by James Bennett
The fifth and final session of the Religion in the American West seminar of the American Academy of Religion met during the AAR annual meeting last month in Chicago. It was a fitting end in many ways. Meeting in Chicago provided a nice book end to the seminar, which first meet four years ago when the AAR was last in Chicago. That first meeting was in a cramped conference room without enough seats. This year we were in a large meeting room which, at first felt much to vast but, before long, every seat was filled. Nearly fifty people found their way to this year’s seminar meeting! It was great to see several members who have been with us since the start as well as to welcome so many new participants. The presence of both bodes well for the future.
The session featured four pre-circulated essays. One of the advantages of the seminar format, compared with other AAR sessions, is this pre-circulated format. It not only allows for longer papers since they are read in advance, but it also allows most of the seminar meeting to focus on discussion.
Tammy Heise wrote about religion in the Ghost Dance revival at Wounded Knee in 1973, arguing for the important but generally overlooked role of religion in the occupation and AIM, challenging the tendency to sever religion from a event whose interpretation has been interpreted primarily through the lens of the political. Tom Bremer wrote about the role of religion in the founding of Yellowstone National Park, specifically a millennialist evangelical ethic that resolves the seeming contradiction between the nearly simultaneous acts of Congress that established the National Park System and passed the Mining Act. Sarah Koenig focused on the Northwest with a study of trade and material “goods” and they ways that market exchanges among natives and missionaries were also religious exchanges, thereby offering a commercial history of religion in the American West. Finally, Shari Rabin looked at the experience of Judaism in the American West, exploring the differing ways that Jews experienced the West, from the sense of promise and possibility contained in the ease of mobility to a sense of threat or insecurity that resulted from dispersion. The papers provided rich and often innovative analyses that not only moved forward our particular understandings of religion in the American West, but also intersected each other in interesting ways and collectively advanced and opened new thematic and theoretical issues that helped measure the distance the seminar has traveled.
Quincy Newell, my co-chair in the seminar, and I offered some brief comments about the papers. One of the themes of the seminar has been the ways that we draw attention to the presence of religion in the American West. All of the papers advanced this project of uncovering hidden religion, especially as they challenged prevailing understandings of religion by highlighting mobility over stasis, moving beyond Protestantism, and looking beyond institutions to the everyday lives of people as they lived and moved in the West. In this way, the papers advanced the other major theme of the seminar, to consider how attention to the West deepens our understanding of American religion and religion more generally. We then wondered what might remain hidden that we might want to explore more deeply. The categories of gender and race came to mind as ideas that might further complicate our understanding of the West in these and other studies, and as ideas that might be complicated by our study of the West. Alongside the uncovering of hidden religion what most caught our attention was the power of mobility in these papers: of location and dislocation, of claiming and moving into space as a religious act—an act with political, racial and material implications along with religious ones.
What followed was a robust discussion among the nearly fifty attendees in the room, and the space that at first seemed to large impersonal gave way to a conversation and give and take that illumined and challenged all present. Rudy Busto, who had been present at the first session, pointed out the dramatic shift from those first conversations: no longer were we expressing insecurity about our project or justifying the need to undertake such discussion. Five years in, the necessity of the conversation was a given and we were starting to complicate our own analysis and categories in ways that spoke to the significance of studying Religion in the American West across a wide range of disciplines and perspectives.
The most encouraging testimony to the success of the seminar at its conclusion was a clear sense that it wasn’t ending, but only getting going. This took the pressure off of us to develop any sense of summing up or closure in our conversation and comments. But more importantly, enthusiasm for the concrete efforts to organize a permanent AAR program unit, as well of the success of this blog over the last year, confirm that these conversations will continue, and that is the best outcome we could have hoped for.