America in the World, the World in America

Cara L. Burnidge

Thus far in my semester, I spend comparatively little of my time thinking about religion in US History. (You read that right.) Besides editing my own work for publication and conferences, much more of time time is related to teaching Introduction to World Religions and Introduction to Religious Studies. Although the United States certainly comes up, as it is my research area and, for most students, the only frame of reference, I see my job as introducing students to a world beyond what they know. Learning about theoretical concepts in Religious Studies and World History is intended to be a window into new perspectives on their own culture.

For example, at mid-term both of my classes are concentrating on three quotations that have guided our discussions about religion and the idea of "world religions." Each have provided a theoretical framework for individual classes (so this is not their introduction to the following quotations; we've rotated our review of each several times now):

"Every established order tends to produce the naturalization of its own arbitrariness." --Pierre Bourdieu
"I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community--and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign." --Benedict Anderson
"...the problem is not the challenge of defining such a supposedly complicated thing as, the difficulty instead lies in regulating the many definitions of it that other people offer. Defining it therefore isn't the tough part; minimizing the effects of definitions in competition with one's own is when the heavy lifting begins."--Russell McCutcheon
Next week,  my students finish writing an essay where they picked a quote and applied it to their textbook chapter on "Indigenous Religions." (How is this chapter an example of "every established order..."? How is this chapter demonstrating the "problem" of defining religion? etc., etc., you get the idea) Even though this assignment relates to categories within Religious Studies, my hope is that they will--or at least some of them will of them will?--remember these quotes and the critical thinking encouraged through them when they read headlines like

"Experts say immigrants are changing the U.S. religious landscape"
"Reagan's Christian revolt: How conservatives hijacked American religion"
or any number of the headlines devoted to the "religious liberty" bills in Kansas, Arizona, and elsewhere this past week: "America's 'Sincerely Held' Religious Beliefs and the Fraying of America"; "Religious Liberty or Anti-Gay Legislation?"; and "Setting the Record Straight on Arizona's Religious Liberty Bill".

Even though our minds might be focused on "the world," and our topics may be "indigenous religions" or "world religions" or anything else that doesn't use the word "America," we are still thinking through ideas and examples that shape what we know about "religion in America." Their critical thinking is at its best when it can be applied to multiple cultural contexts.


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