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Review of Elizabeth Pritchard’s Religion in Public: Locke’s Political Theology

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Jeffrey Wheatley

I have spent the past year thinking primarily about the relationship between religion, race, and political order through both the particular history of the US nation-state and a global comparative framework. Somewhat to my surprise, I have found Elizabeth A. Pritchard’s Religion in Public: Locke’s Political Theology to be one of the more productive books for re-thinking the normative force that liberal political theory has had in conceptualizing “religion” in a certain way. Pritchard provides us an impressive and intriguing re-reading of Locke that scholars interested in secularism, conceptions of public(s), or religion and the state will find useful.

Whether in critiques or celebratory accounts, political theorists have highlighted Locke’s ideas about the social contract, the right to property, and the “separation of church and state.” Re-imagining the relation between these pillars of liberalism, Pritchard aims to provide an alternate reading of Locke by exploring his “political theology.” Locke, she argues, did not simply separate religion from politics by relegating religion to private life. Rather, Locke conceptualized religion as discourse that could circulate by way of textual and linguistic persuasion, thus abstracting religion from embodied and emplaced contexts. This process, she notes, constitutes a type of “secularization of religion.”

Pritchard sets herself up with a difficult task. Locke’s treatises are full of lines about “inward true religion” and the dangers of jumbling heaven and earth together. These oft-cited quotes might work against her argument. But Religion in Public is a project of recovery. The book uses Locke to address contemporary political controversies over the relationship the acceptable role of religion in publics. In a clever maneuver that pulls the rug out from under political liberal canon, Pritchard provides an alternate reading of Locke to critique the persistent salience of a “mainstream” Lockean legacy—one in which the secular and the religious are, if properly understood and practiced, worlds apart.

She builds her alternate reading by attending to a recurrent problem for Locke and his interlocutors—the slippage between persuasion and coercion. If Locke re-fashioned religion from a vertically-defined embodied disposition (e.g., for Locke, Catholicism) to a horizontally-defined circulating discourse, did he conceive of religion as separate from power? If religion is an opinion or a “fashion” that a subject subscribes to or can possess, does religion have no force? Does the state have no mandate to regulate religion? And wasn’t this conceptualization of religion as freely circulating and choosable particular, not universal?

Locke, Pritchard argued, sought to resolve the tension between religion as persuasive and religion as coercive by acknowledging that certain preconditions must be in place before religion could circulate freely in a public. Indeed, certain cultural preconditions are necessary before consent, which is a necessary capacity for legitimate persuasion, is possible. A properly functioning public must rely upon a shared belief in god and property, both of which are necessary to guarantee the trustworthiness of citizen-subjects who had to persuade others in honest ways and give consent to be persuaded. The “secular,” within which religion becomes portable, relies upon the sacralization of property, both in the sense that people are the property of god (and thus responsible to god) and that human-owned property is sacred (along with the oaths and obligations that follow). A legitimate political body depends on a legitimate political theology, which is why, for Locke, tolerance need not apply to Catholics, Mormons, atheists, or “heathens.”

Pritchard insists that in Locke we can see a subtle “force at a distance” become allowable. This force at a distance is the coercion that is legitimated through a sacralization of the preconditions for public participation—they are non-negotiable. The secular, even when set as the medium within which religion becomes portable, has been premised on conditions that are not universal, and that Pritchard defines as “religious” themselves. “Consequently,” she argues, “what we must learn to see and feel in the secular is force at a distance become ambient, penetrative, enchanted, injurious” (153). In her final chapter Pritchard draws parallels between the mainstream Lockean secular and the “overlapping consensus” of John Rawls, noting that the sacralization of human rights and “public reason” might function in a similarly exclusionary or coercive manner as Locke’s godly property. Building on insights from Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Saba Mahmood, and others, Religion in Public forcefully reminds us that we can no longer conceptualize the “secular” as a mere medium for discourse that is open to all. The secular has content. The secular has particular preconditions.

Religion in Public prompted, for me, a host of productive questions about my own research interests and the historical contexts of classic political theorists, especially Locke. Why did it become intelligible (eventually) to re-fashion religion into a circulatory discourse in the Lockean mode? Why tie it to property? As she notes, Locke understood the protection of private property to be a precondition for both a legitimate state and full participation in publics. Locke theorized this legitimacy by reference to the illegitimacy of Native Americans and Africans, as Pritchard briefly notes (102–106). Locke, like many early modern political theorists, was intellectually and financially invested in European overseas commerce and colonies. The importance of the European colonial context for Locke is clear in his Second Treatise on Government. I hope that Religion in Public signals a future with more research on this context, which would, I suggest, open up spaces to connect the theological (or “religious” or “cultural”) preconditions of publicity to historical processes of racialization, gendering, and nationalization. These are the very conditions that I would argue might explain the endurance and resonance of the “mainstream” Lockean legacy.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. You can contact him at jwheatley@u.northwestern.edu or on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

Pulling the Holy Spirit off the Bookshelf: Towards a Theory of Prayer and Information

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Meredith Ross

In his 2008 dissertation examining sermon preparation, Daniel R. Roland found that consultation with the Holy Spirit was an important part of the sermon-writing process for his informant, a Midwestern Lutheran minister. The informant, in fact, identified his sermons as work produced in “collaboration” with the Holy Spirit’s guidance.[1] However, Roland seemed uneasy with considering the Holy Spirit a run-of-the-mill information source:

The Holy Spirit is something other than an information resource because the clergy member cannot just pull the Holy Spirit off a bookshelf, turn to the proper page, and get an answer. The Holy Spirit is the active presence of God, mysteriously and timelessly at work in the world and in the informant’s life. The informant understands the Holy Spirit to be unpredictable and that he is never able to know how the Holy Spirit is going to lead.[2]

The Holy Spirit is not a book, nor is it any other objectively verifiable resource with which those in the Information Studies field, like Roland, are used to working. In this passage, Roland seems to identify standard “information resources” as set and fixed, well-organized for easy access, and clear and unambiguous. He casts the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, as something wilder and stranger than these established information resources: unfixed, disorganized, sometimes inaccessible or obtuse, and ultimately subjective.

