God's Country, Uncle Sam's Land : Religious Exceptionalism, the Myth of the West, and Federal Force
University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Title continues: 'Mormons, Ghost Dance, Lakota, Branch Davidians.'
"The United States has a tradition of spawning innovative religious groups. When exceptional religious groups offensive to mainstream society have developed in areas thoroughly settled or controlled by effective state or local law enforcement agencies, mainstream society has often forced these groups to change or to relocate. In three notable cases, exceptional religious groups moved to or developed in the American West, beyond the reach of social control or local or state law enforcement agencies. Although white Americans believed the West to be a land of individualism, opportunity, and freedom, these exceptional religious groups ultimately found that myth to be a fiction. The federal government exercised force against each of these groups, prompting them either to change or be killed, thereby enforcing a cultural hegemony on the West. This dissertation examines the interaction of these three powerful forces: religious exceptionalism, the myth of the West, and federal force. Three case studies illustrate these interactions. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) experienced persecution in the United States before abandoning the country for the Great Basin. There the Mormons built a theocratic state. In 1857, President James Buchanan sent the Utah Expedition to restore federal authority in Utah, marking the beginning of a crusade against Mormonism. Some Lakotas adopted the Ghost Dance in 1890, which Indian agents and white settlers living near reservations found threatening. The U.S. government sent the Army to restore peace, culminating in the Wounded Knee Massacre in December 1890. Near Waco, Texas, David Koresh taught his Branch Davidian followers that they would perish in an apocalyptic battle with agents of the U.S. government. Government agents responding to alleged weapons violations had sparked a 51-day standoff that ended in fiery deaths for Koresh and many of his followers in April 1993. Historians have considered these events from several perspectives, but each group cannot be completely understood without examining the role played by religion, place, and myth." [Author's abstract]