07 Apr

Colleen McDannell, The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840-1900 (1986)

The Christian Home in Victorian America examines the affect Victorian Christianity had on attitudes towards domesticity, or the private aspect of American culture. McDannell argues that for nineteenth-century Christians “the connection between religion and the home was natural and inseparable” (xiii). Christians, Protestants and Catholics, believed in the divine nature of the home and created an American domestic religion.


McDannell traces the development of American domestic religion and its dependence on notions of the family to Puritans who settled in America. Puritans, like later evangelical Protestants, structured domestic religion in similar ways. “They met in the morning and evening [in the home] to recite prayers, sing psalms, and read from the Bible” (5). Religion, and, in turn, domestic piety witnessed a decline in the mid- to late-1700s as colonial and early republic Americans focused more in “individualism, deism, rationalism, and concern for the new nation” (5). American domestic religion matured in the 1820s as the social world of the Victorians witnessed the advent of industrialization and advances in transportation, the textile industry, mass production, and the marketplace. By the 1840s, these developments supported a marketplace filled with affordable Christian goods. Middle-class Protestants decorated their parlors with these Christian goods. Women oversaw decoration as notions of “true womanhood” equated womanhood with motherhood purity, piety, and domesticity. This domestic, feminine Protestantism coalesced with consumerism to foster a culture that prized visual and material displays of religion in the home. By the 1870s, Protestants recognized homes as sanctuaries populated with sacred furnishings that formed and expressed their salvation. Irish Catholic domestic piety developed from the mid-century and was entrenched by the 1880s. Protestant and Catholic domestic piety supported a middle-class Christian culture. Domestic religion also supported fathers and mothers as leaders at the domestic altar. The attention to fathers waxed and waned throughout the nineteenth century.


The Christian Home in Victorian America is one of the first books to examine the material culture of American Christianity. McDannell shows us how religion was practiced in the home with things. This is a significant methodological move because it demonstrates that Victorians in America did not shut their homes off from the world and the marketplace. Rather, the marketplace and mass produced goods were essential to Protestant and Catholics’ practice of religion and notions of salvation. Things and the marketplace mattered for American Christianity. This is also important for nineteenth-century gender studies because it suggests that Americans did not understand the separation of the spheres. The marketplace as man’s sphere was not separated from the home as woman’s sphere. Christians displayed prized goods from the marketplace in their homes.

Despite showing how the home and marketplace worked together to maintain Christianity in America, McDannell recognizes the separation of the spheres. “The home was not only a private sphere unconnected to society but the starting point for shaping the public world” (xiv). For McDannell, the home was a private sphere that influenced the public sphere. This notion comes from McDannell’s use of Barbara Welter’s “the cult of true womanhood.” Welter argued that “true womanhood” in the nineteenth century defined womanhood as motherhood purity, piety, and domesticity. Domesticity, or the woman’s sphere, was central to “true womanhood.” Welter reasoned that religion and domesticity went in hand: “One reason religion was valued was that it did not take a woman away from her ‘proper sphere,” her home.” Thus, Welter separated religion and women from the public sphere and wider world. McDannell maintained this separation for a reason. She wanted to show the importance of the private sphere in light of recent work on the private sphere in civil religion and the feminization of American culture.

McDannell recognized her work as contributing to the debate about American civil religion. In 1968, Robert Bellah argues that American civil religion as a set of “public symbols that define what is sacred in this country” (150). Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann modified Bellah’s Durkheimian perspective. According to McDannell they suggested that “modern society forced individuals to retreat into the private sphere where they cultivated autonomy, self-expression, and self-reliance” (150). This retreat segregated religion within the private sphere. This move for Luckmann and Berger was “functional,” but upsetting since the public sphere (not families and individuals) was supposed to mold individuals. The private sphere took on the role of the public sphere, but this role was mediocre and unnatural.

Other scholars also lamented the role and function of the private sphere. In the Feminization of American Culture, Ann Douglas argued that ministers and women intentionally feminized religion in their support of the private sphere. Douglas interpreted this feminization as a detriment to American culture because it did not create a progressive women’s movement. This feminization was negative because it focused on domestic culture as sentimental and undesirable. Douglas pointed the finger at nineteenth-century American women who supported this familial, feminine, sentimental culture. She did not recognize these women as feminists. The private sphere was a burden to American progress. Other historians like, Barbara Welter and Nina Baym, argued that the private sphere supported the public sphere. They suggested that sentimental, feminine culture elevated women. They approved of domestic novels because they “were ‘vehicles of protest’ which commented on ‘temperance, women’s right, prolabor and antilabor, slavery and abolition.’”

