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The Prosperity Gospel in America  

Kate Bowler

“Prosperity gospel” is a term used mostly by critics to describe a theology and movement based on the belief that God wants to reward believers with health and wealth. The prosperity gospel, known alternatively as the Word of Faith or Health and Wealth gospel, maintains a distinctive view of how faith operates. Built on the theology of Essek William Kenyon, an early 20th-century radio evangelist, faith came to be seen as a spiritual law that guaranteed that believers who spoke positive truths aloud would lay claim to the divine blessings of health and happiness. Kenyon had absorbed a metaphysical vision of the power of the mind that had been developed by the New Thought movement and popularized in the burgeoning genre of self-help. Kenyon’s theology of faith-filled words was spread through healing revivalists in the young Pentecostal movement—most famously F. F. Bosworth—as one of many tools for achieving divine healing. Other variations of New Thought–inflected Christianity appeared in self-help prophets of the 1920s and 1930s, like Father Divine’s (1877/82?–1965) Peace Mission Movement and Sweet Daddy Grace’s (1881–1960) United House of Prayer. In the 1940s and 1950s, many Pentecostal pastors left their denominations and stirred up healing revivals across North America. Many of the most famous healing evangelists—Oral Roberts, William Branham, T. L. Osborn, A. A. Allen, Gordon Lindsay, and others—were influenced by Bosworth’s teachings on the law of faith (borrowed, of course, from Kenyon) to explain why some people were healed in their nightly revivals and others were not. Positive words, prayed aloud, possessed the power to make blessings materialize. By the early 1950s, they began to preach that wealth was also a divine right. New theological terms like “seed faith,” coined by Oral Roberts, sprang up to explain how gifts to the church were guaranteed to be returned to the believer with an added bonus. By the 1960s, the healing revivals had dried up, but the prosperity gospel continued to grow in the charismatic revivals washing through Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. In the charismatic movement, the prosperity gained middle-class audiences, greater respectability, and wider audiences beyond the Pentecostal nest. During this time, many prosperity-preaching evangelists began to build churches, educational centers, and radio and television ministries to spread their message. The airwaves were soon dominated by celebrity prosperity preachers like Rex Humbard, Robert Schuller, Jim and Tammy Bakker, and others. In the late 1980s, the movement faced a major crisis when several famous televangelists were accused of financial and sexual misconduct. However, new celebrities arose to replace them with a gentler message and a more professional image. The message was always a variation on the same theme: God wants to bless you. Stars like Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, or Joyce Meyer promised Christians the power to claim financial and physical well-being through right thought and speech. Though planted in Pentecostalism, the 21st-century prosperity movement attracted believers from diverse ethnic, denominational, racial, and economic backgrounds.

Article

Race and Protestantism in America  

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

Race and Catholicism in American History  

Justin D. Poché

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.

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Overview of Religious Art and Architecture: Native American  

Karla Cavarra Britton

The rich intertwining of art, architecture, and religion in Native North American worldviews represents an expansive field of exploration that cumulatively addresses patterns of generational continuity, a sense of place, and the continued vitality of ceremonial and oral traditions for the more than 600 recognized tribes of North America. To engage in an overview of such a broad topic, which necessarily includes ethnographic, religious, anthropological and other perspectives, requires a selective rather than comprehensive choice of material evidence. Moreover, the topic challenges perceived understandings of art and religion, such as the familiar separation between the sacred and the profane in representations of religious life. The subject of religious art and architecture in Native North America also immediately calls attention to the ways in which this field of exploration has often been overlooked in the standard canonical histories of religion and the arts. It is rare that in-depth scholarly writing outside of Native studies addresses the implications of religious building and art on tribal lands, especially since many Native building forms are more metaphorical in their manifestation of the spiritual, often blurring the distinction between landscape and building. Furthermore, the contemporary vitality of North American Native art—and one might add its religious expression—is also evidence of an extraordinary cultural resilience among Native peoples. Until recently, it was popularly assumed that Native culture was destined to disappear, yet a resurgence of both interest in and production of Native art has helped to revitalize the tradition from within. A variety of factors have contributed to this revitalization, among them greater economic stability, population recovery, and an increased interest from non-Native peoples in Indigenous artistic production. This interest has recognized that the visual arts as well as spatial concepts (understood in terms of both buildings and the landscape) have long been carriers of cultural value and meaning within Native American cultures. These material expressions remain among the most powerful articulations of contemporary understandings of identity and the continuity of patterns of belief, and as such have much to reveal and teach a wide and curious audience.

