Ryan P. Jordan
For centuries before the European colonization of North America, sectarian, ethnic, and racial discrimination were interrelated. The proscription of certain groups based on their biological or other apparently ingrained characteristics, which is one definition of racism, in fact describes much religious prejudice in Western history—even as the modern term “racism” was not used until the 20th century. An early example of the similarities between religious and racial prejudice can be seen in the case of anti-Semitism, where merely possessing “Jewish blood” made one inherently unassimilable in many parts of Europe for nearly a thousand years before the initial European conquest of the New World. Throughout Western history, religious values have been mobilized to dehumanize other non-Christian groups such as Muslims, and starting in the 16th century, religious justifications of conquest played an indispensable role in the European takeover of the Americas. In the culture of the 17th- and 18th-century British colonies, still another example of religious and racial hatred existed in the anti-Catholicism of the original Protestant settlers, and this prejudice was particularly evident with the arrival of Irish immigrants in the 19th century. In contemporary language, the Irish belonged to the Celtic “race” and one of the many markers of this race’s inherent inferiority was Catholicism—a religious system that was alternatively defined as non-Western, pagan, or irrational by many Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who similarly saw themselves as a different, superior race. In addition to the Irish, many other racial groups—most notably Native Americans—were defined as inferior based on their religious beliefs. Throughout much of early American history, the normative religious culture of Anglo-Protestantism treated groups ranging from African slaves to Asian or Middle Eastern immigrants as alternatively unequal, corrupt, subversive, or civically immature by virtue of their religious identity. Historians can see many examples of the supposedly dangerous religious attributes of foreigners—such as those of the Chinese in the late 19th century—as a basis for restricting immigration. Evangelical Protestant ideas of divine chosen-ness also influenced imperial projects launched on behalf of the United States. The ideology of Manifest Destiny demonstrates how religious differences could be mobilized to excuse the conquest and monitoring of foreign subjects in places such as Mexico or the Philippines. Anglo-Protestant cultural chauvinism held sway for much of American history, though since the mid-1900s, it can be said to have lost some of its power. Throughout its history, many racial or ethnic groups—such as Hispanic Americans, African-Americans, or Asian Americans in the United States have struggled to counter the dominant ethnic or racial prejudice of the Anglo-Protestant majority by recovering alternative religious visions of nationhood or cultural solidarity. For groups such as the 20th-century Native American Church, or the African American Nation of Islam, religious expression formed an important vehicle to contest white supremacy.
Janine Giordano Drake
As a nation grounded in the appropriation of Native land and the destruction of Native peoples, Christianity has helped define what it means to be “American” from the start. Even though neither the Continental Congress nor the Constitutional Convention recognized a unifying set of religious beliefs, Protestant evangelicalism served as a force of cohesion that helped Americans rally behind the War for Independence. During the multiple 19th-century wars for Indian removal and extermination, Christianity again helped solidify the collapse of racial, class, and denominational categories behind a love for a Christian God and His support for an American nation. Close connections between Christianity and American nationhood have flared in popularity throughout American history, particularly during wartime. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the closely affiliated religious and racial categories of Christianity and whiteness helped solidify American identity.
However, constructions of a white, Christian, American nation have always been oversimplified. Slavery, land-grabbing, and the systematic genocide of Native peoples ran alongside the creation of the American myth of a Christian nation, founded in religious freedom. Indeed, enslavement and settler colonialism helped contrive a coherence to white Protestantism during a moment of profound disagreement on church government, theology, and religious practice. During the antebellum period, white Protestants constructed a Christian and American identity largely in opposition to categories they identified as non-Christian. This “other” group was built around indigenous, African, Muslim, and sometimes-Catholic religious beliefs and their historic, religious, and racial categorizations as “pagans,” “heathens,” and “savages.” In the 19th-century republic, this “non-Christian” designation defined and enforced a unified category of American Protestants, even though their denominations fought constantly and splintered easily. Among those outside the rhetorical category of Protestantism were, frequently, Irish and Mexican Catholics, as well as Mormons. Enforced segregation of African Americans within or outside of white Protestant churches furthered a sense of Protestant whiteness. When, by the late 19th century, Protestantism became elided with white middle class expectations of productive work, leisure, and social mobility, it was largely because of the early 19th-century cultural associations Protestants had built between white Protestantism, republicanism, and civilization.
