This summer I will be taking up yet another rite of passage familiar to graduate students everywhere: teaching the US History survey. And like most grad students building a syllabus and planning lectures for the first time, I’m experiencing an uneasy mix of excitement and confusion as I try to answer all the questions that emerge from the process. It seems the key word here, and the source of so much difficulty, is balance. How do we balance the need and desire to teach “hard” content alongside the larger processes that constitute historical thinking itself? How do we balance the presence of standard topics and narratives with those of the underrepresented and the marginalized? And the most important issue of balance: how do I finesse the syllabus so I get to talk about the stuff I really like?
I kid on the last point, of course, but as I have played with themes and lecture schedules and assignment possibilities, I have indeed wondered where religion “fits” in the survey. I have been lucky enough to TA for four sections of the survey so far (two of the first half, two of the second), so I have had several opportunities to see how religion has been folded into the survey in a few different ways. Reflecting on those personal experiences, as well as on syllabi I have unscientifically gathered from around the internet, it seems that religion is often touched on sporadically in most survey courses, and usually in relation to significant “non-religious” events. The first half of the survey frequently sees more explicit treatment of religious events and themes, which is perhaps unsurprising. Not only do you have major religious subjects that have been regularly connected to broader currents in American history and thus see substantial textbook treatment, such as the Great Awakening, but you also have the larger question of the place of religion in the founding itself, a question that virtually guarantees engagement and debate from students. Not so for the second part of the survey, the section I am preparing to teach, where religion gets attention around the social gospel and the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, maybe later in relation to the civil rights movement or conservatism in the late-twentieth century, and that’s about it. It often feels less integral to the larger narratives of the course, more episodic than persistent or organic.
Of course, the devil lurking in the details of the survey is the fact that no topic gets especially steady treatment in either half of the survey, unless the course is organized around recurring themes. Whether we are talking about labor, African Americans, women, or any number of other subjects, one could take similar note of that topic’s uneven coverage in the survey. Take a step toward focusing on any of these and you run the risk of being accused of telling the “wrong” history, of focusing too much on minorities, etc. Furthermore, there’s a good chance that coverage of such “special” topics will always feel superficial and cursory. And then there is the added burden of dealing with the fact that religious issues are difficult to teach, even more difficult to teach well, and are always potentially sensitive (even if broached in the most sensitive way). In short, we might excuse oversight of religious history through any number of reasonable concerns, from relevance to space to ease and comfort.
The problem is that, as historians who are especially interested in matters of religious history, we believe that our field is indeed relevant to the larger stories of American history, and that hopefully that relevance exceeds simply acknowledging religion’s occasional presence in important “non-religious” events. The question, then, returns: where does religion fit in the survey? And can it indeed fit, considering everything else that we hope to cover? I haven’t solved the dilemma by any means, but I have been playing with a few ideas toward incorporating religion in a more meaningful way into the survey.
1) Using images and interpretations of Jesus as a way of working through key moments in American culture
We now have in our possession a substantial and growing literature concerning the history of Jesus as a dynamic symbol in American culture including Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus, Richard Wightman Fox’s Jesus in America, and our own Ed Blum and Paul Harvey’s provocative The Color of Christ. It is not difficult to imagine indexing key periods in American history to the varieties of material culture and theological imagination elaborated in these volumes. I like this idea as a means for getting at the intimate, reciprocal relationship between religion and culture in American life. It also opens up an opportunity to consider how symbols that are popularly understood as static are far more fluid than recognized, a concept that has great historical significance beyond matters of religion. This would not have to take up a great amount of class time, yet could provide a consistent touchstone for lectures and readings. And besides, it might give a good excuse to play Woody Guthrie’s “Jesus Christ” in class - and who would pass that up?
2) Same idea, but with an “outsider” twist
One could probably pull together enough material to accomplish something similar to the above yet with a non-Christian focus. This may be less invested in the history of a given icon or symbol - although now that I think about it, following visual and conceptual interpretations of the Buddha in American culture could be fascinating - and instead focus on tracing perceptions and presence of non-Protestant religions or practices in America. This carries some of the same positive gains as the above but it also offers the added bonus of dealing explicitly with religious “outsiders,” which opens up a number of possible connections to histories of immigration, law, and American identity. Or perhaps you might choose a single “outsider” tradition and follow its relationship to the Protestant mainstream(s) over time, considering how its social and cultural position may be related to other historical themes (such as race or class). The important thing would be to return to the discussion regularly over the whole of the semester, to see how both the tradition and perceptions of the tradition change over time.
3) Tracking Connections Between Religion and Politics
Survey courses naturally lean toward political history, providing an obvious touchstone for a recurring thematic focus in the survey that doesn’t veer far from a lot of our standard material. Indeed, this is where religion often shows up in survey courses. What I envision here, however, is a more consistent conversation about religion and politics throughout the whole of the semester. For those of us who try to touch on how law and politics have contributed to the construction of key concepts in American history such as race, ethnicity, or gender, returning to connections between religion and politics regularly in lectures or readings offers an opportunity to discuss how religion as a concept is imagined and built through legal and political processes. It opens further opportunities for considering how those constructions affect other aspects of American society and politics in turn, such as the distribution of power in the public sphere. Related readings along these lines (for the second half of the survey) might include Wenger’s We Have a Religion or Schultz’s Tri-Faith America.
These are rough, lecture-focused ideas, although it is not hard to think of assignments that draw on each approach. Behind all of them is an effort to integrate religion into the syllabus with some regularity, rather than as something that just pops up from time to time with no organic connection between its appearances, without turning the course into an American Religious History survey. All of them allow more or less engagement depending on allotted time, and, perhaps most importantly for the survey, they can be easily connected to larger political and cultural issues that most of us already plan to discuss in our surveys in one way or another.
So how do you incorporate religious history and themes into your survey courses? Do you place it at the center of the survey in any way, or do you fold it into the larger narratives themselves? How do you position it so as to discuss religion’s fluidity and dynamism, rather than unintentionally feature it as a static phenomenon that gets a cameo appearance now and again? Inquiring graduate students and aspiring teachers want to know.