Dispatches from LeConte Hall 323 – Part IX
by Darren Grem
We finished the class up this week with the “culture wars.” By this point, my students should know that the “culture wars” ain’t all that new. Americans have been struggling to “define America” for quite some time, and religion has played a vital role in that struggle. Still, I wanted them to focus on the issues that have been divisive in the past forty years and why religious affiliations and affections have exacerbated those divisions or helped overcome them.
The “uncoverage” approach offered some interesting opportunities to navigate the culture wars, and I thought it best to begin by manufacturing a miniature culture war in class. I had the students watch clips from Jesus Camp and peruse several web pages connected with Harvard’s Pluralism Project. How would the youngsters and adults portrayed in Jesus Camp respond to the efforts of the Pluralism Project? In turn, how would those who support “pluralism” view militant evangelicals and their youth camps? Personally, I don’t like Jesus Camp very much as a documentary. And I have several qualms with the Pluralism Project’s thesis about the “new religious America,” but that’s why I picked both of these “sources.” I wanted students to use the sources to see where fundamental disagreements, mutual disparagement, and cultural disconnections could come from. Although we didn’t engage in a debate as in classes past (with the students acting out these dynamics as the historical actors themselves), we did have a fruitful, informal debate about how the participants in the various Jesus camps and the Pluralism Project contribute to and exemplify contemporary struggles to define America. Indeed, by the end of our debate, the students concluded that our subjects had differing takes on acceptable “traditions” and “innovations.” As such, the next few class sessions attempted to add more perspective on such questions of “tradition” and “innovation.” Students read about another miniature culture war – Catholic conflicts over Vatican II – and then read documents detailing the religious experiences of American Buddhists and Muslims. We used these documents to talk about how the “culture wars” reach into any number of religious corners and are not just limited to the classic "Jesusland vs. U.S. of Canada" binary. Clearly, cultural conflicts hit different religious groups in different ways, thus making notions of “tradition” and “innovation” less predictable than expected. Still, to ensure that they had a framework for understanding the political aftereffects of the culture wars, I gave a lecture on the Religious Rights, Religious Lefts, and Religious Middles, and why some members of each group have had more influence over the political process than others.
I made a number of these final classes optional in terms of attendance and reading because the students were starting work on their Final Assignment. Taking a cue from Lendol Calder’s Final Assignment – in which he has students pick between a conservative and liberal interpretation of post-war American history and defend their choice with documentary evidence – I had the students write a proposal for a national curriculum that would address America’s “religious literacy.” A number of students were thrown by the term “proposal,” and I had to clarify for them that what I wanted was essentially an argumentative essay about what documents they would use to increase American religious illiteracy. The goal of this project was to provide an alternative to the standard, final exam. Like a final exam, they had to treat American religious history as comprehensively as possible, but also select what documents and issues they wanted to emphasize as the “high points” that Americans needed to know. Since they weren’t under the time crunch of the usual three hour in-class exam, they could mull over ideas, use all the texts available to them, and, hopefully, show that they had learned something about how to think and write like historians, proposing a solution to a problem and defending it with historical analysis and documentation.
I’m currently grading these assignments, and I’ll offer some final thoughts about them – and the pros and cons of the "uncoverage" approach as a whole – in my final post. Until then...