The first Muslims arrived in the American colonies and later in the United States as African slaves. Although a few and noteworthy Muslim American slaves left written records of their lives, Islam was largely extinguished by the white slave owners. Sectarian and racial forms of Islam were introduced into the United States, particularly within urban African American communities, by Ahmadiyya missionaries and the Moorish Science Temple. The rise of the Nation of Islam under Wali Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad and its bifurcation under the latter’s son, Warith Deen Mohammed, and Louis Farrakhan deserve special attention, as do the initial appeal of the Nation of Islam’s racial formulation of Islam and, decades later, the willingness of most of its members to move to Sunni orthodoxy after Elijah Muhammad’s death. The second major, though not entirely separate, strand of Islam in the United States, though often interacting or competing with the first, comes from Muslim immigrants. This group brings unique issues, such as living in a largely Christian society, competing with the Nation of Islam, refuting stereotypes in the media and popular culture, finding a political voice, and coping with post-9/11 Islamophobia, all leading to the consideration of the prospects for a uniquely “American Islam” that reflects U.S. pluralism and (supposed) separation of “church and state.”
Sylvester A. Johnson
Beginning with trans-Atlantic slavery, which forced hundreds of thousands of people into what is presently the United States, religion among African Americans consistently featured a complex of efforts toward innovation, preservation, and agential intervention rooted in efforts toward survival against structures of racial domination. Social factors including slavery, black responses to a range of political conflicts, influences of immigration, and the varieties of genealogies that have constituted religious formations among African Americans contributed to the creation of formal Christian denominations, intentional communities of Orisha, and transnational movements of Islam. Also important are the insurgent challenges that African Americans have proffered as a rejoinder to social oppression. But this progressive tendency has been paralleled by sharply conservative religious formations that check any easy generalization of African American religions as being predisposed toward social justice movements. Also important are social sources of autonomous church formation, the role of Black Nationalism, anticolonial forms of religion, and Yoruba revivalism of the mid-20th century.
Kathryn Gin Lum
Heaven and hell have survived in the United States beyond scientific critiques of the supernatural. For many Americans, the promise of eternal rewards and the threat of everlasting punishments shaped how they lived their lives in the here-and-now, and how they interacted with others. Oppressed groups used the afterlife to turn the tables on their oppressors, while others used the threat of the afterlife to try to keep people in line.
The afterlife, after all, was never just after life. Heaven, hell, and their inhabitants could impinge on this life. Time and again, Americans have labeled various places or situations as hells on earth, from America itself (in the eyes of European colonizers), to the slaveholding South, to the battlefields of the Civil War, to the inner city. Reformers have sought to bring heaven to earth, even while hoping for heaven in the life to come.
Meanwhile, discomfort with predestinarian teachings on salvation and damnation led to theological innovations and revisions of traditional Christian teachings on hell. Over time, the stark hell and theocentric heaven of the early colonists waned in many pulpits, with the symbols and figures of the afterlife migrating to fill the pages and TV screens of American popular culture productions. That said, the driving threat of hell remains significant in conservative American Christianity as a political tool in the early 21st century, just as in times past.
Ronald Williams Jr.
On January 17, 1893, Her Majesty Queen Liliʻuokalani, sovereign of the Hawaiian Kingdom, was overthrown in a coup de main led by a faction of business leaders comprised largely of descendants of the 1820 American Protestant mission to the “Sandwich Islands.” Rev. Charles Hyde, an officer of the ecclesiastic Papa Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian Board) declared, “Hawaii is the first Country in which the American missionaries have labored, whose political relations to the United States have been changed as a result of missionary labors.” The actions of these “Sons of the Mission” were enabled by U.S. naval forces landed from the USS Boston the evening prior.
Despite blatant and significant connections between early Christian missionaries to Hawaiʻi and their entrepreneurial progeny, the 1893 usurpation of native rule was not the result of a teleological seventy-year presence in the Hawaiian Kingdom by the American Protestant Church. An 1863 transfer of authority over the Hawaiian mission from the Boston-based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) to the local ʻAhahui ʻEuanelio o Hawaiʻi (AEH) (Hawaiian Evangelical Association) served as a pivotal inflection point that decidedly altered the original mission, driving a political and economic agenda masked only by the professed goals of the ecclesiastic institution. Christianity, conveyed to the Hawaiian Islands initially by representatives of the ABCFM, became a contested tool of religio-political significance amidst competing foreign and native claims on leadership in both church and state. In the immediate aftermath of the January 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom government, this introduced religion became a central tool of the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) struggle for a return of their queen and the continued independence of their nation.
