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Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation

Current Issue

Summer 2017, Volume 27, Number 2

"The World Day of Prayer: Ecumenical Churchwomen and Christian Cosmopolitanism," by Gale L. Kenny

ABSTRACT: Between World War I and World War II, the World Day of Prayer (WDP) expressed Protestant women’s Christian cosmopolitanism that combined rituals of prayer with a liberal program of social activism and humanitarianism. The WDP began as a way to unite Protestant women together across organizational denominational lines as women’s missionary societies entered a period of decline in the 1920s. The WDP raised awareness of home and foreign missionary work and took up a collection to support designated home and foreign mission projects, but it quickly emerged as a site for ritual creativity. The planning committees and prayer service facilitated Protestant women’s efforts to replace a traditional understanding of missionary work with a cosmopolitan Christianity that coupled American women’s spirituality with a liberal program supportive of racial diversity and internationalism. The prayer services became sacred spaces to enact “unity in diversity,” even though this was always more an ideal than a reality. Churchwomen used the evident dissonance between a universalist vision of a united Christian world and the realities of racial, religious, and national difference to generate discomfort in the prayer services and to deepen participants’ spiritual experiences. While the interwar era is understood as a period of theological schisms and Protestant declension, a gendered analysis of Protestantism through the World Day of Prayer shows that it was also a period of religious transformation as churchwomen formulated a modern social gospel that paired spirituality and action in ways that would shape Protestant churches for the next several decades. 

"Constructing a Plan for Survival: Scientology as Cold War Psychology," by Robert Genter

ABSTRACT: Developed in the early 1950s by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology was part of the larger postwar therapeutic culture that blended religion and psychology in a search for mental well-being. Unlike contemporaneous self-help gurus such as Norman Vincent Peale and Harry Overstreet, however, Hubbard painted a much bleaker portrait of modern life, one rife with forces of psychological and social control. Railing against communists, homosexuals, and feminists as well as against the decay of the family and the rise of the welfare state, Hubbard argued that Americans suffered from a waning sense of ontological security, living in a world that provided no support for self-identity. Hubbard refused, however, to shrink from such changes and lapse into nostalgia for a pre-modern, pre-technological world like Peale and others did; instead, he offered a way for individuals to appropriate the dynamism of modernity for themselves. As advanced industrialization erased distances between societies, revolutionized transportation, and computerized information systems, Hubbard reimagined the self as a spiritual being possessing precisely those powers to manipulate time and space and to remake the world at large. Borrowing freely from Eastern religious ideas, cybernetic theory, and German idealism, Hubbard produced a philosophy that was staunchly libertarian, spiritual, and future-oriented, one that tapped into Cold War fears about psychological manipulation and waning personal autonomy and into dreams about the immanent power of human beings.

 "Worship Wars, Gospel Hymns, and Cultural Engagement in American Evangelicalism, 1890-1940," by Tamara J. Van Dyken

ABSTRACT: This article argues that gospel hymnody was integral to the construction of modern evangelicalism. Through an analysis of the debate over worship music in three denominations, the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Christian Reformed Church, and the Reformed Church in America, from 1890-1940, I reveal how worship music was essential to the negotiation between churchly tradition and practical faith, between institutional authority and popular choice that characterized the twentieth-century “liberal/conservative” divide. While seemingly innocuous, debates over the legitimacy of gospel hymns in congregational worship were a significant aspect of the increasing theological, social, and cultural divisions within denominations as well as between evangelicals more broadly. Gospel hymnody became representative of a newly respectable, nonsectarian, and populist evangelicalism that stressed individualized salvation and personal choice, often putting it at odds with doctrinal orthodoxy and church tradition. These songs fostered an imagined community of conservative evangelicals, one whose formation rested on personal choice and whose authority revolved around a network of nondenominational organizations rather than an institutional body. At the same time, denominational debates about gospel hymnody reveal the fluid nature of the conservative/liberal binary and the complicated relationship between evangelicalism and modernism generally. While characterizations of “liberal” and “conservative” tend to emphasize biblical interpretation, the inclusion of worship music and style complicates this narrow focus. As is evident through the case studies, denominations typically categorized as theologically liberal or conservative also incorporated both traditional and modern elements of worship.

"'If There Were One People': Francis Weninger and the Segregation of American Catholicism," by David Komline

ABSTRACT: This article uses the career of Francis Weninger—an Austrian Jesuit who traversed the United States preaching mostly to German audiences—to trace the development of Roman Catholic approaches to African American missions from the end of the Civil War to the rise of Jim Crow. The study proceeds in two parts, each of which addresses three themes. The first half treats Weninger’s work among American Germans, examining the historical context, mission strategy, and revivalistic activity involved in Weninger’s work among his fellow immigrants. The second half details Weninger’s evangelistic efforts among African Americans, reversing the order of these themes: first, it describes his activity, then, his strategy and motivation, and, finally, how Weninger’s work fits into the broader context of Catholic race relations. The paper shows that the activism of Francis Weninger, the most significant Catholic advocate of missions to African Americans during the key time period in which the American Catholic church adopted an official policy of racial segregation, helped both to stimulate and to define later Roman Catholic initiatives to evangelize African Americans. Weninger modeled his approach to evangelizing African Americans directly on his work among German immigrants, encouraging both groups to establish their own ethnically and racially segregated parishes.



