March 20, 2014

Orientations and Memory

by Brandi Denison

We will never cease our critique of those persons who distort the past, rewrite it, falsify it, who exaggerate the importance of one event and fail to mention some other; such a critique is proper (it cannot fail to be), but it doesn't count for much unless a more basic critique precedes it: a critique of human memory as such. For after all, what can memory actually do, the poor thing? It is only capable of retaining a paltry little scrap of the past, and no one knows why just this scrap and not some other one, since in each of us the choice occurs mysteriously, outside our will or our interests. We won't understand a thing about human life if we persist in avoiding the most obvious fact: that a reality no longer is what it was when it was; it cannot be reconstructed.” Milan Kundera, Ignorance

Growing up in western Colorado, my life was oriented around a variety of mountains. When I was in town, I only needed to head towards the Grand Mesa, a large, purple flattop mountain, in order to go home. At home, in order to go to school, I headed towards the sandstone rock formations that make up the Colorado National Monument.  In order to visit my grandparents, I headed towards a series of hills that formed the foothills of the Uncompahgre Plateau.  To go to the post office, I  turned towards the Bookcliffs. Growing up in a place with very little entertainment for young people, we found amusement along the river, in ditches, and in the surrounding mountains and desert. Even as I escaped what I felt at the time to be a provincial life through books, I often made my escape outside.

Now, my orientation is in relationship to the Atlantic Ocean, a powerful and massive landmark that is invisible even 50 feet from it. It has taken some time for me to get used to such a powerful, yet invisible landmark. I spend too much time inside: writing; prepping for classes; and escaping the heat. However, in my writing, I am never far from persistent orientation of the American West’s mountains.

What does an orientation towards the American West illuminate? The thing about religion in the American West is that it is not somehow specific or even unique to that place. After all, there are landscapes that are similar to the American West throughout the world. Mongolia has expansive deserts and Nepal even more impressive mountains than the American West. Other places have as much religious diversity and a similar history of colonialization. One thing that an orientation to the West does is disrupt the grade school narrative of American Religious history.  It also calls attention to other issues and frameworks that can prove useful in other settings outside of the American West. It’s not just about Indians, Catholics, and Mormons, but also about city-building, utopian dreams, court battles defining religion, the desire to find freedom, cultural reappropriation, land, both as sacred place and ownership over, difference, diversity, and identity crises.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about the study of religion in the American West as an act of memory. For many of us, novelist Milan Kundera’s words will be eternally true: “we will never cease our critique of those persons who distort the past. . . who exaggerate the importance of one event and fail to mention some other.” We, in this imagined community of scholars, bloggers, and readers, stand united against narratives of American religion that start with the Puritans arriving on the shores of the East Coast, insisting instead that maybe the narrative starts with the arrival of the Spanish, or that it starts with the indigenous peoples who were here long before any European.

The American West was constituted in part by both cultural memories of it (through Buffalo Bill shows, early Westerns, and reenactments of epic battles) and through academic scholarship. For instance, through his Frontier Thesis, Fredrick Turner created the definitional boundaries of what that actually was.  Scholars of religion in the American West have inherited these orientations, both in the constant struggle to assert that religion is important in the West and also that the West continues to be relevant past Turner’s artificial closing. Even as this work is rooted in evidence through academic methodologies, it is engaging memory.

But, how might an orientation toward the American West allow scholars of religion to account for what memory, Kundera’s poor thing, can actually do? Individual memories are fragmented, partial, and incomplete. Cultural memories are even more incomplete and partial, even as those memories are spun to hide holes or lapses. An orientation towards memory in the American West, then, reveals that the components of human identity—region, race, ethnicity, religion—are fundamentally fluid, porous, and uncertain even as acts of cultural memory attempt to make these identity boundaries certain.

Orientation to religion in the American West is a commitment to address impartial memories, through an inherently unstable category, and within an indefinable space. Even as the landmarks of that space overwhelm and frame day-to-day movements, our commitment as scholars of the American West is to recognize that orientations are fundamentally relational. In the words of Jonathan Boyarin, in his The UnconvertedSelf, my hope with orientating my scholarship in the American West is to “keep . . .the past open, or reopen. . . a chink in the past” (118).

