David L. Hostetter
American activists who challenged South African apartheid during the Cold War era extended their opposition to racial discrimination in the United States into world politics. US antiapartheid organizations worked in solidarity with forces struggling against the racist regime in South Africa and played a significant role in the global antiapartheid movement. More than four decades of organizing preceded the legislative showdown of 1986, when a bipartisan coalition in Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto, to enact economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Adoption of sanctions by the United States, along with transnational solidarity with the resistance to apartheid by South Africans, helped prompt the apartheid regime to relinquish power and allow the democratic elections that brought Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power in 1994.
Drawing on the tactics, strategies and moral authority of the civil rights movement, antiapartheid campaigners mobilized public opinion while increasing African American influence in the formulation of US foreign policy. Long-lasting organizations such as the American Committee on Africa and TransAfrica called for boycotts and divestment while lobbying for economic sanctions. Utilizing tactics such as rallies, demonstrations, and nonviolent civil disobedience actions, antiapartheid activists made their voices heard on college campuses, corporate boardrooms, municipal and state governments, as well as the halls of Congress. Cultural expressions of criticism and resistance served to reinforce public sentiment against apartheid. Novels, plays, movies, and music provided a way for Americans to connect to the struggles of those suffering under apartheid.
By extending the moral logic of the movement for African American civil rights, American anti-apartheid activists created a multicultural coalition that brought about institutional and governmental divestment from apartheid, prompted Congress to impose economic sanctions on South Africa, and increased the influence of African Americans regarding issues of race and American foreign policy.
Joan R. Gundersen
Episcopalians have built, reimagined, and rebuilt their church at least three different times over the course of 400 years in America. From scattered colonial beginnings, where laity both took major roles in running Church of England parishes and practiced a faith that was focused on worship, pastoral care, and good works, Anglicans created a church that blended hierarchy, democracy, and autonomy. It took time after the disruptions of the American Revolution for Episcopalians to find their place among the many competing denominations of the new nation. In the process women found new roles for themselves. Episcopalians continued to have a large impact on American society even as other denominations outpaced them in membership. As individuals they shaped American culture and became prominent advocates for the social gospel. Distracted at times as they tried to balance catholic and Protestant in their thought and worship, they built a church that included both religious orders and revival gatherings. Although perceived as a church of the elite, its members included African Americans, Asians, Native Americans, and union members. Episcopalians struggled with issues of race, class, and gender throughout their history. After World War II, their understandings of the teachings of Jesus pulled a majority of Episcopalians toward more liberal social positions and created a traditionalist revolt eventually resulting in a schism that required new rebuilding efforts in parts of America.
Mark S. Massa S. J.
Historian John Higham once referred to anti-Catholicism as “by far the oldest, and the most powerful of anti-foreign traditions” in North American intellectual and cultural history. But Higham’s famous observation actually elided three different types of anti-Catholic nativism that have enjoyed a long and quite vibrant life in North America: a cultural distrust of Catholics, based on an understanding of North American public culture rooted in a profoundly British and Protestant ordering of human society; an intellectual distrust of Catholics, based on a set of epistemological and philosophical ideas first elucidated in the English (Lockean) and Scottish (“Common Sense Realist”) Enlightenments and the British Whig tradition of political thought; and a nativist distrust of Catholics as deviant members of American society, a perception central to the Protestant mainstream’s duty of “boundary maintenance” (to utilize Emile Durkheim’s reading of how “outsiders” help “insiders” maintain social control).
An examination of the long history of anti-Catholicism in the United States can be divided into three parts: first, an overview of the types of anti-Catholic animus utilizing the typology adumbrated above; second, a narrative history of the most important anti-Catholic events in U.S. culture (e.g., Harvard’s Dudleian Lectures, the Suffolk Resolves, the burning of the Charlestown convent, Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures); and finally, a discussion of American Catholic efforts to address the animus.
