This course introduces students to the study of religion and America from the seventeenth century to the contemporary period. Students will also learn and apply a sample of research methods commonly used in the study of religion and be invited to critically consider the categories of “religion” and “America” through a variety of case studies. The primary textbook for the class, Religion in American Life, will be used for two purposes: (1) introduce students to the history, key events, and concepts of religion in America, and (2) as an example of a narrative of religion in America that students will examine through a critical lens. The students will be invited to examine the perspectives from which this narrative is told, which voices are included, and which voices are omitted.
Daily and weekly reading assignments will be organized around specific methodological approaches to the study of religion and assignments for the class are intended to provide students with the opportunity to engage more thoroughly with a particular methodological approach.
At the end of the course, students should be able to:
- Identify people, dates, and concepts needed to understand the place of religion in the history of America.
- Demonstrate familiarity with basic research methods, and theoretical issues with methods, in the study of religion.
- Examine and deconstruct the categories of “religion” and “America.”
- Critique dominant narratives pertaining to religion in America.
- Read, transcribe, and interpret historical documents.
- Conduct basic oral history and ethnographic research.
- Analyze representations of religion in the media.
- Jon Butler, Grant Wacker, & Randall Balmer, Religion in American Life: A Short History, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
- Rebecca T. Alpert, Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
- Additional readings will be made available electronically.
Assignments and Grading:
Students are expected to attend and actively participate in class. Participation will be graded in a variety of ways: (1) active engagement in class or with the instructor outside class time, (2) participating in small group discussions (see course schedule for when these are taking place), (3) completing in-class reflections, and (4) completing short participation activities outside class time. In-class reflections are not planned in advance and will take place regularly throughout the semester.
Archival Assignment (15%)
The archival assignment is designed to introduce students to archival research methods in the study of American religion (Learning Outcome #2) and teach them to read and transcribe historical documents (Acquired Skill #1). After a class visit to the university archives, students will select one handwritten, manuscript document there that deals in some way with religion and America (broadly defined). Students will be required to transcribe the document, following editorial guidelines for scholarly transcriptions, research the context and content of the document, and submit with the transcription a research note (a ~750-1000 word essay) introducing the document and its significance. Examples will be provided.
Field Visit and Reflection (15%)
The field visit project is designed to provide students with an immersive research experience and the opportunity to engage deeply with one example of “religion in America” (Learning Outcome #2). Students are required to conduct 1 site visit to observe “religion in action” to teach them about ethnographic research methods (Acquired Skill #2). This can include visiting a sacred space, observing a ritual enactment (public or private), or participating in a virtual service, to name a few examples. Students are encouraged to be creative and push beyond their comfort zone. The field visit reflection is due during week 10 of the course, but students should start thinking about and coordinating their visit early on in the term. As part of the reflection, students should be prepared to discuss why they chose their fieldsite, and to articulate what it is an example of. Thus, students are encouraged to think critically not only about their fieldsite as an object of study, but also about the definitions and categories they use to classify their site (Learning Outcome #3). Note that field visits should not take place before week 5 (we are using that week to prepare for the field visits).
Religion in the Media (15%)
For this assignment, students are to choose a depiction of religion in American media from any historical period and critically examine how religion is being depicted in a 3-page reflection. This could be an article in the newspaper, an advertisement, a news segment on television, a conversation/thread/tweet on Twitter, or even a viral meme. The following are some questions to help guide the analysis: Which religion is being spoken about and by whom? What assumptions/misinformation/misrepresentations are present (if any)? What images/music accompany the article/advertisement/segment and what messages do these elements send? Is anyone interviewed for the article/segment? If so, who and why do you think they were included? What overall message does the article/advertisement/segment send about religion? How does the article/advertisement/segment reflect the historical/cultural context in which it was derived? This assignment primarily focuses on the analysis of religion in the media (Acquired Skill #3), but students are encouraged to think about the classification of media as historical vs. contemporary, as well as what counts as “religion” in the “media” (Learning Outcomes #2, #3, and #4).
