July 30, 2012

Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!

By Quincy D. Newell

As I write this, I am returning to Laramie from Salt Lake City, where I spent a jam-packed two days with seventeen scholars from all over the world who were there to learn about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The scholars, selected by the U.S. Department of State to participate in a summer institute called “Religion in the United States: Pluralism and Public Presence,” began with a month at UC-Santa Barbara. They then embarked on a study tour, beginning in Los Angeles and then traveling to Salt Lake. Today, they move to Atlanta, and they will finish their tour in Washington, D. C. In Salt Lake, the office of Church Hosting took good care of us, arranging tours of Temple Square, the Humanitarian Center, and Welfare Square. They also hosted a formal dinner for the group, after which we got to attend a rehearsal of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Thursday night choir rehearsals are open to the public, and we were one among many groups that attended the rehearsal. As it turned out, the American Legislative Exchange Council (more commonly known as ALEC) was also holding a conference in Salt Lake City, and many of their attendees were also at the choir rehearsal. As a special treat, the choir gave a mini-concert of American songs, including works by several popular American composers. These included the most upbeat version of “This Land is Your Land” that I have ever heard, and a toe-tapping rendition of “Seventy-Six Trombones.” They concluded with two well-known patriotic songs: Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” and one of the choir’s signature songs, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

It has always seemed a bit odd to me that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir should be singing such songs. They are, after all, a church choir. It is incongruous, in a city with a temple at its center, to hear the church choir singing tunes from The Music Man. But Ronald Reagan also famously called the Mormon Tabernacle Choir “America’s Choir,” and the group has toured throughout the world, performing in all sorts of venues for all kinds of occasions. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when members of the audience rose, standing through the last chorus of “God Bless America.” Nor should I have been surprised when the same thing occurred during “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Nevertheless I was dismayed: the scholars in our group, hailing from countries ranging from Australia to Venezuela, Cameroon to Sri Lanka, had no reason to stand during these songs. They are not American. But a row of seventeen, in a crowd of perhaps a thousand or more, had no recourse. They had to stand in order to see, and in order to respect the culture of the country in which they found themselves. This spontaneous display of patriotism probably bothered me more than it did them; in conversations afterward, they told me they didn’t mind. One remarked teasingly that she felt more American at that moment than ever before.

As we were leaving the concert, several of the scholars were still singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “Glory, glory hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah!” they sang, as we crossed North Temple Street. “Glory, glory hallelujah!” They were a little unclear on the words after that. One of them leaned over to ask me: “Is this a nationalistic song, or a religious song?”

Well. Perhaps this tune is a fitting signature song for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir after all: a nationalistic and religious song, for a religious and national choir.

Salt Lake both is and is not really the place where one expects to encounter the utter fusion of religion and nationalism: the Latter-day Saints fled the United States in 1847. They maintain a strong collective memory of their persecution at the hands of the United States – by individuals, groups, and American governments (local and federal). On the other hand, they actively sought statehood. They believe the U.S. Constitution is a divinely inspired document. Joseph Smith ran for president of the United States. And, since 1976, Utah has moved ever more rightward, becoming (for a time) the reddest state in the nation. (For much of this information, I am indebted to W. Paul Reeve of the University of Utah, who presented an overview of Utah religion and politics to the group.)

The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” originated around the time of the Civil War and was sung by Northern troops. We might, then, call it a Republican song – a song of the party of Lincoln, the party that most actively persecuted the LDS Church in the nineteenth century. As the LDS Church struggled to Americanize in the late nineteenth century, Latter-day Saints joined the Democrats in droves. LDS leaders had to actively encourage Saints to become Republicans. It is ironic, then, that today some 70% of Mormons are Republicans and one of the signature songs of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The Americanization process that began in the late nineteenth century, it seems, is complete.

I’m not sure I can say that this episode is peculiarly Western. Instead, it seems to demonstrate to me a rather generic fusion of religion and patriotism (albeit one that may help explain how Mitt Romney can mobilize the support of non-Mormons using a religiously-infused nationalism). But the scholars I was working with, I suspect, won’t encounter a similar demonstration anywhere else on their study tour.

