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Faith and Morals in the Modern United States, 1865-Present

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 26, Number 1, March 1998
pp. 239-254 | 10.1353/rah.1998.0015

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Reviews in American History 26.1 (1998) 239-254

Easter parades. Voodou. Women joining a Lubavitcher sect. Mormon underwear. Passover dishes. Prayers to St. Jude. Snake handlers.

The temptation when scanning the topics listed above is to dismiss them as an odd, even bizarre, grouping -- a collection of exotica that surely rests on more substantive work on religion and the modern United States. This temptation should be resisted. Investigations of these topics are part of arguably the most creative body of work in the field, certainly for the twentieth century. Its hallmarks include the use of personal observation and interviews to supplement archival sources, resistance to separation of the sacred and the profane, and a tendency to sidestep defining what religion is in favor of investigating how religion works. Its practitioners typically work outside of history departments, usually in religious studies programs or divinity schools.

The contrast between the energy displayed by this relatively new literature and the pleas for recognition issued by more traditional historians of American religion is intriguing. Pity for scholars interested in religion is in one sense misplaced, since few, if any, fields have received as much support over the past fifteen years. During that time two major foundations, the Lilly Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, have sponsored a variety of projects (some ongoing) on topics as diverse as women and American Protestantism, Latino Catholicism, lived religion, mainline Protestantism, congregations, the material culture of American religion, and religion and higher education. The Louisville Institute for the Study of Protestantism and American Culture, the Princeton Center for the Study of American Religion and the Pew program in American religious history (centered at Yale) have contributed a series of dissertation fellowships and research grants, and next year Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism begins a major research project on twentieth century Catholicism.

Much of this new work has yet to emerge from the academic pipeline but it is already obvious, as the editors of one forthcoming collection of essays point out, that both the volume and the quality are unprecedented. Indeed the volume is such that an essay of this length inevitably refers to a tiny proportion of worthy projects.

But is anybody listening? What remains surprising is the minimal effect these projects have had on textbook accounts of modern America, or even on surveys of the literature. The problem would seem not to be anti-religious bias, since a massive literature now analyzes the ways in which religious beliefs intersected with the American revolution, and religious ideas are now understood as central to antebellum reform and the collapse of the second party system in the 1850s.

Nonetheless, after 1865 paths diverge. Complaints about exclusion inevitably strike a petulant tone, but it is noteworthy that historians of the most religious nation in the industrial world understand their country's immediate past with little reference to religion. Discussion of religion and politics in the twentieth century remains largely the province of sociologists and political scientists, a phenomenon especially marked in the still impoverished literature on American conservatism. Labor historians sometimes move from the plant to the neighborhood saloon in their search for class consciousness, without glancing at one of the most impressive products of working-class collective action -- churches and parochial schools. (It is only fair to add that religious historians are often blind to the class dimensions of religious experience.) Historians of popular culture prefer close readings of Leave it to Beaver to analyses of televangelism. Paul Tillich's writings had an important influence on Martin Luther King, Jr., 1960s student activists, Erik Erickson, and Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, but this does not mean that most Americanists interested in the twentieth century could identify the émigré theologian.

The National Standards for History for elementary and high school teachers (which generally seem to me fair and useful) reflect the implicit judgment of historians on this point: after 1865 religion enters the national story only with William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial and Jerry Falwell at Republican rallies. Occasionally, religion is added to the ritually invoked markers of class, race, and gender. Martin Marty's...


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