The contingency of American religious history dominated the panel I participated on at the American Society for Church History conference, January 4, 2015. As I mentioned last week, the panel’s participants (beside me) included Andrew Preston, Christine Heyrman, Darryl Hart, and Leo Ribuffo–Leo is the originator of the question above. The panel’s purpose was broadly to take some measure of the questions littering the historiographical landscape in relation to our general understanding of religion and U.S. foreign policy. I took Preston’s book, Sword of Spirit, Shield of Faith, as the touchstone for discussions of that landscape. And while the panel did not offer a collective critique of Andrew’s book, his comprehensive chronological approach to the subject made it possible to suggest why the landscape looks generally the way it does today.
As usual, though, Leo made perhaps the most direct and provocative observation. He suggested that some historians might consider how their fascination with the staying power of religion in U.S. history is contingent on the history that did not happen as much as the history that did. The four years of slaughter endured by Europe during World War I badly undermined religion across the continent, perhaps opening the door for the rise of semi-socialist, secularist states of today. “The U.S. endured only one comparable catastrophe, the Civil War,” he pointed out, “and it occurred before religious belief had been eroded by what Walter Lippmann called the ‘acids of modernity.'” Indeed, Leo asked, “Would American religion still be (relatively) thriving if Gettysburg had occurred at the same time as Verdun?” Continue reading