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Posts Tagged ‘matters’

Why Social Gospel History Still Matters: Newest Christian History Magazine Issue

by Janine Giordano Drake

 Historiographical debates on the origins of the Social Gospel movement used to strike me as irrelevant. Why does it really matter, I thought, whether the Social Gospel movement was a Protestant “response” to changes in industrial America, or whether Protestant church leaders had been addressing the importance of justice and equity for years?

Whether or not their interest in charity and a living wage was a recent turn of the early twentieth century, I thought, white male Protestants were still quite far from radicals. They still saw themselves as the only ones fit to rule in the early twentieth century, and were not shy about admitting this. If Josiah Strong, the ardent nationalist and not closeted racist, could be friends with George Herron (the Christian Socialist) and Lyman Abbott, the racist defender of the Prosperity gospel, could be identified as a “liberal Progressive” because of his stance on science and Biblical interpretation, then the Social Gospel was really just another name for the more “charitable” minded middle class Protestant ruling classes.

All those early twentieth century “associations” for helping the poor struck me as excuses to wear the newest fineries to a public meeting and further allay white Protestant consciences that they were getting richer off the cheap labor of immigrants and African Americans. Whether a “response” or something ongoing or not, the Social Gospel movement struck me as an excellent example of the fact that white Protestant leaders of the early twentieth century were rarely enthusiastic about living in social equality with non white Protestants. As I began my dissertation on the subject six years ago, I boldly argued that this debate on the Social Gospel was outdated and should finally be put to bed. It grew up in a world (1930s-1960s) which questioned what role the Protestant churches had played, or ought to have played, in economic justice initiatives.

Efforts to “recover” what churches had done was primarily apologetics. The effort came on the heels of a generation of angsty working class Christians who blamed the churches for not doing more. Middle class Protestants who were correct when they said that they had been socially active for quite a while. But, I said, it was not whether they were doing something that was the question, I said. The question was what their actions were, and the extent to which they were helpful.

 But years later, I think I’ve changed my mind. As a new generation of scholars point out to us the white supremacist heritage of white Protestant Jesus figures and Christian organizations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we have new reasons to examine the roots of the Social Gospel and the motives of Social Gospel leaders. To what extent was the early twentieth century “Church,” including the economic justice advocates (Protestant and Catholic) ultimately still grounded in a pro-capitalist and white supremacist project? Were liberal church leaders as fearful of the prospect of social equality as their images of Christ portrayed?

We know that some leaders were trailblazers in social justice: how far did they stray from their more conservative brethren, and what help did they use to navigate this world? These questions are especially important to those currently engaged in social justice initiatives in the name of Christ, for it requires this kind of careful, if painful, historical analysis to learn from mistakes of the past and build upon successes.

 The newest magazine issue from Christian History has revisited this old question in just this way. Titled, “Christians in the New Industrial Economy: The World Changed, The Church Responded,” short articles by scholars for a non-scholarly audience address the history of the Social Gospel in a new way. In an introductory essay, I discuss why churches were fragmented over class lines, emphasizing the fact that rich Protestant church leaders had a very different Christianity from that of workers. Next, Jeffrey Webb discusses how converting native peoples and “using them for economic purposes had long been intertwined.” William Kostlevy brings historians and the non-scholarly public up to date on what we now know about the Social Gospel and how it operated in the political and industrial world of its day. Kevin Schmiesing discusses the Catholic Church’s response to industrial oppression and poverty. Finally, historian and magazine editor Jennifer Woodruff Tait discusses the Methodist origins of the Salvation Army in the Victorian British world.

 The magazine issue is free online and available in print for a small fee. Donations are also encouraged–they keep the excellent magazine of public history alive. While you’re at it, check out the other terrific issues the magazine has put out over the years. I am looking forward to reading this older issu
e on the history of Church involvement in healthcare and hospitals. Several writers for this blog have long been involved with the publication.

Revolutionary Con(tra)ceptions: Evangelicals, Family Matters, and Presidential Politics

by Carol Faulkner

Forreaders of Religion in American History, Saturday’s online New York Times juxtaposes several interesting articles. The firstis a Room-for-Debate exchange on Newt Gingrich’s response to his ex-wife’s allegationthat he asked for an open marriage (“False!”), which received resoundingapproval from a South Carolina audience this week. The second is a column by Mark Oppenheimer on how evangelical voters celebrate the large families of theRepublican presidential candidates.  Thethird is an opinion piece on Gingrich’s marital revelations by Gail Collins.Collins and the other NYT writers all puzzle over the evangelical voters’tolerance of hypocrisy and contradiction. These articles also present a unifiedportrait of the conservative evangelical vision of marriage and the family.

