The relationship between religion and the body can be viewed from two very different perspectives. The first perspective emphasizes culture’s role in constructing human thought and behavior. This approach illuminates the diverse ways that religious traditions shape human attitudes toward the nature and meaning of their physical bodies. Scholars guided by this perspective have helped us better understand religion’s complicity in such otherwise mysterious phenomena as mandated celibacy, restrictive diets, circumcision, genital mutilation, self-flagellation, or the specification of particular forms of clothing.
Newly emerging information about the biological body has given rise to a second approach to the body’s relationship to religion. Rather than exploring how religion influences attitudes toward our bodies, these new studies investigate how our biological bodies exert identifiable influences on our religious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Neural chemistry, emotions, sensory modalities, pain responses, mating strategies, sexual arousal systems, and genetic personality predispositions all influence the personal salience of religious beliefs or behavior. Attention to the biological body unravels many of the enigmas that formerly accompanied the study of such things as the appeal of apocalyptic beliefs, the frequent connection between religion and systems of healing, devotional piety aiming toward union with a beloved deity, the specific practices entailed in ascetic spirituality, or the mechanisms triggering ecstatic emotional states.
The South still commonly appears as the land of the Bible Belt, of evangelical Protestant hegemony. Despite the rapidly increasing immigration from all parts of the world to the region, there is still justification for such a view. To study religion in the South, then, is to examine the influence of a dominant evangelical culture that has shaped the region’s social mores, religious minorities (including Catholicism, Judaism, and non-Christian immigrant religions), cultural forms, charged racial interactions, and political practices. In no other widely dispersed region, save for the Mormon regions of the Rocky Mountain West, does one family of religious belief and expression hold such sway over so many people and throughout such a large area. The biracial nature of evangelicalism in the South, as well, lends it a distinctive history and culture that alternately puzzles, repulses, and fascinates outsiders.
The South may be the Bible Belt, but, like Joseph’s coat, it is a belt of many colors, embroidered with a rich stitching together of words, sounds, and images from the inexhaustible resource of the scriptures. The rigid Bible Belt conservatism associated with the common understanding of religion in the South contrasts dramatically with the sheer creative explosiveness of southern religious cultural expression. Indeed, southern religious influences lay at the heart of much of 20th-century American popular culture. And it contrasts with a rapidly changing contemporary South in which Buddhist retreat centers and Ganesha temples are taking their place alongside Baptist and Methodist churches.
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.
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.
Athletic events occur in discrete locations, played by individuals following a prescribed set of rules, leaving behind metrics like wins and losses, final scores, and overall records. So on the surface, the empirical facts of sports are rather mundane. And yet, for devoted participants and observers, physical movements and calculated numbers feed into carefully constructed worlds of mythic stories, potent symbols, and exuberant rituals. The story of religion and sports in America, then, starts with bodies in motion. It continues as these bodies become inscribed with sacred meaning, each mark bearing the traces of a given population’s most cherished values.
Institutional religions have been part of this story. From the “muscular Christians” of the Progressive Era to a contemporary Muslim football team observing the Ramadan fast during a playoff run, Americans have habitually turned playing fields into praying fields. Sports have also figured into the making of America’s civil religious discourse, as athletic expressions of national identity. In these instances, bodies in motion have reinforced or disrupted the boundaries that separate “real” Americans from those perceived to threaten social stability.
Beyond institutional and civil religions, though, religious themes and ideas continue to attach themselves to sports in new and innovative ways. Understanding this process requires an unbraiding of the category of “religion” from notions of “God” and “belief.” Instead, we profit from an understanding of religion that starts with embodied movements, and continues into the material production of the sacred. From here, sports become locations to experiment with, and experience, what it means to be human. And this is where the attraction to sports originates, both in the past and in the present.
Space is a basic yet complex dimension in American religion. Historically and historiographically, conceptually and in practice, it has been central to believers’ experiences of what they consider “sacred” and to the models that scholars have developed to understand religious practices in the United States. First assumed as an unexamined given by 19th-century scholars, it became recognized as an explanatory factor in its own right during the 20th century and was the focus of ongoing modern and postmodern attempts at conceptualization from the mid-20th century into the early 21st.
Until the late 20th century, work in American religious studies conceptualized space as an objectively existing container for human activity, and scholars considered a presumed abundance of it a defining determinant of American religious experience. Church historians prior to the mid-20th century typically argued that the vastness and relative isolation of American space, initially subsumed under the historiographic idea of an American “frontier,” allowed the development of uniquely American religious freedom and revivalism. Although the frontier thesis was challenged during the latter half of the 20th century, the concept of space persisted and proved useful as U.S. religious historians gave increasing attention to pluralism, urban experience, transnationalism, and everyday practice.