According to McDannell, this work on civil religion and feminization minimized the importance of and influence of the private sphere. McDannell argued “only when the private sphere (dominated by women) attempted to control the public sphere (dominated by men) was the private sphere worth noting.” McDannell saw her work as opening the private sphere to show how men and women practiced religion in the home. The private sphere was important on its own right. It did not need the public sphere to be important. This became especially clear in light of civil religion.

McDannell argued that American domestic religion existed alongside of denominational religion and American civil religion. “By combining traditional religious symbols with a set of middle-class domestic values the Victorians rooted their home virtues in the eternal and allowed the more abstract traditional symbols to assume a real presence in everyday life. Domestic religion, in its uniquely religious and generally cultural forms, bound together what was truly meaningful in Victorian society….To understand Christianity of this period we must look not only at public symbols of civil religion, or particular theologies, but at the sacramental character of the home” (151). McDannell evaluates the private sphere to show how domestic religion functioned positively as its own set of private symbols in Victorian culture. To show the importance of the private sphere, McDannell reinforces the separation between the public and private spheres.

Despite McDannell’s reinforcement of the separation of the spheres, her work is important because it shows the opposite. Domestic religion fused the public and private spheres. Women and religion were not separated from the public sphere, they moved in and around the public sphere and brought it into their homes in the forms of goods and commodities. Likewise, women took religion into the public sphere and shaped it. The spheres were not separate. In fact, there seem to be no public and private spheres. McDannell’s works recognizes this in her discussion about fathers and mothers as leaders of the domestic altar in Protestant and Catholic models of domestic religion. Men also lead worship, prayer, and Bible reading in the home. The home and religion were not conceived of as completely the realms of women. The home was not woman’s sphere. Men also has an importance place in the home. This is an important insight which has been lost in the literature on spheres. Despite, McDannell’s evidence to the contrary, The Christian Home in Victorian America perpetuates the separation of the spheres as a metaphor and reality in order to promote domestic religion as a category unto itself. Historians must rethink the ideology of separate spheres in order to understand how parlor culture and religion were a part of the wider Victorian culture of men, women, and children.



03 Apr

Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America” (1967)

“Civil Religion in America” examines Presidential addresses from Lincoln and Kennedy. Bellah argues that American civil religion is distinct from American religions and that it exhibits the defining characteristics and features of religion.


The phrase “civil religion” comes from Rousseau’s The Social Contract. There Rousseau argued that civil religion recognized: 1) the existence of God; 2) the life to come; 3) the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice; and 4) and the exclusion of religious intolerance. Civil religion for Rousseau was meant to unify the state, give authority to the state, and act as a binding force for members of society who practiced individual religions. America’s Founding Fathers did not rely on Rousseau’s phrase, but the ideas circulated among them. At the center of American civil religion is “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity” (8). While Bellah does not examine the emergence of American civil religion in the early Republic, he does look to the Founding Fathers and Presidential addresses to tease out its characteristics. 1) God is central. He is uitarian (yes, little “u”). He is austere and focuses on order, laws, and rights of human. He is not defined in terms of love and salvation. This God is not a deist. The founding documents recognized God as active in American history. 2) America is central because America is the new Israel, which can be rewarded or punished. 3) American Civil Religion centers on sacred, historical events like the American Revolution and the Civil War. 4) It has sacred scriptures like the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. 5) It has sacred heroes and martyrs like Washington and Lincoln. 6) It focuses on the sacred theme of sacrifice. 7) It has sacred places like the Capital, battlefields, and cemeteries. 8) It has rituals practiced on sacred days, like Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Veterans Day, and the Fourth of July. Bellah does not talks so much about the afterlife in American civil religion. But, one could argues that it is there.

Civil religion, Bellah argues, “at its best is a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experiences of the American people” (12). American civil religion is not anti-clerical or militantly secular. It borrows from the traditions of American religions and most Americans see no difference between them. Sometimes Americans disagree with American civil religion. Sometimes American civil religion upholds equality in the face of oppression. “The civil religion has exercised long-term pressure for the humane solution of our greatest domestic problem, the treatment of the Negro American” (15).

