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American History Now, American Religious History Now

by Carol Faulkner

I first read The New American History (originally published in 1990) in graduate school. Its early 21st century counterpart, American History Now, edited by Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr, is now available from Temple University Press, and perfect for a new generation of graduate students studying for exams. The essays survey the state of the field, emphasizing new historiographic trends across and within chronological periods. In this edition, included among the “Major Themes,” is John T. McGreevy’s essay on “American Religion.”

McGreevy explains the impetus behind this inclusion of American religion with an amazing fact: “more historians now identify themselves as historians of religion than as social historians, cultural historians, or even political historians.” And kudos to our blogmeisters for this site, which, McGreevy observes, “steer[s] the scholarly conversation.” (And, somewhat surprisingly, this may be the only reference to a blog or other internet resource in the entire book).

But McGreevy notes something unusual about American religious history: “The term ‘field’ may be a misnomer. Fields mean coverage, certainly, but at a practical level fields are defined by arguments as much as by the day-to-day trudge of the survey course. And in American religious history courses, and the scholarly literature upon which they rest, arguments are elusive.”

I have been thinking about those lines since I read them. Do others agree? If so, what does this tell us about the study of American religion? Despite its newfound popularity, even centrality, to American history, is it underdeveloped or undertheorized?

McGreevy acknowledges different methodological approaches, dividing those focused on “lived religion” and those attempting to integrate religion into “the main narratives of American history.” But, as McGreevey writes, the “field’s organizing principle is diversity,” the dynamic and vast “marketplace” of religions.

This edition includes a cheering essay for women’s and gender historians. In her article on the field, Rebecca Edwards states that “The real triumph of women’s history, then, can be found elsewhere in this volume: almost every author, whether writing on a specific period or a major themes in American history, incorporates findings in women’s and gender history.” McGreevey’s essay is a good example, mentioning scholarship by Kathleen Cummings, Ann Braude, Catherine Brekus, Victoria Brown, Anthea Butler, Maureen Fitzgerald, Marie Griffith, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and Amy Koehlinger.

And, for graduate students searching for a dissertation topic, McGreevy notes that “surprisingly little scholarship has appeared” on “religion and sexuality,” though he praises two studies, Leslie Tentler’s Catholics and Contraception and Cynthia Gorney’s Articles of Faith.

What do you think of McGreevy’s essay on the “field”?

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