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.
Randall J. Stephens
Throughout American history, religion and entertainment have influenced each other and have intersected in fascinating ways. Native American rituals and games entertained and inspired. Early white settlers like the Puritans, though defining their faith over and against profane pastimes, engaged in sport, play, and elaborate storytelling. Still, stark contrasts appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries when it came to how Catholics and Protestants in the New World thought of the theater, music, and performance. The evangelical surge in the 18th century brought with it a lively and riveting preaching style—represented by celebrity ministers like George Whitfield and Gilbert Tennent—that faced the ire of their more traditional foes for using “vulgar” methods to reach the masses. In the 19th century, African Americans, in slavery and freedom, expressed their faith in ways that combined religious systems, dancing, and music traditions from Africa and the Americas. Evangelical churches and prominent figures used entertainment to proselytize, illustrate the drama of salvation and damnation, and to enliven services. Temperance, anti-slavery, and other reformist groups employed music, novels, and theater to spread their earnest message. Pentecostals and other evangelicals took up new forms in the 20th century. They eagerly made use of radio, film, and later, television. The well-known evangelist Billy Graham was a skillful pioneer of new media. In the 20th century, Hollywood films drew on Jewish and Catholic themes, as Jewish and Catholic writers, directors, and actors put their stamp on the silver screen. Late 20th and early 21st century combinations of religion and entertainment included Muslim rap music, Christian rock, Jewish folk music, and much more. A great deal of this innovation coincided with the rise of the performance-driven megachurch and the proliferation of religious organizations that catered to athletes and drew on sports imagery and symbols for the cause. In the long sweep of American history, the devout have found new, elaborate ways to draw on popular culture and to entertain as well as enlighten the faithful.
Douglas E. Cowan
Invented in 1989 and popularly accessible since the mid-1990s, the World Wide Web has always hosted a wide variety of religious content, ranging from early text-based discussion forums to live-stream video, and from rudimentary online communities to cross-platform social media activism. Known colloquially as “religion in cyberspace,” these computer-mediated, faith-based environments raise important questions in terms of how religious discourse is enacted and religious ritual performed. More than that, they challenge whether the notion of physical place will remain paramount in religious life, or if it can be displaced as believers and adherents shift aspects of their activity to electronically mediated communication space. Although initial enthusiasm for the Internet and its presumed potential led some scholars to predict large-scale uploading of religious life, there are a number of reasons to conclude that offline religious practice will continue to be important in the lives of believers despite any online activity they may pursue. That said, there are also significant ways in which online religious activity has encouraged adherents to reimagine the nature of sacred space, to envision new ways of understanding religious practice, and to enact new forms of religious community.
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.
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.
Evangelism, mission, and crusade are terms related to spreading a religious message. Although all three words are primarily used in relation to Christianity, evangelism and mission have been applied to activities by traditions other than Christianity and, indeed, to secular actors, including nations. In the context of American religion, evangelism, mission, and crusade are activities through which people have contested and defined national identity and distinguished between the “foreign” and “domestic” and “us” and “them.” These delineations, even when done through activities ostensibly concerned with religious difference, have often been made on the basis of ethnicity and race. Thus, exploring evangelism, mission, and crusade illumines how notions of religious, racial, ethnic, and national difference have been constructed in relationship to each other. Considering these terms in their U.S. context, then, reveals relationships between religious and national identity, the role of religion in nation-building, and how religious beliefs and practices can both reify and challenge notions of what the nation is and who belongs to it.
As part of a broader turn in humanities scholarship toward emotion since the late 20th century, scholars of religion increasingly have explored how emotion has been a key component in the lives of religious Americans. The relation of emotion to religious ideas has been particularly important in this nascent scholarship. In exploring how emotions and religious ideas are intertwined, scholars have focused on emotions such as love, melancholy, fear, and anger, among others. However, for reasons having to do with the historiography of American religion, as well as with categories that have governed much academic study of religion in America, the feeling of emptiness, which is so crucial to understanding Buddhism, and other Asian religions, has been underestimated for its role in American religions. In America, the feeling of emptiness plays a central role in religious practice, community formation, and identity construction, among Christians (the religious majority) but also in other religious communities. This essay describes some of the ways in which the feeling of emptiness has been expressed in American religions, and in American culture more generally, comments on how it has been joined to certain ideas at various times, and suggests how it has played a central role in shaping relations between religious groups in a society where religion is disestablished. The approach here is eclectic, blending historical narrative with cultural analysis, and the essay proceeds thematically rather than chronologically. Focusing on the feeling of emptiness allows a fresh perspective on religious practice in America, prompts new questions about belief and community, and enables new lines of interpretation for the development of religious ideas in America. Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and other religious communities in America have distinct ways in which they interpret the feeling of emptiness as a spiritual phenomenon. Religious persons often conceptualize it as an emotional experience of great value. Among Christians, it is important as a sign of an emptying of the self of immorality, distractions, and worldly clutter in preparation for being filled with the grace of God. Accordingly, Christians and others in America have developed spiritual disciplines aimed at cultivating the feeling of emptiness and advancing it to a point where deep longing becomes deep fulfillment. Religious practices involving the body include fasting, which is emptying the body of food, and tears, which empty the body of fluids. Bloodletting is also a notable practice, and, for those who do not cut or otherwise make bloody sacrifice (including war and lynching), bloodletting nevertheless is revered as a model discipline of emptying. There are aspects of sexual practices and the performance of work that also are exercises in self-emptying. All such disciplines are expected to prompt and enrich the feeling of emptiness. The severe fast, the deep feeling of emptiness, the desperate longing, the distancing from God becomes, paradoxically, a drawing closer to God. From the earliest settlement of North America, white Europeans and their descendants constructed the emptiness of the land to match the emptiness of their souls. Americans claimed to feel space. They expressed the spiritual feeling of emptiness in ideas about North America as a barren desert, crying to be filled by colonists and their descendants. The Great American Desert, a fiction created in the early 19th century, was one way in which Americans continued to imagine space as empty and themselves, as God’s exceptional nation, as the agents of fullness. American fascination with millennialism was a valorization of the fullness of eternity over the emptiness of history. Millennial movements and communities in America felt time as they did space, and when American Christians felt historical time they felt its emptiness. Americans have constructed elaborate and richly detailed depictions of the end as they look forward to a time when empty time will become eternity, fullness. Christian groups in America, populated by persons who cultivate emptiness, have defined themselves largely by saying what they are not. Both persons and communities, invested in the feeling of emptiness, mark personal and collective boundaries not by projecting into the social world a pristine essence of doctrine so much as by pushing off from other groups. Committed to emptiness, there is little to project, so the construction of identity takes place as an identification of Others. Such a process sometimes leads to the demonization of others and the production of identity through the inventorying of enemies.
Phillip Gordon Mackintosh
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Please check back later for the full article.
American Freemasonry is as much a geographical as a sacred practice. Emerging from arcane Enlightenment origins, masonic theology and practice brims with a spatiality representative of masonry’s compulsion to make men moral. Moral masculinity reflects in Freemasonry’s “sacred geography,” masonic space fixed with symbols vital to the moral, social, and arguably spiritual growth of potential and actual Freemasons. Masonic spatiality links to Freemasonry’s central myth: the erection of King Solomon’s temple. Interpreting the Old Testament sanctuary as a stone artifact (for which no archeological evidence exists) furnished Freemasonry with a) its foundation narrative and architectural imaginary; b) the intrigue for the death-and-resurrection ritual capping the Master Mason rite, the last of masonry’s three core rituals; c) the sacred meanings and purposes of the lodge; and crucially, d) its rite-inspired spatiality, in which elements of the temple, its divinity, and construction achieve prominence.
Masonic geography ironically includes a penchant—albeit waning—for racial and sexual apartheid, a social segregation originating in early modern American misapprehensions of biology, anthropology, and gender. Accordingly, “black” masons attend separate lodges. Prince Hall Freemasonry has existed since the late 18th century and is named for its eponymous founder, although “blacks” join “white” lodges today. Women masons or “matrons” are initiated in an appendant Christian rite. A 19th-century phenomenon, the Order of the Eastern Star, was developed for evangelical Protestant women-followers of Jesus, intentionally to distract them from the unconcealed deism of the men’s rituals in a milieu of Christian antimasonry.
The locus of Freemasonry was (and is) the lodge, which denotes both the building space and its occupants. In lodges, masons conducted the busy-work of admitting multitudes of late-Victorian, Edwardian, and interwar American males into the mysteries of “Blue Lodge” or “Craft” Freemasonry. It was likely because of the intensive initiation-toil in Craft lodges that masons over time sacralized the lodge and its teleological attributes; masons insist Freemasonry is not a religion. They routinely embedded sacred geography in buildings as stylish as Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian “temples,” or as prosaic as frame, brick, or block ex-urban and suburban halls. Still humbler lodges could be found in simple multi-use back rooms or above street-level shops.
Importantly, this historical spatiality evokes Victorian faith in moral environmentalism: the impulse to effect virtuous and civil behavior through orderly manipulations of environment. Indeed, the dedicated employment in the lodge of masonic furniture and furnishings loosely mimics the Victorian middle-class parlor’s preoccupation with order, design, and moral aesthetics. Masons call this ritual—and allegorical—décor the lodge’s form, support, covering, furniture, ornaments, lights, and jewels. These include, among others, the letter G (God), the compass and square, a draped altar, a bible, candlesticks, blocks of dressed and undressed limestone, Greek columns—usually Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian—and a mosaic of checkered floor tiles. Each instance of this arguably religious space in the lodge signifies to a degree a rite’s moral masculine transformation of masonic candidate and mason alike. In this way, the lodge becomes a “sacred retreat” for masons who dwell outside its precincts.