Religion is quintessentially part of what it means to “be an American,” English and Writing Studies Chair Bryce Traister argues.
“We think of religion as outside of the normal or a way to understand the world. But for many people, particularly in the United States, that’s just not true and never has been true,” said Director of Western’s Centre for American Studies. “Part of my interest in the book is trying to understand why and how religion persists in the United States, particularly Protestant religion.”
In his new book, Female Piety and the Invention of American Puritanism, Traister acts as a journeyman into the American psyche and its religious discourse through a discussion of the role women and femininity in Puritan culture, particularly the beliefs of the outliers whom, he argues, laid the foundation for religious tones that prevail in today’s modern American society.
“The argument I make in this book is the powerful voice of belief uttered by women is the one we listen to,” he said. “What we think of as Puritan life co-ordinated itself around these repeated accounts of women testifying to the power of their religious faith.”
Women are crucial to the reproduction of religious beliefs in American life, Traister explains.
The fact religious beliefs of the U.S. Presidential candidates – whatever they may be – is even part of the discussion is uniquely American, Traister noted. This is largely due the country’s belief in itself a “chosen” land.
As part of its lore, America believes itself to be “a country that didn’t have a history before it was made.” Traister points out the settlers arrived in New England to what they perceived as a ‘Garden of Eden.’
“It was starting fresh in a New World – not unlike Adam and Eve,” he said. “The Puritans believed in the idea of predestination. The idea of being a chosen few amongst many, including Christians, still animates American culture and politics today.”
Traister, an American, notes religion is often part of the nation’s discussions of political and cultural issues, such as reproductive choice, prayer in schools and exercising public speech. “In The States, we take a lot of these things for granted. We don’t question some of it. It doesn’t seem abnormal or strange that we sing God Bless America at baseball games.”
However, along with American bravado, a sense of victimization also comes, he continues.
“The idea of meaningful suffering is still part of religious belief today. Suffering is an indication that God cares.”
Dating back to the 17th century, women’s voices often rose above the crowds to point a finger at the religious and cultural zeitgeist, Traister notes. A contemporary example is Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, which became a national discussion about religious rights in the face of legalized same-sex marriage.
“She is an absolute example of the ‘female innocent victim’ of America. She is being persecuted for her beliefs. It completely replays a lot of these thematics that come out of the 17th century, almost as if the 17th century is still in place.
“It speaks to how powerful that language of religious belief remains today and how that language of powerful religious belief is associated often with women.”
Through his examination of Mary Rowlandson, a colonial woman held captive by Native Americans during King Philip’s War, Traister concludes that a modern, secular worldview is born. Namely, her desire to relieve unnecessary suffering.
“We often think of them (Puritanism and secularism) as being opposed to one another and I’m actually saying that Puritanism produced, in certain respects, this thing we call the ‘secular age.’”
Traister was inspired to write the book by real-world events – 9/11 and the Columbine shootings. While these events may seem distant from the 17th century, the religious and gendered overtones in the narratives describing attacks against religion echo the Puritan voices of the Salem Witch Trials, the ‘convincements’ of the Quakers, and women, such as Anne Hutchinson, who were persecuted for their beliefs.
“I started working on this book in earnest after 9/11 because 9/11 was a moment that changed many things in America. But one thing it didn’t change was a recognition that religious belief cuts deeper than everything else,” he said.
Traister believes the oppositional view of religion verses secularism echoes the historical reading of the Puritan ‘radical woman’ versus the orthodox man, neither of which explain religious practices of today.
“I was interested in trying to tell a story that hadn’t been told,” he said. “Trying to tell the story this way, which connects the rise of certain secular understandings of what religion means, with the voice of religion that we often associate with women, just seemed to me to be the important story to tell.”