December 26, 2011

Embracing and Subverting Civil Religion in the American West: Japanese Americans during World War II

by Anne Blankenship

In light of the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it seems fitting to reflect on the ways in which minorities sometimes re-imagine—or revise—a country’s civil religion in response to persecution or discrimination. Incarcerated Japanese and Japanese Americans reconciled their commitment to the United States with the nation’s betrayal in a number of ways, but given the time of year, I’ll focus on one: incarcerees used Christmas celebrations to simultaneously demonstrate patriotic loyalty and protest their current treatment.  

In 1942, war hysteria coupled with economic and political pressures led government officials to exile and incarcerate 115,000 Japanese nationals and their children (U.S. citizens) from the Pacific Coast.  A small minority repatriated, but the vast majority wanted to remain in their chosen nation.  

When I began exploring the religious life in Minidoka Relocation Center (a camp of 9,000 in southern Idaho), the quantity, quality and variety of material objects associated with Christmas jumped off the screen. ( is an extraordinary resource for researching or teaching the incarceration.)  Photographs, oral histories and newspapers documented the annual decorating contests between housing blocks.  

Eager for a creative outlet, incarcerees assembled elaborate displays comparable to those found in department store windows.  Some shouted patriotic messages like this portrait of Uncle Sam with Santa Claus. 

Photograph courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration
Others juxtaposed incarcerees’ commitment to the American way of life with their current circumstances.  A two-part display called “Santa Remembers Minidoka” expressed this complexity succinctly.  The first scene, “Seattle 1941,” depicted a family-oriented Christmas scene in a typical American home, while “Minidoka 1942” contained a rough model of the camp set in front of a gloomy Idaho landscape painting.   

Minidoka Christmas Display resembling “Christmas 1941”
Photograph courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Minidoka Christmas Display, “Christmas 1942”
Photograph courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

The display insinuated that the community would have continued celebrating Christmas in an American manner, but was forced to improvise in an impersonal, unpleasant institution.  When outsiders saw photographs of this exhibit in Portland newspapers, I wonder if they recognized the irony or saw what they expected and wanted to see—non-threatening minorities celebrating a quintessential American holiday. 

The Christmas displays were only one example of this phenomenon.  Similar modifications were visible in Christmas cards from Minidoka, one of which transformed a common image—snow covered houses—into a dark, haunting depiction of dilapidated barracks. Muddy paths surround the latter, not a forest floor or wide expanse covered in pristine, glistening snow.  The contrast of light and dark is enough to show observant viewers that this revision of a holiday staple contained a more complex message.

Courtesy of Shosuke Sasaki Collection, via

Minidoka Relocation Center
Christmas in America is not simply a religious occasion, and for the vast majority of Minidokans, the holiday was about doing something American, not doing something Christian.  At most, a quarter of the incarcerees were Christian.  During World War II, Christmas symbolized what the country was fighting for—hope and love, home and family, peace and goodwill toward men—and its observance became a patriotic act.  This sentiment was reflected in the patriotic or secular decorations and participants’ defensive insistence that Buddhists could “do” Christmas just as well as anyone else.  In fact, the men and women who first conceived of the decorating competition were Buddhist, not Christian. 

Readers might object that these displays and cards hardly constitute protest, but I disagree. The U.S. government characterized Japanese American incarcerees as submissive compatriots, but recent scholars argue that retaining cultural arts like ikebana and sumo was an act of resistance.  The Christmas celebrations were a more nuanced expression of resistance and Americanism.  However, I don’t argue that anti-incarceration sentiments were necessarily placed in displays or cards intentionally, but rather that these sentiments organically manifested themselves within creative works.  In Artifacts of Loss: Crafting Survival in Japanese American Concentration Camps, Jane Dusselier argued that artwork enabled incarcerees to “[reposition] themselves in hostile environments.”  Their adaptation of civil religious customs was personalized to match their experience in America.  Decades ago, James Scott urged scholars to look for hidden layers of meaning within the art and literature of oppressed people.  This is one such case.  

