From the Trenches: Religion as a Category of Analysis

By July 31, 2008

I am taking a very laid-back readings seminar this summer at the UI revolving around the question of race and the city. I was pleasantly surprised yesterday when the discussion turned to questions relevant to those who frequent this blog. I thought I might offer a short narrative, in part to let those who have never had the “privilege” of a attending a graduate seminar know how random they can be, and also to present some questions raised in my mind as a result of the discussion.The topic for this particular session focused on the racial and class dynamics inherent in the conception and reality of the suburb. One of the books that we read by Dolores Hayden talked about recently planned communities like Seaside, Florida where the Truman Show was filmed. For those of you who didn’t know, the city where Truman lived actually exists as an idealized upper-class community by the ocean. The book also talks about Disney’s idyllic residential development in Florida named Celebration where people can live in sanitized bliss. As we spoke about the class and racial implications involved in the creation of such planned communities, my Professor mentioned the Florida town of Ave Maria of which I had never heard.

For those who haven’t heard of this town either, it was founded by the founder and former owner of Domino’s Pizza in 2005. The small town was created as a model Catholic community. At the center of the community lies the first Catholic University built in the United States in years and at the center of the University lays a Catholic oratory. The founders originally hoped that they could ban the sale of birth control and pornography and the practice of abortions. This stance has since been relaxed as the ACLU threatened to sue over such restrictive practices, but I was fascinated by the drive to create a such a religious community in the 21st Century.

As I was listening to the discussion about Ave Maria and the concerns raised by my fellow classmates, I began to think about how much Ave Maria sounded like Rexburg where I went to school. It has a highly homogenized Mormon population built around a growing religious university and temple. City ordinances discourage the sale of alcohol as well as other vices, while the university pressures its student body to adhere to a rigid code of behavior. I am not looking to criticize BYU-Idaho or Ave Maria. I was just fascinated by the parallels between the two endeavors.

Our discussion ultimately turned to the question of motivation. It was hard for my colleagues to understand why people would want to live in such a way. The question rapidly became: what brings people to create this type of idealized community? We began to consider the validity of utilizing religion as a category of analysis such as gender, race, and class. My question for this post is how can religion be a category of analysis? How would such an analysis work? And as a completely unrelated aside: why haven’t historians produced a good twentieth century urban history of Salt Lake City? I think such a book would be one of the most fascinating reads and research possibilities I can envision.


  1. This is a question that I’ve thought about as well, Joel. Religious scholars such as Jan Shipps and Tom Alexander have criticized New Western Historians for ignoring religion in their analyses. To be fair, all of the historians associated with the movement (Limerick, Cronon, Worster, and White) do devote space in their narratives to Mormons and other religious groups, but normally in a social, rather than cultural, history perspective. Limerick, perhaps because she comes from a religious (Mormon) background, is an exception, I think, because she analyzes Mormonism as a religion in her chapter “Racialism on the Run” in Legacy of Conqest alongside Chinese, Japanese, blacks, and off-white radicals. She suggests (in both that chapter and her Tanner lecture) that religion can be used as a means to complicate racial categories (I think Paul Reeve’s getting at a similar point in his book). In short, I don’t think that Limerick sees religion as an independent category that can stand on its own (like race, class, or gender), but rather as a variable that can complicate the big three. Religious historians Paul Harvey and Ed Blum have taken a similar approach.

    I think that if religion can ever take its place as an independent category, historians would need to look at religion as a social construction that is used to exercise power, as I understand historians of race, gender, and class use their categories.

    Comment by David G. — July 31, 2008 @ 10:51 am

  2. I don’t have anything to add to the question, but I do like “things my professors in grad school didn’t expect anyone would understand” as a category for posts. Carry on!

    Comment by Jonathan Green — July 31, 2008 @ 12:54 pm

  3. Also, Tom Alexander and Jim Allen did write a history of SLC, but it’s over 20 years old and it looks like it’s out of print. The book goes through 1984 (the year it was published) and was well-reviewed when it appeared.

