Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Death of Christian Britain

I was all going to stop talking about gender for a while, but then I went to a seminar yesterday with Callum Brown, a Scottish cultural historian, and he was so interesting that I thought I'd serve him up fresh for your delectation.

Brown's argument goes a little something like this: historians often talk about the secularisation of Britain as a slow process which took place over several centuries. They are wrong. Actually, the 1870s-1890s saw a high point of church attendance and of the Church's integration into popular culture. At this point, there was a change in the way that people understood piety – where before the archetypal pious person was male, there was a dramatic shift, with piety becoming understood instead as distinctively feminine. The characteristics of femininity and piety came to be seen as basically the same. At the same time, masculinity was conceived as religiously vulnerable: while women were devoted mothers, good Christians, and pure of heart, men were easily tempted by the dangers of drink, drugs and sex. Men were the problem, and women the solution.

This gender world broke down in the 1960s, with the beginning of free love, sexual liberation, the Pill, and second-wave feminism, and as it fell apart, so did Christianity's dominance in popular culture. Piety and femininity were uncoupled, and so began the long decline of Christianity in Britain over the rest of the 20th century.

Brown is unusual among historians in using Foucault's ideas about discourse as a tool for doing history – to understand the changes in the relationship between Christianity and popular culture of the last few centuries, he looked at the way that people's language about religion, piety and gender changed over the period he focuses on. This was a dramatic change for him – as recently as the mid-90s he was sitting in pubs bitching to fellow historians about this pesky postmodern history; a few years ago he wrote a book about postmodernism for historians. He's got quite a lot of flak for this, but he's tough enough to take it, and is about to rerelease his original book with an extra chapter explaining why he's right and his critics are wrong.

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