Buddhist history in the United States traces to the mid-19th century, when early scholars and spiritual pioneers first introduced the subject to Americans, followed soon by the arrival of Chinese immigrants to the West Coast. Interest in Buddhism was significant during the late Victorian era, but practice was almost completely confined to Asian immigrants, who faced severe white prejudice and legal discrimination. The Japanese were the first to establish robust, long-lasting temple networks, though they, too, faced persecution, culminating in the 1942 incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans, a severe blow to American Buddhism. Outside the Japanese American community, Buddhism grew slowly in the earlier decades of the 20th century, but it began to take off in the 1960s, aided soon by the lifting of onerous immigration laws and the return of large-scale Asian immigration. By the end of the 20th century American Buddhism had become extremely diverse and complex, with clear evidence of permanence in Asian American and other communities.
The history of Calvinism in the United States is part of a much larger development, the globalization of western Christianity. American Calvinism owes its existence to the transplanting of European churches and religious institutions to North America, a process that began in the 16th century, first with Spanish and French Roman Catholics, and accelerated a century later when Dutch, English, Scottish, and German colonists and immigrants of diverse Protestant backgrounds settled in the New World. The initial variety of Calvinists in North America was the result of the different circumstances under which Protestantism emerged in Europe as a rival to the Roman Catholic Church, to the diverse civil governments that supported established Protestant churches, and to the various business sponsors that included the Christian ministry as part of imperial or colonial designs.
Once the British dominated the Eastern seaboard (roughly 1675), and after English colonists successfully fought for political independence (1783), Calvinism lost its variety. Beyond their separate denominations, English-speaking Protestants (whether English, Scottish, or Irish) created a plethora of interdenominational religious agencies for the purpose of establishing a Christian presence in an expanding American society. For these Calvinists, being Protestant went hand in hand with loyalty to the United States. Outside this pan-Protestant network of Anglo-American churches and religious institutions were ethnic-based Calvinist denominations caught between Old World ways of being Christian and American patterns of religious life. Over time, most Calvinist groups adapted to national norms, while some retained institutional autonomy for fear of compromising their faith.
Since 1970, when the United States entered an era sometimes called post-Protestant, Calvinist churches and institutions have either declined or become stagnant. But in certain academic, literary, and popular culture settings, Calvinism has for some Americans, whether connected or not to Calvinist churches, continued to be a source for sober reflection on human existence and earnest belief and religious practice.
The Catholic Church has been a presence in the United States since the arrival of French and Spanish missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Spanish established a number of missions in what is now the western part of the United States; the most important French colony was New Orleans. Although they were a minority in the thirteen British colonies prior to the American Revolution, Catholics found ways to participate in communal forms of worship when no priest was available to celebrate Mass. John Carroll was appointed superior of the Mission of the United States of America in 1785. Four years later, Carroll was elected the first bishop in the United States; his diocese encompassed the entire country. The Catholic population of the United States began to grow during the first half of the 19th century primarily due to Irish and German immigration. Protestant America was often critical of the newcomers, believing one could not be a good Catholic and a good American at the same time. By 1850, Roman Catholicism was the largest denomination in the United States.
The number of Catholics arriving in the United States declined during the Civil War but began to increase after the cessation of hostilities. Catholic immigrants during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were primarily from southern and Eastern Europe, and they were not often welcomed by a church that was dominated by Irish and Irish American leaders. At the same time that the church was expanding its network of parishes, schools, and hospitals to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the new immigrants, other Catholics were determining how their church could speak to issues of social and economic justice. Dorothy Day, Father Charles Coughlin, and Monsignor John A. Ryan are three examples of practicing Catholics who believed that the principles of Catholicism could help to solve problems related to international relations, poverty, nuclear weapons, and the struggle between labor and capital.
In addition to changes resulting from suburbanization, the Second Vatican Council transformed Catholicism in the United States. Catholics experienced other changes as a decrease in the number of men and women entering religious life led to fewer priests and sisters staffing parochial schools and parishes. In the early decades of the 21st century, the church in the United States was trying to recover from the sexual abuse crisis. Visiting America in 2015, Pope Francis reminded Catholics of the important teachings of the church regarding poverty, justice, and climate change. It remains to be seen what impact his papacy will have on the future of Catholicism in the United States.
