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Introduction for American Religion Syllabus

Course Description:

What is “American” about “religion” and vice versa? We live in a nation that claims to uphold religious freedom and separation of church and state as founding ideals, but what exactly do these words mean? Have dominant understandings of these ideas changed over time? And how have marginalized groups used these ideas to advocate for change? This class will equip you to consider such questions by introducing you to critical concepts in religious studies, including nation, community, identity, canon, authenticity and others. Throughout the course, we will focus on how religious categorizations and identities intersect with race, gender, and sexuality. In the final section of the course, students will have the opportunity to apply these developing understandings to “case studies” or examples of American “founding myths,” including “religious freedom,” “the American dream,” and “e pluribus unum.” What are the politics and limits of these founding stories?  

Learning Outcomes:

  • Interrogate commonly held definitions of religion as “belief,” “identity” or “community”
  • Use multimedia strategies to analyze course concepts
  • Gain experience in participant observation
  • Critically analyze primary sources both textual and contemporary/multimedia


  1. Field-work observation: Go to a campus or local community event (sporting event, protest, festival, concert, etc) and observe the collective effervescence (or lack thereof) that you witness. Write your observations and your personal reflections in a 2-page, double-spaced essay. Be sure to engage (and cite) readings from Week 3.
  2. Finsta: In Week 5 we talk about canon and authenticity. For this week, make a “finsta”–a Fake Instagram–account and write your reflections on how authenticity is mediated, created, and conveyed. How does your relationship to authenticity change? Capture both your internal reactions and those of your followers, and engage (and cite) the week’s readings in your 2 page, double-spaced essay. If you do not have an Instagram or feel uncomfortable using that platform for the assignment, speak with your instructor for an alternative assignment.
  3. Close-reading Paper: Week 8, the last week of the “What Is America?” unit, you will choose one primary text from that unit to do a “close reading” of, using the Barbara Sostaita reading “Making Crosses, Crossing Borders” as a model text. Zero in on a short passage and focus on the language, context, and style, in a 2-page analysis.
  4. In the News: Week 10. Spend a week observing the news and find an example of an American myth covered by a major news outlet. Analyze this headline, article, radio segment or news clip by engaging (and citing) material from the course. 1-2 pages, double spaced.

Final Assignment:

The “Unessay” (borrowed from Emily Clark): Students have the option to respond to the following prompt with either a final paper (5-7 pages) or a final project. Note: Throughout the semester you will be required to do short activities for credit (See Finsta, close-reading, field experience assignments above.) You will have the opportunity to return to these assignments for your “un-essay” final assignment.

Reading Schedule:

Unit 1: What is Religion?

Week 1: “Religion”

M: Brent Nongbri, “Introduction” to Before Religion

W: Malory Nye, excerpts from “Race and Religion”

F: Craig Martin, “Introduction” Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion

Activity: “Tournament of Definitions,” circulate a list of a dozen or so definitions of “religion,” and students discuss which they think is best, first agreeing on one in pairs, then pairs agreeing in groups of 4, etc, until the full class has to decide on one definition.

Week 2: Belief

M: Activity: “Belief-O-Matic” quiz from Beliefnet

W: Sean McCloud, “Religions are Belief Systems,” in Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Cliches

F: Mayanthi L. Fernando, “Belief and/in the Law,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2012)

Week 3: Identity, Part 1: Communal

M: Emile Durkheim, excerpts from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

W: David Chidester, “The Church of Baseball, the Fetish of Coca-Cola, and the Potlatch of Rock ‘n Roll

F: Activity: Collective Effervescence Assignment

Week 4: Identity, Part 2: Religio-Racial

M: Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violences against Women of Color

W: Judith Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming (Introduction)

F: Michael Omi & Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1980s

Week 5: Identity, Part 3: Canon/Authenticity

M: Jonathan Z. Smith, excerpt from Map is Not Territory

W: Andrew Ventimiglia, “Authorship and Authority in Intellectual Property: The Copyright Activism of Mary Baker Eddy,” from Copyrighting God

Activity: Make and/or Analyze a “Finsta
Hatsune Miku live performance

F: Madhavi Mallapragada, “Desktop deities: Hindu temples, online cultures and the politics of remediation”, South Asian Popular Culture, Vol. 8, No. 2, July 2010, 109–121

Unit 2: What is America?

