I’ve been reading a rather unknown yet compelling book, Religious Advocacy in American History, edited by Bruce Kuklick and D. G. Hart. It’s a collection of essays by several religious historians: in addition to chapters by the editors, it includes essays by George Marsden, Mark Noll, Eugene Genovese, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, and Paul Boyer, among others. The book is largely an anthology of a 1994 conference hosted by Wheaton College (“the evangelical Harvard”) entitled the Consultation on Advocacy and Writing American History.
Although the diversity of authors preempts any monolithic message, a couple of themes emerge from Religious Advocacy and American History, as outlined by Leo Ribuffo in the afterward:
Four issues were jumbled together at the Wheaton sessions, and they still have not been sorted out in this book. These are, first, that historians of the United States pay insufficient attention to religion; second, that scholars of religious history are insufficiently respected by their colleagues; third, that these two problems derive primarily from a bias against religious faith by secular faculty; and fourth, that advocacy from a religious perspective—actually, from an evangelical or moderate Catholic perspective—is not only as legitimate as other biases now esteemed in higher education but also provides educational advantages.
The book, thus, has the culture wars written all over it. What several of the contributors seemed to want was what scholars of race and gender had already achieved in the academy: their identity taken seriously. This is a curious position, though, coming from Christians. It’s one thing for a feminist scholar to frame the past using a woman’s perspective, which is necessarily relativist. But doesn’t a true believer in Jesus want to avoid such relativistic understandings of the past?
The book also begs another question: should these religious scholars have been more careful about their wishes? In other words, it seems to me that religious history is no longer unfashionable. But religious advocates are not the ones writing the important new scholarship. I’m thinking here of Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart and our own David Sehat’s forthcoming The Myth of Religious Freedom, which I expect to be widely read. Does the mainstreaming of religious history require that it be written by mainstream historians (re: secular scholars)?