Then & Now

Religious historians take on the present

At CNN’s Belief Blog, John Blake offers four warning signs of when religious beliefs become evil. These include absolutism, charismatic leaders, apocalypticism, and the end justifying the means. He notes that “the line between good religion and evil religion is thin, and it’s easy to make self-righteous assumptions.”
May 1, 2013
When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio announced his papal name, he stoked hopes for a season of reform in the spirit of St. Francis. In the weeks since, the Argentinian pontiff, who was shaped in part by his experiences in Buenos Aires’ villas miserias, has not disappointed.  Pope Francis has garnered headlines with his simplicity, as well as with his calls for a “Church for the poor.” The surprise his actions have met reflects, among other things, this: that when it comes to the matter of the haves and have nots, Christians these days tend not to rock the boat.
April 24, 2013
The Bible miniseries finished this Easter with the grand finale of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Overall it drew more than 30 million viewers, the History Channel’s largest-ever audience. It’s considered a triumph for “in your face” faith films. With a possible sequel (and the current batch of Bible-based films currently in production), The Bible may represent a modern resurrection of Bible-oriented cinema. The fervent desire to place the Bible on film dates to the very beginning of the Hollywood industry.
April 9, 2013
Nearly 50 years ago, Bob Dylan romped through a century of American warfare in his song “With God on Our Side.” From killing Indians to developing nuclear weapons, in Dylan’s view Americans acted with the hubris of knowing they had divine approval. After all, “You never ask questions / When God’s on your side.” Dylan’s verses didn’t mention the Revolutionary War, but they just as well could have. 
April 3, 2013
Americans have always believed that the devil likes to play politics. Colonial leader Henry Hugh Brackenridge claimed in 1778 that Satan inspired George III’s allegedly ruthless policy toward the colonies. Two decades later, Federalists claimed that the nascent Democratic Party had put forward the antichrist as a presidential candidate in the form of Thomas Jefferson. Later Jedidiah Morse, inventor of Morse code and end-times enthusiast, explained to audiences the Devil’s role in Jeffersonianism. He even claimed to have a list of Democrats who belonged to the Illuminati (though like Joe McCarthy, Morse never showed anyone his proof). The History Channel miniseries The Bible has been alleged to continue this trend.
March 27, 2013
With no white smoke to herald its decision, the United States Postal Service announced in early February that beginning in August, American homes would no longer receive mail delivery on Saturdays. Several weeks later, the House passed a funding bill requiring that Saturday mail delivery continue. Through the off-again, on-again plans for the Saturday mail, religious leaders and organizations remained quiet. Perhaps they had too many other pressing concerns. What was missed was any discussion of the postal service’s importance in American religious history, a history that has been marked by religious frustration and innovation.
March 20, 2013
On February 11, comedian Stephen Colbert asked historian Garry Wills if he was in favor of the next pope being not John Paul III or Benedict XVII but “Nobody the First.” Wills smiled and said, “Ah, very good idea.” For some Catholics, this idea is more than a joke.
March 13, 2013
This new blog feature harnesses the expertise of American religious historians who care about the cities of God and the cities of humans. It’s a space where scholarly expertise collides with the faith, hope and love of those of us who seek thoughtful reflection about our pasts to bear upon the confusing issues of our presents.
February 27, 2013

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