The 1st Biennial Religion and American Culture Conference went off nicely in Indianapolis, marking as it did the 20th anniversary of IUPUI’s Center for the study of the same. A formal proclamation, complete with numerous whereases and signed by the governor and the mayor declared a statewide Day in celebration, and there was as much jollity at the banquet as one is likely to get from a hundred or so religion scholars gathered in one place where there’s an open bar.
The focus of the conference was “meta”–concerned with the contemplation of the difference between humanistic and social scientific study of American religion. The historians far outnumbered the sociologists, but the latter held their own and everyone was polite. While interdisciplinarity came in for a good deal of hopeful praise, there were enough recusants to keep things interesting. By and large, the sociologists expressed no doubts about what they’re about; the main challenge for them is finding the funding to enable them to do it. They’re pretty marginal figures in what remains a secularist discipline–tolerated and even occasionally hired provided that they also work in some other area, like gender or class or family.
As for the historians, they seemed pretty confident about their place in the world. Most of them work in eras–e.g. antebellum America–where few would challenge the usefulness of knowing something about religion. The Big Question that has disturbed the field of Ameican religious history over the past generation has been whether or not it’s OK to do a Grand Narrative. Grand narratives, especially ones centering on Puritans and pan-Protestantism have been seen as hegemonic, belittling of all the minority and “subaltern” religious groups that, allegedly, had nothing to do with all that. But judging by the nearly unanimous show of hands, the Grand Narratives is back, even among highly theory-conscious younger scholars.
Why? In part, if you’re teaching a survey course, it’s hard not to provide students with some kind of narrative coherence, especially if you’re an historian. Plus a story that’s only mixed pickles gets tiresome. But I’d suggest something else. A grand narrative that culminates with Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and the religious right is not an especially appealing one to the community of American religious historians that I know. On the other hand, one that culminates in Barack Obama–well that one suggests (to say nothing else) that all those minority and subaltern groups may now be climbing into the saddle. Whig history is born again!