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Phillip Luke Sinitiere

In its broadest sense, interracialism in American Christianity refers to constructive social interactions and collaboration across racial and ethnic boundaries—existential engagement inspired by religious ideals and religious teachings—in the interest of undercutting sanctioned divisions. Terms such as “racial interchange,” “desegregation,” “integration,” and “cross-racial” also refer to the broader ideas contained in the term “interracial.” To single out Christianity as a subject of interracial dynamics in American religious history does not deny the existence of cross-racial experiences in other religious traditions such as Buddhism, or even in the various groups within new religious movements. Rather, it reflects the largest range of documented experiences on this subject and synthesizes the major scholarship on this topic. The existence of interracialism in American religion also assumes the entanglement of race and religion. As social constructs, religious ideas and teachings contributed to conceptions of race and its lived realities, while notions of race shaped the development of religious practices, religious institutions, and scriptural interpretations. Interracialism in American religion is a concept that portends the possibility of political, social, or intellectual unity; in practice it wrestles with power dynamics where factors such as class or gender, as much as race, shapes social relations. In other words, interracialism in American religion has been a transgressive, disruptive presence that defies structures of power; at the very same time, it has exhibited social and expressive habits that reinforce existing arrangements of exploitation and division. Interracialism in American religion has existed in the course of everyday, ordinary human interaction through the spoken and written word, friendship, or sexual relations, for example. Simultaneously, interracialism in American religion has been the programmatic focus of institutional programs or initiatives, carried out by religious leaders and organizations, or supported through denominational efforts. The history of interracialism in American Christianity registers potential for unity or collaboration, while it is always subject to the pitfalls of power relations that subvert the vitality and beauty that are possible through shared experience. Protestant and Catholic Christianity have manifested the most extensive expressions of interracialism in American religion. Interracialism in American religion is in one sense as old as American religious history itself; however, given the racial discrimination written into the nation’s legal code, political system, and economic practice, interracial engagement most especially dawned at the beginning of the 20th century followed by century-long developments that continued into the first decade of the 2000s. Interracialism in American religion is a subject with longitudinal dimensions and contemporary resonance. Enduring and timely, its scholarly provenance spans across many disciplines including the fields of history, theology, literature, and social science. As the scholarship on the subject demonstrates, interracialism and racial interchange rarely produced racial harmony and did not necessarily lead to integration or desegregation; however, these impulses created specific moments of humane recognition that collectively contributed to substantive changes in the direction of racial and social justice.

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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.