March 5, 2014

“Religion and Empire” as a Theme for Teaching American Religions

by John-Charles Duffy

I’m in the process of reframing my “intro to American religions” course for this coming fall. I teach this course as a historical survey. For the past couple of years, the course’s organizing narrative has had two strands, intertwined like DNA: one story about the consolidation and erosion of Protestant dominance in American society, and another story about the expansion of religious diversity in the U.S. through immigration.

This fall, I’ll be attempting a single organizing narrative, unified by the theme “religion and empire.” By “empire” I have in mind American territorial expansion and the United States’ rise to political and economic superpower status. This experiment grows out of a conversation I had at the AAR this past November with Brandi Denison. By reframing American history as a history of empire—from the Mississippians and the Aztecs to U.S. neocolonialism and globalization—I hope to give the course a stronger transnational orientation, with attention not only to the flow of religions into U.S. borders but also to the flow of American religions and their influence out across the globe.

One side effect of this focus on empire is a shifting of the story’s center of gravity westward, away from the eastern seaboard. I already make a point, as I suspect all of us do by now, of starting the story of European contact with the Spanish and the French rather than the English. The theme of empire reinforces that move, plus now I’ll be including Russian colonization in Alaska and California. Manifest Destiny will loom large in the new course, which will ensure that Native Americans recur in the historical narrative rather than fading into obscurity after the initial European contacts. Manifest Destiny will also bring Hispanic Americans into the course earlier—in the course as I’ve been teaching it up to now, they don’t appear until the unit on post-1960s pluralism. Mormons will figure in the new course as an obstacle to American empire in the trans-Mississippi west; Confucians, Buddhists, and Sikhs help build that empire’s infrastructure and economy. I’ll be adding to the course a focus on Christian civilization-building in the United States’ Pacific possessions. Our readings will likely include McKinley’s account of how God inspired him to take charge of the Philippines.

Some topics that are typical fare in “intro to American religions” courses will probably drop out of my new course because they don’t tie in well to the theme of empire. The First Great Awakening will definitely go. The Second Great Awakening might survive the cut because of its connection to American expansion west across the Appalachians, but at that point in the historical narrative I’ll be more interested in Native American revitalization movements. The fundamentalist-modernist controversy is out, though we’ll discuss the conservative-liberal split within Protestantism in connection with colonialism, missions, and interreligious dialogue. The day I currently spend on JFK’s speech in Houston will need to go—the speech is an important turning point in a story about eroding Protestant dominance, but it isn’t pertinent to a story about imperialism. (If JFK gets mentioned in the new narrative, it will be for his contributions to the Cold War.) The black civil rights movement will still appear in the new syllabus, to follow up on the legal and social status of America’s former slaves. I currently do a day on American Muslims negotiating life in the U.S.; in the new course, I need to do more on Islamism as a reaction to American neocolonialism.

Again, in choosing “religion and empire” as the course’s guiding theme, my pedagogical aims are broader than highlighting religion in the American west—but I’m pleased that the theme facilitates that focus as well. 

March 1, 2014

AAR program units that may be of interest to the RAW community

There are a number of sections, seminars, and groups at the AAR this year that may be of interest to folks doing research on the American West (including our own!). We have surely overlooked many, but here are short descriptions and links to more detailed CFPs of a few that may be of interest to some of you (deadline for submissions is Monday, March 3):

African Diaspora Religions Group
This Group endorses the study of African diaspora religions beyond its traditional parameters to include broader geographies, histories, and cultures of people of African descent and the way they shaped the religious landscape, not only in the Caribbean and the Americas, but also in Europe and Asia. This study defines “diaspora” as the spread and dispersal of people of African descent — both forced and voluntary — through the slave trade, imperial and colonial displacements, and postcolonial migrations. This Group emphasizes the importance of an interdisciplinary approach and is central to its vision. The aim is to engage a wide range of disciplines and a variety of scholars who work on different aspects of African diaspora religions. It considers the linguistic and cultural complexities of the African diaspora, the importance of African traditional religions, Afro-Christianity, Afro-Islam, and Afro-Judaism, the way they have and continue to inform an understanding of Africa, and also the way they have and continue to shape the religious landscape of the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

