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.
Peter W. Williams
The development of religious architecture in what is now the United States is tied closely to continuing immigration and the development both of de facto and de jure religious pluralism. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, seminomadic Native Americans built temporary structures, while those farther south erected more permanent temples, most notably those of the Aztecs in Mexico. Spanish settlers in what is now the U.S. Sunbelt built mission chapels, with those in California incorporating a mixture of styles and building techniques derived from Spanish, Moorish, and indigenous traditions. Puritans in New England and Quakers in Pennsylvania erected meeting houses, architecturally simple structures based on secular models and eschewing the notion of “sacred space.” Anglicans from Boston to Charleston imported English neo-classical models devised by Sir Christopher Wren and Sir James Gibbs in the mother country, devised to accommodate Anglican sacramental worship. Later classical styles, especially the Roman and Greek revivals, reflected the republican ethos of the New Republic and were adopted by a whole range of religious traditions including Catholics and Jews. Urbanization and enhanced immigration following the Civil War saw adaptations by Protestants, including auditoriums, institutional churches, and the Akron Plan; by Jews, who invented a new, eclectic style for synagogues and temples; by Anglicans, who revived English Gothic traditions for churches and cathedrals; and by Roman Catholics, who turned to Continental Gothic for their inspiration. Mormon temples, beginning in Salt Lake City, took on new forms after that faith spread across the nation. During the post-WWII era, the colonial revival style became popular, especially in the South, reflecting patriotic and regional values. Following the immigration reform of 1965, waves of newcomers from Asia and the Middle East brought their traditional mosques and temples, often considerably modified for worship in the diaspora. Religious architecture, like the nation at large, has reflected an ongoing process of change, adapting old forms and inventing new ones to accommodate changing demographics, settlement patterns, and the necessities of living in a pluralistic society where religion is protected but not supported by the government.
Russell E. Richey
A voluntary religious community and ecclesial creation of modernity, the denomination emerged alongside of and along with the political party, the free press, and free enterprise. By 1702 it acquired its modern religious meaning with the establishment of the “body of the Dissenting Ministers of the Three Denominations in and about the City of London.” The 17th-century experiences with religious conflict, revolution, and regicide had led England in its Glorious Revolution to reestablish the Church of England but pass the Act of Toleration. Thus began a century of identifying denominations, of experimentation in Britain and the colonies with (Protestant) religious pluralism, of defining prerogatives and limitations (for the Dissenters or Nonconformists—Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers), of political jockeying between Whigs and Tories, and of exchanges of ideas through magazines, newspapers, and coffeehouses. So denominationalism emerged and defined itself in the Age of Enlightenment, John Locke voicing ideals and proposing policies that would be tested in the American colonies and gradually become normative in the new nation. Where existent beyond the United States and Britain, governments and social customs have provided some measure of religious freedom, permitted denominational pluralism, and controlled for conflict and repression.
The denomination, then, is a voluntary religious community. As voluntary, it needs legally established or de facto toleration and religious freedom. In such an environment and as a voluntary or elective religious community, the denomination creates and sustains its membership. Adherents join, belong, bring in family (children), move to another of the same, or perhaps quit. Thus, the denomination needs “space” to exist (alongside or outside of any religious establishment if such persists). As voluntary, a denomination should and often does recognize the authenticity of other religions/churches even as it claims its own. It often does not concede that authenticity indiscriminately or fully.
As religious, the voluntary community construes itself and claims to be a legitimate and self-sufficient, proper Christian church, Jewish denomination, or other world faith. The denomination functions with a sense of itself as located within time; knows its own boundaries, origins, history, and drama; and acknowledges awareness of its relation to its own longer religious tradition. Claiming its rightful place within the religious realm of the society, the denomination differs from movement, sect, and other “cause” impulses. As a community, the denomination is an organized religious movement. With its own, often distinctive polity, it intends its self-perpetuation, expects supportive efforts from leaders and people, labors to attract and retain members, funds its operations, aligns itself politically and socially with kindred movements, and determines how best to face various American publics. As such, the denomination provides its members self-designation, identity, agenda, calendar, place in American politics, societal locale, historical narrative, internal ordering, and religious affiliation. To some observers, the denomination is taboo or curse.
Their public outreach and self-understandings have led denominations to function in different ways in the American environment (as have political parties, the press, and commerce). Successively, denominations have served as affinity groups, missionary societies, confessional bodies, corporate organizations, campaign causes, and electronic communities. In these several forms and with the above characterization, the denomination differentiates itself from reform impulses that may take similar structural form but construe themselves as belonging within a religion; from an established church, which does not regard itself as voluntary or as sharing societal space with other legitimate religious bodies; and from the sect, which, though also voluntary, does not locate itself easily in time or recognize boundaries or tolerate other bodies or concede their authenticity.
