Religions are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and superhuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries.
Thomas Tweed, Crossing and Dwelling, 36.
The launching point for this course was Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion. Tweed was my first introduction to religious theory, and his writing provided a looking glass through which I could approach the various texts I would engage with throughout the course. While I am far from understanding the breadth of Tweed’s definition of religion, it seems only fitting to return to his text in order to summarize my journey through twentieth century American religions.
A common theme throughout the course has been the “confluence” of multiple cultural and religious influences. Religion is not an island nor does it operate in a vacuum. Higginbotham’s Baptist African American women found themselves at a crossroads of identity. They had a “double consciousness of race and gender [that] led to the perception of a dual struggle” [Higginbotham, 68]. Press’s assimilating Jews, McGreevey’s suburban Catholics, Goldman’s visible Jews and others experienced this intersection of cultural influences, as expressed in their parish, synagogue, or religious conventions. As has been articulated well by these historians, the cultural influences greatly contributed to the formation of adherent’s religious identity. Prell describes the Jewish gender stereotypes as “a set of cultural images that are produced precisely at the meeting point of internal and external constructions of Jewishness” [Prell, Fighting to Become Americans, 18]. Recognition of these “organic-cultural flows” allows the historian to deeply explore the religious realm, not devoid of culture but integrating it. Perhaps the most poignant intersection of cultures within a religious purview is the Jewish GI who, while at Fort Dix, was served a pork chop. Thinking to himself that he need to learn to adjust “The next thing he knew, a KP server took a pad of butter and dropped it into the pork chop. That was too much. Steinfeld ‘had trouble not vomiting’”[Moore, 57].
Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” exist at the crossroads of religion and these cultural flows. Robert Orsi’s immigrant Catholics of New York established a very tangible imagined community that was passed onto children and grandchildren when they returned to venerate the Madonna of 115th street. These communities are formed and they eventually dissipate. In this way, Tweed’s “sacroscapes” allow the community members to project their beliefs outward. The Fundamentalists of the early twentieth century were able to view their world through their literal readings of the New Testament. For them, WWII was the end times with Mussolini being the Anti-Christ. Sutton’s evangelicals formed their imagined community through their interpretation of socio-political events. These communities can fracture, such as Prell’s stereotypes of jewish men and women by their opposite sex. What is important is that the community exists within the adherent’s mind, and that cultural flows are constantly influencing their understanding of their place within the community.
Intensify Joy & Confront Suffering
The joy and suffering a religious adherent experiences comes from within the religion as well as without. Grant Wacker’s Pentecostals experienced the joy of religious sanctification but also the suffering of its absence. Religion cannot and should not be seen as only allowing the framework to approach suffering and joy, but rather to be understood to cause suffering and joy. From Bowler’s prosperity gospelers to Sutton’s fundamentalists, belonging to a faith means exposure to emotional strain and triumph. Often, minority groups struggle within the faith to find a place for themselves and a role in the hierarchy of the religion. Do Latinos identify and ally with African American in their struggle for representation within the Mennonite faith? How do women navigate their traditional beliefs while still engaging with the feminist movement? These questions are difficult and the role that faith plays is muddy (neither totally the problem nor the solution). It is important to grasp the role of the religion in this intensifying joy and confronting sorrow for the congregants.
Crossing & Dwelling
These texts articulate well that religion is not static in its existence. It moves geographically, culturally, temporally, and theologically. Tweed defines this as “making homes and crossing boundaries.” Immigrants’ religions are forced to cross national boundaries but also cultural boundaries as the immigrants try to assimilate and establish a home within their new location. Orsi’s Catholics illustrate that within a single religion, groups struggle to make their own homes against other groups (the Irish). The boundaries being crossed and the homes established are not only within the culture but within the religion itself. David Chappell’s A Stone of Hope highlights how the crossing of boundaries can even be secondary to the religious experience of the individual. For those involved in civil rights, he notes that “The words of many participants suggest that it was, for them, primarily a religious event, whose social and political aspects were, in their minds, secondary or incidental” [Chappell, 87]. The religions of the African American community were instrumental in the crossing of political and social boundaries, yet there remained a religious experience throughout the whole contest. Tweed’s title indicates that this crossing and dwelling of religions is paramount to understanding how to define religions. What these texts have illustrated to me is that part of the work of the historian is to identify where and what boundaries are being crossed and how and where these homes are being made.