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Alternative Religious Movements and Race in America  

Emily Suzanne Clark

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

Race, the Law, and Religion in America  

Michael Graziano

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

The Idea of Black Religion  

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.

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Asian American Religions  

Tony Carnes

Asian American religions have dramatically increased their presence in the United States. Partly, this is a function of the increasing population of Asian Americans since 1965. Asian American is a name given to the United States residents who trace their ancestry back to the area of Asia from Pakistan in the west to the Pacific islands east of the Asian landmass. There are over 18 million Asian Americans in the United States (about 6 percent of the national population), and Asians are immigrating to the country at rates that far exceed those for any other group. Other names have been taken, given, or forced upon Asian Americans. Such terms as “Chinese or Japanese imperial subjects” heightened a unity of political and religious obedience to a divine emperor. “Oriental” started as a French idealization of the Confucian state before descending to the level of being an epithet for backwardness. Immigrants come with nationalities like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and so forth that often intervene into religious discourses (see an example of this process in the Chinese American experience as described by Fenggang Yang (Chinese Christians in America. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999). In the 1970s the name Asian American was popularized by West Coast intellectuals in order to gather forces at the barricades of political and racial movements. Some scholars like Michael Omi and Howard Winant (Racial Formation in the United States. From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge, 1994) claimed “Asian American” as a racialized reality, which was the result of racial conflicts innate to American society. Others saw the identity as an ethnic claim to assimilation into American cultural reality. Asian immigrants and their progeny find ways to balance out the religious, national, ethnic, racial, and other identities from their homeland, new nation, and religion. “Asian American” has also become a common-sense meaning that was institutionalized by the U.S. census. But one should remember that many layers of names sit upon Asian American houses of worship as so many barnacles telling tales of ancestral honors, woes, and self-reflections. Over three-quarters of Asian Americans profess a religious faith. About a quarter say that they are “religious nones,” that is, either having no particular religious faith or identifying as agnostic or atheist. About half of the “nones” actually have religious beliefs and ethics and practice them as an intrinsic part of Asian American culture, not as something that is “religious.” Two-thirds of religious Asian Americans are Christians. This is not surprising when we take into account the rapid growth of Christianity in the non-European world. Asian Americans are contributing to the “de-Europeanization” of American Christianity and signal the increasingly religious direction of the 21st century. Other Asian American religions include Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroasterism, new Japanese religions, and many more. The history of Asian American religions involves a dynamic interplay of the United States and Asia, global politics, democratic revolutions, persecution in Asia, racism in the United States, Supreme Court cases, and religious innovation. The largest Asian American groups, those with 1–4 million people each, trace their ancestry back to Japan, China, Philippines, Vietnam, India, and Korea. Seven smaller groups have over 100,000 people each: Bangladeshis, Burmese, Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians, Pakistanis, and Thais. And there are many more smaller groups. The diverse ethnic and national origins of Asian Americans means that their religions have a kaleidoscope of religious styles and cultures.