July 27, 2012

Casual Friday: Pioneer Day

This past Tuesday, July 24, was Pioneer Day in Utah and throughout western Mormondom (and slightly beyond). The date memorializes the entrance of Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley. In particular, it celebrates the moment when Brigham Young mythically raised himself up on an elbow (he was riding sick in the back of a wagon, as the story goes) and declared, "This is the right place--move on!" Well, that's how it's remembered and told to many a young Utah history student. There have been some efforts to make the holiday a more inclusive event, even if Mormon actors remain central.

David Grua, at the Juvenile Instructor (a Mormon history blog), discusses one such effort in his pioneer day post on the dedication of the "This is the Place" Monument, which was dedicated on Pioneer Day in 1947 at the base of Emigration Canyon, just outside of Salt Lake City. David's thoughtful post considers the role of monument making in the molding of American memory and asks whether this particular monument was successful in its goal to situate the Mormon people in a place of prominence in American history--what Laurie Maffly-Kipp has referred to as "The Long Approach to the Mormon Moment."

 Others in the Mormon bloggernacle have also noted, and blogged about, the occasion of this Western holiday. At Mormon Times, Emily Jensen provides a roundup of the blogs and their ideas for Celebrating Pioneer Day. Check it out.

July 23, 2012

Three Vignettes on Teaching and Narrating the Religious History of the American West

By Brandi Denison

Vignette 1

Last week, my husband and I watched the movie “Smoke” for the first time. For those of you who don’t remember or didn’t see this 1995 movie, it is a collection of vignettes of people who come through a Brooklyn cigar store. Harvey Keitel plays one of the central characters, Auggie, who has been taking daily pictures of the same street corner at the same time for over 4,000 days. In this clip, he shows his friend his photo albums. He says, “It’s one little part of the world, but things take place there everyday, just like everywhere else.” When his friend pages through the album quickly, Keitel advises him to “Slow down—you’re not seeing anything.”

This scene struck me as being particularly descriptive of problem readers of this blog might face when presenting scholarship on religion (to some, an overly narrow lens to view the world) on the American West (to outsiders, another narrowing and limiting factor). (And yes, I recognize the irony of using a clip about a Brooklyn street corner to think about the American West, but I’m not a regionalist. Some of my best friends are New Yorkers.) To detractors, the study of an unwieldy and indefinable region of the United States is similar to Auggie’s unexplainable devotion to one street corner. I suspect, however, many of us would like to think that we are slowing down and focusing the camera lens in order to gain a deeper perspective on larger issues. After all, religious things take place every day in the American West.

Vignette 2

 I spent the month of May happily tucked away in libraries in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. As I was shifting through documents, Quincy Newell was leading us through her revision of her Religion in the American West syllabus. Quincy’s project was on my mind as I read my sources. While at the Utah Historical Society, I tackled LeRoy Hafen’s immense collection. Hafen (1893-1985) received his Ph.D. in history from Berkeley in 1924 and spent the next thirty years as the Colorado State Historian, serving as the director of the Colorado State Museum, editor of the Colorado Magazine, and as a history professor at the University of Denver. He was also one of the founding members of the WHA. His long tenure as the Colorado State Historian meant that he left a lasting impression on the way that Colorado history is presented in museums and other forums for public history. He oversaw the establishment of Colorado’s historical highway markers and directed numerous WPA projects during the Depression. Additionally, Hafen was attentive to the West’s religious history. As a student at BYU, he wrote about the handcart pioneers and throughout his life, published works on Mormon history. His interest in religion extended beyond Mormonism. As the editor of the multivolume History of Colorado, he included pieces on Catholicism, Judaism, Native American Religions, and a variety of Protestant denominations. I am interested in Hafen because of the mark he made on narrating Colorado history, but this collection made met think more deeply about teaching religion in the American West. In his research notes, there are several folders dedicated to his thought process on teaching Colorado history. This class was taught at the University of Denver in the 1940s. Hafen’s justification of the course was brief. He stated: “A knowledge of the region in which one lives lends interest to one’s surroundings. A knowledge of the background of that region—its history—gives understanding of the present, appreciation of the past, and a basis for a vision of the potential future. An understanding of one's locality forms an excellent base for studies farther afield.” By today’s standards, Hafen’s course justification is thin. It would be lovely to be able to state that my courses are simply aimed at increasing student interest and provide a basis for their future visions. In current era of focus on teaching assessments, measurements, and benchmarks, I found myself resentful of Hafen’s seemingly easier teaching tasks, particularly of a subject matter we all work so hard to justify.

