Incorporating Religion into the US History Survey

Trevor Burrows

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.


Mark T. Edwards said…
Lots to think about here, Trevor; thanks for it. I, too, have struggled with this issue alot: Being mainly a historian of religion and theology, I was surprised by how little I lecture on religion in either half of the US survey. I lectured on the social gospel, fundamentalist/modernist controversy, Reinhold Niebuhr when I first started teaching; but i've since dropped all of those subjects to spend more time on race and gender, especially in the 1960s. I usually rely on outside readings to get at the religion questions: Gary Nash on the Great Awakening, Thomas Kidd on the Revolution, Harvey/Blum on everything. The one exception is the Religious Right/evangelical counterculture, which I spend the last week of the semester lecturing on. I do find numerous places where my teaching informs my scholarship and vice-versa, it's just not at the level of subject matter.
Edward J. Blum said…
my first year as a TA I bugged and bugged the lead professor to include religion - at the very least Billy Graham - for second half of the survey. When we got to Nixon, the prof quoted Graham and Nixon making anti-Semitic comments. After the lecture, he came up to me and commented, "you happy?" And that's the rest of the story
Paul Harvey said…
hey, quit stealing my tag line, Ed.
S.N.Grundy said…
It’s very important that educators find balance in teaching certain subject matter, especially when possible omissions involve the truth. As a student, it is my expectation to see religion play a more active role, when it comes to history. While I agree, that implementing religious thoughts into the historical context, can be both touchy and uncomfortable, I deem it necessary. Overall, there is no one way to approach this matter, primarily when it comes to the survey. However, it would be remiss to ignore the fact, that on a large scale, religion is either absent or minimized in the context of American History. Per my basic understanding of American History and Religion, one cannot be successfully understood, without the other.
Jonathan said…
Trevor, welcome to the Survey experience! Is this a one-semester survey? (In which case, hold on to your hat!) For much of the earlier period (colonial, Revolutionary, and early republic), discussing religious developments is necessary to understand what's going on in the larger culture. I have found that reflecting on religion and politics issues _is_ a good way of bringing religion into the larger narrative. I have also found that well-crafted readings can draw students in. Let me recommend 2, one from the colonial era and one from the 1920s. George Marsden's _A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards works very well and pairs nicely with Ben Franklin's Autobiography. For the '20s, Barry Hankins's _Jesus and Gin is a gem to read and teach.
Elesha said…
Trevor, when I taught the U.S. history survey (using Tindall and Shi as the textbook, no monographs), I had students sign up in "tracking groups" to keep an eye on topics other than politics and war. There were 6 topics: religion, women, immigration, labor/industry, African Americans, and ... something else. Maybe technology? Anyway, at the end of each of four units, the groups made a presentation on their topic, pulling together the stray details from the textbook as well as some supplemental research. Farming this out to the students led to uneven results, of course, but when it worked it created parallel narratives, rather than one political narrative with occasional flashes of other stuff. I could dig up a syllabus if you were interested.
Trevor Burrows said…
Thanks to everyone for their wonderful comments!

Mark, I think that your experience (making room for race and gender) is probably typical. I do wonder if we can't use those topics themselves to do more with religion in the survey. It's something I'll probably play around with as I continue working on the syllabus.

Jonathan, we do two sections for the US survey, one pre-Civil War, one post-Civil War; I'll be doing the latter half this summer, condensed into an eight-week period. I appreciate the reading recommendations - I will especially be sure to check out the Hankins text, which I *think* I've seen recommended for teaching elsewhere, as well.

Elesha, your overview is helpful and gets at another problem that I didn't have space to talk about, which is how much the issue of space is compounded by the way one organizes and structures the class to begin with. My class will be a smaller format (cap at 40, I think), which gives me freedom to play with assignments and in-class discussion that would be less feasible in a larger survey of 180 students. I'd definitely be interested in hearing more about your experience with "farming out" individual themes, as that's one route I've considered. The other possibility I've played with is having the class essentially create a digital primary source bank, with students or groups of students working to find sources on key themes and bring those results to class discussion in some way.

