This post originally appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion’s blog. You can view the rest of the responses as they are posted on the Bulletin’s blog.


“When we conceal from our students our hard work, that which is actually the way we earn our bread and butter, we produce a number of consequences. I remember testifying once before the California state legislature and facing a legislator who wanted to know why professors should be paid to read novels, when the legislator himself read novels on the train every day. Well, that was the price of our disguising the work that goes into things.”

                                     -J.Z. Smith, “Duplicity in the Disciplines”

“A new present requires a new past.”

                                                            – Sydney Ahlstrom (1972)

In “Evidentiary Boundaries and Improper Interventions,” Baker argues that our field suffers from a lack of attention to the boundaries which separate legitimate from illegitimate evidence. She puts it most succinctly in the footnotes: “What I want to point to, however, is how some evidence is employed to mark legitimate religion/religions” (Baker 2012, 10). Baker’s attentiveness to these boundaries is helpful, as are her suggested improvements. Baker argues that it cannot be improved by simply adding more to the canon. Expanding coverage to every group for the sake of doing so, she suggests, smacks of an outmoded trust in pluralism as progress. However, since I suspect a post detailing my agreement with Baker’s article would not make for an interesting read, I will highlight a few areas to challenge. In short, though I agree with the substance of Baker’s critique, it is with the why of the critique that I am more troubled.

Baker’s evidentiary concerns are evidence of astute scholarly analysis: “If the “illegitimate” functions as code for “inauthentically” religious, we should push against that boundary to know why exactly legitimacy or illegitimacy still matters for the subfield” (Baker 2012, 7, emphasis my own). While Baker’s observations are insightful, her normative claims about the state of the field and its potential future—that which “we should push against—warrant further analysis. Authenticity struggles matter to Baker because “authentic” religion still matters for American culture as a whole. Yet whether it is to achieve tax-exempt status (Urban 2011) or to secure political representation (Flake 2003) the boundaries of legitimate/illegitimate are not just those drawn (or imagined) by scholars. The fear that Baker identifies and hopes to alleviate, then, is unavoidable because the category of religion is contested in the broader public sphere.

This is precisely what I would have liked to see more attention to in the article. The acts of distinction Baker mentions—whether undertaken by colleagues, archivists, or neighbors—should constitute our primary object of study, regardless of which “e.g.” we root it in as scholars of American Religion. In his recent history of Scientology, Hugh Urban demonstrates how debates over the category of religion spill outside the scholar’s study and into “the streets” (Urban 2011, 4). And, in the streets, academics sometimes have trouble discerning between voices. We mistake the concern of the archivist for the concern of the scholar. We hear a question regarding what “nice” girls or boys study and assume it is about us, when we should instead take it as data about the person with whom we are speaking, especially the way in which that person categorizes legitimate and illegitimate religion. Baker writes that she holds fast to Smith’s dictum about there being no data for religion beyond the scholar’s study. Yet given the contributions of Baker’s essay, I wonder if we should be paying more attention to the archivist and her acts of distinction which suggest how powerfully the manufacturing of religion is beyond the reach of the scholar’s study. This is cause for excitement and opportunity rather than fear. We should be so lucky to have the run-ins Baker has experienced. This is evidence of a job well done, not a scholar gone awry. American religious history is a field marked by being uncomfortable. It always has been.

Rather than a “comfort culture” (Baker 2012, 7), the field has long had a culture of discomfort. Prominent monographs that focus on the Religious Right, for example, do not give the sense that their authors vote like conservative evangelicals. Though the politics have changed, this is nothing new: if we accept Baker’s evolutionary model of Church History into American Religious History into American Religious Studies, then from the very beginning there was a tradition of writing out of discomfort. Robert Baird (1842) wrote to preserve a preferred history against changes that frightened him, including a chapter on the “Unevangelical Denominations,” which was a catch-all for any group that made him uncomfortable. So, too, Sydney Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People (1972)—a book that is now seemingly in the category of works criticized rather than read—was fueled by the author’s recognition of increasing pluralism and his discomfort with it.

Indeed, Ahlstrom’s students illustrate that discomfort is the engine of our discipline. For example, Al Raboteau and Robert Orsi revolutionized the field by writing to confront a conventional wisdom that troubled them. In framing the problem of evidence in the context of the culture of comfort, we risk forgetting that there was a time when Catholics and African Americans weren’t comfortable things to study—much less something studied by nice girls and boys. Their historiographical emergence marked major turning points, and Baker does a disservice to these interventions when she frames the issue as one of comfort rather than discomfort. This effectively flattens major disruptions by rendering them self-evidently non-threatening. Baker discounts scholars like Orsi and Raboteau who sought to write against a perceived white, Protestant monolith that they found disquieting.

Where Baker sees fear, I see competing classificatory schemes that require explicating. What is troubling to me about Baker’s argument, then, is that advocating for the embrace of those subjects who make a pristine American religious history ugly (like the Klan) is still, at its base, a pluralism-as-progress approach. Though Baker argues that confession may save us, I am not so sure. I suspect we need something more widely applicable (and justifiable) than loving or loathing our subjects. As historians we need not fear the distinctions Baker articulates, nor should we feel responsible for making them disappear.