Anne M. Martínez
The border between the United States and Mexico has artificially divided languages, cultures, landscapes, and religions for more than a century and a half. This region is the crossroads not only of Anglo-America and Latin America, but also of multiple empires; the Aztec, Spanish, and US empires each staked a claim on this region, leaving political, economic, cultural, and religious markers on the landscape and its peoples. These imperial bodies brought their preferred religious practices and religiously inspired social, economic, and political cultures, which reshaped populations and landscapes from the 15th century to the present. Religion has been a significant dimension of this region from prior to the arrival of the Spanish through the early 21st century.
In the United States, religious, political, and social life has been structured by a public/private binary. Oftentimes, religion is understood as private and politics as public. This framework informs a religious/secular binary and carries important implications for the structure of American life. Particularly affected arenas include church-state relations; religious discourse in public life, including prophetic protest and religious nationalism; sexual regulation and the politics of morality; and norms of civic and civil discourse.
Real politics and consequences attend the definition of terms like “religious,” “secular,” and “pluralist.” Many observers have called the United States a secular, pluralist nation and, simultaneously, the most “religious” nation in the “developed world.” The perceived incongruities or affinities among these labels betray fundamental assumptions about religion and its place in public life. When public figures invoke the language and imagery of “civil religion,” for example, they may be understood to sacralize the public sphere or bring religion into the public or treat the nation’s “shared” symbols with a religious reverence. Although pluralism, as both a demographical description and a progressive goal, has been broadly championed amid growing religious diversity, certain groups, ideas, and practices have nevertheless remained excluded from the realms of public secularism and private (proper) religiosity. The politics are messy and often subtle, but the consequences can be stark. In these ways and more, American life has been shaped by the entwined concepts of secularism, pluralism, and publics.
Matthew S. Hedstrom
Liberalism describes an interrelated set of political and religious frameworks that grew out of the Enlightenment and the English, American, and French revolutions, though the term itself dates only from the early 19th century. Liberalism values individual rights and freedoms, secular rule of law, and reasoned public discourse, and has become the dominant political and economic philosophy of the Western democracies. Critics argue that there are oppressions entailed in this dominance, especially for women and racial, religious, and sexual minorities—members of groups that stand outside liberalism’s implicit, normative subjectivity—while proponents contend that liberal individualism has provided the conceptual framework for civil and human rights movements.
Liberalism has shaped religion in the West in two interrelated senses. As a political philosophy, liberalism considers religion to be a matter of personal conscience and free association, and advocates broad (if always imperfectly applied) religious freedoms. The religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution represent the quintessential legal forms of liberalism regarding religion. Liberalism has also greatly shaped religious thought and practice, especially among European and North American Protestants. Religious liberals have sought to apply reason, modern scientific and scholarly advances, and notions of minority rights and freedom of conscience to theology and ethics. Religious liberalism has shaped mainline Protestantism and related religious movements such as Unitarianism and Quakerism most especially, but also laid the groundwork for the growth of post-Protestant and post-Christian forms of spirituality. Given the historic dominance of Protestantism in the United States, Protestant liberalism has determined the nature of American secularism and thereby required theological and political adaptation from religious minorities, most notably Roman Catholics and Jews.
Andrew R. McKee
America has been closely linked to the Caribbean since at least the Age of Revolutions. Across the Atlantic World, revolutions in France, Santo Domingo, and the eastern United States drastically changed interlocked understandings of citizenship, religion, and freedom. From the 19th century onward, imperial views and laws about religions developed from prerevolutionary era roots. The dominant understandings of Caribbean religious history are those of migration, diaspora, syncretism, and diversity. Studying how the American religious empire worked to regulate and control the religious practices in the Caribbean shows how the distinct religions associated with the region—Obeah, Santeria, and Vodou, for example—developed. It is impossible to study the Caribbean without centering on the processes of Anglo-European colonization and the forced migration of enslaved peoples predominantly, but not only, from Africa. Labor and economic concerns underline nearly every Caribbean religious culture that exploded in the region from the colonial period onward.
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.
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.”