Carol L. Higham
Comparing Catholic and Protestant missionaries in North America can be a herculean task. It means comparing many religious groups, at least five governments, and hundreds of groups of Indians. But missions to the Indians played important roles in social, cultural, and political changes for Indians, Europeans, and Americans from the very beginning of contact in the 1500s to the present. By comparing Catholic and Protestant missions to the Indians, this article provides a better understanding of the relationship between these movements and their functions in the history of borders and frontiers, including how the missions changed both European and Indian cultures.
Although often attributed to the Odawa ogima, or headman, Pontiac, the conflict that bears his name was the work of a large and complicated network of Native people in the Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, and Mississippi Valley. Together Native Americans from this wide swath of North America identified their collective dissatisfaction of British Indian policy and, through careful negotiation and discussion, formulated a religious and political ideology that advocated for the Britons’ removal. In 1763, these diverse peoples carried off a successful military campaign that demonstrated Native sovereignty and power in these areas. Although falling short of its original goal of displacing the British, the coalition compelled the British Empire to change its policies and to show, outwardly at least, respect for Native peoples. Many of the peoples involved in the struggle would wage another such pan-Indian campaign against the United States a generation later.
In many ways, the anti-British campaign of 1761–1766 mirrored another anti-imperial campaign that followed a decade later. Like the American Revolution, the anti-British advocates of Pontiac’s War developed an ideology that specifically critiqued not only British policy but often questioned imperialism altogether, built an unstable and delicate coalition of diverse and sometimes antagonistic peoples, and sought to assert the participants’ independence from the British. However, the participants in Pontiac’s War were sovereign and autonomous indigenous nations, only recently and nominally allied to the British Empire, not British colonists, as in the American Revolution. Together these anti-British activists mounted a serious challenge to the British presence in the trans-Appalachian West and forced the British Empire to accede to many of their demands.
The US Catholic Church was for most of its history—and, in many places, still is—a working-class church. The choice for worship by successive waves of immigrants, from the Irish to the Polish to the Mexican, the Church, once it had created an institutional presence, welcomed “these strangers in a strange land.” These immigrants play a major role in creating and sustaining parishes that served both as a soul-sustaining refuge and, in many cases, a way station to the outside world. James Cardinal Gibbons, having learned from the central role that Irish workers played in the Knights of Labor and protests against the excommunication of the radical New York priest, Edward McGlynn, persuaded the Vatican to take a relatively liberal stance toward the “social question” in the United States. Rerum Novarum, the 1891 papal encyclical, condemned socialism and competitive capitalism, but more significantly asserted the “natural” right of workers to form unions as well as to have a living wage. It was within this religious legitimation of unionism that Irish Catholics came to prominence in the American Federation of Labor, that Monsignor John A. Ryan created a US Catholic social justice intellectual tradition, and that US bishops adopted the 1919 Program for Social Reconstruction. The Catholic labor moment came when the Church, led by the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Social Action Department, midwestern bishops, and labor priests, not only supported the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), but consistently pushed the New Deal to implement the 1919 program. Philip Murray, the CIO’s Catholic president, led the expulsion of the Communist-led unions when the Communist Party, in the Wallace campaign, threatened both the country and everything the CIO had built. On the one hand, this Catholic labor moment dissolved in an overdetermined mixture of complacency, capitalist growth, and anti-Communism. On the other, a direct line can be traced from California’s labor priests to the Spanish Mission Band to Cesar Chavez and the formation of the United Farm Workers. It took time for the official Church to support the farm workers, but once that happened, it was all in: the support the Church, at all levels, gave them far exceeded anything it had done previously to implement Rerum Novarum.
Religion is at the heart of the Latina/o experience in the United States. It is a deeply personal matter that often shapes political orientations, how people vote, where they live, and the type of family choices they make. Latina/o religious politics—defined as the religious beliefs, ethics, and cultures that motivate social and political action in society—represent the historic interaction between popular and institutional religion. The evolution of Protestantism, Pentecostalism, and Catholic Social Action throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries illuminates the ways in which Latina/o religious communities interacted with movements for social justice.