Summer 2016, Volume 26, Number 2

"Ordering Antimony: An Analysis of Early Mormonism's Priestly Offices, Councils, and Kinship," by Kathleen Flake

ABSTRACT: Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith created a complex and hieratic priestly structure within a radically democratizing nation. His stated goal was to convey to all the faithful what he believed to be his own powers of prophecy and priestly mediation of divine presence. Thus, out of historiographic arguments about where to place Mormonism within the narrative of antebellum religious polity there arises a potentially more essential question: how did early Mormonism sustain any structural coherence, much less the order it was famous for? This essay argues that Smith avoided the atomization of his movement by creating three power structures and assigning every believer a status in each. Thus, status was not absolute or static: it shifted as the person moved among the three sites of power. Or, in other words, the degree and nature of the authority held by anyone at any give time was particular to the locus of the power – office, council, or kinship -- not the person. These shifting status relationships stabilized Mormonism’s potentially self-destructive antinomianism and, as a historiographical matter, have been mistaken for populism. The power struggles this occasioned within his movement, particularly over Smith’s inclusion of women in his priestly hierarchy, weakened his vision of reciprocal authority and shifting jurisdiction. Compromised by romanticized gender norms, but not abandoned, this power structure continues to constitute the governing structure of Mormonism, leaving it still republican in style, not substance. Historiographically, it is hoped that this closer analysis of Mormonism’s polity illuminates the existence of alternatives to regnant tropes on the nature of antebellum religion and contributes to better understanding of the means by which at least one perfectionist religion has survived notwithstanding its radically antinomian tendencies. 

"Evangelicals and Unevangelicals: The Contested History of a Word, 1500-1950," by Linford D. Fisher

ABSTRACT: Recent academic use of the word “evangelical” in American history has been surprisingly static. Drawing upon scholars of “evangelicalism,” historians have been tied to an “essentialist,” or doctrinal, definition of evangelicalism that stretches unbroken from the early eighteenth century to the present. Such ahistorical readings, however, obscure a far more interesting and complex reality. This essay argues that from the Protestant Reformation through the early twentieth century, to be “evangelical” was most often a Protestant-inflected way of being in the world, which at times could have multiple, changing, and contested doctrinal associations. It was a flexible and dynamic idiom, intended to communicate a relative biblical authenticity by those who wielded it. In particular, this essay seeks to recover three overlooked dimensions of the use of the word “evangelical”: first, the firmly Protestant and even anti-Catholic implication of the term that spanned the history of Protestantism from the 1520s to the twentieth century; second, the relative authenticity, “true-Christian” usage, which contained within it a strong “primitivist” impulse with reference to New Testament Christianity; and third, the contested nature of the word, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when “evangelical” identity supposedly started to become more recognizable.

"For God and Country: Religious Minorities Striving for National Belonging through Community Service," by Rosemary R. Corbett

ABSTRACT: This article examines how religious minorities (specifically, marginalized Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims) have participated in government-affiliated service programs as part of attempts to assert claims to faith in a common God, observance of common ethics, and belonging in a common body politic. Historians have described World War II as—thanks to the interreligious military—a time of enshrining “Judeo-Christian” narratives in culture, legislation, and politics, and of allowing Jews greater access to these arenas than they had experienced previously. While military service is also important here, my primary subject is the service religious groups initially offered as a compliment to military activity but then expanded and generalized—often under government commission—into community care work that relieved the state of the economic burden of supplying certain citizenship benefits or that gave international endeavors a friendlier face. Marginalized white Protestants were the first to offer such services, but other minoritized religious groups followed their example, patriotically echoing military themes throughout the twentieth century when creating “service” organizations and volunteer “corps.” While many contemporary Muslim American leaders believe that community service engagements will help Muslims overcome discrimination by demonstrating that they also make vital contributions to the U.S., several current factors call that possibility into question—not least of which is the history of only partial acceptance earlier religious minorities enjoyed as a result of their efforts.

"Before Hinduism: Missionaries, Unitarians, and Hindoos in Nineteenth-Century America," by Michael J. Altman

ABSTRACT: American interest in and knowledge of religion in India began before Americans imagined Hinduism as a coherent world religion. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Americans used a variety of terms to describe, represent, and imagine the religious culture of India: Gentoos, Hindoos, religion of the Hindoos, Hindoo religion, Brahmanism, heathenism, and paganism. Each term meant different things to different writers at different times. But there was no Hinduism, a world religion originating in India and comparable to others, in America prior to the late nineteenth century. Americans read and wrote about “Hindoos” and “Hindoo religion,” something altogether different from Hindus and Hinduism. This article analyzes two examples of American representations of Hindoo religion before Hinduism. First, it examines American missionary reports about “Hindoo heathenism” written by American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions missionaries and published in American missionary journals in the early nineteenth century. Second, it examines the Unitarian interest in Rammohun Roy and his growing popularity in New England during the 1820s and 1830s. Unitarian interest in Roy and ABCFM missionary reports exemplify the ways Protestant questions and interests shaped the American understanding of religions and the eventual construction of “world religions” such as Hinduism to suit American Protestant concerns.