Emotion is an important part of religions in America. There is great diversity among emotional styles. Some groups are highly emotional, others relatively low in emotional expression, and some occupy a middle ground. Religious life is characterized by cultivation and expression of many emotions. Four that are of particular importance for Americans are wonder, empathy, anticipation, and the feeling of emptiness. Some emotions are treated as commodities. The study of emotion in religion enables fresh perspectives on the interwovenness of emotion, religion, and culture. The investigation of the emotional lives of religious persons in America can be advanced through study of persons’ reporting of their experiences alongside research bearing on cultural expectations for emotional life.
Eric Michael Mazur
Religion intersects with film not only in film content, but also in the production and experience of film. From the earliest period, religious attitudes have shaped how religious individuals and communities have approached filmmaking as way to present temptation or salvation to the masses. Individual religious communities have produced their own films or have sought to monitor those that have been mass produced. To avoid conflict, filmmakers voluntarily agreed to self-monitoring, which had the effect of strongly shaping how religious figures and issues were presented. The demise of this system of self-regulation reintroduced conflict over film content as it expanded the ways in which religious figures and issues were presented, but it also shifted attention away from the religious identity of the filmmakers. Built on a foundation of “reading” symbolism in “art” films, and drawing from various forms of myth—the savior, the end of the world, and others—audiences became more comfortable finding in films religious symbolism that was not specifically associated with a specific religious community. Shifts in American religious demographics due to immigration, combined with the advent of the videocassette and the expansion of global capitalism, broadened (and improved) the representation of non-Christian religious themes and issues, and has resulted in the narrative use of non-Christian myths. Experimentation with sound and image has broadened the religious aspect of the film experience and made it possible for the viewing of film to replicate for some a religious experience. Others have broadened the film-viewing experience into a religious system. While traditional film continues to present traditional religions in traditional ways, technology has radically individualized audio-visual production, delivery, and experience, making film, like religion, and increasingly individualized phenomenon.
K. Healan Gaston
The terms “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” are collective religious descriptors that identify points of theological, historical, and ethical commonality between the world’s largest monotheistic religious traditions. “Judeo-Christian” refers to the ground shared by Judaism and Christianity; “Abrahamic” designates elements common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These terms have most often appeared in three contexts. First, scholars of religion have used them for technical, descriptive purposes, to denote the aforementioned religious traditions and the commitments they share. Second, interfaith advocates have employed the terms to identify the particular ecumenical tasks of cultivating harmonious relations between these traditions. Finally, in wider public discourses, they have served as descriptors of the religious character of American culture, democracy, and/or national identity. Over time, the terms “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” have each become important ways of talking about the contributions of the world’s largest monotheistic religions to politics and culture in the United States.
However, in American public discourse, “Judeo-Christian” formulations have thus far demonstrated greater reach than “Abrahamic” ones. Between roughly World War II and the mid-1970s, when the United States rose to superpower status and assumed the helm of the Western civilizational project, the idea of America as, in various senses, a Judeo-Christian nation became commonplace. But unlike “Judeo-Christian,” which maps onto a discrete geographical region and a long-standing cultural project, “Abrahamic” tends to be used more narrowly to indicate a set of historically meaningful but geographically diffuse relationships that have become the subject of scholarly and ecumenical concern. Moreover, “Judeo-Christian” emerged in the wake of a massive influx of Jewish and Catholic immigrants between 1880 and 1920 that reshaped the American religious landscape. “Abrahamic” has likewise become more widespread since the immigration reforms of the mid-1960s, which began to bring greater numbers of Muslim immigrants to America’s shores. But the growing embrace of multiculturalism has largely militated against the widespread use of “Abrahamic” as a descriptor of American identity. Proponents and opponents of these terms have vigorously debated their strengths and weaknesses, their uses and abuses. Yet, despite the controversies over their meaning and relevance, “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” remain important ways of describing aspects of the American landscape in a multireligious age.
