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.
Matthew J. Smith
Home Missions in the United States was a white Protestant missionary movement within the geopolitical borders of the US empire—both its contiguous states as well as its colonial territories—as they developed and shifted through a long history of US imperial expansion, settlement, and conquest. From the beginning of the 19th century, Anglo-Protestants in the United States became invested in the home missionary movement to secure Christian supremacy on the land that made up their newly forming white settler nation. Home Missions was occupied with both the formation of a sacred homeland and the homes within that homeland. As a dual-homemaking endeavor, home missionary projects functioned as settler colonial technologies of space-making and race-making. They not only sought to transform the land into an Anglo-Protestant possession but also racialized people as foreign to maintain Anglo-Protestant sovereignty over the spaces mapped as a home through colonial conquest. Centering settler colonialism within an analysis of Home Missions denaturalized home and foreign as taken-for-granted spatial categories by considering them colonial significations. Home Missions sought to remake conquered territory habitable for Anglo-Protestant settlement, using the concepts home and foreign to govern people differently within that conquered territory.
Gaining prominence in the postbellum United States, women’s societies for Home Missions cooperated across multiple Protestant denominations and between multiple missionary sites across the US empire in forming a transcolonial network aimed at uplifting the homes of the nation. These colonial sites included missions to “Indians,” “Negroes,” “City Immigrants,” “Orientals,” “Mountaineers,” “Loggers,” “Porto Rico,” “Alaska,” and more. White women entered new public spheres by making the racial uplift of homes across the nation a practice of imperial domesticity. Women in Home Missions sought to create subject citizens of the US nation by shaping the habits, tendencies, and racial constitution of people through the cultivation and management of Christian homes. Homes were spaces of both racial uplift and the maintenance of racial purity. Thus, missionaries were not only preoccupied with making Christian citizens for the nation but were also concerned with maintaining racial distinctions characteristic of the anxieties of US colonial governance at the turn of the 20th century.
Through Home Missions, Anglo-Protestants participated in an imperial process that sought to transform the land and its inhabitants while also forming racializations, gender systems, and political economies that mapped onto an imaginary in which a particular vision of settled homes/homeland occupied a central analytic. By treating “home” in Home Missions as a critical category, one is able to reconsider the maneuverings of religion, empire, nation, race and gender/sexuality within the context of settler colonial conquest, possession, and settlement.
David P. King
Giving to religion makes up the largest percentage of American charity and philanthropy. Religious charities also make up the largest percent of U.S. nonprofits. Beyond the numbers, however, religious charity and philanthropy has shaped America’s religious and cultural contexts and served as a bedrock to American civil society. With a more vibrant nonprofit sector than any other Western nation, America’s religious and charitable sector is unique in many ways. Under a disestablished church and an open religious marketplace, religious institutions able to raise their own support often grew while institutions or denominations locked into funding models reliant on state support stagnated. In the 19th century, religious voluntary associations competed with one another for dominance even as their growing numbers began to shape a Protestant consensus that sought to guide religious initiatives and moral reforms that defined the young nation while distinguishing themselves from others. Minority religions also had traditions of religious giving, and they employed these traditions and practices not only to care for their own communities but to carve out their own space within the American landscape.
While terms such as charity, philanthropy, and benevolence were often used interchangeably throughout much of American religious history, religious giving primarily focused on charity as care for those within one’s religious community as well as a priority of giving to the poor. By the late 19th century, a rise of rationalized, professional, and sometimes secular philanthropy countered the traditional focus of religious giving through more systematic charitable organizations. The rise of major donors and foundations added a new wrinkle as they sought to reshape the focus of philanthropy and garnered increased attention even as small, individual givers still served as the bedrock of religious philanthropy. In addition to congregations, mission societies, humanitarian organizations, as well as parachurch agencies dominated this ever-evolving landscape. Religious giving became a diffuse, competitive marketplace that often shaped the winners, losers, and trends within American religion. The story of religious philanthropy, however, is not simply the one-way transfer of time and money from individuals to institutions. Rather the exchange between how religious individuals and institutions have engaged the shaping of civic society; moral outlooks; and the formation of boundaries, communities, and traditions of charity and philanthropy are an important aspect of American religious history. Religious philanthropy has accomplished great good even if it occasionally promoted distasteful actions. Across history and across a broad religious spectrum, religious philanthropy has always remained a vital part of both American ideals as well as the actual practices of the nation-state and civil society.
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.
