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.
Lawrence A. Peskin
Encounters between Americans, Muslims, and Jews in North Africa played a foundational role in Americans’ early understanding of Islam and Judaism. At a time when the United States population had few Jews and virtually no free Muslims, North Africa was one of the places Americans were most likely to meet individuals from these groups.
Initially, American sailors and diplomats encountered North African Muslims and Jews as the result of frequent ship captures by Barbary corsairs beginning in the colonial period and culminating in the 1780s and 1790s. After 1815, the sailors and diplomats were joined by missionaries journeying to the Mediterranean region to convert Jews and Muslims as well as non-Protestant Christians.
These encounters prompted a good deal of literature published in the United States, including captivity narratives, novels, plays, histories, and missionary journals. These publications reinforced two dominant views of Islam. First, the early focus on Barbary corsairs capturing American “slaves” reinforced old notions of Islam as despotic and Muslims as “savages” similar to Native Americans. Missionary accounts prompted more thoughtful approaches to Muslim theology at the same time that they reinforced existing notions of Islam as a deceitful religion and revivified millenarian hopes that the declining Ottoman Empire foretold the Second Coming.
As a result of the captivity crises, Americans often had to deal with the area’s small but influential group of Jewish merchants in order to get terms and credit to free their countrymen. These fraught negotiations reinforced older European stereotypes of Jews as sharpers and Shylocks. As with Islam, the missionary period brought more thoughtful consideration of Jewish theology as Americans engaged in chiliastic hopes of bringing the Jews to Jerusalem.
After 1850 or so, Americans interested in Jews or Muslims looked less frequently to North Africa. Growing immigrant populations, first of Jews and then of Muslims, meant that Americans could encounter people of all three Abrahamic faiths at home. At the same time, missionary interests moved east, into the Holy Land, Syria, Turkey, and ultimately East Asia. Nevertheless, the early impact of North Africa on American thinking retained its influence, as is evident from President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech on American-Islamic relations delivered in Cairo.