american religious history

John C. Pinheiro

Why is the United States in 2011, according to a wide variety of measurements, the most religious country among Western nations? This is the starting point of my Senior Research Seminar in American Religious History this semester at Aquinas College (Michigan). To answer this question, students will survey the development of religious belief and practice in America from the time of the earliest permanent English colony through the advent of the Religious Right in the 1970s-1980s.

Every time I teach a seminar, besides engaging in a philological exercise on the word, “seminar,” I introduce students to the topic’s historiography. Preparing my comments on the state of the field of religious history got me to thinking about one of the popular textbooks in historiography courses when I was a doctoral candidate in the late 1990s: Eric Foner’s The New American History, published in 1997. Divided into two parts, one section parceled up American history into eras, the other into “major themes.” Notably missing from Foner’s eight “major themes” was “religious history.”

Why this oversight by Foner? Lack of space, perhaps. Yet it also is possible that like so many other historians who subscribe to Marxian analysis of the past, Foner could see no reason to study religion other than as the spiritual expression of more materialist concerns that might as well be labeled “economic,” “ethnic,” or “social.” These categories subsume religion for the Marxian and secular humanist.

The secular humanist believes that the default position in reasoned thought is by all rights theirs, not realizing that secular humanism, as well as its militantly atheist offshoots, claims an orthodoxy all its own. As an ideology, or what Russell Kirk called an “inverted religion,” secular humanism is decidedly un-neutral. It is a substitute for religion, not the absence of a worldview. The militant variety wants to scrub the public square free of all vestiges of religion, not understanding the connection between religion and culture; or, perhaps understanding it all too well. Yet this is contrary to all of human experience, though it is the result of historical forces even predating the Enlightenment that historians and their students can study.

By “contrary,” I mean that even today, only 2.5% of the world are atheists. In other words, 97.5% of humanity see meaning in life, believe in a god or Gods, and understand intuitively or through learning that there exists a metaphysical aspect to existence that is transcendent. This number would be even higher for much of the past. So, when 19 al Qaeda terrorists in the name of Muslim holy war killed 2,819 people on Sept. 11, 2001, a wake-up call came, and not just for policy makers, diplomats, and political leaders. This “wake up call” was for scholars, too, who said to themselves in history departments around the country: “just because we secular humanist professors and scholars working in European and American academe think that religion is for the childish or mentally ill; and just because we are filled with loathing for the very traditions that gave birth to the University system in which we work and the Western culture in which we live and thrive; and just because we believe in the Enlightenment narrative that religion is for children who can’t explain things through reason and we are all grown up now as a human race; and just because we put our full faith in reason alone to explain everything…apparently some folks actually take this religion thing seriously. Very seriously.”

And so nearly every history department in the country added a “history of Islam” position, for starters. But this reawakened sense that religion was a dynamic force in human history was bigger than this. It hadn’t occurred to the Marxists that if they took their Marxist socialism seriously, and if its principles drove them to certain actions, maybe the same could be said for religion. Now, to be fair, many of them did not really take their Marxism seriously at all, pulling in as they did towering salaries and living in ex-urban neighborhoods in swanky college towns and sending their kids to elite private schools whilst deriding the evil rich and their oppression of the poor and minorities and the bad state of public schools and inequality and so on. So maybe it was a natural consequence that if their ideology really was meaningless in terms of lived action, maybe religion was, too—that is, maybe religion just masked economic and social needs.

Yet, one of the great historians of American religion, Perry Miller, was an atheist. And back in the 1940s and afterward, he began arguing that we ought to view the Puritans as a religious movement. Startling idea! But up to that point, the Puritans for many years had been seen in economic terms by most of the Academy, and in terms of psychological repression (mostly of their sexual appetites) by much of the rest. A few saw the Puritans as an expression of ethnicity, culture, society, family, etc. All of these things are in fact interconnected and the study of this interplay is what the historian of religion does. But this is not history of religion, in toto.

The upshot of this little tale is that historians must take religion seriously as a theme in the actions of mankind in the past, if for no other reason than that the great bulk of humanity took it seriously, and still does. To take religion seriously does not mean that in studying religious history we are seeking out only those believers who engaged in violence because only in violence can one prove that one take’s one’s religion seriously. Serious students of history know that the secular ideologies of the twentieth century killed more people than all religious wars in human history, combined. They also know that Gandhi proved he took his religion seriously by avoiding violence just as Ibn Sina and Thomas Aquinas took their religions seriously when they sought to synthesize faith and reason through systematic philosophical studies rooted in the Aristotelian tradition.

To take religion seriously in our study of the past means first of all beginning with the assumption that people really believe what they say they believe. An intimate knowledge of our own human condition—sadly lacking among many in our unreflective, noisy society—is a necessity in this endeavor. Why? Because it points to the fact that it is juvenile to dismiss people’s beliefs out of hand as hypocrisy merely because they don’t live up to them consistently. If we know and see the gap between our own failures and our own highest ideals, we can better understand how people in the past, who had the same nature as you or I, could believe one thing and do another. This keeps us from dismissing them as hypocrites whose religion was not operative in any way in their lives.

Nevertheless, taking religion seriously in our study of the past does entail pronouncing a studied judgment based on the sources we have. We ought not avoid pointing out that Person X might have been a bit daft, that Cult Y proved deleterious to work, community, and safety, or that seemingly nice Rev. Z–while he might have recognized slavery as immoral–nevertheless harbored a deep hatred for Jews and wrote anti-Catholic screeds. Drawing conclusions from sources is what historians are supposed to do, for history is among the Humanities, and so we study the human person in all its many facets. One of the chief facets has been and continues to be religion.

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