Religion in American Life: Discovering the Past, Encountering the Present

What this class is about

Religion is omnipresent, so to speak, and it influences our society in immense ways. Yet we are often taught not to think, discuss, or even notice it. This course will teach the opposite lesson. Together we will learn about the power, diversity, and creativity of religion in the history of the United States of America. We will study a variety of traditions that have helped define U.S. culture—some you've heard of, some you haven't. We will also explore the forms of encounter that are constantly happening between and among them.

In this course, religion and politics are inseparable. Experience and study are, too. We will learn about ways in which people have tried to think through and express themselves clearly on impolite subjects, and then we will try doing so for ourselves.


  • Through reading and discussion, we will grasp a broad overview of the history and diversity of religion in the United States
  • Through direct encounters with religious communities, we will experience a glimpse of religious life as it is lived around us today
  • Through a process of composition and revision, aided by both peers and the instructor, we will sharpen our ideas

The absolutely required and very excellent books

Albanese, Catherine. America: Religions and Religion. Fifth edition. Boston: Wadsworth, 2013. - Our main textbook is a history of American religions that is at once seminal and radical, looking upon its subject from the perspective of the marginal traditions that have defined the mainstream more than is often recognized. Thanks to to modern-day textbook racket, the book is horribly expensive to buy in print, but it is fairly affordable to buy the ebook or rent a print copy from the website of the publisher's parent company, Cengage Learning.

Sharlet, Jeff (editor). Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, and Other Essays on American Belief. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014. - In parallel to the main textbook, we will be reading this important new collection of reportage from some of the finest writers in U.S. history, from Walt Whitman and Mark Twain to Zora Neale Hurston and Francine Prose. Purchasing it is fairly straightforward, and you won't regret doing so.

What will be expected

To the extent possible, evaluation in this course will be on the basis of evidence of striving toward excellence and growth. Everyone, therefore, is fully capable of earning a high grade, regardless of prior ability. Final grades will be calculated as follows:

  • Class participation - 20%
  • Adventuresome thinking - 20%
  • Mid-term exam - 20%
  • Final project - 40%
    • 1/2 first draft
    • 1/2 final draft

1. Class participation

Students are expected to attend and participate in every class meeting. Recognizing that we each bring different skill sets and social backgrounds to the community:

  • Those who are most comfortable talking and most used to being heard will be evaluated by their demonstrated ability to hear and reflect on the contributions of others;
  • Those who are least comfortable talking and least used to being heard will be evaluated by their demonstrated ability to contribute their thoughts and experiences to the discussion.

Good questions are more valuable than answers.

Tardiness will be understood by all as an expression of disrespect for the class community. Excused absences must be made up through supplementary work, by prior arrangement with the instructor.

2. Adventuresome thinking

At each meeting, each student is expected to bring a short written reflection on the assigned reading, an example of Adventuresome Thinking that reflects some engagement with the text beyond straightforward regurgitation. For example one might:

  • Draw creative connections between two or more texts we've considered
  • Identify something interesting in the text that the author doesn't seem aware of
  • Explain a disagreement you have with something in the text and argue your case persuasively
  • Point out some respect in which the text sheds light on something that is currently in the news
  • Share a personal experience that amends, challenges, or otherwise illuminates the text.

Each Adventuresome Thinking assignment should be between 150 and 300 words, typed or hand-written, and it will be turned in at the end of class. It must, however, be completed before class begins so as to be a basis for contributions to the discussion.

3. Mid-term exam

About halfway through the course, students will be tested on their knowledge of the content of the course as well as their ability to think adventuresomely with it.

4. Final project

This class will really get interesting as we each undertake the process of developing a final project. This project includes not only a finished product but also the process of draft and revision that should be essential to any creative effort.

The assignment is to produce a personal essay about an encounter with a religious community that has not been part of your past experience. The essay should include:

  • An exploration of a particular aspect of the community that interests you and that reflects themes explored in classroom discussion
  • Evidence of at least three in-person encounters with the community in question, through stories of these encounters and the voices of community members
  • Evidence of outside research using scholarly books or journal articles about the tradition that the community practices
  • Personal reflection on how the encounter challenges and expands your prior experience

The project may take one of the following forms:

  • Written essay of 2,500 - 3,000 words
  • Audio or video essay of 10-15 minutes


By the end, each essay should be a polished final product. To get there we will go through the following steps:

  • Written prospectus, agreed on with the instructor, briefly outlining the topic and medium
  • Draft of the completed product turned in to the instructor
  • Peer review among students of each other's drafts
  • Consultation with the instructor to plan final revision
  • Final product turned in on time at the end of the course

Each project will be evaluated according to the following criteria:

  • On-time completion of the agreed-upon project
  • Evidence of deep engagement with at least two topics or themes from the course readings
  • Evidence of additional research by citing at least three secondary scholarly sources
  • Full participation in every stage of the process, from initial agreement to final product

The rules that we're going to abide by

  • A commitment to excellence. Everyone in the class, student and instructor alike, are expected to make every possible effort to learn and develop and grow through our work together. Recognizing that different people bring different experiences and strengths, we strive to encourage each other to make diverse, positive contributions to the class community.
  • No gizmos in class. This means no cell phones, no laptops, no tablets, or anything else that could possibly have a network connection. (The only exception is for referring to electronic versions of the textbooks.) Gizmos can be very good and wonderful, and they will doubtless play a role in your work for this course, but the multitasking that they encourage is severely detrimental to the environment of engaged and critical thinking that we're going to be fostering together.
  • All work must be original. There are times where borrowing or copying are appropriate. This is not one of them. The point of this class is to learn, engage, and create. Everything turned in for credit must be your own, with sources cited. In cases of ambiguity, consult the instructor. Cases of suspected plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty will be referred to the administration.
  • Open tools. Wherever possible, digital work should make use of open-source software and non-proprietary formats. To learn more about the options, consult with the instructor or explore alternatives to commercial tools at


"America" and "religion"

  • America: Introduction
  • Radiant Truths: Introduction

Indians and Pilgrims

  • America: 1
  • Radiant Truths: Thoreau

Israel in a Promised Land

  • America: 2
  • Radiant Truths: Cahan

Bread and Mortar

  • America: 3
  • Radiant Truths: Harrison

The Mission Mind

  • America: 4, 5
  • Radiant Truths: Stead, Sullivan

The Cross and the Lynching Tree

  • America: 6
  • Radiant Truths: Hurston, Baldwin

Visions of Paradise Planted

  • America: 7
  • Radiant Truths: Teague

Homesteads of the Mind

  • America: 8
  • Radiant Truths: Manseau/Sharlet

East Is West

  • America: 9
  • Radiant Truths: Duncan

Fundamentals of the New Age

  • America: 10
  • Radiant Truths: Mailer

The Secular City

  • America: 11
  • Radiant Truths: Le Sueur

Paranoid Styles

  • America: 12
  • Radiant Truths: Mencken, McCarthy