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.
American Buddhism during World War II imprisonment refers to the Japanese American Buddhist experience between 1942 and 1945 when persons of Japanese ancestry, commonly known as Nikkei Amerikajin, were imprisoned. A discussion of the Nikkei Buddhist experience includes the experiences of Euro-American convert Buddhists who supported them during the imprisonment period.
Immediately after the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested and interned Japanese Buddhist priests and other leaders of Japanese communities in the United States. In March 1942, the Western Defense Command designated the three West Coast states (Washington, Oregon, and California) and Arizona as Military Area No. 1, from which all persons of Japanese descent, and alien Germans and Italians, were forcefully removed. Following Executive Order 9066 signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the US government removed approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans from the aforementioned military zone and incarcerated them in relocation centers built throughout the continental United States. During that time, the Nikkei community consisted primarily of the Issei, the first generation of Japanese immigrants, and the Nisei, their American-born children. As Tetsuden Kashima defines, the word “internment” refers to the imprisonment of enemy aliens, such as the Issei Japanese nationals, by the Department of Justice and the US Army, while the term “incarceration” refers to the confinement of the Nikkei, including a great number of the Nisei American citizens, by the War Relocation Authority. The word “imprisonment” designates the entire process consisting of internment and incarceration.
The study of American Buddhism during World War II is still in its early stages. Finding records and documents related to this subject from the large collections on Japanese American imprisonment is not an easy task. While the National Archives in Washington, DC, maintains the majority of primary sources dealing with Japanese American relocation and incarceration, other institutions, such as the Japanese American National Museum, the University of California-Los Angeles, and museums built around the sites of internment camps, also preserve records. Some of the primary sources are written in Japanese and are located in Japan, which is another stumbling block for researchers who do not read Japanese. Duncan R. Williams’s forthcoming book, American Sutra: Buddhism and the World War II Japanese American Experience, however, will change the current state of scholarship on Japanese American Buddhism during World War II.
The forceful relocation of Japanese American Buddhists served to weaken their long-standing efforts to make their ethno-religious practices accepted by America’s general public. Mass incarceration, however, forced the Japanese American Buddhists to further Americanize their religion, generated a set of new Buddhist practices, and gave them opportunities to reflect on their national identities. Buddhist faith and cultural practices associated with Japanese Buddhism contributed to ethnic solidarity, even though the Japanese American community was divided over the issue of US patriotism. During the postwar period, Japanese American Buddhists initiated a campaign to improve their image in the United States and to honor the Nisei Buddhist soldiers who fought during World War II. The formation of American Buddhism was closely connected to the development of US political ideology.
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.
Andrew R. McKee
America has been closely linked to the Caribbean since at least the Age of Revolutions. Across the Atlantic World, revolutions in France, Santo Domingo, and the eastern United States drastically changed interlocked understandings of citizenship, religion, and freedom. From the 19th century onward, imperial views and laws about religions developed from prerevolutionary era roots. The dominant understandings of Caribbean religious history are those of migration, diaspora, syncretism, and diversity. Studying how the American religious empire worked to regulate and control the religious practices in the Caribbean shows how the distinct religions associated with the region—Obeah, Santeria, and Vodou, for example—developed. It is impossible to study the Caribbean without centering on the processes of Anglo-European colonization and the forced migration of enslaved peoples predominantly, but not only, from Africa. Labor and economic concerns underline nearly every Caribbean religious culture that exploded in the region from the colonial period onward.
