Pros, Cons, and Whiplash: Studying American Religions from a Home Base in Religious Studies

In the first and second sections of this three-part post—introduced here and expanded from my article in the Encyclopedia of American Religion—I sketched the contours of the academic study of religion (ASR), or Religious Studies, and discussed tensions among its creation myths: who were its heroes and villains, in what contexts, as the field emerged? This final section continues to stress that ASR is more a space for debate than a settled body of content, and it returns to a key structural issue: most ASR scholars float between its networks and at least one other scholarly field. They need to satisfy colleagues in both fields, and do so without falling through cracks between the disciplines or getting whiplash from writing for both. 

The salient adjacent field for readers of the encyclopedia where an earlier version of this article appeared, as well as for my own work, is the study of North American religions. This in itself is a huge cross-disciplinary network, weighted toward US cultural history and interdisciplinary American Studies. The sociology and anthropology of the US, as well as the daily news, also loom large. To me it seems obvious that all ASR people who live in the US are “along for this ride”—whether or not they are happy about it—because they and their students are based here. Some push back against this idea with a rejoinder that students of the US are based in global history, too, whether or not we notice, and there is more we need to learn about global issues than about things closer to home. But in any case, people who focus on the US clearly must pay attention to this ride, even if the mileage varies for other subfields.

 This section explores how ASR Americanists relate to the wider field. When I ask if they should think harder about whether to leave ASR as their home base, I intend to be provocative and somewhat polemical—maybe as overstated as comparing actually existing departments to a stereotype of an idyllic “happy home.” Now that I have your attention, let me restate my question more precisely. Under what conditions might it be a lesser evil—even a positive good—for scholars of American religion to move toward institutional configurations more decoupled from limitations of ASR departments? When should they stake stronger claims for priority inside ASR or shift energies toward programs shared across multiple departments? If you bear with me to the end, you will see that I recommend making such decisions contextually, school by school and scholar by scholar. But if it is time to discuss the trade-offs openly, then so be it. 

Debating Possible Futures of Religious Studies

Without exception, everyone in ASR wants to move beyond at least a few of ASR’s legacies that we noted in earlier sections: unsatisfying generalizations, anti-pluralist sensibilities, heavy-handed Christian propaganda, entanglements with colonialism, racist forms of evolutionary theory, and so on. But there is little consensus about which parts of ASR’s past to purge and which to revise and upgrade.

To this we might add that ASR often errs toward a rosy-tinted assumption that religions are by default healthy and good. This is a by-product of scholars’ desire to present the traditions they study at their strongest and most nuanced, rather than kicking down straw versions—although blowback against such positivity can swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, too. Overall, we might compare ASR to literature professors who assign exemplary novels and scientists who teach the strongest theories.  

However, we will badly misunderstand religious traditions if we treat them as monolithic blocs. Every tradition takes variable forms in dialogue with multi-leveled contexts—and not necessarily the forms that scholars find exemplary or easiest to teach. Probably we should teach that religious systems are like languages—open-ended enough that competent speakers can use them to tell truths or lies, and moreover that true utterances can equally well be profound or trivial, immensely valuable or utterly pointless and non-constructive. Here again, ASR has no consensus about what counts as true and useful. Meanwhile, ASR’s tendency to assert an objective or value-free stance—best understood not at face value, but as an aspiration in contrast with ASR’s past and/or appeals to special revelation by religious people—makes it hard to discuss these matters openly. 

ASR proceeds as a multi-leveled debate about all the above issues. Scholars of US religion—in focus because they are the most likely readers of this article—certainly do not speak as one bloc in these debates, and not all would agree with my emphases. Still I will raise questions that are salient for them in debates about ASR’s present and future. 

Neglecting Native America

For those who focus on North America from a base in ASR, one concern—an alarming problem or an opportunity to fill a gap, depending on whether one feels optimistic—is ASR’s common neglect or distortion of Native American traditions. This problem is worst for the millennia before 1492—especially for the largest and most literate traditions of Meso-America, which in ASR’s world historical frame deserve, but rarely receive, attention on par with ancient cultures of the Mediterranean, South Asia, and China. Less ignored, but also often lost in the shuffle, are contemporary forms of Native traditions inside the current borders of the US. Often all these groups are absent or painfully oversimplified in surveys, as well as low priorities for hiring.  

