"In the Beginning...": Teaching American Religious History

By Phillip Luke Sinitiere

One of the current threads over at H-World is about sharing teaching strategies and best practices in the classroom: what teachers and professors do on the first day of class to introduce world history.

Some have a class discussion to define world history; others use string to illustrate human history and the scope of universal time. Some even give geography/map assignments as a way to introduce the breadth of world history.

The H-World thread thus prompts this query: What do you do on the first day of class to introduce American religious history? What strategies work best? Why? And these questions are for students, too: what first day assignments or activities have you found most interesting and intriguing in American religious history classes?

In the past I've posed the question, "When you think about religion in America, what comes to mind and why?" The answers are always interesting, and usually prompt engaging discussion.

I've also brought up the question of religious (il)literacy, passing out Stephen Prothero's 2005 Christian Science Monitor article, "A Nation of Religious Illiterates" (a very short, concise version of the larger argument in Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-and Doesn't) for students to read and discuss. (You may also want to show Prothero's interview on The Daily Show from March 2007; it is just under 7 minutes.) I followed this discussion (for last summer's class) by giving students the 15-question religious literacy quiz from the Appendix of Prothero's book. While I don't formally grade this quiz, I do discuss the answers with students-again an occasion for lively conversation.

To engage discussion, I might ask questions such as: Why does Prothero make this argument and what evidence does he cite? What exactly is religious literacy, and why does it matter? As for the quiz, I ask students to think about what religions and/or religious practices do not appear on it, and why they think this is the case? I also ask them to propose one or two questions they think should be added to the quiz (and why).


deg said…
Those are great ways to start off a class. I used the religious literacy quiz last time I taught the course, and it worked reasonably well, showing students what they knew and thought they knew about American religions. Some found me a bit condescending for using it, but the point was still made.

I spend a day or two in all my classes conceptualizing what we're doing, and in the religion class, I ask them to consider whether UGA football is a "religion," per se. We debate whether it is or isn't and why, and then consider how our definition of "religion" shapes the history we will study. Should we include sports in our study of America's religious past? What about other seemingly non-religious activities like shopping or 4th of July celebrations? What about polytheistic non-revelatory religions? Should we only study religions that have had a distinct impact on politics and culture? Should a minority religion - one with only a few thousand adherants at a given time - be studied as well?

Maybe a bit "meta" in its goals, but it certainly gets the gray matter going and let's them know that this is a class in which they're going to have to think. If you teach at a school where a given sport is of utmost concern to many students, I think it works quite well.
Kelly Baker said…
Phil and Darren,

Great suggestions. I, too, rely on the literacy quiz, and I question why they know absolutely nothing about Hinduism but they can name one of the Gospels.

I also focus a lot on the nature of religion and how problematic the term can be to define. So, I use sports or shopping or organizations (like Girl Scouts) to say can this be religious. I am indebted to Chidester for his understanding of religion.

In addition, I ask them what they think of when they hear the terms "religion" and "America" together. This usually elicits all kinds of funs responses that I can counter through out the semester since I use an encounter approach primarily to American religious history.
Anonymous said…
Those are all great questions. I usually just begin with Madonna's Like a Prayer Video and ask them to tease out themes about religion in it... because I then take those themes and structure the course. Good times.
Phil said…
It is good to read the fabulous suggestions so far.

I like the idea of using sports, or even shopping (or, thanks to Katie Lofton's work, Oprah) to introduce American religious history.

Ed's comment about using one of Madonna's music videos is intriguing as well--I've often thought of using popular music as an entree to discussions about religion. Joan Osborne's 1995 song "One of Us" would be great to use, Matisyahu's more recent "Jerusalem" (2006) or anything Lenny Kravitz.
katy said…
I have shown the episode "Homer the Heretic" from The Simpsons (or at least excerpts). I've found it to be great for teasing out certain course concepts: the relationship between gender and religiosity, Protestant dominance, individualism, pluralism, and irreligion.
Cort said…
Thanks for this wonderful post and suggested questions/exercises.

I teach a first-year experience course that has a large cultural diversity component. I can't wait to use the religious literacy quiz.
Howell Williams said…
I am now at the point where I use You Tube to open up every class of Religion in the U.S. with either a piece of popular music, music video, clips, Mormon Tabernacle choir, etc., or all the other wonderful interpretations of religion in the U.S. you can find on You Tube.

I have used Madonna before and will probably return to such on the first day. The problem? I need to keep up with what's "hot" in music. This last semester I used Kanye West's Jesus Walks video to open up first day discussion about religious themes and 3/4 of the class was not familiar with the song. Whoops. :o)