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.

Summary

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.

Historiography

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.

Summary

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.

Historiography

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.

03 Apr

Matthew Dennis, “Patriotic Remains: Bones of Contention in the Early Republic” (2003)

“Patriotic Remains” explores how early Americans treated the bones of Native Americans, patriots from the American Revolution, and George Washington. These bones were wrapped in political and cultural meaning and used to construct and practice nationalism in the early American Republic.

Summary

Americans, like Thomas Jefferson, dug up the bones of Native Americans that rested in mounds. Disposing of these bones cleared the way for an American heritage and claim to the land. The Tammany Society worked in New York to have the bones of soldiers from the American Revolution entombed. These bones haunted New Yorkers because they belonged to soldiers who had been held prisoner and died aboard British ships anchored off the coast. After the war, the ships were abandoned along with the dead and their bones. The ships eventually sank and the bones washed ashore. The bones remained on shore until the early 1800s. The Tammany Society argued that if the remains of Washington could be entombed then so could ordinary war heroes. According to Dennis, “These remains became holy objects, which served to promote patriotic memory and and national feeling.” The bones were interred, but their importance and memory waxed and waned through American history. The burial and interment of Washington’s bones were no less controversial. The nation went into mourning at the death of Washington. Americans held mock funerals, elegies, and processions to honor Washington. Congress called for his entombment at the Capital. Some Democratic-Republicans, however, argued that such ostentatious display of mourning and memorializing were unsuited to a republican form of government. Republicans and Federalists argued over whither public funds should pay for memorials to Washington. Washington was eventually buried at Mount Vernon, not the Capital. Dennis concludes that “Bones and the nation are linked symbolically: graves of ancestors stake claims to the national landscape and its history. They are political relics, deployed (though not always self-consciously) to gain control of the nation’s collective memory, and in support of particular cultural and political agendas” (148).

Things to Think About

  • John Adams criticized the emerging cult of Washington. He wrote to Benjamin Rush: “When my parson says, ‘Let us sing to the praise and glory of G.W.,’ your church will adopt a new collect in its liturgy and say ‘Sancte Washington, ora pro noobis.” Adams added that if Congress had agreed to fund the Washington mausoleum, he would have been “obliged to do the most unpopular act of my whole unpopular life by sending it back with a negative and reasons.” See Dennis, “Patriotic Remains,” 143.
  • Given the controversies over memorializing Washington with federal funds, Congress rejected the Tammany Society’s request for money to bury the New York patriots. A congressman wrote to the Tammany Society, “some are of the opinion that Congress ought not to appropriate public money for such purposes,” and others believed the art of printing “has superseded the use and intention of monuments.” See Dennis, “Patriotic Remains,” 144.
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.

Summary

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.

23 Mar

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April 1963. The Birmingham Campaign called for marches, sit-ins, and nonviolent direct action against continued segregation and racial violence in Birmingham. The Birmingham court issued injunctions against these protests. African Americans continued their protests and many were arrested and jailed for their participation, including Martin Luther King, Jr. While in jail King’s allies smuggled in newspapers that commented on the events. One article was “A Call for Unity” written by eight white, liberal ministers. The white ministers opposed King’s actions and called on King and his supporters to desist in their nonviolent resistance. The ministers argued that the justice system would eventually work out the issues of segregation and racial violence.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” addressed and responded to the complacency of these white ministers. King wrote the letter on the margins of newspapers, scrap papers, and a legal notepad. The bits of paper were smuggled out of the jail by King’ supporters and edited. Excerpts of the letter were published in May 1963 in the New York Post Magazine. The full letter, titled “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” was published in June 1963 in Liberation and The Christian Century. The letter was also published under the title “The Negro is Your Brother” in July 1963 in the Atlantic Monthly. King also included the letter in his book Why We Can’t Wait in 1964.

Summary

King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” reminded the white ministers he had been invited to Birmingham to engage in a nonviolent direct action program. King had organizational ties to the area. Moreover, King noted “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here….Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Thus, King argued that he and protestors were not “outsiders,” as the white ministers had suggested. They had a right as guests, promoters of justice, and citizens of the United States to be in Birmingham.

The letter then addressed why it was exigent for civil rights supports to be in Birmingham in the first place. Birmingham was one of the most thoroughly segregated cities in the United States. Previous attempts and promises of desegregation proved futile. Businesses had not removed racial signs from stores as had been promised. Thus, King and others’ nonviolent direct action was meant “to create such a crisis and creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

King also responded to the white ministers’ accusations that the protests were untimely. King reminded the white ministers that the new government administration in Birmingham needed to be prodded in the right direct. Moreover, King argued that there was no better time. African Americans “have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.” The time was right because African American had already waited too long for justice.

The letter also challenged the white ministers’ notions of “just laws.” King reminded the ministers that just laws were man-made laws that squared with moral law or God’s law. Unjust laws were man-made laws that did not support God’s law. King invoked Saint Thomas Augustine, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich in his explanations of just laws. These invocations showed white ministers that King had been trained as a theologian like them. He could invoke “great” theologians just as they could to make arguments about Christian justice. King also invoked constitutional rights of citizens and the Biblical story of the Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace to support notions of Christian justice and protest.

King also indicted the white ministers on accounts of their complacency. King noted, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order,’ than to justice.” White liberal ministers and Christians were lukewarm in their commitments to civil rights. According to King, “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

The letter also reminded the white ministers that King and protestors’ actions were not meant to induce violence. Condemning nonviolent protests because they might precipitate violent was like “condemning the robbed man because his possessions of money precipitated the evil act of robbery.” This was illogical. Moreover, King also reminded the white ministers that he and the nonviolent protestors were not the violent ones whites should be worried about. King argued that he “stood in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community.” One force was the “complacency made up of Negroes.” The other force was “one of bitterness and hatred, and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement.” King urged white ministers to recognize that there was another, “more violent” black movement. King argued that he and the white ministers had a common goal: Christian peace and justice.

Nevertheless, King reminded the white ministers that he was “greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership.” He called white ministers and Christians to reform the church, “I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.” In the event that the church and Christians could not meet the challenge, King relied on American ideals to uphold justice for African Americans.

King lauded the American ideal of freedom because it would help African Americans achieve freedom and justice. According to King, “We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is Freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.” Elsewhere King noted, “We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” King recognized that American Civil Religion and Christianity ensured the freedom and justice of African Americans.

King closed his letter “as a fellow clergyman and Christian Brother,” “not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader.” King called white liberal ministers to live up to their Christian faith and to take a stand on injustice in America.

See full text of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 12 June 1963, The Christian Century, 767-773.