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The first Muslims arrived in the American colonies and later in the United States as African slaves. Although a few and noteworthy Muslim American slaves left written records of their lives, Islam was largely extinguished by the white slave owners. Sectarian and racial forms of Islam were introduced into the United States, particularly within urban African American communities, by Ahmadiyya missionaries and the Moorish Science Temple. The rise of the Nation of Islam under Wali Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad and its bifurcation under the latter’s son, Warith Deen Mohammed, and Louis Farrakhan deserve special attention, as do the initial appeal of the Nation of Islam’s racial formulation of Islam and, decades later, the willingness of most of its members to move to Sunni orthodoxy after Elijah Muhammad’s death. The second major, though not entirely separate, strand of Islam in the United States, though often interacting or competing with the first, comes from Muslim immigrants. This group brings unique issues, such as living in a largely Christian society, competing with the Nation of Islam, refuting stereotypes in the media and popular culture, finding a political voice, and coping with post-9/11 Islamophobia, all leading to the consideration of the prospects for a uniquely “American Islam” that reflects U.S. pluralism and (supposed) separation of “church and state.”
Sylvester A. Johnson
Beginning with trans-Atlantic slavery, which forced hundreds of thousands of people into what is presently the United States, religion among African Americans consistently featured a complex of efforts toward innovation, preservation, and agential intervention rooted in efforts toward survival against structures of racial domination. Social factors including slavery, black responses to a range of political conflicts, influences of immigration, and the varieties of genealogies that have constituted religious formations among African Americans contributed to the creation of formal Christian denominations, intentional communities of Orisha, and transnational movements of Islam. Also important are the insurgent challenges that African Americans have proffered as a rejoinder to social oppression. But this progressive tendency has been paralleled by sharply conservative religious formations that check any easy generalization of African American religions as being predisposed toward social justice movements. Also important are social sources of autonomous church formation, the role of Black Nationalism, anticolonial forms of religion, and Yoruba revivalism of the mid-20th century.
The Alevis are a religious community on the periphery of Shia Islam. The name “Alevi” means “Adherents of ʿAli,” alluding to Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin ʿAli ibn Abi Talib, who enjoys extraordinary veneration among Alevis. Alevism was developed in Central Anatolia during the 13th century by itinerant Muslim mystics. It includes elements of pre-Islamic Turkish shamanism and aspects of mainstream Shia Islam, which influenced it through cultural contacts with Safavid Iran. Alevism never was a unified and homogeneous community but has always had a variety of sub-groups. For centuries Alevis practiced their rites in secret, which created suspicion and rumor among Sunnite Muslims. Today’s Alevis still have to struggle with this distrust, and are often regarded as heretics by the Sunnites. The designation “Alevi” came into use in the early 20th century as a collective term for a number of religious groups such as Bektaşi, Tahtacı, and Abdal, and today is used instead of the former, pejorative term Kızılbaş (“Red-Heads”). The Alevis are the largest religious minority group in the Republic of Turkey, where their estimated number is around 15 million. Large Alevi groups also reside in the Balkan states as well as in Central and Western Europe, particularly Germany and Austria. Roughly two-thirds of the Alevis are Turkish speakers. The other third speak Kurdish and Zazaki.
In the 1980s, the community underwent the so-called “Alevi revival,” a process of exposure and openness that can be partly explained as a reaction against the re-Islamization of Turkish society. Today Alevis perform their rites and express their beliefs openly.
Although they share certain features with them, the Alevis should not be confused with the Alawis (Nusayris), who live in southern Turkey and Syria and who are all Arabic speakers.
W. Clark Gilpin
Sin and salvation, as an interconnected pair of ideas, imply that human life as it is ordinarily lived has been diverted from its true good or distorted from its proper form. Taken together, these paired ideas thus imply a narrative of human transformation, a redemptive process that recovers human life from erroneous ways and reorients it toward an ultimate goal or a transcendent power through which life is fulfilled. Narratives of redemption from sin have taken many forms in the course of American history, but in considering any specific example it is useful to recognize its relationship to two especially common patterns. In some cases, the redemptive narrative is organized around a decisive personal experience, and autobiographical accounts of “conversion” that describe such transformative events are common in American religious literature. In other cases, the redemptive narrative accentuates the gradual process of shaping a way of life that incorporates an individual into the ongoing social practice of a community, through spiritual disciplines ranging from meditation and prayer to acts of public witness and compassion. In either of these versions, redemptive narratives frequently hinge on the reconciling work of a transcendent power, in which salvation represents the event or process that incorporates individual persons into a society or a natural order of existence that is itself the subject of a larger, even cosmic history of redemption. In all of these variations, American narratives of redemption have interacted with broader cultural ideas of human nature and the possibilities for human psychological and societal change.
