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Molly Worthen, Assistant Professor of History

May 25, 2017 | M. Clay

Before becoming an academic, Molly Worthen worked as a journalist. She brings this sensibility to her work as a scholar. She also writes a regular column for the New York Times Opinion Section. She describes her work in exploring Christianity in the United States.



Philip Hollingsworth: Welcome to the IAH podcast where we profile Fellows of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities here at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m Philip Hollingsworth. In this episode, I interview Molly Worthen, Assistant Professor of History. In our conversation, Professor Worthen discusses her latest book project on charisma in American politics and religion. We also talk about how her background in journalism led to her position as a contributing writer for the New York Times.

PH: So to start out, could you talk a little bit about your research and how you approach in general what you work on?

Molly Worthen: I’m a historian of ideas, I guess, is the is the broadest way to put it. But what does that mean? Well, I focus primarily on the history of religion in North America for the past several years, my most recent book was about conservative Christianity, I guess you could say, the intellectual backstory of the rise of the Christian right in the second half of the 20th century. And I have, for the past decade combined academic research on that subject with freelance journalism. So I work both in dusty archives, but also regularly, I’m on the phone with real living people in it many times in the communities that I, I study. And I’ve always really liked that combination, because I don’t come from the tradition that I’ve spent the most time studying myself, I didn’t grow up and an evangelical Christian. And so you know, that comes with advantages and disadvantages, I suppose it means I have a kind of broader perspective, sometimes I see connections that an insider might not see. But it also means I’m not a native speaker, you could say in the traditions that I that I study, so it’s always helpful to sort of test some of my hypotheses, in conversations with people in those communities and just kind of see how they react.

And I think in the future going forward, I’m starting to broaden out a little bit in my, my current book project, I hope is going to emerge as a big history of the idea of charisma, both as a religious concept and a political idea. And that’s something that I got interested in, that’s the kind of question of the interaction of, of theology and, and personal magnetism and politics. First, I suppose in my experience, observing the evangelical Christian communities I was studying, but it’s, of course, a lens that you could apply to, you know, any human context. That’s kind of the broader framework I’m playing with now.

PH: So speaking of conservative Christianity, what kind of drew you to study that and do history on that in the first place?

MW: Well, when I got to college, I fell into some history classes. And it dawned on me pretty rapidly that although I did not come from a particularly religious background myself, that for the vast majority of human beings today and throughout history, religion has been if not the primary than an awfully important lens through which they’ve processed their world. And if I wanted to have an accurate understanding of history, then I ought to learn something about religion.

And you know, there’s a lot of happenstance in one’s undergraduate experience. And I fell into a great class on Russian history. And I got fascinated with Russian Orthodox Christianity. That was really my first love. I spent all sorts of time learning Russian language, I lived in a rather remote part of Northern rural Alberta for a summer with a community of guests. You could caricature them as the Russian Amish or Russian Orthodox Old Believers who were quite isolated, really kept to a lot of old, old fashioned practices, it was very hard to break into that community. In retrospect, I see that what I was doing was kind of amateur ethnography, stumbling through. And it was my first time really trying to understand a religious community quite different from anything I had ever seen before been part of, and that I think, turned me into a scholar of religion.

MW: I took some detours. My first book was actually about diplomatic history. But then when it came time to kind of figure out what I wanted to do next, you know, for my grown-up career, so to speak, I wanted to be a religion writer, I had done some journalism. I had interned in newspapers and magazines, but I thought, well, I don’t I don’t particularly have a lot of expertise. I need to spend some time just reading a lot of books, reading the scriptures, familiarizing myself in a serious way, so that I’m just not adding to the chaff. You know, there’s plenty of mediocre religion writing out there already.

And I wanted to be strategic I had loads of interests. I mean, I would have been very happy to continue my study of Russian Orthodoxy. I’m kind of a closet medievalist, I would have been very happy studying and a 14th century Carthusian monks. But I had to think in terms of what I could sell to magazine editors. And so I thought, Well, I’ll see how I like kind of planting myself in the study of contemporary Christianity in the North American context.

MW: And it turned out, I quickly learned that to understand anything about conservative evangelicals in our current moment, you really have to do your homework centuries and centuries back, you have to master that whole, that whole tradition to understand where some of these ideas and impulses we see today come from. So I have always been able, I found to indulge most of my interests in in earlier periods, and where I can kind of weave that into my journalism, my analysis of contemporary religion and politics, although I’m often kind of battling with editors to get them to just let me include, you know, a couple of sentences on medieval theology or something that are a little resistant.

