by Tisa Wenger
In teaching a course titled “Religion in the American West” this semester, I must confess to an occasional frustration with the limitations of this rubric. Some days I’m not even sure why I’ve chosen to configure a course in this way. The western half of the United States (if we can even agree that this is what we’re studying) is just too much, too big, to identify consistent themes that might distinguish its religious history from that of the rest of the country. Rather than constituting one region, it encompasses multiple regions, each with multiplicities of its own. And then it occurs to me that this is precisely the point. We are not engaged in a quest for some unique quality that would separate the West from the rest of the country, or from its multiple borderlands. Rather, as Brandi Denison’s inaugural blog entry also suggested, focusing on the multiplicity of Western narratives may bring new insights and new questions to national, hemispheric, and transnational histories.
For example, I’m thinking a lot these days about the topic of religious freedom in American history. My project is not limited to the West, but my concern with the West significantly transforms the shape of this work. As the United States expanded westward, how did concepts of liberty and the ideal of the free conscience shape Protestant visions of their own role in what seemed to them a divinely ordained drama? When and where did Anglo-Protestant conceptions of “freedom” tend to exclude and/or discipline other modes of religiosity? How did the peoples they encountered—Indians, Catholics, Mormons, Hispanos, Asian immigrants, and others—understand and make use of the religious freedom ideal, and how did it transform them? Were the dynamics of religious freedom different in the West, where in most areas the “mainline” Protestant denominations never established any controlling presence and competed with multiple forms of religious commitment?
Another question I’m pondering involves the relationship between religion in the American West and (buzzword alert!) more global or transnational approaches to religious history. Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s classic essay “Eastward Ho!” (in Thomas Tweed, ed., Retelling U.S. Religious History) reminded us well over a decade ago that a “Pacific Rim” perspective on U.S. religious history would require us to think multidirectionally and even globally about human migration into and across the Americas. This seminar and this blog, I hope, will help all of us to take up Laurie’s challenge and to expand our field of vision so that we’re not only orienting ourselves regionally within the U.S.—but that the American West might also open up new ways of seeing transnational religious networks and movements.
For anyone who happens to find this blog without already knowing about our seminar and/or website, please check out our home site: “Religion in the American West Seminar.” We welcome your comments and suggestions.