RELST 206 / WES 200: American Sacred Space


In this course we will explore many different aspects of sacred space in the United States. Throughout the semester we will challenge the notion of “sacred” and seek to find ways in which we can use this term in a significant manner. What does it mean, where do we find it, how is it used and debated, and how does it orient people’s thoughts, lives, and activities? We will start with an examination of sacred space traditionally conceived: in churches, synagogues, and temples—the spaces easily identified as sacred by some if not all. We will then explore sacred space less traditionally conceived: in cemeteries, at memorials and battlefields, and in secular locations (Walt Disney World and Washington, DC, for example). We will conclude with an examination of personal space and the sacred properties of identity, the body, and the disembodied.

This course is designed to encourage you to think about the space you occupy in a way that challenges your current conceptions. Therefore, heavy emphasis will be placed on critical thinking skills, as well as creativity and circumspection. You will be expected to participate fully in class discussions, complete all of the assigned readings, make presentations during the semester, and submit a final project on an American sacred space.

In addition, because this course is listed as both RELST and WES200, you are reminded that the Wesleyan Seminars are an immersion into liberal arts education. Within the seminars, students will learn how to identify complex problems and issues, consult expert sources, question assumptions, consider disparate points of view, develop complex personal positions, and present conclusions. The three seminars are progressively more sophisticated in their approaches and expectations.

Seminars are not merely places where knowledge is imparted, but where it is exchanged and created. To successfully complete a seminar, you need to engage actively with the course material, me, and your classmates. As a community of learners, we will work together to explore and consider our topic from a number of different perspectives. Each person’s participation is crucial.


By the end of the semester, you should:

Have a developing vocabulary for related concepts and theories related to “sacred” space;

Have an understanding of the various examples and purposes of these spaces in the American context;

Have the basic tools for examining the various constructions – sacred and secular – of such space; and

Because this class is listed as both RELST & WES200, you should also achieve “AAC&U [Association of American Colleges & University] milestone level 3 standards”:

“Critically consider an issue or problem”;

“Consult sources and consider expert opinions”;

“Question assumptions and attend to relevant contexts when presenting a position”;

“Develop a specific position while acknowledging different sides of an issue”; and

“Articulate conclusions effectively before an audience.”

NOTE: WES Seminar II courses may be used to count towards a major; however, if you do so you will have to complete another Seminar II to complete your general studies requirements.

Texts & Readings

The following texts are available at the bookstore. You are free to purchase them elsewhere, but you are responsible for purchasing the correct title (and edition) if you do so.

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask;

Foote, Kenneth E. Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy;

Lane, Belden C. Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality.

[“Borrow” the books for free (1 hour at a time, renewable) by clicking on the book titles [or here] to take you to, an online academic database of books. Here’s a brief downloadable tutorial for Using]

In addition, links for electronic versions of various articles have been added to the course “Schedule of Readings & Assignments.” Others may occasionally be distributed in class, put on electronic reserve, or linked to the class Web site.



Attendance (10%)

You are expected to attend all classes and complete all assignments. Absences will be calculated and deducted from your final grade.

In-Class Participation (20%)

You are expected to participate fully in class discussions and engage the materials in class. Regular and thoughtful participation in class, as well as enthusiastic participation in the assignments, will be rewarded in this category; mindless blather will not. In addition, on occasion I will engage you directly in informal conversation about the materials during class, and will evaluate you based on your ability to discuss the materials substantively and meaningfully.

“Sacred Space” Project (10% + 10% + 20% + 10% + 20% = 70%)

The “Space” Project is an opportunity for you to identify, investigate, and justify the selection of any American space as “sacred.” However, the justification must be based on at least two methods used in this class over the course of the semester: anthropological, cultural geographical, historical, sociological, or religious (comparative). The “Space” project is comprised of several component parts:

1. Identification of Location (10%)

On (or before) the date specified, you must submit a short statement (no less than 1000 words) identifying the (American) space you wish to investigate, either as an example of a space that may be considered sacred (by some, or all), or as an example that is currently considered sacred (by some, or all) that should not be. This statement will serve as the introduction to your larger project, so be certain to state it as if you were introducing your topic: identify the space, describe it briefly, and make an assertion related to your anticipated argument (that you intend to argue that the space is / is not sacred).

NOTE: Do not be concerned if your ideas / arguments evolve as the semester progresses; this statement is a structural foundation for the larger project, meaning that the specifics can shift as your thinking progresses. Also, keep in mind that the notion of “sacred” is one that will be developed / challenged over the course of the semester – that is actually the point of it all!

2. Annotated Bibliography (10%)

On (or before) the date specified, you must submit an annotated bibliography (of no less than 500 words) detailing sources you have considered during the investigation of your previously selected space. The annotated bibliography should contain a variety of entries from sources spread over a variety of formats (scholarly journal articles / chapters; newspaper / periodical articles, Web-based information, etc.). Each annotation should provide a brief summary of the source, as well as a statement of the potential use of the source in the proposed argument related to the sacred status of the previously selected space.

3. Definition Paper (20%)

On (or before) the date specified, using (and citing) class materials, you must submit a statement (of no less than 1500 words) defining “sacred space.” This paper must provide evidence of integrating arguments / definitions found in the readings with those we have discussed in class.

This statement will serve as the research foundation for your larger project, so be certain to consider different aspects of your topic: history / description of the space, descriptions of people connected to the space, etc.

Definition Assignment Guidelines

4. Presentation (10%)

On the dates specified, you will present the basics of your “Sacred Space” project to the class, using the elements developed in steps #1-3 (above), as well as the feedback provided to you on your returned drafts. Presentations may include hand-outs; however, the use of presentation software (PowerPoint, Prezi) will be permitted ONLY for the display of images (and not text).

Presentation Assignment Guidelines

5. “Sacred Space” Final Product (20%)

On the date specified, you will submit the final version of your “Sacred Space” project (of no less than 3750 words). This final version should include all of the elements developed for steps #1-3 (above); you will be evaluated not only in how well you have developed an argument (with a thesis, evidence, and conclusion based on that evidence), explored and evaluated primary and secondary sources, and utilized methods explored in class and in the readings, but also in how well you have incorporated the comments and suggestions provided by me (to each of steps #1-3) and by your classmates (during the presentation). The final paper must be at least 3750 words.

Final Paper Guidelines


Schedule of Readings & Assignments

Class Policies