Of course, with every assignment or extra "layer" to the class design, it starts to feel more and more stretched in terms of time and space. I will probably return to this topic in a few months and let folks know what I came up with.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Quick addendum: I wouldn't call it "making room" for race and gender. Like Gary Gerstle (American Crucible), I see race as constitutive of national identity. I also think Gerstle downplays gender for the sake of his argument, as gender and race interact to delimit that national identity. I'm not so sure the same could be said of religion--but this is an old debate that maybe we should avoid.
Elesha said…
Eight weeks--that's insane! I was using student presentations in part to fill time, but that's not going to be your problem. Having such limited class time does suggest moving themes such as religion to the digital realm, but then you face questions about how to motivate participation and evaluate performance. You might also run into serious digital and research illiteracy. I rarely had undergrads who understood what primary sources were, or how to find them, and they called all monographs "novels."

One other idea that might be useful: In addition to end-of-unit presentations, I sometimes did in-class activities during which the tracking groups analyzed short primary sources related to their theme.

For one day, I'd collected political cartoons (3 for each group--oh, and I just remembered, the 6th group was environment, not technology), plus a worksheet on how to analyze them. Students discussed their printed cartoons in their groups, then I projected the cartoons up front and the students talked the rest of us through them. For another day, I mined interviews about the Great Depression, selected one that pertained to each group, and then asked all of the groups the same questions, to which they responded with their interviewee's answer. What kind of work did you find? Did the government help you? That sort of thing.

Doing this kind of "multiple perspectives on the same issue or period" exercise two or three times during the semester (even if you didn't have tracking groups that persisted beyond the exercises) would address your concerns about non-political issues popping up randomly. The logic wouldn't be "at this point, suddenly religion has something to say" but "at any point, we can stop and realize that religion has something to say."

OK, I'll shut up now. Good luck!
At the risk of being that obnoxious theory guy yet again, I think it might be worth re-thinking the question at hand a bit. Instead of "how do I incorporate more religion into the survey," I think it'd be better to ask "how can I pay more attention to when Americans deploy 'religion.'?"

What I mean is, this whole conversation assumes that there is some thing called religion out there in history that we just have to be sure to dump more into the syllabus. Add religion and stir. That seems a little uncomplicated.

For example, when we talk about race in US history we don't just mean black people anymore, we mean the ways race was constructed--black, white, latino, etc. When done rightly, race is seen as ever changing discourse. (I hope) we don't do "add black people and stir" anymore.

So, if we think the ways Americans imagined, deployed, and used religion in history is important to include in the survey then I don't think we go looking for figures and events--Niebuhrs and Awakenings (by the way, that'd be a great band name). Rather, we go looking for Americans constructing and deploying religion. It might take us to some of the same places we've already mentioned, but it will take us in from a different angle that doesn't argue that these things are important because they religion because religion is important. It might also take us to some new places too.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Well put (as always), Mike. It's almost like, if we follow your emphasis on constructedness, that we'll find religion "everywhere and nowhere" in US History--I think I've heard that phrase somewhere before.
Elesha said…
Mike, we meet yet again. I can see some value to what you're saying. But I'm not convinced that attention to constructedness is always better than attention to, you know, famous people doing and saying things, especially in an undergrad survey class. The way that black people, or women, or religion burst onto national consciousness at various times *is* important. The way that other people later theorized these appearances is, to my mind, secondary. Occasionally you'll get someone at the time pointing out how race, or gender, or religion was being constructed, but isn't this typically in some opaque text that few people read?

Personally, I'd rather teach Jackie Robinson, or Rosie the Riveter, or the Scopes Trial (again, to undergrads in a survey class) primarily as "here's a thing that happened, and here's how people reacted to it." There are ways to include constructedness in that approach. But hitting the highlights of a history few undergrads know, complete with jazzy pictures and video clips, has a lot to commend it.
Charlie McCrary said…
The phrase "black people, or women, or religion burst onto national consciousness" gives agency to "religion." This suggests that "religion" just does things and then later on people classify it one way or another. In this way, treating categorization as a secondary (both in terms of chronology and importance, I take it) act assumes the reality of constructed categories like race, gender, and religion.