[Paleopsych] CHE: Scholars Infuse Religion With Cultural Light

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Scholars Infuse Religion With Cultural Light
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4.10.22

   Scholars Infuse Religion With Cultural Light


    Religion is playing a major role in the 2004 campaign for the
    presidency. Conservative faiths are growing rapidly, in the United
    States as well as abroad. While a clash of civilizations may not be
    taking place, religious conflict -- primarily, but not exclusively, in
    the Middle East -- is a major cause of global instability.
    All of those statements are not only true but testify to the
    importance of religion in the contemporary world. They also raise the
    question of whether scholarship on religion is up to the task of
    offering Americans insights on the controversies that surround them.
    Thirty years ago, the answer to that question would have been
    negative. Religion had been instrumental in the founding of at least
    two academic disciplines: sociology, because of the focus of Max Weber
    and Émile Durkheim on the role of religion in maintaining social
    order, and anthropology, because of its interest in ritual and
    symbols. Yet persuaded that the world was becoming increasingly
    secular and dedicated to value-free scholarship ill equipped to deal
    with passionate and irreconcilable beliefs, social scientists from the
    1960s until the 1980s treated religion as marginal to their concerns.
    Combined with the conviction on the part of many natural scientists
    that religion was hostile to their enterprise and a turn in the
    humanities away from actual texts like Paradise Lost in favor of
    theories about how such works can or should be read, that left
    American academics outside of divinity schools unready for the
    religious revival that seemed to take on new life in the 1990s,
    particularly the rise of evangelical religions and the decline of
    mainline ones.
    The academic study of religion, having badly missed the boat on one of
    the most profound social transformations of our time, has a lot of
    catching up to do. The good news is that the process has started, as a
    plethora of books and scholarly articles dealing with religion has
    begun to appear. There may even be an advantage to the late start in
    academic scholarship on the role of religion in American life:
    Scholars have been able to incorporate recent approaches that show
    considerable promise.
    One involves ethnographic description of individuals and the groups
    with which they affiliate. Looking under the conventional labels used
    to depict religious believers, ethnographers and cultural historians
    are uncovering some unexpected findings. We know, for example, that
    religious conservatives are likely to vote Republican, but what,
    exactly, does it mean to be a religious conservative? If the
    scholarship of historians like R. Marie Griffith or sociologists like
    Gerardo Marti is any indication, it does not necessarily mean turning
    one's back on the modern world. Griffith's Born Again Bodies: Flesh
    and Spirit in American Christianity, published this month, places the
    popularity of diet and fitness books among American believers, many of
    them conservative, in the context of earlier attempts to achieve
    spiritual renewal through mind control or self-discipline. Marti's A
    Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church,
    to be published next month, offers a case study of a Los Angeles-based
    church that is at one and the same time Southern Baptist in
    affiliation and conservative theologically and attractive to a young,
    primarily single Hollywood clientele working at cutting-edge cultural
    jobs in the entertainment industry.
    As such books illustrate, the ethnographic trend overlaps with
    interest in the complexities of religion and American culture and
    their intersection. While religion has certainly done its share to
    shape American culture, it is also the case that American culture
    shapes religion, and in very powerful ways. For example, the 350th
    anniversary of the arrival of the first Jew on North American soil
    marks the publication of Jonathan D. Sarna's magisterial American
    Judaism: A History. Sarna's recent book documents the many ways
    American Jews adapted themselves to American practices, not only in
    the obvious case of transforming Hanukkah into a holiday resembling
    Christmas but also by revising Judaism to help suburban parents with
    child rearing or to appeal to increasingly assertive Jewish women. At
    the same time, Sarna also shows the importance of movements designed
    to resist American culture in the name of Jewish renewal, including
    the return to Orthodoxy on the part of highly educated Jews who once
    might have been considered candidates for assimilation.
    Jews belong both to an ethnic and a religious category, and, as such,
    their history reflects the ways in which not only national culture but
    the specific cultures of America's many ethnic groups influence the
    religious composition of the nation. The forthcoming Themes in
    Religion and American Culture, edited by Philip Goff and Paul Harvey,
    offers a synthesis of the work of primarily younger scholars who
    examine the ways in which Latinos, Native-Americans, and
    African-Americans, among others, have shaped a contemporary religious
    environment in the United States that would have been unrecognizable
    to a Jonathan Edwards or a Henry Ward Beecher, however much they may
    have admired its energy and authenticity.
    No other scholar in America has explored the relationship between
    ethnicity and religion with the insight of Robert A. Orsi, whose
    classic work, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in
    Italian Harlem 1880-1950, published in 1985, brought to life the
    visibly celebratory and public world of Italian-American Roman
    Catholicism (while comparing it to the more cerebral and dourly
    Calvinistic IrishAmerican variety). In his Between Heaven and Earth:
    The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them, due
    out soon, Orsi combines personal reflections on his own family with a
    historical analysis of the relationships Catholics have formed with
    the Virgin Mary.