    Comment by David G. — July 31, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

  4. Joel, I’m interested in the book by Dolores Hayden that you read. Can you provide a full reference?

    In answer to the questions posed in your post: I agree with David that in order for religion to be an independent category of analysis, it needs to be seen as a social construct. I think that with the growth of religious studies departments throughout American academe this will increasingly occur.

    For historians, I think religion best serves as a category that complicates many other aspects of society, including race, gender, class, politics, ethics, and many more. It provides valuable insight into people, events, and ideas that are crucial in attempting to understand cultures, societies, and worldviews. Ed Blum sums this up nicely here, for anyone interested.

    Comment by Christopher — July 31, 2008 @ 1:35 pm

  5. For those interested Timothy Fitzgerald’s The Ideology of Religious Studies provides an argument against taking religion as a category of analysis.

    His argument roughly speaking is as follows:

    Religion is a product of the Modern West: ?The construction of ?religion? and ?religions? as global, crosscultural objects of study has been part of a wider historical process of western imperialism, colonialism, and neocolonialism? (8).

    If construed in larger (less colonial) universal terms it becomes so hollow that it conveys little if anything, thereby convolutes rather than clarifies the conversation.

    Therefore the best route is take it in terms of cultural studies, ?understood as the study of the institutions and the institutionalized values of specific societies, and the relation between those institutionalized values and the legitimization of power? (10).

    Institutions he defines as ?anything that is given collective recognition and value by some specific group of people.? For example ?a classification system, status, rite, idea, story, object, place, procedure, or form of relationship, concept of a transcendent or superhuman agency, or kind of animal: it could be anything that is imbued with deep collective significance and that transcends any particular individual or time? (10).

    Comment by RG — July 31, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

  6. In addition to Fitzergald, read Talal Asad, Russell McCutcheon, et. al. HUGE debates about this have filled plenty o’shelves. Not that there is all that much to say.

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 31, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

  7. David,

    Thanks for the Thomas Alexander reference. I ordered the book from the library today. It’s sad that it was relegated to such a small publisher and was written before the current revitalization of the field of Urban History.

    As for your comments about religion as an analytical category, I would venture to guess that the majority of historians already see religions as a social construction created to wield power–they simply argue that religions are created to wield classed, raced, and gendered power instead of granting them some type of autonomous pull on human action. At some level I disagree with this conceptualization–thus my initial question


    Thanks for the validation. In my more skeptical moments I think that academia simply provides a forum for a ton of intellectual posturing.


    The full reference is:
    Hayden, Dolores. Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.

    That being said, the book really doesn’t have a very good historical sensibility about the historical development of suburbs. I would instead recommend a book like Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis, Robert Self’s American Babylon, or Eric Avila’s Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight as a basic introduction to the development of the suburb.

    As for your other comments–I still wonder if we sell religion short by making it simply an analytical modifier for supposedly more powerful societal forces.


    I haven’t read any more of Fitzgerald’s work than the summary that you provided, but it seems that everything that he says about religion emerging out of the throws of an imperial world could be made about the emergence of race out of a capitalist world system.


    It’s obvious that I have to do some more reading along these lines–thanks for the suggestions.

    Overall, I am not trying to downplay the importance of the analytical categories of race, class, and gender as well as the emerging importance of sexuality. Sometimes it just seems to me that there are more respected historians with a stake in these categories–hence their almost hegemonic transcendence in the academy. What really makes me think about the importance of religion as a category of analysis is my own religious experience. The LDS Church has been the impetus for much of the action in my life. Thus, while some historians might downplay such personal experience as manifestations of other types of power shrouded in religious garb, I find myself critical of their skepticism.

    By the way, everyone make sure to read Heidi’s riveting essay
    which I think captures the kinds of questions historians miss when they underestimate the importance of religion within daily life.