Roland is not the only scholar in Information Studies to feel that there is something funny going on with prayer. For decades, studies examining how church leaders use and think about information have found that they consider prayer to be a vital and primary source of information – and, for decades, virtually all of the researchers confronted with this finding skirted the question of how to position prayer as an information resource. The avoidance is understandable: in a field where the meaning and boundaries of what constitutes “information” has been debated for decades, the inclusion of prayer as a type of information seems to stretch an already broad category past its breaking point. Religious subjects are quite clear that prayer constitutes an information resource. Scholars of information are not so sure.

It is the fate of interdisciplinary scholars and busybodies everywhere to know two people who really must meet and never quite manage it. In the case of prayer-as-information, scholars of information and religion always seem to show up to the party right after the other has left. But combining approaches from both disciplines would create new ways of thinking about prayer and information, illuminating new avenues of exploration in both fields.

Michael Buckland’s classic article “Information as Thing” argues for a three-pronged definition of information: information-as-process, information-as-knowledge, and information-as-thing.[3] The primary challenge in reconciling prayer as informative is that, thus far, scholars have attempted to understand prayer as an information resource, akin to something, as Roland put it, one could “pull off the shelf.” The unstated inclination has been to consider prayer as a kind of information-as-thing – which, as Buckland himself pointed out, is a clear mistake.[4]

A more useful perspective might be to consider prayer, in Buckland’s terms, as a kind of information-as-process – the act of being informed of something. Yet this, too, presents a theoretical problem, posed by the field’s roots in communications theory: the information “process” in question has typically been understood as a person-to-person communication, an informative message passing between a sender and a receiver. To some scholars, then, prayer as information-as-process assumes a two-way communication, and posits the existence of a sender – a theological claim. If the Holy Spirit is neither something one can “pull off the shelf,” nor someone with whom one can objectively communicate, how can prayer possibly be considered informative?

The answer rests in a seemingly semantic point of order: prayer is not “information.” The act of prayer (for some believers in some circumstances) constitutes information-seeking behavior. Researchers must pivot from looking at “prayer” itself to truly considering the process of prayer. Prayer is neither a “thing” that can be pulled from a shelf nor a message sent like a telegram. When prayer is informational, it is not an information resource – it is a learned behavior used by people in order to seek information.

This can be seen in T.M. Luhrmann’s examination of evangelical prayer in When God Talks Back. Luhrmann focuses upon her subjects’ means of realizing God’s presence through prayer, the techniques by which they “learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness.”[5] Luhrmann’s focus rests in what is undeniably the process of prayer: the accepted practices that constitute prayer, and how those practices are understood and interpreted by the church community as a social body (what scholars of information might think of as “knowledge domains” or “communities of practice”).

Brenda Dervin famously argued that information-seeking is prompted by one’s recognition of a “knowledge gap,” which often leads us to feel mildly anxious. We seek information to close the gap, to increase our knowledge, to allay our anxieties. When we feel satisfied that we have done so, our information-seeking process is over, at least for the time being.[6] Prayer, as Luhrmann and others have shown, can and does fill this function.

After all, is consulting God so different from consulting a public library catalog? In both situations, a subject, having been trained in a specific information-seeking technique, takes a socially-constructed action to initiate an information-gathering process, which they believe in good faith will be informative. Successful pursuit of this process requires the subject to follow a set of ritualized rules, clearly defined by their community. After completing that process, the subject feels better informed, despite having at no point communicated directly with another sentient being.

Is prayer information? No. But neither is that exactly the right question. Prayer is informative: we know because our subjects tell us that it is. By considering prayer to be a kind of information-seeking – less information-as-process than information-action – we validate our subjects’ experiences of their information worlds, and deepen our understanding of both prayer and information. Religious subjects have long recognized that information behavior and religious behavior cannot be easily separated or even distinguished from one another. It’s time for scholars to realize it as well – and share notes.

Meredith Ross is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Florida State University. She holds a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science, also from Florida State. Her research focuses upon religion and information, particularly mid-20th century church libraries. You can contact her at mr09@my.fsu.edu or on Twitter @Memo_Ross.

[1]D.R. Roland, “Interpreting Scripture in Contemporary Times: A Study of a Clergy Member’s Sense-Making Behavior in Preparing the Sunday Sermon,” 2008, 137.

[2]Ibid.

[3]  Michael K. Buckland, “Information as Thing,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42, no. 5 (June 1991): 351.

[4]  Ibid, 353

[5] T. M Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), xxi.

[6] Brenda Dervin, “More Will Be Less Unless: The Scientific Humanization of Information Systems,” National Forum, 63, no.3, 25-27.

* Image Credit

Religion and the GOP Presidential Hopefuls

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Emily Johnson

The Republican Party’s field of Presidential hopefuls is getting crowded, with eight candidates officially running and four more expected to announce by June 1. We’re into double digits already, without counting the half-dozen others who have publicly expressed interest but not yet filed with the Federal Election Commission. This last group includes some big names: Governors Chris Christie (New Jersey), Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Bobby Jindal (Louisiana), and Jeb Bush (Florida).

Religion has already emerged as a major theme in these campaigns. This is perhaps unsurprising, but worth examining for what it reveals about the evolving relationship between religious rhetoric and political conservatism in American electoral races. The 2016 GOP field is religiously diverse in important ways, while also being exclusively Christian and heavily evangelical Protestant. The religious rhetoric of most serious candidates attempts to address this complicated diversity in direct appeals to ecumenism that nonetheless draw heavily on evangelical language. It is also clear that these candidates feel obligated to address religion in some way, which is particularly interesting given the notable absence of religious themes from the campaign announcements and websites of the lone Democratic candidates: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Independent Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders.

Let this article serve, then, as a cheat sheet (alphabetically organized) of the major GOP candidates’ religious orientations, both personal and political. Included here are all those who have officially announced so far, plus Jeb Bush.

Jeb Bush (no official announcement yet): The famous second son of the Bush political dynasty, former Florida governor Jeb Bush has not yet announced his candidacy, but he has been raising money through his Super PAC “Right to Rise” since January 2015, and it is widely presumed that he will run. Religiously, Bush is something of a mixed bag – a fact that could easily work to his advantage or disadvantage as the election cycle wears on. Raised Episcopalian, Bush converted to Catholicism in 1995 (a conversion that was likely influenced by his marriage to Columba Garnica Gallo, but that did not occur until twenty-one years after their wedding). Bush will also likely draw on the evangelical credentials of his brother George W., who famously converted to Methodism in 1977. Jeb Bush has been vocal in his opposition to gay-rights legislation and (to a lesser extent) abortion, most recently critiquing Hillary Clinton for her contention that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed” in order to improve women’s rights worldwide. Bush offered his response in an email to backers that emphasized his support for religious freedom and “strengthening families.”

