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.
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.
Derek H. Davis
The United States Supreme Court’s religion jurisprudence is typically analyzed based on whether a court’s decision emerges from an Establishment Clause analysis or a Free Exercise Clause analysis. While this method is useful, a more in-depth analysis can be undertaken by identifying various philosophical themes that describe the court’s varied approaches to deciding religion cases. The cases can be analyzed under at least four separate but interrelated themes: separation of church and state, cooperation between sacred and secular activities in religion-based contexts, equal treatment among religions, and the integration of religion and politics. This article examines the High Court’s often controversial decisions affecting religion through the lenses of these four themes.
The term “separation of church and state” is frequently used to describe the American relationship between law and religion, but this term is far too simplistic a description of how church and state interact in the American system; the ways in which the system sometimes embraces separation but sometimes does not, are analyzed and explained.
Consistent with the misconception that the Supreme Court always seeks to “separate” church and state, court analysts will sometimes describe the court’s strategy as giving “no aid” to religion. This also is a simplistic analysis, since it can clearly be shown that the court does not seek to “wall” off religion from government aid in all cases. Rather, the court tends to sanction state support of “secular” activities that arise in religion contexts while denying state aid to the “sacred” components of religious activity. “Equality” is a hallmark of American democracy. While the Founders did not earmark equality as a goal of the religion clauses, the concept has nevertheless emerged as a byproduct of deeper goals, namely sanctioning religious pluralism and providing equal access to government office. If separation of church and state were really the centerpiece of how religion and state activity interact in the United States, the Supreme Court would not sanction the involvement of religion in public debate and discourse, nor would it permit political candidates and officeholders to freely talk about religion in their personal lives and its role in American political life. But the court carefully crafts a jurisprudence that rarely intrudes on this kind of activity. In sum, looking at Supreme Court religion cases through a number of philosophical lenses is a fruitful guide to understanding court decisions that are otherwise often highly complex and confusing.
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.
Rosemary R. Corbett
Religious moderation is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when considering the history of the United States. Would one have spoken of the Puritans as moderates? Could one characterize the many great revivals and awakenings that coursed through colonial and early republican American in such terms? And what about the impertinence of Anne Hutchison, the audacity of Jarena Lee, the bold experiment of Prohibition, or the modern political fervor that accompanied the rise of the religious right? When compared to England and many other nominally Christian European nations, the United States generally figures as an example of religious zeal. Yet moderation holds a special place in American religious thought, and not just recently. Since the Protestant Reformation, at least, the concept of religious moderation has been inescapably entangled with concerns about the form and shape of government. Just how much religious “enthusiasm” is safe for a monarchy, a democracy, or a republic? wondered English political theorists in the 1600s and 1700s. Their concerns unavoidably carried to the “New World,” contributing to the persecution or marginalization of Quakers, Shakers, and other religious practitioners deemed too immoderate in their passions and, not infrequently, their gendered practices and sexualities. With the birth of the new republic, Americans also raised questions about the political valences of religious moderation when debating which residents of the nation could fully enjoy the rights of citizenship. Appeals to moderation were used for centuries to exclude not only religious minorities but also racial and ethnic minorities and women. And yet the contours of moderation were continually contested by both those who wielded power and those subject to it.
Since the late 1800s, questions of religious moderation have also been intertwined with questions of modernity and the reconfiguration of public and private spaces. This was especially true with the rise of the fundamentalist movement in the early 1900s, a movement that opposed some of the modernist interpretive measures gaining currency among many American Christians, as well as the idea (increasingly popular over the course of the 20th century—particularly after the failure of Prohibition) that most forms of religion properly belong to the private realm. While fundamentalists were no less technologically savvy or educated than their theological opponents, their positions were nevertheless cast as anti-modern and immoderate, in that fundamentalists ostensibly held more closely to revelation than to modern science. This notion of fundamentalism as the incursion of immoderate anti-modernism, traditionalism, or enthusiasm into politics and public life has continued into the 21st century. While 21st-century arguments for religious moderation are most often directed at Muslims (who, in addition to conservative Christians, are frequently depicted as prone to trampling on the rights of those with whom they disagree), American history has no shortage of incidents involving pressures, often violent, on racial and religious minorities to moderate or privatize their ostensibly uncivilized behavior for the sake of the nation or even for humanity.
