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. 

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