Insofar as ASR scholars engage these cultures, they rarely treat them as “world” traditions but lump them with small-scale (“less evolved”) societies and non-literate stages of history. Studies of living Native traditions—whether from today’s US or elsewhere in the Americas—downplay cross-pollinations with Christianity such as Mayan popular Catholicism. Native religions appear as noble but extinct oral traditions or as minor footnotes in studies of Christianity. Whereas ASR departments would be mortified to list Bible courses by teachers with no training in the original languages, it would not even occur to many departments to worry about language skills for teachers on Native America—although leading programs would require such skills for a research position if they offered one in the first place. 

On a happier note, ASR’s comparative range puts it in a strong position to explore the place of Native Americans within its larger agendas, compared to kindred disciplines. The question is whether ASR will prioritize walking through the open door. 

Demonizing “Theology”

A second concern, not unique to Americanists but pernicious for them, is ASR’s never-ending debate about “theology” vs. “scientific study.” Beyond two banal points that both teams in this battle have long presupposed—that ASR (1) rejects indoctrination and (2) aspires to analytical standpoints “outside” any single tradition (that is, it compares differences with aspirations to accuracy although pure neutrality is unattainable)—the discourse is notably stale, having largely been sidelined in disciplines adjacent to ASR for decades. Perhaps it is best ignored in a hope that it will go away. No less than the most famous scholar in ASR’s meta-theorizing ranks, Jonathan Z. Smith, spoke as follows about a distinction between “theologically” teaching religion and “scientifically/objectively” teaching about religion:  

[The distinction has] value for carving out a place for the study of religion in the university, but is of dubious value beyond. It is, quite frankly, a ploy….Not only is the putative distinction naive and political, it is also anachronistic. It speaks out of a period when the norms of theological inquiry (as experienced in the West) were largely governed by an intact canon, when the ideology of human sciences was chiefly governed by the goal of achieving “objectivity” or “value-free” knowledge. The most superficial reading of much contemporary theological discourse will reveal that the notion of an intact canon has largely been abandoned…[while] an equally superficial reading [in the human sciences] reveal(s) that the subjectivity of the individual researcher now stands at the very center of the critical enterprise. Kant, Marx, Freud, et al., have won over both sides.

[“‘Religion’ and ‘Religious Studies’: No Difference at All,” Soundings 71 #2-3 (1988), 233.]

This was in 1988, and since then the trends have deepened. Granted, we should note Smith’s qualifier “much contemporary theological discourse” and understand that AAR meetings, as well as many departments in religiously affiliated schools, include confessionally-committed theologians—largely but not solely Christian—who have limited comparative interests and who appeal to sources/methods incommensurate with ASR as defined in the first section. Some of them share the nostalgia for pre-ASR curricula that we discussed in the second section. This is what fuels the “scientific” team’s passion for boundary-maintenance. Still, Smith is correct that there is a wide spectrum of gray on a continuum between whatever remains of “pure confessional” theologies and “pure scientific” methodologies, and that this cannot be polarized into two camps without distortion.  

Many ASR scholars who beat the drums against “theology” consider it a point of pride not to do the work informing Smith’s judgment—neither to actually read contemporary academic theologians, nor engage with cultural critics and public intellectuals whose interests and presuppositions overlap with them. Such scholars often stipulate narrow or caricatured definitions of theology which lead them to posit that all theology is irrelevant—not part of ASR at all except as a fifth column—and define scholarship in a way that excludes the just-mentioned cultural critics as polluted by such theology. Of course, the anti-theologians have their own values and priorities, but their polemics against trafficking in normative commitments often result in paralysis when seeking to assess and debate them.   

