Religion in America

The Basics

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Michael Pasquier
  • Abingdon, UK: 
    , October
     168 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As the person who teaches the “Religion in America” course in my department, I have looked at many, many general textbooks on the subject. All have strengths and all have flaws, and I have yet to find one that fits perfectly with my own idiosyncratic syllabus. Michael Pasquier’s text rises above most of the others in many ways, first and foremost in his inclusion of women’s and African Americans’ histories as part and parcel of American history. While still recognizing their minority status and its effects on their religious lives, Pasquier moves these once marginal voices to the center without fanfare or fuss. This is a move to be applauded.

The structure of the book is another strength. Pasquier devotes the first two chapters to discussion of the nature of studying religion in America, including the modern construction of the concept of religion, and the discipline’s move from church history to religious history and lived religion. This groundwork is important because the main chapters of the book, each one devoted to a particular span of time, must present a whirlwind of facts, people, and events in order to cover the entire history of American religions from 1400 to the present. This necessity is of course one of the drawbacks of every text of this type, forcing an author to pare down discussions of contexts, variety, and continuities in favor of making sure that the prominent people and movements are listed and associated with larger historical trends. Pasquier’s chapters each start with a clear overview of the time period, giving the reader a sense of the themes to come. Each chapter also ends with recommended readings and a summary, making the book very accessible and practical for use in an introductory undergraduate course. The lack of a glossary seemed a pity to me though, as some terms that could use explicit definition are only used in passing in the text (e.g., Arminianism). The concluding chapter, though brief, is very engaging and serves to bring the reader back to a consideration of theories of religion, as well as introducing the growth of the “nones” and of religion in cyberspace as topics for future studies of religion in America. (Unfortunately the recommended books list does not follow up with any on cyberspace, media, or popular culture and religion.) 

There were only two aspects of the text that I would take issue with. First, there are some instances where the inclusion of a particular example is not clearly explained, and some of these, especially earlier in the book, seem to be selected for their sensationalism. Along with this, sometimes Pasquier groups minority stories together for no apparent reason other than that they are minorities (the most awkward of this kind of thing being the section in chapter 5 that addresses “Asians and Native Americans”). Second, less of a critique than a point for ongoing scholarly discussion, is Pasquier’s choice to use the word “syncretism” throughout chapters 3 and 4. His work becomes part of an effort to rehabilitate a term that, depending on what type of anthropology you look at, has been heavily associated with a missionary approach to studying non-Christian religions, particularly the religions of colonized peoples (see Anita Maria Leopold and Jeppe Sinding Jensen, eds., Syncretism in Religion: A Reader, Routledge, 2004). The way Pasquier uses the term does not usually seem to privilege one religion over another, except the first time he uses it. He describes “a syncretic form of Islam that some enslaved Africans carried to the colonies of the Americas,” implying that there is an “authentic” or “pure” form of Islam different from the “syncretic” form practiced by Africans (30). Later he seems to use the term in a more generalized way to describe the blending that happens when religions and cultures meet and interact. This usage is reinforced when he defines the term on as “the merging of seemingly disparate religious beliefs and practices” (41). Even in the context of a “romp through American religious history,” (148), it seems important to me to acknowledge the complicated and problematic history of a term like “syncretism” rather than use it as though it is innocent, especially in light of Pasquier’s nuanced discussion of pluralism and the impossibility of a dominant religious tradition in 21st century America. Or he could simply choose a different term, like “blended” or “combinatory,” that does not carry the same colonialist baggage.

In sum, Pasquier’s book hits on all the major trends in American religious history, retelling in slightly condensed form the narrative familiar from many other textbooks focused on religion in America, but with a refreshing highlighting of African Americans and women. As such it makes a wonderful jumping off point for a scholar of religion in America wishing to explore any number of these people, events, or movements in more depth. As a reader, there are of course some examples I think he treats well, and some not as well, but every reader will be looking for different stories, and every reader will find something new in this particular collection. In this slim volume the author achieves what he set out to do: “provide readers with … both an historical survey of the American religious landscape and a critical reflection on the ways in which scholars approach the study of religion in America” (148).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Erica Hurwitz Andrus is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religion at the University of Vermont, Burlington.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Pasquier is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Louisiana State University. His work on the history of religion in America has been supported by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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