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'être 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?