Rodger M. Payne
Nativism describes an ideology that favors the rights and privileges of the “native born” population over and against those of “foreign” status, however these categories might be defined and ascribed. In the United States, the term has usually been employed to designate hostility against foreign immigration, although nativist arguments have been used against various internal minority groups as well. Although the term is often used as a synonym for the anti-Catholicism of the antebellum era, nativism has usually focused its apprehensions on ethnic and racial differences rather than religious diversity; since religious identity is often interdependent with racial or ethnic heritage, however, any religious divergence from the dominant white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture likewise falls under suspicion. While not all forms of religious intolerance in the United States have been grounded in nativist attitudes and activities, the relationship between antipathy toward immigration and antagonism toward certain religions has been a recurrent and resilient theme in American culture. From the various forms of political and social enmity directed against Catholic immigrants during the antebellum era to the passage of Asian “exclusion acts” and the rise of anti-Semitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and from attitudes toward the civilizing “mission” of the United States to contemporary expressions of Islamophobia, antagonism toward the foreign Other has often been inseparable from expressions of religious chauvinism and xenophobia.
Such chauvinism represents an appropriation of the idea of American exceptionalism by participating in the cultural mythology of the American civil religion, which posits both a divine origin of and special destiny for the United States. Scholars of American religion have long traced this theme of American exceptionalism, particularly as it has been expressed through the way in which Americans have read themselves into the biblical narrative as God’s “new Israel,” as a “shining city on a hill,” or as the location for the realization of the Christian millennial hope of a “new heaven and a new earth.” In less biblical but no less religious terms, the United States has been presented as the reification of a “new world order” (novus ordo seclorum, one of the three Latin mottos included on the Great Seal of the United States) or as offering humanity “the last best hope of earth.” By thus conceptualizing “America” as a type of utopian sacred space, these metaphors have simultaneously created the need for establishing the restrictions that mark one’s inclusion or exclusion in this redemptive process. Through identifying the foreign Other—by ethnicity, race, or religion—nativism has been one way to provide this religious function of defining the symbolic boundaries that keep this new “promised land” pure.
Ryan P. Jordan
For centuries before the European colonization of North America, sectarian, ethnic, and racial discrimination were interrelated. The proscription of certain groups based on their biological or other apparently ingrained characteristics, which is one definition of racism, in fact describes much religious prejudice in Western history—even as the modern term “racism” was not used until the 20th century. An early example of the similarities between religious and racial prejudice can be seen in the case of anti-Semitism, where merely possessing “Jewish blood” made one inherently unassimilable in many parts of Europe for nearly a thousand years before the initial European conquest of the New World. Throughout Western history, religious values have been mobilized to dehumanize other non-Christian groups such as Muslims, and starting in the 16th century, religious justifications of conquest played an indispensable role in the European takeover of the Americas. In the culture of the 17th- and 18th-century British colonies, still another example of religious and racial hatred existed in the anti-Catholicism of the original Protestant settlers, and this prejudice was particularly evident with the arrival of Irish immigrants in the 19th century. In contemporary language, the Irish belonged to the Celtic “race” and one of the many markers of this race’s inherent inferiority was Catholicism—a religious system that was alternatively defined as non-Western, pagan, or irrational by many Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who similarly saw themselves as a different, superior race. In addition to the Irish, many other racial groups—most notably Native Americans—were defined as inferior based on their religious beliefs. Throughout much of early American history, the normative religious culture of Anglo-Protestantism treated groups ranging from African slaves to Asian or Middle Eastern immigrants as alternatively unequal, corrupt, subversive, or civically immature by virtue of their religious identity. Historians can see many examples of the supposedly dangerous religious attributes of foreigners—such as those of the Chinese in the late 19th century—as a basis for restricting immigration. Evangelical Protestant ideas of divine chosen-ness also influenced imperial projects launched on behalf of the United States. The ideology of Manifest Destiny demonstrates how religious differences could be mobilized to excuse the conquest and monitoring of foreign subjects in places such as Mexico or the Philippines. Anglo-Protestant cultural chauvinism held sway for much of American history, though since the mid-1900s, it can be said to have lost some of its power. Throughout its history, many racial or ethnic groups—such as Hispanic Americans, African-Americans, or Asian Americans in the United States have struggled to counter the dominant ethnic or racial prejudice of the Anglo-Protestant majority by recovering alternative religious visions of nationhood or cultural solidarity. For groups such as the 20th-century Native American Church, or the African American Nation of Islam, religious expression formed an important vehicle to contest white supremacy.
