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  • American Literatures/American Religions
  • Jonathan Ebel (bio) and Justine S. Murison (bio)

In the 1970s, something began to happen to the long, comfortable narrative of American secularization. A Georgia Democrat who spoke comfortably of being born again was elected to the White House. The Iranian Revolution fixed the attention of the nation on an Ayatollah and his followers. The Moral Majority began organizing conservative Christians and imploring them to vote. In short, religion moved into the thick of both domestic and international politics. And rather than flashing and fading, the public presence of religion grew ever more palpable, contested, and urgent in the decades that followed. Jerry Falwell and televangelism. Waco and Oprah Winfrey. Intifadas and the Christian Coalition. New spiritualities and the New Atheism. Many scholars of American literature were blindsided, attached as they were to the assumption that modern society is always progressively secular. Perhaps less surprised but no less dismayed, scholars of American religion both consciously and unconsciously often affirmed a reassuring narrative in which good religion was the rule to which bad religion was the unfortunate exception. Collectively, a hope that religion would return to its safe and proper place in America and around the world still shaped much of the scholarly consensus. After nearly four decades of frequent reminders of religion’s power to shape and reshape, make and unmake worlds, academics now grapple regularly, in their research and in the classroom, with the meaning of individual “religious” events and with the [End Page 1] long-arc trajectories of which they are a part. But scholars in both fields too often wrestle in disciplinary isolation. We have compiled this special issue both to reassert the value of careful attention to matters religious in the study of American literature and, more importantly, to demonstrate to the disciplines of religious studies and literary studies the value of shared inquiry. Literary and religious studies clearly are not coterminous fields, but work in their many overlapping spaces stands to strengthen and refine both.

As coeditors of this special issue, we hope to stimulate future conversation between scholars of American literature and American religion. Given the myriad ways in which the fields intertwine, interactions between them ought to be plentiful. Indeed, the fields of American literature and American religion grew up on a mutual preoccupation with Protestantism that established shared archives and historical figures, not to mention common foundational scholars and methods. Perry Miller looms large over the early-twentieth-century moment when American literature first began to establish itself as a field (though Miller himself remained aloof from that project). F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941) depends on a reader’s knowledge of Calvinist formulations of sin, even as he concentrates on form and expression in canonical nineteenth-century American literature. The story of our fields’ interactions is not simply limited to the early twentieth century. With acclaimed works published in the early 1990s, religious studies scholars David Hall and Jon Butler deepened understandings of the role of the printed word in the cultures of religion. They did so, though, at the very moment that the field of religious studies refocused away from such textual preoccupations and toward “lived religion” (the study of which both Hall and Butler encouraged, to be sure). In the intervening decades, religious studies scholars moved away from the more rarified realms of literature, though exegesis of religious texts remained a mainstay of the discipline.

Still, literature and literary studies remained important to the study of religion. The place of religion in the study of literature is another story. With the exception of a cadre of “religion and literature” scholars, literary scholars of all stripes turned from active engagement with religion and abandoned Miller’s “Edwards to Emerson” thesis. They did so not by questioning its assumption of the progressive secularization of Calvinism but by shifting away from the centrality of Puritan studies for all but early American literary specialists. Made possible by a burgeoning canon, American literary studies expanded beyond these origins and confronted a wider array of writers and topics than had animated scholarship before the 1970s. In the process, religion was...


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