The Latino/Latina or Hispanic Catholic presence spans the colonial era, the period of U.S. expansion during the 19th century, and the waves of new immigrants in the 20th and 21st centuries. A long-standing element of Latino Catholic history, the struggle for justice both in church and society, became even more prominent during the 20th century.
While Catholics in the thirteen British colonies were a minority in a Protestant land, in Hispanic settlements from Florida to California, Catholicism was the established religion under Spain and, in the Southwest, under Mexico after it won independence in 1821. Spanish subjects founded numerous missions intended to Christianize and Hispanicize native populations. They also established parishes, military chaplaincies, and private chapels to serve the religious needs of Hispanic settlers. From the standpoints of original settlement, societal influence, and institutional presence, the origins of Catholicism in what is now the United States were decidedly Hispanic.
The first large group of Hispanic Catholics incorporated into U.S. territories was Mexicans in the Southwest, who, as a common adage puts it, did not cross the border but had the border cross them during U.S. territorial expansion. When military defeat led Mexico’s president to cede nearly half his nation’s territory to the United States in 1848, Mexicans underwent the disestablishment of their Catholic religion along with widespread loss of their lands, economic well-being, political clout, and cultural hegemony. Many continued their traditional expressions of faith, which enabled them to defend their sense of dignity, to collectively respond to the effects of conquest, and to express their own ethnic legitimation.
Nascent 19th-century Latino immigration to the United States quickened over the course of the 20th century, expanding the diversification of national-origin groups among Latinos in the United States. Mexican immigration increased substantially after the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and has continued into the 21st century. Significant numbers of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, and Central Americans have also come, along with some South Americans. Each group of Latino newcomers has fostered ministries and church structures that served the needs of their compatriots.
Latino Catholic activist efforts range from local initiatives such as establishing Spanish-language masses and prayer groups to broader endeavors such as the recent National Hispanic Pastoral Encuentros of the 1970s and 1980s, major events that enabled Hispanic leaders to articulate their ministerial needs and demands to Catholic bishops and the wider church. Latino Catholics have also been active in social causes such as the plight of farmworkers, immigration, and faith-based community organizing.
Mark A. Granquist
Lutherans are one branch of Protestant Christianity and have been in America for almost 400 years. Historically they have immigrated to America from Lutheran countries in Europe, especially Germany and Scandinavia. Immigrants during the eighteenth century founded Lutheran congregations in the middle colonies, while westward expansion and further immigration from Europe centered Lutherans in the American Midwest. Lutherans formed regional and national denominations based on geography, ethnicity, and theological differences, In the twentieth century they continued to grow, and mergers reduced the numbers of denominations by 1988 to two major denominations: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. In 2015 there were close to seven million Lutherans in America.
The relationship between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—commonly called “Mormonism”—and the politics and culture of the United States is both contentious and intertwined. Historians have commonly observed that Mormonism is in many ways quintessentially American, bearing the marks of the Jacksonian period in which it was born. Its rejection of the denominational leadership of its day, its institution of a lay priesthood, and Joseph Smith’s insistence that revelation trumped scholarship and study all marked it as very much of its time and place, an America in which the authority of common people was exalted and tradition authority was suspect. And yet at the same time, Mormonism was suspect almost immediately upon its birth for those things that made it appear distinctly un-American: the divine power of its prophetic leaders, its rejection of the sole authority of the Bible, its clannishness and separatism, and its defiance of 19th-century sexual morality.
The history of Mormonism in America is in many ways a tug of war between these two impulses. At times the Mormons have embraced what makes them American, have proudly claimed elements of national identity, and have claimed that their faith most truly embodies the American creed. At other times, however, either because of hostility from other Americans or because of their own separatism, Mormons have distanced themselves from the national community and sought a separate community and peoplehood. Through the 19th century, because of the practice of polygamy and the theocratic government of the Utah territory, both Mormons and other Americans perceived a gap between their two communities, but that gap closed by the end of the century, when the federal government used force to eliminate those things Americans most objected to about the faith and Mormons began aggressively pursuing assimilation into American life. By the end of the 20th century, however, Mormonism’s cultural conservatism led both Mormons and other Americans to see that gap opening once more.
