Panel: “Confronting the Climate Crisis Across the Disciplines”
On the evening of Wednesday, September 13, the Cushwa Center commenced its fall 2023 programming with an interdisciplinary panel moderated by Darren Dochuk. The panel, titled “Confronting the Climate Crisis Across the Disciplines,” convened as part of Notre Dame Energy Week and featured University faculty members Emily Grubert (Keough School), Bruce Huber (Law), and Roy Scranton (English).
In his opening remarks, Dochuk shared brief reflections on his new role as Cushwa Center co-director alongside David Lantigua, and their efforts to build on the “remarkable foundation of scholarship and engagement” laid by previous directors including Kathleen Sprows Cummings. While continuing to focus attention on cultural, theological, and historical dimensions of American Catholicism, Dochuk said, the Cushwa Center would aim to extend the center’s reach into fields such as energy and environment, as well as new hemispheric and global contexts.
From the papacy to national bishops’ conferences and various lay initiatives, Dochuk said, Catholics are no strangers to engaging pressing environmental concerns. It therefore seems “both natural and important” that the Cushwa Center bring together experts in law, the humanities, and the social sciences to facilitate dialogue that emphasizes real-world outcomes.
Following brief introductions, Dochuk invited the panelists to describe how their attention to concerns over climate has developed throughout their careers. Bruce Huber began by describing how his work in energy, water, and property law encouraged his long-time observation of U.S. energy systems. Over time, his research has gravitated toward the ways in which public land management can better adapt to climate realities. He hopes to further explore questions of meaning, principle, and philosophy as they bear on “grandiose questions of law,” particularly at a Catholic university where normative questions are taken seriously.
Reflecting on her upbringing in an “energy family,” Emily Grubert described how her father’s work as a petroleum engineer influenced her awareness of the energy and climate crises. Trained in both engineering and sociology, in her work Grubert focuses on energy questions from a policy perspective. She noted the rapid pace of policy-making, and described it as both “challenging and rewarding” to bring existing knowledge to bear on the future of energy practices.
As a literary scholar and the founding director of the Notre Dame Environmental Humanities Initiative, in his work Roy Scranton examines questions of meaning, narrative, and ethics as he “witnesses” the climate crisis and encourages his students to also bear witness. This two-fold witness entails a commitment to observing and understanding the changing climate while considering how to effectively speak and write about it. He recounted a variety of experiences that led to his current work, including a period of military service in Iraq. This along with alarming scientific reports and dramatic natural disasters sparked his interest in thinking and writing not only about the changes necessary to address the climate crisis, but also about developing an ethical framework for living amid impending catastrophe.
In light of the Christian character of the University, Dochuk asked panelists whether and how religion has entered into their teaching and writing. Huber expressed his gratitude for how the interplay between climate concerns and religious traditions is readily examined at Notre Dame, and praised Dochuk’s Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America (Basic, 2019) for exploring the role of Christianity in the origins of the American oil industry. (Anointed with Oil was featured for discussion at the Cushwa Center’s Seminar in American Religion in spring 2021). He called attention to the biblical text as one important tool among many available and valued at Notre Dame for making sense of our shared situation. As we find ourselves “in climate exile,” Huber described the biblical cry of the prophets as “the cry to be governed well.” This cry has become our own as we seek to converge on necessary policy developments that have been lacking for the last half-century.
Roy Scranton reflected on the value of the sense of mystery present in religious traditions, as embracing this mystery might “help guide us through catastrophe in an ethical way.” As Job questions God about his situation, God’s response calls him to consider the limitations of his human knowledge, which requires acknowledging God’s ultimate control of the universe. This “terrifying and beautiful” reality does not excuse the human from behaving ethically toward other beings, but relieves the desire for complete knowledge and control.
