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Article

Samira K. Mehta

Jews in America have had a complex relationship to race. At times, they have been described as a racial minority, whereas at other times, they have been able to assimilate into the white majority. Jewish status has largely depended on whether white Americans felt, in any given moment, socially secure. Jews have therefore fared better during times of economic prosperity. This social instability has strongly affected their relationship to African Americans. Jews, who have a strong sense of themselves as outsiders, have often identified with African American struggles but feared that overt solidarity would endanger their own status as white. Nevertheless, American Jews were disproportionately represented in the civil rights movements. Lastly, while American Jewish are predominantly Ashkenazi, which is to say of Central and Eastern European heritage, contemporary American Jewry is increasingly racially diverse, in part because of Jewish immigration from other parts of the world but also because of interfaith marriage, conversion, and adoption. This increased racial diversity has caused problems in the contemporary American Jewish community, but it is also changing the face of it.

Article

Jamil W. Drake

It is impossible to provide a conclusive definition of the idea of black religion; however, certain themes, tropes, and characteristics are typically associated with the “black” in black religion. These ideas are inseparable from the ideas of race in American history. The ideas of the religious differences (e.g., institutions, theologies, practices, or values) attributed to black people are not objective or neutral. Rather, these ideas about the differences of black religion are value-laden and shaped by larger debates about the moral and intellectual capabilities, social status, and/or political struggles of black folk in the United States. In this sense, the idea of black religion is inseparable from the larger discourse about black people and their place in the republic. Arguably, black religion was not a formal object of inquiry until the late 19th century, yet it often includes statements about the paganism, idolatry, and/or fetishism used to define “religion of Africa” in the colonial period. By the antebellum period, a cadre of voluntary African associations continued the ideas of pagan Africa that posited a redemptive [African] race that simultaneously sought to purify American religion from slavery and to civilize Africa from the ideas of primitivism. Throughout the 20th century, early studies of “black religion” were associated with ideas of social and moral uplift; race heredity; economic stress; transmission of Africanisms; and protest and liberation. In the end, black religion is intrinsic to U.S. intellectual and cultural history.

Article

The Black Atlantic and the African Diaspora refer to overlapping geographic and historical concepts each representing a complex series of dispersals, connections and reconnections, interactions, engagements and disengagements, and conflicts. As a geographic, spatial, and historical subset of the African Diaspora, the Black Atlantic refers to the sustained contacts and connections among the peoples of Atlantic Africa, Europe, and the Americas beginning with the “Age of Reconnaissance” (1306–1484) and the “Age of Contact” (1482–1621) and extending into the present. One of the first acts in the creation of the Black Atlantic can be located within the story of Mansa Qu, Islamic emperor and explorer from the western Sudanic empire of Mali, who commissioned two oceanic voyages to discover the western extent of the Atlantic between 1307 and 1311. Reconnaissance expeditions of this sort, launched by both Atlantic Africans and later by Iberians in the 14th and 15th centuries, helped create knowledge networks and webs of interconnections that would become critical to the later formation of the Black Atlantic. At the core of many of these earlier efforts to explore the world around them were the religious pursuits and goals—both Christian and Islamic—on the part of Atlantic Africans and Iberians. Delegations of Christian monks and pilgrims from Ethiopia visited the Italian peninsula, Iberia, and other parts of Europe beginning in 1306 seeking pan-Christian alliances against common Muslim foes. These early delegations fueled later Iberian imaginations about the existence of Prester John—an eastern defender of Christendom believed by the early 15th century to preside over an East African kingdom. In part, the protracted search for the mythical Prester John in Africa by the Portuguese after 1415 set in motion sustained contacts between Iberia and Atlantic Africa highlighted by the creation of Iberian-African settlements along the Atlantic African coast and in the Atlantic Islands, the transfer of enslaved labor to the Americas via the Atlantic Slave Trade, and the beginnings of sugar plantations and slave societies in the Caribbean and Brazil by the mid-16th century. Centuries of sustained contact of this nature spawned a range of cultural formations, the processes of ethnogenesis, and the creation of new transnational identities in the littoral regions and beyond of the four continents that frame the Atlantic Ocean. Creolization, the unique confluence of Atlantic cultures, served as the foundation for reinvented peoples across the Western Hemisphere who remembered, activated, and re-created “Africa” while attending to New World realities of racial slavery and hierarchy. This process of creolization created a range of ethnocultural permutations, from Atlantic Creoles to a wide array of neo-African ethnic groups in the Americas (e.g., Eboes, Coromantees, Congos, Nâgos, and Lucumís). Within this diverse cultural matrix and the processes of cultural mixing, religious and spiritual worldviews were among the most significant articulations of Black Atlantic and creole cultures. Indeed, there is no other way to decode the intricacies of Cuban Santería, Brazilian Candomblé, Haitian Voudou, New Orleans Hoodoo, Jamaican Myalism, or Obeah without framing them in the context of the cultural negotiations among many Atlantic African peoples made necessary by the suffocating confines of racial slavery and more recent socio-racial hierarchies embedded within Western Hemisphere colonialism, Jim Crow in the United States, and other manifestations of white supremacy

