In review: Fall 2021 at the Cushwa Center

Author: James Breen and Philip Byers

Fall 2021 Feature Image

The Cushwa Center hosted both online and in-person events during fall 2021. Many of the Cushwa Center’s public events from recent semesters are available to view on the center’s YouTube channel.

Seminar in American Religion: Kristin Kobes Du Mez

On October 9 at the newly opened McKenna Hall, the Cushwa Center hosted its first in-person event in more than 18 months, a Seminar in American Religion dedicated to Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2020) by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, professor of history at Calvin University. Kathleen Sprows Cummings commenced the morning session with a greeting to all attendees and recognition of the event’s unprecedented nature: never before had a seminar title attained the status of New York Times Best Seller, a distinction Du Mez’s book received in the summer of 2021 when it reached #4 in the Paperback Nonfiction Books category. After a quick explanation of the morning’s format, Cummings introduced the two commentators who would start the seminar’s discussion, Emily Remus (University of Notre Dame) and Matthew Avery Sutton (Washington State University)

Remus began by noting that as a scholar of typically “secular” topics like gender and consumer capitalism, she was initially surprised to receive an invitation to comment at a seminar on religious history, only to realize that much of the book’s content was familiar. Du Mez’s insights on manhood and masculinity, for example, descend from the work of scholars such as Notre Dame’s Gail Bederman, one of Du Mez’s graduate school mentors. Like Bederman’s classic Manliness and Civilization, Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne reveals what Remus called “the dynamism of masculine constructs,” in which notions of manhood are not fixed and transhistorical but rather in continuous flux. “Power,” Remus observed, “not particular beliefs or constructs, mattered most.” Jesus and John Wayne also reminded Remus of debates between scholars of gender concerning the relative importance of rhetoric and social practices. While Du Mez’s research excels with regard to the former by reconstructing top-down evangelical notions of manhood and womanhood, Remus left the text wondering whether future scholars might complement the book with a more “grubby social analysis” that could reveal the experiences of ordinary women. Attention to consumer culture left Remus with a similar sense of both appreciation and curiosity, as Jesus and John Wayne illuminates the interests of the market’s sellers while leaving the experiences of buyers for other scholars to analyze. Noting how patterns of consumption have changed in recent years, Remus closed with a suggestive question: “What does evangelical masculinity look like in the age of TikTok?”

Sutton opened by recapping Jesus and John Wayne’s basic arguments and themes before posing several questions that remained for him after the book’s conclusion. First, could Du Mez define with more specificity what an evangelical is? While Sutton agreed with her in rejecting the long-popular, theology-centric definition known within academic circles as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral,” he remained curious whether theology played a bigger role in the story than the book acknowledges. He similarly agreed that patriarchy has been a defining feature of American evangelicalism, but he doubted that patriarchy alone could explain every feature of evangelical politics; though he appreciated the way Du Mez’s narrative foregrounded factors that have not always featured in other accounts, he still left the book with questions about some of those more standard narrative components, such as abortion, that Du Mez spent less time addressing. Finally, Sutton offered compliments that doubled as questions. He loved Du Mez’s prose and narrative style, including her use of catchy chapter titles, and he admired Du Mez’s efforts to disseminate the book’s arguments via social media, all of which made him wonder more about the book’s audience—whom had Du Mez intended to reach with the book, whom did the book end up reaching, and what kind of reactions had she received?

In brief remarks before the mid-session coffee break, Du Mez offered follow-up comments to several of the points raised by Remus and Sutton. She agreed with Remus on the importance of learning more about the bottom-up story, a conviction driven home to her by the reaction her book has inspired—Du Mez described the hundreds of letters readers have sent recounting how their life stories match the narrative in Jesus and John Wayne. Much of that engagement has been inseparable from the influence of social media, a democratizing force that helped Du Mez reach beyond her intended audience (all Americans) and into evangelical spaces that were formerly policed by gatekeepers like Christian bookselling associations. Du Mez agreed with Sutton that theology has played some kind of role in the movement but insisted that role has been minor. If abortion disappeared overnight, Du Mez surmised, it would not change evangelical voting patterns, which flow from a broader cultural orientation. 

