Kevin M. Schultz and Paul Harvey: Religion is Everywhere in History, but Nowhere in Historiography





[Kevin M. Schultz is assistant professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Paul Harvey is associate professor of history at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.This essay is adapted from a forthcoming article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.]

We seem to be in the midst of a religious revival. At least that seems true within higher education, and especially within our own field of American history. According to a recent report from the American Historical Association (and written about in Inside Higher Ed), religion now tops the list of interests that historians claim to have as their specialty.

This renaissance bodes well for a discipline that more or less has forgotten about or tended to marginalize religion, especially when it has examined modern America (typically defined as anything after 1865). Even to this day, religion is everywhere around us, and religious historians have written about it in compelling and exciting ways, but within mainstream historiography it has been basically left behind. In a sense, religion is everywhere in modern American history, but nowhere in modern American historiography....

There are several possible explanations for this everywhere/nowhere disjunction. Some explanations include the rise of social history, the disconnect in professed religious beliefs between academics and other Americans, the fact that the widespread recognition of America’s religious pluralism has forced our institutions to become increasingly secular, and more....

During the progressive era of the early 20th century, even as many American institutions were secularizing, religion marked many aspects of social life. Clifford Putney’s study of recreational and professional sports from 1880 to 1920 put a Muscular Christianity, as he titled his 2001 book, at the center of Victorian manhood. A revitalized and reformed Protestantism, based in no small part on excluding itself from new immigrants, help to recreate the notion of Victorian manhood. Religion was the key. William J. Baker has updated this story for our own times in Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport (2007), which affirms Putney’s timing that muscular Christianity emerged out of a turn-of-the-twentieth-century need to redefine manhood in the Industrial Age....

During the post-World War II period, the United States experienced a religious revival of sorts as well, although one that was unusual in American history because it was a revival not just for Protestants, but for Roman Catholics and Jews. Catholics and Jews took advantage of the anti-fascist rhetoric of World War II and the Cold War in order to combat any lingering connections between Protestantism and American nationalism. Instead, they articulated the idea that the state should be neutral in handling religious affairs, whether it be in the U.S. Census or in the realm of public education. In this way, religion sits at the root of today’s multicultural struggles, where differences are to be recognized and even championed, but never prioritized by the state. Interestingly, these ways of managing pluralism were worked out when religious groups were the primary provocateurs, and not by racial, ethnic, or gendered groups.

There are many more examples of these acts of incorporation. But despite all this recent work, our general thesis that religion has been everywhere in history but nowhere in historiography has two major exceptions: in historical works on the civil rights movement and the religious right. When it comes to civil rights historiography, religious interpretations have vitally influenced scholarship; indeed, those who downplay the influence of religion tend to be the “heretics,” rather than the other way around. Meanwhile, we now have a small library of books on contemporary figures of the Religious Right, from Jerry Falwell to James Dobson to Phyllis Schlafly....

Meanwhile, religion continues to influence and shape Americans’ lives. The much-publicized "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" (2008) from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life provides some startling data. First, the survey found that almost 1 out of every 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. For the past 100 years, Catholics have always been and still do make up about 25 percent of the population, but the stability of proportion for recent years is only explicable because of the large numbers of immigrants, mostly Hispanic, that have come to the United States since 1965, when the United States loosened its immigration laws. Second, by the standards of population, the United States is still not “Abrahamic” or even “Judeo-Christian,” if it ever was. Jews make up 1.7 percent of the population, while no other non-Christian religion constitutes more than 1 percent. Meanwhile, nearly 80 percent of Americans consider themselves to be some variety of Christian. And finally, the largest growth area in people’s religious identification lies in the category of “uncommitted,” now amounting to about 14 percent of the population, according to the Pew survey. That figure varies vastly by region. Thus, "uncommitted" makes up a sizable portion of the Pacific Northwest, but barely registers as a religious alternative in the Deep South.

Other highlights from the Pew survey include the fact that there are more Buddhists than Muslims in America, there almost as many atheists as Jews (and more agnostics), and more than a quarter (28 percent) of all Americans have left the grand faith tradition into which they were born, while nearly half of all Americans have left the faith of their birth or switched denominations at some point in their life (44 percent). The survey thus emphasizes that the structure of faith in America is an amorphous thing, constantly changing, influencing people’s lives in new and dynamic and important ways. And religious historians have been busy tracing religion’s dynamism in modern American history.

If only more historians would care. Perhaps our discipline’s “religious revival” will help make it so.




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