been excluded from citizenship, and that many never wanted to be citizens in the first place. It helps you understand how and why – theoretically – the government is set up as it is, and how it’s supposed to function today. History helps you understand how and why – historically – the government has been set up as it has, and how it was supposed to function. But it also tells us who it was supposed to function for, and who it was supposed to exclude, and how liberty and justice have never been for all, and how lots of people liked it that way.

I can admire the theoretical construction of our government, and think “the Founders” were really smart dudes, but I can’t escape the fact that when I go into the voting booth, I am doing something that they couldn’t have dreamed of, something that they would have seen as wrong – not “more perfect” at all. Others can enter the voting booth knowing that people like them have been killed for the right to vote. And many of us should enter the voting booth knowing that people like us have killed to prevent other groups from voting. That is what history provides – an understanding of the weight of the past we’ve been carrying with us, often unknowingly. Perhaps if more of us could feel the weight of history, in time, the burdens would be lighter for us all.

Tl;dr Support history education so Kevin Kruse’s fingers don’t fall off contextualizing everything for us on Twitter.

 

References   [ + ]

1. I don’t think historians are the only ones who feel the weight, but I think we tend to have a broader and more detailed understanding of the past than most people.
2. Though we should also acknowledge that many who are citizens historically would have been excluded from citizenship, and that many never wanted to be citizens in the first place.

The planks in our own eyes

This is a post that’s been percolating in my brain, and in my academic writing, for a long time. The latest uproar – and the terms of the uproar – over leaked Clinton campaign emails with comments about Catholics has made it clear it’s as good a time as any to put these thoughts out there.

The criticism of these comments, which you can read about extensively in other places, hinges on the idea that Catholics will be offended by the characterization of their religion as “the most socially acceptable conservative religion,” espousing “severely backwards gender relations.” As Patty Miller points out in her recent RD piecemany American Catholics think their religion has severely backwards gender relations.  Much of the outrage is coming from non-Catholic Republicans, undoubtedly aware that Catholics are breaking for Clinton, and more significantly, against Trump. To argue that all Catholics would be offended by these comments is to be deliberately obtuse about the state of American Catholicism. Many historians commenting casually on Twitter have been able to easily compare this “offensive” language to the views of American Catholics, and see the complicated nature of that faith in this moment.

When it comes to our scholarship, though, historians of U.S. history are generally really bad at this. Really, really bad. Frankly, a lot of the work in American history reflects assumptions about Catholicism that are not the product of nuanced historical analysis.

In so many ways, the historical literature tacitly replicates Anglo-American arguments about the nature of Catholicism. The idea that Catholics, without the freedom of individual conscience, were incapable of being full participants in American democracy was an important one in 19th century America. That idea often shapes what voices from the past historians think they need to listen to, since it goes without saying that Catholics had to do what the Pope said and therefore we don’t really need to listen to what American clergy and laity thought. If we do, those thoughts are seen as the products of “bad” Catholics rather than a legitimate diversity of thought within the Church, shaped by local contexts but also by differing interpretations of doctrine. In a sense, many scholars seem to think there was a lack of diversity in Catholic thought (or that that diversity wasn’t allowed) till Vatican II.

Now, the literature on American Catholics and the relative diversity of their views is rather complicated, of course. Anyone who’s read the introduction to D’Agostino’s Rome in America knows what I’m talking about! We want to be able to say “American Catholics” felt this. And there is a reason for this impulse.

The problem is that specialists know that this requires nuance. There’s not even a clear “Vatican” position on anything; read about the history of the writing of the Syllabus of Errors, for Pete’s sake! Specialists also know that this is inherently transnational history – scholars of Catholicism were doing that before it was cool – but in American history, we have a lot of trouble doing that in a nuanced way.

The problem is that Catholicism and its structure are tacitly held up as a foil to American Protestantism – particularly evangelicalism – without a lot of attention to how Catholics themselves spoke and acted and understood their faith, because it’s easy to say “well they weren’t allowed to contradict Church teachings, so if they were, it still doesn’t tell us about ‘Catholicism.'” This circular argument, rooted in the contrast between Catholicism and Protestantism, shapes a lot of scholarship. I’m working on a piece right now on Catholic publishing in 19th century America, and much of the literature on evangelical publishing and its distinctiveness holds up Catholics as an example of unitary thought and self-censorship. These claims are rarely cited, but of course they don’t need to be. Everyone just “knows” what Catholicism is and what it stands for. The structure of the Church, and the political use of that structure in American culture, allows historians to ignore the complexity of historical American Catholicism, often without realizing it. When American Catholics disagree with European Catholics, or with other American Catholics, the tacit belief that disagreement is wrong and not tolerated within the Church shapes how those disagreements are analyzed. Since everyone “knows” there really isn’t liberty of conscience in the Church, those who disagree are bad Catholics, and their disagreements are not treated with the same legitimacy as disagreements among Protestants.

