Over the summer, we have explored a variety of conceptual frameworks for thinking about the American West. In an eloquent post, Quincy suggested the body as a fruitful lens. In another post, Tisa reflected on the centrality of religious freedom to western residents. Brett pointed us to the absence of religion in literature. As I remarked in the inaugural post, the multiplicity of tropes and metaphors for understanding the American West merely reflects the complexity of religious life in America. However, thus far we have not explored one trope that seeps through the region's history: violence. To that end, I asked Todd Kersetter, author of God's Country, Uncle Sam's Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West to reflect on the way that his text offers critical reflection on the centrality of violence in the religious history of the American West. Thanks, Todd, and congratulations on the arrival of your daughter, Leah!
God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West originated as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Nebraska where my studies focused on the American West. The Branch Davidian conflict broke out while I was writing a research paper on the Lakota Ghost Dance and the 1890 tragedy at Wounded Knee. The two incidents contained a number of parallels that struck me as remarkable, but the question that drove my research was, “How could these dramatic episodes of violence involving religious groups unfold in the West, a region so often associated with opportunity, individualism, and freedom?” Furthermore, I wanted to assess what role religion played in these conflicts and in the West’s history. I began developing a comparative project and, at the urging of my mentor, John Wunder, added a case study of Mormon-U.S. relations in the 19th century. I tried to uncover how religion drove Mormons, Ghost Dancers, and Branch Davidians and also how religion influenced responses to the groups by mainstream U.S. society and government. I think the book’s contributions come in two areas. First, it brings the discussion of each religious group into larger discussions about religion, region and conquest, and nation. Second, it tries to draw out the significance of religion in the lives of all people involved in these conflicts, which gets at the often overlooked significance of religion in the West and in the United States.