Religion and Diversity in American Society:
An Interdisciplinary Approach

An NEH Summer Institute, 1996

was sponsored by

Magill Library Special Collections


the Department of History

at Haverford College

and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities


This five-week Institute was designed to offer college teachers an opportunity to explore ways to broaden the boundaries of intellectual discourse on religion in a "non-religious" society and to provide participants, from several disciplines and from different kinds of institutions of higher education, the opportunity to develop a vocabulary and a bibliography with which to integrate perspectives on religion into humanities courses. The program and local arrangements were designed and carried out by Institute Director Emma J. Lapsansky, and administrative assistant, Dickson Werner.

The Institute sought to explore the diversity of some of the religous expression in American society. The focus was not one of "comparative religions"; the emphasis was not so much on how various groups have arrived at their beliefs, but rather on how those beliefs have shaped the relationships between various sub-cultures and the dominant American society's social, economic, educational, political and/or regional institutions. We did not attempt to be exhaustive. Many mainstream religions as well as marginal ones were omitted. The aim was to present some models of the interplay between mainstream ideas and the belief systems that have inhabited the margins of American religious thought, and to encourage college faculty to integrate some of these ideas into our regular curricula.

Each week was organized by a theme, around which the lecturers focused discussions of their own research and perspectives, with examples of reading that might be used with students in the classroom. In addition thelecturers led group sessions and workshops designed to assist Institute participants in building bibliographies and syllabi that incorporate some of these themes. To assure continuity and coherence to the discussions, each week one of the lecturers spent the full week on campus, serving as "resident scholar" for that week's theme.

Within the five weekly themes, lecturers were scheduled to be present on two consecutive days, to lecture on one day, and to participate in free-flowing discussions on a second day . A third "resident scholar" was in residence for a full week, to insure continuity in the themes.

Wednesdays and Fridays were reserved for independent study, for individual research in the college's library or other repositories, and for individual consultations with lecturers.

Week I Power Struggles at the Margins

Lapsansky, Chireau, Ransom, Karlsen as resident scholar

While Americans have been tolerant, even ostensibly proud, of religious diversity and the separation between church and state, dominant voices and political boundaries have been tacitly set by mainstream Protestantism. There has been mistrust of traditions that diverge from this. Nevertheless, minority voices have continued to be important, not only to the shaping of lives of minority group members, but also to shaping majority voices and behaviors. In this week we examined some of the recent scholarship on the interplay between majority and minority cultures. The conversation centered around aspects of the meaning of minority status in a theoretical way, and on some examples of the social phenomenon of minority status in American culture.

We read selections from:

Ann Braude, "Women's History Is American Religious History, " in Thomas A. Tweed, ed., Narrating U. S. Relligious History.

Abdul JanMohamed, The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse

Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain.

Jill Neimark, "Shaman in Chicago: Religious Transcendence or Midlife Crisis?" Psychology Today, (Sept/Oct, 1993)

Rosemary Radford Ruether and Rosemary Skinner Keller, Women and Religion in America.

Leslie Silko, "An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts:..." from Geary Hobson, edl, The Remembered Earth.


Week II Myth, Ritual, and Celebration

Schmidt, Soderlund, Miller as Resident Scholar

In this week we focused on "traditional" rituals and celebrations, and the relationship of these to "natural" markers and boundaries of time, space, biological rhythms and life cycles. We also examined such phenomena as Quaker efforts at de-ritualiztion.

Susan Davis, " 'Making Night Hideous:' Christmas Revelry and Public Order in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia," American Quarterly, 1985.

J. William Frost, The Quaker Origins of Anti-Slavery.

Langston Hughes, The Big Sea.

Charles Joyner, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community.

Hugh T. Kerr and John M. Mulder, eds., Conversions: The Christian Experience.

Colleen Mc Dannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America.

Anne Moody, Comng of Age in Mississippi.

Phillips P. Moulton, The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman.

Robert Anthony Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950.

Michael C. Osborne, "The Diary of Ann Whitall," (Manuscript in Haverford College Quaker Collection)

Jack Wertheimer, ed., The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era.


Week III Transforming Religious Traditions

Golab, Martin, Wulf, Bruce as Resident Scholar

Religious beliefs and practices often provide the discipline that sets rules about "civilized" public life--what to eat, with whom to mate, where to live, what work is honorable, appropriate gender behavior, how resources of time, money, intellectual energy, etc. should be allocated, how to tell if you or your neighbors have had a proper conversion experience. The readings and discussions addressed the question of what stresses are put on marginal communities when larger community norms are at odds with local community dictates.

David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed.

Caroline Golab. Immigrant Destinations.

Stuart Hall, "Old and New Identies, Old and New Ethnicities," in Anthony King, ed., Culture, Globalization and the World-System: Contemprary Conditions for the Representation of Identity.

Susan Juster, " 'In a Different Voice: '" Male and Female Narratives of Conversion in Postrevolutionary America, American Quarterly, (1984)

Sally Kitch, Chaste Liberation: Celibacy and Female Cultural Status.

Joel Martin, "Indians Were Everywhere and Are Here Forever: Themes for a Post-Colonial History of American Religion," in Thomas A. Tweed, ed., Narrating U. S. Religious History.

John H. Wigger, "Taking Heaven by Storm: Enthusiasm and Early American Methodism, 1770-1820," Journal of the Early Republic, (Summer, 1994)

"Susannah Wright to Eliza Fairhill." (Poem, ca. 1750)

Week IV Religion and Community: Region, Cohesion, Time and Transition

Hamm, Shannon, Bruce as resident scholar

Despite the strictures of majority culture--and because of them--"underground" groups have sought physical, emotional and intellectual spaces in which to maintain a strong and culturally self-sufficient cohesion. Sometimes this has taken the form of physical migration, sometimes the form of a dual language (one for "public" use, one for use inside the minority communities). In this week we read about various groups who have used these, and other techniques to protect the integrity of their convictions about "causality and purpose."

W. E. B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk.

Thomas D. Hamm, "Hicksite Quakers and the Antebellum Nonresistance Movement," Church History, (Decemer, 1994)

Thomas D. Hamm, The Transformation of American Quakerism: Orthodox Friends, 1800-1907.

Week V New Realities in a Changing Society

Cole, Gulick, Lapsansky as Resident Scholar

In this final week, the discussions were more open, as the group explored the implications of modern-day "marginal" religious concerns in social context. We explored such questions as "what does the new fragmentation mean about rules for community coherence?" "What does television evangelism have to tell us about geography, ethnicity and/or race in the definitions of cohesion of belief, tradition and initiation--in other words the definition of "religious community?" "What does the new feminism portend for the way we visualize orthodoxy?" "What is presaged by the entrance of a stronger Asian voice in the American conversation?"

Susan Cole Cady et al.,Wisdom's Feast.

Council of Bishops. Task Force on the Study of Wisdom, "Biblical Wisdom and Current Theological Ferment" in Circuit Rider (March 1995)

David A. Snow and Richard Machalek, "On the Presumed Fragility of Unconventional Beliefs," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, (1982).


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This page updated 1/28/97.