As long as ASR (1) includes conflicts internal to US Christianity within its purview, as well as debates involving minorities like US Judaism or Buddhism, or (2) treats ethics as a dimension of religion, or (3) wishes to debate its priorities openly—starting from a basic question of why it is good to study any subfield of ASR as opposed to studying anything else whatsoever—then questions about normative issues will not disappear. Since ASR assumes that the first two issues are salient, and since values remain relevant whether or not we acknowledge them, there is little choice besides tackling these matters despite their historical baggage.  

ASR’s long-running polemics about “theology” have some value for pressing ASR people to be self-critical and reflexive about their assumptions and methods. However, the dubious framing and stagnant quality of this debate also creates distractions that hold scholars of US religion back, throwing them out of step with many of their best interdisciplinary interlocutors. In many fields that study North American culture, scholars have long taken for granted a stress on being situated and self-conscious about the politics of knowledge production. Translating the insights of such scholars into ASR discourse, if it works at all, is akin to running a race with lead shoes. It creates a whiplash effect, as strictures from self-styled ASR gatekeepers jerk one back toward unproductive discussions long settled in kindred discourses. 

Seeking Depth of Study in American Religions and Their Salient Contexts 

A third concern for ASR Americanists is the practical impact of ASR’s drive toward breadth and balance—covering East and West, North and South, comparative/theoretical and thickly grounded, and (leading back toward ASR’s founding principle of focus) ancient texts and contemporary practices. Aspiring to such range is fully commendable as far as it goes. Nevertheless, it has a mixed impact for studying North American religions. 

Consider that in 1965, at ASR’s birth, a paradigmatic department of medium size—say, seven tenure lines—allocated resources along the lines of chapters in a famous study by Paul Ramsey:  (1) “Old Testament” [that is, Hebrew Scriptures], (2) New Testament, (3) History of Christianity, (4) Ethics, (5) Theology [implicitly Christian], (6) Philosophy of Religion, and (7) Comparative Religion. [Ramsey, ed., Religion, Prentice Hall, 1965.] Probably more than one person from categories 3-6 studied US materials, providing synergies in their reading and teaching interests.  

By 2000, such a department had likely transformed into (1-2) two tenure lines from Hebrew Scriptures, New Testament, Early Christianity, or Ancient Near East; (3-4) two lines from religious thought, ethics, philosophy of religion, or the modern history of Western religions, including any specialists on US religious diversity and/or contemporary Christianity—and let’s pause to consider, this not solely implied that Ramsey’s first six categories had been reconfigured into four, it meant that hiring any specialist in US religion at all was uncertain—and finally (5-7) three lines expanded from Ramsey’s comparative lane to cover whatever remaining subset of world history that the department could manage, including Islam, religions of South and East Asia, and the entire Southern hemisphere. Large departments had more room to maneuver, perhaps doubling the recipe—but small ones might shrink the scenario to one position each for Bible, Western religions, and everything else. Although much was good about such changes, still the US curriculum was under tangible stress. 

Turning to the present and future, all these faculty will retire. Beyond unrelenting pressure from administrators to downsize payrolls and defund all priorities in tension with neoliberal business models, there will be pressure inside most departments for further rebalancing. How can Western religions command four of seven positions, if this entails zero-sum choices like Africa vs. China or Hinduism vs. Islam? These are hard choices. Still, for a department in the US, it arguably makes sense to defend some priority of depth in US religious diversity—including contemporary Christianities, although without precluding things like Islamic or Hindu studies with a US focus. Departments that compete with ASR for student interest, such as Political Science or Music, prioritize strength in US politics over African politics and Western musical forms over South Asian ones—simply as a matter of course, however much they aspire to global coverage. Political scientists do not hesitate to prioritize Democrats and Republicans although these are only two among thousands of political parties. If such departments did not create welcoming spaces for students seeking careers in politics or music—which does not preclude either comparative study or learning to clarify differences between warranted truth and propaganda, playing well or poorly—they would be setting up to fail. 