Matthew Avery Sutton
Apocalypticism has had a powerful impact on American life. It has fostered among adherents a strong sense of purpose and personal identity, it has helped them interpret the challenges they face all around them, and it has provided them with a triumphant vision of the future. Although there are many kinds of apocalypticism, in the United States, Christian forms have dominated. The Bible’s focus on a coming millennium has offered Americans the promise of transformation and redemption in a world that sometimes seems void of both. When Christians have emphasized the Bible’s apocalyptic and millennial visions, they have acted in new and important ways. Apocalyptic visions, rather than fostering a sense of indifference to the coming of the end of days, have served as a call to battle. God, millennialists insist, has given them much to do and very little time in which to do it. Positive that Jesus is coming soon, they have preached revival and engaged directly and aggressively with their culture. Sometimes their actions have served to reinforce the status quo, and at other times they have sparked revolutions. The uses of apocalypticism and millennialism are almost as diverse as their adherents.
Asian American religions have dramatically increased their presence in the United States. Partly, this is a function of the increasing population of Asian Americans since 1965.
Asian American is a name given to the United States residents who trace their ancestry back to the area of Asia from Pakistan in the west to the Pacific islands east of the Asian landmass. There are over 18 million Asian Americans in the United States (about 6 percent of the national population), and Asians are immigrating to the country at rates that far exceed those for any other group.
Other names have been taken, given, or forced upon Asian Americans. Such terms as “Chinese or Japanese imperial subjects” heightened a unity of political and religious obedience to a divine emperor. “Oriental” started as a French idealization of the Confucian state before descending to the level of being an epithet for backwardness.
Immigrants come with nationalities like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and so forth that often intervene into religious discourses (see an example of this process in the Chinese American experience as described by Fenggang Yang (Chinese Christians in America. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999). In the 1970s the name Asian American was popularized by West Coast intellectuals in order to gather forces at the barricades of political and racial movements. Some scholars like Michael Omi and Howard Winant (Racial Formation in the United States. From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge, 1994) claimed “Asian American” as a racialized reality, which was the result of racial conflicts innate to American society. Others saw the identity as an ethnic claim to assimilation into American cultural reality.
Asian immigrants and their progeny find ways to balance out the religious, national, ethnic, racial, and other identities from their homeland, new nation, and religion. “Asian American” has also become a common-sense meaning that was institutionalized by the U.S. census. But one should remember that many layers of names sit upon Asian American houses of worship as so many barnacles telling tales of ancestral honors, woes, and self-reflections.
Over three-quarters of Asian Americans profess a religious faith. About a quarter say that they are “religious nones,” that is, either having no particular religious faith or identifying as agnostic or atheist. About half of the “nones” actually have religious beliefs and ethics and practice them as an intrinsic part of Asian American culture, not as something that is “religious.”
Two-thirds of religious Asian Americans are Christians. This is not surprising when we take into account the rapid growth of Christianity in the non-European world. Asian Americans are contributing to the “de-Europeanization” of American Christianity and signal the increasingly religious direction of the 21st century.
Other Asian American religions include Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroasterism, new Japanese religions, and many more.
The history of Asian American religions involves a dynamic interplay of the United States and Asia, global politics, democratic revolutions, persecution in Asia, racism in the United States, Supreme Court cases, and religious innovation.
The largest Asian American groups, those with 1–4 million people each, trace their ancestry back to Japan, China, Philippines, Vietnam, India, and Korea. Seven smaller groups have over 100,000 people each: Bangladeshis, Burmese, Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians, Pakistanis, and Thais. And there are many more smaller groups.
The diverse ethnic and national origins of Asian Americans means that their religions have a kaleidoscope of religious styles and cultures.
