As an historian of American religion, Porterfield is interested in the interplay between religion and politics, religion and social change, and religion and social conservatism.
Robert A. Spivey Professor of Religion
Fascination with the power of religion drives Amanda Porterfield’s work. Since the time she was an undergraduate, Porterfield has set herself to the task of trying to find out how religion operates in people’s lives. In several decades of work, her quest has turned up a number of answers and an even greater number of questions.
As a graduate student, Porterfield came to the conclusion that religion was a cultural phenomenon connecting individuals with larger social and intellectual forces, leading them to embody those forces and sometimes prompting them to respond to those forces in ways that established new ways of thinking and acting. She also fell in love with history, with the kaleidoscopic variety of historical expressions of religion and with the hard work of trying to understand the role that religion plays in how people and cultures change over time.
As an historian of American religion, Porterfield is interested in the interplay between religion and politics, religion and social change, and religion and social conservatism. She has studied the role of religion in gender formation and written about Americans who used religious interpretations of gender to promote social order and their own influence in American society. She is also interested in the religious struggles of American intellectuals and particularly in the way intellectuals employ God and other religious ideas and then handle the challenges that develop in the course of living out their ideas.
Porterfield does not see religion as an entirely intellectual matter, however. Several of her books emphasize the priority of religious practice. “People believe because they practice religious behavior and religious thinking as much as the other way around,” Porterfield argues. “Belief in God crystallizes for people in the process of bowing their heads in prayer.” Attention to the many ways that religion is embodied in practice, along with attention to the engaging forms of material culture that encourage religious practice, helps Porterfield in her continuing effort to explain the power of religion.