Reading Reflections (10%)
Reading reflections are short hand-written reflections that will be completed throughout the term during class time. The reading reflections are designed to ensure students are doing the readings, give students the opportunity to share their thoughts on the readings/course content, and participate in an alternative way than speaking in class. Students will not be made aware of when the reflections will be taking place. In addition to the Midterm and Final exams, reading reflections are the primary way that students demonstrate a grasp of scholarly narratives about religion in America (Learning Outcome #1) as well as the theoretical issues involved in the construction of these narratives (Learning Outcome #3).
Midterm Examination (15%)
The midterm exam will consist of some combination of short answer ID questions and at least one longer essay question. It is intended to both assess students’ knowledge of important people, events, and concepts in the study of religion in America (Learning Outcome #1) and their ability to “examine and deconstruct the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘America’” (Learning Outcome #3).
Final Examination (15%)
The final exam will consist of some combination of short answer ID questions and at least one longer essay question. It is intended to both assess students’ knowledge of important people, events, and concepts in the study of religion in America (Learning Outcome #1) and their ability to “examine and deconstruct the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘America’” (Learning Outcome #3).
Course Calendar and Reading Schedule:
Week one: Introduction
- Reading: Russell McCutcheon, “What’s in a Name?” in Studying Religion: An Introduction, 7-14 (PDF Provided)
- Reading: Andrew O’Neil, “Introduction: What is Heavy Metal” in A History of Heavy Metal, xi-xxiv (PDF Provided)
- Reading: Preface, Religion in American Life, ix-xi
Week Two: Getting Situated
- Reading: Religion in American Life, 1-22 (chapter 1: “Worlds Old and New”)
- To be read in class: Horace Miner, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” American Anthropologist (1956), 503-507 (PDF Provided)
Week Three: Historical Approaches[Text Wrapping Break]
- Reading: Religion in American Life, 23-75 (chapter 2: “Religion and Missions in New Spain and New France”), 118-141 (chapter 6: “Reviving Colonial Religion”).
For this class, we will meet in the university’s special collections or at a local historical society/archive. You will each register as a user at the archive and we will meet with an archivist, who will outline the archive’s collections, describe the procedures for accessing documents, and review any special rules or guidelines. After registering and meeting with the archivist, you will each find one document related to religion in American history (broadly defined) held at the archive. The document you select will form the basis of the archival assignment described above.
Week Four: Oral History and Interview Methods
- Reading: Religion in American Life, 98-117 (chapter 5: “African and American Indian Religion”)
- Reading: Katherine McCarthy Brown, “Introduction,” Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (PDF Provided)
Week Five: Ethnographic Approaches: Method, Ethics, and Identity
- Reading: Ayca Ergun and Aykan Erdemir, “Negotiating Insider and Outsider Identities in the Field: ‘Insider’ in a Foreign Land; ‘Outsider’ in One’s Own Land,” Field Methods 22 (2010): 16-38 (PDF Provided)
Small group discussion
Please reflect on and come prepared to answer these questions during the class discussion: What is your religious and/or spiritual background and how could this impact your experience in the field? Do you consider yourself an “insider” or “outsider” of the community you are studying? How could this impact (positively or negatively) your ability to conduct research in the community? In what ways are you simultaneously an insider and an outsider? How can you mitigate the potential barriers presented by your identity? What do Ergun and Erdemir highlight about their respective identities with regards to their research? What can we learn about their experiences when conducting our own research?
- Reading: Kathleen Blee, “Evidence, Empathy, and Ethics: Lessons from Oral Histories with the Klan,” Journal of American History 80, no. 2, (1993): 441-469 (PDF Provided)
- Reading: Katherine Bornant, “‘That’s Not What I Said’: Interpretive Conflict in Oral Narrative Research (PDF Provided)
Small group discussion
For this class discussion, I would like you to think about how your preconceived notions and biases could affect the interpretation of your research. Please reflect on and come prepared to answer the following questions during the class discussion: what biases do you personally have that could impact the interpretation of your research. How can you mitigate these biases? How can we be “objective” in our research? Is “objectivity” possible? How did Kathleen Blee’s assumptions about her informants impact her research? How did the assumptions of Blee’s informants affect her access to the community? What assumption(s) did Katherine Bornant make that resulted in the mis-representation of her information? What can we learn about making assumptions and misrepresenting our informants/community through Blee and Bornant?
