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As a nation grounded in the appropriation of Native land and the destruction of Native peoples, Christianity has helped define what it means to be “American” from the start. Even though neither the Continental Congress nor the Constitutional Convention recognized a unifying set of religious beliefs, Protestant evangelicalism served as a force of cohesion that helped Americans rally behind the War for Independence. During the multiple 19th-century wars for Indian removal and extermination, Christianity again helped solidify the collapse of racial, class, and denominational categories behind a love for a Christian God and His support for an American nation. Close connections between Christianity and American nationhood have flared in popularity throughout American history, particularly during wartime. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the closely affiliated religious and racial categories of Christianity and whiteness helped solidify American identity. However, constructions of a white, Christian, American nation have always been oversimplified. Slavery, land-grabbing, and the systematic genocide of Native peoples ran alongside the creation of the American myth of a Christian nation, founded in religious freedom. Indeed, enslavement and settler colonialism helped contrive a coherence to white Protestantism during a moment of profound disagreement on church government, theology, and religious practice. During the antebellum period, white Protestants constructed a Christian and American identity largely in opposition to categories they identified as non-Christian. This “other” group was built around indigenous, African, Muslim, and sometimes-Catholic religious beliefs and their historic, religious, and racial categorizations as “pagans,” “heathens,” and “savages.” In the 19th-century republic, this “non-Christian” designation defined and enforced a unified category of American Protestants, even though their denominations fought constantly and splintered easily. Among those outside the rhetorical category of Protestantism were, frequently, Irish and Mexican Catholics, as well as Mormons. Enforced segregation of African Americans within or outside of white Protestant churches furthered a sense of Protestant whiteness. When, by the late 19th century, Protestantism became elided with white middle class expectations of productive work, leisure, and social mobility, it was largely because of the early 19th-century cultural associations Protestants had built between white Protestantism, republicanism, and civilization. The fact that the largest categories of immigrants in the late 19th century came from non-Protestant cultures initially reified connections between Protestantism and American nationalism. Immigrants were identified as marginally capable of American citizenship and were simply considered “workers.” Protestant expectations of literacy, sobriety, social mobility, and religious practice helped construct Southern and Eastern European immigrants as nonwhite. Like African Americans, New Immigrants were considered incapable of fulfilling the responsibilities of American citizenship. Fears that Catholic and Jewish immigrants, like African Americans, might build lasting American institutions to change the cultural loci of power in the country were often expressed in religious terms. Groups such as the No-Nothing Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Immigration Restriction League often discussed their nationalist goals in terms of historic connections between the nation and Anglo-Protestantism. During the Great Depression and the long era of prosperity in the mid-20th century, the Catholic and Jewish migrants gradually assimilated into a common category of “whiteness” and American citizenship. However, the newly expansive category of postwar whiteness also further distanced African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and others as perpetual “foreigners” within a white, Protestant, Christian nation.

Article

Secularization and secularism are interpretive narratives and analytical systems of locative naming that co-construct the category of religion in spatial relationship to the idea of the secular as not-religion. These approaches were developed in the 19th century to make sense of the social restructuring of industrial societies. They begin with the assumption that religion is spatially identifiable as Christian church space, as readily recognizable in built congregational structures. And they consider the secular, in the most literal sense, as that which is not. That is, the secular is everything physically outside church space. But secularization theorists often do not adhere to this literal interpretation of spatial difference. They also use space metaphorically in their understanding of “disestablishment” as referring to more than just the physical state-expropriation of church land, but also to the separation of spheres that results from nation-state legal sovereignty, particularly focused on the spatial division between secular culture and church subcultures. Whereas secularization theory offers narrative frames to orient a historical trajectory of religion in relation to not-religion, the study of secularism describes attempts to understand the political and legal regulation of religion in relation to sovereign nation-states. Methodological distinctions between secularization and secularism invoke a long-standing problem in the study of religion: the ability of the scholar to discern the difference between the metaphorical map of religion in relation to the idea of the secular, and the state governance of physical territory. Classical secularization theory was constructed within the colonial context of the 19th century, and it carries within itself the spatial distinctions that define an Enlightenment conception of the Western nation-state, as a secular sovereignty set apart from and transcendent of the revelatory particularity of religious authority. More recent versions of secularization theory in the United States still assume that only the secular state can transcend physical space and still control its boundaries and borders. Religious transcendence, by contrast, is viewed as otherworldly. The reason for this is because unlike secular authority, which is self-evident and universal, religious authority is revelatory and particular. Within secularization theory, religions then are limited in their ability to physically enact, in every sphere of life, their revelatory mandates. They can do so only as long as they maintain a high level of orthodox belief and practice, to the extent that there is no distinction between religious and cultural authority. Secularization theory thus assumes that religious pluralism of any kind results in a competition to see which religion can control all aspects of life. The nation-state then is viewed as the transcendent mediator of religious claims to civic life and public space. And while secularization theory considers this mediation in the spatial terms of public practice and private belief, studies of secularism give more attention to the historical and contextual limits of nation-state transcendence, as well as the ways in which nation-states physically bound religion as a category, whether as located in the legal limits of 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, or a congregational building with a street address. Though the term secularism has been a co-generative concept in classical secularization theory, theories of secularism have been more fully developed since the late 20th century. Some of those approaches have extended the spatial concerns of secularization theory, particularly as related to the question of religious endurance as measured in terms of public practice and private belief. The mere difference, which has garnered quite a bit of writing, is to shift the interpretive gaze away from the individual challenge of Protestant Christians to maintain a comprehensive religious meaning-making system, a “sacred canopy,” in the midst of increasing religious diversity, to the ability of “orthodox” religious subcultures to maintain religious authority in the midst of a pervasive secularism that is antagonistic to the possibility of any totalizing religion, one that is lived out in all spheres of life. Other theoretical approaches to secularism, however, are more directly engaged with post-colonial scholarship, and are more focused on the role of the nation-state in the categorical construction of religion, than they are worried about the social loss of traditional religion.