Ben Carson (announced on May 4): A former pediatric neurosurgeon, Carson gained national and international fame in 1987 after leading the first successful surgery to separate twins conjoined at the back of the head. He has no electoral experience, but is well known to conservative evangelicals, having published seven books of memoir and advice (including six bestsellers) with the Christian publishing house Zondervan over the past twenty-five years. He gained attention from political pundits on the right after his keynote address at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, where he cautioned against political correctness and made remarks about education, healthcare, and taxation that conservatives broadly interpreted as direct critiques of the Obama administration. Carson opposes same-sex marriage (which he has compared to bestiality) and the Affordable Care Act, and he has gone on record to say that he does not believe in human evolution. His affiliation with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church may prove to be an issue for some potential evangelical supporters given the church’s deliberate self-positioning outside of the evangelical mainstream.

Ted Cruz (announced on March 23): Texas senator Ted Cruz is a born-and-bred Southern Baptist. An early (and continued) advocate of Tea Party platforms, he has been a frequent speaker at the Values Voter Summit hosted annually by the Family Research Council and at the Heritage Foundation’s Conservative Policy Summits. He announced his 2016 candidacy for the GOP nomination at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Cruz’s campaign website highlights his understanding of the United States as a fundamentally Christian nation, with particular emphasis on “the liberties endowed to us by our Creator” as well as his support for the preservation of “the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance.” The website also centrally focuses on Cruz’s family values politics, including his opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, and the controversial contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

Mark Everson (announced on March 5): Everson served as Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service under George Bush, and went on to be CEO of the American Red Cross for less than a year in 2007 (the organization demanded his resignation after discovering his extramarital relationship with a subordinate). His candidacy has not yet received much serious attention so far (perhaps best represented by the Washington Postheadline: “Mark Everson enters the 2016 race, because sometimes random people run for president.”). Everson’s original six-pronged platform did not include social issues, focusing instead on tax reform, banking regulation, reinstating the draft, reducing “entitlement programs,” limiting immigration, and imposing a single-term limit on the presidency. He has since added to his website that he opposes new gun control legislation and stands against abortion “unless the life of the mother or child is at stake.” He also takes responsibility for his own “failed” marriage and states that “those who cite the unraveling of the institution of marriage as a cause for alarm are right.”

Jack Fellure (filed with the FEC in 2012, for 2016): A retired engineer, Fellure is a perennial candidate who has run in every presidential election since 1988. He registered his 2016 candidacy with the FEC immediately after the 2012 election (in which he ran as the official candidate of the Prohibition Party), but has not yet set up a website for 2016. Fellure has consistently stated, since the 1980s, that his platform is the 1611 King James Bible. He is particularly concerned with what he sees as rampant sexual immorality, and he supports a flat tax based on Levitical tithing guidelines.

Carly Fiorina (announced on May 4): Attention toward the former Hewlett-Packard CEO has so far focused on her failure to register the domain name carlyfiorna.org, which is now populated by 30,000 sadface emoticons, representing the 30,000 workers that she laid off during her time with HP. Aside from being the only woman to announce her candidacy for the GOP nomination so far, Fiorina (who was raised Episcopalian) is also notable for her lack of engagement with religious rhetoric. Her campaign website focuses almost exclusively on her business experience with virtually no reference to social or cultural issues, aside from her refusal of “the false notion that conservative ideas and principles amount to a ‘war on women.’”

Mike Huckabee (announced on May 5): Before entering politics, Huckabee was a Baptist preacher and televangelist who opened two twenty-four hour Christian television stations in Arkansas during the 1980s. The former governor of that state (1996-2007), Huckabee emerged early in the 2008 election cycle as the evangelical candidate to watch, placing second in the Iowa straw poll and producing a memorable December campaign commercial reminding voters that “what really matters” is not politics but “the birth of Christ.” He dropped out of the race in March 2008 and decided not to run in 2012, offering reasoning evocative of evangelical epistemology: “all the factors say ‘go’, but my heart says ‘no.’” Huckabee’s 2016 campaign announcement underscored his conservative evangelical credentials by invoking his support for Israel, his opposition to “jihadis,” and his concern about the “criminalization” of Christianity in the United States (an oblique reference to a host of issues ranging from gay-rights and anti-discrimination legislation to the recent uproar over Indiana’s passage of a state Religious Freedom Restoration Act). Huckabee’s official website heavily emphasizes his opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and gun control.

Rand Paul (announced on April 7): The junior senator from Kentucky leans more libertarian than many of his opponents, though less so than his father (former presidential candidate Ron Paul). Baptized in the Episcopal Church, Paul presently identifies as Presbyterian. His major policy priorities align with the evangelical conservatives’ rhetoric of small government, but with significantly less emphasis on social issues than other contenders. Instead, his attention has been focused on reining in NSA surveillance programs, setting congressional term limits, applying “real free-market principles” to the American healthcare system, and “counteracting excessively burdensome government regulation.” His primary appeals to evangelical voters have been through his pro-life and pro-Israel platforms. Although he described gay marriage as a “sin” in 2012, he has since said that he supports official recognition and benefits for same-sex couples as long as the definition of marriage does not have to be changed to include these relationships.

Marco Rubio (announced on April 13): Like the only other Catholic currently in contention, Marco Rubio’s personal religious history is complicated. He was born and raised in a Catholic family, but attended the Church of Latter-Day Saints with extended family for “a little less than three years when [he] was very young.” He was baptized as a Mormon at the age of eight, but his immediate family soon returned to the Catholic Church and he received his First Communion five years later. He and his wife and children attend Catholic services in Miami, but are also affiliated with the Southern Baptist Christ Fellowship, which was briefly their primary church and where they still occasionally attend services. Rubio toldChristianity Today in a 2012 interview: “I’m a Roman Catholic. I’m theologically in line with the authority of the church, but I also have tremendous respect for my brothers and sisters in other Christian faiths. I recognize, as the Catholic Church, that there are excellent teachings of the Word throughout other denominations of Christianity.” He is pro-life and opposed to same-sex marriage, although he has said that legislation surrounding both issues should be in the hands of the states.

Emily Johnson is a Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee. She recently completed her doctorate at Yale University, including a dissertation entitled “Authors, Activists, Apostles: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right.” Her work focuses on gender, politics, and popular culture in recent American religious history.