Week 6: Nation (What is a nation?)

M: Benedict Anderson, “Introduction” to Imagined Communities

W: Wilson, “Religion of the Lost Cause” (Hackett -Religion and American Culture Reader)

F: Tisa Wenger, “We are Guaranteed Freedom”: Pueblo Indians and the Category of Religion in the 1920s” in History of Religions

Week 7: Borders & Geography (How is the nation formed?)

M: Anzaldua –Borderlands

W: Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500-2000 (Introduction)

F: I. Tyrell, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire

Week 8: Migration and Immigration (HMow is the nation transformed and who is included in the nation?)

M: Barbara Sostaita, “Making Crosses, Crossing Borders: The Performance of Mourning, the Power of Ghosts, and the Politics of Countermemory in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

W: Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler StatesF: S. Rabin, Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America

Assignment Due: close-reading of any primary text in this unit, using Sostaita “Making Crosses” as model text

Unit 3: What is American about American religion and what is religious about America?

Week 9: Founding myths/origin stories:

M: Founding Documents/State Constitutions
Activity: State Constitution: Choose one state constitution that was law in the year 1800 and read it, paying particular attention to questions of religious freedom and religious rights

W: Myth: “separation of church and state”
W. Sullivan, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom; Bourne vs. Flores Supreme Court Case

F: Myth: Religious Freedom
T. Wenger, Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (Introduction and Chp. 5 “Defining a People: African Americans and the Racial Limits of Religious Freedom”)
Excerpts from John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration

Week 10: Myths continued: America the Great: The American Dream, American Exceptionalism, and Manifest Destiny

M: John Winthrop, “Model of Christian Charity” (1630) in Conrad Cherry’s God’s New Israel

W: Lyman Beecher, A Plea for the West (1835), selections, Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address to the Nation (January 11, 1989)

F: Selections from Richter –Facing East from Indian Country

Week 11: Myths continued: America is a Christian nation

M: Michael Gomez, Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas(2005)
Additional Resources about Islam in the U.S.
Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream

W: Diana Eck, excerpt from A New Religious America

F: Peter Marshall and David Manuell, The Light and the Glory, selections

Week 12: “E pluribus unum” “the ‘melting pot’” (pluralism and toleration and their limits)

M: William Hutchinson, Religious Pluralism In America (Introduction)

W: The Chinese Exclusion Act
Jung -Chapter 3: “Demanding Coolies
How Chop Suey Saved Chinatown
Southern Chinese Food

F: Kurien –“Mr. President, Why Do You Exclude Us from Your Prayers”: Hindus Challenge American Pluralism

Week 13: Religious Experimentation

M: R. Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (Chp. 1 “How to Become a People: The Mormon Scenario”)

W: L. Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (Chp. 1 “Mystic Club” & Chp. 4 “Meditation for Americans”)

F: Hugh Urban, “Peoples Temple,” in New Age, Neopagan, and New Religious Movements

Week 14: Capitalism

M: M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Chp. 2, “The Spirit of Capitalism”)

W: B. Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Chp. 5, “Service Work and Service Ethos”)

F: S. Beckert and S. Rockman, eds. Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (introduction)

Activity: Students use Logan’s piece on Goop, and other readings, to analyze the website and its newsletters

Week 15: Piety and Protest

M: MLK “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet”

W: KKK, “Oath of the American Krusaders”

F: Dorothy Day, excerpts from “The Catholic Worker” and Rev. Otis Moss, Trinity UCC Chicago, 22-minute “filmic sermon” about Ahmaud Arbery, and the “pandemic of racism