Atheism refers to the conviction of the nonexistence of God. In the United States, atheism is diffuse, individualistic, and heavily reliant on the media for the cultivation of a sense of community. Intellectually and socially, American Atheism has its roots in a number of prior movements, including in particular the Deism of Thomas Paine and other American Revolutionaries and the broad free-thought movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. These disparate strands of religious criticism coalesced into an atheist political movement predominantly during the course of the 20th century, through the deliberate efforts of individuals like Charles Lee Smith and Madalyn Murray O’Hair to capitalize on the exposure afforded by new media formats. Following the popularity of the Intelligent Design movement toward the end of the 1990s and the September 11th attacks, New Atheism emerged in the mid-2000s as a form of atheism reliant on new media, especially critical of fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity and Islam, and particularly devoted to scientific empiricism and rationality. In the early 21st century, atheism in the United States continues to be organized largely through the media, with official organizations operating primarily through annual conventions and local chapters. Atheism has constituted and continues to constitute an important form of identification for many Americans dissatisfied with a dominant religious culture.
Avalokiteśvara is one of the most famous bodhisattvas in Buddhism. The worship of bodhisattvas (beings of enlightenment) is one of the most distinctive features of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Whereas early or mainstream Buddhism recognizes only two bodhisattvas—the Buddha in his previous lives and Maitreya, the future Buddha—there are a number of bodhisattvas in Mahāyāna to whom one can appeal for help and guidance. Of the many bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara is identified specifically as the embodiment of compassion and as such has been worshipped throughout Buddhist Asia.
Contemporary issues in biology and Christian theology are still dominated by the legacy of 19th-century biologist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Debates in evolutionary biology in relation to religious belief have been reinforced by historical myths that stress conflict over integration. More conservative branches of Christianity, often allied to particular Protestant traditions, argue for a form of popular theology that attempts to compete with science, namely, creationism. More sophisticated versions of this position may appear under the guise of intelligent design, though creationism and intelligent design are not synonymous. The mirror image of this position has developed among biologists who identify themselves as new atheists, adding further fuel to the fire of an existing controversy. Methodologically speaking, the engagement of biology and theology will depend on different philosophical presuppositions according to basic models of (a) conflict, (b) independence, (c) dialogue, and (d) integration. The biological sciences also have broader relevance to allied subject domains including, for example: (a) ecological, agricultural, animal, and environmental sciences; (b) anthropological, social, and political sciences; (c) medical sciences, including genetic science and embryo development; and (d) new technologies that include bioengineering. Theological engagement with the biological component of each of these domains is particularly intense where there are controversial ethical issues at stake that seem to challenge specific Christian beliefs about human nature or divine purpose. A more positive approach to the biological sciences that draws on research in the constructive systematic theological task, while avoiding historically naïve forms of natural theology, is starting to emerge in the literature. Within Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christian traditions, there is a spectrum of possible positions, such that the field of science and theology as a whole tends to be ecumenical in orientation rather than divided along denominational boundaries. The Catholic and Orthodox churches, however, give greater precedence to official statements by their respective churches that then influence public reception of controversial issues in biology and theology in particular ways.
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
Fundamentalism has a very specific meaning in the history of American Christianity, as the name taken by a coalition of mostly white, mostly northern Protestants who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, united in opposition to theological liberalism. Though the movement lost the public spotlight after the 1920s, it remained robust, building a network of separate churches, denominations, and schools that would become instrumental in the resurgence of conservative evangelicalism after the 1960s. In a larger sense, fundamentalism is a form of militant opposition to the modern world, used by some scholars to identify morally absolutist religious and political movements in Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and even Hinduism and Buddhism. While the core concerns of the movement that emerged within American Protestantism—defending the authority of the Bible and both separating from and saving their sinful world—do not entirely mesh with this analytical framework, they do reflect the broad and complex challenge posed by modernity to people of faith.
“Christian initiation” refers to the ritual process employed by various churches in forming new Christian converts through catechesis (instruction) during the “catechumenate” to baptism, postbaptismal rites (including hand-laying and anointing, sometimes called “confirmation”), culminating in First Communion, and leading to the further integration of these newly initiated members into ongoing Christian life through “mystagogy.” Christian initiation is the story of diversity and change as the biblical images of initiation lead toward a rich variety of early Christian practices and theological interpretations, eventually coming to focus on Christian baptism as “new birth” or the “washing of regeneration” in water and the Holy Spirit (John 3:5 and Titus 3:5) in early Syria and Egypt and baptism as participation in the death and burial of Christ (Rom. 6) in North Africa and other places in the West.
