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.
Adam Bajan and Heidi A. Campbell
New and emerging media has played a pivotal role in Christianity throughout history. In early times, the Christian message was disseminated directly from Jesus and his followers to growing numbers of worshippers in the ancient world. This unmediated form of Christianity, while effective as a method of proselytization due to its immediacy and intimacy, was limited by how far its early disciples could travel to spread the Gospel of Christ. As communication technology developed through a series of paradigm shifts spread over several centuries of human sociocultural development, Christianity capitalized on these shifts in a variety of ways. This fostered significant structural changes to the religion due to steadily increasing levels of technologically rooted mediation over time.
In its most current form, Christianity is mediated through a variety of secular digital media with online capabilities. Media are utilized by increasing numbers of Christian churches throughout America due to their potential as platforms for efficient dissemination and ability to reach large numbers of worshippers with relative ease. As churches integrate secular digital media into their structures, a third space of interconnectivity emerges in which the boundaries between on and offline lived religious practice are bridged; blended; and at times, blurred, depending on the context and level of mediation. This third space that emerges is quantified as a digital religion in which Christianity becomes redefined as a cultural practice and site of collective and individual meaning making.
Rodger M. Payne
Processional performances, including parading activities and the ritual procession of holy objects and images, have long been a part of religious practice. Informed by a cultural prejudice that viewed such public forms of religious display as outdated survivals from archaic religious traditions, early scholarly analysis focused on questions of origin rather than interpretation. Only recently have scholars from a variety of disciplinary perspectives—including religious studies, history, anthropology, and sociology—begun to examine such behaviors as expressions of “lived religion” rather than expressions of a “pagan” past. Only with the rise of the phenomenological method in the mid-twentieth century, best represented in the work of Mircea Eliade and his disciples and critics, did the question of the space in which such activities took place develop as a category for investigation and analysis. Eliade’s concept of “sacred” and “profane space,” while significantly criticized in recent decades, raised important concerns regarding the way in which religions created, recognized, and moved through space as a category of human meaning.
To Eliade’s contrast between the sacred and profane, recent scholars of American religion have added to their examination of space the oppositions of public and private, religious and secular, although understanding these terms (as well as sacred and profane) as dialectical rather than dichotomous. As public events that take place in religiously neutral space (the street), religious parades and processions raise questions about the phenomenological concept of the sacred center, or even the pilgrim’s goal of the “center out there,” because they represent a moving and ephemeral focus of sacred power. Participants may don special clothing, carry flags and banners, utilize sound (especially music), and transport sacred images and objects as they move from place to place. By visually, aurally, and spatially transgressing various boundaries, whether physical or symbolic, these ritual performances can “reterritorialize” social hierarchies and geographical identities. The “spatial turn” in religion combines insights drawn from cultural geography, the anthropology of space, and philosophical concepts in order to suggest new analytical and methodological approaches in the study of American religion generally, and religious parades and processions specifically.
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.
Juan E. Campo
Pilgrimage, as a type of religious journey, involves embodied movement across geographic, social, political, cultural, and often religious boundaries to a sacred place or landscape. It is arguably a universal phenomenon that can engage individual pilgrims or millions, especially with the onset of modernity, which has facilitated travel over distances great and small. As an aspect of religious life in the United States, pilgrimage is often overlooked. Nevertheless, the country’s landscape encompasses numerous sites of sacred significance associated with organized religions, civil religion, and facets of its cultural religion that attract millions of visitors annually. As a dynamic set of phenomena, pilgrimages to such sites are constantly evolving, affected by factors such as religious and social movements, national politics, immigration, and tourism.
The challenges and benefits of the Pacific Northwest’s rugged but scenic terrain have received ample treatment in studies of religiosity in this region. The interplay of place and spirituality was first chronicled in detailed case studies of Christian missions and missionaries, rural and urban immigrants, and histories of the various Native American tribal groups of the Northwest Coast and Inland Empire. Currently, the focus is on trends unique to this region, such as interdenominational and interfaith ecumenicity in environmental and social justice campaigns, earth-based spiritual activism and conservation, emergent “nature spirituality,” the rise of religious non-affiliation (the so-called religious “nones”), and indigenous revitalization movements. Recent interest in cultural geography has produced several general works seeking to define the Pacific Northwest aesthetic and regional ethos, especially as depicted in the so-called “Northwest Schools” in art, architecture, and literature. Because the Cascade Mountain range bisects the Pacific Northwest into two radically different climate zones, literature on spirituality in the region often follows this natural topography and limits its locative lens to either the coastal zone (including the area stretching from Seattle to Southern Oregon) or the Inland Empire (the more arid zone east of the mountains from Spokane to Eastern Oregon). When the Pacific Northwest region is referred to more broadly as “Cascadia,” it includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho, northernmost California and Canada’s British Columbia.
Lynn Schofield Clark and Seth M. Walker
“Popular culture” is a term that usually refers to those commercially produced items specifically associated with leisure, media, and lifestyle choices. To study religion in popular culture, then, is to explore religion’s appearance in the commercially produced artifacts and texts of a culture.
The study of popular culture has been a catalyst of sorts in the context of studying religion. Some have speculated that with the increasing presence of religion in commercially produced products and specifically in the entertainment media, religion may be reduced to entertainment. Others, however, have argued that religion has always been expressed and experienced through contemporary forms of culture, and thus its manifestation in popular culture can be interpreted as a sign of the vitality rather than the demise or superficiality of contemporary religions.
Popular culture is worthy of study given its role in cultural reproduction. The study of popular culture and religion encourages scholars to consider the extent to which popular cultural representations limit broader critical considerations of religion by depicting and reinforcing taken-for-granted assumptions of what religion is, who practices it and where, and how it endures as a powerful societal institution. Alternately, popular culture has been explored as a site for public imaginings of how religious practices and identities might be different and more inclusive than they have been in the past, pointing toward the artistic and playful ways in which popular religious expression can comment upon dominant religion, dominant culture, and the power relations between them.
With the rise of an ubiquitous media culture in which people are increasingly creators and distributors as well as consumers and modifiers of popular culture, the term has come to encompass a wide variety of products and artifacts, including those both commercially produced and generated outside of traditional commercial and religious contexts. Studies might include explorations of religion in such popular television programs as Orange Is the New Black or in novels such as The Secret Life of Bees, but might also include considerations of how religion and popular culture intersect in practices of Buddhism in the virtual gaming site Second Life, in the critical expressions of Chicana art, in the commercial experiments of Islamic punk rock groups, and in hashtag justice movements.
The study of religion and popular culture can be divided into two major strands, both of which are rooted in what is known as the “culture and civilization tradition.” The first strand focuses on popular culture, myth, and cultural cohesion or continuity, while the second explores popular culture in relation to religion, power, and cultural tensions.