Civil religion changes and in the 1960s was involved in theoretical and theological redefinitions of which it was not aware. Americans challenged the centrality of God in America. Bellah argued that this would impact American civil religion: “If the whole God symbolism requires reformulation, there will be obvious consequences for the civil religion, consequences perhaps of liberal alienation and of fundamentalist ossification that have not so far been prominent in this realm” (15). Civil religion has helped America think and act through its most serious situations, including independence and slavery. The next issue to consider is what American civil religion will mean for the United States in the world. If America seeks after unlimited power and empire then, Americans must think about how American civil religion with affect the world. Americans would have to incorporate new international symbolism in civil religion. Bellah thinks this can be done: “Fortunately, since the American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality, the reorganization entailed by such a new situation need not disrupt the American civil religion’s continuity” (18). Bellah is confident that civil religion can transform as America becomes a world power. However, he is less sure how atheism will impact American civil religion’s reliance on God.


Bellah argues that civil religion is not the notion that Christianity is the national faith. Civil religion is also not Herberg’s “American Way of Life,” which suggests that civic religion in American is faith in faith. Herberg suggested that the increase in religiosity and church practice in 1950s America did not really reflect an increase in Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish religiosity or practice. Rather, it reflected Americans’ recognition that religion in general, or faith in faith, was important to American life. Going to a Protestant church was merely a ritual in the American Way of Life. It did not necessarily reflect one’s going to church to practice Protestantism in any particular ritual or creedal form. For Herberg, the American Way of Life was the secularization of American religions. One went to church or synagogues because that was what Americans did as part of the American Way of Life.

Bellah, on the other hand, argues that “there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” Civil religion and American religions flourish alongside one another. Americans are not able to see civil religion, Bella argued, because they do not recognize Durkheim’s notion of “religious dimension.” Durkheim argued that every group had a religious dimension which defined its overall identity. Bellah suggests that this dimension can be easily examined in southern or eastern Asia. American civil religion has not been recognized because of the way the West defines “religion.” Religion “denotes a single type of collectivity of which an individual can be a member of one and only one at a time” (19, n. 19). Durkheim argued that religion united clans of clan-based societies in its creation of a collective consciousness. Bellah argued that American civil religion united individual Americans in similar ways.

02 Apr

Tracy Fessenden, “The Other Woman’s Sphere” (2001)

“The Other Woman’s Sphere” examines how nuns and prostitutes stood “well outside of the nineteenth-century Protestant woman’s sphere” (169). According to Fessenden, “the creation and maintenance of a Protestant woman’s sphere in the nineteenth century emerges as part of the larger project of asserting a unified Protestant America in the face of social fragmentation along multiple axes, and then of managing that fragmentation by processing difference through a binary logic.” In other words, non-Protestant women like nuns and prostitutes, were coded as outside the woman’s sphere. Nonetheless, some Protestant women “resisted this homogenization of ‘woman’ and put it to work to serve their own interests” (172). Fessenden argues that the constructed discourse of woman’s sphere allowed “white middle-class Protestant women to extend their power over other women while allowing men to maintain their dominance over women as a class” (184). It allowed white Protestant men and women to protect and frame their hegemony over religious, racial, and class formations. Men, particularly those in the emerging medical field, biologized the woman’s sphere so that working outside the home was considered a criminal act. Protestant women working in factories, sales, or other jobs were considered dangerous like nuns and prostitutes who worked outside the home. One medical publication stated “A woman who works outside the home commits a biological crime against herself and her community.” Men deployed the ideology of biologized spheres to keep women out of public occupations.  The woman’s sphere came to be seen as separate from the marketplace.


Fessenden’s work is significant because she recognizes the woman’s sphere as an ideological construction by Protestants. Few scholars have recognized this religious aspect of the woman’s sphere. Fessdenden notes, “The widespread critical unwillingness to engage religion as a category of identity alongside or encoded within race or class also elide the ways that female power, whether represented as belonging to or transcending woman’s sphere, has frequently been organized as power over (and at the expense of) women whose racial, class, and religious identities set them in ambiguous relation to dominant and implicitly white, middle-class, and Protestant ideologies of womanhood.” Recognizing the woman’s sphere as a particularly Protestant construction allows scholars to recognize the relationships between religion, class, and race in the nineteenth century. It allows scholars to analyze the ways that Protestants deployed the woman’s sphere against non-Protestants, non-whites, and the lower classes.

