Inspiration & Innovation

Religion in the American West

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Todd M. Kerstetter
  • West Sussex, UK: 
    Wiley-Blackwell
    , January
     2015.
     288 pages.
     $27.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781118848388.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Todd M. Kerstetter’s Inspiration & Innovation: Religion in the American West offers a thin but sweeping overview of the American West and its critical links to religion, which he brings front and center. The overarching strength of this work is not just Kerstetter’s ability to demonstrate the role of religion in the West, but his ability to provide a sense of its diverse and contested makeup within an easily grasped and relatively short narrative.  

The stated “two-pronged thesis” of this book is that religion has and continues to play an important role in bringing people to the American West, but also that the West informed religious innovation in the region, which then influenced the nation and beyond. Throughout this work, Kerstetter effectively builds this thesis upon two basic questions: what role does religion play in the West, and what role does the West play in religion? This emphasis on religion illuminates this neglected component in the historiography of the American West, and turns on its head the traditional “Westward Ho!” narrative that although long challenged, continues to influence how many think about the West.  

Kerstetter structures his work chronologically. His analysis of how the West informs religion begins with a quick overview of indigenous religious traditions and how each played out in different cultural zones. The religious stories and ritual emphasis among Koyukon Indians of the Sub-Artic, for example, only make sense in the interior region of Alaska, and therefore would not translate well to the Lakota on the Plains, whose geographic realities were different. While this admittedly “lightning quick tour” of indigenous religion barely scratches the surface of how geography informs religion, Kerstetter’s goal was to set forth a useful framework for the rest of his work.

Continuing this chronological approach with the European conquest to “civilize” the “savage frontier,” Kerstetter demonstrates how the spiritual-colonial goals of the French, Russian, and Spanish were tightly interwoven. Not unlike the indigenous populations these white Europeans encountered, their approaches were informed by a holistic understanding of religion, as well as a need to respond in innovative ways to these unique geographic encounters. Kerstetter observes these innovations among both the colonized and colonizers.

In its own expansion westward, the U.S. took over these former empire/indigenous regions, painting this pre-existent regional backdrop with new levels of diversity and contestation. It is here that we see innovations emerge, among not just Protestants, Catholics, and indigenous populations, but also Jews, Buddhists, and Mormons. Kerstetter continues these themes to show how Protestants sought to “close the frontier” and enshrine a particular Protestant normalcy at the end of the nineteenth century, creating a unique environment for non-Protestants. While the massacre at Wounded Knee, anti-Chinese legislation, as well as the harsh national crusade against Mormonism during these years support this idea of a “closed frontier,” Kerstetter reminds us that the West’s religious landscape “lacked a norm,” and thus resisted such closure. Indeed, “whatever watershed moments occurred in 1890, the West’s religious history continued in glorious complexity” (150).

Following the devastating history of the 1880s, for both Mormons and Native Americans, new innovations emerged among both to reimagine their respective religions in new ways. For example, though Mormonism had earlier defined polygamy as a core aspect of their religion, they now defined themselves against it; and for Native Americans, developments like the Native American Church allowed for a new detachment from sacred geography and tribal lines, ideas previously unimaginable. This book demonstrates similar themes of religious inspiration and innovation among Buddhists, Catholics, and Protestants, however uneven Kerstetter’s analysis.

By mid-20th century, the West rode the new waves of American suburbia, increased Asian immigration, and the paranoias of the Cold War. Evangelicals found new ways to reach the West’s unchurched populations, and the mid-century countercultural movement embraced news visions of Buddhism. In furthering this diversity, Scientology emerged, as did other spiritual possibilities, including those linked to aliens and UFOs. While evangelicals saw suburbia as another frontier in need of a new crusade, mainline Mormons entered their own crusade against polygamous Mormon fundamentalists in ways not unlike those waged against them in the 1880s. Kerstetter argues that the West still represents a frontier, or contest between competing versions of America and its presumed social and religious moral values.  

In bringing this theme to more contemporary times, the last half of the 20th century brought a significant rise in new religious movements, such as IKSON (Krishna Consciousness), Heaven’s Gate, and the Church of Satan, to name only a few. Evangelicals were similarly transformed in this shared environment, bringing forth new theologies, technologies, and ministries. The West was thus a place of, as the title of Kerstetter’s book says, inspiration and innovation, whose influence flowed outward.

The idea that the environment of the West informs individuals is an idea that emerged with Frederick Jackson Turner and his influential frontier hypothesis in 1893, the same year he declared the frontier closed. Though this book embraces this basic idea of the environmental impact of the West, it does so in a way that simultaneously challenges it, not only by using the lens of religion to see this environmental influence, but also in showing how this imagined frontier never really closed and was never unidirectional. One of Kerstetter’s overarching themes is that many issues that were considered “closed” (a.k.a. solved) are still very much open. For example, Mormon polygamy continues to challenge the meaning of religious liberty and law, Native Americans still struggle to retain sacred ancestral land and identity, evangelicals have never stopped seeing the West as a place of revival and redemption, and the question of what it means to be “American” remains contested. Indeed, perhaps the best contribution of this book is the argument that “the West’s religious history continues to unfold and all the stuff you’ve read to this point matters” (261).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Konden Smith is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at The University of Arizona.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Todd M. Kerstetter is Associate Professor of History at Texas Christian University. He teaches courses on the American West, American Indian history, and US environmental history. He is the author of God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West (2006), which examines religious freedom in the American West by discussing relationships between the US government and Mormons, Lakota Ghost Dancers, and Branch Davidians. He has also published in scholarly journals on water issues and images of the American West in rock music.

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