When looking at religion in the American West it is important to think about place, as it is the idea of place that connects religious ideologies with the West itself. Places often hold important meanings and relationships for various religions in the West. They can connect with tradition in such a way that it allows people to feel connected to their spirituality. For the Mormons with Salt Lake City, Catholics with Coeneo, and Lakota with Devils Tower, there is a shared emphasis on importance of location.  

There are a number of ways to interpret sacred space.  The four politics of sacred spaces according to David Chidester and Edward T. Linenthal are politics of position, property, exclusion and exile (Chidester and Linenthal, 7).  In other words, a sacred space has a significant position in the world that has been appropriated, possessed, and owned. It exists in a place with boundaries that keep some people out, and that has a relation to people who find themselves to be out of position (Chidester and Linenthal, 9).  David Chidester and Edward Linenthal suggest that sacred space is created by “ritualization, reinterpretation and contest over… ownership” (Chidester and Linenthal, 1).  We see these characteristics throughout sacred locations all over the West such as Devils Tower which has been ritualized by the Lakota people, reinterpreted in its meaning by rock climbers, and contested by both groups.  In this case the Lakota feel offended by the climbers’ presence on the tower, a religious monument that is central to many of their beliefs and religious ceremonies. However, many of the climbers don’t want to give up their right to climb, something that many of them have done for their entire lives.  Many see the climbers infringing on the right of the Lakota to practice their religion without disturbance, but there is a legitimate argument that the climbers have a spiritual connection to the tower.  They therefore climb it to practice their religion even if that religion is not formally defined.

Sacred spaces do not always have to be connected to a specific institution or religion.  There are plenty of places that people spend a lot of time and effort maintaining that do not have any direct ties to religion, but one could say that they hold a religious importance to people. The National Park Service is one group that spends a tremendous amount of effort maintaining the parks for what seem like non-religious purposes. There isn’t any gain made by the public other that the personal enjoyment each individual gets out of the parks. Keith Basso in his definition of a “sense of place” calls upon Seamus Heaney’s observation that a place of sacrality simply must serve as a place “promoting individuals to dwell on themselves in terms of themselves, as private persons with private lives to ponder” allowing them to connect more closely with their spirituality (Basso, 85). Ultimately, regardless of one’s interpretation of sacred space, it is necessary to consider place in the study of American religion as it is the fundamental idea connecting spirituality to the West.

-Donald Holley and Liam O’Connor, 2018

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Basso, Keith H. “Wisdom Sits in Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landscape.” In Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso, eds., Senses of Place, 53-90. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1996.

Brie, Steve, Jenny Daggers, and David Torevell. Sacred Space: Interdisciplinary Perspectives Within Contemporary Contexts. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2009.

Chidester, David, and Edward T. Linenthal. “Introduction.” In American Sacred Space, edited by David Chidester and Edward T. Linenthal, 1-42. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Ross-Bryant, Lynn. “Sacred Space: Nature and Nation in the US National Parks.” Religion and American Culture 15, no. 1 (Winter 2005): 31-62.

Smith, Martyn. Religion, Culture, and Sacred Space. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Featured Image: Garden of the Gods with Pikes Peak, by Photos by Clark.  Attribution-Non-Commercial license.