Janine Giordano Drake
As a nation grounded in the appropriation of Native land and the destruction of Native peoples, Christianity has helped define what it means to be “American” from the start. Even though neither the Continental Congress nor the Constitutional Convention recognized a unifying set of religious beliefs, Protestant evangelicalism served as a force of cohesion that helped Americans rally behind the War for Independence. During the multiple 19th-century wars for Indian removal and extermination, Christianity again helped solidify the collapse of racial, class, and denominational categories behind a love for a Christian God and His support for an American nation. Close connections between Christianity and American nationhood have flared in popularity throughout American history, particularly during wartime. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the closely affiliated religious and racial categories of Christianity and whiteness helped solidify American identity.
However, constructions of a white, Christian, American nation have always been oversimplified. Slavery, land-grabbing, and the systematic genocide of Native peoples ran alongside the creation of the American myth of a Christian nation, founded in religious freedom. Indeed, enslavement and settler colonialism helped contrive a coherence to white Protestantism during a moment of profound disagreement on church government, theology, and religious practice. During the antebellum period, white Protestants constructed a Christian and American identity largely in opposition to categories they identified as non-Christian. This “other” group was built around indigenous, African, Muslim, and sometimes-Catholic religious beliefs and their historic, religious, and racial categorizations as “pagans,” “heathens,” and “savages.” In the 19th-century republic, this “non-Christian” designation defined and enforced a unified category of American Protestants, even though their denominations fought constantly and splintered easily. Among those outside the rhetorical category of Protestantism were, frequently, Irish and Mexican Catholics, as well as Mormons. Enforced segregation of African Americans within or outside of white Protestant churches furthered a sense of Protestant whiteness. When, by the late 19th century, Protestantism became elided with white middle class expectations of productive work, leisure, and social mobility, it was largely because of the early 19th-century cultural associations Protestants had built between white Protestantism, republicanism, and civilization.
The fact that the largest categories of immigrants in the late 19th century came from non-Protestant cultures initially reified connections between Protestantism and American nationalism. Immigrants were identified as marginally capable of American citizenship and were simply considered “workers.” Protestant expectations of literacy, sobriety, social mobility, and religious practice helped construct Southern and Eastern European immigrants as nonwhite. Like African Americans, New Immigrants were considered incapable of fulfilling the responsibilities of American citizenship. Fears that Catholic and Jewish immigrants, like African Americans, might build lasting American institutions to change the cultural loci of power in the country were often expressed in religious terms. Groups such as the No-Nothing Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Immigration Restriction League often discussed their nationalist goals in terms of historic connections between the nation and Anglo-Protestantism. During the Great Depression and the long era of prosperity in the mid-20th century, the Catholic and Jewish migrants gradually assimilated into a common category of “whiteness” and American citizenship. However, the newly expansive category of postwar whiteness also further distanced African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and others as perpetual “foreigners” within a white, Protestant, Christian nation.