UPDATE- I have updated this post with my full comments from the panel for those who couldn't make it.
Since my day for a post this month coincides so nicely with the AHA and ASCH meetings I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone. Below is a draft and preview of my opening remarks as part of an AHA/ASCH roundtable on Amanda Porterfield's Conceived in Doubt tomorrow afternoon. If you're in D.C. for the meetings please come check out what promises to be an excellent discussion.
I stand here today with Thomas Paine as my muse. A skeptic. Paine is more than my muse. He is my spirit animal. I picked up Amanda Porterfield’s wonderful book in the midst of my own crisis of doubt. In the midst of my own skeptical turn. It was a very Tom Panian mood. While the field of American religious history continues to churn out well written and rigorously researched work, I had begin to wonder if all of our energies weren’t just variations on a single theme and I was losing my belief in that theme. I was growing skeptical of American religious history.
About a year ago I was having coffee with a mid-career religious historian whom I admire greatly. We were discussing how we imagined ourselves, our work, and our audience. This historian looked at me at one point and said something to the effect of, “I wanted to show historians that religion is a powerful force. That it does stuff.” Religion does stuff. Isn’t this the theme of our subfield? I don’t walk the halls of a history department but I imagine this is what the religious historian says to their Marxist colleagues. Religion is not epiphenomenal. It is not simply a mask for politics or capital. It does stuff.
For example, in their 2010 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, titled “Everywhere and Nowhere,” Paul Harvey and Kevin Schultz described the ways historians of American religions have “found the persistence, continuity, and adaptability of American religion an impressive, motivating, guiding, and ever shape-shifting specter,” (p.131). Motivating. Guiding. Shape-shifting. So many verbals. Because religion does stuff, right? Religion guides, motivates, adapts, continues, persists, right?
Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe those moments of persistence, guidance, motivation, and continuity are actually the moments where religion itself gets constructed. Maybe it’s shape-shifting because it is constantly being rebuilt. But by who? And to what end? These were the questions driving my doubt.
“Religion came to designate a diffuse realm, protected by the state, where people built communities, conceived relationships with God, and lamented the corruption of the state and of profane, mistrustful society,” writes Porterfield (p. 12). Here religion does nothing. People build, conceive, and lament and in that process they build a diffuse realm they call religion. And so, as she closes her introduction, Porterfield proves my doubts warranted. Religion is not an agent, it is not a force, it is not a motivator. It is a realm, a category, a way of cordoning off this and not that. It is a product of distinctions and combinations.
In my reading, Porterfield’s most important contribution to American religious history is the shift from arguing that religion does stuff to an argument about how religion became a “diffuse realm” that Americans distinguished from the political and the profane. It is a shift from descriptivism to constructivism—a shift from looking for religion and seeing what it does to tracing out how Americans built this category they called religion.
So, allow me to quickly outline two examples of these distinctions from Porterfield’s book that will add clarity to what have been abstract comments thus far. I see this shift from what religion does to how religion came to be in two places: evangelicals’ relationships with their others and disputes over true religion. In these two cases Porterfield does not attempt to prove that religion is doing something. Rather, she pays particular attention to how Americans distinguished religion or evangelical religion and how these acts of distinction, difference, and boundary maintenance shaped the realms of religion and politics.
In Porterfield’s narrative, evangelical revival washed away the doubts and skepticism of the late eighteenth century. This narrative highlights the ways evangelicalism functions as a mode of identity construction that depends on distinguishing oneself from others. Evangelicalism is a strategy for claiming a unique identity in American culture. Evangelicalism always needs an other. It always needs something else outside of itself. Evangelical identity, at its theological root, is about being in or out, saved or not, a believer or an unbeliever. As Porterfield argues, unbelievers and skeptics—others—fueled the revivalism of the first decade of the nineteenth century.
