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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 349-350
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Religion in the Modern American West
Religion in the Modern American West. By Ferenc Morton Szasz. [The Modern American West, Volume 4.] (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press. 2000. Pp. xviii, 249. $35.00.)
This first major survey on the subject commands a rereading of American history as a whole. The nation's religious bearings have been ignored, Professor Szasz of the University of New Mexico contends, for a number of reasons: a separation of church and state that relegates religion to the private sphere; a religious pluralism that defies the construction of an all-encompassing narrative line; the indifferent mindset of an Academy whose agenda was determined by earlier Progressive historians, such as Frederick Jackson Turner; and, the most important, according to the author, the prospect of a "religious template" that would realign all the traditional categories of ethnicity, economics, and politics, as well as the new triad of race, class, and gender.
In his attempt to illustrate how the churches created much of the institutional infrastructure of western life--schools, hospitals, and a variety of social welfare agencies--and shaped many of its prevalent attitudes, the author has divided his survey into three parts: the 1890's to the 1920's, the 1920's to the 1960's, and the 1960's to the present. Each part he further divides into three chapters, the first two either chronological or topical in nature but with attention to demography in the first. In the third he profiles a few striking personalities whom he considers paradigmatic.
This work offers to American Catholic historiography new dimensions and fresh insights that contradict the standard surveys of the Catholic Church in the United States. The latter portray immigrant urban life and episcopal control predominantly in the Northeast and Midwest. In this work we see a different demographical configuration and different concerns. The Catholic Church in the Southwest inherited a large Latino population that demanded alternative structures and a variant prayer life. In the West Catholics, as did the adherents of most other denominations, demonstrated a fluidity and adaptability seldom found in the East. In the West Protestants, Catholics, and Jews "coexisted with [End Page 349] relative equanimity" (p. xiii). In the West the Catholic Church produced a leadership that ranged from the staunchly conservative Cardinal James Francis McIntyre of Los Angeles to the radical Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of Seattle and Bishop Leroy T. Matthiesen of Amarillo, who pronounced the nation's preparation for a nuclear war a sin.
One may argue with Professor Szasz's definition of the West, which he limits to the Pacific side of the 100th meridian where rainfall measured less than twenty inches a year, or more accurately the line where the short-grass steppe replaced the tall-grass prairie. Many of the examples he cites took place in the latter, a good number in Oklahoma where only the tip of the Panhandle sprouted short grass. There are a few fumbles, for example, his identification of Daniel Berrigan as a Josephite, but for such a broad-brush coverage surprisingly few. His scattering of denominational data is at times dizzying but usually arresting. It is a work that no historian, whether broadly secular or narrowly denominational, may with impunity ignore.
Thomas W. Spalding