Article

Sectionalism denotes the division of a country, such as the United States, into sections based on shared cultures, religions, and racial, economic, and political identities. These sections then compete, putting their interests over those of the other sections. In the case of the United States, one of the most significant sectional conflicts was the Civil War, where North and South battled due to conflict over racial, economic, religious, and political differences. However, sectional conflict can be seen as early as British colonialism during which time the colonies competed with each other and with their governments in Europe and later as other sections such as the West developed its own characteristics and interests. Religion and race were frequently at the core of sectional conflicts, in everything from the Revolutionary War, the drafting of the Constitution, the failure of compromise regarding slavery, and the intermittent battles with Native Americans over land and religious practice to the emergence of the West and the great immigration and religious innovation that took place there. In all these cases, sections constructed identities in which race and religion were fundamental and were also significant points of contention. Even today, at the beginning of the 21st century, sectionalism continues with geographic sections still battling for dominance, and cultural sections square off in what is commonly called the culture wars.

Article

Catholicism, as both an institution and a culture of popular beliefs, rituals, and values, has played an important role in the formation of racial boundaries in American society. The logic of race and its inherent function as a mechanism of social power, in turn, profoundly shaped Catholic thought and practice throughout the church’s own 400-year formation in America. Beginning with colonization of the New World, Catholicism defined and institutionalized racial difference in ways that both adhered to and challenged the dominant Anglo-American conceptions of whiteness as a critical measure of social belonging. Early Catholic missions abetted European colonialism by codifying Africans and Native Americans as cultural and moral “others.” Following a “national parish” system, institutional growth from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century sorted various European “races” and created spaces for resisting Anglo-American discrimination. The creation of a separate and singular mission for all “non-white” communities nonetheless reflected Catholic acquiescence to an American racial binary. Intra-Catholic challenges to racialist organization struggled to gain traction until the mid-20th century. As second- and third-generation European immigrants began asserting white status in American society, Catholic understandings of sacred space, which infused white resistance to neighborhood integration with religious urgency, and hierarchical ordering of moral authority within an institution that historically excluded non-whites from positions of influence created significant barriers to Catholic interracialism. The influence of the civil rights movement and the structural transformation of both Catholic life and urban communities where non-whites lived nonetheless prompted new efforts to enlist Catholic teaching and community resources into ongoing struggles against racial oppression. Debates over the meaning of race and American society and social policy continue to draw upon competing histories of the American Catholic experience.

Article

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.

Article

The South still commonly appears as the land of the Bible Belt, of evangelical Protestant hegemony. Despite the rapidly increasing immigration from all parts of the world to the region, there is still justification for such a view. To study religion in the South, then, is to examine the influence of a dominant evangelical culture that has shaped the region’s social mores, religious minorities (including Catholicism, Judaism, and non-Christian immigrant religions), cultural forms, charged racial interactions, and political practices. In no other widely dispersed region, save for the Mormon regions of the Rocky Mountain West, does one family of religious belief and expression hold such sway over so many people and throughout such a large area. The biracial nature of evangelicalism in the South, as well, lends it a distinctive history and culture that alternately puzzles, repulses, and fascinates outsiders. The South may be the Bible Belt, but, like Joseph’s coat, it is a belt of many colors, embroidered with a rich stitching together of words, sounds, and images from the inexhaustible resource of the scriptures. The rigid Bible Belt conservatism associated with the common understanding of religion in the South contrasts dramatically with the sheer creative explosiveness of southern religious cultural expression. Indeed, southern religious influences lay at the heart of much of 20th-century American popular culture. And it contrasts with a rapidly changing contemporary South in which Buddhist retreat centers and Ganesha temples are taking their place alongside Baptist and Methodist churches.

Article

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.

Article

Lauren Frances Turek

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.