Native Christian patriots organized and conducted a broad array of political actions from within the churches of the AEH using claims on Ke Akua (God) and Christianity as a foundation for their vision of continued native rule. These efforts were instrumental in the defeat of two proposed treaties of annexation of their country—1893 and 1897—before the United States, declaring control of the archipelago a strategic necessity in fighting the Spanish/Filipino–American War, took possession of Hawaiʻi in late 1898. Widespread Americanization efforts in the islands during the early 20th century filtered into Hawaiʻi’s Christian churches, transforming many of these previous focal points of relative radicalism into conservative defenders of the American way. A late-20th-century resurgence of cultural and political activism among Kanaka Maoli, fostered by a “Hawaiian Renaissance” begun in the 1970s, has driven a public and academic reexamination of the past and present role of Christianity in this current-day American outpost in the center of the Pacific.
Raymond Haberski, Jr.
Civil religion in America has no church, denominations, or institutional center, and it cannot be traced to a single origin story. And yet, it operates as a religion in ways familiar to Americans—it has priests and pastors, altars and sacrifices, symbols, institutions, and liturgies. So, what, then, is civil religion? The term originates with the 18th-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who proposed that the French nation needed a civil religion to replace the “unholy” alliance between the Catholic Church and the monarchy. Rousseau explained in book 4 of his Social Contract that he hoped a “purely civil profession of faith” would satisfy what he viewed as the popular need for something to believe in, to give one’s allegiance to, and even to give up one life’s for—a transcendent, unifying point of reference that existed beyond politics and in place of a denominational (most likely Christian) church. Thus, in philosophical terms, civil religion is the appropriation of religion for political ends. The American version of civil religion, though, differs from Rousseau’s idea by incorporating the nation’s Christian heritage more deeply into an understanding and judgment of America.
In the American context, civil religion had to accommodate the country’s variety of faiths and Enlightenment rationalism, but was just as deeply influenced by the power of popular and elite religiosity to order American life. Thus, American civil religion has echoed Protestant values and assumptions, while enshrining the mythic nature of the Puritans, founding fathers, and common people who gave their lives in wars and conquest. Moreover, while Americans do not pray to their nation, they have no trouble praying for their nation; they see presidents and preachers as both serving in capacities that minister to the people in times of crisis, and they invest sacred meaning in events and documents to help them imagine that America is as much an idea as it is a place. Over time, American civil religion has also provided a narrative for a set of ideals, statements of purpose, and symbols to which all Americans, in theory, can appeal.
Sociologist Robert N. Bellah (1927–2013) explained in a famous and significant essay titled “Civil Religion in America,” for the winter 1967 issue of the journal Daedelus, “American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality.” He contended that Americans could call upon not only a common creed of ideals but also their civil religion to evaluate their nation’s actions. In parlance that became popular following World War II, the United States was a nation “under God,” meaning, as Bellah argued, “the will of the people is not itself the criterion of right and wrong. There is a higher criterion in terms of which this will can be judged; it is possible that the people may be wrong.”
In the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, black Christian thought helped to undermine the white supremacist racial system that had governed America for centuries. The civil rights revolution in American history was, to a considerable degree, a religious revolution, one whose social and spiritual impact inspired numerous other movements around the world. Key to the work was a transformation of American religious thought and practice in ways that deftly combined the social gospel and black church traditions, infused with Gandhian notions of active resistance and “soul force,” as well as secular ideas of hardheaded political organizing and the kinds of legal maneuverings that led to the seminal court case of Brown v. Board of Education.
The civil rights movement had legislative aims; it was, to that extent, a political movement. But it was also a religious movement, sustained by the religious power unlocked within southern black churches. The historically racist grounding of whiteness as dominant and blackness as inferior was radically overturned in part through a reimagination of the same Christian thought that was part of creating it in the first place. In similar ways, the Mexican-American farmworkers’ movement drew on the mystic Catholic spirituality of Cesar Chavez and brought to national consciousness the lives and aspirations of an oppressed agricultural proletariat that lacked the most elementary rights of American citizens.