Image credits:  Jeb Bush (Gage Skidmore); Jack Fellure; Carson (Gage Skidmore); Fiorina (Gage Skidmore); Huckabee (David Ball). All other public domain images hosted by Wikimedia.

Are We Seeing the Fall of the Religious Right?

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Thomas Whitley

I must admit that I’ve grown quite accustomed to using the phrase, “the rise of the Religious Right.” It’s a phrase that hearkens back to the coalescence of the “moral majority” and the linking between the religious right and the Republican party during the late 1960s and 1970s. The Religious Right was ostensibly galvanized around Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. However, Randall Balmer argued last year that this is a myth and that it was support for segregation that provided the original impetus for the forming of the Religious Right.

The Religious Right and evangelicals have held a considerable amount of influence over electoral politics and conversations around social issues in this county for four and a half decades. The movement largely begun under Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich continues under the leadership of Jerry Falwell, Jr., Tony Perkins, and James Dobson, though more loosely. While “Religious Right” is not synonymous with “evangelical,” the two categories significantly overlap and evangelicals make up the vast majority of the Religious Right. Indeed, evangelicalism, especially in its national identity and in its identification as a prominent voting bloc, seems to have replaced the Religious Right, at least in popular usage. I wonder, though, if we are seeing the initial stages of the waning of the power and influence of evangelicalism.

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal study caught the eye of many this week and produced headlines like this one from Slate: “Too bad, Mike Huckabee — Americans would rather have a gay president than a Christian evangelical.” And indeed the study seems to indicate that this is the case: 61% say that they would be enthusiastic or comfortable with a gay or lesbian president, compared with 52% who say the same about an evangelical Christian. This represents an 18 point increase since 2006 for those who say that they would be enthusiastic or comfortable with a gay or lesbian president. But has support been waning for evangelicals? According to this study, those who would be enthusiastic or comfortable with an evangelical Christian president has hovered around 50% since 2008, a jump from 41% in 2006 (2008: 51%; 2011: 50%; 2015: 52%). The unfavorables —those who have some reservations or would be very uncomfortable —have likewise hovered around 45% since 2008, which was a decrease from the 2006 number of 54% (2008: 45%; 2011: 47%; 2015: 44%). When it comes to the presidency, evangelicals appear to be holding serve among Americans.

This coupled with the strengthening of the correlation between evangelicals and the Republican party seems to paint a positive picture. From 2008 to 2011, Republicans increased their evangelical advantage over Democrats from 65%-28% to 70%-24%. On the surface, this looks like evangelicalism is moving toward a stronger position, but them becoming the main constituency of one political party does not equal broad political or social influence. The shift toward support of same-sex marriage in this country is low hanging fruit in this discussion. Not only has the country shifted quite decisively to the left on this issue over recent years, but many evangelicals are rethinking their traditionally held positions and are coming out in favor of same-sex marriage. Rachel Held Evans’recent departure from evangelicalism over this issue (and many others) is a particularly devastating blow, even if those who still identify as evangelicals wrote her off long ago.

The recent spate of Religious Freedom Restoration Act laws being proposed or passed and subsequently amended (such as the high-profile case in Indiana) appear to be last ditch efforts, of sorts, to cling to a time that is quickly fading. Despite recent conservative victories rolling back abortion rights, public opinion has remained largely unchanged for 40 years, even as the “pro-choice”moniker has suffered since the mid-1990s.

Evangelicalism may well be entering a time when it is feeling more consistent and stronger pressure and has thus begun to batten down the hatches. The boundaries are being drawn tighter and the movement is becoming more insular (see: John Piper “Farewells” Rob Bell). The evangelical vote will still be decisive in the upcoming Republican primaries and the eventual Republican nominee for the 2016 general election will have to perform well among evangelicals. Case in point: Convert to Catholicism Jeb Bush, who is my (not very bold, but quite practical) prediction for the Republican nominee, gave the commencement address at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University this weekend. Yet, the 2016 election may be the last election in which the evangelical vote has the potential to sway the outcome of an election, especially as the evangelicals have lost serious ground on some of the most important social issues and as the country continues to grow less white and less religious.

Thomas Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can follow him on Twitter.

Announcement

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

The American Society of Church History announces a search for new editors and a new institutional home for the journal Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, currently housed at Florida State UniversityPublished quarterly by Cambridge University Press, the journal seeks essays that advance knowledge of the role Christianity has played in mediating larger social and intellectual forces.  New editors must be in place to begin evaluating submissions by December 2015, although the FSU staff will continue to oversee the business side of the journal until June 2016, when it will be relocated.

Interested parties should submit a preliminary proposal by July 15, 2015.  Preliminary proposals should include a statement of the editor(s)’ vision for the journal, previous editorial experience, an outline of the resources of the institution, and a preliminary indication of institutional support for the relocation of the journal to its new home.  A final version of selected proposals will be due no later than September 15, 2015.

The New Frontier of Lived Religion: Authenticity and Media

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

Stephanie Brehm

Over twenty-five years ago, the fields of Church history and religious studies experienced a theoretical shifting towards the project of lived religion.  That project took scholars to places rarely before considered legitimate – outside of pews, out of churches, and into the everyday lives of people “on the ground.”  Lived religion, as described in David Hall’s anthology, focuses on the material, “on-the-ground” aspects of religion in everyday life and deals with questions of religious “authenticity.”[1]  Part of the lived religion project legitimized areas of religious life previously under-studied; religious expressions, practices, and rituals previously deemed unworthy of study.  Those same questions of authenticity and legitimacy are now emerging in the area of religion and digital media.

To further the project of lived religion, we must consider the ways in which people live their lives through mediated experiences.  That is, the ways people are living lives today through digital media and social networked-presences.  According to religion scholar Greg Price Grieve, digital media has become one of the most important avenues for people to practice, articulate, and discuss their faith, but scholars have been preoccupied with “scripture and the printed word,” and have delegitimized contemporary religious life by saying that the digital world is not real or authentic enough to be considered true religion.[2] By ignoring smartphones and apps we obscure the ways in which many people today pray the rosary, read the bible, or text with preachers.[3]  Just because some scholars consider media new, novel, or a fad does not give us reason to ignore it.

