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.
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.
Bret E. Carroll
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.
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.
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.
Heath W. Carter
Social Christianity is a heterogeneous tradition that has been cultivated by a diverse array of American Christians who shared in common an intuition that the source of social problems is more exterior than interior to the individual. Social gospelers have contended, in word and in deed, that sin infects not only individuals but also systems and structures; that salvation is not only personal but also societal; and that therefore participation in the struggle for a more just society is, for Christians, not so much optional as essential. This distinctly modern tradition first emerged in the antebellum period, but was overshadowed by older, benevolent, and bourgeois modes of reform until the early 20th century, when it gained a stronger foothold in both the institutional churches and the worlds beyond their walls. Social Christianity’s influence was never more formidable than during the New Deal era. It was during those pivotal decades, which saw the rise of a robust welfare state as well as of massive, faith-infused labor and civil rights movements, that social gospelers left their most lasting mark on American society. In the late 20th century and early 21st centuries, the tradition’s influence would decline precipitously, in no small part due to the success of a multifaceted backlash against social gospel ideas and movements. The rise of the modern right signaled, for social gospelers of all different kinds, a return to the wilderness.
John C. Blakeman
Issues of church and state are an important element of American religious history and politics. Church–state issues frequently concern the extent of government regulation over religious groups and individuals, and they address fundamental issues, from the constitutional limits on government regulation of religiously inspired conduct to state and local government zoning of religious congregations and property owned and used by religious groups.
Space is often a part of church–state issues. Beginning with early debates over religious liberty in the Puritan colonies in the 1600s, and again during the American Revolution and framing of the U.S. Constitution between 1775 and 1790, spatial conceptions of the proper role between church and state, and between government and religion, are prominent. Two fundamental thinkers on American religious liberty, the Puritan minister Roger Williams and the constitutional framer James Madison, illustrate this dimension of church–state relations.
Disputes over space, church, and state are often resolved by the court system through litigation, or through the political process. Such disputes often stem from government policies and regulations that affect how a congregation or religious group uses its own property. For instance, zoning and other municipal ordinances may affect and burden how a religious group uses its property and even interfere with a group’s religious mission. Religious beliefs may compel a congregation to use its property to engage in charitable works, yet it may be prohibited from doing so due to government regulations on how its property can be used. Or when a congregation seeks to expand its facilities to attract more members, or even build a new worship center elsewhere, it may encounter government policies that regulate its ability to do so.
Other disputes over space arise when government regulation of public property affects a religious group’s use of it. For example, some religious groups stake a sacred claim to land or other space owned by the government. However, government regulations concerning how the land is used might interfere with a group’s ability to act upon its sacred beliefs. In some cases, religious groups may seek to use public property for religious purposes and activities, such as the display of a religious symbol or for proselytizing to the public, and government policies may prevent that in order to avoid violating the Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion in the First Amendment.
A final view of space and church–state issues is more conceptual and less grounded in tangible space, land, and property. Some religious groups seek a more abstract, intangible space between them and government regulation. Groups such as the Old Order Amish that seek to separate from the world will erect a buffer space between themselves and government regulation, so as to preserve the purity, and sanctity, of their way of life that is inextricably linked to their specific religious beliefs.
Bret E. Carroll
American religious pluralism is not simply diversity but a dynamic process of interaction and exchange. Its core is a spatial politics in which religious groups create meaningful spaces and interact with other groups similarly engaged, sometimes cooperatively and sometimes apprehensively and even violently. This dynamic is configured by a longstanding pattern of Anglo-Protestant dominance coupled with a widespread though tension-filled acceptance of religious pluralism. This dynamic has been particularly dramatic and intense since the 1960s because of an increase in the numbers of adherents of non-Protestant and non-Western religions in the United States and an increase in the degree to which religious groups have sought a more active and visible involvement in American life. One can observe the American pluralist dynamic functioning spatially at three interlocking levels—regional, local, and national—with spatial politics playing out differently in different locations depending on a variety of factors. As the new century opens, new factors such as globalization, virtual communication, and heterolocalism come increasingly into play.
The megachurch is one of the most recognizable and characteristic religious spaces in the modern United States. Super-sized, consumer oriented, and blandly contemporary, megachurches have become popularly identified with a host of middlebrow American cultural stereotypes. Yet these congregations have proven themselves to be a leading force in the practice of contemporary evangelicalism, their numbers, average size, and evangelistic reach growing dramatically over the past forty years. Building on nearly a century of experimentation, modern megachurches have hit upon a highly successful formula for attracting and retaining attendants. Through a careful calibration of worship style, sermonic messaging, institutional identity, and programming offerings, their market share has swiftly multiplied. As a result, megachurches now dominate the practice of contemporary Protestantism, setting new standards for how a church should look, sound, and feel and establishing the mantra of “church growth” as the widely adopted aim and purpose of modern ministry.
Spatial strategies have been at the core of these growth efforts. Megachurches draw explicitly from the architectural idioms of contemporary shopping malls, corporate complexes, sports arenas, and television studios as a means of making themselves immediately familiar and inviting for the average congregant. They provide a great array of on-site amenities and specialized interiors to appeal to diverse constituencies who may be searching for different attributes in a church home. Choice is therefore incorporated as a spatial principle, permitting attendants to self-design their worship experience and opt in to the level of commitment they feel prepared to offer. Megachurches also typically take an aggressive posture toward their spatial milieus, treating their immediate environs as an active mission field. They regularly deploy lay volunteers to canvass local neighborhoods and encourage members to network on behalf of the church. They encourage the pursuit of new member growth, even if it comes largely from congregational switching rather than recruitment of the “unchurched.” Megachurches thus tend to dominate the religious ecology of their suburban habitats, outcompeting smaller churches for members and money.
Research on the megachurch subculture has primarily been conducted by sociologists and ethnographers, but a bevy of commentary by theologians, ethicists, historians, and journalists has emerged to supplement that social scientific focus and place the megachurch in wider context. Within that growing literature, four lines of inquiry frequently recur: What defines and differentiates the megachurch? What are the historical and cultural sources for its formulation? What explains its rapid rise to prominence in the modern moment? And what does the rise of the megachurch represent for communities of faith, for both insiders and outsiders to the movement? In the round, the varied answers to these interrogations paint a picture of a hotly contested institution, whose definition, origins, and meaning are debatable. Yet there is little doubt that the spatial strategies of megachurches, so frequently admired, imitated, and condemned, can help us address these questions and therefore merit further exploration and understanding.
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.