Gail Collins is funny and on-target, as always, writing:

South Carolina is probably notthe ideal state in which to be accused of breaking the matrimonial bonds, thensmashing them and jumping up and down on them until they’re just a pile ofmarital powdery dust. But Newt has framed his sexual history — the parts heisn’t totally denying — in terms of a redemption story. (“I’ve had to go to Godfor forgiveness.”) Everybody likes a story of the fallen man who rejects hiswicked ways and starts a new life. Remember how well George W. Bush did withthe one about renouncing alcohol on his 40th birthday? There is, however, a lotof difference between giving up drinking on the eve of middle age and giving upadultery at about the time you’re qualifying for Social Security. Cynics mightsuggest that Newt didn’t so much reform as poop out.

In Mark Oppenheimer’s article,Newt Gingrich’s other weakness might be his two children (his current opponentshave 5-7 children each). According to Oppenheimer, for most of thetwentieth-century, evangelicals viewed large families as undesirable: a sign ofCatholicism, poverty, and/or backwardness. In more recent years, however, someevangelicals have embraced large families as God’s will.  An essential part of this worldview is thesubmission of women. Though not all (or even most) evangelicals share this viewof contraception, Oppenheimer writes:

Today, however, even thoseevangelical Protestants who use contraception — the vast majority, it wouldseem — have developed a cultural respect, in some cases a reverence, for thosewho do not.

Oppenheimerrefers to a book by Allan Carlson called Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873-1973,which, according to Oppenheimer, argues that prior to 1920 American Protestantsrejected the use of contraception as sinful and a violation of God’s order tobe fruitful and multiply. After 1920, Carlson suggests, evangelicals fell awayfrom this belief and quickly endorsed the use of contraception.

A briefglance at the book’s description indicates that Carlson is talking about evangelicalleadership rather than lay people, but even so, his argument is somewhat puzzlingfor anyone familiar with the history of American fertility and birth control.American fertility rates began declining as early as 1760, and, in thewell-known demographic transition, dropped steadily over the course of the 19thcentury. By 1900, American families had an average of 3.5 children. SusanKlepp’s excellent Revolutionary Conceptions shows why and how this decline happened (see my review of Klepp’s book here). What is veryclear is that it could not have happened without the enthusiastic participationof Protestants, including evangelicals.  Inaddition, as historian Andrea Tone has demonstrated, even at the height of theComstock laws, Americans—men and women, Protestant and Catholic—purchased andused contraception.Today, the numbers for contraceptive use are overwhelming: 99% of Americanwomen, and 98% of Catholic women (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cecile-richards/birth-control-coverage-a_b_1220668.html). 

 Today’s evangelicals who condemn contraceptive use are bucking three centuriesof family limitation.
Devices and Desires - Andrea ToneTheRoom-for-Debate exchange asks: If more people considered suchopenness an option, would marriage become a stronger institution — lesssusceptible to cheating and divorce, and more attractive than unmarriedcohabitation?

The writer DanSavage points out that Americans, including South Carolina evangelicals, acceptadultery as a sad fact of marriage: Thelesson in Gingrich’s angry denial and the applause that greeted it: An honestopen relationship is more scandalous, and more politically damaging, than adishonest adulterous relationship.

W. Bradford Wilcox of the NationalMarriage Project believes that tolerance for adultery is bad for women andchildren. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá hope that greater tolerance fordifferent types of relationships will emerge, asking, How many outspoken defenders of “traditional marriage” (whatever thatis) must be exposed as adulterers before voters just roll their eyes at thosetwo words? They also inform readers that “esposas,” the Spanish word forwives, also translates as “handcuffs.” Nice.

AsCollins suggests, South Carolina Republicans may endorse Gingrich’s tale ofmarital redemption. In doing so, they are celebrating a gendered vision ofmarriage and the family in which the man reigns supreme.  It may be “traditional” in that this view ofmarriage harkens back to the cultural ideals of the nineteenth century. Whilethe ideal wife was submissive and sexually chaste, not to mention economically,politically, and legally dependent on her husband, the husband had fewrestrictions on his sexual behavior (in or outside the marriage).  These conservatives might consider, however,that even in nineteenth-century Christian marriages, wives controlled theirfertility.

Gender Matters: My Lesson for Women’s History Month

By Kelly Baker

Okay, so I am a little late to the party. It is already March 14th, and I am just getting around to my own reflections on National Women’s History Month (NWHM). I even missed International Women’s Day, but I think President Obama had it covered. (Historiann, the better blogger, already commented on the sausage fest that is the National Endowment Humanities Medal winners.) Timely, I am not.