Of course, many scholars of religion and church history are doing this work well.  Some of this work began with material culture projects, such as David Morgan and Colleen McDannell’s works.  These mediated religious artifacts, such as purity rings (Heather Hendershot’s Shaking the World for Jesus), Jimmy Buffett concerts (Eric Mazur and Kate McCarthy’s God In The Details), and Tupperware (David Chidester’s Authentic Fakes) encourage scholars to look in unlikely places for the lived experiences of everyday life.  Scholars such as S. Brent Plate, Diane Winston, and Lynn Schofield Clark, among others, argue that television and film construct people’s lived religious experiences. The growth of digital media has led scholars like Heidi Campbell and Rachel Wagner to study Internet memes, cellphone apps, and virtual reality.  These scholars excel at engaging with questions of mediated religious experience. Even so, we need more scholarship on this new frontier of lived religion, and especially more historical works like those of Jane Iwamura, Tona Hangen, Jonathan Walton, and Judith Weisenfeld (to name a few).

The authentic religious practice and expression created in the digital age cannot be understood without historical contextual analysis and the comparative historical approach that scholars of church history bring to the table.  Productive work creating media lineages across mediums could present new perspectives on contemporary figures.  In my own work, I braid together lineages of Catholic media figures, Catholic comedians, and Catholic news anchors to develop a fuller contextualization of Stephen Colbert, a political and religious satirist, comedian, and late night host.  Because of the topics I study, I am confronted with people’s assumptions about what constitutes religion and Church history.  William James said it most succinctly, religion “signifies always a serious state of mind,” and even many of today’s scholars hold James’ characterization as presupposed fact, using James to argue that media and popular culture are not serious enough.[4]  However, just because it is on television, on YouTube, or on smartphones, does that mean we can judge it as “less-than-authentic” and “not-real” religion?  No, because everyday life is lived in media-filled worlds whether we engage media in our work or not.

Scholars, especially those in my own niche of American Religious History, need to pay more attention to media; we need to see it as complementary, supplementary, and constitutive of religion.  Looking at media is not a sub-interest for those technologically-attuned scholars or those who teach online courses or MOOCs.  The media realm is intricately tied to authentic religious experiences in everyday life and asking questions with that in mind will only make our work more engaging, relevant, and connected to religion “on-the-ground.”  Marshall McLuhan’s adage applies here: the only thing the fish does not see is the water.  In the contemporary landscape, humans swim in a pool of media, and scholars would be remiss in forgetting to look at the water all around us.

Stephanie Brehm is a doctoral candidate in the Religious Studies Department at Northwestern University. She studies religion, media, and popular culture in contemporary American life. Her work focuses on religion and humor, combining methodologies from ethnography, history, cultural studies, and media studies.  Before coming to Northwestern, Stephanie graduated with a B.A. from Florida State University and an M.A. from Miami University of Ohio.

__________________________________________________

[1]David D. Hall, Lived Religion in America: Toward A History of Practice (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[2]Gregory Price Grieve, “Religion,” in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2012), 104.

[3] For more on digital media, apps, and smartphones, see Rachel Wagner, Godwired: Religion, Ritual, and Virtual Reality (Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2012); Rachel Wagner, “You Are What You Install: Religious Authenticity and Identity in Mobile Apps,” in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2012), 199–206.

[4] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 1902), 37-38.

*Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Beggars as Choosers: Christian Canon and Selective Reading

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

Brandon W. Hawk

One of the distinctive features of the Bible is that it is not a single text but a collection: as many others have remarked, it is more like a library than a book. Of course, the contents of this library have been debated from early Christianity onward, and remain fluid for some believers. Famously, various Christians have accepted, rejected, and doubted the Apocalypse (Revelation) of John throughout history; it was hotly contested in early church councils, the Nestorian churches reject it, Martin Luther expressed doubts about it, and John Calvin refused to write a commentary on it. Many of the world’s Christians—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Church of the East—accept the set of books designated “deuterocanonical” (“of the second canon”), which are summarily rejected by most evangelicals.

Decisions about rejecting certain books generally boil down to a community’s shared doctrinal beliefs, giving way to practices of selective reading. Each community accepts certain books while rejecting others, and each community holds to a set of reasons for those decisions. Historically, communities also tend to have fluid systems, viewing works on a spectrum as canonical, useful, and rejected.[1] Notions of reading are crucial in all of this—anxieties about what is read, tensions within the canon, and how to interpret.

While certain ambivalence toward non-canonical materials (often perceived as competing with the Bible) is understandable, Christians have a tendency to hold even parts of Scripture at arm’s length. For example, Wulfila (c.311-83), a Gothic missionary, supposedly exercised caution with presenting certain books of the Bible to his followers. In his Historia ecclesiastica, the contemporary historian Philostorgius (368-c.439) relates that Wulfila “translated all of the Scriptures into [the Gothic] language, except for the book of Kings, since these contain the history of the wars and the nation was warlike and needed its aggressiveness curbed rather than kindled.”[2] Wulfila was not the only one concerned about misreadings, and views like his create a nuanced perspective on how to present biblical narratives to the uneducated.

In the late tenth century, Ælfric of Eynsham had similar misgivings about lay people reading the stories of patriarchs. Expressing anxieties about how medieval people might find the appeal of polygamy in the Pentateuch, he gave the following account in his Old English Preface to Genesis:

I once knew that a certain priest, who was my teacher at the time, had the book of Genesis, and he could understand Latin in part. Then he said about the patriarch Jacob that he had four wives: two sisters and their two handmaids. He spoke very truly, but he did not know (nor did I yet) how much difference there is between the old law and the new.[3]

He continues by explaining that things are radically different “now, after the coming of Christ”—so much so that it throws the Law of Moses into question. This is just one example of Ælfric’s more general anxieties about the difficulties of reading Genesis, but it is a telling representative.

The concerns expressed by Wulfila and Ælfric characterize tensions inherent in reading the whole Bible in light of Christian typological interpretations, which persist from early Christianity up to the present. This is true in considering even just the Pentateuch, which is a mini-canon on its own at the same time that it poses certain difficulties for Christian readers. After all, the stories of Genesis and Exodus work well within a typological framework, with many events read as foreshadowing Christological redemption and a universal exodus from sin. Yet, on the other hand, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are harder to incorporate, with many aspects of these books (especially their detailed laws) relegated to the “old covenant.” This is Ælfric’s point exactly: these parts of the Bible are no longer applicable.