The fact that the largest categories of immigrants in the late 19th century came from non-Protestant cultures initially reified connections between Protestantism and American nationalism. Immigrants were identified as marginally capable of American citizenship and were simply considered “workers.” Protestant expectations of literacy, sobriety, social mobility, and religious practice helped construct Southern and Eastern European immigrants as nonwhite. Like African Americans, New Immigrants were considered incapable of fulfilling the responsibilities of American citizenship. Fears that Catholic and Jewish immigrants, like African Americans, might build lasting American institutions to change the cultural loci of power in the country were often expressed in religious terms. Groups such as the No-Nothing Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Immigration Restriction League often discussed their nationalist goals in terms of historic connections between the nation and Anglo-Protestantism. During the Great Depression and the long era of prosperity in the mid-20th century, the Catholic and Jewish migrants gradually assimilated into a common category of “whiteness” and American citizenship. However, the newly expansive category of postwar whiteness also further distanced African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and others as perpetual “foreigners” within a white, Protestant, Christian nation.
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.
Russell Jeung and Jonathan Calvillo
In 2010, immigrants represented 13 percent of the United States population, and almost one in four American children lived at home with an immigrant parent. Over half of the population growth in the United States from 2000 to 2010 was due to the increase of Hispanics, and currently, the highest number of immigrants come from Asian nations. This influx of immigrants has not only increased the percentage of people of color in the United States, at 28 percent, but has also dramatically altered the religious landscape of the country. The decline in the number of American Christians signals this shift, as does the growth of the religiously non-affiliated, Hindus, and Muslims. In the past century, sociologists have accounted for religious change by employing theories of secularization, assimilation, and modernization.
For more recent religious change in regard to ethnicity and race, however, four processes are more salient: (1) the religious marketplace, (2) globalization, (3) multicultural discourse production, and (4) racialization. The religious marketplace continues to cater to spiritual consumers who have become increasingly diversified with the influx of new immigrants and the rise of “spiritual but not religious individuals.” The United States has thus remained a religiously vital context, with a strong supply of religious groupings. Globalization has spurred more transnational religious networks, which have increased the flow of religious personnel, ideas, and organizations across borders. New immigrants, furthermore, enter an American host society that is segmented economically. Consequently, ethnic groups do adapt to their neighborhoods, but in different contexts and in dissimilar manners. With the increase in multicultural discourse, ethnic groups may choose to retain their ethnicity and religious heritages for symbolic pride. Finally, race, as a central organizing concept in the United States, is a basis by which religious groups mobilize for spiritual interests. As religious groups become racialized, such as how Islamophobia targets persons with similar physical features, they respond with reactive solidarity.
John L. Crow
Sectionalism denotes the division of a country, such as the United States, into sections based on shared cultures, religions, and racial, economic, and political identities. These sections then compete, putting their interests over those of the other sections. In the case of the United States, one of the most significant sectional conflicts was the Civil War, where North and South battled due to conflict over racial, economic, religious, and political differences. However, sectional conflict can be seen as early as British colonialism during which time the colonies competed with each other and with their governments in Europe and later as other sections such as the West developed its own characteristics and interests. Religion and race were frequently at the core of sectional conflicts, in everything from the Revolutionary War, the drafting of the Constitution, the failure of compromise regarding slavery, and the intermittent battles with Native Americans over land and religious practice to the emergence of the West and the great immigration and religious innovation that took place there. In all these cases, sections constructed identities in which race and religion were fundamental and were also significant points of contention. Even today, at the beginning of the 21st century, sectionalism continues with geographic sections still battling for dominance, and cultural sections square off in what is commonly called the culture wars.
