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Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation

Current Issue

 Summer 2013 Volume 23 Number 2

"Modern Christianity is Ancient Judaism": Rabbi Gustav Gottheil and the Jewish-American Religious Future, 1873-1903, by Caleb J.D. Maskell

Gustav Gottheil was a person of great influence in the development of American Reform Judaism, but his story has been largely forgotten. From 1873 to 1903, he was rabbi at Temple Emanu-el, the largest and wealthiest Reform Congregation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. A prolific author and public teacher, he was "a striking and dominating figure . . . in American Judaism at large." He was also controversial, criticized by some for his perceived openness to the ideals, institutions, and elites of American liberal Christianity. One editorialist wrote that he was "frequently accused of . . . ogling with Christianity, of servilely fawning upon it." Another suggested that when the history of American Reform Judaism was written, "ill-disposed critics [would] deny Gottheil his legitimate place," judging that he was "dragging the congregation into . . . un-Jewish paths" based on to his warm relations with urban Christian elites.

This essay is a study of the complex dynamics of Gustav Gottheil's relationship to American Christianity. It argues that Gottheil believed America was in profound religious transition. In spite of the fact that American culture was dominated by Christian normativity, liberal Christians who were giving up their Trinitarian dogmas were actually becoming Reform Jews—"Modern Christianity," he said in 1885, "is ancient Judaism." This trajectory left him in no doubt that Reform Judaism was the "only possible religion of the American future."

Throughout his ministry, Gottheil sought to advance the process of the conversion of American Christianity to Judaism. He entered into extensive dialogue and friendship with scores of liberal Christian leaders—the "ogling" and "fawning" for which he was criticized. His strategy was rarely to debate, but rather to inhabit their vocabulary. He spoke the religious language of the normatively Christian American culture, affirming the cultural impulses of the Christian nationalist vision while creatively renarrating them on Jewish foundations.

Faith Healing, Medical Regulation, and Public Religion in Progressive Era Chicago, by Timothy E.W. Gloege

This essay examines a six-year campaign against the radical faith healer John Alexander Dowie mounted in the 1890s by Chicago doctors, public health officials, and their "respectable" middle class allies. The incident demonstrates the important role of religion in the process of medical professionalization. Medical professionals established cultural authority by aligning themselves with a broader discourse of "orthodoxy"—an ill-defined set of beliefs and practices thought necessary to maintain social order. Protestants used this discourse both to exclude outsiders and unite elites across denominational lines. An initial attempt to prosecute Dowie based on legalistic claims of practicing medicine without a license led to a backlash against medical professionals by middle-class Protestants who believed it compromised the integrity of religious liberty. This suggests that the growing efficacy of medical advances was an insufficient basis of social authority. Only when medical professionals self-consciously aligned themselves with the Protestant establishment and portrayed themselves as defenders of the social order (focused especially on the integrity of the family) were they able to rally the middle classes to their cause. This shift in rhetoric was an important step in the process of creating a discourse of "orthodox" medicine. It helped grant medical professionals the right to oversee the public body just as elite Protestants superintended its soul.

"Just a Bunch of Agitators": Kneel-Ins and the Desegregation of Southern Churches, by Joseph Kip Kosek

Civil rights protests at white churches, dubbed "kneel-ins," laid bare the racial logic that structured Christianity in the American South. Scholars have investigated segregationist religion, but such studies tend to focus on biblical interpretation rather than religious practice. A series of kneel-ins at Atlanta's First Baptist Church, the largest Southern Baptist church in the Southeast, shows how religious activities and religious spaces became sites of intense racial conflict. Beginning in 1960, then more forcefully in 1963, African American students attempted to integrate First Baptist's sanctuary. When they were alternately barred from entering, shown to a basement auditorium, or carried out bodily, their efforts sparked a wide-ranging debate over racial politics and spiritual authenticity, a debate carried on both inside and outside the church. Segregationists tended to avoid a theological defense of Jim Crow, attacking instead the sincerity and comportment of their unwanted visitors. Yet while many church leaders were opposed to open seating, a vibrant student contingent favored it. Meanwhile, mass media—local, national, and international—shaped interpretations of the crisis and possibilities for resolving it. Roy McClain, the congregation's popular minister, attempted to navigate a middle course but faced criticism from all sides. The conflict came to a head when Ashton Jones, a white minister, was arrested, tried, and imprisoned for protesting outside the church. In the wake of the controversy, the members of First Baptist voted to end segregation in the sanctuary. This action brought formal desegregation—but little meaningful integration—to the congregation."

