The history of religion in the United States cannot be understood without attending to histories of race, gender, and sexuality. Since the 1960s, social and political movements for civil rights have ignited interest in the politics of identity, especially those tied to movements for racial justice, women’s rights, and LGBT rights. These movements have in turn informed scholarly practice, not least by prompting the formation of new academic fields, such as Women’s Studies and African American studies, and new forms of analysis, such as intersectionality, critical race theory, and feminist and queer theory. These movements have transformed how scholars of religion in colonial North America and the United States approach intersections of race, gender, and sexuality.
From the colonial period to the present, these discourses of difference have shaped religious practice and belief. Religion has likewise shaped how people understand race, gender, and sexuality. The way that most people in the United States think about identity, especially in terms of race, gender, or sexuality, has a longer history forged out of encounters among European Christians, Native Americans, and people of African descent in the colonial world. European Christians brought with them a number of assumptions about the connection between civilization and Christian ideals of gender and sexuality. Many saw their role in the Americas as one of Christianization, a process that included not only religious but also sexual and cultural conversion, as these went hand in hand. Assumptions about religion and sexuality proved central to how European colonists understood the people they encountered as “heathens” or “pagans.” Religion likewise informed how they interpreted the enslavement of Africans, which was often justified through theological readings of the Bible. Native Americans and African Americans also drew upon religion to understand and to resist the violence of European colonialism and enslavement. In the modern United States, languages of religion, race, gender, and sexuality continue to inform one another as they define the boundaries of normative “modernity,” including the role of religion in politics and the relationship between religious versus secular arguments about race, gender, and sexuality.
Hinduism came to the United States first in the American imagination and only second with emissaries and immigrants from India. The initial features of Hinduism that captivated North American audiences were those that were lauded for their compatibility with Protestant Christianity and those that were derided for their incompatibility with the same. The Hinduism that flourished in the North American context drew heavily from the neo-Vedantic theology of monism, which was propagated by Hindu reform movements in the 19th century. This monism drew on simplified Upaniṣadic teachings of the similitude of Ātman (the essence of self) and Brahman (the essence of the universe) and from this claimed that the same divinity comprises all of existence. Many of the early Hindu emissaries to the United States drew on ideological confluences between Christian and Hindu universalism. They diminished the importance of temple and domestic rituals, sacrifice, personal devotion to the multiplicity of Hindu deities, and priestly class and caste hierarchies among their North American audiences.
In the 20th century, increasing populations of Indian Hindus immigrated to the United States and began to challenge this narrative. These Hindus were not gurus or yogis who were interested in developing followings among white audiences. They were families concerned about maintaining their cultural and religious traditions. They also came from diverse regions of India, and they brought their sectarian and regional practices and devotions with them. After the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, Indian Hindus worked diligently to create community networks by establishing temples and religious organizations. These religious spaces provided the infrastructure to maintain and further ethnic identities as well. In most cases, Hindu temples and organizations continue to be internally focused on providing resources to communities of Indian Hindus, such as language and scripture instruction, social support networks, ethnic food, and pan-Indian and regional festivals and events. While most temples are open to non-Indian Hindus, traditional Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion, and few non-Indians convert to Hinduism formally. ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) temples are the only Hindu temples in the United States that sometimes have proportionate numbers of Indians and non-Indians worshipping together.
Outside traditional forms of home altars, temple worship, and festivals, there are many ways in which Hinduism has influenced American culture. The guru movements that flourished in the countercultural spiritual experimentation of the long decade of the 1960s continue to draw followers today. In fact, the guru field in the United States has diversified significantly, and many gurus have established successful ashram communities across the nation. Some gurus became mired in scandal in the 1970s and 1980s, but still they have survived and in some cases thrived. The New Age movement of the 1990s also brought rekindled interest in Hinduism, often recoded as Indian spirituality, and this has sponsored a new wave of gurus and their teachings and the rampant expansion of postural yoga practice in the United States.
What is today known as U.S. “Hispanic” culture is in reality a diverse array of ethnic, regional, national, and religious peoples and communities. Hispanic Americans trace their lineage back to colonial Spain, and Spanish is a unifying language for Hispanic peoples around the world. When we turn our attention to the United States, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, Spanish colonizers, missionaries, and explorers alike made their mark in American territories such as Florida, California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The focus of this article will be Hispanic religions from the mid-19th century United States to the present. The invention of the designation “Hispanic” by the U.S. government in 1970 was an effort to identify individuals and groups who shared a common language, ethnicity, and cultural heritage. While we can certainly problematize the designation “Hispanic,” for the purposes of this essay we will use the ethnic and cultural designation Hispanic as a rubric to unify Spanish-speaking and ethnically related individuals and groups in the United States. What is useful about identifying individuals and groups as Hispanic is that we are able to focus on shared linguistics, ethnic identities, and experiences that emerge out of the lived experiences of colonization. Yet the story of Hispanics and religions is one of triumph and empowerment too as men, women, and children turned to their families, faith, and communities to combat the ethnocentrically driven colonization in the United States that threatened to overwhelm them. What they received from extended families, faith, and communities was support that gave them strength to persevere and prosper in conditions that were sometimes unbearable.