Editors' Note: Religion in the American West is happy to welcome our new contributor, Anne Blankenship. Anne is a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina. She will continue her discussion of civil religion in internment camps on Memorial Day, where she will show how incarcerees engaged and transformed the American frontier myth.

December 19, 2011

Tim Tebow: The New Western Man?

by Brandi Denison 

First, a confession. Although I am a Coloradoan at heart, and therefore, a Bronco’s fan, I am only a fair-weather football fan. My knowledge of the game is through osmosis. I have absorbed the rules and rhythms of the game through the hours my dad, uncles, and cousins have spent watching and hoping that the Broncos will recover their former glory. But there is a new man in town and he has caught my attention.

Photo by Mark Seliger
 What? No, not that. I meant Tebowing.

This gesture has started a craze among athletes—ranging from high school players to professionals, including skier Lindsey Vonn. Vonn, a native Coloradoan, said that she would Tebow if she won a race in Colorado (a feat that the world-class skier has never accomplished). When she won her first race in the States at Beavercreek last week, she knelt down in front of her skis. In honor of God? No. When asked why she did it, she said: “Go Broncos. I did it. Got to represent.” 

Many Coloradoans of all religious stripes might be in agreement with Vonn. For fans that have seen their team come so close to glory only to have it slip away in a fumbled football, Tebow is their savior. Tim Tebow fits into a mythic narrative Coloradoans have of themselves and of their sports teams—a little scrappy, but he gets the job done. Except last night, but an SNL skit predicted that this would happen.

But there’s more to Tebow than meets the eye.In addition to being portrayed as the savior of the Broncos, he has been heralded as the new face of evangelical Christianity. For one thing, he has a mythic birth story. In short, according to his parents, Tim Tebow shouldn't be here.

He has caught the attention of non-Christians as well. In an article for the ChristianScience Monitor, Dan Lebowitz, the executive director of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston said:

I happen to be Jewish … and it’s not Tebow versus other religions,” Mr. Lebowitz says. “I believe in a new construct of manhood. You can be tough as heck on the football field, but still be kind, compassionate, respectful of women…. He sends a message that there may be dignity in choosing partners carefully, or respecting your body and someone else’s body as a temple. I respect that.
So, is Tebow, situated in the American West, giving us a new vision of manhood? One that is tough as nails in the workplace, but kind, compassionate, and respectful of women everywhere else? 

No, of course not. Tebow is just engaging a very old idea of American masculinity, popularized by many writers and actors, including John Wayne. Here’s a clip from Rooster Cogburn (the 1975 sequel to the original True Grit), where Cogburn advises Eula Goodnight (played by the “Yankee” Katherine Heburn) on his take on gender and religion. In short, Goodnight asks Cogburn if his name is written in the Book of Life. After some back and forth, Cogburn responds by advising Goodnight to follow the apostle Paul's recommendation that women stay quiet.

Cogburn was tough in a fight but always willing to help ladies in need out. Sounds a little like another popular hero (albeit a mid-western one): 


Truth, Justice, and the American Way are secular ideals that Tebow, among other western heroes, embodies. Wait! You might object, as Tebow is the first to popularize an evangelical message on the national football arena

Oh? Do you remember this guy?

Tim Defrisco/Getty Image
Bill McCartney was the storied coach of the University of Colorado at Boulder football team from 1982-1994. During his tenure as coach, he led the team to win 3 consecutive Big Eight Conference titles. Off the field, though, McCartney worked to fight another battle. 

In 1990, McCartney founded Promise Keepers, an organization whose mission is to: “ignite and unite men to become warriors who will change their world through living out the Seven Promises.” These Seven Promises include supporting men in “building strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values.” Promise Keepers teaches men that they need to be the spiritual head of their household, leading their wives and children into salvation. 

McCartney also participated in another storied birth story—that of Timothy Chase (TC) McCartney, a quarterback at LSU. TC is the son of McCartney’s daughter, Kristy, and one of his football players from the CU team, Sal Aunese. Sal was diagnosed with cancer when Kristy was pregnant. Before Sal died, Bill McCartney led Sal to Christ. You can read the story here. 

