So far we've focused primarily on how the Christian church came to the American West in the nineteenth century, but what has it been up to since then? To find out, we talked to Richard Etulain, a historian and literary scholar at the University of New Mexico who wrote on western religious history in The American West: A Twentieth Century History (University of Nebraska, 1989), which he co-authored with Michael P. Malone. He's also interested in how the West has been perceived, a topic he explored in Reimagining the Modern American West: A Century of Fiction, History, and Art (University of Arizona, 1996). He helped us see how the region has changed during the past decades, often in surprising ways, and how the church has responded.

What forces have been most important in shaping the culture of the West?

It's been said that if you were to choose two remarkable turning points in western history in the last 200 years, they would be two events a hundred years apart—the Gold Rush and the Second World War, one in the 1840s and one in the 1940s. They each brought large numbers of people into the American West, new people with religious affiliations, new people who could be converted to religious affiliations.

Let me give you an example. I live in Albuquerque. In 1940 it had 30,000 people. In 1950 it had 100,000 people. In 1960 it had 200,000 people. And now it has 500,000. That big boom in population would be the same for Tucson, Phoenix, San Diego, and Seattle. Now Las Vegas is really the growth spot.

This has led to a situation most people are unaware of: the West is the most urban part of the United States. In 1900 California was an urban state, meaning that more than 50 percent of the residents lived in incorporated areas of 2,500 ...

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