In the 4th and 5th centuries, after Christianity emerged as a cultus publicus, the rites of Christian initiation underwent a certain standardization and cross-fertilization as various churches borrowed from one another to construct rites that display a remarkable degree of homogeneity. These rites include a decided preference for celebrating Christian initiation at Easter, after a period of final catechetical preparation in Lent; prebaptismal rites with an exorcistic focus; an almost universal (Rom. 6) theological interpretation of baptism; and postbaptismal hand-layings or anointings associated explicitly with the gift or “seal” of the Holy Spirit, still leading to First Communion within a unitive and integral process. Another characteristic, thanks to the controversies faced by Augustine with Pelagianism, was the development of a new theological rationale for the initiation of infants, which focused on the inheritance of “original sin” from Adam. This would have far-reaching consequences for subsequent centuries as infant baptism became the norm for practice and theology.
If the Eastern rites underwent little further development in the Middle Ages, the West experienced what many have been called a sacramental dissolution, disintegration, and separation. Gradually, the postbaptismal rites of hand-laying and anointing, associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit and now with the physical presence of the bishop, became separated from infant baptism and were given at a later point. Similarly, the reception of First Communion also became separated and was often postponed until the canonical age of seven. This process was inherited by the adherents of the Protestant and Catholic reformations of the 16th century. Little was done to restore the unitive and integral process of Christian initiation from the earlier centuries and confirmation itself developed among the reformers largely into a catechetical exercise or rite with First Communion either prior to or after confirmation.
In the early 21st century, thanks to the Roman Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and similar rites in other churches, the unitary and integral process of initiation has been restored. What remains to be done, however, is the full integration of infants and children into this process, although in several Anglican and Lutheran contexts infants now are again recipients of the full rites of initiation, including First Communion.
William T. Flynn
Music in its widest definition (sound and silence organized in time) is never absent from Christian worship. The diversity of styles and forms employed both chronologically and synchronically, as well as the varied theological, aesthetic, and sociological positions concerning musical norms evident in every ecclesial community, provides a window into the self-representation and theological positioning of each community and often also of the subgroups and individuals within it. Disputes over the norms of Christian liturgical music are commonplace, most often within but also between various ecclesial communities, and may be analyzed for their theological significance. These norms concern (1) the distribution of musical roles, (2) the style of music employed, (3) the relationship between music and words (including whether to use instruments) and (4) the status of traditional repertories. Each of these may be indicative of theological commitments adopted both consciously and unconsciously by members of the community and may reflect differing theological positions, especially concerning ecclesiology. For example, congregants and whole communities may differ in their preferred self-representation of the Church, one preferring the model of the gathered community on earth, another preferring the model of heaven and earth in unity. Some individuals or communities may conceive of their church as part of a larger culture, while others may conceive of their church as a subculture or even a counterculture. New celebrations often arising from a change in spiritual emphases (e.g., the cult of saints) provide an impetus for change even within traditions that conceive of their music as sacral and inviolable. Perceived deficiencies in liturgies, whether due to a need for updating or to return to an earlier, purer form, also provoke musical changes. Careful case studies investigating such interactions between musical and liturgical practice illuminate the theological commitments of both individuals and ecclesial communities, and offer a method for the critical evaluation of the varied musical responses made by Christian communities.
Ruth A. Meyers
Weddings and funerals mark major transitions in human life. In these rites of passage, which effect a transformation from one status to another, an individual is separated from one state of existence, passes through a threshold or liminal space, and is incorporated into the community with a new status. In a wedding, individuals move from being single to being joined in a marriage, and in rites surrounding death, a person moves from the land of the living to become an ancestor. These rites of passage concern not only those making the transition but also the community. The ritual actions enable the individuals as well as the community to navigate momentous events in human life, they acknowledge and bring about a transformation in the community, and they offer an interpretive framework for the transition.
Weddings and funerals are not rooted in any single religious tradition. Rather, they are social and cultural events that may also have a religious dimension. Many religious weddings and funerals incorporate practices from different cultural contexts, and as social or cultural norms change, ritual practices may evolve to accommodate these norms. Wedding practices have changed to reflect modern Western notions of companionate marriage rather than arranged marriage, and, more recently, growing acceptance of same-sex life partnerships has led a few religious bodies to develop rituals to bless these relationships. Funerals express different understandings of life after death, and they are adapted to various practices for disposal of the body, for example, cremation or burial of the body.
The word “spirituality” has become increasingly common. What does it mean? It is not limited to spiritual practices, such as meditation, but suggests the pursuit of a life shaped by a sense of meaning, values, and perhaps transcendence. Although the word is used in different religions, and by people with no religious beliefs, its origins were Christian and referred to living life under the influence of God’s spirit.