Scholars have long recognized the transformative impact that colonialism had on Buddhist institutions, identities, thought, and practice. The period marked the rise of politicized identities linking Buddhism to anti-colonial nationalist movements alongside boisterous discussions about reforming Buddhism to its “innate” humanistic, scientific core. For many decades, histories of Buddhism under colonialism generally subscribed to a singular narrative in which colonial forces leveled such monumental changes that almost all forms of modern Buddhism were seen as derivative of ideologies introduced by Western colonial regimes. These narratives, however, only tell some of the story. Beginning in the last decades of the 20th century, scholarship has increasingly shown how Buddhists responded in a multitude of ways to colonial influence. There was resistance and collusion as well as instances where colonial systems had only minimal impact. Numerous ideas about Buddhism which for most of the 20th century were taken for granted—that the text is closer to “true” Buddhism than contemporary practice, that texts composed in “classical” languages are more authoritative than those in the vernacular, that Buddhism is not really a religion at all but more like a science of the mind or philosophy, that Buddhism is less ritualistic and more rational than other religious traditions, and so on—have their roots in the colonial encounter with Buddhism. Any student wishing to understand the place of Buddhism during the colonial period must consider the multiple trajectories and plural histories rather than singular, monolithic narratives.
The caliphate as an institution for governing the Muslim community can be traced back to the time immediately after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632
Although it functioned only for a few centuries as an effective form of Islamic governance, for many Sunni Muslims the caliphate’s political and symbolic significance has outlasted its administrative and institutional fragmentation. Its appeal even continued after its formal abolition in 1924 by the founding president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881–1938). Since then the caliphate has not just remained a nostalgic memory. Throughout the 20th century and into the new millennium, some proponents of political Islam continue to advocate the restoration of a caliphate as a rallying point for Muslims worldwide, in some instances making concrete efforts toward re-establishing the institution or even proclaiming a new caliph.
Ronald Williams Jr.
On January 17, 1893, Her Majesty Queen Liliʻuokalani, sovereign of the Hawaiian Kingdom, was overthrown in a coup de main led by a faction of business leaders comprised largely of descendants of the 1820 American Protestant mission to the “Sandwich Islands.” Rev. Charles Hyde, an officer of the ecclesiastic Papa Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian Board) declared, “Hawaii is the first Country in which the American missionaries have labored, whose political relations to the United States have been changed as a result of missionary labors.” The actions of these “Sons of the Mission” were enabled by U.S. naval forces landed from the USS Boston the evening prior.
Despite blatant and significant connections between early Christian missionaries to Hawaiʻi and their entrepreneurial progeny, the 1893 usurpation of native rule was not the result of a teleological seventy-year presence in the Hawaiian Kingdom by the American Protestant Church. An 1863 transfer of authority over the Hawaiian mission from the Boston-based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) to the local ʻAhahui ʻEuanelio o Hawaiʻi (AEH) (Hawaiian Evangelical Association) served as a pivotal inflection point that decidedly altered the original mission, driving a political and economic agenda masked only by the professed goals of the ecclesiastic institution. Christianity, conveyed to the Hawaiian Islands initially by representatives of the ABCFM, became a contested tool of religio-political significance amidst competing foreign and native claims on leadership in both church and state. In the immediate aftermath of the January 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom government, this introduced religion became a central tool of the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) struggle for a return of their queen and the continued independence of their nation.
Native Christian patriots organized and conducted a broad array of political actions from within the churches of the AEH using claims on Ke Akua (God) and Christianity as a foundation for their vision of continued native rule. These efforts were instrumental in the defeat of two proposed treaties of annexation of their country—1893 and 1897—before the United States, declaring control of the archipelago a strategic necessity in fighting the Spanish/Filipino–American War, took possession of Hawaiʻi in late 1898. Widespread Americanization efforts in the islands during the early 20th century filtered into Hawaiʻi’s Christian churches, transforming many of these previous focal points of relative radicalism into conservative defenders of the American way. A late-20th-century resurgence of cultural and political activism among Kanaka Maoli, fostered by a “Hawaiian Renaissance” begun in the 1970s, has driven a public and academic reexamination of the past and present role of Christianity in this current-day American outpost in the center of the Pacific.
Raymond Haberski, Jr.
