Saturday, June 28, 2014

Jon Butler on Jack-in-the-Box Faith

Butler, Jon. "Jack-in-the-Box Faith: The Religion Problem in Modern American History." Journal of American History 90 (March 2004): 1357-1376.

Butler observes that historians typically have assumed that religion was a vital aspect of pre-Civil War American history. Citing U.S. history textbooks and survey courses, he notes that by contrast, religion "has not fared well in the historiography of modern America" (1358). One symptom of this difference is that "[a]fter 1870, . . . religion more often appears as a jack-in-the-box." It "pops up colorfully on occasion . . . But as with a child's jack-in-the-box, the surprise offered by the color or peculiarity of the figure is seldom followed by an extended performance, much less substance" (1359). The question arises, "Was religion important in American public and private life after 1870, and how should historians describe it?" Butler breaks down the question along three lines: "the problem of assuming 'secularization' in America after 1870; religion's continuing importance in twentieth-century American politics and elections; and religion's adaptive capacities in the face of modernity's technological, economic, and intellectual challenges" (1360). For the remainder of the article, Butler provides an historiographical essay in which he demonstrates that historians and observers of America have produced a rich variety of resources so that those who write textbooks and who teach should be able to include religion as a vital aspect of American history following 1870.

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