Week Six: Geography, Nation, Borders
- Reading: Religion in American Life, 142-162 (chapter 7: “Religion and the American Revolution”), 165-181 (chapter 8: “Prophets for a New Nation”).
- To be viewed in class: Google Search: “Reunion”
- Reading: Judith Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (New York: NYU Press, 2017), 211-251 (chapter 6: “The Religio-Racial Politics of Space and Place”)
Week Seven: Race
- Reading: Religion in American Life, 227-246 (chapter 12: “Religion and the American Revolution”).
- Reading: Kathryn Gin Lum, “The Historyless Heathen and the Stagnating Pagan: History as Non-Native Category?,” Religion in American Culture 28:1 (Winter 2018): 52-91 (PDF Provided)
Week Eight – Textual Methods
- Reading: Religion in American Life, 213-226 (chapter 11: “Restorers of Ancient Ways”)
- To be read in class: George Q. Pukuniahi, He Olelo Hoolaha, I na Hoahanau a ka Ekalesai o Jesu Kristo o ka poe Hoana o na La Hope nei, ma ko Hawaii pae aina; a I na kanaka a pau I aloha I ka oiaio (San Francisco: Western Standard Press, 1855), translated by Richard Keao Nesmith and William K. Kelly and published in David J. Whitaker, “Placing the Keystone: George Q. Cannon’s Mission of Translation and Printing the Book of Mormon into the Hawaiian Language,” in Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, ed. by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Brigham Young University, 2002), 518-29.
**Archival Assignment due**
Week Nine: Zoom-in on Case Study
- Reading: Rebecca T. Alpert, Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
- Guest speaker: Rebecca Alpert
Week Ten: Feminist Theory & Method
- Reading: Religion in American Life, 247-262 (chapter 13: “Warriors for God and Region”), 346-363 (chapter 19: “The Age of Militancy”)
- Reading: Rachel Adler, “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halacha and the Jewish Woman” (77-82)
- To be viewed in class: Half the Kingdom documentary
**Field Visit Reflection due**
Week Eleven: Popular Culture
- Reading: Religion in American Life, 364-384 (chapter 20: “In God We Trust”), 385-406 (chapter 21: “Religion in the New Frontier”)
- “The Plot Against America,” Part 1 (HBO)
Week Twelve: News Media
- Reading: Religion in American Life, 407-423 (chapter 22: “Religion in an Age of Upheaval”)
- Reading: Zachary Smith, “‘I Pray for a more Perfect Union’: Religion, Race, and the Magic of Comparison in a Tale of Two Quarterbacks on Their Knees” (PDF Provided)
Week Thirteen: Material Culture
- Reading: Religion in American Life, 424-437 (chapter 23: “Preachers, Politicians, and Prodigals”)
- Reading: Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada, “Men, Tattoos, and Catholic Devotion in Brooklyn.” Material Religion (2020) (PDF Provided)
Week Fourteen: Physical Culture
- Reading: Religion in American Life, 424-437 (chapter 24: “Religion for the New Millenium”)
- Reading: Cody Musselman, “Training for the ‘Unknown and Unknowable’: CrossFit and Evangelical Temporality.” Religions 10 (2019):624-643 (PDF Provided)
**Religion in the Media Assignment due**
Week Fifteen: The Future of Religion in America
- Reading: Religion in American Life, 457-459 (Epilogue)
- Reading: Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme and Joel Thiessen, “I’m Done…and I’m not Going Back!,” None of the Above: Nonreligious Identity in the US and Canada (NYU Press, 2020): 27-57.
Class Two – Conclusion, wrap-up
Small group discussion/reflection