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.”