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.
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.
Since the mid-19th century increasing numbers of North Americans have had access to new technologies of display that feature religious artifacts. Missionaries and museum curators played an especially important role as cultural brokers in this regard. They often worked together to set up ethnographic collections, although their respective goals differed in terms of spiritual uplift and public education. In the same period, the mediation of religious objects took place in other arenas too, such as recreations of sacred sites and spirit photography. In the 20th century, religious objects were mediated through cinema and television. In each case, the materialization and mediation of religion raises a number of significant questions, including those related to the aestheticization of sacred objects in public museums and the display of things and rituals associated with religious “others.” Since the 1980s, North Americans have engaged in debates about whether to repatriate indigenous objects and human bones to their communities of origin. There have also been significant protests related to the provocative use of Christian imagery in contemporary art. Increasingly, scholars have also begun to recognize and study how museum spaces are more malleable than previously assumed, especially as new publics access them and may even (re)use the sacred objects they house.
Religious engagement in America’s national elections occurs within a changing religious and political landscape and therefore requires an analytical framework that accounts for change over time. The nature and composition of religious coalitions, the growing diversity of religious affiliations and sentiments, and the challenges to religion posed by secular interests must be considered.
Religious activists seek through national politics what the Constitution forbids: acknowledgment of the nation’s dependence on providence, government support for religion, and the imposition of religious tests on office seekers. They speak primarily through coalitions of sectarians with shared principles and values based on their interpretation of scripture and their view of the nation’s religious heritage. Some groups claim that the United States was founded on Christian principles for Christian ends, and therefore they advocate restoration of a Christian America. Others claim that the nation has never lived up to its founding ideals of justice and equality, and they demand that the country fulfil those promises. Whatever their aims, religious coalitions in national elections purport to speak in a prophetic and universal voice, yet in their advocacy of a particular candidate or public policy they become, and are viewed as, partisans.
America is a land of religious diversity and activism, and the political result is competing religious voices in national elections. The United States consists of 200-plus denominations and sects and more than 35,000 independent congregations. And, as some indication of religious activism, there are more than 200 registered religious lobbies in Washington, DC. Without a religious establishment, religion in the United States operates in a marketplace of competing religions whereby no sect is favored and all are all free to pursue their beliefs and practices as long as they do not interfere with the rights of other sects. That diversity and competition extend to politics. Whenever, for example, a religious coalition demands that candidates pass a religious test or lobbies for specific moral initiatives, other religious activists charge them with attempting to impose a particular religion on the country in violation of the nation’s heritage of religious freedom and separation of church and state.
In addition to encountering competition from other religious groups, a religious political coalition faces opposition from secular interests. From its founding America has been profoundly sacred and profoundly secular, and sometimes the pursuits of piety and profits clash, as do religious convictions and scientific claims. Marketplace issues abound pitting sacred and secular interests against each other, including “Blue Laws,” or Sunday-closing acts, regulation of the sale of firearms, censorship of the internet, insurance coverage for contraceptives, and prohibition of alcohol and drugs. Science and faith come into conflict in the political arena over such issues as stem-cell research, human cloning, artificial intelligence, and weapons development and sales.
National elections are forums for discussing the nation’s moral heritage, character, and mission. Given the country’s religious diversity and its dual sacred-secular heritage, many voices demand to be heard in what is often a contest between religious orthodoxy and religious liberty.
Michael P. Guéno
Religion was a point of cultural conflict, political motivation, and legal justification throughout the European and American colonization of North America. Beginning in the 14th century, Catholic monarchs invoked Christian doctrine and papal law to claim Native American “heathenry” or “infidelity” as legal grounds that legitimized or mandated their policies of military invasion and territorial occupation. More progressive Christian thinkers argued for the recognition of Native Americans as human beings entitled to certain natural-law protections that morally obligated Spain to conquer and convert them for their own benefit. Spain and France worked with the church throughout the 16th and 17th centuries to establish missions throughout seized Native American territories, while English colonists often segregated Native Americans into “praying towns” for their moral benefit or the sanctity of the colonies.
After the United States declared independence, American politicians quickly identified dissolution of Native American cultures as a necessary step in undermining tribal saliency and in ensuring the political dominion of state and federal governments. By the 19th century, policymakers were convinced that encouraging Indians to put aside their “savage ways” would help tribal populations achieve cultural and spiritual salvation through Christianity. In 1869, President Grant initiated a “Peace Policy” that granted Christian missions contracts and federal funding to civilize and Christianize the Native American peoples of assigned reservations. The federal government established boarding schools for the children of tribal communities to teach English, Christianity, and occupational skills in order to “Kill the Indian in him and Save the Man.”
