Secularization and secularism are interpretive narratives and analytical systems of locative naming that co-construct the category of religion in spatial relationship to the idea of the secular as not-religion. These approaches were developed in the 19th century to make sense of the social restructuring of industrial societies. They begin with the assumption that religion is spatially identifiable as Christian church space, as readily recognizable in built congregational structures. And they consider the secular, in the most literal sense, as that which is not. That is, the secular is everything physically outside church space. But secularization theorists often do not adhere to this literal interpretation of spatial difference. They also use space metaphorically in their understanding of “disestablishment” as referring to more than just the physical state-expropriation of church land, but also to the separation of spheres that results from nation-state legal sovereignty, particularly focused on the spatial division between secular culture and church subcultures.
Whereas secularization theory offers narrative frames to orient a historical trajectory of religion in relation to not-religion, the study of secularism describes attempts to understand the political and legal regulation of religion in relation to sovereign nation-states. Methodological distinctions between secularization and secularism invoke a long-standing problem in the study of religion: the ability of the scholar to discern the difference between the metaphorical map of religion in relation to the idea of the secular, and the state governance of physical territory.
Classical secularization theory was constructed within the colonial context of the 19th century, and it carries within itself the spatial distinctions that define an Enlightenment conception of the Western nation-state, as a secular sovereignty set apart from and transcendent of the revelatory particularity of religious authority. More recent versions of secularization theory in the United States still assume that only the secular state can transcend physical space and still control its boundaries and borders. Religious transcendence, by contrast, is viewed as otherworldly. The reason for this is because unlike secular authority, which is self-evident and universal, religious authority is revelatory and particular. Within secularization theory, religions then are limited in their ability to physically enact, in every sphere of life, their revelatory mandates. They can do so only as long as they maintain a high level of orthodox belief and practice, to the extent that there is no distinction between religious and cultural authority. Secularization theory thus assumes that religious pluralism of any kind results in a competition to see which religion can control all aspects of life. The nation-state then is viewed as the transcendent mediator of religious claims to civic life and public space. And while secularization theory considers this mediation in the spatial terms of public practice and private belief, studies of secularism give more attention to the historical and contextual limits of nation-state transcendence, as well as the ways in which nation-states physically bound religion as a category, whether as located in the legal limits of 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, or a congregational building with a street address.
Though the term secularism has been a co-generative concept in classical secularization theory, theories of secularism have been more fully developed since the late 20th century. Some of those approaches have extended the spatial concerns of secularization theory, particularly as related to the question of religious endurance as measured in terms of public practice and private belief. The mere difference, which has garnered quite a bit of writing, is to shift the interpretive gaze away from the individual challenge of Protestant Christians to maintain a comprehensive religious meaning-making system, a “sacred canopy,” in the midst of increasing religious diversity, to the ability of “orthodox” religious subcultures to maintain religious authority in the midst of a pervasive secularism that is antagonistic to the possibility of any totalizing religion, one that is lived out in all spheres of life. Other theoretical approaches to secularism, however, are more directly engaged with post-colonial scholarship, and are more focused on the role of the nation-state in the categorical construction of religion, than they are worried about the social loss of traditional religion.
Justin D. Poché
Catholicism, as both an institution and a culture of popular beliefs, rituals, and values, has played an important role in the formation of racial boundaries in American society. The logic of race and its inherent function as a mechanism of social power, in turn, profoundly shaped Catholic thought and practice throughout the church’s own 400-year formation in America. Beginning with colonization of the New World, Catholicism defined and institutionalized racial difference in ways that both adhered to and challenged the dominant Anglo-American conceptions of whiteness as a critical measure of social belonging. Early Catholic missions abetted European colonialism by codifying Africans and Native Americans as cultural and moral “others.” Following a “national parish” system, institutional growth from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century sorted various European “races” and created spaces for resisting Anglo-American discrimination. The creation of a separate and singular mission for all “non-white” communities nonetheless reflected Catholic acquiescence to an American racial binary.
