Spirituality and the State

Managing Nature and Experience in America's National Parks

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Kerry Mitchell
North American Religions
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , May
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Many people claim that they find God more readily in nature than in a brick-and-mortar church, temple, or mosque. In Spirituality and the State: Managing Nature and Experience in America’s National Parks, Kerry Mitchell explores the role of the state, as institutionalized in the National Park Service, in producing nature spirituality as a public (or civil) religion. Through active choices in site design, visitor management, and interpretive messaging, park managers produce a subjective experience that many visitors describe as spiritual. This secular management of visitor religiosity is subtle, operating largely through indirection; as a result, the state’s use of authority and power to advance an implicit ideological agenda appears “natural” and impervious to critical reflection. Settings and experiences that have been actively constructed by the wide-reaching imposition of state authority are perceived by park visitors as natural and—for those amenable to such interpretations—even God-given. According to Mitchell, “in national parks the state wears nature as a glove. Visitors are spiritually attached to the feel of this glove, making their attachment to the hand, and whatever guides it, a natural predisposition” (192). Mitchell seeks to unmask this politics of spirituality so that park users can engage in critical reflection and assume the responsibilities of informed citizenship.

Mitchell’s argument is limited to natural (as opposed to historical) sites in the National Park System. In these sites, it is easier to gesture toward an ancestral spirit or divine creation that preexists the nation’s formation and subsequent historical development. Mitchell begins by outlining the origins of the National Park System, highlighting the spiritual values that undergird various park management paradigms over the past century. He then turns to three focused case studies. To collect data on visitor experiences, he observed visitor behaviors, distributed written surveys, engaged in informal conversations, and conducted formal interviews at three sites: the John Muir Trail, Yosemite National Park, and Muir Woods National Monument. Each of these park units is connected to John Muir, whose Romantic writings of the late 19th century encouraged an unmediated experience of the divine in nature and referred to the Yosemite Valley as a temple or cathedral.

Three chapters present Mitchell’s interpretations of the secular construction of spiritual experience in each of the three settings. While visitors to the John Muir Trail drew a contrast between their wilderness experiences and their lives back in “civilization,” Mitchell’s analysis not only uncovers the interpenetration of those two domains but also highlights the dependence of the visitors’ wilderness experience on state activity and authority via “a multitude of regulations, management practices, permissions, and prohibitions” (58). At Yosemite National Park, the visitors’ experience is shaped by a twenty-three-minute orientation film titled Spirit of Yosemite. The spirit invoked is not precisely defined; it is left for the individual to fill with meaning. Physical, behavioral, and interpretive features at Yosemite National Park nonetheless shape the visitors’ encounter with the environment in ways that “constitute a coordinated construction of nature, one that capitalizes on the landscape in order to suggest a value that visitors can appropriate individually” (93). The individuation of visitor experiences and the indirection of vague references to spirituality is also present at Muir Woods. Lying at the center of those woods is Cathedral Grove, where international delegates met prior to the foundation of the United Nations. Mitchell demonstrates how the logic of park management at this site individuates sensory experience while placing it in a universal symbolic framework of peace. While park managers avoid communicating an explicit religious message, Mitchell’s analysis shows that many park visitors interpret their visit to Muir Woods—as they do at the other two sites—as a spiritual experience.

Mitchell’s argument is theoretically grounded. In particular, he distinguishes between republican and liberal conceptions of public religion. Republican models of civil religion appeal to collective values of civil piety while liberal models champion individualism and free will. According to Mitchell, the secular management of nature spirituality at National Park System sites reflects a “liberal, progressive public religion” (177).

Mitchell acknowledges some ambivalence about his conclusions. He is an advocate for the national parks, yet he is troubled by the dissembling naturalness of heavily constructed experiences. It “may not be a bad thing” (199), he writes, to partake of the “state-nurtured spirituality” (191) of the national park experience, but responsible citizenship demands “critical reflection on the social construction of one’s own subjectivity” (198). To the extent that the operation of state power circumvents critical thinking, citizens abdicate their responsibility to participate in deliberations and decisions regarding park policy, visitor management, and interpretive practices that serve to define nature, the nation, civilization, and divinity.

Citizens with an interest in public lands management should read this book. In the academic realm, it will be of interest to upper-level students and scholars in religion and ecology, the environmental humanities, and recreation management.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nancy Menning is faculty affiliate in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Ithaca College.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kerry Mitchell is Director of the Comparative Religion and Culture Program at Global College, Long Island University.


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