Jon Butler: The Overlooked Factor of Religion in American History for the Last 150 Years

Roundup: Talking About History

Yale historian Jon Butler, in the Journal of American History (subscribers only) (March 2004):

It has seldom been possible, much less wise, to assess American history before the Civil War without taking religion seriously. The Puritans fascinated nineteenth-century historians and novelists alike, although the portraits left by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville easily outlasted those crafted by George Bancroft or even the truculent Brooks Adams. Then in the 1930s Samuel Eliot Morison and Perry Miller transformed the Puritans' crabbed image by taking them seriously as intellectuals."Puritanism was one of the major expressions of the Western intellect," Miller proclaimed, and his reassessment stimulated an outpouring of American Puritan studies that continued into the 1990s. This mountainous scholarship not only revised our view of the Puritans, but led to a renaissance in American historical writing generally. ...

Textbooks give substantial coverage to religion before 1870. Puritanism, eighteenth-century revivalism, First Amendment issues, denominational expansion, religious pluralism, religious bigotry, and especially the religious origins of antebellum reform and abolitionism are all commonly laid out in college textbooks. And while lecture practices are far more difficult to measure, most college and even high school teachers would acknowledge that those and other topics of obvious religious significance regularly inhabit pre–Civil War U.S. history survey lectures.

After 1870, however, religion more often appears as a jack-in-the-box, whether in U.S. history textbooks or survey course lectures. Religion pops up colorfully on occasion in textbooks—the Social Gospel, Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, the 1925 Scopes trial, Martin Luther King and the civil rights crusade, and Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. But as with a child's jack-in-the-box, the surprise offered by the color or peculiarity of the figure is seldom followed by an extended performance, much less substance. Textbooks rarely connect American religious figures and events between 1870 and 2000 to larger enduring patterns in American life. Figures and events appear as momentary, idiosyncratic thrustings up of impulses from a more distant American past or as foils for a more persistent secular history. ...

Understanding religion's role in modern American history requires the learning essential to all history applied to the pressing questions of the past. We need to know more about religion and voting between 1900 and 1950. We need to know more about relationships among religion, class, and race, questions raised by the ubiquitous racial and economic segregation of almost all modern American congregations yet seldom discussed historically or even contemporaneously. We need to move past Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad's and Jane I. Smith's general histories of Islam in America to probe historical Muslim communities in America's cities and suburbs, much as historians probed seventeenth-century Puritan towns or late-nineteenth-century European ethnic communities in urban America. We need to ask hard historical questions about religious complacency in the face of moral dilemmas, as E. Franklin Frazier and Benjamin Mays did when they wrote about what Gayraud Wilmore termed the"deradicalization of the Black Church" in the interwar period or as Gibson Winter did in his critique of post–World War II suburban churches. Finally, we need to ask whether religion's survival and even prosperity in modern America require us to rethink stereotypical notions of modernity, notably, the assumption of a thoroughgoing secularization that fails to describe American history and culture into the twenty-first century.

In short, understanding religion's role in modern American history requires taking three questions seriously: Did religion make a difference in modern America? If so, how and why? When we treat those questions as largely irrelevant to modern American history, we only continue the mystification experienced by students in second semester U.S. history survey courses who ask how religion could have affected post-1960 American politics because God has otherwise seemed so dead for so long. In our present condition, too often a teacher can only sigh,"Now what? They've asked about religion."

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