“Prosperity gospel” is a term used mostly by critics to describe a theology and movement based on the belief that God wants to reward believers with health and wealth. The prosperity gospel, known alternatively as the Word of Faith or Health and Wealth gospel, maintains a distinctive view of how faith operates. Built on the theology of Essek William Kenyon, an early 20th-century radio evangelist, faith came to be seen as a spiritual law that guaranteed that believers who spoke positive truths aloud would lay claim to the divine blessings of health and happiness. Kenyon had absorbed a metaphysical vision of the power of the mind that had been developed by the New Thought movement and popularized in the burgeoning genre of self-help. Kenyon’s theology of faith-filled words was spread through healing revivalists in the young Pentecostal movement—most famously F. F. Bosworth—as one of many tools for achieving divine healing. Other variations of New Thought–inflected Christianity appeared in self-help prophets of the 1920s and 1930s, like Father Divine’s (1877/82?–1965) Peace Mission Movement and Sweet Daddy Grace’s (1881–1960) United House of Prayer.
In the 1940s and 1950s, many Pentecostal pastors left their denominations and stirred up healing revivals across North America. Many of the most famous healing evangelists—Oral Roberts, William Branham, T. L. Osborn, A. A. Allen, Gordon Lindsay, and others—were influenced by Bosworth’s teachings on the law of faith (borrowed, of course, from Kenyon) to explain why some people were healed in their nightly revivals and others were not. Positive words, prayed aloud, possessed the power to make blessings materialize. By the early 1950s, they began to preach that wealth was also a divine right. New theological terms like “seed faith,” coined by Oral Roberts, sprang up to explain how gifts to the church were guaranteed to be returned to the believer with an added bonus. By the 1960s, the healing revivals had dried up, but the prosperity gospel continued to grow in the charismatic revivals washing through Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. In the charismatic movement, the prosperity gained middle-class audiences, greater respectability, and wider audiences beyond the Pentecostal nest. During this time, many prosperity-preaching evangelists began to build churches, educational centers, and radio and television ministries to spread their message. The airwaves were soon dominated by celebrity prosperity preachers like Rex Humbard, Robert Schuller, Jim and Tammy Bakker, and others. In the late 1980s, the movement faced a major crisis when several famous televangelists were accused of financial and sexual misconduct. However, new celebrities arose to replace them with a gentler message and a more professional image. The message was always a variation on the same theme: God wants to bless you. Stars like Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, or Joyce Meyer promised Christians the power to claim financial and physical well-being through right thought and speech. Though planted in Pentecostalism, the 21st-century prosperity movement attracted believers from diverse ethnic, denominational, racial, and economic backgrounds.
One of the most complex words in the English language, “nature” (sometimes personified as “Nature” or “Mother Nature”) has been central to developments in American religions. Despite their different origins, the three cosmologies present on the North American continent during the early modern “age of contact”—Native American, African American, and Euro-American—shared a number of similarities, including the belief in an enchanted or animate cosmos, the ambivalence of sacred presences manifested in nature, and the use of myth and ritual to manage these ambivalent presences in ways that secured material and spiritual benefits for individuals or communities. Through encounters on colonial borderlands and through developments in society and culture (in science, economics, politics, etc.), these cosmologies have been adapted, developed, and combined in creative ways to produce new forms of religious life. These developments have been characterized by a series of recurrent tensions, including the notion of divine or spiritual realities as being transcendent or immanent, organicism or mechanism, and of the natural world as including or excluding human beings. Organicist and animist cosmologies, severely challenged by the early modern scientific revolution, were resurgent in the antebellum period, fueling a series of new religious developments, from Transcendentalism and revivalism to Mormonism and the early environmentalist movement. These generative tensions continue to reverberate into the modern day, in part as an outworking of the environmental crisis of the 1960s, which saw a purported “greening” of established religions as well as the rise of new forms of nature spirituality.
Sarah E. Dees
Native American religious traditions encompass a diverse array of beliefs, practices, and features of material culture and society that reflect and shape individual experiences and communal life among Indigenous communities in what is today the United States. While Native American religious traditions have long been the subject of scholarly inquiry, a field of study dedicated specifically to this topic only emerged in the mid-20th century. Because historical sources describing Native religions often wove ethnocentric biases or anti-Indian sentiments into descriptions of Native beliefs and practices, present-day inquiry requires critically reflexive interpretation of primary sources and attention to insiders’ perspectives. Today, scholarship on Native American religions draws on numerous methodological approaches to explore key features of these traditions, including ceremonies, stories, philosophies, art, and social institutions. While these features vary greatly by religious community, practitioners of Native religions often emphasize the significance of land and the environment, their cultural heritage, and relationships between humans and non-human entities, spirits, and ancestors.
