Facing the Challenge of a New Religious History

Post-1945 American Religion as a Site of Historical Inquiry in Germany

January 05, 2009
GHI-sponsored panel at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA), New York

Panel report

Chair and commentator: Ronald J. Granieri (University of Pennsylvania)

Presenters: Uta A. Balbier (GHI Washington), Sven-Daniel Gettys (Ruhr-University Bochum), and Anthony Santoro (Heidelberg Center for American Studies)

The panel showed how expressions of religion in the U.S. are currently researched in Germany. It started with the observation that religious expressions and communities have profoundly altered after 1945 due to changes in public discourse, in the media landscape, and in social norms. The panel showed how religious communities have reinvented their understanding of political participation, their perception of the secular society and the nation, and their language and public expressions. At the same time, it presented the different cultural approaches used in Germany to examine the role of religion within society and history.

Uta Andrea Balbier's paper analyzed Billy Graham's Crusades in the 1950s as public spaces in which a new form of American Christian citizenship was shaped that combined religious and national convictions in a complete new way. It discussed religious events in the theoretical context of the "performative turn" in German historiography. The second paper, by Sven-Daniel Gettys, focused on Catholic discourse on "Roe vs. Wade" and its implications for the relation between the Catholic community and the law in the United States. The paper discussed the public role of religion from a system-theoretical perspective as developed by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. The third paper, by Anthony Santoro, proposed a new model through which to analyze religious discourse. By retrieving the language of ethics and evaluating religious discourse in terms of its deontological, teleological and virtue metaphors, scholars will find it easier to determine how religion fits into the conditions of modernity and to differentiate between the "religious" and the "secular."

Ron Granieri's comment tied the three papers together by emphasizing the importance of cultural and linguistic approaches as real possibilities for secular scholarship to deal with questions of religion and spirituality. He encouraged the further use of anthropological and ethnographic approaches, combining the respect for believers with the intellectual skepticism that is needed to deal with religion as a field of historical inquiry and to gain deeper insight into the various layers of which the relationship between religion and modernity is composed.

Uta A. Balbier