Race and Protestantism in America
- Lauren Frances TurekLauren Frances TurekTrinity University
The history of Protestantism in America is deeply intertwined with the histories of race and religious pluralism. Protestantism grew out of Martin Luther’s remonstrations against the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, and swiftly divided into a multiplicity of denominations and sects that spread across Europe, the Americas, and eventually the rest of the world. Luther believed that individuals gained salvation through God’s grace rather than through good works and that saved individuals belonged to the “priesthood of believers” and thus enjoyed direct access to God through their faith in Jesus Christ. Despite the significant differences that existed between Protestant denominations and sects, they shared these basic beliefs that salvation came through faith in Jesus Christ, that believers had an individual relationship with God, and that the Bible rather than a priest was the highest earthly authority.
The Protestants who made their way from Europe to the Americas during the early 17th century derived from different denominational branches, including Puritans, Anglicans, Huguenots, Quakers, Lutherans, Anabaptists, and others, and came for diverse reasons, with some seeking an escape from religious persecution and others eager to reap a profit in the New World. They arrived to a vast continent that already boasted a multiplicity of peoples and religions, including indigenous Americans, French and Spanish Catholics, Jews, and Africans.
Through their interactions with non-Protestant and non-European peoples, Protestants drew on their religious beliefs to make sense of the differences they perceived between themselves and those they encountered, defining and redefining the relatively new concept of “race” in the process. As Protestants established their faith as the dominant cultural, religious, and ideological force in North America, they used their religiously inflected definitions of race to create racial and religious hierarchies, enshrining white Protestantism at the apogee of these invented categories. These hierarchies influenced American law, politics, and culture from the colonial era onward. They delineated which peoples counted as “American” and who could and should possess the full rights granted to U.S. citizens in the decades and centuries after the American Revolution. These hierarchies, coupled with religious ideas such as the Protestant commitment to spreading the gospel, also shaped the transcontinental and international expansion of the nation, providing the impetus and justification for exerting hegemonic control over indigenous populations within and outside of the United States.
At the same time, Protestant beliefs about freedom and the inherent dignity of the individual provided an ideological basis for African Americans, Latinx Americans, indigenous Americans, and a range of immigrant populations to resist subjugation. Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and the separation of church and state created the opening for true religious pluralism. The diversity and evolution of American Protestantism and Protestant thought, as well as the role that Protestantism played in shaping and contesting American ideas about race and religion, influenced the development of American society and politics profoundly.