June 1, 2010

The Tea Party and the West, Pt 1: Land and Christianity

by Brandi Denison

Last week, I drove straight into Tea Party Country—western Colorado, my hometown. I had little choice. I could either stand my political ground and not see my family, or I could see my cousin graduate from high school by immersing myself in the land of Fox News and vacuous political slogans (I was most shocked by a breakfast place’s marquee: Washington and Denver are dirty, take out the trash in November). So, I went. Rather than fighting with my family (although we did that too), I decided to become an amateur anthropologist. My task was to attempt to understand the profound distrust of the current government on its own terms. One of my persisting questions is how and why is there a seamless marriage between pro-business political legislation and Protestant Christianity? William Connolly tackles the same question in his book, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style; however, he leaves many questions unanswered. My hypothesis is that regionalism might be able to shed some light on the seemingly happy marriage between these two powerful entities. After all, Manifest Destiny successfully merged Christianity with westward capitalistic expansion.

Three nodes of Tea Party’s nebulous platform I will focus in the coming posts are land, immigration, and individualism. This post will focus on land and land use.

One only needs to look back to the 2008 election and Sarah Palin’s “Drill, Baby, Drill” slogan for an example of the centrality of land use to the Tea Party movement. The point of land, according to the Tea Party, is to use it. The “proper” use of it will grant the US freedom and independence. Since most of the land-based energy resources are still located west of the Mississippi River—between the natural gas production of western Colorado, the coal in the Great Basin region, and Alaska’s oil reserves—this means that for the Tea Party, western resources are central to America’s continued dominance.

In 1885, Josiah Strong made similar claims about the American West. In the first chapters of Our Country, his notorious anti-immigration treatise, Strong cataloged the American West’s resources and expansive lands. The trans-Mississippi West held great potential for agricultural and ore development. Its obvious application would mean that America’s increased wealth would allow missionaries to reach out to the entire world. But these excessive resources would also serve to civilize the world, because in Strong’s words, “what is the process of civilizing but the creating of more and higher wants? Commerce follows the missionary.”

However, like many peripheral areas in expansionist projects, the promise of land-based wealth was elusive to many westerners. Caught in cycles of energy booms and busts, many towns in the American west bear the marks of hardship. In my hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado, concentric circles of old and new strip malls tell the tales of years of economic drought layered with years of plenty. In between these spaces of commerce are places of worship, which provide anchors for many people caught in these manic waves of feast and famine.

The entanglement of land, religion, and capitalism in the American West is a complicated tale: buoyed by religious exceptionalism, entrepreneurs sought their fortune in the region’s land. Those that won fortunes often left others behind. The same religious ideas that brought them “out west” provided an anchor for those struggling in the wake of capitalistic expansion.

The month-long BP oil spill might turn the tide of this rhetoric, but the connections among land, Christianity as a justification for capitalism, and Christianity as site of refuge are strong and powerful “assemblages.”


Paul Harvey said...

Brandi: Great post. I'm not a native of CO, but have been here now 15 years, and your exploration of land, religion, and capitalism captures this important nexus nicely. I'm looking forward to your further posts. Paul

rlstgal said...

Thanks, Paul!

Brett Hendrickson said...

I'm curious about the role of private property and the creation of public wealth--especially wealth that will be used, as Strong desired, for the expansion of Christianity and commerce. Unlike a lot of the country, the West contains a complicated tapestry of private and public lands. Do you think the extraordinary maintenance of public land in the West strengthens the creation of public wealth? And, how do Tea Party commitments to private property and land rights contribute to their religious vision of America?

Christopher said...

This is great stuff. I look forward to the forthcoming posts on the subject.

fatedplace said...

Excellent work, Brandi. I can't wait to meet up in Tahoe and get a chance to pick your brain about this experience!

rlstgal said...

Brett--Absolutely. I think the mixture of private and publicly held lands in the American West complicates the relationship Westerners have with the federal government. For many Western residents, government management of land is proof of the federal government's incompetency.

I think you have asked the central question--how is it that privately held property translates to fulfillment of religious aspirations? Glenn Beck has fashioned a system in which Jesus himself was a capitalist and God commanded that we protect private property rights. Thus, one could conclude, the current system of public land ownership not only threatens America's economic leadership but also violates Christian principles.

Everyone else, thanks for the feedback! It is great to know that so many smart people are invested in thinking about religion in the American West.

Jessica Montgomerie said...

I don't know how it plays out in the part of Colorado where your family lives, but in the more urban areas I've discovered an interesting breed of "green republicans" I never encountered in the Midwest, which is where I'm from originally. Really concerned about environmental issues, but still self-identifying as conservative.