Saturday, March 9, 2013

Exhibiting Faith: Religion & Public History, Part 1

Historical Boston is held together by a thin red line. Running along the city’s cobblestone sidewalks from Boston Common to the Charlestown Navy Yard, this painted path binds scattered sites related to Revolutionary-era Boston into a historic district known as the “Freedom Trail.” Seemingly every iconic moment of America’s founding is included on this red line of liberty: Bunker Hill, Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere’s house, and the site of the Boston Massacre. But as anyone who has actually traversed the trail’s two-and-a-half-mile expanse knows, the Freedom Trail also includes a number of prominent religious sites. Indeed, seven of the trail’s seventeen landmarks have some kind of religious significance. From the King’s Chapel Burying Ground to Park Street Church, the Freedom Trail makes clear that the conservation of religious landmarks is intimately a part of “preserving the story of the American Revolution.”

Now to claim as the Freedom Trail does that religious institutions have shaped American history should come as no surprise—especially to the readers of this blog. As historian Heather Curtis smartly argued a while back in an essay on Massachusetts for Religion & Politics’ “States of the Union Project,” Boston’s Freedom Trail is perhaps the ideal metaphor for unpacking religion’s place in America’s past. But there is another reading of the sacred addresses along this patriotic pathway; an approach that looks forward as well as back. For as much as the Freedom Trail’s churches underscore religion’s importance to America’s past, they also reveal religion’s centrality to how contemporary Americans collectively remember, publicly commemorate, and culturally construct that past today. And this goes well beyond old Boston. Religion saturates the American commemorative landscape. From the historic markers affixed to old village churches, to the exhibits at denominational archives, to the to the Creation Museum, institutions, experiences, and ideas marked as religious both inform and animate America’s relationship with its past. Even a pseudo-museum like Disney World’s Hall of Presidents, as our own Elesha Coffman pointed out in a recent post, is permeated by spiritual themes like redemption and pastoral care. Religion, in short, saturates American public history.


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