Monday, 23 March 2015

An Interview with Matthew Avery Sutton, Keynote Speaker for the American Religious History Symposium, March 26

Randall Stephens

Roosevelts attending Christmas services,
St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Washington,
DC, 1934. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Matthew Avery Sutton is Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of History at Washington State University.  He is the keynote speaker for the March 26th symposium on American Religious History.  (The event is co-sponsored by the Northumbria US History Research Group and Newcastle's Americas Research Group, Armstrong Building, Room 2.50, 3:30-6:15pm.  Read more on the event here.) Matt's keynote paper is titled: "American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism."

Matt is working on a new book tentatively titled FDR’s Army of Faith: Religion and Espionage in World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2019). He is the author of American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012), and Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard University Press, 2007). He has published articles in diverse venues ranging from the Journal of American History to the New York Times and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the US Fulbright Commission, and the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation.

Below I ask Matt about his latest book, future research, and more.

Randall J. Stephens: What first got you interested in the topic of modern American evangelicalism?

Matthew Avery Sutton: I grew up in Southern California’s evangelical community and attended Christian schools. The further I moved away from the movement, the more fascinated I became with trying to make sense of its history. This particular book was inspired in part by an experience I had as a teenager. Along with some of the players on my high school basketball team, I attended a small prophecy seminar led by a layperson (the father of one of my teammates). After a day of seeing his evidence, including supposedly secret Israeli military documents, UN memos, and various articles about global news, I was sure that the Antichrist was alive and already working through the United Nations. Obviously, I was wrong. But making sense of what happened that day helped drive my interest in evangelical apocalypticism.

Stephens: How do you see your working fitting into the field of American history?

Basically, I am trying to bring to light the many ways in which religion has shaped the American past. A few central questions have driven my work over the course of my career. They include: how has religion functioned in ostensibly non-religious venues over the last 150 years (such as in American politics and popular culture)? How has religion shaped the ways certain groups of Americans have responded to the growth of the modern liberal state, economic challenges, and evolving geo-politics? How does religion intersect with race, gender, class, and sexual orientation in defining individuals’ lives? And finally, how does positioning American religions in a global context help us understand the trajectory of U.S. history?

Stephens: For historians, and especially those who work in non-US fields, how would you describe the significance of American evangelicalism and fundamentalism?

Sutton: Part of the significance lies in the simple fact that religion has had such a profound impact on U.S. history in general. We cannot makes sense of the American past without grappling with the place of faith in people’s lives. Then, to move specially to fundamentalism and evangelicalism, I argue that they have represented two of the most influential forms of American religion, shaping popular culture, politics, American foreign relations, and the culture wars, among many other aspects of American life.

Stephens: Is it right to label fundamentalists as "anti-modernists"?

Sutton: Not really. I follow the lead of Grant Wacker here, as well as of Timothy Gloege and Brendan Pietsch who each have wonderful books on fundamentalism forthcoming. They all argue quite persuasively that fundamentalism is another expression of modernism.  

Stephens: Could you say something about what you are currently working on for your next project?

Sutton: Sure. My new book project tentatively entitled FDR’s Army of Faith: Religion and Espionage in World War II (Basic Books, 2019) looks at the roles of missionaries and religious activists (fundamentalists, liberal Protestants, Catholics, and Jews) who engaged in espionage and covert activities during the war. They played an outsized role during the war both in terms of their direct contributions to the war effort and in the ways in which their actions encouraged American leaders to wed state security to religious freedom in order to justify American intervention abroad.

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