Article

Native American Religions  

Sarah E. Dees

Native American religious traditions encompass a diverse array of beliefs, practices, and features of material culture and society that reflect and shape individual experiences and communal life among Indigenous communities in what is today the United States. While Native American religious traditions have long been the subject of scholarly inquiry, a field of study dedicated specifically to this topic only emerged in the mid-20th century. Because historical sources describing Native religions often wove ethnocentric biases or anti-Indian sentiments into descriptions of Native beliefs and practices, present-day inquiry requires critically reflexive interpretation of primary sources and attention to insiders’ perspectives. Today, scholarship on Native American religions draws on numerous methodological approaches to explore key features of these traditions, including ceremonies, stories, philosophies, art, and social institutions. While these features vary greatly by religious community, practitioners of Native religions often emphasize the significance of land and the environment, their cultural heritage, and relationships between humans and non-human entities, spirits, and ancestors. Many practitioners of Native American religions would resist the notion that a “religious” or “spiritual” realm can be separated from “secular” aspects of society or culture; thus, in addition to focusing on constitutive features of the religious beliefs and practices themselves, an understanding of Native American religions requires attention to broader social and cultural issues, including politics, law, health, and education. Furthermore, just as Native traditions were dynamic prior to the 15th century, they have been shaped by contact with non-Native religions and cultures since the first instances of European colonization. The historical conditions of European and Euro-American settler colonialism and encounter between Native and non-Native communities necessitate attention to issues such as Christian missionization and the ensuing Indigenous responses to Christianity, U.S. federal Indian policy, legal battles over Native American religious freedom and self-determination, and the place of Native religions in mainstream U.S. culture. While these themes and issues illuminate some shared features of Native American religions, the unique histories and characteristics of specific communities necessarily subvert efforts to articulate a simple, comprehensive definition of “Native American religion.” And, while knowledge of the past is essential for understanding Native American religions, a historical focus in itself is insufficient if it ignores the ongoing presence of Native American religious expression. Practitioners of Native American religions today emphasize religious continuity as well as creativity and change, blending long-standing historical traditions with more recently established religious innovations.

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Race and Religion in U.S. Public Life  

Khyati Y. Joshi

Religion is front and center in the early 21st century. The United States not only has experienced an explosion of religious diversity on its own shores in the past five decades, but also is functioning in a world where the 20th century’s duel of political theories has given way to political and social movements driven by or making use of expressly religious identities and themes. All the while, the United States is trying the perfect the experiment in religious pluralism started by the framers of the US Constitution more than two centuries ago. Today, most people would say we have “freedom of religion,” guaranteed by the First Amendment. In reality, religious freedom and religious pluralism are something we have been struggling with since the inception of this country for a variety of reasons, including the presence of white and Christian normativity that is enshrined in our laws and policies and extends religious liberties haltingly, belatedly, and incompletely. The experiences of three immigrant cohorts that are both racial and religious minorities in the United States (South Asian American Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus) illustrate the dynamic nature of religion in public life, and the unfulfilled promise of complete equality. By illustrating the complexities of how racial status and religious background have impacted the perception and reception of these immigrant communities, it offers untold stories and discusses the lessons they offer for those who aspire to a genuinely equal and pluralistic America.

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Race, Culture, and Religion in the American South  

Paul Harvey

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.

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Hispanics and Religion in America  