All of these notions point toward the usefulness of selective reading. For contemporary Christians, there is not much use of apocrypha outside of the biblical canon, although such uses flourished in the medieval period. For evangelicals, the deuterocanonical books are rarely useful, except for establishing the historical backdrop of early Christianity. But what about books within the universally accepted canon? I would hazard a guess that most contemporary Christians have a hard time remembering the last time they heard a sermon on Leviticus. In this, we can trace a long history of selective reading that demonstrates the nuances of tensions, anxieties, and interpretations embedded in approaching the Bible.

Brandon W. Hawk is currently a Teaching Post-Doc and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; in fall 2015, he will start as Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Rhode Island College. His research interests encompass the afterlives of texts (particularly Christian works), including circulation, translations, adaptations, and re-presentations in various cultures and media. He may be contacted via email at brandonwhawk [at] gmail.com, or found on Twitter @b_hawk.

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[1] See François Bovon, “Canonical, Rejected, and Useful Books,” in his New Testament and Christian Apocrypha: Collected Studies II, ed. Glenn E. Snyder (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009).

[2] Historia ecclesiastica, II.5; see Philostorgius: Church History, trans. Philip R. Amidon (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 21.

[3] My translation; for a full translation and references to editions of the Old English, see “Ælfric’s Preface to Genesis: A Translation,” http://brandonwhawk.net/2014/07/30/aelfrics-preface-to-genesis-a-translation/.

*Image: Damaged pages from a medieval bible (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 1395, pages 431-32). Available via Creative Commons License at e-codices: Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland.

Ted Cruz, the Gay Jihad, and Origins Narratives

Monday, April 13th, 2015

Thomas Whitley

Ted Cruz announced his bid for the GOP nomination at Liberty University, the well-known conservative evangelical school founded by the late Jerry Falwell. This was just the beginning of his work to prove his conservative bona fides in his attempt to lock up the more conservative wing of the Republican Party. Last week, Cruz spoke at a forum in Iowa put on by a homeschooling group. When the topic of religious liberty came up, Cruz spoke of

the jihad that is being waged right now in Indiana and Arkansas going after people of faith who respect the biblical teaching that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.

While one’s first instinct may be to link to this chart (below) that helpfully provides the numerous examples of “marriage” in the Bible that are not simply between one man and one woman, that does not help us analyze Cruz’s rhetoric here. Cruz continued by saying that people need to be brought together under “the religious liberty values that built this country.”

Both quotes from Cruz evince his penchant for origins stories as authoritative. In the first instance, marriage is defined by how God designed it at the creation of the world. This narrative presents a union between one man (Adam) and one woman (Eve) not only as the intended form of union but also as natural and divinely-ordained. This story is further presented as unified: “people of faith who respect the biblical teaching that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.” There is no room in Cruz’s narrative for other examples of marriage in the Bible (say, between a man and multiple wives, a man and his concubines, a soldier and a prisoner of war, or a rapist and his victim). It is those outsiders that have twisted the truth and are clamoring for a multiform understanding of marriage.

In the second instance, Cruz references an origin story about the founding of this country. This time the story is one that presents the “founding fathers” as champions of “religious liberty values.” One can, of course, push back against this narrative by pointing, for instance, to the Salem with trials, to the repeal of the Maryland Toleration Act, or to laws preventing Catholics from holding political office. But again, Cruz’s narrative necessitates that any contradictory data be ignored. And, as before, by presenting what he is calling “religious liberty values” as being a part of the fabric of this nation since its founding, these values are endowed with authority because they represent a pristine origin.

Russell McCutcheon wrote about the role that origin stories play in creating authenticity and authority for a group in Religion and the Domestication of Dissent.

These rhetorics of uniform origins and timeless principles, of pure intentions versus degraded expressions, and of pristine insides versus ambiguous outsides…are eminently useful to virtually any group engaging in the necessary sleight of hand we call social formation.

Cruz has set up the origins of marriage and the origins of the United States as “site(s) of ultimate meaning” (McCutcheon, 13). It is those who do not respect the biblical teaching on marriage that have muddied the waters and strayed from truth.

We can see in the New Testament book of Acts a parallel to Cruz’s rhetoric here. Acts is telling the origins story of the Church and in doing so presents this time as a golden age of Christianity. It was a time when “all who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2.44). Conflicts in Acts are rare and easily resolved. The most obvious example of this comes in the discussion of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The question of Gentile entrance requirements into this group of believers arises because some are teaching that circumcision is necessary for salvation (15.1). Paul and Barnabas have “no small dissension” with those teaching this (15.2). As a result a meeting is called of the apostles and elders to discuss the matter. The assembly seems to listen well to everyone who speaks (15.12) and James is allowed to make a unilateral decision (15.19). This unilateral decision, though, is also unanimous: “Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided . . .” (15.22). A letter was drafted that stated that they did not support those teaching the necessity of circumcision and that imposed “no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (15.28-29). And with that the problem was resolved. This contrasts quite remarkably from what most scholars think is Paul’s own account of this meeting in Galatians.

Paul speaks of a meeting with “those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)” (Gal 2.6 – Paul was subtweeting long before Twitter). He then speaks of being given “the right hand of fellowship” (2.9) and says that “they asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do” (2.10). It does not take a particularly close reading of the texts to see that Acts and Paul tell this story quite differently. Acts stresses Paul’s closeness to and unity with the Jerusalem Church while Paul stresses his independence.

We see from this one example, then, that Cruz’s technique is nothing new among those claiming that their version of Christianity is original, unified, and true. Many of us who are engaged in the academic study of religion long ago gave up on the quest for origins and instead turned our attention to how claims of origins and true beginnings are used as a means to provide legitimacy and authority to those making these claims. Both the author of the book of Acts and Ted Cruz are using origins stories in this manner. Presenting their version of events and their teachings as since the beginning and untainted, they hope to legitimate themselves and delegitimate their opponents. This is often a successful tactic. We can see that even in the way I have constructed my analysis of Cruz here. I have pointed to a different origin of marriage, namely, one that is more multiform and less palatable. I also pointed to examples from colonial America where religious liberty was expressly not upheld and was intentionally repressed. In a way, then, I too have appealed to origins, albeit in a somewhat different manner, as a way to provide my own argument with more legitimacy and authority.

Thomas Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can follow him on Twitter.

*Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore.

Thinking about Religion and Education with the Category of Conversion (Part II)

Friday, April 10th, 2015

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of posts by Leslie Ribovich. You can read the first post here.

