REQUIRED READING: The Irish Way

Over at Religion in American History, Janine Giordano Drake offered a thoughtful review of James Barrett’s The Irish Way.

For outsiders who hope to understand Fundamentalist America, Drake opens her essay with a interesting disclaimer:

People usually laugh when I tell them that, though I went to public school all my life, I didn’t meet a white, self-identifying Protestant until I got to college. Nobody ever “witnessed” to me; there were no “youth groups” around to my knowledge, and certainly nobody told me to read (or adhere to) the Bible. There were no “Christian groups” at my high school, and school prayer was never an issue. I usually don’t know what to say when people think I’m exaggerating. No, I’m not from an Old World immigrant community. I’m a fourth generation New Yorker, and I’m from the suburbs of New York City.

As Drake explains in her review, Barrett’s book offers a vision of multiethnic America that challenges casual assumptions about the historical dominance of white evangelical Protestantism.  I’m not sure how many academic historians these days assume that such was really the case for America’s past, but I agree that such assumptions are common among non-academic folks, and especially among conservative evangelical Protestants themselves.  Or, to be more precise, such assumptions are pointedly insisted upon among a segment of conservative evangelicals.

In any case, Drake describes Barrett’s book as giving us a “thick urban world” dominated not by evangelical Protestants but by Irish Catholics.  In Drake’s words,

The Irish, Barrett argues, were America’s first “ethnic group.” That is, Barrett finds that the Irish effectively taught subsequent ethnic groups how to be both respected as White Americans and simultaneously not-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant. He writes, “The Irish Catholic version of civic identity differed… from that of the WASP mainstream. At its best, it stressed a broad American Catholic identity that nonetheless recognized the integrity and worth of distinct ethnic cultures, and the rights of ethnic minorities to maintain these cultures” (102). In inventing an American way to be ethnic, Barrett argues, Irish Catholic Americans taught subsequent groups how to comfortably sustain their own culture and religion while also becoming American. In many ways, of course, this maintenance/reinvention of one’s ethnicity revolved around rejecting the Anglo-Protestant concept of civic identity that required Protestant religious sensibilities.

For those of us interested in understanding Fundamentalist America, this is a useful reminder of why we need to expand our definition of “fundamentalism.”  When we talk about Fundamentalist America including all sorts of conservative religious folks, including (some of) the urban Irish Barrett’s book describes, we use a definition most academic religious historians would not like.  The traditional academic definition of fundamentalism still insists that the term necessarily includes only a subset of conservative evangelical Protestants.  For academic religious historians, the best working definition of “fundamentalism” still comes from historian George Marsden.  In his 1980 Fundamentalism and American Culture, Marsden defined the term as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism.”

But such a restricted definition ignores the ways conservatives of different faiths have come together in the past generation to form a powerful cultural bloc.  If we leave militant conservative Catholics–some of them the heirs of Barrett’s Irish Way–out of our definition, we won’t be able to grasp the ways Fundamentalist America really works.

Of course, the other option is to change our terminology.  If we called this bloc of traditionalist Americans something besides “Fundamentalist,” we could avoid this whole mess.  For instance, we could call it “Moral Majority” America, or “Christian America,” or “Bible” America, or something.  In my opinion, though, none of these alternatives captures the energy and drive of Fundamentalist America.

To return to Drake’s opening, I certainly would not laugh if she told me that no one at her public school ever asked her to join her prayer circle.  No one ever asked me.  I went to public high school in the very Irish northern suburbs of Boston.  Officially, however, I suppose my family would fit as WASPs, though we were only half “AS” and only very vaguely “P.”  Nevertheless, for most of my life I assumed that the borders of Fundamentalist America remained somewhere far south and west of me.  Only once I began working as a high-school teacher did I realize that I was simply unaware of the fact that I had been living all along deeply within those borders.  My ignorance of the strong culturally conservative presence all around me didn’t mean that it wasn’t there.  It was there among the Irish who trod Barrett’s Irish Way, just as it was among the “WASP” successors to Dwight Moody who still maintained their strong Boston presence.

 

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