Article

For centuries before the European colonization of North America, sectarian, ethnic, and racial discrimination were interrelated. The proscription of certain groups based on their biological or other apparently ingrained characteristics, which is one definition of racism, in fact describes much religious prejudice in Western history—even as the modern term “racism” was not used until the 20th century. An early example of the similarities between religious and racial prejudice can be seen in the case of anti-Semitism, where merely possessing “Jewish blood” made one inherently unassimilable in many parts of Europe for nearly a thousand years before the initial European conquest of the New World. Throughout Western history, religious values have been mobilized to dehumanize other non-Christian groups such as Muslims, and starting in the 16th century, religious justifications of conquest played an indispensable role in the European takeover of the Americas. In the culture of the 17th- and 18th-century British colonies, still another example of religious and racial hatred existed in the anti-Catholicism of the original Protestant settlers, and this prejudice was particularly evident with the arrival of Irish immigrants in the 19th century. In contemporary language, the Irish belonged to the Celtic “race” and one of the many markers of this race’s inherent inferiority was Catholicism—a religious system that was alternatively defined as non-Western, pagan, or irrational by many Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who similarly saw themselves as a different, superior race. In addition to the Irish, many other racial groups—most notably Native Americans—were defined as inferior based on their religious beliefs. Throughout much of early American history, the normative religious culture of Anglo-Protestantism treated groups ranging from African slaves to Asian or Middle Eastern immigrants as alternatively unequal, corrupt, subversive, or civically immature by virtue of their religious identity. Historians can see many examples of the supposedly dangerous religious attributes of foreigners—such as those of the Chinese in the late 19th century—as a basis for restricting immigration. Evangelical Protestant ideas of divine chosen-ness also influenced imperial projects launched on behalf of the United States. The ideology of Manifest Destiny demonstrates how religious differences could be mobilized to excuse the conquest and monitoring of foreign subjects in places such as Mexico or the Philippines. Anglo-Protestant cultural chauvinism held sway for much of American history, though since the mid-1900s, it can be said to have lost some of its power. Throughout its history, many racial or ethnic groups—such as Hispanic Americans, African-Americans, or Asian Americans in the United States have struggled to counter the dominant ethnic or racial prejudice of the Anglo-Protestant majority by recovering alternative religious visions of nationhood or cultural solidarity. For groups such as the 20th-century Native American Church, or the African American Nation of Islam, religious expression formed an important vehicle to contest white supremacy.

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

The history of race, religion, and law in the United States is a story about who gets to be human and the relevance of human difference to political and material power. Each side in this argument marshaled a variety of scientific, theological, and intellectual arguments supporting its position. Consequently, we should not accept a simple binary in which religion either supports or obstructs processes of racialization in American history. Race and religion, rather, are co-constitutive. They have been defined and measured together since Europeans’ arrival in the western hemisphere. A focus on legal history is one way to track these developments. One of the primary contradictions in the relationship between religion and race in the U.S. legal system has been that, despite the promise of individual religious free exercise enshrined in the Constitution, dominant strands of American culture have long identified certain racial and religious groups as a threat to the security of the nation. The expansion of rights to minority groups has been, and remains, contested in American culture. “Race,” as Americans came to think about it, was encoded in laws, adjudicated in courts, enforced through government action, and conditioned everyday life. Ideas of race were closely related to religious and cultural assumptions about human nature and human origins. Much of the history of the United States, and the western hemisphere of which it is part, is linked to changing ideas about—even the emergence of—a terminology of “race,” “religion,” and related concepts.

