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.
Since the early 19th century, the expansion of American empire has constrained Native American autonomy and cultural expression. Native American history simply cannot be told apart from accounts of violent dispossession of land, languages, and lifeways. The pressures exerted on Native Americans by U.S. colonialism were intense and far-reaching: U.S. officials sought no less than the complete eradication of Native cultures through the assimilation policies they devised in the 19th century and beyond. Their efforts, however, never went uncontested. Despite significant asymmetries in political power and material resources, Native Americans developed a range of strategies to ensure the survival of their communities in the complicated colonial context created by American expansion. Their activism meant that U.S. colonialism operated as a dynamic process that facilitated various forms of cultural innovation. With survival as their goal, Native American responses to U.S. colonialism can be mapped on a continuum of resistance in which accommodation and militancy exist as related impulses. Native Americans selectively deployed various expressions of resistance according to the particular political circumstances they faced. This strategy allowed them to facilitate an array of cultural changes intended to preserve their own cultural integrity by mitigating the most damaging effects of white rule.
Because religion provided the language and logic of U.S. colonial expansion and Native American resistance, it functioned as a powerful medium for cross-cultural communication and exchange in the American colonial context. Religion facilitated engagement with white (mostly Protestant) Christian missionaries and allowed Native Americans to embrace some aspects of white American culture while rejecting others (even within the context of Native conversion to Christianity). It also allowed for flexible responses to U.S. consolidation policies intended to constrain Native autonomy still further by extending the reservation system, missionary oversight of indigenous communities, and land use in the late 19th century. Tribes that fought consolidation through the armed rebellions of the 1870s could find reasons to accept reservation life once continued military action became untenable. Once settled on reservations, these same tribes could deploy new strategies of resistance to make reservation life more tolerable. In this environment of religious innovation and resistance, new religious movements like the Ghost Dance and peyote religion arose to challenge the legitimacy of U.S. colonialism more directly through their revolutionary combinations of Native and Christian forms.
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.
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.
American reformers have always put religion at the heart of their protest movements. They have invoked divine law and the word of God, ignored expediency and pragmatics, and acted on behalf of a transcendent truth. Nearly all major progressive reform movements have drawn on religious belief as they envisioned a new society. In particular, the American prophetic mode has been crucial to the reform tradition. American reformers in nearly all of the country’s reform movements of the past two hundred years have used the prophetic mode. But of the major reform movements, abolitionism and anti-lynching were the most thoroughly infused with religion. Abolitionists drew on the imagery of both Revelation and the Old Testament God of war, infusing their performative martyrdoms with apocalyptic imagery. They depicted Christ as the warrior of Revelation and Christ as the son of the Old Testament vengeful God, transforming the abolitionist martyr into the abolitionist messiah: a portent of divine judgment. Anti-lynching activists echoed and revised abolitionism’s Christ-like sacrifice for white America’s soul and created a series of black Christs that restaged the passion play for the Jim Crow South. This reform rhetoric, displaying the same righteous anger as abolitionists, met the religious imagery of racists head-on and turned anti-lynching’s calls for social change into a sacred text. At the heart of both major movements, which laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and for the Black Lives Matter movement of the 21st century, was a messianic martyrdom that countered the religious justifications for slavery, lynching, and white supremacy.
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.
Jeanne Halgren Kilde
Religions are fundamentally spatial, as they require space in which to assemble, to engage in ritual practices, and to form community. Every religious group that has existed in the United States has made a spatial imprint on the country, and that spatiality—that physical character—is also a constitutive component of religious experience. Spaces not only host religious practices but also contribute to their meaning and salience. Thus, understanding religious life in America includes understanding the spaces in which it occurs.
The diversity of religious life in America is apparent from the countless religious spaces and buildings that have occupied the national landscape, including Native American earthworks and burial mounds, Catholic and Protestant missions and churches, Jewish synagogues, Islamic mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and Sikh gurdwaras. But how are we to understand these diverse buildings and spaces?
The location of built spaces and the totality of the landscape in which they exist constitute a religioscape, within which they provide information about their religious communities through their size, location, and architectural style. The internal organization and spatial plans of these built spaces also provide information on liturgical and congregational functions and efforts to facilitate religious experiences and establish and maintain authority or power. Considering both these aspects of religious space and architecture provides insight into how religious diversity functions in the United States and how groups have expressed their religious beliefs and interests and interacted with others to cooperate and compete within the American landscape.
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.