The question-and-answer session demonstrated how absorbed the seminar’s attendees were with Du Mez’s work. Several questioners wanted to know what Du Mez’s research suggested for the future: Ian Van Dyke (Notre Dame) queried how Christian patriarchy might continue to influence anti-democratic coalitions, Jana Riess (Religion News Service) was eager for Du Mez’s comments on the potential implications of the recent “ChurchToo” movement, and Tom Kselman (Notre Dame) questioned whether Du Mez believed an alternative branch of evangelicals might yet be able to alter the broader tradition’s course. While Jesus and John Wayne concludes with Du Mez’s hope that “What was once done might also be undone,” she admitted to the seminar audience that her expectation is less sanguine—the entire story, she insisted, is about the preservation of authority, and she agreed with Elesha Coffman (Baylor University) that theological formulations have often been post hoc justifications for desired social outcomes. Other attendees hoped to press Du Mez for greater specificity, with Tim Gloege (independent scholar) asking how markets (seemingly diffuse) and authoritarianism (seemingly top-down) co-exist and Tom Tweed (Notre Dame) coaxing Du Mez to pick one hinge point in the story; she ultimately settled for three, highlighting the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the FCC’s decision in 1987 to abolish the Fairness Doctrine, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With the conversation lasting nearly until noon, seminar participants proved their enthusiasm to hear Du Mez’s extended reflections, and Cummings concluded the gathering by thanking the panelists and attendees and inviting everyone to return to the seminar next spring.

Founders’ Day

In the late 19th century, Rev. John A. Zahm, C.S.C., was committed not only to making Notre Dame a “home of saints and scholars” but also to reconciling faith and science. He wrote, “[T]here is nothing in evolution, properly understood, which is contrary to Church Doctrine.” As such, it was fitting that the Founders’ Day keynote speaker, Sister Damien Marie Savino, F.S.E., Ph.D., used her October 12 address to mark the centenary of Father Zahm’s passing, applying his ideas about the relationship between faith and science to the environmental challenges of the 21st century.

Sister Damien Marie, who serves as the dean of Science and Sustainability at Aquinas College, began by quoting Father Zahm’s Evolution and Dogma. In that 1896 book Father Zahm argued that Charles Darwin’s controversial theory of evolution had much that was “ennobling and inspiring” and that evolution made the world more reflective of God’s greatness. Sister Damien Marie explained that Father Zahm made sharp distinctions between creation and nature. Additionally, since science is the study of secondary causes, Darwin’s theory was related to the evolution of the human body but not the soul.

Sister Damien Marie then argued that the mutual “ennobling” of faith and science could be found in Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the climate crisis, Laudato Si’. In what Sister Damien Marie called the “keystone” chapter of the encyclical, Pope Francis advocated for an “integral ecology,” which is one that brings together natural and human ecology. “I think the pope’s message of integral ecology in Laudato Si’,” she said, “is an invitation to make our love for God show in how we care for others and how we care for the earth.” Sister Damien Marie also stressed that humans have a unique charge in fighting the climate crisis: humans must cooperate with God in the work of Creation. She closed by advocating for regenerative farming as a promising way to practice integral ecology.

The following afternoon, the Cushwa Center co-sponsored a panel that explored Father Zahm’s influence on American Catholicism, Notre Dame, and the faith-science dialogue. R. Scott Appleby, who is the Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School of Global Affairs and a professor of history at Notre Dame, first spoke about Father Zahm’s role in the heated debates about evolution and religion in late 19th-century America. Appleby argued that Father Zahm, through his voluminous writings and numerous public lectures, played a prominent role in “the process by which the American Catholic community came to know the modern world.” At his summer school lectures, Father Zahm told lay Catholics that science was not something to fear. And despite the papacy placing Evolution and Dogma on the Index of Forbidden Books, Appleby concluded that Father Zahm remained confident that he—and, more importantly, science—would win in the end.

Cushwa Center director Kathleen Sprows Cummings then described how Father Zahm intentionally cultivated ties between himself, Notre Dame, and Rome. Although American newspapers criticized Notre Dame’s relationship to the papacy, Father Zahm doubled down and pursued connections to Rome more zealously. He did this in part through Roman architecture, as well as medals and statues that were modeled after Roman art. Father Zahm, Cummings argued, ultimately helped to construct a distinct American Catholic identity by strengthening ties with Rome, rather than by severing them. Cummings also emphasized that Father Zahm recognized the importance of women religious, such as Mother Mary Ascension (Mathurin) Salou, C.S.C., in keeping Notre Dame afloat in its early decades.