Antirevivalism and Its Discontents: Liberal Evangelicalism, the American City, and the Sunday School, 1900-1929, by Matthew Bowman

This article examines the rise of anti-revivalism among a certain strain of American evangelicals in the first years of the twentieth century. It argues that, influenced by the new discipline of psychology of religion and growing fear of the chaotic environment of the early twentieth-century city, these evangelicals found revivalist evangelicalism to be psychologically damaging and destructive of the process of Christian conversion. Instead, they conceived of a form of evangelicalism they called "liberal evangelicalism," which repudiated the emotional and cathartic revivalist style of worship and, instead, insisted that evangelicalism could be rational, moderate, and targeted toward the cultivation of socially acceptable virtues. The venue they chose to pursue this form of evangelicalism was the Sunday school.  Throughout the nineteenth century, liberal evangelicals feared, the Sunday school had emerged as a revival in miniature, one in which teachers were encouraged to exhort their students to come to cathartic, emotional conversion experiences—a strategy that had found its apotheosis in the "Decision Day," a regular event in which students were subjected to emotional preaching and encouraged to confess their faith in Christ. Though the Decision Day was itself an evangelical attempt to deal with the transient nature of the city, liberal evangelicals began, in the early twentieth century, to redefine it in ways that would better facilitate the sort of gradual and developmental form of conversion in which they placed their. Leading the effort was George Albert Coe, a professor and Sunday school organizer who used his school to experiment with such reforms.

Winter 2013  Volume 23  Number 1

Contemporary Mormonism: America's Most Successful "New Religion," with contributions by Terryl L. Givens, Kathryn Lofton, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, and Patrick Q. Mason

For this issue's FORUM, we asked our participants to comment on contemporary Morminism from the perspective of their respective disciplines, fields of study, and research. For the purposes of this FORUM, the editors have assumed that Mormonism is "America's most successful 'new religion.'" Each of the four participants in the FORUM has been asked to reflect on that judgment as well as on one of four particular aspects of the Mormon experience: Mormonism and the family, Mormonism in popular culture, Mormons and gender issues, and Mormonism and politics.

Our decision to select this topic for the FORUM was triggered by a variety of contemporary developments as well as by the powerful and significant group of scholars who are at work in the area of Mormon studies and in the larger field of American religious history. We thought it an appropriate moment in time to reflect on the contemporary situation of the Mormon community.

The Humbug in American Religion: Ritual Theories of Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism, by David Walker

ABSTRACT: This essay examines critical modes and dependencies of mid-nineteenth century spiritualism. It looks at the relationship between the ritual dynamics and promotional framings of rappings and seances, and it considers the contested location of those practices within nineteenth-century theories of religion. The argument is threefold: that components of spiritualist practice are better understood alongside certain commercial enterprises; that their examination demands reconsideration of the relative importance of belief, intellection, and criticism in religious ritual; and that, in light of nineteenth-century Americans' own critical thinking on these matters, we understand better the ways in which spiritualism itself became both a location and datum for Americans' definitions of religion. The long-ignored religious theory of P. T. Barnum supports reclamation of the Fox sisters' own ritual practices even as it illustrates the processes by which they were gradually exorcised from American religions, spiritualism, and their historiography. Meanwhile, evidence from court records, newspaper reports, and the professional careers of mediums and their debunkers aids reconstruction of a religious movement that consisted largely, for a time, in the formal recognition of its own skepticism and operational intrigue.

"Doubts still assail me": Uncertainty and the Making of the Primitive Baptist Self in the Antebellum United States, by Joshua Guthman

ABSTRACT: Though forged in the fires of the early nineteenth-century evangelical revivals, Primitive Baptists became the most significant opponents of the burgeoning antebellum evangelical movement. The Primitives were Calvinists who despised missionaries, Sunday schools, Bible tract societies, and the other accoutrements of evangelical Protestantism. This article contends that a feeling of uncertainty dominated Primitive Baptists' lives, catalyzed their movement's rise, and fueled their strident opposition to the theological and organizational changes shaping churches across the country. For Primitive Baptists, it wsa their questioning—especially their experiences of persistent doubt—that set them apart from evangelicals. The uncertainty that colored Primitive Baptist selfhood motivated believers rather than paralyzed them. It propelled them toward a community of like-minded souls, and it stirred those souls to action as a more ardent brand of evangelical Protestantism crowded church pews. It is in the Primitives' uncertain selves—not in their theology of socio-economic condition—that we find the most compelling explanation of their movement's unlikely rise.

Yoga for the New Woman and the New Man: The Role of Pierre Bernard and Blanche DeVries in the Creation of Modern Postural Yoga, by Joseph Laycock

ABSTRACT: Pierre Bernard and his wife, Blanche DeVries, were among the earliest proponents of postural yoga in Amerca. In 1924, they created the Clarkstown Country Club, where yoga was taught to affluent and influential clientele. The network created through this endeavor not only popularized yoga in the West but also advanced the reinvention of yoga as science of health and well-being rather than as a religious practice.

This article suggests that the pair's success in marketing yoga coincided with a shift in gender roles underway at the turn of the century. Economic and cultural changes led to the rise of a "New Woman" who was not only more financially independent but also more socially and sexually autonomous. At the same time, a crisis of masculinity led to the rise of the "New Man" as men sought out new cultural forms through which to restore their sense of manhood. Bernard's success depended largely on his ability to capitalize on the perceiveD "otherness" of yoga, presenting it as a resource for Americans seeking to construct new forms of gender identity. Bernard borrowed from the physical culture movement and presented yoga as an antidote to the emasculating effects of modern society. DeVries taught a combination of yoga and sensual Orientalist dances that offered women a form of sexual autonomy and embodied empowerment. By utilizing these strategies, Bernard and DeVries helped lay important foundations for modern postural yoga and its associations with athleticism, physical beauty, and sexuality.