Dochuk also invited panelists to reflect on the opportunities and challenges present at Notre Dame for grappling across disciplines with the theological and philosophical questions raised by the climate crisis. Grubert described the unusual openness to normativity she has found while working at Notre Dame, and the advantages that openness offers for engaging ethical questions with attention to “non-financial values” that demand consideration. Agreeing that justice is a desirable outcome, she explained, helps facilitate conversations that are attentive to the people affected at each stage of policy change and implementation. In regard to challenges, she noted the ongoing need for the University community to be unified in their concern and attentiveness to the climate crisis. Bruce Huber took up and expanded this point as he emphasized the need for institutional support for interdisciplinary collaboration. As students and researchers are formed to think in various distinct ways about climate and energy concerns, they should also be capable of “thinking clearly across disciplines.”
The panel concluded with a period of question-and-answer, during which Neil Arner (Notre Dame) asked panelists about possibilities for reconfiguring and reimagining the University space to better address climate concerns. Adding to his earlier comments, Huber described the institutional prioritization of narrow expertise among researchers that fails to encourage interdisciplinary work. He acknowledged that there is no easy way to challenge this structure, and that doing so would require collective action across institutions of higher education. Additionally, Grubert called for more robust efforts to experiment with new technologies and practices in the university setting. Because of their geographical and financial stability, universities are uniquely positioned to be at the forefront of experimentation with geothermal and other technologies that often pose too high a risk for commercial enterprises. Universities have the capacity to insulate students and faculty from potential failures, but also to demonstrate promising technological successes, backing up their hopeful speech with “steel in the ground.”
The final question from Clement Harrold (Notre Dame) addressed the intersection of human rights concerns and accessing cleaner forms of energy. Grubert’s response situated the question within the current state of energy practices, highlighting the deeply unethical nature of current systems and noting that any approach involves tradeoffs and undesired outcomes. With this in mind, she emphasized the responsibility of the United States to set higher standards for accessing efficient energy sources, requiring conversations in which leaders ask “what we’re willing to do and what we’ll demand.” These conversations are aided by the recognition that we are not starting from an ethically neutral position, but are aiming to be better.
Hibernian Lecture: Julie Morrissy
On Friday, September 29, Julie Morrissy (Maynooth University) delivered the Cushwa Center’s annual Hibernian Lecture to a standing-room-only audience in McKenna Hall. Darren Dochuk opened the event with a welcome and introduction, thanking the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Ancient Order of Hibernians for their continued support of the study of Irish American history both within and beyond the Cushwa Center. Julie Morrissy echoed this gratitude before beginning her lecture, titled “Revolutionary Traces: Radical Women, Commemoration, and Public Space.” Morrissy has undertaken a yearslong exploration of women in public spaces in Dublin and throughout Ireland, she explained, in order to better understand the connections between gender inequality in Irish society and the ways in which social capital and power circulate through state-funded acts of remembrance.
Morrissy’s presentation began on Moore Street in Dublin, a central setting for the events and subsequent memorialization of the Easter Rising of 1916—not least for the surrenders delivered there to British officials. The first of these surrenders, in fact, was delivered by Elizabeth O’Farrell, whose role remains uncommemorated on Moore Street today even as multiple plates honor the male signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. Despite her pivotal role in the revolution, O’Farrell’s case exemplifies the marginalization of women in public memory that “borders on the habitual,” Morrissy said. She highlighted numerous additional examples of the failure to adequately represent Irish women in and for public memory, both in and beyond Dublin. While recent efforts have aimed at highlighting the role of revolutionary women through postage stamps and park dedications, the large networks of activist women of the period remain underrecognized.
Morrissy highlighted the role of “feminist recovery work” that aims to depict Irish history and society more inclusively. In light of the upcoming referenda on gender inequality in the Irish Constitution, she said, attention to representation in public spaces helps us to better understand how power circulates in daily life and impacts broader social structures.
As the floor opened for question-and-answer, Rose Luminiello (Notre Dame) asked Morrissy about her engagement with public policymakers on inclusive commemoration. Morrissy pointed to the positive outcomes of the Decade of Centenaries project funded by the Irish government, as it has brought commemoration issues to the fore while also providing new platforms and audiences for this work. In response to a question from Darren Dochuk about scholarly collaboration, Morrissy reflected on the ways in which her podcast and other work has connected her with Irish historians, artists, and writers along with members of the communities she researches. Gráinne McEvoy (Keough-Naughton Institute) asked about the impact of the successful campaign to make St. Brigid’s Day a public holiday in Ireland, and its considerable use of visual art. Morrissy responded with ambivalence, noting that while gestures and movements are good, they should be paired with significant structural change that addresses injustices women have faced throughout Ireland’s history.