Although ASR could think in similar ways, often it does not. We can easily imagine a department downsized to five or six, with just one person charged to cover most contemporary Christianity (US or global), most Western religions during the past 500 years (US or European), and most American religious difference/debate that the curriculum can engage. Native religions would only be the first of many things lost in the shuffle. 

Related pressures apply to courses available to students, even in large departments with ample coverage. Suppose eight courses remain in a ten-course major after an introduction and a methods course. Suppose four or five of these are designated for breadth outside Western traditions, studying Jewish/Christian/Muslim origins, and thematic explorations like “religion and ecology” or “religion and gender” which might not include much US material. Suppose, finally, that some students hope to focus in some North America subfield, so they take a survey of US religious history/diversity. Let’s be optimistic and assume they bring to it a strong US history survey from high school or college, although in my experience this is atypical. 

This is a fine platform on which to build a concentration in US religion, especially if a student has electives available or undertakes a double major. But it adds up to seven or eight courses. Only two or three are left in the structure of a typical major to address (1) background work in US history or social science, (2) most work on Christianity or Western religious thought since 1500 (beyond surveys) that may be needed for a concentration, (3) specialized work on method and theory, (4) a capstone course if the department requires it, and (5) semester-depth studies of topics in US religion such as race, sexuality, popular culture, Native American religion, culture war, or the history of specific traditions or writers. 

Students may have to skip all these options simply to save two courses for a senior thesis, or skip a thesis to take one course on religion and race. They may need to move directly from a thin US survey into whatever limited depth is attainable for individual research. In effect ASR students are being told that a concentration in US religion should either be deferred to graduate school or be pursued as optional or extracurricular with respect to an ASR major. What ASR “concentrates” on is not much more than global breadth—likely a cafeteria line of stand-alone courses, each presupposing little and building toward little. 

The prospects for depth of study in US religion are not necessarily brighter in most History or American Studies programs. Historians are narrower in disciplinary range, and American Studies is often diffuse. Both fields may be standoffish about prioritizing religion and have weaker coverage of global issues, with their own variants of cafeteria lines. In a medium-sized History or American Studies department, a faculty specialist in US religion might again be a one-person subfield with unmanageable coverage. 

Nevertheless, such faculty would likely not be the only people in the department who read books about or offer courses on the US—a common situation in ASR—and would face less pressure to teach upper level courses that cannot presuppose any college-level work in US history and culture. Whereas ASR scholars who “only” specialize in North America (all of it!) might be perceived as suspiciously narrow by ASR compatriots, colleagues from History would likely perceive them as spread outrageously thin. Here again there is a whiplash effect if one works across both fields. 

Recall our ASR major who hit a ceiling (in time, not available courses) for a US concentration after a survey and a couple more courses, so that a satisfying senior project was unlikely. Meanwhile, a History major with three or four US history courses (including a survey) would be seen to have, at best, a minimal floor under a weak US concentration—but likely with headroom above it. In interdisciplinary American Studies, four courses would not even constitute a minor. Competing with such prospects, it is hard for ASR to follow through on its promise to be a framework for studying US materials in satisfying depth—at least short of planning on graduate school or a double major. It seems odd, and certainly short of an ideal situation, if ASR majors who hope to focus on religious issues in their own socio-historical contexts need to carve out so much space to study outside their “own field.” 

Other ASR subfields such as Buddhism or African religion might press similar questions about ASR as a structure for satisfying depth. Maybe we could agree that the cases are parallel; if so, it would not make the Americanists’ concerns go away. But are there not strong reasons to assert some degree of priority, in departments based in the US, to enable students to pursue reasonable depth of study in US religious diversity and/or contemporary US Christianity? The point is not to require such focus for all students, much less to abandon breadth, but simply to make ASR unambiguously welcoming for those who desire such foci. Today’s students and faculty navigate amid a range of intersecting departments. If the students must seek depth beyond ASR, while meanwhile the faculty members’ interlocutors are as much from outside the field as inside, when does affiliation with ASR cross the line from an enabling base to a straitjacket?      