Thomas Nast, “Our common schools as they are and as they may be” (1870)

Leslie Ribovich

What are the drawbacks of thinking about religion and education within the study and framework of religious conversion?

(1) Thinking about religion and education within the study and framework of religious conversion might lead us to sloppily call everything religion without investigating the particulars. My approach to studying public education and religion since World War II is to investigate what the people I study mean by “secular” and “religion” in government spaces—schools and boards of education—spaces that by the early 1960s were legally supposed to be “secular” by the Supreme Court’s definition. However, my sources do not always tell me explicitly what they think is religious and secular. As a scholar of the Study of Religion, I find myself wanting to find some framework or narrative by which to understand the educational processes I describe. There are some excellent models for this—including sociologist Thomas DeGloma’s new book Seeing the Light: The Social Logic of Personal Discovery. However, I sometimes find myself making claims that are too broad, or reek of the desire to make everything about religion, losing attention to nuance and change over time. If we say that education and conversion have some things in common, we risk the potential argument: education is conversion; therefore, education is religious; therefore religion exists in public schools. While the gist of this crude framing of the argument might have some truth to it, the historical particulars of the educational and religious context of the place being studied are crucial. For instance, in New York City, the history of fighting crime is deeply tied to the Social Gospel and other Progressive Era reforms. When schools became increasingly responsible for fighting crime after World War II, administrators drew on approaches previously employed within a context of Protestant reform. Many educators and psychologists operated within a tradition of social welfare that has often been influenced by particular Euro-Protestant motivations. Thus, when describing the practices and ideas evident in curricula, student productions, or educational research, scholars of religion might find many similarities to the conversion context, but we need not say education is conversion. Claiming that the goal of U.S. public education has always been to make Protestants might paint the strokes too broadly, missing the particular dynamics of subject formation in different historical and geographical contexts. Fessenden teaches us a historical claim: that public education in the nineteenth century aimed to transform difference into Euro-Protestant uniformity. However, she also provides an example of looking for how public education was Protestant that we might ask in different times and places.

(2) Thinking about religion and education within the study and framework of religious conversion might make us adopt the view that all conversions produce inauthentic experiences, taking away the experiences of converts and students. Especially because I have framed conversion in this context in terms of people trying to convert other people, we could get the idea that all conversions lead to inauthentic religion. By naming something “conversion,” we would implicitly define the religion surrounding it as “bad,” as Robert Orsi has said scholars sometimes do when they describe “spirituality” as freer than the institutional confines of “religion.” It might be the case that colonial powers and privileged educators teaching those with fewer resources express power differentials and violence in their attempts to transform others. However, this does not mean that the religious or educational experiences of anyone involved are less worthy of sustained engagement. Instead, we can describe the aims, interpretations, and processes of education to bring out the nuanced encounters of violence, power, and agency in historical context, not shying away from their realities, but also not assuming a morally superior position.

(3) Thinking about religion and education within the study and framework of religious conversion might influence us to think that there are clearly defined bad and good motivations for education, and that as educators ourselves, we have good motivations. As scholars and teachers, we participate in the process of education. When studying education, especially in relation to colonial or imperial conversion narratives, it can be easy to mock the creators of standards-based education or route memorization. The Protestant-ness of Horace Mann’s public education can overwhelm us. Yet, we participate in such education. Feminists and critical theorists such as Paulo Freire and bell hooks have explored critical pedagogies of engaging students from a deep understanding of the personal, social, and ideological subject positions students and teachers hold. Calls to critical pedagogies require great introspection and reflection on our own teaching, as does studying education. In the religious conversion metaphor, we educators are the missionaries. This does not mean we necessarily have to stop what we do, that what we are doing is good or bad. But the carefulness required in studying religion and education is also required in teaching. In teaching attentively, we might find ourselves transforming, as we might in studying religion and education—a subject so intimately connected to our daily work.

In these ways, the scholarship on and framework of conversion can help us ask nuanced questions about educational acquisition and experiences, but historical and theoretical precision and specificity remains of the utmost importance. One underlying implication of thinking about education in relation to conversion is that, as an academic field, religion and education goes far beyond the important, but not necessarily all encompassing, question of whether religion belongs in public schools. The questions might instead be: where do particular historically situated iterations of religion appear in public schools, such as a Euro-Protestantism with a civilizing impulse? Where is there complementarity between educational and religious practices? Where and how do transformations take place, and how might we responsibly describe them?

Thanks to Michael Graziano and Andrew Walker-Cornetta for their extremely helpful feedback on an earlier version of this post.

Leslie Ribovich is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religion in the Americas at Princeton University. She is writing a dissertation on the history of moral education, racial desegregation, and religion in New York City public high schools from the 1950s-1980.

*Image credit: Library of Congress

Thinking about Religion and Education with the Category of Conversion (Part I)

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

Thomas Nast, “Our common schools as they are and as they may be” (1870)

Leslie Ribovich

In 1950s New York City, educators, psychologists, law enforcement, and sociologists wanted to transform public school students from one way of being and behaving in the world to another through education. They especially sought out students who had violated legal or social norms, urging students to go from breaking laws to abiding them, from displaying anger at parents to accepting their parents’ limitations, from cutting school to attending. In various educational settings ranging from public high schools to state training camps, students found meaning and exhibited behavior that reflected some aspects of adults’ aims for their transformation, but rarely, if ever, neatly. Attempts at educational transformation continue. In contemporary educational spaces, charter schools aim to teach students grit, the common core aims to cultivate critical thinkers, and character education aims for students to recognize certain values as universal.

In response to my work on religion, juvenile delinquency, and moral education in New York City public high schools in the 1950s, I have recently been asked on multiple occasions whether conversion is an apt religious metaphor for the educational encounters I describe. Reflecting on the question, I have come to think that the scholarly conversation around conversion can be helpful in studying religion and education, if employed carefully and specifically. Particularly, it reminds us that scholars of religion have navigated and debated power, agency, and religious change in the context of conversion, particularly Christian conversions in the Americas and beyond. They have nuanced interpretations to offer those of us studying education.

I have been encouraged to consider: how might the framework and study of religious conversion help us think anew about religion, morality, and education in the United States—public or otherwise? Conversion has no singular meaning, and some scholars find religious change or transformation more useful categories of analysis. For the purpose of this post, definitions and boundaries are relatively fluid—my goal is to explore the various ways that scholars have understood when someone wants someone else to take on their religion, and, also, although I do not explore it as thoroughly as I could here, when someone takes on a new religion without such prompting.