I’m sure that this list could go on. Tebow is just one of many other Christian athletes working to use sports to transform images of both Christianity and masculinity. Look for Annie Blazer’s book, Faith on the Field: Sports, Gender, and Evangelicalism in America in the coming months to help contextualize male athleticism within a broader evangelical culture. 

Now, I have to ask. Is this a type of masculinity that we want modeled for us? Tebow’s optimism, sportsmanship, and charity work do seem quite admirable. Indeed, in the face of NFL scandals like Rob Gronkowski’s photo shoot with a porn star, Tebow stands out as a quarterback parents could encourage their kids to look up to. 

However, we need to interrogate even Tebow's version of masculinity. Are these really the only two ways of being a man in the United States today? Neither one is desirable, as both define themselves against subordinating women. On the one hand, women become valued as objects of male desire, but on the other hand, women are powerful only in their capacity to sacrifice themselves  in order to build an evangelical home. In both of these visions of American manhood, women stand behind the men. We do need new constructions of manhood. I'm just not sure that we have found our guy in Tebow.  

December 12, 2011

We're Here. Get Used to It.

by Brett Hendrickson

The semester is ending, but I’m still ruminating on so much of the delicious material presented at this year’s AAR meeting in San Francisco. (Did it seem to you that the respondents this year were terrific?) Of course, one of the best panels was our very own Religion in the American West Seminar, which featured fine scholarship, poised thinkers, another spell-binding respondent (click
here to read Greg Johnson's response), and a hearty discussion. In this post, I want to reflect a little on a portion of that discussion.

At one point in part of the back-and-forth after the papers (which can be found by following
these instructions), a first-time attendee to the Seminar asked something like, “Yeah, but how is it that religion in the American West is a stand-alone topic?” Inwardly, I groaned. Not that it’s not an interesting question—it is—but we have discussed it several times now at the AAR and other venues. It’s just that the discussion in San Francisco had been going so swimmingly, with no existential angst, that I thought perhaps we had reached a moment of self-acceptance wherein we could assume a defensible raison d'ĂȘtre and move forward. But then the question resurfaced. And again this year, I heard many good points defending attentiveness to region in the study of American religion, but when I saw the questioner outside later, she confessed that she remained unconvinced.
So, as an exercise of self-definition, and as a plea that we accept our own basic existence, I offer the following points arguing for the area of study we have named “religion in the American West.” (Since this is a blogpost, not a researched article, I suggest and summarize rather than prove.)

1. Historiography. We have noted a great lacuna in other scholarly literature about the West around the subject of religion. Somehow, others have mostly found a way to tell the story of this region of the world without fully integrating the religious motivations and practices of the people in it. When religion is mentioned, it is dropped in like a quick and mandatory visit to church.

2. Land. We have made the point repeatedly that the mountains, the deserts, the Pacific world, and much of the rest of the western landscape are unique both in scale (big) and in the American imagination. Moreover, the amount of publicly-owned land is comparably much greater in the West, and the national park system originated and still has its largest examples in the region. The connection between religion and this unique land deserves more attention.

3. Native Americans. While indigenous people live in all parts of the American continents, the largest American Indian nations are in the West as are the largest reservations and other populations of Native people. In broad brushstrokes, it is fair to say that the study of living Native American religions and worldviews has been vital in the American West as has been the development of Native American religious rights.

4. Mormons. Sure, they began in New York, but the LDS Church and the American West are utterly entangled. As Greg Johnson confirmed, the Mormons are a real gift to those who study American religions, and it is a special treat that they are headquartered in Utah.

5. Spain and Mexico. Most of the American West was once part of a non-British European Empire (Spain). Later, most of the region was part of another liberal western nation-state (Mexico). Hence, most of the American West, rather than being a colony that threw off its master, is part of our very own American colonial expansion. The West is one of the clearest results of our nation’s own imperial pretensions. As any religions scholar can tell you, empire and religion go together.