Asian North American Religion, Culture, and Society Group
This Group (hereafter referred to as ANARCS) is one of the primary vehicles for the advancement of the study of the religions and practices of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States and Canada. As an integral player in the development of the emerging field of Asian-American religious studies, ANARCS has cultivated the work of junior and senior scholars from an impressive array of disciplines, including the history of religion, sociology, theology, philosophy, ethics, anthropology, psychology, education, and American and ethnic studies. ANARCS encourages new perspectives on Asian North American religious practices and faith communities, as well as innovative theoretical work that extends the concepts of empires, diaspora, transnationalism, globalization, im/migration, orientalism, adaptation, acculturation, race, ethnicity, marginalization, oppression, and resistance. In addition to this list of concepts, ANARCS will explore theoretical, philosophical, and theological concepts, such as aesthetics, beauty, and love. ANARCS seeks to foster and mentor scholars (junior, senior, and nontraditional) through preconference sessions, gathering for meals, and maintaining a robust listserv.

Asian North American Religion, Culture, and Society Group, Law, Religion, and Culture Group, Religion and Migration Group, and Religion in Latin America and the Caribbean Group
We invite proposals on the theme of Borderlands, Gatekeepers, and Exclusions. Proposals may consider any aspect of the interface between religion, law, and the borderlands; we are especially interested in those foregrounding Asian American, Latin American, and Caribbean experiences and perspectives.

Gay Men and Religion Group and Law, Religion, and Culture Group
We invite papers that explore how religious and legal ideas and practices work together to advance or resist the regulation of (homo)sexuality. The session will be comparative in nature, so preference will be given to projects that explore geographical contexts outside the United States, especially in the Pacific Basin.

Indigenous Religious Traditions Group
This Group focuses on theoretical, methodological, and conceptual issues in the study of indigenous religious traditions the world over. Though particularly interested in interdisciplinary approaches to the study of indigenous religions, we are primarily grounded in the “history of religions” approach as it concerns the analysis of indigenous traditions. The Group is also concerned with the interface of indigenous religious traditions and modernity, colonial and postcolonial conditions, and local and global forces that shape the practice of indigenous traditions and their categorizations.

Latina/o Critical and Comparative Studies Group
This Group, founded in 2009, fosters interdisciplinary and theoretically innovative analyses of Latina/o religiosities and spiritualities in the Americas. Our goal is to advance knowledge and ways of knowing that expand traditional areas of religious studies with respect to Latina/o communities, mindful of transnational and global realities. Thus, we encourage studies that explore non-Western beliefs and practices, including the indigenous, the African diasporic, Buddhist, and Islamic, as well as those that advance more complex understanding of culturally hybrid Christianities. We wish to foster dialogue that is respectful of the culturally different theological understandings of the sacred within different traditional or emerging spiritualities. We encourage feminist- and queer-centered perspectives as well as thought rooted in community experience.
Located at the intersection of the United States and Mexico, the San Diego setting for the AAR occasions a multiplicity of topics on the borderlands. 

Mormon Studies Group
This Group will examine the range of topics, disciplines, and methodologies that can be brought into dialogue with Mormonism as studied in an academic environment. It is interested in exploring strategies for teaching about Mormonism, both as the main focus of a class or as a unit within a survey course. It seeks to identify the best resources available for teaching and understanding the tradition and provide encouragement for scholars to fill gaps in what is currently available. The Group encourages significant comparative studies and interdisciplinary cross-fertilization and hopes to explore intersections between Mormonism and ethics, theology, philosophy, ecclesiology, missiology, spirituality, arts and literature, sociology, scripture, and liberation studies.

