Why Study Religion in the American West? (AHA2011 Day 3)

17 Jan
Territorial expansion since 1803, by William R...

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Tisa Wenger (Yale University) opened a session on “Why Study Religion in the American West” with a more expansive query: How can sustained attention to religion help scholars in the fields of history of the American West and religious studies to advance their disciplines? The study of the American West has often neglected religion and the study of religion in America has often inadequately dealt with the American West. It is a two-fold problem whose roots stem not only from the staunchly Protestant and Puritan narrative of early America, but also one troubled by the inaccurate assessment of religion and religiosity in the West (both historical and modern). The West and religion in the west need to be integrated even more fully into the fabric of the American story.

David W. Wills began the discussion by recounting the “for better or worse” of the success of his essay “Pluralism, Puritanism, and the Encounter of Black and White.” Wills established the playing field for many subsequent scholars, but today he wonders how well those three initial themes fare when confronted with a Western, national or even global historical framework. Of the three, Wills contended, pluralism/tolerance seems to fare the best because it captures something essential about the West and its interaction with many different communities. The West has a core of diversity that is superficially apparent when contrasted to the way the East has been presented. At the time I was not entirely convinced by Wills assessment (perhaps because it needed to be brief to meet the time restrictions of the large panel), and I think that other analyses such as Patty Limerick’s Legacy of Conquest, environmental perspectives offered by Worster and others, or even the federal perspective inherent in Todd Ketterer’s God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land provide far more compelling Western rubrics. Wills seemed intent on arguing that less is more and that three themes was enough for any historian to work through. In this instance I can’t see the merits of that minimalism because it so profoundly ignores other obvious factors that have made the West unique. How could we fail to categorize the East as a landmass always looking West? That seems well outside Wills triumvirate, and it would certainly present a strong narrative to explain America’s religious history.

I resonated much more with the approach offered by the next speaker, Quincy Newell, who argued that treating the west seriously as agent and stage would lead scholars to reject the Puritan master narrative, embrace Catholicism’s role in our history, broaden our comparative framework, and seriously contend with the role of environment in shaping our past. To me this was a compelling set of benefits that resonated not only with a more satisfying treatment of religion and the American West but also with American history generally. To deal frankly with the West improves our scholarship on the plains, Midwest, South, and East. We can look to Spanish and French colonial models to provide more robust assessments of encounters with Native Americans; we can look at differences between the making of Boston or Chicago or San Francisco; and we can look at immigration to the Eastern Seaboard and weigh it against the migration to the West from its west. These are all hints of deep revisionism in the telling of the American story, and rather than obscuring the older narrative they help us see (it) with renewed clarity.

This refreshing revisionism was also evident in papers from Roberto Sagarena and James Bennett. Sagarena pushed the audience to consider not only East-West perspectives but North-South perspectives. Looking at the migration of political and religious movements and symbols has been a crucial component of borderlands studies, but in the context of the narrative of American history or the history of religion in America we should be considering a wider vector of interactions and confrontations. While we all too often neglect the contributions of Spanish colonization, we do even greater disservice to forgo the extension of this attention forward into more recent historical eras. The modern era continues to see the borderlands of American and Mexico treated rather fluidly when it comes to ideology (if not to immigration). This intellectual exchange can easily be overlooked in the face of trans-Atlantic dialogues, and we must challenge ourselves to acknowledge a discourse that exists substantially in religious modes.

Funny Religious Sticker

Image by Amarand Agasi via Flickr

Bennett further extended this challenge by raising the thorny problem of the “nones.” While we may easily call for greater attention to institutional and denominational religion and belief, it is a more difficult path to interact with the diversity of non-belief, unbelief, and the dreaded bugaboo that are the “spiritual but not religious” folks. These shades of grey require scholars to be more explicit with the definition of religion. Contested belief is often contested because it bucks norms, and explaining the stakes that create dissent can go quite a ways toward providing a more accurate narrative. Beyond beliefs we can also turn to contested diversity (Asian Americans and Hispanics in the West), identities (national identity’s role in ethnic communities in the West), and boundaries (West vs. Plains vs. Pacific Northwest vs. Great Desert, etc.) Each of these is a direct confrontation with more established and conventional narratives, but they also constitute a intensely practical and didactic assessment of altering the vantage point of syllabi and scholarship.

Finally, Tisa Wenger rounded off the panel with a vital discussion of the way that including more religion would contribute to history of the American West. We cannot afford to let religion be a jack-in-the-box (a la Butler), nor can we be afraid to deal with it as an explanation on its own for social or political changes. We need not treat religion as a means to some other end, nor can we accept the false claims made by secularization theory that religion is less important now than in previous eras. The problem of religion is, as Bennett identified, that we can define it in ways that reduce its import. Wenger borrowed the language and rhetoric offered by Thomas Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling to identify one area where religion has been profoundly determinative—settlement and homemaking in the West. Recently the story of Mormon place-making has found a powerful voice in Jared Farmer’s Zion’s Mount, where we can see quite clearly the way that religion can not only motivate migration but facilitate homemaking. This process is much more than a superficial treatment of religion’s role in the family home. Rather we can see how Mormons succeeded in generating and sustaining a profound memory-space that gave their cities and state cosmic meaning. The legacy of this kind of assessment is yet another kind of engagement with the West as stage and agent, one that privileges the narratives from quarters that have often been marginalized and excluded from a broader American story. Revisionism is alive and well in the American West, and if this session was any indication it is ready to extend its reach back into the core of American history.


One Response to “Why Study Religion in the American West? (AHA2011 Day 3)”


  1. What Periods are Pivotal in American Religion? « A Lively Experiment - February 10, 2011

    […] our field’;s desire to avoid always and forever beginning with Massachusetts and Puritans. (See my review of a panel that argued this point.) Perhaps King William’s War would be an interesting topic? Anyone […]

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