Rethinking American Religions: Failing to Explain America or Continually (Re)Shaping It?

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This week we feature the work of Andie Alexander, a Religious Studies graduate student at University of Colorado-Boulder. She challenges us to probe narrations of the history of “American Religions.” With cutting insights into the scholarly literature, Alexander surveys scholarly claims on the past to question the politics of sophisticated selective memories. This post has been edited for length.

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From Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) via Dr. Marcus Bunyan’s Art Blart

This semester I’m taking a seminar on Religions in America at the University of Colorado Boulder. To start the semester, my professor had each of the students look through a popular introductory text on “American Religions” — in whatever shape it might take — to get a sense of how courses on American Religions were likely being taught. She also had us read a special issue of Religion: “The Study of American Religions: Critical Reflections on a Specialization” as well as Michael Altman’s blog post on Religion in American History blog, “3 Hypotheses about ‘American Religions’ and ‘American Religious History’ That I Can’t Get Out of My Head” so we could get a sense of the conversations being had about this field known as American religions. The following week, when discussing the methodological approaches of our introductory textbooks, we learned that many approaches had (predictably?) constructed a mostly western, Protestant narrative of US religious history. As a class, our general reaction to these narratives was that they were far too exclusive of a much broader history. For these narratives left out not only large parts of American history and a diversity of social groups but also only focused on the United States rather than the Americas as a geographical space.

These concerns worked as a nice segue to Finbarr Curtis’ introduction in the special issue of Religion which addresses these very issues by noting scholars’ concern for the lack of inclusivity in this particular narrative of American religions:

[T]he contributors consider an area of specialization that has been shaped by calls for pluralistic and inclusive narratives that hope to undo Protestant biases. Such calls are often buttressed by the claim that the turn toward pluralism more accurately portrays religion as it exists in the American context.

Prior to the start of this class I would have echoed (and likely did at one point or another) this lack of inclusivity as, what I saw to be a — if not the — primary shortcoming in how American religions was being taught. My concern with this exclusive historical narrative was that its implicit (or explicit?) consequences were the promotion and construction of a very particular history at the expense of those it excluded and marginalized. Some fourteen weeks ago, I, too, was making a similar argument and in favor of a pluralistic model as a corrective approach.

However, when we read Thomas Tweed’s introduction in his edited volume Retelling U.S. Religious History the following week, I found myself moving away from this position because of the arguments he made, and I began to see the flaws in my own line of thinking. While Tweed acknowledges the situatedness of historical narratives, he nonetheless argues that “historical knowledge is possible” (1997: 9). Tweed therefore posits that a pluralistic, inclusive approach to narratives of religions in the U.S. will help create a more “coherent” and hopefully more accurate history. Tweed, I think, rightly argues that certain narratives — ones that include certain details while excluding others — necessarily affect social structures and power dynamics. However, when he asserts that the “omission [of ‘local particularities or regional discontinuities’]… distorts the past,” he begins to lose me (11). For while I understand the argument he is making, I would proffer that the past is not so much being “distorted” as it is continually shaped and created. After all, as Tweed himself notes, histories are presently situated. But where I diverge from his argument is the assertion that there ultimately is an accurate history toward which we’re working.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that events in the past did not take place — of course they did. However, in terms of telling and retelling the past, all we have is narrative. These narratives do indeed reference certain events that occurred, sure. But they are narratives, and as such are necessarily biased and rooted in modern perspectives. That isn’t a critique or a shortcoming — it is just an inescapable consequence of our context.

But perhaps what struck the most was Tweed’s reference to Lawrence Levine who says:

“To teach a history that excludes significant segments of the American people… is to teach a history that fails to touch us, that fails to explain America to us or to anyone else” (3).

A history that “fails to explain America.” When I read this I thought, “Well, of course it fails to explain America. What is ‘America’ anyway?” It occurred to me that no variation of American religious history would sufficiently — Tweed’s argument and my own earlier inclusivist concern — or more effectively tell the history of religions in America. At least not for me. Even if there is a way to achieve a “more accurate” depiction, it will always be constructed and framed with a contemporary lens. Of course, this does not mean that we cannot talk about it at all, but rather we should look at how these sorts of narratives are being constructed and framed and the work each particular framing is doing.

Andie Alexander Headshot.jpgAndie Alexander is a second-year M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on the discourses on belief, practicality of definition, identity construction, and distinction of public and private with regard to issues and constructions of religious freedom in the U.S. She also contributes to the Studying Religion in Culture Grad blog. Read her posts here.

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