by Tisa Wenger
It was great to see so many people at our seminar session in Atlanta! We had four very interesting papers to discuss:
1. Travis Ross, “California Imagined: The Pacific Expositor and the Religious Imagination”
2. Jonathan Olson, “Not Merely Asiatic but Pagan: Religion, Chinese Exclusion, and the American West”
3. Barry Alan Joyce, “Creating an Axis Mundi in the American Southwest: Religion, Science, and the Sacred at Chaco Culture National Historic Park”
4. Brett Hendrickson, “Mexican-American Religious Healing and the American Spiritual Marketplace”
For anyone who wasn’t at the session and would like to read the papers, they are available to seminar members through the website’s members-only page (link in the blog sidebar). I gave a longer-than-it-should-have-been response to the session, which I thought I’d share in condensed form here on the blog. Reflecting on common themes that ran through some or all of these papers led us to a broader discussion about what key themes might distinguish “religion in the American west” and what contributions our work can offer the broader fields of U.S. western history, religious history, and religious studies more generally.
One common theme was the power of religious imagination to shape local and national identities. The first two papers focused on nineteenth-century Protestant public discourse. Ross gave us a close reading of a California Presbyterian newspaper to show how its writers developed a particular vision of Californian identity as they spoke to national debates around slavery, denominational vs. ecumenical efforts, and religious liberty. Olson showed us the power of religious discourse, and religious “othering,” to shape national political debates—in this case, how Protestant politicians in California deployed religious rhetoric to justify exclusionary legislation aimed at Asian immigrants at the end of the century.
The second set of papers examined tensions and points of convergence in more contemporary or perhaps “postmodern” contexts of religious hybridity and diversity. Joyce’s paper provided a finely layered discussion of competing religious narratives and practices laying claim to Casa Rinconada at Chaco Canyon, where National Park Service personnel attempt to negotiate compromises that honor strikingly different understandings of this space put forth by Pueblo Indians, Navajos, and New Age practitioners. Should New Age uses of the space be prohibited when they are offensive to American Indian traditions, or does the principle of religious freedom give them the right to use this public space? What happens when Navajo sacred histories, and Navajo understandings of how the space should be used, are deeply offensive to the Pueblo Indians who trace their ancestry to those that built this ancient city? Joyce asks, “Who decides under the bureaucratic, institutional umbrella of First Amendment rights which narrative becomes part of the cultural canon and which is denied admittance?”
Finally, Hendrickson’s paper, a study of curanderas who work across racial/cultural boundaries in the southwest borderlands, showed us the power of religious imagination and practices of healing to cross borders. Here, Mexican-American curanderas reshape and perhaps re-indigenize their practices in order to appeal to multiple audiences and especially New Age Anglos who, in Hendrickson’s analysis, are predisposed through an ongoing American metaphysical tradition to these hybridized healing modalities. Here, without minimizing the ongoing power disparities that shape these exchanges, Henrickson shows us how the power of religious imagination may be invoked to provide healing across all sorts of boundaries.
My conclusion proposed several broad rubrics (none of them original to me) for thinking about religion in the American west.
I. WEST AS PLACE.
· Exploring the distinctive forms of racial and religious pluralism that are characteristic in this region
· The particular salience and visibility of Native American traditions
· The significance of LAND and PLACE for understanding religious practices, experience, and traditions in the west.
· Mapping RELIGIOUS GEOGRAPHIES: region, regional identities and traditions as crucial to the study of religion. We can draw here on the work of cultural geographers and others who have done significant work to illuminate the cultural significance of place and geography.
· GLOBALIZATION as a crucial emphasis in current scholarship across the humanities. How can we place our analysis of regional religious geographies in the context of globalized patterns of trade, communication, immigration, and religion?
II. WEST AS IMAGINED.
· The role of religious imagination in constructing regional identities
· The place of the west in national and global religious imaginations
Please share your thoughts in response these comments, and your suggestions for additional rubrics and themes.