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Counterculture and American Religion Syllabus

Description of Course: 

Countercultures and American Religion explores tensions between mainstream and marginal ideas about what it means to be ‘American’ from the 1960s to the present. We begin by grounding the course with selections from Bruce Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society, which sets the tone for our basic thesis – that discourse, including language, spectacle, rituals, and symbols, are the primary ground upon which competing cultures within a society attempt to tell and retell their versions of who ‘we’ are and who we ought to be. The first unit turns to the 1960s, where countercultures like the hippies and the Black Power movement serve as key examples of how normative ideas of ‘Americanness’ were challenged in significant ways. The second unit turns to the question of ‘civil religion’ in America, which was an idea proposed by Robert Bellah in 1967, and subsequently used as a multicultural framework for managing difference. Turning to critiques of this framework in post-9/11 representations of Islam we explore how the mainstream trope of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ Muslims reveals once again the shaky ground upon which American identitiy has been constructed. Finally, in unit 3 we explore Native American dispossession, appropriation, and resistance, focusing on the various relationships between Indigenous religions and Christianity in the United States, historically and today.  

Learning Outcomes:

 By the end of the semesters, students will be able to: 

  • Understand and verbalize key concepts of American Religious discourse through formal and informal academic writing 
  • Understand a broad narrative of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic constructions of religious social formations 
  • Conduct light research applying religious studies discourse to contemporary American trends 
  • Synthesize disparate and sometimes conflicting theories on American religious discourse 
  • Collaborate with other students in an academic setting 


Participation – 20% 
3 Group projects – 60% (20% each) 
Final research essay – 20% 

Description of Assignments: 

Participation: Student participation will be assessed in two ways (10% each). The first means of assessment will be short student reflections (>100 words) due the night before class. These reflections will provide a brief summary of the day’s reading(s) as well as a question or comment reflecting on the material. These reflections will be used to guide class discussion. The second means of assessment will be based on in-class writing and/or quizzes as well as student participation in class discussion. While students may be reluctant to participate in class, they should know that this is an open-forum environment and are encouraged to actively ask questions and build on each others’ ideas.  

Group projects: Towards the end of each unit, the instructor will provide 2-3 guided questions that students will respond to in writing (~2 double-spaced pages). On the first meeting of each unit’s final week, students will collaborate in groups to articulate a position on the questions posed by the instructor. On the second meeting, groups will present to their peers their findings.  

Final research essay: Building on examples and themes explored in group projects, students will individually write and submit a final essay (~5 double-spaced pages) that argues how a contemporary ideation of American religion correlates to larger themes of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic social constructions. The essay will require light research using the university’s library system, including scholarly journals and/or academic monographs and collections. Instruction will be provided for research strategies, but students will be required to conduct their research independently. In turn, students will synthesize their findings to articulate a position on the example of their choosing.

Course Calendar: 

 Week 1: Introduction to course & theoretical scaffolding

Bruce Lincoln, “Introduction,” 3-12; “Trotsky and the Spanish Revolution,” 17-18; “Myth and the Construction of Social Borders,” 21-23; “Toward a Redefinition of History and Myth,”23-26 in Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual and Classification (1989). 

Music video (watch in class): Public Enemy, Fight the Power

Week 2: Considering American Religiosity

Harold Bloom, “Enthusiasm, Gnosticism, American Orphism” from The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (1992) 

Unit 1 – Counterculture & the 1960s 

Key ideas: counterculture, dissent, authenticity 

Week 3:

Theodore Roszak, “An Invasion of Centaurs,” The Making of a Counter Culture (1969); 

Watch in class: “Hippies” episode of Firing Line (1968) 
Week 4:

Allen Ginsberg, Howl (1956)

Amiri Baraka, “A Poem for Willie Best” (1964)

Joan Didion, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1968)

Week 5:

Alex Haley and Malcom X, The Autobiography of Malcolm Xexcerpts (1965)

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)

Interview with Mike Wallace (1966)

Week 6:

Group projects 

Unit 2 – Islam & the “Clash” with the West 

Key ideas: hegemony, counter-hegemony, national and cultural identity   

Week 7: 

Robert Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” (1967).  

Week 8:

Christopher Douglas, “Multiculturalism, Secularization, Resurgence,” If God Meant to Interfere: American Literature and the Rise of the Christian Right (2016). 

Week 9:

Evelyn Alsultany, “Selling Muslim American Identity,” Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation After 9/11 (2012).  

Week 10:

Group projects 

Unit 3 – Indigeneity, Paracolonialism, Decolonialism

Key ideas: dispossession, appropriation, sacred sites 

Week 11:

Adrienne Keene (Cherokee), “Sephora’s ‘Starter Witch Kit’ and Spiritual Theft,”  

Cutcha Risling Baldy (Hupa/Yurok/Karuk), “ Why the F’in F Are they Building A Dollar General In McKinleyville,”

Natalie Avalos (Chicana/Apache decent), “Indigenous Stewardship and the Death Rattle of White Supremacy,”

Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address: Greetings to the Natural World (the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen),

Sarah Jaffe, “Standing Firm at Standing Rock: Why the Struggle is Bigger than One Pipeline,”

Music video (watch in class): A Tribe Called Red, Woodcarver

Week 12:

Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux), “Sacred Places and Moral Responsibility,” God is Red: A Native View of Religion (1973).  

Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe), “Quilled Cradleboard Covers, Cultural Patrimony, and Wounded Knee,” Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming (2015). 

Week 13:

Tisa Wenger, “Cultural Modernists and Indian Religion,” We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (2009). 

Documentary film: Sweating Indian Style 
Week 14:

Group projects 

Music video (watch in class): Childish Gambino, This is America,

Week 15:

Concluding discussion