Civil religion in America has no church, denominations, or institutional center, and it cannot be traced to a single origin story. And yet, it operates as a religion in ways familiar to Americans—it has priests and pastors, altars and sacrifices, symbols, institutions, and liturgies. So, what, then, is civil religion? The term originates with the 18th-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who proposed that the French nation needed a civil religion to replace the “unholy” alliance between the Catholic Church and the monarchy. Rousseau explained in book 4 of his Social Contract that he hoped a “purely civil profession of faith” would satisfy what he viewed as the popular need for something to believe in, to give one’s allegiance to, and even to give up one life’s for—a transcendent, unifying point of reference that existed beyond politics and in place of a denominational (most likely Christian) church. Thus, in philosophical terms, civil religion is the appropriation of religion for political ends. The American version of civil religion, though, differs from Rousseau’s idea by incorporating the nation’s Christian heritage more deeply into an understanding and judgment of America.
In the American context, civil religion had to accommodate the country’s variety of faiths and Enlightenment rationalism, but was just as deeply influenced by the power of popular and elite religiosity to order American life. Thus, American civil religion has echoed Protestant values and assumptions, while enshrining the mythic nature of the Puritans, founding fathers, and common people who gave their lives in wars and conquest. Moreover, while Americans do not pray to their nation, they have no trouble praying for their nation; they see presidents and preachers as both serving in capacities that minister to the people in times of crisis, and they invest sacred meaning in events and documents to help them imagine that America is as much an idea as it is a place. Over time, American civil religion has also provided a narrative for a set of ideals, statements of purpose, and symbols to which all Americans, in theory, can appeal.
Sociologist Robert N. Bellah (1927–2013) explained in a famous and significant essay titled “Civil Religion in America,” for the winter 1967 issue of the journal Daedelus, “American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality.” He contended that Americans could call upon not only a common creed of ideals but also their civil religion to evaluate their nation’s actions. In parlance that became popular following World War II, the United States was a nation “under God,” meaning, as Bellah argued, “the will of the people is not itself the criterion of right and wrong. There is a higher criterion in terms of which this will can be judged; it is possible that the people may be wrong.”
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.
William A. Mirola
Scholars pursuing questions on the links between religion and social class typically examine several distinct sets of dynamics. A main research focus has addressed how religious beliefs, behaviors, and experiences vary across different social class contexts. Studies in this tradition draw on quantitative and qualitative data to illustrate such differences. Statistical studies have demonstrated economic and educational differences in patterns of an array of religious beliefs, religious service participation, and other religious behaviors, and especially social and political attitudes on everything from gay rights to gun control to political party preference. Qualitative work typically delves into the lived religious experiences of individuals from different classes as well as examining the ways in which religious expression is itself shaped by class cultures.
A significant portion of this type of research examines how religion impacts the life and work experiences of those at the bottom of the class hierarchy, the working and nonworking poor. Here the way that faith shapes how poor people view the challenges of their lives and their views of the larger society are particularly central concerns. Addressing a second related set of questions, researchers also examine how participation in religious communities contributes to forms of social mobility in terms of socioeconomic status indicators. Statistical analyses dominate in this area, illustrating how denominational affiliation and measures of religious belief and practice predict views regarding income and wealth accumulation, educational attainment, and occupational choice. Another distinct area of scholarship examines the role religion has played in shaping the history of capitalism and the dynamics of the traditionally understood industrial working classes and the organized labor movement. Here, too, scholars examine how working-class individuals use religion as a way to understand their work and the evolution of global capitalism. Labor historians in particular have examined historical and contemporary instances in which religious leaders and organizations play active roles in industrial conflicts.
Whichever route one takes to explore religion and social class, studying their intersections has been of longstanding interest to social scientists, historians, religious studies scholars, and theologians for more than a century. This article bridges these approaches and provides an overview of their complex intersections in contemporary social contexts.
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.