Article

Alternative religious movements have played a significant role in American history. There is no easy definition for these types of groups; their ideas and practices vary. One clear commonality, though, is their development on the sociocultural margins. Thus, inherent in alternative religious movements is a critique of dominant culture, and this offers a powerful means of engaging issues of race in America. Other groups, however, choose to echo prevailing racial ideas as a means of making themselves mainstream. The typical narrative of American religious history is white and Protestant, and alternative religious movements have provided both criticism and approval of that story. While a close look at every alternative religious movement would be impossible, even an abbreviated exploration is revealing. During the antebellum period the question of slavery and the white supremacy that supported it prompted alternative religious movements to ask questions about equality. While many Shakers and Spiritualists recognized value in all, other groups, like the Mormons, encoded contemporary racial assumptions in their early theology. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, African Americans and Native Americans criticized white supremacy by offering alternative explanations of humanity’s history and destiny. The 1890s Ghost Dance movement envisioned an Indian paradise devoid of whites, and in the early 20th century black alternative movements in northern cities emphasized the religious significance of their blackness. Though these groups criticized the white supremacy surrounding them, others continued to emphasize the superiority of whiteness. In the latter part of the 20th century, many Americans associated racialized alternative religious movements, such as the Nation of Islam, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and the Peoples Temple, with fear or brainwashing. In examining how alternative religious movements engage racial assumptions, articulate racial discourse, or create religio-racial identities, a study of these movements illuminates the interplay between religion and culture in American history.

Article

Given that modernity, in its current configuration, owes much of its formulation to Protestant models of individualism and governance; and given that in the United States, religious minorities find themselves assimilating to Protestant religious norms and to a secular state that is similarly shaped by Protestant world views, it is often difficult to distinguish between “assimilating to the United States” and “wrestling with modernity.” Often, religious groups are doing both, but which they perceive themselves to be doing shapes their perceptions of the experience. Religious assimilation is closely tied to whiteness and therefore was more available to European immigrants who were Catholic or Jewish than to Native Americans, African Americans, or Asian Americans, regardless of religion. That said, an examination of the concept of assimilation demonstrates that definitions or ideals of assimilation have varied throughout U.S. religious history.

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.

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

Eric Michael Mazur

Religion intersects with film not only in film content, but also in the production and experience of film. From the earliest period, religious attitudes have shaped how religious individuals and communities have approached filmmaking as way to present temptation or salvation to the masses. Individual religious communities have produced their own films or have sought to monitor those that have been mass produced. To avoid conflict, filmmakers voluntarily agreed to self-monitoring, which had the effect of strongly shaping how religious figures and issues were presented. The demise of this system of self-regulation reintroduced conflict over film content as it expanded the ways in which religious figures and issues were presented, but it also shifted attention away from the religious identity of the filmmakers. Built on a foundation of “reading” symbolism in “art” films, and drawing from various forms of myth—the savior, the end of the world, and others—audiences became more comfortable finding in films religious symbolism that was not specifically associated with a specific religious community. Shifts in American religious demographics due to immigration, combined with the advent of the videocassette and the expansion of global capitalism, broadened (and improved) the representation of non-Christian religious themes and issues, and has resulted in the narrative use of non-Christian myths. Experimentation with sound and image has broadened the religious aspect of the film experience and made it possible for the viewing of film to replicate for some a religious experience. Others have broadened the film-viewing experience into a religious system. While traditional film continues to present traditional religions in traditional ways, technology has radically individualized audio-visual production, delivery, and experience, making film, like religion, and increasingly individualized phenomenon.

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

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.