May 27, 2013
Studying Religion in the West
by Joshua Paddison
In my previous installment, I discussed some of my experiences teaching an upper-division course on Religion in the Nineteenth-Century American West for Indiana University's Religious Studies department. Today I'll be presenting the students' perspectives. I asked my current and former students to respond to three questions about the course. (I have omitted the names of students who did not wish to be identified.)
1. What was the most interesting or important thing you learned from the class?
Students' most common response related to the religious and ethnic diversity of the West. "While in elementary and high school I had learned about Native Americans in the West, I truly had only a small understanding of the other influences, such as the Chinese and Mexican Americans," commented Sarah Orth. Similarly, Andrew Sweet wrote, "What I had previously learned about American religious history had been, for the most part, focused on the eastern part of the United States and had not dealt too extensively with the American West. This reorientation helped me to understand the vast amount of religious diversity that had been present within the United States even prior to the turn of the 20th century."
Another common response focused on conflict between groups and how power relations shaped religion. "I found it fascinating how religious leaders sought to make sense of frustrating questions: who is Christian? Who is not? Who is 'civilized'? Who is not? The most important thing I learned is that these are not simply religious questions but social, political, racial, economic, and gendered ones," wrote Travis Cooper. Commented another student, "The extent to which different religious/racial groups were persecuted surprised me. I obviously already knew the plight of the Native Americans, but the Mexican, Asian, and especially Catholic persecution was new to me."
On a lighter note, Dason Anderson reported that "the lengthy discussions on Mormonism have given me an annoyingly academic upper-hand when discussing such things in causal social settings."
2. Has studying religion in the American West helped you think about religion differently? If so, how?
Several students reported that they were now more sensitive to the experiences of non-Protestants. "Studying religion in the West made me think about the assumptions we have about religion as Americans, particularly as a 'white' 'American' person and how much these assumptions in the past have had a negative effect on people who were seen as different or were part of a non-normative religion," said Ann Whaley. Joan Ong commented that the course "encouraged me to be more sympathetic and see things from the point of view of minority religions."
Other students said that they came to see the category of religion itself differently. "Although I knew that American religion is more than just Protestantism, I still tended to have a narrow view of religion," said Amanda Koch. "This class reminded me to think more broadly about religion and examine how different religions interact and sometimes blend." Another student wrote that studying the West "illuminated how changeable and complex religion is. I think this is commonly underestimated because, in American society, we are so used to various ideologies and belief systems, we forget how they've historically been influenced."
Others reported that they came to view religion's role in American westward expansion differently. "I was of the opinion that a good portion of religious sentiment was just thinly veiled justifications for greed and bigotry," wrote Derek Briles. "I now realize that it's much more complex than that." Another student wrote that the course "contextualized religious identity in the U.S.'s broader cultural, institutional, and political identity. As the U.S. expanded, the question of how it should expand invited existential questions about what the U.S. actually means and represents."
3. What was your favorite reading (secondary or primary source)?
Students especially enjoyed two accounts, one by Red Jacket and another by Wong Chin Foo, that explained why the authors weren't interested in Christianity. "I enjoyed the pieces that offered resistance to the persecution they faced, such as Red Jacket's and Wong Chin Foo's writings," explained a student. "They offered powerful arguments, arguments I would have thought would have swayed the persecutors." Travis Cooper also appreciated those two authors' "compellingly logical retorts to Christianity's 'Manifest Destiny.'"
Another primary source students enjoyed was Chief Seattle's famous speech. In our discussion, we explored the tortured history of the speech -- see Albert Furtwangler's fascinating book for details -- and pondered what, if anything, it can actually tell us about Seattle's religious beliefs. "I enjoyed this reading because it brought forth such an interesting discussion and it reveals the need to truly examine primary sources," commented one student. "It also shows how even with 'historical' documents we need to question them."
Another popular source was Helen Mar Whitney's defense of Mormon polygamy, "Why We Practice Plural Marriage." "It carries implications not only for how we think about religion and marriage historically, but also how we think about it in contemporary societies today," wrote Andrew Monteith.
To my surprise, several students singled out secondary sources as their favorite. Rani-Henrik Andersson's The Lakota Ghost Dance of 1890, Timothy Matovina's Guadalupe and Her Faithful, Amy DeRogatis's Moral Geography, and Cameron Addis's "The Whitman Massacre" all received praise.
I'll give Tyler Dennis the last word on the course: "I learned that historiography has shifted in recent years to focus on a history of the West which does not privilege traditional storytellers, i.e. white/Anglo Americans. Furthermore, that historiography shows that culture did not shift in one direction as whites moved westward. Rather cultural influences moved and reacted in both directions causing synthesis, not conversion."