PH: It goes that far back, I promise, right. So this book project on charisma, could you talk a little bit more about that?

MW: The word charisma is one we use an awful lot. It’s not academic jargon, it’s one you see in the newspaper, but it’s actually rather vague, you know, what are we actually talking about? Are we talking about this sort of ethereal glow around, you know, leaders we admire? Are we talking about the sort of physicality of a performer a relationship, you know, rather than a quality that that is inherent in an individual? Is it a relationship between a leader and followers? Is it something that, you know, can be transmitted over some media, whether it’s the radio or television or the internet? I think that these are, these are questions that people have been interested in charisma have had been raising for a long time.

MW: The concept, you know, I think is it’s interesting that it’s not one that has been part of our discussion of politics for generations and generations, it has a very particular history, a particular guy, the sociologist Max Wabre, took that word, which was really a kind of obscure theological term, that would have been familiar to German theologians his colleagues in theology, but a few other people. And he borrowed it for his own analysis of politics. And before that, people would have talked about magnetism or something like that. So the concept is very old. And it comes originally, from a particular religious context.

It’s this idea that you see in the Jewish and Christian scriptures of have this gift, by God’s grace, kind of, you know, presence of the Holy Spirit in God’s chosen messenger. So you know, that’s the sense in which we see it play out in the Scriptures. And that’s its meaning, for, for early, you know, early people who are kind of using this idea to talk about some come some kind of anointed, anointed leader who has this power. And I’m interested in maybe starting with this tradition around the medieval and early modern kings of Europe, particularly in England and France, known as the king’s touch, in which the king was supposed to have this power to heal particular illnesses by his touch. Queens sometimes had it to, particularly this this illness of scrofula, which was this very nasty, it would result in sort of very ugly, sores all over your face and neck. And supposedly, it was believed that if you went to the king, and knelt before him, on one of the days, when he presented himself, he would touch you and you might be healed. Now scrofula happens to go into remission, sort of unpredictably with some regularity.

So it lent itself to, at least from the perspective of the secular historian to seeming like it might miraculously respond to the king’s touch. But the way in which observers and people in the Royal Court wrote about this was very much in terms of the king as a divine servant as the sort of representative of God on earth in some way, who had this gift by virtue of his office. And so you can kind of see the genealogy from that, that ancient idea of God’s grace, I’m interested in tracing that from this kind of early modern context where we so clearly see the residue of religion, all the way up through, you know, presidential candidates in the 21st century kissing babies, and what is the line right, and at what point does the theology sort of morph into something that at least is no longer explicitly religious?

MW: And frankly, I became, I guess my interest was really piqued in the context of the last election, watching the relationship between Donald Trump and his followers at rallies, particularly when you know, in talking to unsympathetic observers of Trump, about their reactions to him. The last word on their lips was charisma. I mean to those who didn’t like Trump, who don’t like him, he is a bore, he is very he has he has he repulses them, he has the opposite effect. And yet for these people kind of in his thrall at the, political rallies, charisma, you know, it almost seems to fall short, in any attempt to describe this, this magnetism and this way in which he was he is so ingeniously able to evoke certain emotions and almost read the feeling of the crowd. It’s very, it’s very hard thing to get one’s hands on.

MW: But I’m hoping that if I weave together an analysis of what do we actually see happening between leaders and followers in different contexts throughout history, alongside an investigation into how were the thinkers of the of the time making sense of this? Were they drawing on theological ideas? Were they drawing on the latest social psychology, then I can perhaps come up with a sort of historically cogent story that really gives us some sense of the transformation of these ideas over time.

PH: You also have a regular opinion piece in The New York Times.

MW:  Yes, I’m a contributing writer at the opinion page.

PH:  Right. Could you talk a little bit about how that relationship and how that column developed?

MW:  Well, it developed out of my freelancing work, I started writing for the New York Times Magazine 10 years ago. And what I’ve learned in my freelance journalism career is that so much depends on your relationship with editors. And so I ended up writing for the magazine for a few years, in part because there was an editor who, with whom I had a connection, who liked my ideas, and my writing style. And you find editors like that simply through perseverance. I mean, I’ve sent so many cold pitches, you know, to editors I’ve never met, I maybe reverse engineered their email address from clues on the internet. And eventually, you do that enough. And you sort of figure out how to how to sculpt the right pitch email to appeal to editors who are just skimming it quickly, or tend to be very conservative, and then that they’re very risk averse, you know, they’re uncertain about trying someone they don’t know, eventually land on someone’s desk, who is sympathetic, but that editor didn’t stay there forever. He moved on.