Native Traditions in the Americas Group
This Group sees its mission as the promotion of the study of Native American religious traditions and thereby the enrichment of the academic study of religion generally, by engaging in discourse about culturally-centered theories and encouraging multiple dialogues at the margins of Western and non-Western cultures and scholarship. The Group is committed to fostering dialogue involving Native and non-Native voices in the study of North, Central, and South American Native religious traditions and to engaging religious studies scholarship in robust conversation with scholarship on other facets of Native cultures and societies.

Native Traditions in the Americas Group and Religion and Ecology Group
We welcome submissions that focus on native traditional knowledge and the environment, including climate change.

New Religious Movements Group
This Group supports and encourages research on all aspects of the study of New Religious Movements. Presenters in our sessions study new and alternative religions, past and present, from a variety of methodological and disciplinary perspectives. Our sessions and additional meetings are intended to create opportunities for dialogue among academics who share a passion for understanding NRMs, and to make known to a broader audience the importance of such movements for understanding issues of religious tolerance, community building and maintenance, ritual and doctrinal innovation, and other aspects of religious life.

North American Hinduism Group
This Group was established in 2006 for the purpose of drawing greater scholarly attention to Hinduisms outside of South Asia. Though it will focus on North America, the Group also welcomes relevant research on Hinduisms in other non-Indian contexts. The Group has three main goals:
To study and describe Hinduisms in North America and related diaspora contexts
To develop a more sophisticated understanding of what distinguishes these Hinduisms from those in South Asia
To nurture thoughtful debate on the methodologies unique to and appropriate for their study
This Group seeks paper and panel submissions that advance the study of Hinduisms in North America and related diaspora contexts, develop a more sophisticated understanding of what distinguishes these Hinduisms from those in South Asia, and nurture thoughtful debate on the methodologies unique to and appropriate for their study. We welcome any paper or panel submissions that might fulfill these goals.

North American Religions Section

Pentecostal–Charismatic Movements Group
This Group provides a forum for scholarly consideration of global phenomena associated with Pentecostalism and Charismatic movements. This Group provides an arena for a wide array of scholars, disciplinary orientations, and methodological approaches bringing together those working constructively from within these traditions with scholars considering the phenomena from historical, sociological, ethnographic, theological, and other perspectives. The Group intentionally seeks to encourage a global and pluralist perspective.

Religion and Cities Group
The Religion and Cities Group invites papers that explore the multilayered intersections of religion, ethnicity, gender, and global migration within the world’s urban contexts. The realities of the city of San Diego, situated on territory that once belonged to the Spanish empire and now lies in close proximity to one of the world’s busiest land borders, calls us to an exploration of religions as they are being lived out within the varied urban contexts being reshaped by global migration. We are interested in the consequences of migration on new forms of urban religious hybridity, activism, as well as increased religious pluralism. We seek papers that explore how urban border spaces are disrupting traditional religious identities, leading to new religious configurations globally, and also how migrant religions are simultaneously reshaping cities globally. We invite submissions that are grounded in empirical research suggestive of fresh theoretical paradigms for interpreting these urban dynamics.

Religion and Ecology Group
This Group critically and constructively explores how human–Earth relations are shaped by religions, cultures, and understandings of nature and the environment. We are self-consciously inter- and multi-disciplinary and include methods such as those found in the work of theologians, philosophers, religionists, ethicists, scientists, and anthropologists, among others.

Religion and Ecology Group and Scriptural/Contextual Ethics Group
This session seeks submissions on the ethics of land and landedness, particularly as these themes intersect with ecological questions. This theme is designed to echo the 2014 AAR annual meeting theme of Climate Change.

Religion and Migration Group
This Group is a forum in which scholars working on religion and migration from multiple perspectives can interact across methodologies, religious traditions, and regions. We solicit papers addressing the religious practices, experiences, needs, and beliefs of migrating peoples who adapt to new environments and impact their societies of origin and destination. We understand religion and migration broadly, from the religious communities of rural migrants in regional cities to the new understandings of religion that second-generation children construct in order to make sense of their ethnic identities or ethical responses of receiving communities. If you are interested in subscribing to our listserv, please contact Alison R. Marshall, Brandon University, .