Vignette 3

 This is where it all comes together, if we are to believe Hegel.

Now that I’m home and thinking through the research I gathered, I am less resentful of Hafen’s seemingly easy task of constructing a syllabus. Unlike Quincy’s revised syllabus, which focuses on the skills she wants her students to develop, Hafen’s class focused on the content knowledge he wanted his students to learn. In fifteen weeks, his class marched chronologically through Colorado history, without giving pause to why the story was narrated in a particular way, or to the many standpoints from which one could understand Western history. It would be as if Harvey Keitel’s character unquestionably assumed that everyone should be interested in his 4,000 pictures of the same place, simply because it documented what happened in a place near where the observers lived.

Instead, Keitel provided some context for his hobby, one that became a metaphor for the rest of the movie. Through focusing on the intimate lives of individuals at a smoke shop, one might be able to gain a deeper perspective on larger questions facing humanity. Now, as an academic, I resist the argument that by focusing on a narrow slice of human life we can learn something deeper about “humanity.” After all, “humanity” is something that is determined through social, economic, and historic contexts.

Nevertheless, there are a few valuable nuggets here. First, I think there is real value in articulating justifications for teaching about religion in the American West through course objectives. Beyond the pedagogical and institutional importance, this exercise forces us to look beyond the lens of our cameras, dutifully trained on the “West,” in order to more clearly communicate the reasons such a study is a necessary piece of a religious studies education. Without this pressure, the study of Religion in the American West could easily become the province of local historians. That is, the study of Religion in the American West would be at risk of becoming a history that merely aims to capture the fullness of the facts without the richness of relevance or analysis.

Second, and this is perhaps idiosyncratic to my approach of the study of Religion in the American West, by using a limited range of data to focus outward, we can avoid the petty debates of defining where (or what) the West is. The justification for the study of the West does not rest in its particularity, but in how the West can allow us to focus on broader issues of American religion and on religious studies itself. By focusing our scholarly camera lenses on the West, we have the potential to see new narratives, not just about the West, but about religion more broadly. What better way to teach students about the skills, methods, and theories of religious studies then to have them slow down and focus on one geographical area?

July 20, 2012

Casual Friday

Mt. Soledad Memorial Park, San Diego, California

A couple weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the case of Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America v. City of San Diego. The case was about the cross you see above, which stands at Mt. Soledad and has been incorporated into a war memorial at that site. There has been a cross there since 1913 (actually, three different crosses -- the first two got stolen, burned, and blown down). The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the cross, standing on federal land, violates the separation of church and state.

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July 16, 2012

Approaches to Studying Irreligion and Secular Spirituality in the Pacific Northwest

by Dusty Hoesly

When scholars write about religion in the Pacific Northwest, they often claim that its defining feature is a lack of religion. In fact, one of the few book-length treatments of PNW religion is subtitled "The None Zone," a reference to the fact that nearly 25% of Oregonians and Washingtonians are unchurched and unaffiliated, or self-identify as not religious. (See Susanna Morrill’s Book of the Month post on that book here.) What's more, this has been the case historically, whereas states like New Hampshire and Vermont are only recently similarly irreligious. Those labeled by scholars as Nones are the largest bloc of respondents on social scientific surveys in the PNW.

Since no single religion dominated the region historically, there is no legacy of institutional affiliation or tradition that guides religious thinking or behavior. So what holds the region together? For most scholars, the rejection of institutional religion and a sense of place bind PNW cultural and spiritual identity. But what is the import of this rejection of religious identification? And what kind of spiritualities, values, and attitudes prevail amongst this heterogenous group?

In this post, I will summarize the work of several scholars who study (ir)religion in the PNW, and then offer some suggestions for future research.

Tina Block, Assistant Professor at Thompson Rivers University in Canada, offers a historical perspective in her essay "Religion, Irreligion, and the Difference Place Makes: The Case of the Postwar Pacific Northwest." For Block, during the post-World War II period, secularism came to be seen as an authentic part of PNW regional identity. PNW secularism is not a demographic but a cultural trend, one that was actively constructed by residents, she contends. Using newspapers, national surveys, church records, and oral interviews, Block traces the story of how sacred and secular are blurred in the PNW, and how irreligion came to be seen as a regional cultural marker. People across all gender, class, racial, and ethnic boundaries in the PNW are less religious than their counterparts in other regions. What unites these people is a sense of place that privileges cross-border interpenetration, high mobility rates, a myth of rugged individualism and independence, and the social acceptability of irreligiousness. In households and public constructions of the region's past and present, secularism became a hallmark of PNW culture in the social imaginary. In popular and academic representations of the PNW, writers ignore religion entirely or highlight the irreligiousness of the region.