Christie S. Warren
The Constitution of Madinah, written by the Prophet after his flight from Mecca and arrival in Madinah (622
Since 2011 and in part due to events of the so-called Arab Spring, the topic of Islam and constitutions has been the subject of heightened interest. In recent years, a number of Muslim-majority countries, including Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Palestine, have embarked upon constitutional processes, and the relationship between Islam and the state has been debated in each of them. A variety of models has emerged over time; whereas in Saudi Arabia the Qur’an serves as the constitution itself, in Egypt Shari’ah is the principal source of legislation. Similarly, while the 2012 draft constitution of Libya states that Islam shall be the state religion and Islamic Shari’ah the main source of legislation, the constitution of Iraq provides that no law contradicting established provisions of Islam may be enacted. Language in the Afghan constitution is even more precise and states that Afghanistan is an Islamic republic, that no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of Islam, and that in the absence of specific constitutional or legislative language governing the disposition of a case, courts shall implement principles of Hanafi jurisprudence.
In similar fashion, academic scholarship analyzing the relationship between Islam and constitutionalism has increased in scope and vibrancy in recent years. Historically, scholarship in this field tended to focus on issues relating to governance and administrative structures in Muslim-majority countries—not on normative constitutional principles. More recently, Islamic perspectives on constitutional norms have become the focus of significant scholarship. Some constitutional issues of recent academic interest include state sponsorship of a particular religion to the exclusion of others, freedom to practice Islam and other religions, and options for articulating the role of Shari’ah within constitutional frameworks, including the use of supremacy and repugnancy clauses, the role of Shari’ah as a source of legislation, “Shari’ah checks” to ensure that legislation does not contravene Islamic law, review by Shura Councils, and the role of the judicial branch in interpreting Islamic law. Additional constitutional issues impacted by defined relationships between Shari’ah and the state include human and women’s rights, protection of religious minorities; criminal law and hudud punishments; finance law and restrictions on charging interest; rights of freedom of association, expression, and expression; and provisions governing marriage, divorce and inheritance.
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.
The eruv is perhaps the most creative, confounding, and contested spatial construct in Judaism. Territorially, it demarcates the urban space within which prohibitions otherwise attached to Sabbath observance for Orthodox Jews become permitted. While virtually imperceptible to the human eye, eruvin (pl.) sanctify what would otherwise be sacrilegious. An eruv thus creates permissive religious space for Jews on Sabbath. Hundreds of cities worldwide, including urban areas across North America, are home to an eruv. Notwithstanding their prevalence and undetectable physical imprint on urban landscapes, the establishment of eruvin has unleashed intense hostility and resistance in some locales. Opposition has typically been mounted by a surprisingly mixed array of critics including non-Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, and dissenting Orthodox Jews. The eruv highlights, in compelling fashion, the spatial challenges of navigating faith, ritual, secularism, and pluralism in contemporary American cities. Seemingly ethereal religious beliefs can occasion radically different perceptions of public space.
Political Islam has generated two ideological strands that use religious ideology to advance their goals, namely, Islamism and jihadism. On the one hand, Islamists have formulated a political paradigm premised on Islamic teachings that are adaptable to the secular framework of the modern state and have, therefore, endured both as domestic and global political actors. On the other hand, jihadis have rejected positive law outright and advanced a global revolutionary paradigm against today’s secular world order. Key to jihadism’s appropriation of Islamic teachings is a quest for a legal code that provides jihadis with both an anti-establishment justification for their violence and a claim to legitimacy in the minds of Muslims whom they wish to enlist as their followers.
Stephanie Y. Mitchem
With rapid development, academically and socially, in the past sixty years, gender and public religion in the United States have become a separate field, even as it is integrated into others such as politics, biology, law, philosophy, and cultural studies. As ideas about gender have expanded, potential conflicts with established religions have sometimes occurred even as new theologies, ethical constructs, and even new strains of religion occur.
Governance in Islamic history has taken many different forms. The formative period saw most innovative deployment of the Arab tribal norms under the guidance of Islamic norms and the pressure of the rapid expansion. After the conquests, the ruling elite augmented their Arab tribal form of governance with numerous institutions and practices from the surrounding empires, particularly the Persian empire. The Umayyads ruled as Arab chiefs, whereas the Abbasids ruled as Persian emperors. Local influences further asserted themselves in governance after the Abbasids weakened and as Islamization took root. After the fragmentation of the Abbasid empire by the
Kathryn Gin Lum
Heaven and hell have survived in the United States beyond scientific critiques of the supernatural. For many Americans, the promise of eternal rewards and the threat of everlasting punishments shaped how they lived their lives in the here-and-now, and how they interacted with others. Oppressed groups used the afterlife to turn the tables on their oppressors, while others used the threat of the afterlife to try to keep people in line.
