Education: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Ph.D.
Scholar, educator, and writer. University of North Carolina at Charlotte, faculty member in the department of religious studies.
Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 2004.
Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 2007.
Contributor to books, including Faith in America: Changes, Challenges, New Directions Volume I, edited by Charles H. Lippy, Praeger, 2006. Contributor to periodicals, including Journal of Contemporary Religion, Choice, Religion Compass, and Culture and Religion: An Interdisciplinary Journal.
Sean McCloud is a scholar of religious studies whose research and teaching interests focus on American religions, theories and methods for the study of religions, and new and combinative religious movements. McCloud contributes to professional journals and is the author of Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993, published in 2004, and Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies, published in 2007.
Making the American Religious Fringe was called "an important addition to the sociology of religion" by Barry Hollander and Janice Hume in Journalism History. The reviewers went on to note that the author "argues often, and compellingly, that magazines portrayed new religious movements in a skeptical, if not antagonistic, manner as a response to the perception that these movements threatened mainstream America."
In her examination of religion coverage by new and special-interest magazines, such as Time, Newsweek, Life, Ebony, Christianity Today, National Review, and the Saturday Evening Post, McCloud analyzes—via religious history and social theory—why post-World War II magazine writers labeled religions as "mainstream" or "fringe." "The result is a variety of case studies that address news coverage of many religious institutions and movements, from short-lived ‘cults’ to conflicts in mainline denominations," noted Quentin J. Schultze in the Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.
The author explains her book's goal in the introduction to Making the American Religious Fringe. McCloud writes: "In the last thirty years, the word ‘cult,’ today's most common term for religious groups categorized as marginal, has lost any original sociological meaning and now conjures images of brainwashing, coercion, deception, exploitation, perversion, and fraud." McCloud goes on to later note in the introduction that his "interest is not to attack or defend certain movements," adding later that, instead, his goal is "to examine how the contemporary negative connotations of cult, fringe, sect, and other such terms became accepted and applied to such a wide range of groups in the mass media."
In his book, the author argues that, considering mainstream America's white, middle-class, and religiously liberal makeup, journalists worked under the guise of objective reporting but were presenting spiritual apologetics for the dominant social order. The author comes to this conclusion through analyses of articles on a wide range of religious movements beginning in the 1950s on through to the early 1990s, from Pentecostalism and the Nation of Islam to California cults, occult spirituality, and Asian gurus. According to the author, by the media portraying certain religious beliefs as "fringe," they evoked long-standing debates concerning emotional versus rational religion, exotic versus familiar spirituality, and normal versus abnormal demonstrations of piety. The author also explores how boundaries concerning mainstream and fringe can shift in relation to societal and cultural changes, which are, in turn, reflected in the magazine industry.
"Missing in the flurry of recent books on religion and the media is a sustained look at how journalists have covered the margins of American religion," wrote John Schmalzbauer in the Journal of American History, adding that McCloud's book "provides just such an analysis, showing how reporters have helped to create the boundaries between the religious center and the religious periphery." Diane Winston wrote in Church History that the author notes that his study is limited by leaving out a wide range of important media of that era, including television and newspapers. Winston commented that, nevertheless, the author "constructs a tight argument," and Winston further called the book "a significant piece of scholarship."
In his next book, Divine Hierarchies, McCloud explains that class used as an analytical tool cuts across variables such as creed, race, ethnicity, and gender. Because of this, according to the author, class analysis can illuminate American religious life in new and meaningful ways. The author uses various investigative tools, including social theory, historical analysis, and ethnography, to present his argument for reinserting class back into the study and understanding of religion. The author makes his case that class is more than a status grounded in material conditions but, rather, is also an identity made and unmade through both rhetorical and symbolic representations.
The author begins his book by presenting a cultural history of religious studies that includes an examination of how social class surfaced in twentieth-century theories of religious affiliation. He examines topics such as explaining religious affiliations in the age of eugenics and the idea of cultural crises and the acculturation of the masses between World War I and World War II. He goes on to present his case for the past and to examine the importance of class in American religious thought, practice, and scholarship. "This fresh take on the necessity of incorporating class into our historical or ethnographic work is a worthwhile read," wrote Kelly Baker in a review on the Religion in American History Web site.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
McCloud, Sean, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 2004.
Choice, October, 2004, W.L. Pitts, review of Making the American Religious Fringe, p. 311.
Church History, September, 2006, Diane Winston, review of Making the American Religious Fringe, p. 693.
Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, March, 2005, review of Making the American Religious Fringe.
Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, summer, 2004, Quentin J. Schultze, review of Making the American Religious Fringe, p. 449.
Journalism History, spring, 2004, Barry Hollander and Janice Hume, review of Making the American Religious Fringe, p. 50.
Journal of American History, June, 2005, John Schmalzbauer, review of Making the American Religious Fringe, p. 309.
Journal of Media & Religion, Volume 4, issue 3, 2005, Thomas M. Mullen, review of Making the American Religious Fringe, pp. 199-201.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion, September, 2006, Joseph L. Price, review of Making the American Religious Fringe, p. 811.
Publishers Weekly, January 19, 2004, review of Making the American Religious Fringe, p. 72.
H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online,http://www.h-net.org/ (January 1, 2007), Myna German, review of Making the American Religious Fringe.
Religion in American History,http://usreligion.blogspot.com/ (November 28, 2007), Kelly Baker, review of Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies.
University of North Carolina Charlotte Religious Studies Web site,http://www.religiousstudies.uncc.edu/ (May 27, 2008), faculty profile of author.