    As in all his work, Orsi shows religious believers as people who are
    very much like everyone else in their concerns with pain, suffering,
    and getting by, yet also unlike secularists because they really do
    believe that supernatural forces shape the course of the lives they
    lead. Orsi also demonstrates how slippery even some of our basic
    religious categories can be, for while the term "Catholic" conjures up
    for many Americans a universal church led by a pope in Rome, the
    worship experiences of a Latino in New Mexico may have so little to do
    with those of a German-American in Milwaukee that applying the same
    term to both is not going to tell us much about how Catholics will
    vote or even about what they believe.
    What do religious people believe in when they believe? Monotheistic
    religions emphasize the centrality of one God, but people themselves,
    even those devoted to monotheist faiths, are often more capacious in
    their understanding than that. Indeed, if the work of a cultural
    historian like Stephen R. Prothero is any indication, Christians
    believe in Jesus while Buddhists, or at least significant numbers of
    them, believe in -- Jesus. In American Jesus: How the Son of God
    Became a National Icon, published last year, Prothero finds people
    continually defining and redefining Jesus to accommodate their needs.
    If one believes that belief itself is or ought to be fixed, universal,
    and demanding, one comes away from Prothero's book convinced that
    something is rotten in the state of faith. If one admires people for
    their ingenuity, as well as their determination to make religion
    meaningful to themselves, one comes away impressed by the many forms
    belief can take.
    When it comes to politics, ethnographic and historical accounts of
    religious experiences supplement surveys and polling data, but they do
    not entirely supplant them. If anything, quantitative studies of the
    role that religion plays in American voting have increased in both
    their methodological sophistication and their understanding of
    religion since political scientists began in the 1950s to pay
    attention to political behavior in addition to political institutions.
    Of all the scholars who offer journalists and others interested in the
    role religion plays in American politics relevant data, no one is more
    frequently cited than John C. Green, a political scientist at the
    University of Akron. And with good reason. Green, who happens to live
    and work in the crucial swing state of Ohio, never allows his
    political views, whatever they are, to color his analysis.
    At a recent retreat for political journalists held in Key West, Fla.,
    under the auspices of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Green
    presented the findings of a study, "The American Religious Landscape
    and Political Attitudes: A Baseline for 2004," which offered a number
    of conclusions that support the ethnographic approach to the study of
    religion. For example, evangelical Protestants, who, according to
    Green, constitute 26.3 percent of the American population, are by no
    means unanimously Republican in their political outlook. And that is
    because evangelicals come in many forms, some more traditional than
    others. In fact, Green shows, of those usually considered by the news
    media to be associated with the "religious right," traditionalist
    evangelicals (12.6 percent of the population) represent a smaller
    group than the combined centrist (10.8 percent) and modernist (2.9
    percent) evangelicals. Since the latter two groups are not as likely
    to identify as Republican as the former, George W. Bush would be wrong
    to take the evangelical vote for granted in the 2004 election.
    Sometimes the new scholarship on religion directly relates to the
    issues facing Americans as they vote for candidates or take positions
    on matters of public policy. Consider Robert Wuthnow's recent book
    Saving America?: Faith-Based Services and the Future of Civil Society.
    Wuthnow, America's most distinguished sociologist of religion in the
    generation that has followed Peter Berger and Robert N. Bellah, points
    out that both President Bush, who defends providing public funds to
    religious-based charities, and his critics, who worry that such
    financing may violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S.
    Constitution, know very little about how America's faith-based
    organizations actually work. Based on surveys he and others have
    taken, as well as his own study of the Lehigh Valley area in
    Pennsylvania, Wuthnow has concluded that congregations are unlikely to
    increase the charitable work they already do if additional federal
    funds come their way through faith-based initiatives; that even
    strongly religious national organizations devoted to charitable
    provision frequently play down their religious character; and that
    recipients of public provision are more likely to trust providers if
    they view them as motivated by faith. Wuthnow does not tell Americans
    what they should believe about Mr. Bush's proposals, but he does offer
    them empirically grounded findings that can help them reach their own
    There are other ways to have an impact on society besides direct
    engagement with its preoccupations. The study of religion will always,
    and should always, include those who examine the theologies of
    different faith traditions, write biographies of important religious
    figures, or study the psychological templates of belief. But by
    focusing on culture, examining the actual practices of believers, and
    demonstrating a willingness to explore widely used, but often
    misunderstood, categories, much of the new scholarship on religion
    enables Americans to recognize that a revival of religion need not
    lead to the creation of a theocracy or that the religious conflict so
    evident around the world need not be played out within the United
    States. Religion is here to stay. What form it takes and how it will
    continue to interact with culture and politics is very much open to

    Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American
    Public Life and professor of political science at Boston College. He
    is on leave this fall at the American Academy in Berlin.

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