Alan Wolfe: The Revival of Religion in America (Historiography)

Roundup: Talking About History

Alan Wolfe, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct. 22, 2004) (subscribers only):

Religion is playing a major role in the 2004 campaign for the presidency. Conservative faiths are growing rapidly, in the United States as well as abroad. While a clash of civilizations may not be taking place, religious conflict -- primarily, but not exclusively, in the Middle East -- is a major cause of global instability.

All of those statements are not only true but testify to the importance of religion in the contemporary world. They also raise the question of whether scholarship on religion is up to the task of offering Americans insights on the controversies that surround them.

Thirty years ago, the answer to that question would have been negative. Religion had been instrumental in the founding of at least two academic disciplines: sociology, because of the focus of Max Weber and Émile Durkheim on the role of religion in maintaining social order, and anthropology, because of its interest in ritual and symbols. Yet persuaded that the world was becoming increasingly secular and dedicated to value-free scholarship ill equipped to deal with passionate and irreconcilable beliefs, social scientists from the 1960s until the 1980s treated religion as marginal to their concerns. Combined with the conviction on the part of many natural scientists that religion was hostile to their enterprise and a turn in the humanities away from actual texts like Paradise Lost in favor of theories about how such works can or should be read, that left American academics outside of divinity schools unready for the religious revival that seemed to take on new life in the 1990s, particularly the rise of evangelical religions and the decline of mainline ones.

The academic study of religion, having badly missed the boat on one of the most profound social transformations of our time, has a lot of catching up to do. The good news is that the process has started, as a plethora of books and scholarly articles dealing with religion has begun to appear. There may even be an advantage to the late start in academic scholarship on the role of religion in American life: Scholars have been able to incorporate recent approaches that show considerable promise.

One involves ethnographic description of individuals and the groups with which they affiliate. Looking under the conventional labels used to depict religious believers, ethnographers and cultural historians are uncovering some unexpected findings. We know, for example, that religious conservatives are likely to vote Republican, but what, exactly, does it mean to be a religious conservative? If the scholarship of historians like R. Marie Griffith or sociologists like Gerardo Marti is any indication, it does not necessarily mean turning one's back on the modern world. Griffith's Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity, published this month, places the popularity of diet and fitness books among American believers, many of them conservative, in the context of earlier attempts to achieve spiritual renewal through mind control or self-discipline. Marti's A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church, to be published next month, offers a case study of a Los Angeles-based church that is at one and the same time Southern Baptist in affiliation and conservative theologically and attractive to a young, primarily single Hollywood clientele working at cutting-edge cultural jobs in the entertainment industry.

As such books illustrate, the ethnographic trend overlaps with interest in the complexities of religion and American culture and their intersection. While religion has certainly done its share to shape American culture, it is also the case that American culture shapes religion, and in very powerful ways. For example, the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jew on North American soil marks the publication of Jonathan D. Sarna's magisterial American Judaism: A History. Sarna's recent book documents the many ways American Jews adapted themselves to American practices, not only in the obvious case of transforming Hanukkah into a holiday resembling Christmas but also by revising Judaism to help suburban parents with child rearing or to appeal to increasingly assertive Jewish women. At the same time, Sarna also shows the importance of movements designed to resist American culture in the name of Jewish renewal, including the return to Orthodoxy on the part of highly educated Jews who once might have been considered candidates for assimilation.

Jews belong both to an ethnic and a religious category, and, as such, their history reflects the ways in which not only national culture but the specific cultures of America's many ethnic groups influence the religious composition of the nation. The forthcoming Themes in Religion and American Culture, edited by Philip Goff and Paul Harvey, offers a synthesis of the work of primarily younger scholars who examine the ways in which Latinos, Native-Americans, and African-Americans, among others, have shaped a contemporary religious environment in the United States that would have been unrecognizable to a Jonathan Edwards or a Henry Ward Beecher, however much they may have admired its energy and authenticity.

No other scholar in America has explored the relationship between ethnicity and religion with the insight of Robert A. Orsi, whose classic work, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem 1880-1950, published in 1985, brought to life the visibly celebratory and public world of Italian-American Roman Catholicism (while comparing it to the more cerebral and dourly Calvinistic IrishAmerican variety). In his Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them, due out soon, Orsi combines personal reflections on his own family with a historical analysis of the relationships Catholics have formed with the Virgin Mary.

As in all his work, Orsi shows religious believers as people who are very much like everyone else in their concerns with pain, suffering, and getting by, yet also unlike secularists because they really do believe that supernatural forces shape the course of the lives they lead. Orsi also demonstrates how slippery even some of our basic religious categories can be, for while the term "Catholic" conjures up for many Americans a universal church led by a pope in Rome, the worship experiences of a Latino in New Mexico may have so little to do with those of a German-American in Milwaukee that applying the same term to both is not going to tell us much about how Catholics will vote or even about what they believe....

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