Civil religion in American life

January 14, 2013

History professor Bryn Upton acknowledges the topic of civil religion in America causes some controversy in academic circles and as such is an excellent vehicle to exercise his students’ critical thinking skills.

Upton designed the Jan Term class to advance students’ understanding not just of the terminology associated with civil religion but also how our beliefs about our nation and our collective past influence our decisions, public policies and especially foreign policies.

He also wants his students to learn to ask questions and how to ask those questions – thus thinking critically about the topic.

“Sometimes it’s harder to write the question than to write the paper that might answer it,” Upton says. “Somewhere along the line the modern student hasn’t learned the important life skill of how to write a thoughtful, unbiased question.”

The 23 students in the class are reading the book “God and War” and preparing questions to ask author Raymond Haberski during a video chat scheduled with him toward the end of Jan Term.

Sophomore Greg Laslo notes that it is the first time he’s looked back academically at the last decade.

“It’s a slippery subject – looking at the entire world view in terms of your country,” Laslo, who hasn’t yet decided on a major, says.

Elyssa Bidwell, a junior Communication major, remembers as a 9-year-old watching the twin towers fall on 9-11 and seeing her mom’s reaction. But this is the first time she has explored how people's reactions, including her mom's, were shaped by the Vietnam War.

“It makes you think differently about American culture,” says Matt Canon, a junior History major. “I never thought about it in religious terms before.” 

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