Religion scholars and anthropologists, meanwhile, proposed from the early 20th century that religious practice involved fundamental spatial distinctions between sacred and profane, inside and outside, center and periphery, and up and down that provided believers with a sense of social, geographic, and cosmic orientation. By the 1970s and 1980s, cultural theorists began conceiving of space as a subjective experience, a situationally located social and cultural construction “produced” through active efforts at definition, appropriation, and control by human beings. According to this newer conceptualization, space comes into being as an inherently contested medium as believers make specific and concrete the meanings of their beliefs through rituals, relationships, and symbols and create distinct physical and geographically located manifestations of their belief systems.
This new approach sparked a “spatial turn” that extended across the humanities and social sciences and moved spatial analysis to a central position in American religious studies. Attention to the spatial dimensions of religious practice generated fruitful research on and new studies of churches and other built environments, American “civil religion,” domestic religious practice, urban religion, the dynamics of pluralism, immigrant communities, and global diasporas. The spatial turn has also generated new concepts of space as scholars attuned to postmodern and transnational experiences have rejected standard emphases on spatial separation and fragmentation in favor of an emphasis on continuity and interconnection.
Michael J. McVicar
The phrase Religious Right refers to a loose network of political actors, religious organizations, and political pressure groups that formed in the United States in the late 1970s. Also referred to as the Christian Right, representative organizations associated with the movement included Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Tim LaHaye’s Council for National Policy, Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America, and Ed McAteer’s Religious Roundtable. Leaders and organizations associated with the Religious Right made a broad-based religious appeal to Americans that emphasized traditional family values, championed free-market economics, and advocated a hard-line foreign policy approach to the Soviet Union. They also criticized secular and materialistic trends in American culture that many in the Religious Right associated with the moral and economic decline of the nation. The organizations of the Religious Right had a major influence on the 1976 and 1980 presidential elections by directly affecting the political fortunes of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Although many of the organizations declined and disbanded in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, some of the organizations of the Religious Right persisted into the 2000s and continue to shape policy discussions, drive voter turnout, and influence religious and political life in the United States.
Although actors in the Religious Right appealed broadly to the conservative cultural sensibilities of Americans from Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, and Jewish backgrounds, the movement most capably mobilized white evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. The decentralized nature of evangelical Protestantism means that organizers associated with the Religious Right mobilized coalitions of activists and rank-and-file members from large conservative denominational bodies such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, and the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, while also drawing support from independent churches associated with Reformed, Pentecostal, charismatic, and nondenominational Protestantism. Further, the term Religious Right has also been used by scholars and journalists alike to identify a broad ecumenical coalition of activist Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and other cultural conservatives who have made common cause with Protestants over social issues related to sexual morality—including resisting abortion rights, combating pornography, and fighting against rights for homosexuals—since the 1970s.
Scholars often trace the roots of the Religious Right to the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, a series of theological and institutional disputes that split conservative Protestants in the early 20th century. In the intervening decades between the 1920s and 1970s, conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists developed an institutional subculture of churches, colleges, and voluntary societies that created a popular perception of their withdrawal and isolation from mainstream social and political culture in the United States. Nonetheless, throughout the century conservative Protestants contributed to many political controversies, playing important roles in framing debates over public, economic, and foreign policy. By the late 1970s a unique convergence of social changes and new developments in law, politics, and media led to the emergence of a distinct coalition of special interest political groups that have since been labeled the Religious or Christian Right. These groups had a profound effect on electoral outcomes and public policy debates that has persisted well into the 21st century.
In the early 19th century, American Protestants began to send missionaries abroad as part of the foreign mission movement. They were responding to the Great Commission of the Bible: to go into the world and spread the Gospel. This historical moment allowed them to do so because of political and commercial developments that provided Americans with access to the peoples of the world in an unprecedented way. Emerging alongside religious revivalism and other large-scale movements for social reform, foreign missions responded to a sense of optimism at the time over the possibility of human action to be able to bring about the kingdom of God on Earth. This movement aimed at the conversion of the whole world to Protestant Christianity, which for many of these missionaries in these decades would also involve the embrace of cultural changes. In 1810, the new era of international missions began with the formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. By 1860, American missionaries were at work around the globe, with important stations in South and East Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas. The conversion of the world, though, was out of their grasp; few converts came to the American missions in these years. In spite of that, missionaries opened schools, translated and distributed Scripture and other religious texts, and preached as widely as they could. As missionaries went abroad and sought to change the places they reached, they also became important sources of information about those places to their supporters at home. Missionary publications informed American readers about the people, cultures, and religions of the world and in so doing helped to shape American understandings of how the United States ought to relate to these other foreign spaces.