The history of Muslims in America dates back to the transatlantic mercantile interactions between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Upon its arrival, Islam became entrenched in American discourses on race and civilization because literate and noble African Muslims, brought to America as slaves, had problematized popular stereotypes of Muslims and black Africans. Furthermore, these enslaved Muslims had to re-evaluate and reconfigure their beliefs and practices to form new communal relations and to make sense of their lives in America.
At the turn of the 20th century, as Muslim immigrants began arriving in the United States from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and South Asia, they had to establish themselves in an America in which the white race, Protestantism, and progress were conflated to define a triumphalist American national identity, one that allowed varying levels of inclusion for Muslims based on their ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds.
The enormous bloodshed and destruction experienced during World War I ushered in a crisis of confidence in the ideals of the European Enlightenment, as well as in white, Protestant nationalism. It opened up avenues for alternative expressions of progress, which allowed Muslims, along with other nonwhite, non-Christian communities, to engage in political and social organization. Among these organizations were a number of black religious movements that used Islamic beliefs, rites, and symbols to define a black Muslim national identity.
World War II further shifted America, away from the religious competition that had earlier defined the nation’s identity and toward a “civil religion” of American democratic values and political institutions. Although this inclusive rhetoric was received differently along racial and ethnic lines, there was an overall appeal for greater visibility for Muslims in America. After World War II, increased commercial and diplomatic relations between the United States and Muslim-majority countries put American Muslims in a position, not only to relate Islam and America in their own lives but also to mediate between the varying interests of Muslim-majority countries and the United States.
Following the civil rights legislation of the 1950s and 1960s and the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, Muslim activists, many of whom had been politicized by anticolonial movements abroad, established new Islamic institutions. Eventually, a window was opened between the US government and American Muslim activists, who found a common enemy in communism following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Since the late 1960s, the number of Muslims in the United States has grown significantly. Today, Muslims are estimated to constitute a little more than 1 percent of the US population. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the United States as the sole superpower in the world, the United States has come into military conflict with Muslim-majority countries and has been the target of attacks by militant Muslim organizations. This has led to the cultivation of the binaries of “Islam and the West” and of “good” Islam and “bad” Islam, which have contributed to the racialization of American Muslims. It has also interpolated them into a reality external to their history and lived experiences as Muslims and Americans.
It is virtually impossible to understand the history of the American experience without Protestantism. The theological and religious descendants of the Protestant Reformation arrived in the United States in the early 17th century, shaped American culture in the 18th century, grew dramatically in the 19th century, and continued to be the guardians of American religious life in the 20th century. Protestantism, of course, is not monolithic. In fact, the very idea at the heart of Protestantism—the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages so it can be read and interpreted by all men and women—has resulted in thousands of different denominations, all claiming to be true to the teachings of scripture.
Protestantism, with its emphasis on the belief that human beings can access God as individuals, flourished in a nation that celebrated democracy and freedom. During the period of British colonization, especially following the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, Protestantism went hand in hand with British concepts of political liberty. As the British people celebrated their rights-oriented philosophy of government and compared their freedoms with the tyranny of France and other absolute monarchies in Europe, they also extolled the religious freedom that they had to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Following the American Revolution, this historic connection between political liberty and Protestant liberty proved to be compatible with the kind of democratic individualism that emerged in the decades preceding the Civil War and, in many respects, continues to define American political culture.
Protestantism, of course, is first and foremost a religious movement. The proliferation of Protestant denominations provides the best support for G. K. Chesterton’s quip that “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” Spiritual individualism, a commitment to the authority of an inspired Bible, and the idea that faith in the Christian gospel is all that is needed to be saved from eternal punishment, has transformed the lives of millions and millions of ordinary Americans over the course of the last four hundred years.
The Puritans were a group of people loosely defined through their shared adherence to the reformed theological tradition, largely following the work of John Calvin. Beginning in the 16th century, the Puritan movement took root in specific regional locales throughout Germany, Scotland, the Low Countries, and England. Following Queen Elizabeth’s settlement of 1559, which mandated conformity with the Church of England, the church’s authority splintered further as Protestants clashed with the episcopal polity, or church hierarchy. Religious conflict intensified from the 1580s through the end of James I’s reign, through repeated appeals to antiquity and patristics (writings from early Christian fathers) as pleas for further reform. Religious tension and persecution under the repressive regime of Archbishop Laud caused Puritans to leave England in search of new lands and communities.