6. The Pacific World and Asian Immigration. The western United States is a part of the Pacific Rim and has historically received many immigrants from Asian nations. As a consequence, there is a long and varied history of Asian religions in the region.

7. The Frontier. It goes without saying that “the frontier” as an interpretive category is contested. But the frontier, whatever it is, is intricately connected to religious expansion and expression in the United States.

8. Women. Universal suffrage first surfaced in Wyoming in the mid-nineteenth century, and several other western states gave women the right to vote earlier than the rest of the nation. Women have been important in the missions movement, in various metaphysical groups throughout the region, and in other roles of religious leadership.

9. Pentecostalism. Now a global religious juggernaut, Pentecostalism really got going in Los Angeles. Is it a coincidence that global communication networks and media production also grew to maturity in L.A.?

Finally, as Greg Johnson also helpfully added in San Francisco, it is not necessary that “religion in the American West” be some sort of Platonic form of utter uniqueness. It merely needs to be a fruitful referent for comparative study. It passes that test with flying colors. (Let’s not forget that the AAR has all kinds of sessions that boggle the mind in their specificity. I mean, how much is there really left to say about Schleiermacher?) The existence of this Seminar is proof enough that this is a worthwhile and justifiable endeavor.

How would you add to this list? How would you nuance these suggestions?

December 5, 2011

Book of the Month:

Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt
review by Tisa Wenger

Editors' note: Today we kick off a new feature on the blog -- the Book of the Month. On the first Monday of each month, we'll have a review of a new or not-so-new book that is pertinent to the study of religion in the American West. We begin today with Tisa Wenger's review of Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.

Most of you will already have heard about Darren Dochuk’s widely acclaimed new book, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (W.W. Norton, 2011). This book is already accumulating richly deserved awards: the Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians; and, just announced last month, the Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association, named every other year for “the best book on any subject pertaining to the history of the United States.” Congratulations, Darren!

From Bible Belt to Sunbelt is chock-full of colorful characters and new historical insights that will be of interest to readers of this blog. Dochuk describes the migration of southern evangelicals to California (a move that began during the Depression and accelerated in the 1940s), their conversion to conservative political activism, and their importance in the subsequent emergence of evangelical conservatism nationwide. He does not present the convergence of evangelicalism and conservatism as inevitable in any way, and in fact he shows how volatile and varied these migrants’ political commitments were when they first arrived in California.

Sara’s last post described the discussion at the seminar meeting about whether are or should be making any claims of regional distinctiveness. This question has haunted the seminar, and every time we face it we seem to feel the need to justify our existence, to justify our focus on the West within the field of American religious history. I think Darren’s book helps us move beyond that question simply by demonstrating so well the value of attentiveness to region and to local regional cultures. Indeed he helps us understand not only Southern California but also the “western south” (Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas) where many of these migrants originated, and in far more detail than previous accounts he also shows how important these grassroots conservatives and these regional cultures were for the “religious right” that came to national prominence with Reagan’s election in 1980.

All this raises another one of our seminar’s perennial questions, which does not involve justifying a regional focus, but what seems to me the more substantive problem that there is in fact no single “West.” California is not Utah is not North Dakota is not Texas, and none of these states can be taken as a unitary entity in themselves. There are multiple regional cultures and subcultures within the purview we’ve claimed, and the question is whether bringing them together within the rubric of “Religion in the American West” obscures more than it illuminates. I could ruminate much longer on all this, but I fear I’d be testing your patience as well as moving even further away from the book I’m supposed to be reviewing. So I’ll stop here with a single piece of advice: if you haven’t yet read Dochuk, yourself a favor, and read it. NOW.

More notes from the Editors: Have you read this book? What do you think about it? Join the conversation and leave your thoughts in the comments! If you have a suggestion for a future book of the month, or if you would like to review a book for the book of the month series, please contact us. Next month, Quincy D. Newell reviews Gregory Smoak's Ghost Dances and Identity: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century (University of California Press, 2006).