JANUARY 13, 2003
Martin E. Marty
Among humanistic and social scientific academic disciplines, history is one of the least secularized, not because historians are necessarily more pious than others, but because so much of the past that they study is so rich in religious resources. Last week 4,000 historians met for the American Historical Association in Chicago. Thanks to three large satellite groups (The American Society of Church History, the American Catholic Historical Association, and the Jewish Historical Society) that meet and overlap with them, religion is "all over the place" on a religion-friendly program.
There is, however, great change through the years in what gets covered and how it is treated. I just checked the reports on the first ASCH meeting I attended (and debuted as a paper-deliverer) in St. Louis, Christmas, 1956. The minutes include the names of scores of historians -- officers, editors, presenters -- and not one of them was a woman or a member of a "minority." In 2003 women and minorities were well represented (minorities still much less so, however) as presenters, but even more so as subject matter studied. Topics in 1956 were pretty much restricted to histories of doctrine and institutions -- formal matters.
Let's sample 2003. A joint session with the American Jewish Historical Society dealt with "Consumer Culture and Religious Identity" in the past. There were papers on "Christian Body Gospels and Fitness Culture," "Learning to Shop in (Mormon) Zion," and "Keeping up with the Goldbergs" in the suburban past. A "walking tour" of Chicago religious sites was thoroughly multi-religious, with reaches far beyond Judaism and Christianity.
Reaching behind the nineteenth and twentieth century, a session dealt with "Why Religious Institutions Let Women In, 1100-1600," with subtitles such as "Welcome . . . Now Do the Wash" and "Joan of Arc: When Arrows Wouldn't Kill Her." One could attend sessions on "Rituals in North African Christianity," and "Writing Global Histories of Christianity," as well as another mainstream one on "Recent Trends in Jonathan Edwards Studies." (The best attended session treated Mark Noll's new "America's God," in which Edwards looms hugely.)
Add "Protestantism and Consumption as Secularizing Influences in Twentieth Century Mexico and Germany," "American Catholics and Racial Segregation," "American Women Religious Leaders," "Religion and Violence in American History" plus dozens more, and you get the flavor. This veteran of 46 conventions asked himself: what will "they" be writing about our times, 46 years from now. Who will "they" be? I wish I could stick around and do the sighting and comparing.
[Addendum: "Sightings" readers who want to connect with an agency that exists to "improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts" can connect with the History News Service (HNS). It provides articles for op-eds, radio, and the web. Check http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/~hns/ or Professor Joyce Appleby at firstname.lastname@example.org or James Banner at email@example.com]