Winter 2016, Volume 26, Number 1

"“Prayer is the answer”:  Apocalypticism, Our Lady, and Catholic Identity," by Jill Krebs

ABSTRACT: Apocalyptic beliefs are common in modern Marian apparitions and represent an important area of tension between believers and skeptics—tension that in part determines the official Church stance toward, as well as popularity and longevity of, the apparition.  Apocalypticism therefore is an important component of Catholic identity for many Marian devotees.  Drawing from a case study of a modern apparition site in rural Emmitsburg, Maryland, I argue that apocalyptic beliefs shape Catholic identity by framing social and religious changes as evidence of coming chastisement; galvanize action among believers, who both prepare for and attempt to avert apocalypse; and validate the Catholic identity of those individuals marginalized within their communities because of those same apocalyptic beliefs.  Using Christian Smith’s subcultural identity theory of religious persistence and strength, as well as literature on apparitional movements, I describe the dynamics of apocalyptic belief in modern Marian apparitions, explore how the tension engendered by apocalypticism promotes strong identity through symbolic boundary marking, and argue that such beliefs shape Catholic identity for apocalyptic Catholics. 

"“Declension Comes Home”: Cotton Mather, Male Youth Rebellion, and the Hope of Providential Affliction in Puritan New England," by David Setran

ABSTRACT: The theme of generational religious decline has been a staple of New England Puritan historiography. Yet while scholars have examined these issues at the larger cultural and ecclesial levels, few have looked at the small-scale manifestations of such “declension” within Puritan parent-child relationships. This article looks at Cotton Mather’s perceptions of the causes of and potential solutions for male youth waywardness in colonial New England. Attempting to provide pastoral wisdom for distressed parents in his congregation, Mather also had to deal with this issue in his own home. His rebellious son, Increase, served as a very personal example of a vexing public issue, and Mather worked hard to put his pastoral ideals into “fatherly” practice. As he confronted these challenges, Mather located the causes of male youth rebellion in the perilous nature of “youth,” the failures of Puritan parents, and the inscrutable sovereignty of God. In the end, I argue that Mather was ultimately hopeful about God’s work and purposes in the midst of youth declension. His belief in God’s providence meant that the afflictions attending youthful rebellion could be perceived as God’s means of spurring repentance and renewal, addressing parental sin, bolstering godly childrearing, and arousing youth themselves in the pursuit of righteousness. 

"Evolution and Voices of Progressive Catholicism in the Age of the Scopes Trial," by Alexander Pavuk                  

ABSTRACT: Belying assumptions about Catholics and science grounded in the old science-religion warfare model in the 1920s, two liberal Catholic intellectuals contributed in some important but overlooked ways to the discourse where prominent scientist-popularizers and other intellectuals constructed the public understanding of evolution and the Scopes Trial in the mid-1920s US. This article explores publicly-disseminated articles and archival correspondence between Catholics and non-Catholics on these topics, concluding that the manner in which the former supported evolution and opposed the Scopes prosecution may have unintentionally fostered scientism and religious modernism, rather than Catholicism, in the public square. Conditioned by their own Progressive-Era experiences and intellectual training, renowned liberal Catholics Fr. John A. Ryan, board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Michael Williams, editor of the liberal Catholic Commonweal magazine, framed their arguments directed at non-Catholic intellectual elites almost exclusively in social and biological science to the exclusion of religion. They did so even as public intellectuals and prominent scientists of modernist faith, like Henry Fairfield Osborn of the Museum of Natural History, constructed a public image of evolution that blended religion, philosophy and science when assigning meaning to the Scopes Trial. This study broadens the view of science-religion conversations surrounding evolution in the 1920s by integrating voices usually omitted from the story while further complicating the still-resonant ‘creationist’-‘evolutionist’ paradigm.

"Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Long Social Gospel Movement," by Vaneesa Cook

ABSTRACT: Historians have posited several theories in an attempt to explain what many regard as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s radical departure, in the late 1960’s, from his earlier, liberal framing of civil rights reform.  Rather than view his increasingly critical statements against the Vietnam War and the liberal establishment as evidence of a fundamental change in his thinking, a number of scholars have braided the continuity of King’s thought within frameworks of democratic socialism and the long civil rights movement, respectively. King’s lifelong struggle for racial justice in America, they argue, was rife with broader and more radical implications than that of a national campaign for political inclusion. His message was global, and it was revolutionary.  However, when depicting him exclusively in the context of black radicals during “the long civil rights movement,” or the labor movement, these scholars have a tendency to downplay the most fundamental component of King’s activism – his religion. More so than he referenced the brave black leaders of previous civil rights campaigns, King drew upon the writings and ideas of social gospel thinkers, such as Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr.  By analyzing King within the context of “the long social gospel movement” in addition to “the long civil rights movement,” we can explain his radical social mission in terms of race and class, but without marginalizing the Christian values at the core of his calling.