When the Pilgrims and Puritans migrated to North America in 1620 and 1630, respectively, they did so with the intention of contesting the power of the crown to mandate religious uniformity. They believed in a Calvinist-based religion that espoused a separation of church and state, but that also privileged the spiritual authority of the individual to such a degree as to leave no clear signposts about how the disparate individuals practicing these faiths should form communities. Puritan congregations in New England allowed laymen as well as women new forms of spiritual self-discovery as they orally translated the evidence of grace recorded upon their souls into communal knowledge and a corporate identity that fashioned itself as a spiritual beacon to the world. Missionary encounters soon redefined Puritan faith, theology, and pious practices. Puritan identity in 17th century North America reconstituted itself through a particular confluence of interaction with foreign landscapes, native tribes, Africans, and new models of community and social interaction.
America’s tremendous diversities of faith, region, and ethnicity complicate efforts to generalize relationships between religious groups and the labor movement. Americans’ historic and widely shared commitment to Christianity masks deep divisions: between white Christians and black Christians, between Catholics and Protestants, between northern Protestants and southern Protestants, and between “modernist” Protestants (who view the Bible in metaphorical terms as a source of ethical guidance and emphasize social justice) and “fundamentalist” Protestants (who view the Bible literally and eschew social activism in favor of individual evangelizing). Work, class, and the role of the labor movement add extra dimensions to these complexities, which are multiplied when considering non-Christian traditions such as Judaism or the other world religious communities that have grown in the United States since the immigration reforms of 1965.
Nevertheless, scholars accept a general narrative that delineates key periods, themes, and players over the course of the twentieth century. From the turn of the 19th century until the 1930s, the relationship between religion and labor was shaped by the centrality of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the labor movement, the development of a “social gospel” among northern mainline Protestants, and the massive immigration from southern and eastern Europe that brought millions of Catholic and Jewish workers into the United States before it largely ended in the 1920s. These developments were sometimes in tension. The AFL favored craft unionism and placed a premium on organizing skilled male workers; it therefore left out many of the unskilled new arrivals (as well as African Americans and most women). Consequently, the shape of “religion and labor” formed primarily around the dynamic between the AFL and Protestant social reformers, without much regard to the large masses of unorganized Catholic, Jewish, and African American workers.
These dynamics shifted in the Great Depression. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), begun as a committee within the AFL in 1934, sought the organization of entire industries—skilled and unskilled alike, and ethnic Catholics and Jews became unionized in large numbers. Even traditional racial barriers in the labor movement began crumbling in some industries. And, the labor movement expanded its geographical ambition, pushing aggressively into the South. In turn, the religious voices associated with the labor movement broadened and deepened. Labor’s new alliances with Catholics, Jews, African Americans, and southern evangelicals helped to push the ranks of organized workers to historic highs in the 1950s.
This coalition has faced divisive, even disastrous headwinds since the 1960s. The strength of anticommunism, especially within religious groups, caused some religious workers to retreat from the reformist ambitions of the labor movement and sparked a conservative religious movement deeply opposed to labor and liberalism. Race became an ever-hotter flashpoint. Although religiously affiliated civil rights reformers often forged alliances with unions, the backlash and resistance to civil rights among portions of the white working class undermined the efficacy of labor unions as sources of social cohesion. Perhaps most profoundly, the economy as a whole transformed from an urban-industrial to a post-urban service model. Organized labor has floundered in the wake of these changes, and the concomitant resurgence of a traditionalist, individualistic, and therapeutic religious culture has offered the remains of the labor movement little to partner with.
Emily Suzanne Clark
Religion and race provide rich categories of analysis for American history. Neither category is stable. They change, shift, and develop in light of historical and cultural contexts. Religion has played a vital role in the construction, deconstruction, and transgression of racial identities and boundaries.
