Lauren Frances Turek
The history of Protestantism in America is deeply intertwined with the histories of race and religious pluralism. Protestantism grew out of Martin Luther’s remonstrations against the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, and swiftly divided into a multiplicity of denominations and sects that spread across Europe, the Americas, and eventually the rest of the world. Luther believed that individuals gained salvation through God’s grace rather than through good works and that saved individuals belonged to the “priesthood of believers” and thus enjoyed direct access to God through their faith in Jesus Christ. Despite the significant differences that existed between Protestant denominations and sects, they shared these basic beliefs that salvation came through faith in Jesus Christ, that believers had an individual relationship with God, and that the Bible rather than a priest was the highest earthly authority.
The Protestants who made their way from Europe to the Americas during the early 17th century derived from different denominational branches, including Puritans, Anglicans, Huguenots, Quakers, Lutherans, Anabaptists, and others, and came for diverse reasons, with some seeking an escape from religious persecution and others eager to reap a profit in the New World. They arrived to a vast continent that already boasted a multiplicity of peoples and religions, including indigenous Americans, French and Spanish Catholics, Jews, and Africans.
Through their interactions with non-Protestant and non-European peoples, Protestants drew on their religious beliefs to make sense of the differences they perceived between themselves and those they encountered, defining and redefining the relatively new concept of “race” in the process. As Protestants established their faith as the dominant cultural, religious, and ideological force in North America, they used their religiously inflected definitions of race to create racial and religious hierarchies, enshrining white Protestantism at the apogee of these invented categories. These hierarchies influenced American law, politics, and culture from the colonial era onward. They delineated which peoples counted as “American” and who could and should possess the full rights granted to U.S. citizens in the decades and centuries after the American Revolution. These hierarchies, coupled with religious ideas such as the Protestant commitment to spreading the gospel, also shaped the transcontinental and international expansion of the nation, providing the impetus and justification for exerting hegemonic control over indigenous populations within and outside of the United States.
At the same time, Protestant beliefs about freedom and the inherent dignity of the individual provided an ideological basis for African Americans, Latinx Americans, indigenous Americans, and a range of immigrant populations to resist subjugation. Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and the separation of church and state created the opening for true religious pluralism. The diversity and evolution of American Protestantism and Protestant thought, as well as the role that Protestantism played in shaping and contesting American ideas about race and religion, influenced the development of American society and politics profoundly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The eruv is perhaps the most creative, confounding, and contested spatial construct in Judaism. Territorially, it demarcates the urban space within which prohibitions otherwise attached to Sabbath observance for Orthodox Jews become permitted. While virtually imperceptible to the human eye, eruvin (pl.) sanctify what would otherwise be sacrilegious. An eruv thus creates permissive religious space for Jews on Sabbath. Hundreds of cities worldwide, including urban areas across North America, are home to an eruv. Notwithstanding their prevalence and undetectable physical imprint on urban landscapes, the establishment of eruvin has unleashed intense hostility and resistance in some locales. Opposition has typically been mounted by a surprisingly mixed array of critics including non-Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, and dissenting Orthodox Jews. The eruv highlights, in compelling fashion, the spatial challenges of navigating faith, ritual, secularism, and pluralism in contemporary American cities. Seemingly ethereal religious beliefs can occasion radically different perceptions of public space.
Ronald Williams Jr.
On January 17, 1893, Her Majesty Queen Liliʻuokalani, sovereign of the Hawaiian Kingdom, was overthrown in a coup de main led by a faction of business leaders comprised largely of descendants of the 1820 American Protestant mission to the “Sandwich Islands.” Rev. Charles Hyde, an officer of the ecclesiastic Papa Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian Board) declared, “Hawaii is the first Country in which the American missionaries have labored, whose political relations to the United States have been changed as a result of missionary labors.” The actions of these “Sons of the Mission” were enabled by U.S. naval forces landed from the USS Boston the evening prior.
Despite blatant and significant connections between early Christian missionaries to Hawaiʻi and their entrepreneurial progeny, the 1893 usurpation of native rule was not the result of a teleological seventy-year presence in the Hawaiian Kingdom by the American Protestant Church. An 1863 transfer of authority over the Hawaiian mission from the Boston-based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) to the local ʻAhahui ʻEuanelio o Hawaiʻi (AEH) (Hawaiian Evangelical Association) served as a pivotal inflection point that decidedly altered the original mission, driving a political and economic agenda masked only by the professed goals of the ecclesiastic institution. Christianity, conveyed to the Hawaiian Islands initially by representatives of the ABCFM, became a contested tool of religio-political significance amidst competing foreign and native claims on leadership in both church and state. In the immediate aftermath of the January 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom government, this introduced religion became a central tool of the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) struggle for a return of their queen and the continued independence of their nation.
Native Christian patriots organized and conducted a broad array of political actions from within the churches of the AEH using claims on Ke Akua (God) and Christianity as a foundation for their vision of continued native rule. These efforts were instrumental in the defeat of two proposed treaties of annexation of their country—1893 and 1897—before the United States, declaring control of the archipelago a strategic necessity in fighting the Spanish/Filipino–American War, took possession of Hawaiʻi in late 1898. Widespread Americanization efforts in the islands during the early 20th century filtered into Hawaiʻi’s Christian churches, transforming many of these previous focal points of relative radicalism into conservative defenders of the American way. A late-20th-century resurgence of cultural and political activism among Kanaka Maoli, fostered by a “Hawaiian Renaissance” begun in the 1970s, has driven a public and academic reexamination of the past and present role of Christianity in this current-day American outpost in the center of the Pacific.
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.
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.