In the latest interview in my
ongoing series, produced for the World Religions and Spirituality
Project (WRSP) but also reproduced here, I’m pleased to have
Professor Marie W. Dallam of the University of Oklahoma with me. Dallam’s
research has looked into some of the less well known facets of
American Christianity, resulting in her two books Daddy Grace: A
Celebrity Preacher and His House of Prayer (2007) and Cowboy
Christians (2018), the former looking at an early Pentecostal
figure and the latter at the growing number of Protestants who are
strongly inspired by the cowboy culture of the American West. We discuss these projects as well as her interest in the relationship between religion, food, and attire.
You have been interested in religion for a long time, having first
received a BA in religious studies in 1996 and then stayed on that
track throughout your career. What is it about this subject that
Religious belief can be such a strong motivator in human lives, yet
often in ways that are more like undercurrents rather than being
readily observable, identifiable, and nameable. I find it endlessly
fascinating to peek under the blanket and try to understand how the
whole picture fits together.
Your first book was Daddy Grace: A Celebrity Preacher and His
House of Prayer (New York University Press, 2007). Could you tell
us something about who this figure was and what led you to devote
your attention to him while in graduate school?
Daddy Grace (Marcelino Manuel da Graça, 1881 or 1884–1960) was an
immigrant from Cape Verde who founded a church in the Pentecostal
tradition, called the United House of Prayer for All People. I first
came across his name in a seminar during my master’s degree work
and wound up writing my term paper about his church. My research led
me to see that the academic treatment of Grace and his church was not
only scant but polemical, with many people boldly dismissing him.
Even though he built an organization that served tens of thousands of
people over the years, almost no one had investigated his work in a
serious and balanced way. Was that because he presented as a bit of a
caricature? Was it because he did things that made people
uncomfortable? Was it because poor, black people have often been
overlooked as a matter of course? It’s probably all of these
things, and others. In any case, it struck me as deeply sad. I
thought his work and his legacy were worthy of recovering and I set
out to do that for my doctoral dissertation, eventually published as
the book with New York University Press.
You were previously a steering committee member on the American
Academy of Religion’s (AAR) “Religion, Food, and Eating in North
America” seminar and subsequently brought out a co-edited volume on
Religion, Food, and Eating in North America (Columbia
University Press, 2014). What interests you about the relationship
between religion and food, and how did this particular project get
off the ground?
Within religious contexts, I am interested in material objects and
the range of relationships people have with them. I like to reflect
on ways that both the objects themselves and the relationships
function in religious meaning-making, and in turn how that effects
peoples’ everyday lives and behavior. Our AAR seminar on food and
the anthology that came out of it were followed by an AAR seminar on
Religion, Attire, and Adornment in North America, and it too has a
volume that is now in press (Columbia University Press, 2023). There
was some overlap in the group of scholars involved in both projects
because of our common interests in the material culture of religion
and the types of questions we explore. For the newest volume I both
co-edited, with Dr. Benjamin Zeller, and I contributed a chapter
about the Church of Body Modification. And who knows, there could
even be a future third volume in this series!
Your most recent monograph, Cowboy Christians (Oxford
University Press, 2018), looked at the growing number of
self-described “cowboy churches,” especially in Texas and
Oklahoma. Could you give us a rough idea of what cowboy Christianity
is and how you came to study it?
Cowboy Christians are people who feel personally grounded in a
subculture of the American West, which they themselves tend to call
“cowboy culture,” and for whom Christianity blends with that
culture on a deep level. Of course, some of this cowboy culture is
real and some aspects of it are based on an entrenched mythology
about cowboys and the “Old West.” Many cowboy Christians feel
they have been marginalized from mainstream churches over the years,
and cowboy churches have sprung up to make an intervention on that.
The cowboy church itself is defined mostly by behaviors and
structures, and perhaps somewhat by values and expectations, but not
really by theology; theologically they are on the conservative end of
its ideal form, the cowboy church eschews formality and deliberately
lowers social barriers in order to welcome people who don’t
typically feel comfortable in traditional churches. The attire is
casual, the atmosphere is informal, the music is identifiable, the
sermons are relatable, and the social activities are things that
interest a cowboy culture crowd. They won’t ostracize people who
demonstrate “sinful” behavior; the idea is that through
involvement with the church, you will gradually shed your sinful
tendencies, but no one expects it to be a quick, easy, or permanent
process. In the meantime, everything might look a bit messy.
book begins with a question. I began studying cowboy Christianity
simply because I didn’t know what it was, and I was trying to get
my questions answered. And as with most things, the deeper I looked,
the more I found. That’s part of why I think of it as a cowboy
Christian “movement,” rather than just a type of church.