Race is a social concept and a means of classifying people. The “natural” and “inherent” differences between races are human constructs, social taxonomies created by cultures. In American history, the construction of racial identities and racial differences begins with the initial encounters between Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. Access to and use of religious and political power has shaped how race has been conceived in American history. Racial categories and religious affiliations influenced how groups regarded each other throughout American history, with developments in the colonial period offering prime examples. Enslavement of Africans and their descendants, as well as conquered Native Americans, displayed the power of white Protestants. Even 19th-century American anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism intersected racial identifications. At the same time, just as religion has supported racial domination in American history, it also has inspired calls for self-determination among racial minorities, most notably in the 20th century.
With the long shadow of slavery, the power of white supremacy, the emphasis on Native sovereignty, and the civil rights movement, much of the story of religion and race in American history focuses on Americans white, black, and red. However, this is not the whole story. Mexican-Americans and Latinx immigrants bring Catholic and transnational connections, but their presence has prompted xenophobia. Additionally, white Americans sought to restrict the arrival of Asian immigrants both legally and culturally. With the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the religious, racial, and ethnic diversity of the United States increased further. This religious and racial pluralism in many ways reflects the diversity of America, as does the conflict that comes with it.
The Great Depression of 1929–1941 brought not only economic and social crisis, but also forced families, churches, and religious organizations to reckon with individual and social suffering in ways that they had not done in the United States since the Civil War. This reckoning introduced a period of both theological and institutional transformation. Theologians wrestled not only with the domestic depression, but also with international instability as they faced questions about pacifism, economic and racial justice, and religious persecution. Ordinary people prayed for rain and revival. Many turned to their religious communities to wrestle together with the troubles they faced, or turned from those communities in disappointment and despair.
During the decades before the Great Depression, religious institutions across the United States had expanded their charitable efforts and their social reform campaigns, but the Depression wiped out the support for that work just as Americans needed it most. The New Deal brought a new set of questions about the relative roles of church and state in welfare and reform and introduced a period of religious ferment and church–state realignment. At the same time, the discontent and dislocation that the Great Depression wrought on local communities meant that individuals, families, and communities wrestled with deep theological questions together, often in ways that fractured old religious alliances and forged new ones. For American Jews and some Catholics, events in Europe proved even more troubling than those at home, and local communities reorganized around international activism and engagement.
Dynamic and creative exchanges among different religions, including indigenous traditions, Protestant and Catholic Christianity, and Islam, all with developing theologies and institutions, fostered substantial collective religious and cultural identities within African American communities in the United States. The New World enslavement of diverse African peoples and the cultural encounter with Europeans and Native Americans produced distinctive religious perspectives that aided individuals and communities in persevering under the dehumanization of slavery and oppression. As African Americans embraced Christianity beginning in the 18th century, especially after 1770, they gathered in independent church communities and created larger denominational structures such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the National Baptist Convention. These churches and denominations became significant arenas for spiritual support, educational opportunity, economic development, and political activism. Black religious institutions served as contexts in which African Americans made meaning of the experience of enslavement, interpreted their relationship to Africa, and charted a vision for a collective future. The early 20th century saw the emergence of new religious opportunities as increasing numbers of African Americans turned to Holiness and Pentecostal churches, drawn by the focus on baptism in the Holy Spirit and enthusiastic worship that sometimes involved speaking in tongues. The Great Migration of southern blacks to southern and northern cities fostered the development of a variety of religious options outside of Christianity. Groups such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, whose leaders taught that Islam was the true religion of people of African descent, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews promoting Judaism as the heritage of black people, were founded in this period. Early-20th-century African American religion was also marked by significant cultural developments as ministers, musicians, actors, and other performers turned to new media, such as radio, records, and film, to contribute to religious life. In the post–World War II era, religious contexts supported the emergence of the modern Civil Rights movement. Black religious leaders emerged as prominent spokespeople for the cause and others as vocal critics of the goal of racial integration, as in the case of the Nation of Islam and religious advocates of Black Power. The second half of the 20th century and the early 21st-first century saw new religious diversity as a result of immigration and cultural transformations within African American Christianity with the rise of megachurches and televangelism.