During the 19th and 20th centuries, federal legislation stripped Native Americans of lands, property, and rights, while federal agencies forbade the practice of indigenous Native American religions. Subsequent courts legitimated the historic claim of European nations to Native American lands pursuant to the “Doctrine of Discovery,” thus ruling these policies either legal or unreviewable. While judicial decisions throughout the 20th century also recognized tribal rights to land, water, and self-government as well as the legal obligation of the federal government to protect tribal resources, these rulings have been inconsistently realized. Throughout the history of the United States, law has articulated, in the language of privilege, right, and moral prescription, American values and visions of ideal relations. As American culture has changed, federal policy has swung back and forth among initiatives to relocate, terminate, assimilate, and appropriate Native American cultures. Religion and law have advanced agendas of conquest and colonization and become means by which Native Americans peoples have resisted those agendas.
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.
Raymond Williams once noted that “nature” remains one of the most complex words in the English language. While “nature” may commonly refer to nonhuman places, or spaces largely outside of human control, it is also frequently a culturally defined and value-laden term. The meaning, status, and significance of “natural” space has been a highly contested and fluid topic throughout North American history, and religions have been deeply engaged in that process. Religious perceptions of natural space have shifted over time, and as these perceptions have shifted, so too have environmental practices, attitudes, and senses of American identity. The availability of seemingly unaltered, human-free, natural space distant from seats of political control in Europe drew many of the earliest European migrants to the continent in the 16th and 17th centuries. Similar motivations pushed early pioneers westward into the vast spaces beyond the Appalachian Mountains in later decades. For some early Protestant immigrants to the colonies, the taming of wilderness and transformation of natural space into human-managed space situated within political and cultural boundaries presented a clear religious mission. For the original inhabitants of the continent, however, such visions of the redemption of society through the subjugation of nature were largely unfamiliar. These indigenous peoples often viewed themselves as integrated into a relational network of places, other beings, spirits, and histories, managing their use of resources with respect for reciprocal obligations. Different attitudes toward and definitions of natural space contributed to many of the ongoing tensions between these original inhabitants and newer European colonists.
While pioneers of the early centuries of European colonialism in North America sought to conquer and subdue nature, their descendants, noting an increased scarcity of open and undeveloped land, began revering nature and the wild for its spiritual, aesthetic, and moral significance. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, influential figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir presented alternative religious visions of American natural space as morally purifying, worthy of protection, and even sacred. These attitudes influenced the growing popularity of outdoor adventure sports and environmental advocacy. Rather than a space defined as oppositional to civilized society in need of subjugation by human hands, by the early 20th-century natural space had taken new religious significance as a forge for American identity and a necessary cure for the spiritual and moral ills of society. By the early 21st century, however, this celebration of nature, and particularly wilderness, in the American experience was increasingly critiqued by scholars and members of marginalized communities that had been excluded from earlier studies of American history. The meaning and religious significance of natural space was undergoing another major revision. Natural space has remained an important but ambivalent fixture in U.S. history, reminding Americans of their hopes and potential, while also reflecting traumatic histories of violence and oppression. Through its shifting meanings and significance, natural space has played a central and ongoing role in shaping American religious identities.
Sharon Erickson Nepstad
Religious groups in the United States have been active in the cause of peace, particularly in the 20th century. These groups come from a variety of traditions, such as progressive Catholicism, Reformed Judaism, mainline Protestantism, and the Historic Peace Churches (i.e., Quakers, Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren). Under the broad umbrella of peace issues, religious movements have challenged U.S. foreign policies and intervention abroad, military training, the arms race, and conscription.
The Cold War generated significant faith-based organizing. At the close of World War II, there was growing concern about the nuclear arms race. The use of atomic weapons raised serious moral questions, and some religious activists believed that the indiscriminate and immense destructive capacity of these weapons rendered the Just War tradition obsolete. Religious movements challenged the nuclear arms race through a variety of campaigns, including noncooperation with city drill practices, interfering with nuclear testing, and damaging weapons. The Vietnam War also spurred a significant mobilization within U.S. religious communities. Radical Catholic groups began interfering with the conscription process by burning draft cards and destroying Selective Service files. More moderate religious groups were also active, primarily in promoting amnesty for draft resisters and through stockholder challenges that pressured corporations to stop producing weaponry. The Cold War battles in Central America in the 1980s were another major focus for religious peace movements, who organized delegations of U.S. citizens to travel to the war zones of Nicaragua to document and impede counterrevolutionary attacks against citizens. They also developed national networks of resistance to contest U.S. funding of authoritarian states in El Salvador and Guatemala and the training of these nations’ militaries. As the 20th century came to a close, an initiative was launched within the Historic Peace Churches to train volunteers in the art of nonviolent action and then send them to conflict zones to work with oppressed groups facing potentially lethal repression. These religious peace movements challenged faith communities to reflect on their ethical obligations and political commitments during periods of war and militarization.