As long as we keep in the mind that there are vast differences among and between Hispanic peoples and groups, the broad rubric of “Hispanic” can help us understand linguistic, ethnic, and cultural continuities among individuals and their larger communities in the United States. Recent global Hispanic events such as the 2014 fútbol World Cup helped bring attention to the ethnic, nationalistic, and linguistic similarities as well as the cultural diversity of Latin, Central, and South Americans. As much as there is a wide variety of Hispanic peoples and communities, so too is there a wide array of Hispanic religions and spiritualities. Latin, Central and South Americans increasingly make homes in the United States and add to the ever-emerging religious and cultural hybridity of U.S. religions. While the majority of U.S. Hispanics still identify themselves as Roman Catholic, there is a growing diversity of Catholic practices as well as broader religio-spiritualities among U.S. Hispanics. In order to understand contemporary lived realities among Hispanics, it is essential that we take a historical approach and study the deeper history of U.S. Hispanic religions and spiritualities. When we do, we are able to understand that openness to hybrid theologies, practices, and ways of being spiritual and religious are central to Hispanics’ histories of perseverance and adaptation to a country that has not been overwhelmingly unwelcoming to them. When we study U.S. Hispanics and their religious and spiritual lives from the mid-19th century to the present, we are able to understand three mutually informing and overlapping historical continuities: (1) A legacy of colonization, transculturation and borderlands existence; (2) The creation of a borderlands religion that responds to the legacy of ethnocentrism and inbetweeness; and (3) The centrality of fe, familia, and communidad (faith, family, and community) that work as an organizing and empowering trifecta for U.S. Hispanics.
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.
Mark A. Granquist
The United States as a country was religiously formed by Reformed Protestants, who were later joined by substantial numbers of immigrant Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Jews. The role of Martin Luther in this religiously varied and pluralistic society has often changed over time, and has depended greatly on the context of those who have written about him. In some periods of time, especially the 18th century, Luther was little noticed or commented about, generally a figure solely in the distant past. In the 19th century, many American writers and scholars took notice of Luther, but often as a past symbol of some reality the author wished to address. Thus, Luther was seen essentially as one of the first modern individuals in the West, standing for religious and personal liberty against the reactionary forces of church and state. Some Protestants noted him for his stance against the medieval Western church and the papacy, which mirrored their own anti–Roman Catholic positions; American Roman Catholics saw him as the cause of the splintering of the true church and the author of all that was religiously problematic. After the Civil War, scholars began to access modern German scholarship about Luther, and the Luther birth anniversary of 1883 was perhaps the high point of his reputation in America. In the 20th century, there were positive and negative developments. On the negative side, two world wars soured Americans on things German, and some saw Luther as contributing to the rise of the Nazis and of the Holocaust. On the positive side, many of Luther’s works were translated into English, and many new historical and theological studies of the reformer were produced in English, along with translations of European works. American Lutherans began to produce substantial contributions to Luther studies, and newer works, even among Roman Catholics, sought to put Luther into his historical and theological contexts.
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.
Patrick Q. Mason
Mormonism is the collective name for a group of related churches, movements, and theologies that trace their origins back to the prophetic revelations of Joseph Smith Jr. (b. 1805–d. 1844). The movement splintered following the death of Smith, with the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) becoming by far the largest institutional manifestation of Mormonism today. Mormonism claims to be a restoration of ancient Christianity, following a period of apostasy after the death of Christ’s original apostles. The movement began with a series of revelations to Smith in the 1820s in which God called him to be a prophet and then an angel directed him to a buried ancient record written on golden plates. Smith translated this record “by the gift and power of God” and published it as the Book of Mormon, which is one of four books considered by Mormons to be scripture (along with the Christian Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price).
Mormons believe that God leads their church through living prophets and continuing revelation, and that ordinances necessary for salvation and exaltation are performed only through the priesthood that was restored to Smith and passed on to the church today. Mormons prioritize family relationships, which they believe can be maintained after death through marriage ceremonies conducted in Mormon temples. Heavily persecuted in the 19th century for their practices of polygamy and theocracy, today Mormons are fully integrated into society even while maintaining a distinctive theology and group identity. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints operates an ambitious proselytizing campaign around the globe and continues to enjoy steady worldwide growth, with the majority of its members now residing outside the United States. Though strongly influenced by its origins in a modern American context, as it nears the beginning of its third century Mormonism is emerging as an increasingly mature global religion.
John G. Turner
The Mormon exodus marked a new phase for a religious movement that from its inception had always set peoples in motion. The political creation of Deseret and the settlement of the Great Basin were acts of political and religious territoriality, claiming a vast swath of land for the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In turn, the process of settling and defending that territory transformed the spatial dimensions of Mormonism. As the Latter-day Saints gathered to a Rocky Mountain Zion, they reshaped the environment of the Great Basin, clashed with non-Mormon Americans over matters of theocracy and polygamy, and conquered native peoples. Rather than gathering to a particular city as Mormons in the eastern United States had done, the Saints now built up what they understood to be the Kingdom of God on earth. Between 1847 and the 1869 completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, thousands of Mormon emigrants crossed the plains and mountains and settled in colonies that stretched from present-day Idaho to San Bernardino. After losing a series of struggles for political and judicial control of the Utah Territory, and after publicly abandoning the principal of plural marriage, the church stopped encouraging its members to emigrate. The Mormons came to think of Zion in figurative, non-geographic terms. By abandoning the principal of gathering, moreover, the Church of Jesus Christ—especially outside of its Great Basin heartland—functioned more like the Protestant denominations against which it had long defined itself.
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.