My Fall American Religion Course

By October 6, 2012

I’m finally surfacing from the hectic start of semester and wanted to write a couple of posts about the history course I’m teaching in American religious pluralism this fall at Worcester State. It’s an upper-level history elective called “Religions in America,” and in previous versions I’ve taught it mainly as an introduction to American religious diversity… sort of a “religious literacy” exercise in which students depart the course knowing a little something about many things rather than having deep knowledge of a few things. This term, however, I’ve focused the course more narrowly on the history of the idea (and imperfect implementation over time) of American religious pluralism. I wrote about the process of revising the course in perhaps nauseating detail earlier this year, but then I pretty much reinvented it again for the final version of the syllabus, so an update might be worthwhile.

Course Readings: various PDF articles & primary sources, plus these three books –
David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (2011)
David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (2007)
Diana Eck, A New Religious America (2002)

Student Learning Outcomes:
On our campus these are formulated to complete the sentence, “By the end of this course, you should be able to…”

  • Explain the development of the distinctive American religious experience
  • Craft a robust working definition of religion
  • Increase your individual religious and historical literacy; hone moral, ethical and historical thinking
  • Document local and national religious landscapes
  • Demonstrate the ability to interpret cultural texts


Students write a few response papers in preparation for class discussion, and share links/articles/current events on an online discussion board in preparation for “Friday Forums” where we talk about new religion news (they are supposed to subscribe to or follow several religion news blogs). So far, these have been our liveliest discussions. They also write a research term paper in the realm of 8-10 pages.

Students will also conduct a site visit to a local religious community’s worship service and from their field notes write a profile of this local congregation. The project is a very small-scale version of Diana Eck’s Boston area Pluralism project, and their profiles will be posted on DigitalWorcester, an Omecka archive of local history projects that students in my various classes have been creating since 2008 (the site is currently under renovation, I’ll update the link when it’s back in business later in the semester). This is a key project, in my mind, because Worcester is an incredibly religiously diverse city with a vibrant mix of old ethnic/immigrant churches (Armenian, Orthodox, Slavic, Swedish, Jewish…etc) and newer ones (Buddhist, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Ghanaian…) and we will never run out of congregations to document and visit.

So that’s my course in a nutshell. And in another post I’ll talk in more detail about the spots where I’ve incorporated Mormon-related topics in the class.

Article filed under Courses Pedagogy


  1. Sounds great, Tona! This sounds like a tremendously interesting class. How has your class responded to the academic framework of pluralism? I imagine in New England it would be something benign, but I wonder how it would play in someplace like the bible belt where the parameters of “religion”–and, especially “Christianity”–are much more fraught.

    Comment by Ben P — October 6, 2012 @ 7:42 pm

  2. Well, I have to say it’s been an interesting semester to be teaching a course on religious pluralism given what’s been happening in the Middle East, the death of Christopher Stevens and colleagues in Libya, that wretched anti-Islam film, etc. My students are highly attuned to international news about tolerance/bigotry and seem sensitive to the discrimination that non-Christians often experience in the United States. In other words, Sehat’s book makes a lot of sense to them.

    You’re right, though, the local culture and particular combination in the classroom always shapes the discussion when it comes to religion. I should have mentioned that the first written assignment is for students to write their own religious histories (the prompt is phrased in such a way that non-religious students can answer it too) just so I can get a feel for who’s in the class. As it turns out, and I don’t think any of them would mind my saying this, most of this cohort are either lapsed Catholics or not religious at all, so there’s not a lot of built-in affection for organized religion.

    Comment by Tona H — October 6, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

  3. Fascinating, Tona. I wish I could take your class!

    Comment by Christopher — October 7, 2012 @ 10:15 am

  4. […] when I created my fall course on American religious pluralism I built it around five units. In this post I thought I?d share those, and invite conversation […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormons as Part of the Pluralist Kaleidoscope — October 12, 2012 @ 3:06 pm


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