Despite these insights, Fessenden’s work lacks a historiography of the ideology of woman’s sphere. It is not clear which historians Fessenden draws on to evoke and elaborate the definition and ideology of the woman’s sphere and the separate spheres. This is problematic because Fessenden invokes both phrases in ways that historians have already elaborated and/or cautioned against. For example, Fessenden suggests “As sites for probing the boundaries of private and public spaces, behaviors and roles, the figures of nun and prostitute both vex and bolster nineteenth-century constructions of legitimate femininity as domestic, maternal, pious, and separate from the workings of the market.” The idea that separate sphere ideology was metaphorical, or a construction, was supported by Linda K. Kerber in “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place.” Moreover, the argument that this ideological construction separated women’s domestic life from public or industrial life has been argued by Jeanne Boydston in Home & Work. Neither of these scholars’ work appear in Fessenden’s notes. This makes it hard to trace what exactly is new and important about Fessenden’s elaboration of the woman’s sphere and the separate spheres. I suggest that the importance of this work emerges in its suggestion that men and women used the ideology of the woman’s sphere to talk about “the other,” or nuns and prostitutes. This work is also important because it argues that the emerging medical field, not just industrialization (See Boydston) worked to create the ideology of separate spheres. More importantly, this article suggests that the woman’s sphere promoted Protestant ways of understanding women, as well as Protestant women’s actions in society and their construction of “the other.” Few historians have recognized the religious dimension of the ideology of the woman’s sphere and how Protestant women  and men deployed this phrase to and against women.

31 Mar

Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955)

Will Herberg was an historian of American religion and a sociologist in the mid-twentieth century. Herberg published Protestant, Catholic, Jew in 1955. This book examined the increase in American religiosity and church membership after WWII. Herberg argued that the majority of Americans defined themselves either Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. But, these American did not focus too much on creeds and theologies. Instead, they promoted religion as Americans’ faith in faith. Herberg called this the “American Way of Life.” Herberg’s work foregrounded the relationship between religion and nationalism, what scholars today refer to as American Civil Religion.


In the 1950s, Americans appeared more religious than ever before. According to recent polls, the majority of Americans identified themselves as either Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. Church membership numbers had increased dramatically. Money spent on church construction also increased. Polls also suggested that Americans recognized religious leaders as the ones doing the most good for the country. Religion and the church gained respectability in American social life and politics. American used religion to talk about the “Godless” Communists. Americans also expected public officials to “testify to [their] high esteem for religion. Herberg argues that Americans recognized “religion as a ‘value’ or institution” in American life. Moreover, religion gained a new intellectual prestige in cultural life. Philosophers and theologians were successful in selling their “religious books” as many of them made the best-sellers lists. Religious ideas and topics were also popular in journals of literature, politics, and art. What did this new esteem of religion mean?

Herberg argued that despite people’s profession of religion, they were not actually more religious in any denominational or creedal sense. Rather, Americans’ increased religiosity was evidence of a common religion. Herberg defined America’s common religion as “the American Way of Life.” Robin M. Williams Jr.’s defined “common religion” as common ideas, rituals, and symbols that supplied an overarching sense of unity. According to Herberg, “The American Way of Life is, at bottom, a spiritual structure, a structure of ideas and ideals, of aspirations and values, of beliefs and standards; it synthesizes all that commends itself to the American as the right, the good, and the true in actual life.” The American Way of Life was “an organic structure of ideas, values, and beliefs that constitute a faith common to Americans and genuinely operative in their lives, a faith that markedly influences, and is in influenced by, the ‘official’ religions of American society.” The American Way of Life provided an undergirding unity among Americans with a particular value system as its center. This center upheld certain characteristics as foundational to American life: democracy, the Constitution, free enterprise, equalitarianism, economic competition, high mobility, idealism, individualism, “deeds, not creed,” progress, self-reliance, character, optimism, moralism, and activism. This American Way of Life “is, of course, anchored in the American’s vision of America.” Americans looked to the Puritans who defined America as “the new Israel” and “the Promised Land.” The American Way of Life was also a middle-class way of life. American perceive themselves as a middle-class people. Most importantly the American Way of Life had been shaped by American Protestantism.

Hererg argued that historical religions in America had been “Americanized” and imbibed these qualities.  The American Way of Life had secularized Judaism and Christianity so that they had become “integrated as parts with a larger whole defined by the American Way of Life.”  The American Way of Life promoted the belief of faith in faith. Americans held a common religion based on the elevation of religion as a value. Americans believed in the goodness of religion in general. Herberg attributes the seeming increase in piety, religiosity, and church membership to Americans’ participation in the American Way of Life. Practicing individual religion was a ritual in the American Way of Life.