Kristy Nabhan-Warren

What is today known as U.S. “Hispanic” culture is in reality a diverse array of ethnic, regional, national, and religious peoples and communities. Hispanic Americans trace their lineage back to colonial Spain, and Spanish is a unifying language for Hispanic peoples around the world. When we turn our attention to the United States, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, Spanish colonizers, missionaries, and explorers alike made their mark in American territories such as Florida, California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The focus of this article will be Hispanic religions from the mid-19th century United States to the present. The invention of the designation “Hispanic” by the U.S. government in 1970 was an effort to identify individuals and groups who shared a common language, ethnicity, and cultural heritage. While we can certainly problematize the designation “Hispanic,” for the purposes of this essay we will use the ethnic and cultural designation Hispanic as a rubric to unify Spanish-speaking and ethnically related individuals and groups in the United States. What is useful about identifying individuals and groups as Hispanic is that we are able to focus on shared linguistics, ethnic identities, and experiences that emerge out of the lived experiences of colonization. Yet the story of Hispanics and religions is one of triumph and empowerment too as men, women, and children turned to their families, faith, and communities to combat the ethnocentrically driven colonization in the United States that threatened to overwhelm them. What they received from extended families, faith, and communities was support that gave them strength to persevere and prosper in conditions that were sometimes unbearable. As long as we keep in the mind that there are vast differences among and between Hispanic peoples and groups, the broad rubric of “Hispanic” can help us understand linguistic, ethnic, and cultural continuities among individuals and their larger communities in the United States. Recent global Hispanic events such as the 2014 fútbol World Cup helped bring attention to the ethnic, nationalistic, and linguistic similarities as well as the cultural diversity of Latin, Central, and South Americans. As much as there is a wide variety of Hispanic peoples and communities, so too is there a wide array of Hispanic religions and spiritualities. Latin, Central and South Americans increasingly make homes in the United States and add to the ever-emerging religious and cultural hybridity of U.S. religions. While the majority of U.S. Hispanics still identify themselves as Roman Catholic, there is a growing diversity of Catholic practices as well as broader religio-spiritualities among U.S. Hispanics. In order to understand contemporary lived realities among Hispanics, it is essential that we take a historical approach and study the deeper history of U.S. Hispanic religions and spiritualities. When we do, we are able to understand that openness to hybrid theologies, practices, and ways of being spiritual and religious are central to Hispanics’ histories of perseverance and adaptation to a country that has not been overwhelmingly unwelcoming to them. When we study U.S. Hispanics and their religious and spiritual lives from the mid-19th century to the present, we are able to understand three mutually informing and overlapping historical continuities: (1) A legacy of colonization, transculturation and borderlands existence; (2) The creation of a borderlands religion that responds to the legacy of ethnocentrism and inbetweeness; and (3) The centrality of fe, familia, and communidad (faith, family, and community) that work as an organizing and empowering trifecta for U.S. Hispanics.

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Theos Bernard, the “White Lama”  

Paul G. Hackett

Theos Bernard was an early pioneer of yoga in the United States and only the third American to reach the capital of Tibet, Lhasa, but the first to do so as a religious pilgrim. Although born in Los Angeles, California, Bernard was raised and educated in Tombstone, Arizona. In the late 1930s, Bernard embarked upon a journey to India and Tibet and, while there, explored the yogic traditions of India and participated in some of the highest religious rituals in Tibet, all while documenting his experiences on paper, in photographs, and on film. Upon returning to New York in 1937, Bernard wrote and published several books purporting to chronicle his experiences in India and Tibet and setting forth the fundamental principles of Indian and Tibetan philosophies as he understood them. During the years that followed, Bernard attempted to establish a Tibetan research center in Santa Barbara, California, together with the Tibetan monk and scholar Gendün Chöpel. His efforts having been thwarted by the events of World War II, in 1942, Bernard instead entered Columbia University to pursue a PhD in philosophy. Completed less than a year later, his dissertation, “Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience,” was an ethnographic report of his studies in India that was subsequently published, and which served to introduce the practices of yoga to a new American generation. Bernard went on to found the short-lived Tibetan Text Society in Santa Barbara, California, prior to returning to the Indian subcontinent in 1946 in search of additional resources. Finding his entry to Tibet blocked by the British government in India, he bided his time until Indian independence. In August 1947, he launched a different expedition into the western Himalayas—to Spiti, Lahoul, and Ladakh—five days after the Partition of India. He was never seen again.

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Religion, Modernity, and Assimilation in America  

Samira K. Mehta

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.

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Nature and Religion in America  

Brett Grainger

One of the most complex words in the English language, “nature” (sometimes personified as “Nature” or “Mother Nature”) has been central to developments in American religions. Despite their different origins, the three cosmologies present on the North American continent during the early modern “age of contact”—Native American, African American, and Euro-American—shared a number of similarities, including the belief in an enchanted or animate cosmos, the ambivalence of sacred presences manifested in nature, and the use of myth and ritual to manage these ambivalent presences in ways that secured material and spiritual benefits for individuals or communities. Through encounters on colonial borderlands and through developments in society and culture (in science, economics, politics, etc.), these cosmologies have been adapted, developed, and combined in creative ways to produce new forms of religious life. These developments have been characterized by a series of recurrent tensions, including the notion of divine or spiritual realities as being transcendent or immanent, organicism or mechanism, and of the natural world as including or excluding human beings. Organicist and animist cosmologies, severely challenged by the early modern scientific revolution, were resurgent in the antebellum period, fueling a series of new religious developments, from Transcendentalism and revivalism to Mormonism and the early environmentalist movement. These generative tensions continue to reverberate into the modern day, in part as an outworking of the environmental crisis of the 1960s, which saw a purported “greening” of established religions as well as the rise of new forms of nature spirituality.

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Natural Space and Religion in North America  

Joseph Witt

Raymond Williams once noted that “nature” remains one of the most complex words in the English language. While “nature” may commonly refer to nonhuman places, or spaces largely outside of human control, it is also frequently a culturally defined and value-laden term. The meaning, status, and significance of “natural” space has been a highly contested and fluid topic throughout North American history, and religions have been deeply engaged in that process. Religious perceptions of natural space have shifted over time, and as these perceptions have shifted, so too have environmental practices, attitudes, and senses of American identity. The availability of seemingly unaltered, human-free, natural space distant from seats of political control in Europe drew many of the earliest European migrants to the continent in the 16th and 17th centuries. Similar motivations pushed early pioneers westward into the vast spaces beyond the Appalachian Mountains in later decades. For some early Protestant immigrants to the colonies, the taming of wilderness and transformation of natural space into human-managed space situated within political and cultural boundaries presented a clear religious mission. For the original inhabitants of the continent, however, such visions of the redemption of society through the subjugation of nature were largely unfamiliar. These indigenous peoples often viewed themselves as integrated into a relational network of places, other beings, spirits, and histories, managing their use of resources with respect for reciprocal obligations. Different attitudes toward and definitions of natural space contributed to many of the ongoing tensions between these original inhabitants and newer European colonists. While pioneers of the early centuries of European colonialism in North America sought to conquer and subdue nature, their descendants, noting an increased scarcity of open and undeveloped land, began revering nature and the wild for its spiritual, aesthetic, and moral significance. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, influential figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir presented alternative religious visions of American natural space as morally purifying, worthy of protection, and even sacred. These attitudes influenced the growing popularity of outdoor adventure sports and environmental advocacy. Rather than a space defined as oppositional to civilized society in need of subjugation by human hands, by the early 20th-century natural space had taken new religious significance as a forge for American identity and a necessary cure for the spiritual and moral ills of society. By the early 21st century, however, this celebration of nature, and particularly wilderness, in the American experience was increasingly critiqued by scholars and members of marginalized communities that had been excluded from earlier studies of American history. The meaning and religious significance of natural space was undergoing another major revision. Natural space has remained an important but ambivalent fixture in U.S. history, reminding Americans of their hopes and potential, while also reflecting traumatic histories of violence and oppression. Through its shifting meanings and significance, natural space has played a central and ongoing role in shaping American religious identities.

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Race, Sectionalism, and Religion in America  

John L. Crow

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.

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The Violence at Jonestown  

Rebecca Moore

The eruption of violence carried out by members of Peoples Temple, in which more than nine hundred men, women, and children died by ingesting cyanide-laced fruit punch in 1978, seemed incomprehensible. Scholars, journalists, pundits, and government officials presented a variety of explanations to account for the mass murder–suicides of US citizens that occurred in Jonestown, Guyana. The range of analyses in the weeks, months, and years that followed sought to understand why group members assassinated a US congressman and fatally shot four other people, why parents murdered their children, and why they then took their own lives. Shocked by news reports and goaded by professional cult-watchers, popular opinion focused on so-called brainwashed followers who did as they were told under the authority of a charismatic—some said deranged—leader. Psychiatrists and psychologists tended to blame maladjusted individuals seeking refuge from autonomy and independence. Scholars who specialize in new religions studies noted historical precedents, religious beliefs (especially apocalyptic theology), and the influence of cultural opponents—relatives, the news media, and government actors—placing pressure on the group. Political analysts found religion in general, cult leaders, and vulnerable followers responsible. Contesting official and consensus understanding, conspiracy theorists viewed the deaths as mass murder rather than mass suicide. Some former members of Peoples Temple adopted this perspective, although many came to believe that residents had been conditioned by coercive practices to follow the leader. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, documents and audiotapes generated in Jonestown have illuminated the community’s internal practices and rhetoric and have served to complicate traditional views. This evidence has made it clear that Jonestown leaders conspired to develop a mass suicide plan to be enacted when the community faced imminent destruction. Although the logistics were carefully crafted, the various justifications for this irrevocable step remain obscure and ambiguous.

