Guest Post: Report from RAAC 2013

Today’s guest poster, Charlie McCrary, is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State. His MA thesis is about 19th-century Methodist circuit riders’ autobiographies. He is now researching religion, secularism, and public education in the early republic. Here, he reports on the Conference on Religion and American Culture earlier this month.

RAACThe Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at IUPUI held its Third Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture in Indianapolis over June 6th through 9th (see the program here; see also #RAAC2013) The conference, a relatively small affair—made to feel smaller and more intimate by its democratizing conference-in-the-round spatial arrangement—brought together scholars, from esteemed pillars of the field to graduate students, to discuss and debate the present and future of the study of American religions. Many of the presentations focused on case studies from the recent past and/or broader methodological issues, but pre–1865 topics received some explicit mention as well. In this brief report, I have compiled a highlight reel of scenes most interesting to the Junto’s readers.

The conference opened with a discussion of the study of American religions in the fifty years following Abington v. Schempp, which Jon Butler used as an opportunity to ask, “Is the perspectival question dead?” For decades, Christian scholars such as those in the Conference on Faith and History have discussed the concept of “Christian scholarship,” confessional history, and the place of Christian historians. Noting that most of these recent ruminations share a defensive tone, carrying a sense of lost influence and relevance, Butler questioned the validity of that disposition and echoed David Hollinger’s exclamation: “The Wrong Question! Please Change the Subject!” John McGreevy asked, as he made a habit of doing, the perfect question to get at the issue: If this question is worth asking, what recent monographs have been made better by taking it up? No such book was mentioned. Instead, Mark Noll listed a number of recent books that dealt with religion with “relative objectivity” and without autobiographical disclosure. No one seemed to object. Someone changed the subject.

The conference’s second day began with two complementary panels on technologies and social media, respectively. Though the case studies in the technologies panel were later than this blog’s period, the questions raised can just as easily apply to work on penny presses, railroads, steam boats, firearms, and other technologies of early America. Lerone Martin framed these questions in terms of access, adoption, and arrangement. Who has access to technologies? Who adopts certain technologies? And when? Who funds these projects? As Matt Hedstrom reminded us, publics depend on attention, and various forms of mass media and culture must compete for attention; technologies’ roles in these processes are hard to underemphasize.

Saturday afternoon’s first panel, perhaps the weekend’s most lively and interesting, especially for readers of this blog, focused on the Bible in American life. Sylvester Johnson discussed “scripturalization” and modes of reading, recommending Vincent Wimbush’s new work, White Men’s Magic. What exactly are/were people doing, Johnson would have us ask, when they’re “doing” scripture? Mark Noll gave a complementary presentation, emphasizing the centrality of the Bible in American life and pointing out that public use of the Bible was and is always political. McGreevy pushed Noll on the question of the Bible’s criticality in U.S. history, asking the comparative question, “Is there really no other society in which the Bible is so central?” Noll leaned into the microphone: “None.” McGreevy pressed, “Why?” Noll replied concisely, “Because of the shape of American history from 1740 to 1820,” folded his arms, and leaned back in his chair.

John Corrigan asked Noll how this process of biblicization worked. What about America in those decades facilitated such a strong biblical influence? Noll responded by highlighting the widespread “suspicious republicanism” that looked askance at (almost) all forms of hierarchy and authority except for the Bible. This bracketing, he argued, led to the Christian character of American public institutions. These exchanges were probably the weekend’s closest to a strong debate (maybe a debate that can be taken up in the comments.) When in the next panel McGreevy implored historians of American religion to argue more, I wished we could have gone back to give Corrigan, Johnson, McGreevy, and Noll the time really to go at it. A tension between Johnson’s and Noll’s presentations never quite surfaced, but I suspect the difference between the two is that while Johnson would focus on processes of textualization and perhaps something like “readerly epistemologies,” Noll’s interest lies in exploring the book’s ubiquity in public life. In other words, I think Johnson’s project is about the types of lives and ideas people bring to the Bible, and Noll’s is about the Bible’s influence on people’s idea and lives.

There is much more to say about the conference—including Nancy Ammerman’s call to take seriously the role of law and the state as a context for “lived religion,” Ed Linenthal’s brilliantly unsentimental take on memorialization (“Acts of remembrance, by definition, are not healing”), and Tracy Leavelle’s use of my new favorite phrase, “tyranny of authenticity,” to describe scholars’ problematic treatments of American Indian religions. These and other conversations from the weekend ought to continue in various arenas and should have a hand in directing the next few years of scholarship.

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