Spirituality and the State

Managing Nature and Experience in America's National Parks

272 pages

5 halftones

May, 2016

ISBN: 9781479873012

$30

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Author

Kerry Mitchell is Director of the Comparative Religion and Culture Program at Global College, Long Island University.

All books by Kerry Mitchell

America’s national parks are some of the most powerful, beautiful, and inspiring spots on the earth. They are often considered “spiritual” places in which one can connect to oneself and to nature. But it takes a lot of work to make nature appear natural. To maintain the apparently pristine landscapes of our parks, the National Park Service must engage in traffic management, landscape design, crowd-diffusing techniques, viewpoint construction, behavioral management, and more—and to preserve the “spiritual” experience of the park, they have to keep this labor invisible.
 
Spirituality and the State analyzes the way that the state manages spirituality in the parks through subtle, sophisticated, unspoken, and powerful techniques. Following the demands of a secular ethos, park officials have developed strategies that slide under the church/state barrier to facilitate deep connections between visitors and the space, connections that visitors often express as spiritual. Through indirect communication, the design of trails, roads, and vista points, and the management of land, bodies and sense perception, the state invests visitors in a certain way of experiencing reality that is perceived as natural, individual, and authentic. This construction of experience naturalizes the exercise of authority and the historical, social, and political interests that lie behind it. In this way a personal, individual, nature spirituality becomes a public religion of a particularly liberal stripe. Drawing on surveys and interviews with visitors and rangers as well as analyses of park spaces, Spirituality and the State investigates the production and reception of nature and spirituality in America’s national park system.
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Reviews

  • "Impressively harnessing both historical and ethnographic data, Kerry Mitchell provides a fresh take on the politics of religion-making in America. He offers a counter-narrative to scholarly celebrations of spirituality that is respectful of his subjects and acknowledges the fact that very few of us, if any, have a clear understanding of why we do what we do. Mitchell denaturalizes the concept of spirituality, showing, however, that this mode of piety is not simply made-up. On the contrary, it accomplishes an incredible amount of work in places like the John Muir Trail or Joshua Tree National Park by naturalizing the nation state and socializing the interior states of individuals. This book also generates new insight into what might be called negative aesthetics—that is, how concealment can be revelatory and how the vagueness of nature serves to connect a range of individuals by way of a shared humanity that is rather specifically defined. A must read for anyone interested in American religion in these times of late but ever pressing capitalism."

    —John Modern, Franklin & Marshall College

  • "You will never look at National Parks or spirituality the same way again! Kerry Mitchell’s insightful analysis of the relationship between state-organized nature and individual spiritual experience contributes to our understanding of the entanglements of the secular and the religious. With careful attention to the revelations and concealments of power in the productions of the National Park Service, Mitchell demonstrates how the conceptions and practices of a loosely-defined nature-based spirituality are tied to a pervasive secular ethos that underlies modern American subjectivity and state power."

    —Richard J. Callahan, Jr., University of Missouri