Religion and Politics Section
This Section provides a forum for scholars and professionals interested in the relationships between religion, the state, and political life, both in the United States and around the world. Our members focus on the interaction between religious and political values, movements, and commitments, and the role of religious individuals and communities in bodies politic. This focus includes attention to the ways in which religion and religious actors participate in public discourse, contribute to debates over public values and social policy, and affect — and are affected by — activity in the political sphere. We welcome members doing both normative and descriptive work from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, including religious studies, political science, philosophy, social ethics, law (including church–state studies), history (as it relates to contemporary understandings), and theology. We seek to advance scholarly inquiry on religion and politics and we seek also to speak to broad and diverse publics about areas falling under the Section’s purview.

Religion and US Empire Seminar
This seminar supports a critical examination of the complex relationship between religion and US empire from the formal inception of the US as a nation-state to the present. The seminar will encourage attention to fundamental theoretical issues relating to religion and US expansionism, including but not limited to the following: the co-constitution of race, religion, and nation; the political and institutional mechanics of empire; the role of civic, ethnic, and religious nationalisms in supporting and critiquing empire; the value of transnational and national approaches to understanding US religious history; and the implications of reconceiving the standard periodization of US history to depart from standard state-building categories. The specific research projects of the collaborators attend to such issues as militarism and the materiality of religion and empire; the influence of empire on rituals, practices, and beliefs of US public religion; and the linkages between colonial administrators, missionaries, and the scientific study of religion.

Religion in the American West Group
The Religion in the American West Group is a forum for graduate students, independent scholars, and faculty who situate their work regionally in the North American West, broadly conceived. The study of religion in this region allows scholars to use a broad array of methodologies (historical, anthropological, literary, sociological, and others) to explore the most pressing questions in the field of American religion and in Religious Studies more generally. These include, but are not limited to: the history of empire and colonialism; the connections between religion and violence; the construction and deployment of racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities; transnational movement of people and ideas; religion and the natural and built environments; myth-making and its role in the construction and critique of nationalist ideologies; and the development of the category of religion. The purpose of this subfield is not to remain in the American West, to define the West, or to argue that religion in the West is unique. Instead, by situating scholarship regionally, scholars of the American West are able to develop theories and methods that can be useful interpretive lenses for other regions defined by land, transnationalism, migrations, diversity, and colonialism. Moreover, the Group supports the development of a rigorous intellectual community by pre-circulating papers in advance of the national meeting and maintaining a blog.

Religions, Social Conflict, and Peace Group
Relationships between religions and the causes and resolution of social conflict are complex. On the one hand, religion is a major source of discord in our world, but on the other, religious agents have often played a central role in developing and encouraging nonviolent means of conflict resolution and sustainable peace. While religion as a factor in conflicts is often misunderstood by military and political leaders, it is also the case that the popular call for an end to injustice is quite often a religious voice. We seek to add a critical dimension to the understanding of how religion influences and resolves social conflict. We want to develop and expand the traditional categories of moral reflection and response to war and also to investigate kindred conflicts — terrorism, humanitarian armed intervention, cultural and governmental repression, ecological degradation, and all of the factors that inhibit human flourishing. We also hope to encourage theoretical and practical reflection on religious peace-building by examining the discourses, practices, and community and institutional structures that promote just peace. Through our work, we hope to promote understanding of the relationships between social conflict and religions in ways that are theoretically sophisticated and practically applicable in diverse cultural contexts.

Space, Place, and Religion Group
This Group is a forum for exploring religious sites and the spatial dimensions of religions. We feature ethnographically-informed studies of living sites, historically-informed studies of texts and artifacts, and analyses of architecture and landscape. Our work seeks to shed light on the role of space and place in religious traditions and communities or to examine religious activity (performance, ritual, and practice) in spatial contexts.

And here is a link to the entire list of program units:

Hope to see you in San Diego!