Just beyond the period Porterfiled covers comes the rise of the missionary movement, a hallmark of evangelical identity, which was predicated on a distinction between the Christian and the heathen. Even before American missionaries launched ships for heathen lands, evangelicals made the connection between the heathen over there and unbelievers here at home. An 1801 tract titled “Good News, or, a Brief Account of the Revival of Religion in Kentucky and Several Other Parts of the United States, Likewise” carried a series of extracts from letters and accounts of revival combined with letters from British missionary William Carey. One extract of a letter from Lexington, Kentucky describds an outsider to the evangelical revival: “But alas, poor L——, yet in measure stands out, though I trust even in this Sodom there are a few brought to the saving knowledge of a precious Christ. I was told yesterday, that the wicked son of E. D. has been bro’t in the gospel fold.” Sheep and goats. Insiders and outsiders. Evangelicals and unbelievers.
Further on in the same tract comes a letter from British missionary William Carey. In his letter Carey laments the “truly deplorable” state of religion in India. The Europeans are all young deists who “having read so much of Jupiter, Juno, Bacchus, &c. under the name of Deists, and of their worship under the disguised name of sacred mysteries, they admire the words, and call Hindoo abominations by the same name.” Even worse, they are marked by idolatry, luxury, and vice. The natives in India are in an equally “deplorable state” according to the Baptist missionary. “Their worship is idle ceremony; moral vicissitude of conduct makes no part of their system, and may be literally said to be pickled in vice.” This sounds a bit like a evangelical critique of Federalist religion. But even more importantly, Carey puts the heathen and the deist in the same boat and his own evangelical religion stands in contrast to these others. The difference between evangelicals and Federalists was more a matter of identity than theology or practice and it depended on others—those outside the evangelical fold like poor L or the wicked son of E. D.—for its maintenance.
The evangelical identity built on opposition, on insiders and outsiders, constructed the realm of religion in America as a realm of choice. How does a person move from one side of the ledger to the other? Through a decision to leave behind sin and fall upon the grace of God. As Porterfield acknowledges, this new realm of choice put theological pressure on New Light Presbyterian’s to leave behind Calvinist predestination but it posed no hurdles for the Methodists and Baptists. Religion as choice has a downside for evangelicals, though, because one can always choose to opt out altogether, like poor L in Lexington. Hence the need for revival to continually reinforce the right choices. So, can we call this kind of evangelical religion, a religion of choice, democratic if there’s only one right answer to choose?
This leads to my second example from Porterfield’s book, the conflicting definitions of true religion in this early period of American culture. Throughout Porterfield’s book Americans of different stripes continually argue for what “true religion” is in contrast to whatever they see around them. Thomas Paine argued that true religion relied on reason endowed by the Creator. Federalists argued that true religion maintained moral and civil order. Evangelicals argued that true religion was a matter of religious experience and personal transformation. But more importantly, Republican evangelicals argued that true religion was free and separate from government intervention. The evangelical critiques of Federalist religion did not argue about the role of religion in government but argued about the very authenticity of any religion tied up with government. This argument, which won the day according to Porterfield, constructed the realm of religion as something that by definition existed outside of politics. Religion tied to civil government is no religion at all, but priestcraft as critics so often declared it. Priestcraft was a category that tied together Federalist state religion, Catholicism, and even pagan religions like Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism) and Hindu religion (Brahman priestcraft). It was a category for things that were not true religion.
Taking these two moments of construction together, Porterfield reveals how the realm of religion emerged in the early nineteenth century as a space defined by personal choice and identity that stood separate and apart from government. It is this within this realm that Jeffersonian politicians and evangelicals found common ground. They shared the belief in individual choice and they shared an opponent in the Federalists. In imagining religion as a realm separate from government, evangelical Republicans opened it up as a realm for political cooperation with skeptic Jeffersonians. Ironically, in claiming to separate religion from politics, evangelicals placed themselves in a better position to act as a political force. But above all, Porterfield has asked an important question in this book: How did Americans construct religion? It’s a question more of us should ask.
So, perhaps I started with the wrong skeptic. I am not Thomas Pain, I am Francis Scott Key asking if the flag of American religious history still stands. If we can produce more work like this, if instead of asking what does "religion do?" we can ask "how is religion constructed?", then I think I can still see it in the dawn’s early light.