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Ferenc Morton Szasz
Rattlesnake Derbies and Pink Teas
The term American West generally calls forth a kaleidoscope of larger-than-life images: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone, the California Redwoods, Mt. St. Helens, Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, the Oregon coastline, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, Canyon Country, Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickcock, Buffalo Bill, Santa Fe, Tombstone, Las Vegas, the recent "battle of Seattle," and everybody's choice for the prototypical city of the twenty-first century: Los Angeles.
But there is something missing from this panorama—any mention of religion or spirituality. For most people, religion and the great American West run on separate tracks.
This view needs revising. From the onset, religion has played a central role in shaping the West, and it continues to do so today. In fact, historians who write exclusively about a secular West have left a very important factor out of the equation.
Let's start with the indigenous groups. All the region's Native Americans place their spiritual traditions at the heart of their cultural world-views. From 1598 to 1798, Franciscan friars were the sole ordained clergy in all of New Mexico, and the Franciscan presence still looms large today in California and the Southwest. From the early 1840s to c. 1870, the histories of Utah and the Latter-day Saints were virtually identical, a situation that still holds true in a number of isolated Utah communities. Jewish immigrants to the West encountered far less prejudice than they did in either the East or the South, and Jews served as mayors and/or governors of several turn-of-the-century western locales—including a term as governor of New Mexico's Acoma Pueblo—well before they assumed similar positions in New York or Illinois. The Episcopal Cathedrals in Boise and Laramie, the Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tulsa, and Trinity Methodist Church in Denver still anchor their respective city centers. While their functions may have shifted over time, these urban churches ...