Roundtable Beyond the Protestant Nation: Religion and the Narrative of American History

AHA Session 234
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Room 110 (Hynes Convention Center)
Christopher D. Cantwell, Cornell University
Catherine L. Albanese, University of California at Santa Barbara , Lila Corwin Berman, Temple University , Wallace Best, Princeton University , Richard L. Bushman, Claremont Graduate University and Robert Orsi, Northwestern University

Session Abstract

            American historians, like their counterparts in other fields of historical inquiry, have become increasingly interested in integrating religion into our historical narratives. Prominent religious figures now appear in survey courses; we see theological ideas contributing to the formation of political philosophies and programs; and we use popular ritual practices to convey the culture of an era. But in studying the most religiously diverse country in the world historians have implicitly perpetuated an interpretive hierarchy of American religious life that inflates the illuminating power of certain religious communities and circumscribes or even ignores the historical (and historiographical) contributions of others. Exploring the contours of the Protestant work ethic or evangelical conceptions of the state tell us, scholars argue, about the foundation of America’s capitalist ethos or our core political values. Catholic street feste to particular saints or changes within Reformed Judaism, however, are about urban culture or the immigrant experience—about Catholics and Jews, not about “America.”

             This roundtable seeks to bring the deeply rooted Protestant presuppositions of American historiography to light to challenge its assertions. Historians who insist on the historical primacy of Protestantism (singular) are not describing the past; they are implicitly reproducing a particular nationalist ideology that has long equated the identity and wellbeing of the United States with “Protestantism.” “Protestant,” moreover, entails assumptions about the kind of religiosity that has been consequential in American history. Embedded in the enduring and unchallenged identification of America as “Protestant” is an implicit argument about religion and modernity that endorses specific ways of being religious. Jewish orthodoxy, Mormon revelation, Catholic devotionalism, spiritualist meetings, Pentecostal tongue speaking, and other ways of being religious are excluded or defined as historically marginal. What would it mean to re-imagine American history from a more robustly plural religious perspective—not to include other religious idioms in our stories, but to rethink the narrative itself from a post-“Protestant” perspective?

            This round table convenes a number of scholars who work on religious traditions other than “Protestant” to explore this question of a post-Protestant historiography. Lila Berman considers the consequences of Protestant paradigms in Jewish studies, where authors have contorted Jewish beliefs to underline their seamlessness with America’s “Protestant” values. Wallace Best argues that assumptions about the Protestant nature of African-American religiosity have obscured the spiritual beliefs of admittedly secular and non-believing black activists. Robert Orsi suggests that the way Catholics have been “American” demands revisions of the idea of a singular American modern. Catherine Albanese asserts that though loosely organized and poorly defined, metaphysical religiosities have been a potent “third force” in American history that has inflected and shaped much of what we see as purely mainline and evangelical Protestantism. Richard Bushman highlights the distinctive perspectives Mormons brought to many phases of American history and how these have engaged and shaped the contours of the nation. Though each participant brings a particular insight to the panel, the roundtable hopes to put these perspectives in conversation with the audience to explore the possibilities of a post-Protestant historiography as a field.

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