June 6, 2014

The West as a de-centering strategy for American religious history

by Thomas S. Bremer

The particular research methods and theoretical perspectives employed in the study of religions in the American west suggest the kinds of questions we ask and the insights we might gain from our scholarly inquiries. But we can also think about the west itself as a particular methodological strategy and theoretical perspective. Used this way, the west introduces a destabilizing element into resilient historiographical paradigms of Christian triumphalism that have burdened the more general field of American religious history. This is an approach I found useful in my recent work writing a textbook on the religious history of America.
The text I have written covers nearly six centuries of religion in America, presented chronologically, while questioning students’ assumptions about both “religion” and “America.” The goal, and the authorial challenge, was to present a “de-centered” narrative that allows students to consider the various ways that people on the North American continent have regarded themselves as religious and as American. One key intention of this textbook is to guide students through the various issues at stake in how people have imagined “religion” and have regarded “America” in ways that have produced normative views of both.

The challenge in avoiding paradigms that imagine religion in decidedly Protestant terms and that present America as the focus of a Christian tale of triumphal destiny is to resist allowing the historical reality of Protestant dominance to overwhelm the narrative by relying exclusively on Christian categories and perspectives for telling the story. The tale I want to present to students needs de-centering strategies that allow for a critical distance on the narration of American religious history. One useful tactic for achieving this is to bring attention early and often to the American west. This approach highlights the multidirectional nature of contact, conquest, and settlement of the continent while mitigating the teleological tendencies of a story that moves inevitably westward toward a conclusion at the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean. In short, my attempt to produce a different sort of story relies to some extent on utilizing the American west as a deliberate strategy for resituating the historical narrative.

The story of the English in America can be an instructive example of how a western orientation can shift the emphasis of the historical narrative. In fact, English claims in North America did not begin in Virginia; before Jamestown, even before Roanoke, the English laid claim to California when Francis Drake spent a month there in 1579. He was attempting to preempt the claims of the Spaniards, the great Catholic nemesis of the Protestant Englishman. Drake’s activities along the Pacific coast of North America draw attention to how English interests were situated in the international politics of religious conflicts; this suggests a different, more expansive context for English colonization. From this standpoint, the internal theological differences within the Church of England that brought Puritan settlers to New England become a secondary, less consequential justification for a Protestant presence in America.

On the other hand, undue emphasis on the west can distort the historical narrative. Yes, the English claimed California before they sent colonists to Virginia, but it remained an empty claim, impossible to enforce and impractical to develop. In contrast, English Protestants who settled in Virginia, New England, and the other colonies established an enduring presence; just as importantly, they introduced religious narratives of providential exceptionalism that have served well the consequent course of nation building in America, with all of its questionable implications and often disastrous consequences.

That traditional tale, with its origins in the Calvinist proclivities of early Puritan colonists, became the conventional historiographical narrative of American religious history, one that has proven remarkably durable. It utilizes the figure of the west most often as the frontier of Christiandom, marking a boundary to be crossed and subjugated. But a different story that reconfigures the role of the western half of North America offers alternative narrative opportunities. The west can serve as an effective strategy for de-centering the tale of American religious history, not as the privileged space for a counter-narrative, but as another point of departure for gaining multiple perspectives on a religious history that cannot be reduced to any particular group or place. 

No comments: