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.
Athletic events occur in discrete locations, played by individuals following a prescribed set of rules, leaving behind metrics like wins and losses, final scores, and overall records. So on the surface, the empirical facts of sports are rather mundane. And yet, for devoted participants and observers, physical movements and calculated numbers feed into carefully constructed worlds of mythic stories, potent symbols, and exuberant rituals. The story of religion and sports in America, then, starts with bodies in motion. It continues as these bodies become inscribed with sacred meaning, each mark bearing the traces of a given population’s most cherished values.
Institutional religions have been part of this story. From the “muscular Christians” of the Progressive Era to a contemporary Muslim football team observing the Ramadan fast during a playoff run, Americans have habitually turned playing fields into praying fields. Sports have also figured into the making of America’s civil religious discourse, as athletic expressions of national identity. In these instances, bodies in motion have reinforced or disrupted the boundaries that separate “real” Americans from those perceived to threaten social stability.
Beyond institutional and civil religions, though, religious themes and ideas continue to attach themselves to sports in new and innovative ways. Understanding this process requires an unbraiding of the category of “religion” from notions of “God” and “belief.” Instead, we profit from an understanding of religion that starts with embodied movements, and continues into the material production of the sacred. From here, sports become locations to experiment with, and experience, what it means to be human. And this is where the attraction to sports originates, both in the past and in the present.
There is a long and complicated relationship between religious activities and marketplace activities in the United States. Despite popular expectations that these spheres of life, the sacred and profane, ought to be completely separate, the two are often intimately related. Further, the relationship is messy, multifold, and complex.
In contemporary American life, the connections are readily visible. Churches employ branding experts, while tech companies forgo profit to promote disruptions that promise to save the world. Christians organize financial seminars and corporations sponsor spiritual retreats. According to the Supreme Court, some companies have religious beliefs. Meanwhile, the spiritual-but-not-religious express their spirituality with practices of ethical consumption. Advertisers promise “your best life now,” as do prosperity preachers. The sacrament of marriage is worth billions, built on the belief that the special day deserves and requires special expense. Holidays are big business, and so are Bibles.
This is not a new phenomenon, either. It was a religious group that invented corn flakes. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was a joint stock company before it was a model for Christian charity. The Quakers made an economic argument for religious freedom. Revivalist preachers were often as skilled in advertizing as they were in sermonizing. The leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faced religious persecution in Ohio in the 1850s, but were also opposed because of their wildcat bank. It was economic interests that brought the Catholic and Jewish immigrants, who challenged Protestant dominance of American life. End-to-end, American culture is chockfull of case studies of the manifold, mutual, and often highly contradictory forms of interaction between religion and marketplace.
Religion-and-the-marketplace studies examine these interactions. The field is quite diverse, and includes a number of different disciplines that ask different questions. There are, broadly speaking, three approaches to religion-and-the-marketplace studies. One looks at the market conditions that shaped or influenced religious movements. One makes use of economic terms to explain religious diversity in America. One looks at the underlying assumptions that unite religious activity and market activity.
Religion has always been a contextually based phenomenon, particularly in urban space. Cities of every size, in every period, and in every region of the country have been defined by the towers and spires of faith traditions. They have mapped cities, providing anchors to religionists who worship there, and contributing to the construction of civil society and a sense of place. Communities of faith have drawn migrants and immigrants to settle in a particular place and provided resources for adaptation and integration. Houses of worship have often defined neighborhood identities and become progenitors of social capital beyond their walls. Increasingly the physical and social forms of religion are becoming more diverse—different accents, practices, music, dress, and even scents pour into and out of houses of worship that may not be grand old structures but more modest structures built for other purposes, blending into the cityscape. Still, religion is influential in shaping its context both spatially and socially.
But the relationship is reciprocal, as context acts on the questions, meanings, and practices of faith groups as well. The city has occupied the religious imaginations of many traditions as an ambivalent symbol, seen as both the locus of depravity and of redemption. Out of these imaginaries religious questions, meanings, practices, and forms of engagement have been shaped. Further, the economic, political, social, and institutional dynamics of the urban space impact the practice and understanding of religion, and how it is expressed and lived out in everyday life.
The interaction of religions and urban space—what can be described as a dynamic synapse in a human ecology—is emerging as a focus of exploration in understanding how cities work. Although religion is often overlooked by many urban theorists, researchers, planners, developers, and governments, it is gaining fresh attention by scholars. Drawing on major schools of urban theory—particularly the modernist Chicago School and the postmodern L.A. School of Urbanism—the spatial dimension of urban religion is being analyzed in research projects from a growing number of contexts. Theoretical and empiric work is enabling a deeper understanding of the relationship of religion and cities; they cannot be considered in isolation. Religious agency cannot be exaggerated or romanticized but should be considered as what two researchers have called “one of the ensemble of forces creating the new American metropolis” (Numrich, Paul D., and Elfriede Wedam. Religion and Community in the New Urban America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.). In the same way, faith groups of all traditions and dimensions do not exist in isolation of their context as bubbles in city space. The intersection of space and urban religion is complex, especially as both religion and cities are in the midst of great change in the 21st century.
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.
Cara Lea Burnidge
Scholars of American religious liberalism, like the historical subjects they study, wrestle with the place and power of modernity in American history and culture. Recognizing and articulating the influence of modernity requires constant attention to what is, broadly speaking, “foreign.” It includes religious people, groups, ideas, and practices that developed in relationship to liberalism as a historically transnational ideology and movement, as well as those people, groups, ideas, and practices classifiable as “liberal” in relation to the contemporary moment. The historical events, figures, and ideas central to liberal ideological movements in America felt connected, through both their perception and experiences, to ideas, places, and people outside of “America.” This heightened the sense of belonging to an exceptional, if not universal, culture while also placing that culture in global perspective. Identifying who and what is and has been “liberal,” as well as narrating their history, thus requires attention to what Thomas Tweed and others have referred to as “global flows.” As a result, “American religious liberalism,” as a subject of study, does not merely denote a religious liberalism located within the geopolitical borders of America, but a religious liberalism formed, expressed, and experienced through a context of “America.” Consequently, foreign relations have a long and tangled history with American religious liberalism and liberalizing cultural moments and movements in the United States.
Foreign figures, ideas, movements, and institutions are a constitutive element in the historical narrative of America’s religious liberalism. From German theologians who introduced American Christians to new biblical hermeneutics to transnational reform movements inspiring new forms of religious practice through social and political activism, global intellectual networks have encouraged Americans’ development of liberal modes of thought and practice. The politics of global empires and international society has also inspired liberal activism through international societies and nongovernmental organizations advocating for anticolonial, pacifist, abolitionist, suffragist, human rights, and many other humanitarian causes. This global context for American reform activism has been a significant factor in the development of liberal factions of numerous religious affiliations. The “global flow” of liberal reform pushed Americans toward spiritual experiences in developing areas of the world through both missionary efforts and individual spiritual exercises. Contact with the “outside” world often turned otherwise conservative or moderate missionaries toward liberal or liberationist theologies. Liberalism also brought “world religions” to American shores.
Engagement with “others,” however, is not the only key factor in the intersection of American religious liberals with foreign relations. Religious liberalism has animated each “tradition” defining the history of U.S. foreign policy. Not least of all, religious liberals were instrumental in crafting and promoting internationalism in the long 20th century. Theologically liberal Protestants were in many ways the ideological architects behind interventionism as U.S. foreign policy. Liberal Protestant metaphysics and political activism assumed that intervention was necessary because it improved the lives of those deemed less fortunate and, consequently, was a universal agent for good in the world. Liberal religious institutions and the theologies they produced encouraged intervention (in all its various forms: economic, cultural, militaristic, diplomatic, etc.) on local, national, and international scales for the sake of a nebulous “greater good,” the more sectarian notion of “social salvation,” or even ultimately, and unironically, world peace. To liberal Protestant eyes, such intervention followed the example set by Jesus, fulfilled God’s will for humanity, and provided an opportunity to meet God in the natural world, either through encountering the “least among these” or establishing peace on earth. By the mid-20th century, liberal Catholics and Jews helped to reconstruct public perception of this “American way” around the notion of a shared Judeo-Christian foundation to American identity and action in the world.
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.
Through workplace spirituality, individuals and organizations express, share and impose faith-based commitments in normally secular work environments. The faith-based commitments vary from New Age to Christian evangelical and can be manifested in a wide variety of organizations, including publicly traded corporations, government offices, and small family-owned enterprises. Although the early 20th-century work environment was largely secular, workplace spirituality has deep roots in the Protestant teaching on Christian vocation and calling, and numerous movements have sought to revive it, including efforts by the World Council of Churches immediately following World War II. Changes in the nature of work, most specifically the decline of American manufacturing and the rise of “knowledge work” and the increasing importance of the service sector, created a new opening for faith expression in the workplace and for the use of faith-based symbols and practices. The rise of evangelical Christianity and its more vigorous public expression in the late 20th century also emboldened these believers to live out their faith at work and to manifest or impose it on organizations they owned or controlled. Responding to employee interest and First Amendment concerns, the United States government adopted its own policy on workplace religious expression in the 1990s. When organizations have difficulty recruiting and retaining talented individuals, a holistic work environment—including different forms of spiritual expression and exploration—has become an employee benefit that individuals value and seek in a workplace. Other organizations have adopted a model of workplace chaplaincy similar to the military or a college campus where religious professionals are available to minister and lead worship or religious instruction, and a number of “Christian companies” follow business practices such as advertising their religious identity, closing on Sundays, or proselytizing customers.
Workplace spirituality is not without controversy as employers must follow the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of religion. An employer cannot hire, fire, promote, or demote an employee based on religious belief, but the courts have varied in the level of accommodations that an employer must provide for religious practices in the workplace. Certain types of religious dress and observance of religious prayers or holidays have been a frequent source of conflict. Moreover, an overtly religious or spiritual work environment imposed because of the faith commitments of a business owner (or even zealous employees) can be faulted for creating a hostile work environment for those of other faiths or no faith. Claims of religious discrimination have been one of the fastest-growing civil-rights complaints in the United States for the last twenty years. Even with these concerns, the desire to express religious faith and spirituality at work continues and will likely grow with evangelical Christians and followers of non-Christian religions at the vanguard.
Americans, and others, have used the term “Zionism” to relate to groups and individuals that have promoted the idea that Jews should settle in Palestine and build a commonwealth there. Zionist ideas and movements have had a long and varied presence in America, beginning in colonial times. Despite the absence of a unified Zionist program, both Christian and Jewish Zionists translated religious messianic yearnings into political, social, or cultural goals, varying in their motivations and visions. Christian Zionism has developed mostly among messianic-oriented Protestants, although at times other Christians too have supported Zionist goals. In recent decades, Christian Zionism has been associated with conservative evangelicals, in America as well as in other countries.
Zionism developed a noticeable presence among Jews in America at the turn of the 20th century. In its first decades, the movement attracted few followers, most Jews preferring other political or ideological options. It gained more ground after the British issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the movement grew further following the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933. During the 1960s–1980s, the majority of Jews in the United States embraced pro-Zionist views, which by that time both Christians and Jews understood as promoting support for Israel in the American public arena.
The cooperation between Christian and Jewish Zionists, over the building of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine or over supporting it, has been more extensive than standard histories of Zionism have suggested. Christian and Jewish Zionists have provided each other immense encouragement, offering validation and legitimizing each other’s messianic convictions and projects. Christian supporters have acted as pro-Zionist lobbies, attempting to influence American policies. Their activities became crucial during World War I and then again in the 1970s–2000s, with the resurgence of conservative evangelicalism in the United States. Cooperation between conservative American Christian and Jewish Orthodox messianic groups developed at the turn of the 21st century, with many evangelical Christians contributing to support Jewish settlers and organizations that prepare for the building of the Third Temple in Jerusalem. This alliance has stirred strong reactions among pro-Palestinian and liberal Christians and Jews, who object to what they see as one-dimensional support of right-wing Israeli causes on behalf of messianic interpretations they do not share. For many antagonists, Zionism has become synonymous with a state they oppose and agendas they see as hostile to their cause. Self-identification as Zionist is currently prevalent among Modern Orthodox Jews and conservative evangelical Christians. Many others, including former liberal Christian supporters and progressive Jews, in the United States, Europe, and Israel, have moved to define themselves as post-Zionists, if not as non-Zionists altogether.