Nowadays, in a consciously plural world, Christian spirituality has a specific content whose origins are the Jewish and Christian scriptures. In particular, Christian spirituality is associated with following the teachings of Jesus Christ or imitating his values. The main New Testament word for this is “discipleship,” which has two main elements. First, there is a call to personal transformation (conversion). Second, Christians are to continue the mission of Jesus to transform the world and to build the kingdom of a God of love. In that fundamental sense, Christian spirituality is inherently concerned with social transformation. In the Gospel of Matthew, this includes sharing in Jesus’ work of forgiveness and healing. In the Gospel of Mark it involves selfless service of others. The history of Christian spirituality is a varied story of ways of approaching discipleship. Needless to say, part of what makes Christian spirituality distinctive is its underlying beliefs—in other words, how it understands the reality of God, the value of the material world, human nature, and identity and how these interconnect.
The great variety of spiritual traditions and writings within Christianity originated at different times and places. However, they are continually being adapted in the light of new historical and cultural contexts. Scholars have sometimes found it helpful to identify different types of Christian spirituality. Their choices vary, and the types are interpretative tools rather than straightforward descriptions. “Types” help us to identify distinctive styles of spiritual wisdom. The ascetical type, sometimes associated with monasticism, highlights discipline and detachment from material pleasures as the pathway to spiritual growth. The mystical type focuses on the desire for an immediacy of presence to, and intuitive knowledge of, God, frequently via contemplative practice. The active type promotes everyday life and service to other people as the context for spiritual growth. The aesthetic type covers a range of ways in which the spiritual journey is expressed in and shaped by the arts, music, and literature. Finally the prophetic type of spirituality embraces an explicit commitment to social justice and the transformation of society.
Christian spirituality has become a major area of study. It is an interdisciplinary field shaped by scripture, theology, and Christian history, but which may also draw upon psychology, the social sciences, literature, and the sciences. The study of Christian spirituality is also “self-implicating,” in the sense that it is not treated in a purely theoretical way but includes a quest for practical wisdom.
Finally, the traditions of Christian spirituality increasingly engage with important issues of social and cultural transformation, for example interreligious dialogue, peace and reconciliation, ecological questions, the future of cities, the world of business, and the meaning of healthcare.
The foundational materiality in Christian worship is the bodily presence of worshippers. Gender differences—and the manifold ways in which they are embodied and performed in different cultural contexts—are therefore inscribed into the very fabric of liturgical practices, past and present. In Christian worship today, the workings of gender are evident across a broad spectrum of ecclesial traditions. Some churches have authorized rituals for the blessing of same-sex unions; some are ordaining openly transgender priests. Other churches continue to struggle with the ordination of women, while a few aim for explicitly “masculine” worship experiences. Feminist concerns over liturgical language mark some communities, while churches rooted in more traditional contexts maintain seating arrangements that separate women and men. Clearly, the workings of gender in Christian worship today span a broad spectrum of quite dissimilar concerns. At the root of all these concerns, however, lies the same vital reality, namely that worship is an embodied practice and therefore never gender-free.
What often goes unnoticed in contemporary discussions is the fact that gender differences have marked liturgical practices in Christian communities since earliest times. The workings of gender, in other words, have a genealogy in Christian worship. Scholars have only recently begun to map this terrain, by bringing the interpretive tools of gender theory to bear on liturgical historiography. Paramount among these interpretive tools is an understanding of gender as attending to all gendered particularities and sexualities (e.g., eunuchs in Byzantium, ascetic virgins in Merovingian Gaul, transgender people in contemporary North America, etc.). Gender, in other words, is understood to encompass much more than the traditional binary of “women” and “men.”
The emerging gender-attentive insights into liturgical history have been intriguing and at times quite surprising. These insights span the whole of liturgy’s past, from ways in which gender shaped early baptismal practices (e.g., in the choreography of the rite, in questions surrounding the minister of baptism, in the bodily proprieties considered appropriate at the font) to the workings of gender in the 20th-century Liturgical Movement (e.g., its first important text, Tra le Sollecitudine (1903)—usually hailed for its evocation of an “active participation” of the faithful in worship—also sought to discontinue the presence of castrati singers in the Sistine Chapel choir while ensuring that women would not take their place).
In between earliest glimpses of the workings of gender in Christian worship and our own times lie approximately a thousand years of a complex history. Tracing this history of the interplay between gender differences and Christian worship not only constitutes an important task for historians of liturgy, but also provides rich resources for addressing contemporary issues.
