A Response to “Evidentiary Boundaries and Improper Interventions: Evidence, Implications, and Illegitimacy in American Religious Studies”

* This post is one of several responses to Kelly J. Baker’s essay “Evidentiary Boundaries and Improper Interventions: Evidence, Implications and Illegitimacy in American Religious Studies,” which can be found here and here.

by Charlie McCrary

“Awakening, as we have, to a new religious America, we face a world of understanding and relationships from which there is no retreat.”

Diana Eck (2002, xx)

“I ain’t like y’all; I’m into weird shit.”

– P.O.S. (2012)

“Adding more,” Kelly Baker argues,does not solve problems of representation, nor does this address how religion might be constructed in every expansion and inclusion” (Baker 2012, 2). Too many scholars, she contends, employ inclusion as a “telos of progress.” More people, more stories, more “faiths.” All human, all religious, all good. Baker seeks to trouble this paradigm, and she can count me as an enthusiastic supporter of the project. In this brief post, though, I want to interrogate her methods and justifications for her project. Is adding supposedly “bad” religions—e.g., “hate groups,” “pop culture,” “weird shit”—really the best way to upset the telos of progress? Does flipping the script actually alter the narrative frame?

Baker cites approvingly Kathryn Lofton’s assertion that “the ‘how’ of what we study is less problematic than the way we cordon our topics, which is very much an inheritance of our role as seminary church historians.” I do agree, to some extent, that our subfield has developed a “comfort culture” around certain topics. There’s still a canon. But hasn’t that canon been contested and expanded quite a bit over the past two or three decades? Isn’t a study of Italian Catholics in Harlem one of the most important books in our field? Baker’s contention is that the expansion of that canon has been justified by an ethic of pluralism: everyone counts, as long as they’re “good” people that “nice girls” can study. Indeed, those Italian Catholics seem like nice folks, and their narrator gives them voice so authentically, as he follows his moral obligation “to be mindful of a common humanity” with his subjects (Orsi 2010, xlvi). “Including more and giving voice appears the work of justice,” Baker notes, “but does the more in question always have to reflect pluralist fantasies of diversity and progress? What happens when we include the Klan in the more” (Baker 2012, 6)? I too question this pluralistic ethic, but I really do wonder if Baker has stepped outside its frame.

What I find strange about Baker’s article is her defensive stance. She expends more space and energy convincing the reader not to delegitimize her subjects than persuading the reader why he or she should think her subjects are legitimate. This is an argument about justification, about evidence. On what grounds do we include more people in the narrative? That is my question for Kelly. Instead of asking defiantly, “Why can’t I study this?” or “Who says I can’t study this?”, would it not be more persuasive to demonstrate on some other grounds why it’s worth studying?

“The Klan is both obvious and familiar in American history and popular culture” (Baker 2012, 6). That’s a good reason to study them. But what work is being done by that statement? Is Baker’s project tearing down the comfortable walls put up by scholars who “other,” that is, relegate to “outsider” status, people they don’t like? “The great payoff of otherness,” Robert Orsi writes, “is the security of the givenness of our own experience” (Orsi 2010, xvli). But when these walls are breached (or disassembled), the categories of our own experience are called into question. We are implicated. Baker would have us embrace this implication. We have to reckon with the reality that certain “absences, riggings, and cracks” are unavoidable, and that they are inextricably part of the “American” story, and we cannot “other” them, at least not responsibly. This all reminds me of Diana Eck’s “interfaith” America, where the “many frayed edges in the common fabric” will inevitably be mended (Eck 2002, xix). Baker doesn’t want to mend them, but she does want to legitimate them. On what grounds? Because there’s no good reason to render them illegitimate, and that categorization is a relic of “church history.” Is that a good enough reason? I’m skeptical.

When I compare Kelly Baker and Diana Eck, I don’t think the frame, the grounds, for their stories are so different. The script may be flipped, but its outline isn’t changed. Baker wants to strip the pluralistic project of its sunny-day moralizing, but its historiographical outline remains undisturbed.

Charlie McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State. His 2012 MA thesis focused on autobiography and historiography among 19th-century Methodists, and his current research is on antebellum public schools, religion, and secularity. He also is finishing an article on disestablishment cases and specialty license plates. He can be found on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary. 

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