Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Got Religion?

Rosenzweig and Thelen spend the first chapter of their magnificent study The Presence of the Past delineating the ways various demographic groups -- whites/African Americans/Native Americans, men/women, rich/poor, rural/suburban/urban -- use "history" and/or "the past" in everyday life. Their demographic breakdown is missing one critical component: religion. ". . . [W]e did not ask explicitly about religion," the authors admit (p. 120), although they do make some salient claims about the relationship between particularly evangelical Christian faith and popular historymaking (p. 25, 120-123).

Leaving religion out of the question(s) about popular historymaking makes light of three realities. First, it makes light of the role that religion plays in American public and private life -- from political rhetoric to popular TV. Second, it makes light of the fact that religion is the most popular area of study for American historians. And, third, it makes light of the role that both history and religion play in today’s culture wars.

Consider, for a moment, the debate that continues to rage over the question, “Was America founded as a Christian nation?” For many people -- Christian and non-Christian alike -- this is a continually salient query. (Academic monographs on this topic are published all the time, and the question frequently pops up in popular discourse, too.) For some evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, however, this is more than just a question of national identity or public policy. It’s a sacred question about the soul of a “chosen people.” To them, the notion of “Christian America” contains a narrative of redemption and a hope of final restoration -- an addendum, we might say, to the kinds of useful historical narratives Rosenzweig and Thelen incidentally uncover in their study.

When we -- as historians -- take evangelical/fundamentalist Christians’ claims about this narrative seriously, we can begin to understand why “historians” like David Barton carry so much authority within some conservative Christian circles. And we can begin to understand why controversies arise between some evangelical/fundamentalist Christians and those historians who want to “complicate” American religious history -- the same kinds of “culture war” controversies that Linenthal outlines in the first chapter of History Wars.

(Actually, the “Christian America” concept -- the idea that God specifically blessed America to be a “city on a hill,” a beacon of Christian virtues to the rest of the world -- bears upon controversies like the Enola Gay, with which Linenthal deals. Why would a “holy nation” like the U.S., evangelical/fundamentalists might ask, want to remember one of its great “sins”?)

Of course, we can’t begin to reach these conclusions -- or, as public historians, develop solutions to them -- without first engaging with the ways evangelical/fundamentalist Christians use history in the everyday. Looks like it’s time to do another survey, guys!

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