Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Thomas A. Tweed's "America’s Church"

Thomas A. Tweed is Shive, Lindsay, and Gray Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of six books, including Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami and Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, America's Church: The National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation's Capitol, and reported the following:
I’m going to tell a story about the history of American religion. Now, before we go on, let me ask: what, if anything, did you assume about the characters’ age? If you pictured children, good for you. You can stop reading. Go do something useful, like washing the dishes or writing your senator. However, if you imagined adults—the blandly generic middle-aged and not laptop twenty-somethings at Starbucks or wheel-chaired octogenarians at the nursing home—then you are like most interpreters of religion. On page 99, I try to correct that oversight. That page is from a chapter about clerical efforts to engage children. The rest of the book, which chronicles American Catholicism between 1919 and 1959 by focusing on Washington’s National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, considers the other five clerical concerns expressed at the Shrine and around the country—the impulse to build institutions, mobilize women, contest Protestants, incorporate immigrants, and claim civic space. Elsewhere in the chapter I give glimpses of young people’s religious life. For example, in 1927, a ten-year-old boy sketched a phonograph in the Shrine’s visitor’s book and, to identify the music being amplified from its protruding horn, penned the first lines of a popular song, “Just give me a June night, a moonlight, and you”; in 1921, an Ohio student’s letter explained her $1 donation: “I am a thirteen-year-old school girl and have earned it by crocheting.” Focusing instead on adults’ advice to kids, on page 99 I discuss a 1950 issue of a Catholic comic book that portrayed young people fighting moral temptations, obeying their priests, and dying for the faith. An editorial, “We Can Win,” also reminded young readers that “religion is an all-year-round affair,” and even during the summer they had their role to play in the cosmic drama between Catholic America and godless communism. Children and teens should pray the rosary, that Cold War editorial instructed, since “never before have the battle lines between good and evil been drawn so clearly.” Judgments about how successful the clergy were in engaging children—and in their other aims—are a bit murkier, however. In the conclusion I argue that the Church offered young people “a sense of belonging and a coherent worldview,” although that devotional culture “sometimes justified excessive coercion and—as Catholics came to realize decades later—set few constraints on clerical misconduct, including the sexual abuse of minors.”
Learn more about America's Church at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue