Throughout American history, religious people and groups have developed, sustained, or challenged cultural norms around gender, marriage, and sexual purity. Beginning with the earliest English Protestant settlers in the 17th century, American Christians have devoted consistent attention to the proper roles of men and women, and to the proper functioning of families. Throughout American history, religious leaders have assigned men as spiritual leaders of their families. Assessments of women’s piety—and its importance in maintaining social order—have grown more positive over time. Prophetic radicals and political activists have frequently challenged American Christianity by attacking its traditionalism on issues related to gender and sexuality. The ideal of a “traditional family” has, however, proven quite robust. Even as cultural attitudes around gender and sexuality have shifted dramatically in recent years, the presumption that typical American families are heterosexual, middle-class, and Christian has persisted. This presumption developed over time and has remained dominant owing in part to the contributions of American religious groups.
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.
Religions, in almost every case, are concerned with healing the sick and the broken. Of course, healing is not the sole feature or function of religion, but for many people, restoration of wellness and wholeness is a central component of their religious experience. Religious healing comes in many forms, from miraculous supernatural intervention, to the manipulation of metaphysical energies, to the proper ordering of healthy human relationships and societies. Some religions rely on the ministrations of healing specialists such as shamans, parish nurses, or gifted miracle workers. Others focus on therapeutic modes of self-help, while yet others link healing with redemption from iniquity. In many cases, various kinds of religious healing overlap, all in service of that which is most efficacious in providing relief and recovery. The history of religions in the United States is likewise full of instances and varieties of religious healing. Americans of many creeds and diverse heritages have often sought healing within their religious traditions, and they have innovated new religious movements that focus primarily on the alleviation of suffering. Moreover, the attention to healing within American religions predates the rise of scientific biomedicine, evolves alongside of it, and endures through the present. Finally, recurrence to religious healing has often played a role in ethnic identity construction and maintenance in this largely immigrant nation.
Given the scope and impact of healing on U.S. religious history, it is imperative to consider how the idea of healing has captivated and motivated religious actors. Of particular interest is the complex and sometimes violent process by which religious ideas and practices related to healing have been exchanged, modified, and even appropriated. Throughout the course of American history, religious healing—in its many expressions—has been characterized by ongoing competition, collaboration, overlap, and constant change. Ultimately, it bears little fruit to look for a common thread that might run among all the various traditions and formulations of American religious healing. Rather, it is more rewarding to consider carefully the interactions and evolutions of healing in the ever-changing American religious scene.
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.
Connie A. Shemo
The history of East Asian religions in the United States is inextricably intertwined with the broader history of United States–East Asian relations, and specifically with U.S. imperialism. For most Americans in the 19th and into the early 20th centuries, information about religious life in China, Japan, and Korea came largely through foreign missionaries. A few prominent missionaries were deeply involved in the translation of important texts in East Asian religions and helped promote some understanding of these traditions. The majority of missionary writings, however, condemned the existing religions in these cultures as part of their critiques of the cultures as degenerate and in need of Christianity. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the women’s foreign mission movement was the largest women’s movement in the United States, women missionaries’ representations of East Asian religions as inherent in the oppression of women particularly reached a large audience. There was also fascination with East Asian religions in the United States, especially as the 20th century progressed, and more translations appeared from people not connected to the foreign mission movement. By the 1920s, as “World Friendship” became an important paradigm in the foreign missionary movement, some missionary representations of East Asian religions became more positive, reflecting and contributing to a broader trend in the United States toward a greater interest in religious traditions around the world, and coinciding with a move toward secularization. As some scholars have suggested, the interest in East Asian religions in the United States in some ways fits into the framework of “Orientalism,” to use Edward Said’s famous term, viewing religions of the “East” as an exotic alternative to religion in the West. Other scholars have suggested that looking at the reception of these religions through a framework of “Orientalism” underestimates and distorts the impact these religious traditions have had in the United States. Regardless, religious traditions from East Asia have become a part of the American religious landscape, through both the practice of people who have immigrated from East Asia or practice the religion as they have learned from family members, and converts to those religions. The numbers of identified practitioners of East Asian religions in United States, with the exception of Buddhism, a religion that originated outside of East Asia, is extremely small, and even Buddhists are less than 2 percent of the American population. At the same time, some religious traditions, such as Daoism and some variants of Buddhism (most notably Zen Buddhism), have exercised a significant impact on popular culture, even while a clear understanding of these traditions has not yet been widespread in the United States. Some understanding of Confucianism as well has recently been spread through the propagation of “Confucian” institutes in the United States. It is through these institutes that we may see the beginnings of the Chinese government exercising some influence in American universities, which, while not comparable to the impact of Christian missionaries in the development of Chinese educational institutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nonetheless can illuminate the growing power of China in Sino-American relations in the beginning of the 21st century.
While the term “East Asian” religions is frequently used for convenience, it is important to be aware of potential pitfalls in assigning labels such as “Western” and “Eastern” to religious traditions, particularly if this involves a construction of Christianity as inherently “Western.” At a time when South Korea sends the second largest number of Christian missionaries to other countries, Christianity could theoretically be defined as an East Asian religion, in that a significant number of people in one East Asian country not only practice but actively seek to propagate the religion. Terms such as “Eastern” and “Western” to define religious traditions are cultural constructs in and of themselves.
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.
In recent years, the study of religion has undergone a useful materialization in the work of many scholars, who are not inclined to define it in terms of ideas, creeds, or doctrines alone, but want to understand what role sensation, emotion, objects, spaces, clothing, and food have played in religious practice. If the intellect and the will dominated the study of religion dedicated to theology and ethics, the materialization of religious studies has taken up the role of the body, expanding our understanding of it and dismantling our preconceptions, which were often notions inherited from religious traditions. As a result, the body has become a broad register or framework for gauging the social, aesthetic, and practical character of religion in everyday life. The interest in material culture as a primary feature of religion has unfolded in tandem with the new significance of the body and the broad materialization of religious studies.