May 21, 2012

The New York Times Gets Religion—in the American West

By James B. Bennett

Last Wednesday morning I nearly choked on my coffee as I read the New York Times Op-Ed page. Whatever ongoing angst we in the Religion in the American West seminar may be feeling about the relevance and promise of our subject, The New York Times has gotten religion—religion in the American West, that is.

Image by Olimpia Zagnoli, in
It was a wonderful moment, the kind that we historians live for, when the events of the past can shed light on current controversies. In her "Nuns on the Frontier," Anne M. Butler, professor emerita of history at Utah State, notes that conflict between Roman Catholic sisters and their bishops has a long history in the United States. One need only look at the American West to see antecedents for the current tensions. While the male clergy were often reluctant to endure the hardships of mission and ministry in the nineteenth-century West, sisters answered the call to serve in the West. Women religious were the first Catholic presence in many western communities, establishing the often unacknowledged foundation on which male clergy were all too happy to step—a foundation built in the hardship of Western life and a foundation that, both literally and figuratively, enabled the male hierarchy to keep the mud and dust off their vestments.

As Butler notes, while the sisters adapted and accepted their work and suffering, they were not silent in their criticisms of the male hierarchy, whose expectations were often  unrealistic and whose intolerance for dissent was unrivaled. For any who would argue that the current tensions between American sisters and their bishops are a new phenomenon, the history of American West shows otherwise.

Much like Tisa Wenger noted in her review of Kathleen Holscher's Religious Lessons: Catholic Sisters and the Captured Schools Crisis in New Mexico, which likewise notes the role of Catholic sisters at the center of controversy, Anne Butler makes clear how events grounded in very particular places in the West—from the wilds of Montana to the impoverished frontiers in Texas—do not remain in their specificity, but also come to shed light on and speak to larger issues of national significance.

Once again, and this time on the pages of the national press rather than in academic monographs, we see how stories of religion in the American West open us to new understandings of the past, further complicating our understandings of many aspects of the American religious experience, especially its gendered dimensions. But the promise does not stop there, as Butler points to ways that the past informs and complicates the rhetoric surrounding contemporary events.

I look forward to Anne Butler's forthcoming book Across God's Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920, a study that promises to enrich our conversation about religion in the American West. Butler's Op-Ed piece reminds us that the significance of our work and the contributions of our conversations are greater than internal academic conversations. We also have stories to tell and insights to offer as public intellectuals speaking to contemporary issues. What stories can you tell?

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