- Seeing Religion Happen in the Other America
Americans have always been, in the words of one historian, awash in a sea of faith, but now we find ourselves awash in a sea of talk about faith. In addition to the seemingly perennial conversations about the political manifestations of Islam and evangelical Protestantism, we now have talk of Episcopalians fighting about homosexuality, an "emerging church" of young evangelicals concerned about the environment and poverty, and a 2008 presidential contest in which candidates were asked detailed theological questions. Unfortunately, too much of the public conversation about religion in the United States follows predictable patterns shaped by outmoded paradigms, overemphasizing the sway of conservative evangelicalism, downplaying the magnitude of religious diversity, and, worst of all, following the common journalistic and academic tendency to think of religion as primarily the continuation of politics by other means, and people of faith as either saints or fanatics.
Two recent works exploring religious life in the United States thankfully escape these traps, and use just the right medium for the message: the photograph. Camilo José Vergara, in How the Other Half Worships, and Sam Fentress, in Bible Road: Signs of Faith in the American Landscape, have produced books that beautifully depict religion in the United States at its most quotidian, and therefore at its most robust and revealing. Though each of these books takes evangelical Protestantism as its primary subject (and Christianity exclusively), they refresh our tired preconceptions with new insights into the religious life of the poor, both urban and rural. This alone is a great service at a time when evangelicalism, a capacious religious tradition, is too often conflated with the [End Page 163] religious Right, a narrow political movement. But these books do much more than call attention to underexamined aspects of national religious culture. They also document the visual and material construction of U.S. folk culture, while, at their best, making contributions to the art of photography as well. These photographs arrest our attention in this sea of verbiage, and demand an anthropological focus on religion as it happens-as well as an aesthetic appreciation for the ugliness and beauty, horror and wonder of shared human experience-that affords a useful corrective to the ideological polemics of our moment.
Vergara's book, which mingles his photographs with short, informal chapter introductions and extensive quotations from interview subjects, depicts religious life in America's poorest urban communities, from the Bronx and Newark to Gary, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles. A 2002 MacArthur Fellow and author of numerous previous photographic and sociological studies, Vergara began this project as a study of the church architecture and religious material culture in urban African American and Latino neighborhoods, but was soon drawn into the lives and stories of the people and faiths that inhabit those buildings. His photographic study grew into a rich ethnographic enterprise, and the resulting images and quotations work together (and, to the extent that photographs function as visual quotations, work in the same way) to document religious faith in deindustrialized urban communities.
As the title of Vergara's work clearly suggests, his aim in How the Other Half Worships is to raise the consciousness of those who do not frequent the houses of worship he portrays. Since the late 1970s Vergara has documented the physical and social devastation in what he calls "the new American ghetto," the blighted neighborhoods of U.S. cities, in books such as The New American Ghetto and American Ruins; images collected over the course of these decades appear in How the Other Half Worships as well. This work, too, is about poverty and loss-and just as clearly an indictment of injustice, inequality, and inattention as any of his previous works-but as the project evolved from a study of architecture and material culture to a study of people and their lives of faith, it also became a...