August 14, 2014

“Religion and Empire” Revisited

by John-Charles Duffy

Several months ago, I blogged here about an introductory American religions course I was preparing around the theme “religion and empire.” I’ve completed the syllabus (view it here). While I’m dissatisfied with it in many ways (this is a first run), I am pleased by how the “religion and empire” theme has helped to integrate the American west more firmly into my course’s grand narrative of religion in the United States.

Some West-related highlights:

* “The west” preoccupied Anglo-Americans from the colonial period on, but of course “the west” with which they were preoccupied kept shifting farther west. My students will learn to speak of a “trans-Appalachian” west (Sept. 25) and a “trans-Mississippi” west (Oct. 16).

* In past iterations of this American religions course, I’ve used Samuel Morse’s Imminent Dangers to exemplify antebellum anti-Catholic nativism. This semester I’m using Lyman Beecher’s A Plea for the West (Sept. 23).

* As in past semesters, I spotlight Protestant bids for cultural dominance. In the past, Prohibition has been a central example; also, Protestant reformers’ campaign against Mormon polygamy. The Mormons are still in this semester’s syllabus, but Prohibition got the axe. Instead, I’m spotlighting Protestantism’s role in the subordination of Hawaiians, Mexicans, Native Alaskans, Asian immigrants, and Filipinos (Oct. 2, 14, 23, 30).

* The “new immigration” (1880s-1920s) enters my empire-themed narrative as a look at U.S. religious minorities’ relations with empires abroad. An autobiography of a Jewish emigrant from the Russian Empire is balanced, geographically, by the autobiography of a Japanese Buddhist missionary whose husband was interned during World War II (Nov. 4).

* Our readings on the post-WWII anti-colonialist struggles of Mexican Americans and Native Americans tend to be situated in the trans-Mississippi west (Nov. 11, 13).

* My discussion of religion in the Cold War includes a special focus on the Vietnam War, which in turn includes a Vietnamese Buddhist nun’s account of her trans-Pacific migration to the U.S. as a refugee (Nov. 18).