We circle back to a questions about whether ASR over-prioritizes breadth and generalization, as opposed to nuanced studies of concrete cases of religious contestation. Can ASR, in practice, provide sufficiently robust attention to the cultural-historical contexts of its intellectual work to ensure its quality—perhaps even to clarify the baseline meaning of the work, shaped in dialogue with its contexts? Even if such attention to context is not strictly necessary—although this necessity does follow if we presuppose scholarly methods and cultural theories that I for one find compelling—is it not desirable? If ASR makes well-grounded studies of North America difficult, people will naturally inquire whether the grass is greener in adjacent fields—especially in places where the work across the fence is closer to a cutting edge and ASR people are struggling to catch up, burdened by extra baggage.  

There are pros and cons all around. ASR pairs well with many double majors. Its quality of attention, both to US religious diversity and to religious aspects of global issues, are ahead of the curve compared to most kindred disciplines. Importantly, its methodological discourses are typically richer, especially compared to History and Sociology—a major advantage for situating scholarship in its relevant contexts. Still, we have seen how ASR’s theorizing is not always commensurate with the best interdisciplinary conversations, and how students and scholars in ASR may be disadvantaged when it comes to thick contextualization of their subjects.

The Promise of ASR

Overall, ASR is impressive, both judged by its efforts to promote accurate knowledge of global religions, as well as by the best-case genealogies that we could construct from the various components we have noted. As a framework for studying North American religions—and by extension many other topics—ASR has fine potential because its range of subjects and analytical approaches complement each other in an appealing combination of structure and flexibility.  

Nevertheless, we have seen that some aspects of ASR create serious challenges for scholars in and of North America. Three legacies imply that such scholars sometimes maneuver within uncomfortable limits: (1) putting disproportionate weight on foundational canonical texts of “world” religions (often with Native America left out) as opposed to contemporary practice; (2) building claims to legitimacy on a drive toward generalization and comprehensive global coverage; and (3) frequent standoffishness toward studying US Protestantism and/or contemporary Christianities in other flavors, despite the importance of these traditions for US culture in general, including their specific ongoing weight in ASR (sometimes with unhelpful nostalgia, but not necessarily so). Thus, although ASR may well remain a preferred base for future work in US religions, this is not a given. Much hinges on the priorities and modes of analysis from department to department and scholar to scholar. How ASR responds to these challenges will impact both its future contributions to the study of North American religions, and to ASR’s evolving contours as an arena for wider study and debate. 

For Further Reading

This is a highly select bibliography, designed not to consistently showcase arguments that I find most persuasive, but to offer a representative set of sources informing the above analysis.  

  • Cady, Linell and Delwin Brown, eds. Religious Studies, Theology, and the University.  Albany:  State University of New York Press, 2002.
  • Cherry, Conrad. Hurrying Toward Zion: Universities, Divinity Schools, and American Protestantism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995)
  • Hart, D. G.  The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
  • Herling, Bradley. Beginner’s Guide to the Study of Religion New York: Continuum, 2007.
  • Hinnells, John, ed. Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • Idinopolus, Thomas and Brian Wilson, eds. What is Religion? Origins, Definitions, and Explanations. Leiden: Brill, 1998.
  • Marsden, George and Bradley Longfield, eds. The Secularization of the Academy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Miller, Glenn, and Robert Lynn, “Christian Theological Education,” Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience ed. Peter Williams and Charles Lippy (New York: Scribners, 1988), 1627-1652.
  • Nye, Malory. Religion: the Basics. 2nd. ed.  New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • “The Santa Barbara Colloquy: Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.” Special Issue of Soundings 71 #2-3 (1988), 207-387.
  • Sharpe, Eric. Comparative Religion: a History. New York: Scribners, 1975.
  • Stone, Jon, ed. The Craft of Religious Studies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
  • “Symposium: The Future of the Study of Religion in the Academy.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74 #1 (2006), 1-192.
  • Taylor, Mark C., ed.  Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

 MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it.  If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it. 

3 thoughts on “Pros, Cons, and Whiplash: Studying American Religions from a Home Base in Religious Studies

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