Craig R. Prentiss
With the slow realization that race was not a category in nature, but rather the fruit of social imagination emerging from colonialism, scholars in the late 20th century shifted their focus to the cultural elements feeding that imagination, including religion and the arts. Although most studies in the field address fairly conventional constructions of religion and the arts (two categories that, like race, have also been destabilized), some studies reveal the potential for these three categories to be co-constituting. Studies addressing religiously themed music, including spirituals, gospel, hip-hop, and a significant portion of country music, have shed light on the ways in which these genres encode and inform racial paradigms. Portraits in theater, dance, and film of ideas and practices associated with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and other social groupings have proven active sites for the production of influential, and often competing, conceptions of race. Stereotypes linking religious and racial classifications are perpetuated as well as challenged in these artistic media. Given that the racial imagination in the United States is articulated using the language of color, painting and sculpture have been instrumental in conveying vivid connections between race and religion. For instance, many paintings celebrating Christianity’s triumph over America’s indigenous people concurrently depicted white dominance over them as well. A theological system rooting skin color in divine decree, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did in its Book of Mormon, helped assure a fair-skinned and fair-haired Jesus would populate its art. The politics of Jesus’ color continued to be played out in painting and sculpture in the United States to the present day, and exemplifies the interaction of racial, religious, and artistic categories.
The history of race, religion, and law in the United States is a story about who gets to be human and the relevance of human difference to political and material power. Each side in this argument marshaled a variety of scientific, theological, and intellectual arguments supporting its position. Consequently, we should not accept a simple binary in which religion either supports or obstructs processes of racialization in American history. Race and religion, rather, are co-constitutive. They have been defined and measured together since Europeans’ arrival in the western hemisphere. A focus on legal history is one way to track these developments.
One of the primary contradictions in the relationship between religion and race in the U.S. legal system has been that, despite the promise of individual religious free exercise enshrined in the Constitution, dominant strands of American culture have long identified certain racial and religious groups as a threat to the security of the nation. The expansion of rights to minority groups has been, and remains, contested in American culture. “Race,” as Americans came to think about it, was encoded in laws, adjudicated in courts, enforced through government action, and conditioned everyday life. Ideas of race were closely related to religious and cultural assumptions about human nature and human origins. Much of the history of the United States, and the western hemisphere of which it is part, is linked to changing ideas about—even the emergence of—a terminology of “race,” “religion,” and related concepts.
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.
John C. Pinheiro
The death and carnage that accompany war usually lead participants to seek transcendent meaning in their suffering as well as in their defeat or victory. This was especially true of the Mexican War, a conflict that deeply affected the growth of civil religion in the United States even as it tested the limits of religious pluralism. Religion gave Americans the most effective means of making sense out of their conflict with Mexico, even as it helped them solidify a national identity as a providentially blessed republic of Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
The Mexican-American War of 1846–1848 was tremendously consequential for both countries. Its immediate cause lay in a dispute over territory claimed by both countries along the border of the newly annexed American state of Texas. Mexican and American troops clashed there on April 25, 1846. The U.S. Congress, though not without some grumbling, quickly responded to a request by President James K. Polk and declared war on Mexico.
In the war, the U.S. Army invaded Mexico by land and sea, taking the capital on September 14, 1847. Other than a few skirmishes and scattered guerrilla attacks, the fighting war was over. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the conflict, Mexico ceded nearly its entire northern frontier—one-third of its territory—to the United States.
The war occurred on the heels of the Second Great Awakening and amid the westward migration of the new, much-persecuted Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons. At the same time, heavy Irish immigration had reawakened a latent anti-Catholicism, resulting in new political parties, fights over religion in public schools, and deadly anti-Catholic rioting. While evangelical Protestants got to work refining a civil-religious discourse that depended for its intelligibility on anti-Catholicism, nativist politicians began adopting Christian terminology. Thus, the war between the overwhelmingly Protestant United States and Catholic Mexico became the means by which anti-Catholicism emerged as integral to American identity and American belief in a God-given, special mission to the world: spreading liberty and republican government, along with their prerequisite, Protestant Christianity.
Religion impacted the war in other important ways. The U.S. Army sponsored the Mormon Battalion, the only regular U.S. Army unit ever organized along religious lines. Religion also played a role in the formation by American deserters of the Mexican army brigade known as the San Patricios. And despite U.S. government policy to the contrary, a few U.S. soldiers, inspired by recruiters and derogatory descriptions of Mexican religion by American writers and preachers, vandalized and robbed Mexican churches and committed other atrocities. Meanwhile, the war challenged Protestant pacifists and abolitionists, who wondered whether an otherwise evil war could produce the good fruit of opening Mexico to Protestant missionaries or excising Catholicism from the continent.
As a result of the brief but far-reaching Mexican-American War, Americans now possessed a civil religious sentiment and common identity that was intelligible only within a Protestant milieu and through a distinctively American anti-Catholic discourse.
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.