Seminar in American Religion: Lerone A. Martin’s The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover
On the morning of Saturday, October 7, visitors and members of the local community gathered for the fall Seminar in American Religion, which convenes each semester at Notre Dame to discuss a recent significant publication. The seminar welcomed Lerone A. Martin, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Centennial Professor and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University, to reflect on his book The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism (Princeton University Press, 2023). Commenting on the book were Kristin Kobes Du Mez, professor of history at Calvin University, and Notre Dame’s Darren Dochuk.
After an introduction from Cushwa co-director David Lantigua, Du Mez (author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, 2020) spoke to the book’s numerous strengths. She noted Martin’s comprehensive archival research, which bolsters rather than hinders his piercing eloquence and verve in The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover. Citing the high level of public interest in the influence of predominantly white evangelicalism in American politics in recent years, Du Mez praised the book for accomplishing what historiography can do best: clarifying the much older origins of seemingly contemporary trends or movements.
In Martin’s convincing telling, white Christian nationalism did not suddenly assert itself in January 2021, come out of hiding with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, or find a public voice with the election of Ronald Reagan, to give any number of more recent examples. Instead, with Hoover’s dominance over the FBI starting in the 1930s, the director and white evangelicals found in each other a useful ally. Hoover offered evangelicals a degree of influence and power at the national level that would otherwise have been inaccessible. Evangelicals offered Hoover a religious imprimatur for his authoritarian leadership of the FBI and far-reaching power to shape the public’s perception of what was required to be a patriotic American in the mid-20th century.
Yet, as Du Mez noted, while evangelicals are a critical piece of the story, they did not stand alone. Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics also took part in this complex interplay of state power and religious influence. (Here, one might also recall two-thirds of Will Herberg’s titular Protestants, Catholics, and Jews and the role of religion in public life at midcentury.) This is a key clarification, as Martin does not discuss white evangelical nationalism but, rather, white Christian nationalism—a tangle of ideas and ideology expressed by many non-evangelical Christians as well as their evangelical counterparts. By dint of sheer numbers and proportional influence, however, evangelicals dominated this coalition in support of Hoover; because of this, Du Mez said, Martin’s book offers a model for how to understand and contextualize the influence white evangelicals long have had over American public and political life.
Darren Dochuk, who was previously Martin’s colleague at the Danforth Center at Washington University in St. Louis, followed Du Mez. He similarly noted a number of the book’s strengths, including extending Du Mez’s praise for Martin’s depth of research. Dochuk called special attention to the use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)—an uncommon technique for historians, not least due to its difficulty and the requirement of great endurance and patience—and ultimately the suing of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for additional records. In Dochuk’s telling, Martin’s perseverance pays off in spades: because Martin’s book is so enormously well sourced, “there is no second-guessing here.” Dochuk also commended Martin’s work alongside that of Du Mez and others for their ongoing exposition of a “surging white Christian nationalist impulse” in some quarters of American religion.
In inviting Martin to reflect on his work, Dochuk raised a number of questions that themselves suggest useful avenues for graduate students and other scholars to pursue. What, for instance, are some of the challenges of writing the history of institutions that are so dominated by single individuals (such as the FBI and Hoover) without falling into biography? Given the widely varying theologies upon which different Christian traditions draw, what were the different reasons these groups felt compelled to support the FBI? And if scholars use Martin’s book as a model, how have other federal agencies tapped into American religion to bolster their own reach and power? Here, Dochuk also observed how The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover calls into question Herberg’s seminal description of midcentury American religion being upheld by displays of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism: Hoover’s white nationalism was most certainly Christian, and most certainly not Jewish. Dochuk asked how an implicit anti-Semitism, both in the groups supporting the FBI and within the FBI itself, challenges our understanding of contemporary religion. Dochuk also asked, in the interest of future research, about those not represented in this book. Were there sizable groups of white evangelicals who repudiated Hoover and the FBI’s increasingly pervasive power? Or what about non-white evangelicals—how did their theology and their race interact in their own perception of federal power?