For Herberg, the American Way of Life was detrimental to Judaism and Christianity. Herberg argues that the American Way of Life looked like the “civic religion of the American people.” According to Herberg, “civic religion has always meant the sanctification of the society and culture of which it is the reflection, and that is one of the reasons why Jewish-Christian faith has always regarded such religion as incurably idolatrous. Civil religion is a religion which validates culture and society, without in any sense bringing them under judgment.” Herberg calls for Americans to recognize the wrong in the American Way of Life, of common religion. He urges Americans to separate common religion from “real” religion. The American Way of Life opposes major tenets of the Jewish-Christian faith. The American Way of Life is too man-centered. There is no sense of the transcendent God and there is no sense of the “nothingness of man.” The American Way of Life promotes a religion that mobilizes God to serve man, instead of mobilizing man to server God. The American Way of Life does not call man to seek humility or his consciousness. Rather, “it is something that assures him about the essential rightness of everything American, his nation, his culture, and himself; something that validates his goals and his ideals instead of calling them into question…[it] offers him salvation in easy terms instead of demanding repentance and a ’broken heart.” For Herberg, the American Way of Life was “a strong and pervasive idolatrous element” in America. American civic religion had co-opted the Jewish-Christian faith in America. American civic religion was at odds with American religions. American civic religion was immoral and bad for the American people.

28 Mar

Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth (2005)

In Between Heaven and Earth, Robert A. Orsi argues that religious worlds are made by men, women, and children in relationships with each other and special beings. Religious idioms are intersubjective in that they are real, personal experiences shared among any number of networks of people. Intersubjectivity is understood as: 1) the nature of particular social, cultural and religious identities and realities (bonds of love/hate); and 2) the balance of familiarity/difference in the relationship between the researcher and his/her subject(s).

Orsi suggests that religion is not a “web of meanings but of relationships” and cannot be labeled with dichotomies. Scholars must move beyond the secularization thesis and the “from-to” paradigm of modernity. Belief is the wrong question to ask and the “realness” of religious idioms should be understood as real in experience, practice, and relationships. Orsi explains these ideas in the stories about Sal. These illustrate the relationships between handicapped people, other Catholics, and the saints who embody suffering. While handicapped people were made models of suffering and purity like certain Saints, this fantasy marginalized the lives and actual suffering of the “cripples.” This fantasy obscured their unequal relationships.

In chapter two Orsi examines the presence of Mary among the devout in pre- and post-Vatican II. Orsi explains the presence of Mary after Vatican II as: 1) psychological in that people placed Mary as a mediator in their lived relationships and experiences; 2) social in that Mary is a cultural figure who makes and is made by culture; 3) a symbol of American and other cultural/ethnic identities; and 4) emotional in that Mary’s emotions reflected those of the devout. The presence of Mary is not something that is either true or false, but her presence and people’s engagement with her reflect “the daily circumstances of their lives.” Her presence alters lived experiences and relationships through art, prayer, and history.

Chapter three considers how adults made the presence of God material in children’s bodies and imaginations. Like the holiness associated with “cripples,” the holiness imbued in children made them vulnerable, objects of desire, and idealized childhood. These experiences shaped relationships among children and adults to create American Catholicism.

Chapter four relates the hagiographical accounts of Saint Gemma Galgani and stories about Orsi’s grandmother. In these stories, heaven and earth not only reflect one another, but are made in relation to one another (diptych). “Meaning making” is a linear process and does not take into account that the lives of people can be made by meaning in stories. Orsi suggests that the “meaning making subject” be replaced with “a more tragic figure whose engagements in the world…proceed through media that may embody meaning against him or her.”

In chapter five Orsi examines the relationship between the researcher and subject. The study of religion is the study of relationships that use, make, or re-make religious idioms in particular cultural, historical and political contexts. To study or interpret a culture means to be engaged with the people in the culture and their conversations; to understand religion as dialectics. Orsi understands that while he cannot pray to Saint Jude like Clara, he can experience the feelings of loss and hope that she does. In this case, scholars should rethink the boundaries of “us/them” in research and realize that while there are differences there are also similarities among the researcher and his/her subject. Difference does not mean otherness. This intersubjectivity will help scholars understand religious ways of living and the researcher’s relationship to them.

In chapter six, Orsi traces the history of religion in the West and in the American academy. Scholars must understand how this history impacts their research. The evangelical and postcolonial critiques present compelling challenges, but ultimately re-establish boundaries in their work (like Covington with the snake-handlers). Orsi proposes a third position where the goal of research is to get beyond “otherizing” by disciplining one’s mind and heart to stay in the “in-between place.” This position is transformative in that the scholar must go beyond understanding religion as ethical, and not affirm or deny the studied religion. Scholars should proceed in their research with risk, suspension, and engagement. Haberman’s fieldwork maintains this third position. Religious witnessing is not for the university classroom since the expectation is for discussion, analysis and open exchange. Religious worlds and their morals must be studied through the lived experiences and stories between people and their gods.