Mark A. Shibley, Professor of Sociology at Southern Oregon University, has explored the spirituality of secular people in the PNW in several essays, combining sociological survey data and textual analysis of books written by regional authors. In "Secular but Spiritual in the Pacific Northwest," an essay in the volume Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone, Shibley contends that very few of the so-called Nones are actually atheists or agnostics. Rather, they largely fit into the squishy label "spiritual but not religious." Most Nones believe in God and miracles, according to survey data. These people experience the sacred in non-institutional forms through direct, personal experience. Shibley claims that "what is distinctive about religion in the Pacific Northwest is not the psychological orientation of individuals so much as social structural facts noted above--religious heterogeneity and low-affiliation rates" (141-142). He identifies three types of this secular spirituality: New Age and New Spirituality, nature and environmental religion, and anti-government apocalyptic survivalism. Connecting these strands are utopianism, millennialism, and dualism. Shibley reiterates similar themes in his essay "The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia," a chapter in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest. Here he explores New Spirituality and Earth-based religions, asserting that "[in] Cascadia alternative spirituality is popular religion" (37). For Shibley and other scholars, environmentalism is a sort of civil religion in the PNW, and sustainability is the credo. Elsewhere in Cascadia, in a chapter called "Mapping Spirituality and Values in the Elusive Utopia," sociologist Andrew Grenville similarly shows that Cascadians are more liberal, libertarian, laissez-faire, DIY, and utopian than other regions in Canada and the U.S. They combine privatized belief, institutional skepticism, and personal responsibility (DIY) into a general "live and let live" regional attitude.

Frank Pasquale, a research associate with the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College (Hartford, CT), has been researching the values and practices of self-identified hard secularists in Portland and Seattle for several years. Using ethnographic research and membership surveys of secularist organizations, Pasquale investigates those who self-identify as atheist or agnostic, who he calls Nots (rather than Nones). In "The 'Nonreligious' in the American Northwest," an essay in Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, Pasquale reports that 3-4% of Pacific Northwesterners are Nots, nearly double the national average. Most are white, male, middle-class, well-educated, liberal, and unmarried or without young children. Many interviewees and respondents express societal skepticism, metaphysical skepticism, a strong sense of individualism, wariness of dogmatism, and ambivalence about proselytizing of any particular view. Pasquale also observes that difficulties in data gathering occur, in part, because of a cultural stigma against atheists and the inconsistency of scholarly labeling (atheist, secular, skeptic, humanist, nonbeliever, etc.), problems that Pasquale tries to circumvent through participant observation and using subject-derived labels rather than scholar-imposed terms.

Monica R. Miller, a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow for Religious Studies at Lewis & Clark College, has begun a research project in 2010 called "Youth Culture & the Remaking of Religion in Portland, Oregon." Recognizing that institutional forms of religion are declining amongst American youth, even as subjective spirituality remains strong, this effort attempts to gather data from Portland youths about the kinds of religiosity that they practice, with a specific emphasis on material culture. Through ethnographic on-the-street interviews and a survey, Miller and her research associates are examining the everyday religiosities of PNW youths in coffee shops, tattoo parlors, nightclubs and bookstores. Using sophisticated understandings of constructions of what counts as "religion," Miller interrogates along with her subjects the meaning of religion, what it looks like in everyday life, and how humanism and religion often commingle. This work will culminate in a series of articles and a manuscript called Faith in the Flesh: Manufactured Zones of Insignificance.

These approaches, ranging from historical to sociological to anthropological, converge around a few themes. Each of these scholars agree that religion looks different in the PNW, that irreligion is hallmark of the region, that secularity commingles with spirituality in personally meaningful ways, that secularism is a normative presence rather than the mere absence of religion, and that nature is a powerful element in PNW religious identity. There are some directions that future research should investigate.