Finally, Dochuk asked about Martin’s writing process, including a significant shift in tone from draft to book manuscript, which entailed a significant strengthening of the authority in Martin’s prose. For scholars approaching complex, highly nuanced subjects, how can they both understand themselves as authoritative and convey that forthrightly in their writing? And how did Martin begin grappling with the fact that his source material was hidden behind the barriers of the federal government, rather than being easily accessible in a traditional archive?
In his author response, Martin agreed that the field would benefit from additional work on the peculiar anti-statism espoused by Hoover who, as FBI director, could use his authority as the near embodiment of federal law enforcement to shape a vision of American society. He also expressed the value of a deeper understanding of populism, including when inflected by Christianity. In response to Dochuk’s question of the “religious sensibility” of the FBI, Martin pointed to the real exigencies of the Cold War combined with pervasive suspicion of all things described as “communist,” which resulted in Hoover’s belief that the survival of the United States depended on a revival of what he imagined to be the nation’s (white, Christian) religious underpinnings. Martin also showed an appreciation for those within white evangelicalism who had pushed back against the strengthening religious-governmental alliance with the FBI, citing letters published by Christianity Today critical of Hoover’s own tepid embrace of religion for himself, as well as the insufficient energy devoted to contemporary crises like the bombings of Black churches.
Martin also offered a fascinating glimpse into the process of working with government records that must be released through complex legal mechanisms. He described seeking information from the FBI on the National Association of Evangelicals, concerning which he was told to contact the National Archives, who offered a timeline of 18 months to complete security redaction. That redaction actually took three years. Similarly, government records released by one agency for academic use can also be restricted by another agency and blocked behind yet more legal processes. In Martin’s case, only a lawsuit against the FBI taken up by an attorney on a pro bono basis delivered the information Martin sought. He advised graduate students facing similar dilemmas to contact law schools at their own or other universities for assistance via legal clinics.
The question-and-answer session with seminar attendees was unsurprisingly lively and robust. Peter Thuesen (IUPUI) asked about change over time within Christian ecumenism: if anti-communism united Protestants and Catholics in support of the state in the era of Martin’s book, what unites those traditions today? Martin pointed to more divisive issues in our own day, including abortion, marriage, and global trends in the rise of non-Christian religions as unifiers for various Christian communities. Thomas Harvell-DeGolier (Notre Dame) asked whether religion plays a role in the national security state, which Martin affirmed: in matters such as moral policing, adjudicating citizenship, and determining the “goodness” of a given religious practice, the state remains deeply influenced by the religious priorities of specific religious traditions.
John McGreevy (Notre Dame) asked whether there is a difference between Cold War patriotism and white Christian nationalism, as the two seem so intertwined in Martin’s book. Martin explained that Cold War patriotism gave Hoover the tools he needed to operationalize white Christian nationalism, which itself predates the outbreak of the Cold War. Susanna De Stradis (Mississippi State University) asked whether Hoover’s relationship with Catholicism in particular changed over time, especially as the American Church itself underwent massive shifts in the 1960s and 1970s. Martin described a cautious distancing from the Church by Hoover, especially with the rise of outspoken and highly visible activists like the Berrigan brothers. With the fracturing of American Catholicism largely along American political lines, Hoover lost some trust in the institution itself, even while remaining close with individual Catholics.
During the seminar’s coffee break, David Lantigua shared that starting in 2024 the Cushwa Center’s storied Seminar in American Religion would be renamed to honor the center’s founding director, Jay P. Dolan, who died in May 2023 at age 87. As the event concluded, Lantigua encouraged participants to join the spring 2024 Jay P. Dolan Seminar in American Religion to discuss Stephen Bullivant’s Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America.
Katherine Mascari (Notre Dame ’22 M.A.) is a graduate student in the Master of Theological Studies program at the University of Notre Dame, where she also serves as a graduate research assistant for the Cushwa Center.
Michael Skaggs (Notre Dame ’17 Ph.D.) is a historian of American religion living in South Bend. He serves the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University as director of programs.