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.
To illustrate the point, Jon Butler’s 2004 article for the Journal of American History analyzed American history textbooks to see if religion was present in their pages. He found that religion was omnipresent in the telling of early American history (before 1865), but after the Civil War it appeared only episodically, "as a jack-in-the-box," popping up "colorfully" here and there, then disappearing, "momentary, idiosyncratic thrustings up of impulses from a more distant American past or as foils for a more persistent secular history."
Butler is not alone in noticing this shortcoming. Robert Orsi, an eminent historian of American everyday religious practice recently suggested that historians have failed to grasp what has been going on within the subdiscipline of religious history. And David A. Hollinger, an intellectual historian and the incoming president of the Organization of American Historians, has urged historians to study religion, not for the sake of advocacy, but because of the extensive gap between intellectuals and the rest of the population. His articles have carried such urgent titles as "Jesus Matters in the USA" and "Why is there so much Christianity in the United States?"
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.
But we would like to suggest some ways in which religious historians have attempted to fuse their stories into the mainstream narrative. A good example to begin with (because its timing accords perfectly with religion’s historiographical absence) might be Edward Blum’s award-winning book Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (2005). When explaining the demise of the cause of equality that was so prominent in the Civil War, Blum lays blame directly on American religious institutions and their leaders. Blum shows that many if not most of the narratives of reconciliation that emerged in the 1870s embraced Christian images of reunion, a Messianic notion of coming together again and working on the great American project, all at the expense of African Americans. And Northern ministers led the way. The capstone final moment in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), which illuminates the triumph of the Klan as the "birth of the nation," shows Jesus’ face hovering over it. It was Protestant ministers and activists, Blum shows, who midwived the end of Reconstruction and the rise of a united, white Christian America, aggressively on the prowl for territorial conquests.
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.
For the interwar years, Matthew Avery Sutton’s new biography, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (2007), portrays McPherson’s deep influence in the period (and also, therefore, conservative Protestantism’s deep influence too). Sutton argues that McPherson was among the first in the modern era to unite conservative Christianity, American nationalism, and a political sensibility favoring the fantastic. Although she has been derided as a sexualized simpleton who quickly faded from the scene, Sutton portrays her as the forefather (mother?) of today’s Religious Right. Her style of publicly and personally sensational politics created a model that would be picked up several decades later by the likes of Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, and James and Tammy Faye Baker. In her day, she was everywhere, but today, she hardly appears at all in the mainstream narrative of American history, this despite her importance in laying the groundwork for the rise of the Religious Right.
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.
Noting these two exceptions raises important questions. For example, since these are two groups that have been historically racialized and/or marginalized, does that make it “safer” to incorporate religion more centrally into their intellectual trajectories? And to what degree do they influence the mainstream narrative? In other words, when we move from the mainstream to the margins, does it become safer to introduce religion as a central actor in people’s lives? And if so, will that scholarship focusing on the margins find its way into the mainstream narratives? The almost complete absence of religion from David M. Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear and James Patterson’s Grand Expectations, the two Oxford History of the United States volumes covering the period from 1932 to 1974, provides just cause for such reflection.
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.