Some take-aways as a Historian
One important lesson I am coming away from this readings course with is to whom am I giving voice in my historical analysis. The first question I now ask when concluding a text is ‘what groups of people are present in the authors analysis?’ Often, the author claims to encompass a larger swathe of people than they actually engage with in their text. When they talk about a specific denomination or movement, do they only discuss the leadership or are their historical actors mostly white men? The voices detailed by the author will dictate the religion’s structure and framework within the book. As I continue my research into Mormon conversion, the voices I engage with will dictate the conversion experience I write about. In addition, by knowing who I am engaging with in the narrative, I can then seek out those whom I have left out.
Another important take-away has been the phrase “Religion and…” Each book that I read over the course of the semester has engaged with religion and at least one other aspect of society. It is important to recognize that this additional theme will dictate the tone of the narrative and can mean that other themes will be absent. With the exception of Higginbotham, who balanced class, gender, and race so well, one of the themes will need to be privileged over the others. Recognizing the importance of that decision and how it affects the narrative will allow me to understand the boundaries of my analysis. I think Tweed would whole heartedly agree with this sentiment as it illustrates the influence cultural flows have on religion.
Finally, as I study Mormon conversion in the nineteenth century, I have come to appreciate and even seek out the study of other religions. At the beginning of the course, it was said that “learning about other faiths we are not familiar with will help create distance with what you are familiar with.” That distance is paramount to maintain a grounded, unbiased analysis of the religion. Mormon conversion is something I am familiar with on a personal level which shrinks that distance. However, over the course of the semester, reading about Jews in the military or working class Protestants has helped me approach my topic anew. Whether through the author’s nuanced organizational structure, probing questions asked, sources utilized, or through the shear interesting developments within that religion, I can improve upon my historical engagement within my own field of interest.
Bowler, Kate. Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Butler, Jon. “Jack-in-the-Box Faith: The Religion Problem in Modern American History.” The Journal of American History 90, no. 4 (March 1, 2004): 1357–78. doi:10.2307/3660356.
Chappell, David L. A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Fones-Wolf, Ken, and Elizabeth A. Fones-Wolf. Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.
Goldman, Karla. Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism. Harvard University Press, 2001.
Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Harvard University Press, 1994.
Hinojosa, Felipe. Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.
Hollinger, David A. “The ‘Secularization’ Question and the United States in the Twentieth Century.” Church History 70, no. 1 (March 2001): 132–43.
Kruse, Kevin M. One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. New York: Basic Books, 2015.
Mcgreevy, John T. Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth- Century Urban North. [S.l.]: University Of Chicago, 1998.
McMullen, Josh. Under the Big Top: Big Tent Revivalism and American Culture, 1885-1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Moore, Deborah Dash. GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Orsi, Robert A. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. New Haven, Conn. ; London: Yale University Press, 2010.
—— . “The Religious Boundaries of an Inbetween People: Street Feste and the Problem of the Dark-Skinned Other in Italian Harlem, 1920-1990.” American Quarterly 44, no. 3 (September 1, 1992): 313–47. doi:10.2307/2712980.
Prell, Riv-Ellen. Fighting to Become Americans: Assimilation and the Trouble between Jewish Women and Jewish Men. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2000.
—— . “America, Mordecai Kaplan, and the Postwar Jewish Youth Revolt.” Jewish Social Studies 12, no. 2 (January 1, 2006): 158–71. doi:10.2307/4467741.
Sutton, Matthew Avery. American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2014.
Theusen, Peter. In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles over Translating the Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Tweed, Thomas A. Crossing and Dwelling a Theory of Religion. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Wacker, Grant. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Weisenfeld, Judith. African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.