November 28, 2011

"Building Up What Needs to be Destroyed"

by Sara M. Patterson

One of my favorite comments from the Religion and the American West seminar at this year’s AAR—and, mind you, there were many comments worthy of quotation—was in response to a question posed by a first timer to the seminar: “What makes the West really distinct?”  In asking that question, our visitor tapped into the discussions that we’ve been having for the past four years: what really makes the West distinct?  The first response came from Greg Johnson, this year’s respondent.  He argued that the emphasis shouldn’t be on the really, rather that the West need only be sufficiently different to sustain interesting and on-going conversations.  A second response to the question came from Jim Bennett, co-chair of RAW.  He said that as a group we knew that our regionalism skirted on exceptionalism but that we still felt there was value to focusing our attention on religion in the American West: “We are building up what we know needs to be destroyed; we’re doing both simultaneously.”  I appreciated how well those comments seemed to epitomize much of what the seminar and its participants have tried to do.
Because all four of the papers presented can be found by following the instructions here, I will not attempt to summarize each author’s argument.  Rather, I will try to tease out several themes (or several manifestations of one theme) that I saw surface in this year’s discussion.  I hope that others will respond and explore the themes that stood out to them because this is in no way a comprehensive list. I am encouraged here by the comments given by Greg Johnson, whose response can be found here.  Johnson suggested that the panelists explore secondary order arguments that would promote comparison and cross-talk, while recognizing that comparisons in the past (and today) often function in a bullying fashion, forcing peoples and their spiritual identities into categories that they might not recognize themselves.  Nonetheless, Johnson argued for a cautious exploration of the larger relevance of each of the specific papers’ arguments.
The first theme that stood out to me was the role of “the West” in nation formation.  Several of our panelists noted that “the west” was not always geographically west of wherever the United States was, and yet “the West” was the space on which Americans played out their futuristic, often millennial, hopes for the nation.  As one participant noted, it was in the American imagination what America “ought to be.” This desire to create the ideal “American” (read also Protestant Christian) space, led to some very serious revisionist histories that “disappeared” indigenous peoples and wildernesses (and Muslims and animists in the Philippines), that flat out rejected whatever was deemed “non-Christian” (ie. Groups like Mormons), and re-read, in order to claim, certain histories (such as California’s Spanish, Catholic past).  All of these strategies were part and parcel of the formation of an idealized American identity.  Brandi Denison offered an important caution to our discussion of ‘disappearances,’ one later echoed by John-Charles Duffy: that in talking about disappearances and constructing these activities as the act of disappearing, we may well be participating in our own forms of romanticization.
The second theme that emerged in the papers was the theme of different groups—in these papers Mormons and Jews—claiming an American Indian past in order to foster a particular group identity.  This process stood out most clearly in Sarah Imhoff’s work which analyzed the reasons why supporters of the Galveston movement—a movement to place newly immigrated Jews in the American West—might be interested in the argument that Jews were somehow tied to American Indian ancestry, an argument that had been made since the colonial settlement of the Americas. 
The third theme that is intimately tied to the previous two was the way Catholics, Mormons and American Indians (particularly Utes, in our discussion), played a role in creating these visions of the past, present and future.  As Katherine Moran pointed out, Catholics played a key role in creating a romantic Catholic past in the pacific west, they were integral in portraying themselves as the predecessors of American Protestants.  In a similar vein, the Utes were not passive players in the creation of historical narratives that tied to the present day.  As an example Greg Johnson brought up the fact that the Utes currently own a tiny piece of the area surrounding Mesa Verde even though they have no blood connection to the ancient Pueblo who dwelt there.  Although there is no blood connection, the Utes have set up a hot dog stand where a tourist economy allows them the possibility of connecting with the esteemed and romanticized native past portrayed at Mesa Verde.
The final statement that caught my attention and may not be a ‘theme’ from the seminar this year, but is certainly worthy of note, was Johnson’s claim that Mormonism was “God’s gift to people who study religion.”  The argument behind this comment was simply that Mormon history is so rich and full of data about the founding of a new religious movement.  Johnson encouraged seminar participants to use their own approach to teaching Mormonism as a type of litmus test: If one can’t teach about Mormonism as a serious religious movement, then there “is something wrong with your methodology.”  I think this is an excellent reminder that I will use to end my comments about this year’s seminar. What stood out most to me was that we should be constantly questioning our methodologies while also continuing to explore, compare and make secondary-order arguments.  We should, indeed, continue the task of building up what we know needs to be destroyed.

Editors' note: Stay tuned for further conversation about our recent AAR session!  Did you go?  What did you think?  Leave your thoughts in the comments!  ALSO, coming up next week: Tisa Wenger kicks off our Book of the Month series with a review of Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (W.W. Norton, 2010).

1 comment:

Tisa Wenger said...

Thanks for this thoughtful account of the seminar meeting- makes me even sorrier that I missed it. I too think that arguments about the absolute distinctiveness of the West are unnecessary and even wrong-headed. Instead the point is that studies of American religion should not be blind to region-- a blindness which historically has meant that the East has stood in for the whole country as an unmarked norm. Our histories of American religion need to attend to regional cultures and histories, including those of the West, instead of assuming that region makes no difference.