The afterlife, after all, was never just after life. Heaven, hell, and their inhabitants could impinge on this life. Time and again, Americans have labeled various places or situations as hells on earth, from America itself (in the eyes of European colonizers), to the slaveholding South, to the battlefields of the Civil War, to the inner city. Reformers have sought to bring heaven to earth, even while hoping for heaven in the life to come.
Meanwhile, discomfort with predestinarian teachings on salvation and damnation led to theological innovations and revisions of traditional Christian teachings on hell. Over time, the stark hell and theocentric heaven of the early colonists waned in many pulpits, with the symbols and figures of the afterlife migrating to fill the pages and TV screens of American popular culture productions. That said, the driving threat of hell remains significant in conservative American Christianity as a political tool in the early 21st century, just as in times past.
Connie A. Shemo
The history of East Asian religions in the United States is inextricably intertwined with the broader history of United States–East Asian relations, and specifically with U.S. imperialism. For most Americans in the 19th and into the early 20th centuries, information about religious life in China, Japan, and Korea came largely through foreign missionaries. A few prominent missionaries were deeply involved in the translation of important texts in East Asian religions and helped promote some understanding of these traditions. The majority of missionary writings, however, condemned the existing religions in these cultures as part of their critiques of the cultures as degenerate and in need of Christianity. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the women’s foreign mission movement was the largest women’s movement in the United States, women missionaries’ representations of East Asian religions as inherent in the oppression of women particularly reached a large audience. There was also fascination with East Asian religions in the United States, especially as the 20th century progressed, and more translations appeared from people not connected to the foreign mission movement. By the 1920s, as “World Friendship” became an important paradigm in the foreign missionary movement, some missionary representations of East Asian religions became more positive, reflecting and contributing to a broader trend in the United States toward a greater interest in religious traditions around the world, and coinciding with a move toward secularization. As some scholars have suggested, the interest in East Asian religions in the United States in some ways fits into the framework of “Orientalism,” to use Edward Said’s famous term, viewing religions of the “East” as an exotic alternative to religion in the West. Other scholars have suggested that looking at the reception of these religions through a framework of “Orientalism” underestimates and distorts the impact these religious traditions have had in the United States. Regardless, religious traditions from East Asia have become a part of the American religious landscape, through both the practice of people who have immigrated from East Asia or practice the religion as they have learned from family members, and converts to those religions. The numbers of identified practitioners of East Asian religions in United States, with the exception of Buddhism, a religion that originated outside of East Asia, is extremely small, and even Buddhists are less than 2 percent of the American population. At the same time, some religious traditions, such as Daoism and some variants of Buddhism (most notably Zen Buddhism), have exercised a significant impact on popular culture, even while a clear understanding of these traditions has not yet been widespread in the United States. Some understanding of Confucianism as well has recently been spread through the propagation of “Confucian” institutes in the United States. It is through these institutes that we may see the beginnings of the Chinese government exercising some influence in American universities, which, while not comparable to the impact of Christian missionaries in the development of Chinese educational institutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nonetheless can illuminate the growing power of China in Sino-American relations in the beginning of the 21st century.
While the term “East Asian” religions is frequently used for convenience, it is important to be aware of potential pitfalls in assigning labels such as “Western” and “Eastern” to religious traditions, particularly if this involves a construction of Christianity as inherently “Western.” At a time when South Korea sends the second largest number of Christian missionaries to other countries, Christianity could theoretically be defined as an East Asian religion, in that a significant number of people in one East Asian country not only practice but actively seek to propagate the religion. Terms such as “Eastern” and “Western” to define religious traditions are cultural constructs in and of themselves.