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Spatial Approaches to American Religious Studies  

Bret E. Carroll

Space is a basic yet complex dimension in American religion. Historically and historiographically, conceptually and in practice, it has been central to believers’ experiences of what they consider “sacred” and to the models that scholars have developed to understand religious practices in the United States. First assumed as an unexamined given by 19th-century scholars, it became recognized as an explanatory factor in its own right during the 20th century and was the focus of ongoing modern and postmodern attempts at conceptualization from the mid-20th century into the early 21st. Until the late 20th century, work in American religious studies conceptualized space as an objectively existing container for human activity, and scholars considered a presumed abundance of it a defining determinant of American religious experience. Church historians prior to the mid-20th century typically argued that the vastness and relative isolation of American space, initially subsumed under the historiographic idea of an American “frontier,” allowed the development of uniquely American religious freedom and revivalism. Although the frontier thesis was challenged during the latter half of the 20th century, the concept of space persisted and proved useful as U.S. religious historians gave increasing attention to pluralism, urban experience, transnationalism, and everyday practice. Religion scholars and anthropologists, meanwhile, proposed from the early 20th century that religious practice involved fundamental spatial distinctions between sacred and profane, inside and outside, center and periphery, and up and down that provided believers with a sense of social, geographic, and cosmic orientation. By the 1970s and 1980s, cultural theorists began conceiving of space as a subjective experience, a situationally located social and cultural construction “produced” through active efforts at definition, appropriation, and control by human beings. According to this newer conceptualization, space comes into being as an inherently contested medium as believers make specific and concrete the meanings of their beliefs through rituals, relationships, and symbols and create distinct physical and geographically located manifestations of their belief systems. This new approach sparked a “spatial turn” that extended across the humanities and social sciences and moved spatial analysis to a central position in American religious studies. Attention to the spatial dimensions of religious practice generated fruitful research on and new studies of churches and other built environments, American “civil religion,” domestic religious practice, urban religion, the dynamics of pluralism, immigrant communities, and global diasporas. The spatial turn has also generated new concepts of space as scholars attuned to postmodern and transnational experiences have rejected standard emphases on spatial separation and fragmentation in favor of an emphasis on continuity and interconnection.