Future scholarship should examine more fully the commingling of sacred and secular, carefully noting how conceptions of religiosity and spirituality are defined differently by scholars and by subjects themselves, and how various labels can overlap. For example, some evangelical emerging church folks may self-identify as Christian but also as "spiritual, but not religious." Others may claim to be both atheist and Buddhist, or agnostic and Catholic. And curiously absent is the contingent of folks who claim to be apathetic about religion; do they fit into scholarly boxes such as atheist, agnostic, spiritual, etc.? Scholars should begin with subjects' own views and language about what experiences they deem special, sacred, or extraordinary, and then proceed to develop scholarly categories based on these first-order terms, rather than imposing labels upon subjects who must check boxes which are more convenient for researchers than messy but accurate descriptors of individuals' beliefs and practices.

Definitions of secular and sacred are messy and interpenetrating, and scholars must dig into the nitty-gritty to get at where the people are to see their everyday spiritualities. In what ways is a search for authenticity similar to a spiritual seeking, while also a critique of institutional forms of religion? How does the region's DIY culture relate to creativity and homegrown spiritual renewal? Does the region's artisanal and craft traditions influence religious and spiritual attitudes? How are popular cultural norms integrated with or divergent from religious identities? And if consumption is also production in the postmodern age and in the PNW, how is this dynamic reflected in the region?

Few scholars have examined race and religion in the Pacific Northwest. In what ways are indigenous and Asian religions, for example, appropriated in the PNW, and are these appropriations different than in other regions? Do Asian American religiosities look the same in the PNW as in California or New York or Atlanta? What is the history of interactions between white supremacist religions in the region and other religious groups? What are the specific issues Native American religionists face? Why are racial minority groups similarly less religious than their counterparts in other regions?

Scholars also under-emphasize the cultural and religious divide between the more urban and liberal parts of Oregon and Washington, which lie west of the Cascade mountain range, and the more rural and conservative parts east of the mountains. When scholars explore the irreligiousness of the PNW, they are largely talking about Portland, Seattle, and other major urban centers rather than the smaller communities that comprise most of each state's geography. A fuller exploration of PNW religion must head east from the cities. Other comparisons could be made between the historically low-affiliation rates in the PNW with the recent surge of secularism in New England states like Vermont and New Hampshire. In what ways does secularism in the two regions look similar or different?

Mount Hood, Oregon.  Photograph by Julie Kelly, via National Geographic
Lastly, despite what many commentators claim, the natural beauty of the PNW is not a singular explanation for its lack of institutional religious affiliation. Few, if any, empirical studies include data about the proclivity of Pacific Northwesterners towards nature and environmental religion. This argument, instead, rests mostly on anecdotal evidence. Similarly, when scholars argue that PNW regional religious identity rests on a sense of place, they often suggest that this sense of place is stronger and more defining than in other regions of the U.S. But this claim seems dubious to me. Anyone reading Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, or Terry Tempest Williams will clearly see a sense of place pervading their conceptions of their regions, and no less strongly than in the PNW. Natural beauty and a sense of place are not enough to distinguish PNW religiosity from the rest of the country. To hear many scholars tell it, PNW mountain ranges are responsible for the region's secularism and its sacredness. Instead, scholars need to examine how constructions of nature and wilderness contribute to the creation of a secular regional identity.

July 13, 2012

Casual Friday

We're (one of) the best! So say the staff writers at Online Colleges, who included the Religion in the American West Blog among their "50 Best American History Blogs." Check the article for links to some other cool blogs (including some on religion).  Thanks to Joshua Paddison for the tip, and thanks to all of our contributors (and commenters, and non-commenting readers), for everything y'all have done to make this blog (one of) the best!
Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on DiscoverySchool.com.
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July 9, 2012