    Comment by Joel — July 31, 2008 @ 10:24 pm

  8. Joel, I think you’re right, but I’m not sure how to change that. Alexander, as well as Quinn in his 1993 “Religion in the West” historiographical essay, argues that since most respected historians are secularists, they don’t see the importance of religion in society. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, but again, I’m not sure we can change that pov either, until more respected historians make the case that religion is just as important as the “main” categories.

    Comment by David G. — July 31, 2008 @ 10:58 pm

  9. I have to think how religion could function as a category of investigation. I tend to see it as a significant demonstration of group neuropsychology – however I really haven’t explroed that literature in much detail. I am still working my way around the periphery.

    Wilson’s (2002) religion from a multi-level adaptation perspective would probably be a very good way to look at the religious suburb question.

    Another interesting approach is to broaden the religion category to include quasi-religions and then investigate how group dynamics manifest in religions or quasi-religious organizations affect organization learning and management.

    Personally, I’m coming at some of the circular issues in educational change from this angle. There is a lot from complexity theories of management that mesh nicely with a religious or quasi-religious angle.

    Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, religion and the nature of society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Comment by chris goble — July 31, 2008 @ 11:35 pm

  10. David,

    I think one way to start is to show how paying attention to religion changes the story. A great example is Seth Jacob’s America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race, and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia. Although his narrative is kind of clunky at times, Jacobs makes a compelling case for why paying attention to Ngo Dinh Diem’s Christianity matters–he argues that it should matter to the historian because it mattered to the policy makers of the Eisenhower Era. I think this is how scholars of race, class, and gender begin to get others to pay attention–they showed the historical world the stakes of not taking these particular analytical constructs seriously.


    I agree that another way to study religion is to look at the way it affects institutions–though I’m not sure exactly how to control for individual piety in non-religious institutions.

    Comment by Joel — August 1, 2008 @ 7:26 am

  11. I think you have to ignore the individual level and focus on the group. Of course whenever you do this you have to worry about all sorts of functionalist assumptions.

    I lean towards the controlling variable being something like the mean belief in a culturally implicit and moralistic vision. I am still trying to find some good descriptors for such a fuzzy concept though.

    Stark (2001) has a good research paper from the rational choice perspective. I think you piety question fits in here. The results show that belief in a moral god, not superficial actions demonstrating religious commitment, correlate to the strength with which individuals enforce group morals. I just suspect leaving belief at the overt level (Stark), instead of opening the door to more implicit processes is what prevents extending discussions into non-religious institutions. People in secular organizations just don’t articulate things in religious terms, even if many of the same group adapted organizational tendencies push in the same places.

    Stark, R. (2001), Gods, rituals, and the moral order, Journal for the Scientific study of Religion 40(1), pp. 610-636.

    Comment by chris goble — August 1, 2008 @ 10:44 am

  12. Joel, I’ll have to check out that title. The author seems to be taking the same approach as Harvey and Blum by attaching religion to race and showing how religion is important, even crucial, to understanding the story.

    Comment by David G. — August 1, 2008 @ 11:07 am

  13. What brings people to create this type of idealized community?

    It started out as just a university, but a developer offered free land if the university would be the anchor of a new town.

    It is now the best-selling new development in Collier County in this down Florida market. Its not too hard to imagine why people who embrace Catholic beliefs and ideas would be drawn to live where they don’t have to keep their light under a basket all the time and can receive support and understanding from their neighbors (and give it right back to them).

    Comment by Resident of Ave Maria — August 1, 2008 @ 9:57 pm

  14. Thanks resident,

    I appreciate your feedback, I think the same holds true in Rexburg and I think it goes to show the influence that religion can hold in the creation of community and identity.

    Comment by Joel — August 1, 2008 @ 10:37 pm

  15. […] Religion as a category of analysis at Juvenile Instructor. […]

    Pingback by Best of the Week 4: Academic LDS : Mormon Metaphysics — August 2, 2008 @ 12:45 am


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