And I ended up, I think I sent another cold email, I had an idea for an op-ed. And that ended up forwarded to another editor who happened to oversee part of the opinion page, and he really became my advocate. So that mean, that has been a big part of it. And I developed to, I guess, a habit of mind that I try to encourage my colleagues and my graduate students to foster too, because I think that it doesn’t solve a lot of good to simply try to train myself to see connections between my own expertise, whatever it may be, and current events. You know, I keep a Word document of story ideas, where I just, I just try to jot down. I try to visit it at least once a week to put down anything, even if it’s totally half baked, that seems like it might be a connection.

I’ve also begun to understand my bailiwick: my beat, if you will, in journalism as pretty broad, much broader than my academic expertise. So I write about things for the newspaper that I have not published on as a as an academic historian. I mean, I wrote an op-ed on the history of Canadian health care. I’ve written about Catholics and Mormons. I don’t tend to write too much about in my academic work. But editors, of course, newspapers don’t see that… they’re not that interesting to them. As an academic, if you are, the only thing you’re comfortable writing about is this tiny, little sliver, right, which seems to them very narrow, we seem so over-specialized to people outside the ivory tower.

MW: So it’s important, I think, to sort of get over one’s impostor syndrome. And I’ve learned to tell myself, well, if this is a subject, I’m not an expert in, I know what it means to learn something well enough to write about it responsibly. So if I don’t know it, I know who to talk to. I can call up my colleague at ‘X’ university who’s written that book, and I can quote them and, you know, I know how to do that work. And I think that that that can carry you a long way. And so now I write I just write a piece for them about every other month. And I really enjoy it. I see it as sort of an extension of both my teaching as well as my research. I see each one has a mini research project, and I always learn something new. So it’s as valuable to me as anything else I do.

PH: What’s a book that changed your life?

MW: Wow. A book that changed my life. Gosh, that’s the sort of question you should give people warning of before you spring it on them

PH: That’s why we like to not do it. [laughs]

MW: Well, you know, I this is I don’t know if this is, I’m sure I’ll think of a think of 10 answers, you know, after this conversation but a book that made an enormous impression on me is a book. It’s a memoir of a very difficult, largely failed expedition to Antarctica, called The Worst Journey in the World by a British writer named Apsley Cherry-Gerard, who accompanied with Robert Falcon Scott on one of his failed missions. And the title sums it up. It is an incredibly harrowing account of he miseries and trials and, and injury and deaths involved in that, that amazing kind of early 20th century heyday of polar exploration, when these bands of men, you know, seeking, yes, fame and fortune, but also seeking simply to advance the bounds of knowledge and show what humans were capable of undertook these ridiculous expeditions at great personal cost. In the best case scenarios, all the dogs always die, and often many of the humans as well.

And it’s written by a young guy, who, who at the time was a kind of young assistant who was there to assist the main biologist on the trip. And he talks about, you know, basically crawling into the total darkness of Arctic winter to collect these obscure penguin eggs, you know, this one kind of penguin only roosted in this particular particularly remote place. And, they’re risking life and limb and, you know, you don’t know if they’re gonna make it and, and, of course, Robert Falcon Scott came to a very ugly, end. He and his last companions froze to death.

That was one of the first polar memoirs that I read, and I’m a polar memoir junkie. And I think it’s because I’m such a physical coward myself. I’m an incredible physical chicken. And, and I am so I am so born away by these accounts of physical bravery and stamina, but I’m also so inspired by this sort of myth, the scientific machismo of these Edwardian polar explorers and their devotion to this ideal. Of course, there’s all sorts of ways in which I could be a critical historian and peel apart the hierarchies and the assumptions and their racial racist ideas about the Inuit you know, the ones who are who are in the Arctic. But I don’t like to do that when I’m reading. I just like to be carried away by the by the adventurer. So that’s my answer.

PH: I think I’m the same way about like, things in space. So afraid to be out there. There’s there’s no going back.

MW: Absolutely.

PH: All right. Well, thank you very much. That was great.

MW: Thank you. This was fun.

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