The three-person panel concluded with Elsa Barron, a Notre Dame alumna and community organizer with Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light. An evangelical, Barron recounted how she perceived evolution to be a threat to her faith as an incoming undergraduate student. She first encountered Father Zahm’s ideas at Notre Dame, and Barron credits Zahm with helping her bring science together with her faith. This ideological marriage still inspires Barron’s advocacy work as she battles the climate crisis. She insisted that we, as humans, are failing to live up to our religious principles—which, she pointed out, Pope Francis also admitted in Laudato Si’. To meaningfully address the climate crisis, Barron argued, humanity must embrace its dual religious calling: to care for creation and for our neighbors.

Hibernian Lecture: Declan Kiberd 

A little more than a year after the pandemic disrupted plans for a gathering in Ireland, the Cushwa Center hosted its annual Hibernian Lecture featuring Declan Kiberd, the Donald and Marilyn Keough Professor of Irish Studies and professor of English and Irish language and literature emeritus. The session’s virtual format permitted Kiberd to present his talk from O’Connell House, home of Notre Dame’s Dublin Global Gateway, while also allowing participants to join from across Europe and North America. After a greeting from Kevin Whelan (Michael Smurfit Director of the Notre Dame Dublin Global Gateway), Kathleen Sprows Cummings introduced Kiberd and the subject of his lecture, “Ireland Now: Excavating the Present.”  

Most people living in the 21st century, Kiberd began, suffer from what might be called “provincialism in space and provincialism of time,” the lack of an appreciation for our placement within a flow of events. In contrast, the richest moments in Irish history—like the late 19th-century Irish Revival—have been simultaneously “archaic” and “avant-garde.” In his view, the Irish story has been most enlivened by the presence of “critical traditionalists.”

To illustrate the claim, Kiberd performed the kind of textured cultural exegesis that has marked his celebrated career. For example, he described the paradox in which the seemingly backward-looking Revival actually relied on the “idea of modern advertising.” The founding leaders of Sinn Féin likewise “presented something very new as a revival of something reassuringly old and familiar,” and in Ulysses (1922), James Joyce would “giftwrap one of Europe’s oldest books” but in the service of conveying a “radical modern narrative.” Even the famed Easter Rising of 1916, frequently depicted as an irruption of nostalgia, in fact worked to advance “modernity . . . in disguised forms.”

For Kiberd, the key to understanding the last century of Irish history thus lies less in the Rising than in the fact that the Republicans lost the subsequent Irish Civil War. National industry never grew as figures like Joyce and Patrick Pearse had anticipated, partially because so many Republicans departed for North America and took their entrepreneurial energy with them. The experience of civil war sapped revolutionary fervor, and the following decades too often involved an Irish people “bending over backwards to become like those they had extirpated.” Whenever the positive forces of critical traditionalism ebbed, a merely negative identity—as “not-England”—could prove alluring.

Kiberd’s interpretive frame lent new meaning even to the Celtic Tiger, as he divided that economic boom into two phases. The earlier period, lasting from 1995–2002, witnessed a “genuine fusion of traditions” in which migrants who arrived in Ireland brought both pride in their cultures of origin and also an eagerness to experience Irish customs. Yet once word of Ireland’s prosperity spread, the second phase included many people focused only on a payoff. “The culture that produced the Tiger,” he rued, “led to the loss of many traditions,” a clear example of which emerges in the gradual disappearance of the Irish pub. Insensitive to the pub’s vital function as a site of public space, property developers have found it more profitable to tear down old builds and construct anew.

Kiberd opened the brief Q&A by responding to a question regarding what policy suggestions he might make to current Irish leaders. As a model, he cited the May 2015 referendum on same-sex marriage as another instance of critical traditionalism. In that plebiscite, Irish voters affirmed something genuinely new but they did so upon a familiar basis, namely the traditional identification of the family’s role as a force for social stability. Any leader seeking progress should start first by asking which extant features of Irish society can be augmented.

Kiberd then used a question from Cummings to reflect on the challenge of atomization within academic disciplines, claiming that specialization “is just a form of self-love.” In contrast, he contended that all humans benefit from the insights of the greatest works of literature across the millennia: “People . . . need to be nurtured by the humanities.” Kiberd’s answer to the day’s final question, regarding the future of Catholicism in Ireland, also identified continuity over time in the human desire for meaning. Religion “doesn’t really” vanish, he stipulated, it “transmogrifies.” If religion has taken new institutional forms, it remains a vibrant presence in Ireland through outgrowths of Celtic-derived spirituality. Over an hour of insights like these, Kiberd provided the lecture’s attendees with extensive material for continued reflection.


James Breen is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame, where he also serves as a research fellow at the Cushwa Center. Philip Byers is a postdoctoral research associate at the Cushwa Center.