Everyone knows what Catholicism is, and so no one is really pressured to think critically about it. It’s why everyone thought they had the “answer” to my dissertation right away, or questioned the premise. I studied American converts to Catholicism in the 1850s, and the reactions usually fell along a few lines.

  1. Why would any rational American become a Catholic?
  2. Oh, they probably were anxious and wanted a religion that would control them/tell them what to do.
  3. Oh, this was women? Yeah, they were probably attracted to the aesthetics and music, right? [Obviously the misogyny in this answer deserves its own analysis, but let me tell you, it was not uncommon.]
http://williams-blood.tumblr.com/post/5335209978

While Moxy argues that we should be attentive to the demographic nuances within Catholicism (go read her whole thread; it’s great!), I’m arguing that we should also seriously reconsider how we study Catholicism, and in particular, how some deeply-embedded and problematic ideas about Catholicism shape our scholarship, even scholarship that is not explicitly about Catholicism. Especially that scholarship. The inherited ideas I’ve discussed here serve to perpetuate this idea of American Catholics as somehow separate from American culture, which means their view on a subject can be cordoned off or even ignored. Moreover, it means that everything American Catholics did in the past gets attributed to their transnational faith culture, rather than their local/national culture, further perpetuating this sense of them as slightly exotic. When we exclude the largest denomination in the United States from our analysis on this basis, we’re not writing the best histories. It also means some really amazing scholarship that’s being done gets ignored because it’s about Catholicism and therefore not enough about America.

You might be saying “receipts!” I haven’t cited much because I didn’t want to look like I was setting up authors as strawmen, but I’ve posted a PDF of the introduction to my dissertation in which I lay some of this out in more detail, with footnotes, in the About section. That being said, a lot of this is drawn from experience – conversations in my department, at conferences, online – as well as published secondary lit and popular culture. I am more than happy to entertain disagreement on the subject, and I’d love to hear what other scholars – especially junior ones like me – think about this.

America’s Public Bible

Lincoln Mullen has come out with another great digital project of interest not only to historians of American religion but to all historians of U.S. history more generally (Yep, if you think religion isn’t relevant to your work on the 18whatevers, you’re wrong). Go play with America’s Public Bible right now!

Mullen’s site allows you to explore how individual Bible verses were used and understood in the U.S. between the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, using the Library of Congress’ amazing Chronicling America database of newspapers.

For instance, in this Hamilton-ian moment, let’s look at Micah 4:4. It brings us to an article on peace in the Vermont Telegraph in 1836, a plea for the temperance movement in an 1856 newspaper from Abbeville, S.C., and a piece on viniculture in Illinois in 1857.  It also, however, brings us to an account of a speech by Isaac Mayer Wise, who uses the verse to discuss “the progress of religious freedom in the world.”

As I’m getting ready to work through my subject’s religious commonplace books in preparation for writing some new material for the manuscript, I am so excited to be able to compare her thoughts on individual passages to public interpretations of the same passages.

In addition to the explicit, directed uses we’ll all have for the site, playing around with it reminds me of the way I experience the Texas Runaways feed on Twitter – the verses serve as an entry point for exploring a moment in time as much as they stand on their own importance. I mean, I didn’t even know people in Illinois were interested in viniculture in the 19th century!

A few notes on sources:  As someone who studies Catholicism in the U.S., the use of the King James Bible is understandable but might leave some of us hanging, which is why it’s good that Mullen already said the next version of the website will address that issue. For the Unitarian mother of my Catholic convert, the Book of Sirach is a constant source of inspiration, so I look forward to seeing how her contemporaries read it.

Using Chronicling America also leaves us with some gaps which are important to be aware of for anyone using the site. A quick look at the list of newspapers available in digital form reveals that some parts of the country are woefully under-represented in the collection. That being said, maybe Connecticut and Massachusetts can stand to be marginalized for once and let Arizona and Florida shine!

This site is exactly the kind of digital project I like to see as a scholar, and I’m also interested to see how we might put it to use in the classroom. I already give my students a couple of Mullen’s other small digital projects in the U.S. surveys and look forward to integrating this into my research and teaching.

Teaching religious n00bs and skeptics

I read Jolyon Baraka Thomas’ piece “Teaching True Believers” last week and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. In it, Thomas discusses the difficulty of getting students to think critically about religious belief. Here’s a taste, but I encourage you to read the entire piece.

We do not tell our students what to believe, nor do we tell them not to believe, nor do we deny the importance of their familial traditions or personal convictions. But we help them see that it does not have to be this way or that. We encourage them to move beyond the obfuscatory personal example, and to speak about religion as a social construction or an anthropological conceit or a legal category bearing geopolitical effects. We help them see that “religion” is historically bound and culturally contingent. Together, we acknowledge that there are lots of different ways that people interact with non-obvious beings and empirically unverifiable realities. We show that ideas like karma, sin, heaven, a chosen people, and rebirth are all articles of faith and figments of the irrepressibly fecund religious imagination. We train them to not assume that everyone operates within the same imaginaries.