In this way, I am not explicitly interested in whether public schools teaching Bible reading lessons now are trying to convert students to Christianity or whether teaching Ashtanga yoga in public schools represents an attempt to convert students to Hinduism. Rather, I wonder about the historical and theoretical analogues between Euro-Christian attempts to convert and civilize peoples throughout the world to be moral, Christian citizens, usually within a colonial or imperial context, and our Euro-Protestant descended public school system with its goals of teaching moral values. To explore this query, I offer observations on how studying religion and education in relation to the study and framework of religious conversion may help us rethink the way we study religion and education, as well as some possible drawbacks to the approach.

How does the study and framework of religious conversion help us rethink religion and education?

(1) The study and framework of religious conversion helps us orient education within a power dynamic relating to the state and the legacy of colonizing Christianity. Conversion narratives in U.S. religion historiography often begin with Europeans aiming to convert indigenous and slave populations to Christianity. These narratives help situate education in a history of civilizing and racializing peoples. As Albert Raboteau, Curtis Evans, Charles Long, and others have suggested, European and Euro-American Christians identified the religious practices of people of African descent as primitive and not the “true” religion of Christ. In this way, religious conversion and the definition of religion was intimately tied to racialization from the European and Euro-American perspective. Yet within this context, many people of African descent converted for their own reasons, shifting and creating their own codes of moral belonging. In this way, the colonial context also brings out complicated questions of agency, power, and change. In an example specifically about Christian imperialism and education, Susan K. Harris has suggested that Americans who invaded the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century employed education in order to redeem Filipinos. Harris shows how Filipinos were characterized as being childish, immature, and primitive in textbooks for Filipino children. Conditioned by a particular set of power dynamics inherited from colonial and imperial histories, public education in the United States has long had the goal of creating good Christian citizens.

(2) The study and framework of religious conversion helps us understand that children may never totally accept, totally learn, totally resist, nor totally become as the teacher plans. Again, Raboteau, as well as Paul Christopher Johnson and others have written about how resistance and total conversion are not the only two models. Neither, as Inga Clendinnen has suggested, is syncretism the best solution, because it assumes that there are two complete, stable, whole traditions that somehow meld. Raboteau has suggested that we might think about religious change as complementarity: elements of religious traditions may look and feel alike to practitioners. Within education, aspects of what students bring with them to school may resonate with aspects of what the teacher presents, complementing, yet changing, students’ worldviews. However, students will not all learn in the same way, as teachers will not all teach in the same way. Furthermore, even if students express negative attitudes toward school, do poorly on exams, or question the teacher, they may internalize aspects of the curricula and the school day. In this way, finding student voices is paramount in the study of religion and education, as difficult as that may be at times. The study of conversion also helps us better approach finding student voices because, especially in the colonial era, there are fewer sources from the people whom Europeans tried to convert. Scholars studying children historically in the context of schools can recognize that adults’ constructions of curricula are valuable, but students did not necessarily soak up curricula. We can look for students’ productions and presentations: yearbooks, newspapers, assignments, photographs, and artwork. There is a worry, however, that even when students’ voices appear, adults mediate them.  Assignments are always mediated—there is a teacher curating the response and assessing the answer. There are also countless other mediations—parents, local school boards, the state, the federal government, if a correctional school, the department of corrections. Even with such mediations in mind, scholars of conversion in the colonial period have shown us that we can persevere in finding sources and ways to talk about sources that teach us about the experiences of those converting, as we can with students.

(3) The study and framework of religious conversion helps us focus on what education aims to change about students—what they are being converted from and to. In Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature, Tracy Fessenden describes how literature of the American Renaissance framing “conversion as deliverance from fractiousness and spiritual narrowness into an expansive space of freedom maps the religious experience of evangelical Protestants onto the secular goals of American democracy.” (98) She goes further to describe how the literature parallels Thomas Nast’s 1870 cartoon “Our Common Schools as They Are and as They Might Be,” which visually argues that students from different religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds attending school particular to their background, such as “Jewish Schools” or “Catholic Schools,” embodied “sectarian bitterness,” whereas, when students from different backgrounds attended the common school, they had strength in unity. Fessenden argues that this cartoon represents the assimilative force of the common school not just ethnically and racially, but also religiously into the Euro-Protestant secular. Fessenden calls the similar process in the literature and cartoon “Conversion to Democracy.” In the cartoon, the students are converted from their distinct ethnic, racial, and class backgrounds into the common school’s Euro-Protestant uniformity. Many of the educators I study also aim to change students from their distinct home environments, represented by communities perceived to be unstable and poor and families perceived to create “broken homes.” Public education was supposed to teach students new models for group relationships through particular values. Understanding what education aims to change students from and to can help scholars better articulate the specific processes of formation, construction, and transformation at hand.

(4) The study and framework of religious conversion helps us think of ritual and practice as intimately connected to intellectual ideas. The field of religion and education largely comprises prescriptive work on religious education and analysis of schools, religion, and law. While both threads offer immense resources to the study, they think about the transfer of knowledge in terms of ideas more than in terms of bodily ritual and practice. When we think of religious conversion, however, and of course the degree to which this is the case depends upon conversion to which religion and denomination when and how, practice and ritual are often crucial. In fact, the practice and ritual often reimagines the convert as a child, going through a rite of passage—such as baptism or First Communion—he or she might have gone through earlier in life if born into the tradition. Similarly in education, ritual practices are everywhere: sitting in desks, taking tests, graduating in a cap and gown. In schools for delinquent youth in the 1950s in New York City, students also participated in therapy sessions and outdoor games to transform themselves. By studying such moments—who coordinates them, who participates, their goals, the experiences of participants—we might begin to understand how education happens, just as we begin to understand how conversion happens. Ritual practice can also help us think about those conversions where there is not one party trying to convert or educate another. For instance, in born again experiences, the ritual and experience of conversion might not be because someone is trying to make someone convert—although of course it might. Similarly, in educational contexts, students might learn materials on their own or have an epiphany experience quite separate from the curricula. Nevertheless, even in such experiences, the idea of education is palpable in the spheres the person who has a moment of transformation travels, just as the idea of being born again may circulate in American culture.

Leslie Ribovich is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religion in the Americas at Princeton University. She is writing a dissertation on the history of moral education, racial desegregation, and religion in New York City public high schools from the 1950s-1980.

*Image credit: Library of Congress