In the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, black Christian thought helped to undermine the white supremacist racial system that had governed America for centuries. The civil rights revolution in American history was, to a considerable degree, a religious revolution, one whose social and spiritual impact inspired numerous other movements around the world. Key to the work was a transformation of American religious thought and practice in ways that deftly combined the social gospel and black church traditions, infused with Gandhian notions of active resistance and “soul force,” as well as secular ideas of hardheaded political organizing and the kinds of legal maneuverings that led to the seminal court case of Brown v. Board of Education.
The civil rights movement had legislative aims; it was, to that extent, a political movement. But it was also a religious movement, sustained by the religious power unlocked within southern black churches. The historically racist grounding of whiteness as dominant and blackness as inferior was radically overturned in part through a reimagination of the same Christian thought that was part of creating it in the first place. In similar ways, the Mexican-American farmworkers’ movement drew on the mystic Catholic spirituality of Cesar Chavez and brought to national consciousness the lives and aspirations of an oppressed agricultural proletariat that lacked the most elementary rights of American citizens.
American civil rights movements drew from, and were in part inspired by, the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement. Gandhi’s movement deeply influenced black Americans who visited India from the 1930s to the 1950s and who brought home with them a mixture of ideas and practices deriving from sources as diverse as Gandhi and the 19th-century American progenitor of nonviolent civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau. American civil rights movements subsequently became a model for any number of freedom movements internationally, notably including the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. There, religious figures such as Desmond Tutu became international symbols. Also, the black American freedom struggle based in the American South moved protestors in places as diverse as Czechoslovakia under Soviet domination and Chinese students staring down tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In the post–civil rights era, some suggested that America had moved into a “post-racial” era, despite the overwhelming statistics documenting racial inequality in American society. Thus, activists who have mined the connection between religion, civil rights, and social justice will have plenty of work to do in the future. The struggle continues through such contemporary venues as the #blacklivesmatter movement.
American propaganda cast the Cold War as one of history’s great religious wars, between the godless and the God-fearing, between good and evil. It was a simplistic depiction that was supported and promoted in the highest echelons of government and by the leaders of America’s key institutions. During the course of the presidencies of Harry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, U.S.-Soviet rivalry was transformed from a traditional great power struggle into a morality play that drew on firmly entrenched notions rooted in the American past, above all American exceptionalism and its sense of mission. Truman made religion America’s ideological justification for abandoning America’s wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower used religion to persuade the world that America was a force for good in the international arena. The resulting anti-communist crusade was to have profound consequences for Christian America, contributing to both religious revival and religious repression in the early Cold War period. Over time it caused irrevocable alterations to America’s religious landscape. The anti-communist dynamic unleashed embraced anti-liberalism and was a factor in the rise of the Christian Right and the decline in America’s mainstream churches. In addition, the image of a godless and evil enemy dictated an irreconcilable conflict that precluded the very modes of diplomacy and discourse that might have helped avoid the worst excesses, costs, and consequences of the Cold War.
American Christianity and commerce are bound together by their mutual history. In colonial America, Puritans excelled at the skills of capitalism, and in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, Christian corporations have tied together religious and corporate culture. Even when corporations and churches have maintained a distinct boundary between faith and the market, American religion and capitalism seem to be uniquely compatible. Ministers and gurus use mass media to disseminate their message (via TV, radio, bookstores). Religious folk in the United States tend to act like consumers, choosing their theologies and churches based on their individual needs and desires, rather than relying on tradition to dictate their religious practices. Selling and buying in the American marketplace share many similarities with Christian categories of piety and evangelization. Further, corporations and religious communities have since the early 20th century collaborated in politics and social movements. In much of the scholarship on Christianity and commerce in the United States, this relationship is discussed as a strategic partnership between two distinct spheres of life: religion and the market. Recent scholarship, however, has questioned this neat division, arguing that the fluid relationship among commerce, consumption, and Christianity in the United States emerges from the historical co-development of capitalism and religion. If Christianity and the market in the United States look very similar, or are particularly friendly, it is because they were never separate to begin with.
A “cosmic war” is an imagined battle between metaphysical forces—good and evil, right and wrong, order and chaos—that lies behind many cases of religion-related violence in the contemporary world. These transcendent spiritual images have been implanted onto the social and political scene, magnifying ordinary worldly conflict into sacred encounter. There is nothing specific to Christianity, Islam, or any other religion about this idea of cosmic war. Every religious tradition contains images of grand battles that have a divine valence to them. Hence every religion has some kind of mythic or legendary scenario of warfare that can be transported into contemporary conflict and elevate a social or political confrontation into cosmic war.