What this piece really made me think about was the fact that in teaching – and often in my scholarship – I encounter problems not with the true believers, but with the students and scholars who have little framework for understanding religion or belief but nonetheless have very fixed ideas about how religion operates.

I teach in New England, where fewer people attend religious services than in other parts of the country, and where I’d also say people are “quieter” about it. As such, many of my students who did not grow up in a religious tradition have virtually no framework for understanding the major religions of the United States or how to talk about religion.  Moreover, many of my students simply don’t believe in belief. They think people in the past were simply stupid and superstitious. As a result, a few things happen pretty consistently, especially when I’m teaching the first half of the U.S. survey

  • I draw chart after chart of Christianity. Students often struggle to name any Protestant denomination beyond Congregationalism, and that is only because they’re from New England. That makes teaching U.S. history rather difficult at times.
  • I have to repeatedly emphasize that Catholicism is a form of Christianity. Sometimes students are making a theological point with this, most of the time they are not.
  • We talk about contemporary popular concepts of things like “evangelicalism,” “fundamentalist,” “revival,” and “biblical literalism.” Sometimes I am able to historicize them, sometimes I am not.
  • I have to draw attention to and personally footnote lots of references in the material we read; they can look words up in the OED, but Biblical references confuse them.
  • Invariably there are complaints that we talk about religion too much.  All I can say is that I definitely don’t talk about it enough, given how important it was to the people we’re studying.

Despite not thinking religion is important to study or understand, they bring a lot of ideas about religion to the classroom, and I work to problematize those as well. Among the most common are:

  • Before some nebulous point at which “modernity” began, everyone was religious and had absolutely no capacity for individual thought at all. 
  • Religion isn’t really a thing anymore. No one believes in that stuff. If pushed, students often articulate the Reformation as the turning point for this, for reasons I’ll discuss below.
  • Religion is mostly just a cover for racism, economic competition, sexism, etc. It reflects other views but has no capacity to shape those views in return.
  • Religion and science are diametrically opposed, you can never be a believer and a scientist, and at some point science took over and fixed inequality that religion had created and perpetuated.
  • Religion is inherently repressive.

Trying to teach students with these views about religion who also lack the conceptual framework to discuss religion is really daunting, and I struggle with it constantly in my teaching.

I’ve had to abandon a document set I used to use that featured Cotton Mather extolling the virtues of inoculation and science and a trained physician decrying inoculation. Students either told me that inoculation was clearly bad because the doctor said so, or told me that the documents said the exact opposite of what they did because it simply did not compute that a minister would be saying science was a gift from God.

As a TA in western civ classes, I got hundreds of blue books over the years that told me that Catholics believed in predestination and Protestants believed in good works because Catholics are stricter than Protestants.

I teach from John Winthrop’s diaries every year to show the importance of signs and proper order in Massachusetts Bay society. When Winthrop marvels that a hurricane swept through and destroyed the new houses but spared the old, rather than try to see what Winthrop would have seen in this odd occurrence, students often write that this happened because people back then didn’t know how to build houses. I point out that they are doing what Winthrop did – using their understanding of the world to make sense of a strange thing – but also have to remind them of ships and cathedrals and that “they didn’t know how to build things” makes less sense than “God did it.”

Now students come in with all of these ideas and we work hard to disrupt them. But I’m not sure we actually do work that hard. Is it any wonder that students think people stopped being religious centuries ago when western civ classes don’t talk about it beyond the Reformation and the “Scientific Revolution?” Or that they think Luther was the first person ever to question the Church when we start with him and never really discuss any other controversies before or after? And when we start with Luther, talk about “science,” and then never talk about religion ever again, is it any wonder that students sort of think that Luther told everyone they could read the Bible, they did, realized it was hooey, and stopped believing in God, heralding the dawn of a modern, progressive age?

And perhaps most important, is it any wonder, given how lots of courses and popular depictions describe religion and science, that students panic when confronted by scientific racism, eugenics, and a hundred other scientific topics in the 19th and 20th centuries? In general, the response I get from my students to science that is not liberatory, from a modern perspective, is “that’s not science.” We can’t control popular depictions, but I think it’s important for scholars to think about how their courses reify problematic ideas about religion, modernity, progress, and science.

All of this is to say that teaching religion is probably the hardest thing I do, and I don’t even teach a course that’s focused on religion. I know – you read all the way to the end of this and I have no solutions! Honestly, the one semester I think students changed how they thought about religion was the semester where I had a student identify himself as Pentecostal early on in a discussion. By putting himself out there as a believer, he opened students up to thinking about belief in new ways. But I can’t have that every semester! Instead, I just keep trying and hoping, but I would love to know any thoughts people have on how to approach these issues: course design, assignments, thought puzzles, interpretive dance, etc.

[I think studying religion and justifying its integration into “regular” history is difficult and frustrating in other ways, but that’s another post!]

 

 

 

 

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