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.
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.
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.
A “cosmic war” is an imagined battle between metaphysical forces—good and evil, right and wrong, order and chaos—that lies behind many cases of religion-related violence in the contemporary world. These transcendent spiritual images have been implanted onto the social and political scene, magnifying ordinary worldly conflict into sacred encounter. There is nothing specific to Christianity, Islam, or any other religion about this idea of cosmic war. Every religious tradition contains images of grand battles that have a divine valence to them. Hence every religion has some kind of mythic or legendary scenario of warfare that can be transported into contemporary conflict and elevate a social or political confrontation into cosmic war.
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.
Americans have utilized Islam as a rhetorical device for articulating various understandings of American identity from the time of the earliest Anglo-American settlers. In every period, many rejected Islam and Muslims as oppositional to American identity, accusing Islam of inherent despotism that conflicted with American liberty. Others, though, used perceived traits of Islam to critique American behaviors or focused on similarities between Islam and Christianity. Many citizens of the early American republic assumed their country was essentially Protestant, but founding figures such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison indicated their support for a more inclusive polity by listing Muslims among the varieties of people they believed could be good citizens. These men meant this abstractly, as they believed there were no Muslims in the United States at the time and did not know some African slaves were Muslim.
American Protestant organizations sent missionaries around the world starting in the early 19th century, including to areas of the Middle East where the Muslim majority was legally protected from proselytization. Therefore, missionaries tended to work with native Christian populations. American missionaries, travelers, and explorers had a great interest in the Holy Land. A frequent theme in their writings was a desire to see this area reclaimed from Islamic rule. They believed the Holy Land could be regenerated through Protestant influence and often suggested Jews could be relocated there. Over time, liberal Protestants moved away from seeking conversions and became more interested in educational and medical aspects of missions. American discussions about Islam intensified again after September 11, 2001. Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis argued that Western civilization and Islamic civilization were inherently incompatible. Others, like John L. Esposito and Feisal Abdul Rauf, focused on the historical and theological similarities between Christianity and Islam to suggest common ground.
In both popular and scholarly literature, jihad is primarily assumed to be a monovalent concept referring to “military/armed combat,” and martyrdom (shahada) is inevitably understood to be of the military kind. This assumption facilitates the discussion of jihad and martyrdom as terms with fixed, universal meanings divorced from the varying sociopolitical contexts in which they have been deployed through time. Such a monovalent understanding of these two concepts emerges primarily through consultation of the juridical literature and official histories that were produced after the 2nd century
In contradistinction to this approach, a more holistic and historical approach to the term jihad can be undertaken by focusing on the changing significations of jihad from the earliest formative period of Islam to the contemporary period, against the backdrop of specific social and political circumstances which have mediated the meanings of this critical term. This larger objective entails canvassing a more varied genre of texts to recreate a more multifaceted understanding of jihad and martyrdom as dynamic discursive terms through time. Such sources include Qurʾan exegetical works (tafsir), early and late works of hadith which purport to contain the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, the excellences of jihad (fadaʾil al-jihad) and the excellences of patience (fadaʾil al-sabr) literatures, which are often not consulted on this topic. Furthermore, the comparison of early and late sources and texts from these genres allows one to chart both the constancies and changes in the spectrum of meanings and repertoire of activities included under the terms jihad and shahada. This recovery of a broader semantic landscape undermines exclusively martial conceptualizations of both these terms and has important implications for the contemporary period.
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.
Craig L. Nessan
Liberation theologies employ action-reflection (praxis-oriented) methodologies in response to particular forms of oppression, normally consisting of five elements: 1) identification with particular forms of oppression and suffering, 2) prophetic critique of that condition, 3) social analysis of the causes of oppression and suffering, 4) biblical and theological engagement to address that suffering and overcome that oppression, and 5) advocacy of structural change toward a greater approximation of justice. Liberation theologies engage in intentional reflection upon particular experiences in which these five elements interact dynamically according to the forms of suffering and oppression specific to particular populations, historical experiences, and contexts.
Liberation theologies are contextual theologies, emerging in specific locations and times, and are formulated to address specific forms of suffering and oppression by employing methods of social analysis, which draw upon the sciences (especially the social sciences), and biblical-theological reflection, which draws upon Scripture, religious history, and doctrine. Because these theologies deal with the suffering and oppression of particular endangered groups, central to their concerns are the definition of the human; analysis of sin, especially structural sin that diminishes the worth and status of those in each particular group; and drawing upon theological resources to advocate justice for each oppressed group, including creation itself. Liberation theologies have been subject to affirmation and criticism in the theological literature since their emergence in the 1960s.
Major forms of liberation theology include Latin American liberation theology, black liberation theologies, feminist theologies, womanist theologies, Latina/o and mujerista theologies, Native American liberation theologies, LGBTQ+ liberation theologies, and ecojustice theologies. Liberation theologies in America frequently engage in solidarity with liberation theologies in other global contexts. Antecedents of liberation theologies include the abolitionist, social gospel, and women’s suffrage movements, among others.