Many practitioners of Native American religions would resist the notion that a “religious” or “spiritual” realm can be separated from “secular” aspects of society or culture; thus, in addition to focusing on constitutive features of the religious beliefs and practices themselves, an understanding of Native American religions requires attention to broader social and cultural issues, including politics, law, health, and education. Furthermore, just as Native traditions were dynamic prior to the 15th century, they have been shaped by contact with non-Native religions and cultures since the first instances of European colonization. The historical conditions of European and Euro-American settler colonialism and encounter between Native and non-Native communities necessitate attention to issues such as Christian missionization and the ensuing Indigenous responses to Christianity, U.S. federal Indian policy, legal battles over Native American religious freedom and self-determination, and the place of Native religions in mainstream U.S. culture. While these themes and issues illuminate some shared features of Native American religions, the unique histories and characteristics of specific communities necessarily subvert efforts to articulate a simple, comprehensive definition of “Native American religion.” And, while knowledge of the past is essential for understanding Native American religions, a historical focus in itself is insufficient if it ignores the ongoing presence of Native American religious expression. Practitioners of Native American religions today emphasize religious continuity as well as creativity and change, blending long-standing historical traditions with more recently established religious innovations.
Walter C. Rucker
The Black Atlantic and the African Diaspora refer to overlapping geographic and historical concepts each representing a complex series of dispersals, connections and reconnections, interactions, engagements and disengagements, and conflicts. As a geographic, spatial, and historical subset of the African Diaspora, the Black Atlantic refers to the sustained contacts and connections among the peoples of Atlantic Africa, Europe, and the Americas beginning with the “Age of Reconnaissance” (1306–1484) and the “Age of Contact” (1482–1621) and extending into the present. One of the first acts in the creation of the Black Atlantic can be located within the story of Mansa Qu, Islamic emperor and explorer from the western Sudanic empire of Mali, who commissioned two oceanic voyages to discover the western extent of the Atlantic between 1307 and 1311. Reconnaissance expeditions of this sort, launched by both Atlantic Africans and later by Iberians in the 14th and 15th centuries, helped create knowledge networks and webs of interconnections that would become critical to the later formation of the Black Atlantic.
At the core of many of these earlier efforts to explore the world around them were the religious pursuits and goals—both Christian and Islamic—on the part of Atlantic Africans and Iberians. Delegations of Christian monks and pilgrims from Ethiopia visited the Italian peninsula, Iberia, and other parts of Europe beginning in 1306 seeking pan-Christian alliances against common Muslim foes. These early delegations fueled later Iberian imaginations about the existence of Prester John—an eastern defender of Christendom believed by the early 15th century to preside over an East African kingdom. In part, the protracted search for the mythical Prester John in Africa by the Portuguese after 1415 set in motion sustained contacts between Iberia and Atlantic Africa highlighted by the creation of Iberian-African settlements along the Atlantic African coast and in the Atlantic Islands, the transfer of enslaved labor to the Americas via the Atlantic Slave Trade, and the beginnings of sugar plantations and slave societies in the Caribbean and Brazil by the mid-16th century. Centuries of sustained contact of this nature spawned a range of cultural formations, the processes of ethnogenesis, and the creation of new transnational identities in the littoral regions and beyond of the four continents that frame the Atlantic Ocean.
Creolization, the unique confluence of Atlantic cultures, served as the foundation for reinvented peoples across the Western Hemisphere who remembered, activated, and re-created “Africa” while attending to New World realities of racial slavery and hierarchy. This process of creolization created a range of ethnocultural permutations, from Atlantic Creoles to a wide array of neo-African ethnic groups in the Americas (e.g., Eboes, Coromantees, Congos, Nâgos, and Lucumís). Within this diverse cultural matrix and the processes of cultural mixing, religious and spiritual worldviews were among the most significant articulations of Black Atlantic and creole cultures. Indeed, there is no other way to decode the intricacies of Cuban Santería, Brazilian Candomblé, Haitian Voudou, New Orleans Hoodoo, Jamaican Myalism, or Obeah without framing them in the context of the cultural negotiations among many Atlantic African peoples made necessary by the suffocating confines of racial slavery and more recent socio-racial hierarchies embedded within Western Hemisphere colonialism, Jim Crow in the United States, and other manifestations of white supremacy
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.