By Tisa Wenger and Quincy D. Newell
It’s hard to believe that it’s already been a week since we were in Denver for the annual meeting of the Western History Association. There were a few more sessions than usual at the WHA that involved religious history topics, and we had a good showing of blog-related folks there. We don’t think that is a coincidence: we think that this blog has helped to stimulate conversation and collaboration that sparked greater participation in this conference—and hopefully more into the future.
In conversations with folks involved in WHA leadership, it was clear that this interest runs both ways. Several board members told me (Tisa) that the WHA is very much interested in increasing the number of sessions involving the study of religion. Traditionally the only WHA panels discussing “religion” involve Mormons or Native Americans, and both tend to remain rather isolated from other topics typically addressed at the conference. So WHA proposals from this blog’s readers—especially those addressing a broader variety of religious traditions, and those that bring religious history into conversation with other dimensions of western history—would be very much welcome.
This also holds true for the Western Historical Quarterly, the association’s journal, which is currently housed at Utah State University. I know I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but I heard again from Associate Editor Colleen O’Neill that the WHQ would like more article submissions addressing the religious history of the U.S. west. It’s a very good journal, so if you have anything underway that would fit in this journal, please consider submitting it to them.
Now, on to some substantive discussion of the conference itself! I (Tisa) had the privilege of serving as chair and respondent to a fantastic session titled “Open Spaces, Open Minds?: Religious and Spiritual Borders in the American West.” Brandi Denison’s paper discussed representations of “religion” and “Indian religion” in the “Sun Dance Opera,” which was staged in Utah and then in New York by BYU professor William Hanson in the early decades of the twentieth century. Stan Thayne, in a paper on a utopian religious community known as the Home of Truth, which settled in rural Utah in the 1930s, reflected on cultural representations of the West that made the region especially attractive to new religious movements. Following Stan, Jenna Gray-Hildebrand explored the history of another group, the “I AM” Activity, and its legal difficulties in California, suggesting that the distinctive religious landscapes of the West made it a key site for legal contestations around religious freedom. And finally, in a fascinating paper on hitchhiking as religious practice, Ben Brazil argued that for a segment of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture, hitchhiking epitomized and embodied an ethos of boundary-crossing and surrender that epitomized the spiritual values of an “experimental countercultural milieu” with its center in the West (especially California).
Two key themes emerged from this session. First, the significance of borders and boundary-crossing, an intentional theme for the panel (and for the conference as a whole), as a particularly useful way to theorize the religious history of the West. And second, the question of authenticity as a key theme in cultural representations of the region, especially associated with Native Americans and with the rural landscapes of the West. I argued in my response that the frequent emphasis on the “wide open landscapes” and the “spirituality” of Western landscapes both invokes and erases the memory of the region’s indigenous peoples. The trope of the wide open landscape echoes the claims of the land as unsettled and empty, erasing the reality of Indian presence. At the same time, these landscapes are depicted as spiritual precisely because of their Indian legacies, often romantically invoked even as Indians themselves were violently excised from the land. I think we need to keep this legacy and its implications in mind in deconstructing tropes of the “spirituality” and “authenticity” of the West more generally.
The themes of border crossing remained salient in other sessions on religion as well. I (Quincy) got to chair a session on borders and boundary crossing in Mormonism and Mormon Studies that included a selected of papers from a collection forthcoming from the University of Oklahoma Press next spring. David Gore kicked things off with some reflections on Joseph Smith’s political economy and the ways in which it attempts to erase the boundaries drawn within the LDS faith community and, more broadly, the boundaries that divide humans from one another. Grant Underwood’s paper compared Mormonism and Islam, specifically in their constructions of leadership, applying the discipline of comparative religion to arrive at new insights on how authority works in Mormonism. Finally, Eric Mason (my co-editor for the collection) explained the startling rise of Brigham Young University in Dead Sea Scrolls research and the implications both for BYU and for the field. Patrick Mason (no relation to Eric Mason) was the respondent for this session. He introduced the helpful notion of “enclave cultures” to think about the dynamics of Mormonism’s relationship both to broader American and academic cultures, and also to think about the internal dynamics of the religious community. As Patrick Mason pointed out, this session didn’t really fit at the WHA in many ways, since the papers were neither necessarily historical nor particularly about the West. But the program committee accepted it, which perhaps we should read as an illustration of the hunger for more attention to religion at the WHA that we discussed above.
I (Quincy) got to attend an interesting session that was put together in honor of Ferenc Szasz. The session was titled “On the Border between the Sacred and the Profane.”
(Apparently that had started as the subtitle, with some indication in the title that the session was to be in Ferenc Szasz’s honor, but at some point in the preparation of the program things got changed.) The speakers had all (I think) been Szasz’s students at the University of New Mexico, and they spoke movingly of him as a teacher, mentor, and scholar. Oddly, however, although many of the speakers mentioned Szasz’s work on religion in the American West, none of them engaged it in substantive ways. Instead, mention of this aspect of Szasz’s scholarship usually served as an entrance into a discussion of Szasz himself as a man of faith, generosity, humility, and other admirable qualities.
There’s a need, and a real hunger, for more discussion of religion at the WHA. From the first question in the session that Tisa chaired and responded to, which had to do less with the papers than with how to handle – and historicize – religion in the classroom, to the acceptance of sessions on religion that only barely fit the parameters of the Western History Association’s ostensible field of study, it is clear that folks in the WHA want to talk about religion. The deadline for proposals for the next WHA is already past, but we encourage you all to start organizing now for the 2014 WHA!