American civil rights movements drew from, and were in part inspired by, the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement. Gandhi’s movement deeply influenced black Americans who visited India from the 1930s to the 1950s and who brought home with them a mixture of ideas and practices deriving from sources as diverse as Gandhi and the 19th-century American progenitor of nonviolent civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau. American civil rights movements subsequently became a model for any number of freedom movements internationally, notably including the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. There, religious figures such as Desmond Tutu became international symbols. Also, the black American freedom struggle based in the American South moved protestors in places as diverse as Czechoslovakia under Soviet domination and Chinese students staring down tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In the post–civil rights era, some suggested that America had moved into a “post-racial” era, despite the overwhelming statistics documenting racial inequality in American society. Thus, activists who have mined the connection between religion, civil rights, and social justice will have plenty of work to do in the future. The struggle continues through such contemporary venues as the #blacklivesmatter movement.
William A. Mirola
Scholars pursuing questions on the links between religion and social class typically examine several distinct sets of dynamics. A main research focus has addressed how religious beliefs, behaviors, and experiences vary across different social class contexts. Studies in this tradition draw on quantitative and qualitative data to illustrate such differences. Statistical studies have demonstrated economic and educational differences in patterns of an array of religious beliefs, religious service participation, and other religious behaviors, and especially social and political attitudes on everything from gay rights to gun control to political party preference. Qualitative work typically delves into the lived religious experiences of individuals from different classes as well as examining the ways in which religious expression is itself shaped by class cultures.
A significant portion of this type of research examines how religion impacts the life and work experiences of those at the bottom of the class hierarchy, the working and nonworking poor. Here the way that faith shapes how poor people view the challenges of their lives and their views of the larger society are particularly central concerns. Addressing a second related set of questions, researchers also examine how participation in religious communities contributes to forms of social mobility in terms of socioeconomic status indicators. Statistical analyses dominate in this area, illustrating how denominational affiliation and measures of religious belief and practice predict views regarding income and wealth accumulation, educational attainment, and occupational choice. Another distinct area of scholarship examines the role religion has played in shaping the history of capitalism and the dynamics of the traditionally understood industrial working classes and the organized labor movement. Here, too, scholars examine how working-class individuals use religion as a way to understand their work and the evolution of global capitalism. Labor historians in particular have examined historical and contemporary instances in which religious leaders and organizations play active roles in industrial conflicts.
Whichever route one takes to explore religion and social class, studying their intersections has been of longstanding interest to social scientists, historians, religious studies scholars, and theologians for more than a century. This article bridges these approaches and provides an overview of their complex intersections in contemporary social contexts.
American propaganda cast the Cold War as one of history’s great religious wars, between the godless and the God-fearing, between good and evil. It was a simplistic depiction that was supported and promoted in the highest echelons of government and by the leaders of America’s key institutions. During the course of the presidencies of Harry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, U.S.-Soviet rivalry was transformed from a traditional great power struggle into a morality play that drew on firmly entrenched notions rooted in the American past, above all American exceptionalism and its sense of mission. Truman made religion America’s ideological justification for abandoning America’s wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower used religion to persuade the world that America was a force for good in the international arena. The resulting anti-communist crusade was to have profound consequences for Christian America, contributing to both religious revival and religious repression in the early Cold War period. Over time it caused irrevocable alterations to America’s religious landscape. The anti-communist dynamic unleashed embraced anti-liberalism and was a factor in the rise of the Christian Right and the decline in America’s mainstream churches. In addition, the image of a godless and evil enemy dictated an irreconcilable conflict that precluded the very modes of diplomacy and discourse that might have helped avoid the worst excesses, costs, and consequences of the Cold War.
The eruv is perhaps the most creative, confounding, and contested spatial construct in Judaism. Territorially, it demarcates the urban space within which prohibitions otherwise attached to Sabbath observance for Orthodox Jews become permitted. While virtually imperceptible to the human eye, eruvin (pl.) sanctify what would otherwise be sacrilegious. An eruv thus creates permissive religious space for Jews on Sabbath. Hundreds of cities worldwide, including urban areas across North America, are home to an eruv. Notwithstanding their prevalence and undetectable physical imprint on urban landscapes, the establishment of eruvin has unleashed intense hostility and resistance in some locales. Opposition has typically been mounted by a surprisingly mixed array of critics including non-Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, and dissenting Orthodox Jews. The eruv highlights, in compelling fashion, the spatial challenges of navigating faith, ritual, secularism, and pluralism in contemporary American cities. Seemingly ethereal religious beliefs can occasion radically different perceptions of public space.
Stephanie Y. Mitchem
With rapid development, academically and socially, in the past sixty years, gender and public religion in the United States have become a separate field, even as it is integrated into others such as politics, biology, law, philosophy, and cultural studies. As ideas about gender have expanded, potential conflicts with established religions have sometimes occurred even as new theologies, ethical constructs, and even new strains of religion occur.