Adrian Chastain Weimer
In American history, venerating a death as martyrdom has been a way of claiming its significance within a narrative of ultimate victory. The words for martyr in both Greek and Arabic literally mean “witness”: martyrs’ willingness to die is a form of witness to the truth of a tradition. Figures claimed as martyrs in American history from the Mormon leader Joseph Smith to Baptist civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. have often prophesied their own deaths, embracing the hope that their sacrifice will inspire zeal in others. Religious communities in North America have commemorated martyrs through stories, paintings, shrines, maps, monuments, poetry, liturgy, and theological reflections. The category of martyrdom tends to become more diffuse over time. Moving beyond a strict definition of death for the faith, Americans have used the language of martyrdom to find spiritual significance in a range of physical and interior sufferings. For example, both French Canadian nuns and New England puritans claimed their daily colonial sufferings as a form of martyrdom. Narratives of martyrdom have also played an important role in political movements such as the anti-lynching crusade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Martyr language can even push the boundaries of what constitutes religion itself. In the 20th century, the suffering of American jazz musicians, denied civil rights, has been described as martyrdom. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks by radical jihadists seeking martyrdom, the term has often been associated with terrorism. Debates about justifications for violence in the Qur’an and the true meaning of jihad have taken place among politicians, religious leaders, and academic scholars. This intense focus on Islamic theology of martyrdom has led both to widespread suspicion of Muslims (and those of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent generally) as well as to new ecumenical commitments to a shared ethic of loving God and neighbor.
Sarah E. Dees
Native American religious traditions encompass a diverse array of beliefs, practices, and features of material culture and society that reflect and shape individual experiences and communal life among Indigenous communities in what is today the United States. While Native American religious traditions have long been the subject of scholarly inquiry, a field of study dedicated specifically to this topic only emerged in the mid-20th century. Because historical sources describing Native religions often wove ethnocentric biases or anti-Indian sentiments into descriptions of Native beliefs and practices, present-day inquiry requires critically reflexive interpretation of primary sources and attention to insiders’ perspectives. Today, scholarship on Native American religions draws on numerous methodological approaches to explore key features of these traditions, including ceremonies, stories, philosophies, art, and social institutions. While these features vary greatly by religious community, practitioners of Native religions often emphasize the significance of land and the environment, their cultural heritage, and relationships between humans and non-human entities, spirits, and ancestors.
Many practitioners of Native American religions would resist the notion that a “religious” or “spiritual” realm can be separated from “secular” aspects of society or culture; thus, in addition to focusing on constitutive features of the religious beliefs and practices themselves, an understanding of Native American religions requires attention to broader social and cultural issues, including politics, law, health, and education. Furthermore, just as Native traditions were dynamic prior to the 15th century, they have been shaped by contact with non-Native religions and cultures since the first instances of European colonization. The historical conditions of European and Euro-American settler colonialism and encounter between Native and non-Native communities necessitate attention to issues such as Christian missionization and the ensuing Indigenous responses to Christianity, U.S. federal Indian policy, legal battles over Native American religious freedom and self-determination, and the place of Native religions in mainstream U.S. culture. While these themes and issues illuminate some shared features of Native American religions, the unique histories and characteristics of specific communities necessarily subvert efforts to articulate a simple, comprehensive definition of “Native American religion.” And, while knowledge of the past is essential for understanding Native American religions, a historical focus in itself is insufficient if it ignores the ongoing presence of Native American religious expression. Practitioners of Native American religions today emphasize religious continuity as well as creativity and change, blending long-standing historical traditions with more recently established religious innovations.
One of the most complex words in the English language, “nature” (sometimes personified as “Nature” or “Mother Nature”) has been central to developments in American religions. Despite their different origins, the three cosmologies present on the North American continent during the early modern “age of contact”—Native American, African American, and Euro-American—shared a number of similarities, including the belief in an enchanted or animate cosmos, the ambivalence of sacred presences manifested in nature, and the use of myth and ritual to manage these ambivalent presences in ways that secured material and spiritual benefits for individuals or communities. Through encounters on colonial borderlands and through developments in society and culture (in science, economics, politics, etc.), these cosmologies have been adapted, developed, and combined in creative ways to produce new forms of religious life. These developments have been characterized by a series of recurrent tensions, including the notion of divine or spiritual realities as being transcendent or immanent, organicism or mechanism, and of the natural world as including or excluding human beings. Organicist and animist cosmologies, severely challenged by the early modern scientific revolution, were resurgent in the antebellum period, fueling a series of new religious developments, from Transcendentalism and revivalism to Mormonism and the early environmentalist movement. These generative tensions continue to reverberate into the modern day, in part as an outworking of the environmental crisis of the 1960s, which saw a purported “greening” of established religions as well as the rise of new forms of nature spirituality.
Juan E. Campo
Pilgrimage, as a type of religious journey, involves embodied movement across geographic, social, political, cultural, and often religious boundaries to a sacred place or landscape. It is arguably a universal phenomenon that can engage individual pilgrims or millions, especially with the onset of modernity, which has facilitated travel over distances great and small. As an aspect of religious life in the United States, pilgrimage is often overlooked. Nevertheless, the country’s landscape encompasses numerous sites of sacred significance associated with organized religions, civil religion, and facets of its cultural religion that attract millions of visitors annually. As a dynamic set of phenomena, pilgrimages to such sites are constantly evolving, affected by factors such as religious and social movements, national politics, immigration, and tourism.