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True Stories

Accidentally Of the Moment

My second book project was not intended to be a commentary on our current political moment.

 

It began, as a historian's work so often does, with an inquiry at an archive, a search through a finding aid for a manuscript collection, and the ensuing proliferation of new questions that demanded yet more research and investigation. I went to the Library of Congress hoping to find materials about how sex radicals in the 1920s thought about religion. My keyword searches in their database of manuscript collections instead pointed me to the massive archival records of Clare Boothe Luce, who wrote The Women, married Henry Luce (publisher of Time), and served two terms in Congress. She also converted from nominal Protestantism to Roman Catholicism in 1946, something that was, at the time, a scandalous breach of expectations about the presumably shared interests of Protestantism and the political establishment.

 

From Luce I found other converts, principally looking at celebrities who crossed lines of faith in bold and highly public ways, announcing their discovery of "truth" and authentic faith. I might be forgiven for having spent the next several years of reserach presuming that I was writing a book about American religious conversions in the twentieth century. Many years and chapter drafts later, I see this project as less about religious converts than about American conversations about the authentic self. What my book shows--and what, I argue, previous scholars have underplayed--is the extent to which religion provided a public language of authentic selfhood for Americans in the decades after World War II. Religion's salience is partiuclarly important because it was during these same decades that some Americans (and others) began to circulate theories about the mutability of gender, race, and even sexuality. It's ironic-- and thus, I argue, particuarly notable--that religion, which Americans overwhelmingly viewed as a choice, became a way to anchor the very identity categories (gender, sexuality, and race) whose stability we continue to debate.

 

The book became about far more than religious conversion; it has grown into a history that explores how Americans explained the essential versus chosen elements of who they are (and who they want to be). It explores the elasticity of religion as an identity category, such that even a person who undergoes multiple conversions to a variety of faiths is often viewed as an "authentic" person in touch with his or her "true" self. As in my previous book, this project connects these intellectual and cultural trends to their political moment, tracing how and why self-declared religious categories came to serve as a kind of shorthand for ideas about gender equality (or patriarchy) and about racial equality (or white privilege). 

 

While I wandered toward this understanding of my project's scope, current events demanded that I dig deeper into these questions of self-fashioning and authenticity. The increasing visibility of the trans* rights movement, the political fracas over spurrious "bathroom bills," and the public notoriety of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who claims a Black identity, emphasized the extent to which Americans not only disagree over the permissible boundaries of self-fashioning, but do so today most often in the language of gender and sexuality. Where is religion in our debates today over trans* identity or racial passing? Has a vocabularly that proved especially meaningful in the 1940s through 1960s lost its utility? Or can we look for the intersections among religion, race, gender, sexuality, and class and trace changes in their use and power over time? 

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