Mormon History Association meeting recap

By Stan Thayne

This past weekend (June 28-July 1) the Mormon History Association held its annual meeting in Calgary, Alberta, Canada--a city that was getting all ramped up for their annual Calgary Stampede: a week of cowboy and cowgirl hats, boots, getup and rodeos that I unfortunately missed. (There were hay bales in the lobby of our hotel in preparation.) The conference's Canada setting broadened the perspective of Mormonism as, whatever else it is (see Laurie Maffly-Kipp's post), a movement of the North American West. Several sessions were focused on the church in Canada, where Mormonism has had a significant presence, particularly in southern Alberta, since at least 1895 when Charles Ora Card (whom one presenter referred to as a Canadian Brigham Young) led a group of Mormon settlers to Canada to escape the persecution of U.S. federal officials over the practice of polygamy. Though the mainline LDS Church has abandoned that practice, including those in Alberta, there is still a significant presence of "fundamentalist" Mormons in Alberta who have kept "the principle," as they refer to it, alive--a practice which is causing a lot of current controversy in Canadian courts, which was also the subject of some sessions. It is difficult to summarize the wide array of topics covered, particularly when I was only able to make it to a few sessions, but topics included the history of Mormons in high school basketball in Alberta, the mounted police and Mormonism, Mormon charisma, farming, and sugar factories in Canada, women's history, magic and the supernatural, the Cardston (Alberta) Temple, the growth of the church in Canada and a host of other topics. And topics were not limited to Canadian focused issues but ranged into the Pacific Basin, Asia, and Africa.

The Tanner Lecture (a plenary keynote session) was delivered by David B. Marshall, associate professor of History at the University of Calgary. In the talk he referred to what historian of Mormonism Jan Shipps has dubbed the "doughnut" phenomenon--the tendency of Western historians to write around Mormonism, leaving a void in the middle of the story. He suggested that the same is true of Mormonism in Canada--it is a story that remains to be written. But what he could do is provide some context for the story. He did so by addressing a secularization thesis of sorts, detailing the decline of religiosity in Canada since the 1960s. Accordring to census data, "no religion" is the third largest religious affiliation (or non-affiliation) in Canada--and it is the leading category in British Columbia--behind Catholicism (#2) and Protestantism (#1), which is in sharp decline, particularly in the mainline denominations. Mormonism has enjoyed steady if modest growth in Canada despite this decline and religious "turmoil"--though it is most concentrated in southern Alberta and remains less than 2% of the population in other parts of Canada. He accounted for the decline in religion in Canada to a number of demographic shifts and also to the influence of a document known as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms--a sort of Canadian Bill of Rights passed in the aftermath of WWII . This document, he suggested, led to further secularization of Canadian public institutions, most significantly schools. This aggresive separation of church and state, he suggested, was not only opposed by many Canadian Christians but also caused difficulties for non-Christian immigrants to Canada. He shared a number of anecdotes to demonstrate this and concluded with the results of a Parliament commissioned study into the issue--conducted by Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor--that concluded that an open rather than a closed secular model that seeks to instruct the public about religions (rather than separate them from it completely through ostensible neutrality) is the best solution to the problem. This, Marshall suggested, is the only hope for Canada's multicultural future. And as a student and hopefully future instructor in Religious Studies, I have to agree with at least that part of Marshall's comments!

July 6, 2012

Casual Friday

You may already know about Religion and Politics, a new online journal from the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Perhaps you saw Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp's piece there on "The Long Approach to the 'Mormon Moment.'" But do you know about what they're calling "The States of the Union project"? It's very cool -- and aims to discuss religion and politics in each of the fifty states. As of this writing, eight states have been spotlighted (including Wyoming, written by our own Quincy D. Newell) -- of these, six are western (in someone's reasonable definition of the west).

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July 2, 2012

Book of the Month:

Patricia O'Connell Killen and Mark Silk, eds., Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone

Review by Susanna Morrill

Like magma from below the religion’s volcanoes, religion in the Pacific Northwest is an energetic, viscous fluid that is capable of altering the public landscape, galvanizing citizens for action, but not in ways easily predicted or directed by leaders of religious organizations (18).
With these words, Patricia O’Connell Killen sums up the religious landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Having lived in the Northwest for the past eight years, for me, this simile effectively captures religion’s complicated presence here. As the editors and authors of this 2004 volume note, about 63% of the region’s population (Oregon, Washington, and Alaska) remain unaffiliated with any religious institution and no one institutional religious tradition dominates (or has ever dominated) the region, as is the norm in other areas of the country (22). Yet Northwesterners live, act, and talk in ways that are profoundly religious. A fascinating problem: How do we as teachers and scholars understand and study regional religious expressions that are so fluid and non-institutional? This is the task that the authors of The None Zone tackle with great success and in short order (the book is only 202 pages, including appendix and index). I used the book as an effective backbone for an upper level course on religions of the Pacific Northwest and, at the same time, it has provided a starting point for my own research on religion in the Northwest.

