You can’t turn on the news without bumping into religion. From shattering violence to admirable charity, religion infuses headlines with multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings. Given our love of controversy, it’s no wonder that religion is so hotly debated. But this brouhaha isn’t mere sensationalism. Any news story about religion brings up some deep questions: What is the role of religion in public and private life? How do religions relate to one another? How should religions and religious people behave in the political sphere? Our answers to these questions all strike at the core of our self-conception. So, religion will matter in any critical attempt to understand modern public and private life, and especially their relation to one another.
This course is about framing the study of religions in the United States today. In their considerable diversity, Americans have many gods. America’s Gods explores what religions do. The stress is on “religions” because there is not just one in this country of immigrants and transnationals. America’s Gods asks a series of questions about religions in national life. In fact, religions do many things: they authorize, organize, profit, protect, heal, admonish, divide, and unify. Themes of the course derive from these actions: religion and national purpose, religious plurality, violence, wealth, race, science, sex, education, and politics. One or two weeks will be devoted to examining each theme, and will rely on video, film, guest speakers, and various readings. The task will be to examine the different things religions do by scrutinizing current issues in American life.