You characterise cowboy Christianity as a new religious movement
(NRM), a concept that I feel (in the popular imagination at least)
often tends to be associated more with groups that are wholly
distinct from mainstream religions (Wicca, Scientology, and so on)
rather than new variants of established traditions. That being the
case, I wondered if you had any additional thoughts about the value
of the NRM framework for understanding new denominations or trends
within existing religions like Protestantism?
My interests skew toward alternative religions, rather than “new”
religions, because they can actually be more controversial. What I
mean by that is that people are less likely to fear something that
they perceive as dramatically different from themselves (“new
religions”), whereas something that is similar to them but slightly
different can be more deeply disturbing—the “variants of
established traditions,” as you phrased it. Daddy Grace’s church
is a slightly different type of Pentecostalism, and for that reason
most Pentecostals prefer to significantly distance themselves from
it. The same is true of the cowboy church: it’s just a little bit
different from “mainstream” Christianity, and that causes
discomfort for some. I find that dynamic interesting.
that’s not what you asked, is it? The answer to your question is
that yes, much of the sociological work that has been done on new
religious movements can readily be applied to more mainstream
religious developments. The social dynamics themselves are largely
the same across religions. They’re just points on a continuum.
Have you had much of a response to the book from cowboy Christians
(or other Christians) since it was published?
I had some positive responses from several of my interviewees, but I
suspect that the ones who didn’t like the end result are too nice
to hunt me down and tell me that. Cowboy Christians are, after all,
polite! I spoke on the phone for a couple hours with one gentleman
I’d interviewed, and he really grilled me about some things I’d
written, but it was all a good-natured effort to come to a peaceful
understanding about it (which we did). I also had one man who pointed
to a part of my introduction in which I acknowledged that some
readers in the cowboy Christian world would not agree with my take on
things; he said that was true and that he was glad I’d written the
book nonetheless. I really appreciated him saying that. Honestly,
though, people of faith were not my target audience. It’s a book
for scholars. It’s a book for the history shelves. It’s a book
that gives insight into how this movement is unfolding and
self-styling, and I suspect it will be more intellectually valuable
in a few decades when scholars are trying to puzzle through the past.
In your book you refer to a comparative lack of overt politicization
within the cowboy Christian churches, and I wondered if that had
potentially changed in the past few years given the growing
ideological polarization of U.S. society? Do you think that there are
connections between the cowboy Christian movement and what is now
often being called “Christian Nationalism”?
That’s a good question, but I don’t know the answer. Certainly,
many cowboy Christians would identify closely with the feeling that
they have been long left out and tossed aside from the world of
mainstream politics. So a safe bet would be that political issues and
candidates have become discussion points in cowboy churches in recent
years. However, since the conclusion of my research I have distanced
myself from engagement with the cowboy Christian milieu, so I don’t
really know that for certain. Hopefully another young researcher is
out there as we speak, gathering the answers.
Has there been an expansion of the cowboy Christian movement outside
its U.S. heartlands? Has it extended into either Canada or Mexico,
Yes, absolutely. There are cowboy churches and cowboy Christians all
over the world: Canada, Mexico, Australia, several countries in Asia.
I don’t have any idea what those communities are like, nor what
aspects of the cowboy church model they do and don’t choose to
follow. But I know some leaders have deliberately undertaken mission
efforts in those places and they intend to stick closely with the
model while also incorporating local relevance.
Are there any future research projects or publications of yours that
we should be looking out for?
In the past couple of years, I’ve been exploring intersections of
religion and the arts. I published an article last year in the MAVCOR
journal about Mormon art
Now I’m in the earliest stages of a project that is a consideration
of religious theatre. I am interested in different genres of
theatrical performance that are deliberate efforts at evangelism,
particularly (but not solely) among new religious movements, and I’m
looking at the phenomenon across time periods and geography.
Professor Dallam, thank you for your time and all the best with your