The theme for NWHM this year is “Our History is Our Strength.” As a historian and as a woman (I wonder why I feel the need to say both?), this theme resonates. History, we know, functions as a legitimator to claims about men and women in our public culture as well as scholarly cultures See Bonnie Smith’s The Gender of History: Men, Women and Historical Practice (1998) for a rousing discussion of how history as praxis is gendered. Moreover, the reclamation of women in history, the analysis of the fluidity of gender in different historical spaces and places, and the ability to analyze how gender functions as code for power relations are all crucial to understanding not only the place of women in American culture but also the constructions of womanhood/manhood and the consequences of these constructions. History becomes a possible tool of empowerment and agency because of its weight, its veracity, and its power to present our pasts to us. Women’s history month as a concept bothers me, though. Much like the critiques of Black History Month as separate space/history, I fear the limiting scope of one month as women’s month. The tagline in my head proclaims, “Women’s History, just a month every year!” My criticism is not original or new, but the concept of one month as the stand-in for the whole of women’s history is problematic. And it encourages the popular belief about history as “his-story,” a tired joke that still matters. One month a year cannot possibly d0 justice to the lives of American women and women globally, but I will take one month if the other possibility is no inscription of women’s history on our calendar year. I want celebrations of women’s history as history, unavoidable and required, rather temporary, demarcated and different. Women’s history is American history, and it is clearly American religious history.

Recently, I find myself describing my work as not just American religious history but also gender history. The mantle of gender historian is not new for me, but there is a new stridency. Yet, I find myself reading recent historical works and asking, “Where’s gender? Where are women in religious institutions, movements and practice? Why don’t we discuss masculinity more?” When I feel really sassy, I ponder, “How can one do work in the twenty-first century without at least gesturing to gender?” I am not asking for much, an awareness of the social constellation attached to sexed bodies would be a good start. Perhaps, a glance at Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble or Bodies That Matter, an occasional use of Michel Foucault on power, or hell, a nice lengthy description of how men and women in a variety of religious movements practice, believe, embody or “live” religion in relation to their gender. Gesturing to gender is better than ignoring the centrality of social and religious value attached to sexed bodies. Religious folk are not just what they believe or do. They have bodies. Bodies matter. Sexed bodies matter.

My teaching has forced this issue, like so many others. There is new pressing urgency to the import, and likely centrality, of gender to religious studies. Since I am teaching a gender and religion course, I feel like my whole semester is a women’s history celebration while simultaneously a desperate mission to emphasize the centrality of women’s history and gender history to religious history. Much like Catherine Brekus in her introduction to The Religious History of American Women, I wonder why American religious history still seems impenetrable to women’s history, gender theory, and my current pet peeve, discussions of masculinity and men constructed as men. Gender matters, but convincing one’s peers can be a zero-sum game. (To see my take on the problem of women and leadership, click here.) Why, I wonder, is it possible to ignore Ann Braude’s salient and punchy statement, “Women’s history is American religious history”? She’s right. Almost fifteen years after her essay appeared in Retelling U.S. Religious History (1997), what gives? Braude eloquently showcases the sheer presence of women in American religious spaces. Women were the “people in the pews” for the majority of American history. By dismantling the popular thesis of feminization, Braude showcases that women did not “feminize” churches because their presence was the constant, not the presence of men. Braude’s insight should be foundational to explorations of American religious life alongside critical theories of race, class, and market. Perhaps, my stridency rears its ugly head here or not. What I want, if I could convince the historiographies of American religious history to bend to my will, is honest engagement of the impact of gender on the religiosity of American men and women as well as increasing attention to fluidity of gender identity in the historical past and the contemporary period.

Moreover, I want to pass out Joan Scott’s famous essay, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” (1986) to anyone who doesn’t attempt to describe and analyze (or please theorize) gender. Scott’s masterful article articulates how gender had evolved as an analytical tool from studies of women to an idea that the study of women was the study of men to how gender was viewed as a cultural construction. For Scott, descriptive analysis was not sufficient to affect historical paradigms. Descriptive analysis cannot cut it, so Scott critiqued previous models that centered on origins of patriarchy, which relied on physical differences between men and women and perpetuated essentialism, Marxian analyses, which explained gender as only the by-product of changing economic structures, and the prevalence of psychoanalysis, which was influenced by French post-structuralists and object relations theory. Scott called for a historicization and deconstruction of the binary opposition of gender rather than relying upon an assumption that exists. Scott proposed a new definition of gender, which was an element of social relationships based on perceived sex differences as well as a “primary” way of articulating power relationships. Thus, Scott threw down the gauntlet rather than assume gender in our analyses, we must question the opposition between male and female and to see what is at stake when gender is used to legitimate a position. What Scott is proposing is to see how gender is constructed and how it is deployed. She urges historians to examine what happens when someone invokes gendered language. What’s at stake? What’s gained by invoking gender? The better question might be: What is at stake in avoidance?

Thus, to celebrate women’s history, I will be posting blurbs about my favorite women’s and gender historians in American religious history for the rest of March at my website. Please feel free to send your suggestions to me.

[Cross posted at kellyjbaker.com]