Some of you may remember a post I did last week called “Academics and God.” I called your attention to Ray Haberski’s efforts to explain the “tsunami” of scholarship in American religious history. Ray was kind enough to respond to my post and offer me a challenge. Here is what he wrote:
As always, thanks John. I would add here that while your work falls into that category of religious history that Jon Butler felt little need to comment on, you do take up the study of religion as history in your latest book as well as your edited volume. I would be very interested to hear your initial reactions to some of the comments below my post. Your books have garnered awards as well and while not about the modern period of US history you have quite clearly been part of the “tsunami!”
I want to thank Ray for his kind words. His God and War: American Civil Religion since 1945 is on my reading list and it should be on yours.
The comments on Ray’s post at U.S. Intellectual History offer several explanations for this revival of American religious history. These include the rise in international Area Studies and the “repatriation” of anthropology, the emergence of the Christian Right, the growing number of people who claim no religious affiliation (“the owls are flying because the sun has set”), new work in post-secular studies, and the scholarly adoption of a “language of re-enchantment.”
While all of these explanations are useful and probably have something to do with this so-called tsunami, I would like to add a less theoretical explanation to the mix. Much of this so-called “tsumani” can be explained by biography.
Many American religious historians study religion because they are religious or were raised in religious environments. In these cases scholarship can easily become a form of biography. For example, I got interested in American religious history because it helped me make sense of my journey from childhood and adolescent Catholicism to Protestant fundamentalism and evangelicalism. When I read the works of George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, Randall Balmer, Harry Stout, and Grant Wacker during my years as a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I realized that there were historians out there studying “my people” and doing so at a high academic level. Though I eventually became an early American historian, I still dabble in modern religious history and have thought about future projects in which I hope to dabble a bit more seriously than I am at the moment.
I can’t speak for other American religious historians, but a quick survey of some the best practitioners in the field leads me to believe that biography might be a factor in explaining, at least in part, this historiographical tsunami. By this point we all know that Marsden and Noll grew up in evangelical households and continue to claim evangelical faith. Balmer, one of our best observers of American evangelicalism, has written openly about his upbringing in the Evangelical Free Church of America. Wacker was shaped by the Pentecostalism of his youth. Stout studied at Calvin College. Hatch graduated from Wheaton College and his father was a professor at Columbia (SC) Bible College.
I can go on. Richard Bushman is a devout Mormon who writes about Mormons. Before he became a Civil War historian, Allen Guelzo attended Reformed Episcopal Seminary and wrote a very good book on the history of that denomination in addition to his several books and articles on Jonathan Edwards. Darren Dochuk has roots in Canadian evangelicalism. Paul Harvey, a scholar of Southern religion, is a graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University. Philip Goff, the director of the Center for the Study of Religion & American Culture at IUPUI (discussed in Haberski’s post), attended evangelical Nyack College. David Sehat has a B.A. from Dallas Baptist University and an M.Div from Westminster Theological Seminary. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis is Jewish and he is also one the nation’s leading scholars of American Judaism. Kathy Sprows Cummings, a scholar of Catholic women, recently told NBC’s Brian Williams that she was trained by the Jesuits (at the University of Scranton). John Turner has a masters of divinity from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. John McGreevy, the historian of American Catholicism, did his undergraduate degree at Notre Dame. Wallace Best, the Princeton historian of African-American religion, graduated from Washington Bible College. And I am sure there are others.
Though I can’t say with certainty whether or not any of these aforementioned scholars started doing American religious history to understand their religious roots, it is striking that so many have had religious experiences in their lives or attended very religious schools. Of course there are some American religious historians who did not have religious upbringings or never had personal experiences with religion. They study American religious history simply out of intellectual curiosity. But I have a strong hunch that they are in the minority.
I am not sure if what I have written above answers Haberski’s question. For example, it does not explain why American religious history is thriving at this particular moment. Nevertheless, I do not think we can talk about this so-called “tsunami” without an appeal to biography.