Article

Dance, Religion, and the Legacy of European Colonialism  

Kimerer LaMothe

In the waning days of the Renaissance, the race among Western Europeans to control, convert, and displace Indigenous peoples around the globe precipitated a collision of cultures, unprecedented in scope, between Christians who largely denied dance a constitutive role in religious life and Indigenous traditions from Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas for whom dancing and religion were inseparable. In the economic, political, and cultural conflicts that ensued, the practice of dancing as religion emerged as a contested site—both a nearly universal target of Christian imperial and colonial oppression, and an equally frequent agent of Indigenous resistance, resilience, and creative response. Focusing on the United States, this article documents how European colonization of Native American people, and European and American enslavement of Africans precipitated cultural shifts in how each of these cultures conceived and practiced “dancing” in relation to “religion.” Among European and Euro-American colonizers, these collisions fueled some of the most virulent expressions of hostility toward dancing in Christian history—as an activity punishable by death—especially when that dancing appeared in the form of Native American or African American religion. Nevertheless, Native American and African American dancing also inspired Euro-American artists to create techniques and aesthetics of dance that they claimed functioned as religion. Such cases of religious art-dance in turn not only catalyzed the use of dancing in Christian worship, they spurred Western philosophers, scholars of religion, and Christian theologians to reconsider the importance of dancing for the study and practice of religion, Christianity included. Meanwhile, Native and African peoples, as they navigated the challenges of ongoing racism and oppression, created new forms of their own dance traditions. Some of these forms emerged in explicit dialogue with Christian forms and even in Christian contexts; and others have appeared on secular concert stages, representing ongoing efforts to preserve and perpetuate Native and African identity, spirituality, creativity, and agency. These projects are dismantling the conceptual typologies that Euro-Americans have used to devalue Native and Indigenous dancing, including the assumption that religion and dance are separable dimensions of human life.

Article

Mormonism  

Patrick Q. Mason

Mormonism is the collective name for a group of related churches, movements, and theologies that trace their origins back to the prophetic revelations of Joseph Smith Jr. (b. 1805–d. 1844). The movement splintered following the death of Smith, with the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) becoming by far the largest institutional manifestation of Mormonism today. Mormonism claims to be a restoration of ancient Christianity, following a period of apostasy after the death of Christ’s original apostles. The movement began with a series of revelations to Smith in the 1820s in which God called him to be a prophet and then an angel directed him to a buried ancient record written on golden plates. Smith translated this record “by the gift and power of God” and published it as the Book of Mormon, which is one of four books considered by Mormons to be scripture (along with the Christian Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price). Mormons believe that God leads their church through living prophets and continuing revelation, and that ordinances necessary for salvation and exaltation are performed only through the priesthood that was restored to Smith and passed on to the church today. Mormons prioritize family relationships, which they believe can be maintained after death through marriage ceremonies conducted in Mormon temples. Heavily persecuted in the 19th century for their practices of polygamy and theocracy, today Mormons are fully integrated into society even while maintaining a distinctive theology and group identity. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints operates an ambitious proselytizing campaign around the globe and continues to enjoy steady worldwide growth, with the majority of its members now residing outside the United States. Though strongly influenced by its origins in a modern American context, as it nears the beginning of its third century Mormonism is emerging as an increasingly mature global religion.