Killen, Silk, and their host of authors offer to students and researchers scholarly tools—good tools—to use, to change, to challenge. By creating some guiding categories and concepts, they establish a concrete starting point for understanding religious life in the Pacific Northwest. Of particular help is how they breakdown the religious landscape of the Northwest into four broad streams: fading semi-establishment religions, “sectarian entrepreneurs,” religions of the Pacific Rim, and those who identify as secular, but spiritual. With these categories they begin to capture the viscous, hidden, and flexible religious reality of the region.

The book has an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion written by various scholars who live and work in Oregon and Washington. As with all the books in this “Religion by Region” series (edited by Mark Silk and Andrew Walsh), much of the data used in the book is derived from the North American Religions Atlas (generated in 2000 from responses by religious groups) and the American Religious Identification Survey (generated in 2001 from responses by individuals).

However, the authors take both historical and sociological approaches to the material. Initially a bit disconcerting, I found these variegated methodologies worked extremely well in the classroom. They provoked students to think critically about the advantages and disadvantages of historical and sociological approaches to understanding religious life in this region and, more generally, to studying religion. Killen and Mark Shibley, for instance, give us the sociological, religious, and cultural lay of the land in the first chapter, emphasizing the region’s peculiarity: that “nones,” (those who claim no religious affiliation or identification) make up almost a quarter of the population in Oregon and Washington, a rate much higher than the national 14% (41). In the second chapter, Dale E. Soden offers a history of the semi-establishment religions of the Pacific Northwest: Catholicism, mainline Protestants, and Reform and Conservative Jews. The fact that the establishment religion is actually a grouping of three disparate, often conflicting religions demonstrates the historical religious heterogeneity of the region. James Wellman, using interviews with clergy, creates a profile of the regionally surging “sectarian entrepreneurs,” mostly non-denominational and Holiness/Pentecostal evangelicals who effectively employ business models and media communications (80). Lance D. Laird writes about religions of the Pacific Rim, skillfully combining in his discussion Native American traditions; traditions from East, Southeast, and South Asia; and religion of the Pacific Islands. Shibley takes up the formidable task of capturing and talking about those who claim to be secular but spiritual, those people taking full advantage the opportunities offered to them in the “open religious market” of the Pacific Northwest: New Age adherents, anti-government groups, and those engaging in “earth-centered spirituality” (140, 142). Killen finishes the book summarizing what has gone before, suggesting future avenues of research, and offering concluding insights on the material.

Occasionally, the brevity of the book detracts from the overall success of it. The main focus of the book is Oregon and Washington. Alaska is rarely mentioned beyond the introductory, contextualizing chapter and, when it is, the mentions are brief and not very elucidating. Within the larger series, this grouping seems like the best home for Alaska, but, at the same time, the little information we have suggests that Alaska is different enough from Oregon and Washington that it may deserve its own chapters or parts within the book. Native traditions in Alaska have a wider and weightier public presence than they do in Oregon and Washington (15.6% of the population in Alaska is of Native American or Alaskan Native heritage compared to less than 2% of the population in Oregon and Washington), while the long history of Orthodox Christianity in the state deserves a more in-depth and extended treatment (106). My sense is that there is simply not a lot of scholarship on religion in Alaska. In general, Native American traditions get short shrift in the book. Lance D. Laird successfully finds similarities in the influential yet peripheral status of Native American and Asian religions, but otherwise these religious traditions are different enough that they do not fit together completely comfortably in one chapter.

The category of “nones” is perhaps most exciting for scholars of Northwest religious life. Killen wonders if they are manifestations of the process of secularization and/or if they represent a new kind of modern American religiosity. This is a pertinent question in the present day when, nationally, more and more people identify with this moniker. Can the religious history of the Northwest help to illuminate these national trends? Is the region a kind of religious frontier that will send eastward missionaries of a new religious expression, Whitmans of the “none”-based spirituality? Can scholars of this region’s religious life discover valuable questions and concepts that will help illuminate this growing trend in the religious landscape of the U.S.? This book asks and provokes important questions. It is a valuable tool in the classroom and serves as the base of what I hope will be a burgeoning scholarship on the religious life of the Northwest, a scholarship that, in turn, may help us better understand larger trends within the religious landscape of the country.

Editor’s note: 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, Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp reviews Hokulani K. Aikau’s A Chosen People, a Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai'i (University of Minnesota Press, 2012).