Anti-Wests? Via Negativa definitions of the American West

5 Dec

I’m involved with not one but two fields that are consistently fraught with definitional challenges. First, Religious studies is perennially imperiled by its refusal to seriously undergird its academic work with clear discussions of the definition of religion. In my own work, on American evangelicals, I’ll have to wrestle with this challenge indirectly through a sincere presentation of my subjects’ understanding of the secular. If my subjects refuse to play the scholar’s game (of defining terms before one begins), then I am somewhat resigned to defining religion through its pairing with the secular. Stay true to your subjects, right?

The maps series from the English wikipedia's W...

The maps series from the English wikipedia’s Wikiproject: United States regions. The maps attempt to show, the various definitions of the regions without endorsing one over another. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Second, interests in geography and space that have led me to a sub-speciality in religion in the American West also challenges the ways in which we define “American West.” There is a chronological question–when are we in American history? There is also a regional question–where are we in the West? But even these don’t necessarily help us define the American West. Is it an idea? A physical territory? An economic or geographic relation? Is it period specific? Does the definition change over time (beyond geography)? Is it mutually exclusive with other territorial objects such as the American Southwest or the Pacific Northwest?

Both of these definitional challenges create immense opportunities for scholars. The in-consistentcy of the definition of religion makes historiographical study of works in religious studies a profitable task. How different is Sidney Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People (1973) from Catherine Albanese’s America: Religions & Religion (2012, 5th ed.) or from Robert Baird’s Religion in America (1844). I have even used these distinctions to help me parse the work of William Warren Sweet, one of the first Americanists studying religion to really take up the challenges presented by F.J. Turner. (I’ll be re-visiting that on a future Wednesday.)

Moreover, the challenges create an opportunity for scholars to weigh the merits and consequences of using different definitions. Should we include divine or supernatural beings? Is religion primarily about belief? These questions are productive because they continually advance the field’s understanding of its object and the methods it uses to study its evolving object.

Emerging Megaregions The Atlantic Magazine articulates “Emerging Megaregions” in the USA in relation to urban/rural voting patterns.For the American West, there is a similar process of productive self-reflection about our object of study. Naturally, just as for religious studies, few if any scholars today simply study “the American West.” (Theoretical works on “religion” are more common than on the American West, I think.) Those meta-narratival studies suffered under years of postmodern critiques about their obliteration of local history and other ill effects. And yet the narrowing of academic projects may say just as much about the definitions at play as more expansive works. Since we are so sure of what we’ve got (on the Mormon Frontier or in mining camps in California or in Russian communities in Alaska) it becomes easier to mark the boundaries that are essential to composing useful broader definitions. Test cases are helping show what the rules really are.

It would be impossible to agree to a definition of religion if we didn’t have historical impressions or gut feelings about what is in and what isn’t. Similarly, there are some things that, whether we can explain them adequately or not, feel “western.” Am I alone in feeling that way? That consensus mysteriously bubbles up and we look back to explain it. Those who are freer (or daring enough) and can ignore nagging suspicions that their definition creates substantive interpretive holes are lucky. We’re not all on board with definitions of the American West as that which relies on Federal assistance or is arid or is somehow connected solely to conquest. We’re still looking for something broader or with more items for its pastiche. Or we’re looking to productively combine these to make sense of the data we’ve got in front of us.

To end with a final juxtaposition of Religion and the American West, just consider this clip from Bill O’Reilly for a second. Yes, it’s him claiming that Chrisitianity is a “philosophy” not a religion. What kinds of things would  scholars of the American West be similarly infuriated or confounded over? Would you be as astounded to hear in a academic discussion that the American West is not in some fashion a region? If we can find such examples, we may have a better chance to grappling our object and making it an even more productive unit of analysis. Perhaps you know of a few? I’d love to hear them. Pull them out of those dark places in your (digital) filing cabinets and send them along.


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