Intra-Catholic challenges to racialist organization struggled to gain traction until the mid-20th century. As second- and third-generation European immigrants began asserting white status in American society, Catholic understandings of sacred space, which infused white resistance to neighborhood integration with religious urgency, and hierarchical ordering of moral authority within an institution that historically excluded non-whites from positions of influence created significant barriers to Catholic interracialism. The influence of the civil rights movement and the structural transformation of both Catholic life and urban communities where non-whites lived nonetheless prompted new efforts to enlist Catholic teaching and community resources into ongoing struggles against racial oppression. Debates over the meaning of race and American society and social policy continue to draw upon competing histories of the American Catholic experience.
David C. Kirkpatrick
After the Second World War, the drama of Protestant missions featured a diversifying cast of characters. Local actors in the Global South, alongside reform-minded missionaries from the North, revised the mission script. At the level of conciliar discourse, this can be seen in perhaps two primary ways: a widened table of leadership and a widening of the Christian mission itself. An increasingly diverse Protestantism shifted the trajectory of missions toward national control and social Christian emphases. Yet, these shifts in method and theology produced strikingly divergent results for mainline Protestantism and Protestant evangelicalism. For the former, the story was largely one of global dissolution, at least institutionally. Organizations such as the World Council of Churches (b. 1948), which represented the soaring hopes of the ecumenical movement, fractured under the pressure of radical student protests, postcolonial resistance, and declining donations from disillusioned churches in the 1960s and 1970s. Seen in a different light, however, mainline Protestant mission was the victim of its own advance, both abroad on so-called mission fields and at home in the United States. In many cases, mission schools directly contributed to the growth of nationalism through their curriculum and educational methods. Backlash against missionary leadership and control often centered around these educational institutions. In the North, while the institutions of mainline Protestant mission have largely declined, their progressive values are widely assumed today within wide swaths of American life in particular—especially within universities, mainstream media, and the Democratic Party.
For Protestant evangelicalism, the mission story is largely one of global diffusion—explosive demographic growth, especially among those practicing Pentecostal forms in the Global South, and a rapid expansion of mission and relief organizations. Within a context of increasing diversity, evangelical mission agencies, rather than sidelining traditional Protestant mission approaches, constructed new forms of evangelical mission and social Christianity. This reshaping of global evangelicalism was the result of a multidirectional conversation often led by Latin Americans. Indeed, an entire generation of theologians, shaped by the global Cold War, rejected the importation of traditional mission methodologies. As Latin Americans shifted to postcolonial social Christianities, they pulled many in global evangelicalism with them. In terms of theological methodology, they synthesized the pursuit of justice with the evangelical offer of personal salvation. While the vast majority of Christians lived in Europe and North America in 1910 (the year of the epochal Edinburgh World Missionary Conference), in 2010 the vast majority of Christians lived in the Global South. Thus, at the level of conciliar discourse, the evangelical table of leadership and theology increasingly reflected its demographic center located within contexts of poverty, injustice, and widespread inequality.
Joseph W. Williams
Throughout the history of the British colonies and the United States, Americans from different religious traditions have performed a wide variety of religious rituals in public spaces and forums. Many of these public ceremonies stood in the long tradition of civil religion in the United States, which combined national symbols with nonsectarian references to God, the Bible, and the like, and helped to unify a religiously diverse American populace. In addition to such expressions of religious nationalism, many Americans have not hesitated to perform religious rituals in the public square that reflected much more particularistic religious commitments and identities.
A significant majority of these religious ceremonies in American public life demonstrated—even as they reinforced—the social and political dominance of Protestantism. Such was especially the case with the numerous revival meetings held in very public places that repeatedly attracted crowds by the thousands, and the seemingly ubiquitous Christmas and Easter celebrations in much of American society. At the same time, the ever-expanding religious diversity in the United States ensured a corresponding increase in the variety of religious performances that reached the wider public. Religious ceremonies in American public life functioned as important sites of religious cooperation, contestation, and protest; and served as key features of the various counterpublics that minority religious groups created as they challenged the status quo. The emergence of new mass communication technologies during the 20th century made it evermore difficult to draw sharp lines of distinction separating public and private expressions of religion. And despite the fact that an increasing number of Americans disaffiliated from established forms of religion after the turn of the 21st century, public expressions of religiosity showed few signs of abating. Religious Americans of all stripes continued to perform religious ceremonies in public spaces as a means to proselytize, agitate on behalf of specific causes, defend religious values that they perceived to be under threat, and raise awareness regarding the plight of marginalized groups.
Adam M. Ware
Monuments, memorials, and museums mark America’s landscape and define both the purpose of spaces and the actors who inhabit them. From the earliest colonial encounters to the new age of mass trauma, memory and its cultural accretions have conferred meaning and denied agency at the intersections of economics, politics, culture, and religious habit. Inasmuch as battlefield memorial sites and statues to fallen soldiers generate community identity through demands for consensus memories and prescribed reactions, national memorials also reflect the diversity, contestedness, and political derivation of those consensuses and those memories. Memorials form physical sites for cultural rupture and ritual redress.
Memorialization ritualizes behaviors, standardizes emotional expressions, and regulates the terms on which Americans orient themselves relative to one another. Whether staging mock funerals for an English king or leaving flowers and notes at a site where forty-nine young people lost their lives, death forms a key experience responsible for memorial motivation, but celebrations of independence and victory also produce parades, festivals, and active memorial traditions. In the flows of past and present, life and death, preservation and change, and sanctity and secularism, memorial objects, processes, and behaviors mark and are marked by the historic developments in American religious and civil life.
Stephanie Y. Mitchem
With rapid development, academically and socially, in the past sixty years, gender and public religion in the United States have become a separate field, even as it is integrated into others such as politics, biology, law, philosophy, and cultural studies. As ideas about gender have expanded, potential conflicts with established religions have sometimes occurred even as new theologies, ethical constructs, and even new strains of religion occur.
Raymond Haberski, Jr.
Civil religion in America has no church, denominations, or institutional center, and it cannot be traced to a single origin story. And yet, it operates as a religion in ways familiar to Americans—it has priests and pastors, altars and sacrifices, symbols, institutions, and liturgies. So, what, then, is civil religion? The term originates with the 18th-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who proposed that the French nation needed a civil religion to replace the “unholy” alliance between the Catholic Church and the monarchy. Rousseau explained in book 4 of his Social Contract that he hoped a “purely civil profession of faith” would satisfy what he viewed as the popular need for something to believe in, to give one’s allegiance to, and even to give up one life’s for—a transcendent, unifying point of reference that existed beyond politics and in place of a denominational (most likely Christian) church. Thus, in philosophical terms, civil religion is the appropriation of religion for political ends. The American version of civil religion, though, differs from Rousseau’s idea by incorporating the nation’s Christian heritage more deeply into an understanding and judgment of America.
In the American context, civil religion had to accommodate the country’s variety of faiths and Enlightenment rationalism, but was just as deeply influenced by the power of popular and elite religiosity to order American life. Thus, American civil religion has echoed Protestant values and assumptions, while enshrining the mythic nature of the Puritans, founding fathers, and common people who gave their lives in wars and conquest. Moreover, while Americans do not pray to their nation, they have no trouble praying for their nation; they see presidents and preachers as both serving in capacities that minister to the people in times of crisis, and they invest sacred meaning in events and documents to help them imagine that America is as much an idea as it is a place. Over time, American civil religion has also provided a narrative for a set of ideals, statements of purpose, and symbols to which all Americans, in theory, can appeal.
Sociologist Robert N. Bellah (1927–2013) explained in a famous and significant essay titled “Civil Religion in America,” for the winter 1967 issue of the journal Daedelus, “American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality.” He contended that Americans could call upon not only a common creed of ideals but also their civil religion to evaluate their nation’s actions. In parlance that became popular following World War II, the United States was a nation “under God,” meaning, as Bellah argued, “the will of the people is not itself the criterion of right and wrong. There is a higher criterion in terms of which this will can be judged; it is possible that the people may be wrong.”
The United States has been uniquely God-centered among Western nations, and that includes its foreign policy. From George Washington to the present, all presidents and policymakers have had to consider God in varying degrees either for their domestic audience or because they believed in a version of Providential mission in the world. In the beginning, the new United States was filled with religious people whom the founders had to consider in crafting the founding documents. In time, the very idea of the United States became so entwined with the sense of the Divine that American civil religion dominated even the most secular acts of policymakers.
Craig L. Nessan
Liberation theologies employ action-reflection (praxis-oriented) methodologies in response to particular forms of oppression, normally consisting of five elements: 1) identification with particular forms of oppression and suffering, 2) prophetic critique of that condition, 3) social analysis of the causes of oppression and suffering, 4) biblical and theological engagement to address that suffering and overcome that oppression, and 5) advocacy of structural change toward a greater approximation of justice. Liberation theologies engage in intentional reflection upon particular experiences in which these five elements interact dynamically according to the forms of suffering and oppression specific to particular populations, historical experiences, and contexts.
Liberation theologies are contextual theologies, emerging in specific locations and times, and are formulated to address specific forms of suffering and oppression by employing methods of social analysis, which draw upon the sciences (especially the social sciences), and biblical-theological reflection, which draws upon Scripture, religious history, and doctrine. Because these theologies deal with the suffering and oppression of particular endangered groups, central to their concerns are the definition of the human; analysis of sin, especially structural sin that diminishes the worth and status of those in each particular group; and drawing upon theological resources to advocate justice for each oppressed group, including creation itself. Liberation theologies have been subject to affirmation and criticism in the theological literature since their emergence in the 1960s.
Major forms of liberation theology include Latin American liberation theology, black liberation theologies, feminist theologies, womanist theologies, Latina/o and mujerista theologies, Native American liberation theologies, LGBTQ+ liberation theologies, and ecojustice theologies. Liberation theologies in America frequently engage in solidarity with liberation theologies in other global contexts. Antecedents of liberation theologies include the abolitionist, social gospel, and women’s suffrage movements, among others.
Americans have utilized Islam as a rhetorical device for articulating various understandings of American identity from the time of the earliest Anglo-American settlers. In every period, many rejected Islam and Muslims as oppositional to American identity, accusing Islam of inherent despotism that conflicted with American liberty. Others, though, used perceived traits of Islam to critique American behaviors or focused on similarities between Islam and Christianity. Many citizens of the early American republic assumed their country was essentially Protestant, but founding figures such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison indicated their support for a more inclusive polity by listing Muslims among the varieties of people they believed could be good citizens. These men meant this abstractly, as they believed there were no Muslims in the United States at the time and did not know some African slaves were Muslim.
American Protestant organizations sent missionaries around the world starting in the early 19th century, including to areas of the Middle East where the Muslim majority was legally protected from proselytization. Therefore, missionaries tended to work with native Christian populations. American missionaries, travelers, and explorers had a great interest in the Holy Land. A frequent theme in their writings was a desire to see this area reclaimed from Islamic rule. They believed the Holy Land could be regenerated through Protestant influence and often suggested Jews could be relocated there. Over time, liberal Protestants moved away from seeking conversions and became more interested in educational and medical aspects of missions. American discussions about Islam intensified again after September 11, 2001. Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis argued that Western civilization and Islamic civilization were inherently incompatible. Others, like John L. Esposito and Feisal Abdul Rauf, focused on the historical and theological similarities between Christianity and Islam to suggest common ground.