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Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation

Current Issue

Free access to our FORUM in the latest issue of Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation is now available for a limited time. This exciting new FORUM should be of particular interest to our readers as it explores “Studying Religion in the Age of Trump.” To read the FORUM, which is part of our latest issue, please click below.

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Winter 2017, Volume 27, Number 1

FORUM: "Studying Religion in the Age of Trump," with contributions by Randal Balmer, Kate Bowler, Anthea Butler, Maura Jane Farrelly, Wes Markofski, Robert Orsi, Jerry Z. Park and James Clark Davidson, Matthew Avery Sutton, and Grace Yukich

There are many ways to interpret the election of 2016. From appeals to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments to attacks on the establishment and political correctness, alongside more traditional topics like abortion, religious freedom, and ethics, enough subterranean shifts occurred to flip some states red and elect a populist president.

What role did religion in play in these events? How might this election cause us to rethink some seemingly settled conclusions about religion and politics, religion and race, and religion and gender, among other topics? Finally, what might we learn from the election of 2016 that will alter our questions and further our work over the next several years?

In this special FORUM issue, we have asked prominent scholars representing multiple disciplines to consider where we might turn our attention. All of them have published on subjects that have helped us understand different aspects of religion and American culture in ways that shed light on the nature of religion in politics and public life. It is an appropriate moment for us all to look back at how we arrived at previous conclusions, question which interpretations might suitably be shaken up, and consider where our fields might fruitfully go in the coming years.

"'Satan Mourns Naked upon the Earth': Locating Mormon Possession and Exorcism Rituals in the American Religious Landscape, 1830-1977," by Stephen Taysom

ABSTRACT: Since its inception in 1830, an important feature of Mormonism has been its belief in a literal Devil and in the ability of the Devil to possess human beings. Despite the pervasiveness of these beliefs and practices, Mormon possession and exorcism is a largely unstudied phenomenon. What follows is a careful study of four historical accounts of Mormon exorcism rituals dating from 1830, 1839, 1888, and 1977, and their narrative presentations.  This article traces the development of Mormon possession/exorcism beliefs and practices and situates them within their larger historical contexts.  The article also describes the relationship between Mormon dispossession rituals and the dispossession rituals of Protestant and Catholic groups in American history and presents through a consideration of the impact of broader American cultural trends on the theory and practice of Mormon exorcism from 1830 to 1977.

"Lineage Matters: DNA, Race, and Gene Talk in Judaism and Messianic Judaism," by Sarah Imhoff and Hillary Kaell

ABSTRACT: Based on ethnographic and archival research conducted on North American Judaism and Messianic Judaism, this article argues that each group uses DNA in what appear to be sociologically similar ways but that actually differ profoundly at the theological level. Our analysis moves beyond DNA testing per se to focus on what anthropologist Kim Tallbear calls “gene talk,” referring to “the idea that essential truths about identity inhere in sequences of DNA.” Contrasting Jews and Messianic Jews, we demonstrate clearly what scholars have only begun to recognize: how theological commitments may drive investments in genetic science and interpretations of it. Further, we show how religiously significant identities associated with race, ethnicity, or lineage interact with DNA science, coming to be viewed as inalienable qualities that reside in the self but move beyond phenotype alone. Finally, we argue that gene talk in these contexts is a religiously inflected practice, which serves to binds communities and (implicitly or explicitly) authorize existing theological ideals.


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.