Apocalypticism has had a powerful impact on American life. It has fostered among adherents a strong sense of purpose and personal identity, it has helped them interpret the challenges they face all around them, and it has provided them with a triumphant vision of the future. Although there are many kinds of apocalypticism, in the United States, Christian forms have dominated. The Bible’s focus on a coming millennium has offered Americans the promise of transformation and redemption in a world that sometimes seems void of both. When Christians have emphasized the Bible’s apocalyptic and millennial visions, they have acted in new and important ways. Apocalyptic visions, rather than fostering a sense of indifference to the coming of the end of days, have served as a call to battle. God, millennialists insist, has given them much to do and very little time in which to do it. Positive that Jesus is coming soon, they have preached revival and engaged directly and aggressively with their culture. Sometimes their actions have served to reinforce the status quo, and at other times they have sparked revolutions. The uses of apocalypticism and millennialism are almost as diverse as their adherents.
Matthew Avery Sutton
Jonathan H. Ebel
As a subfield of the study of religion, the study of religion and war has access to but has not yet applied the methodological and theoretical tools of a diverse and vibrant discipline. For sound evidentiary reasons as well as out of force of habit, scholars writing about religion and war in American history have drawn heavily on explicitly theologically engaged textual sources, for example, sermons, diaries, and letters. Less common are studies that examine the stuff of popular culture and the military-industrial complex, for example, material culture, film, novels, weapons programs, and military training manuals, for their religious and moral investments. If the study of religion and war in American history is to remain vital and in touch with the changing relationship between the nation, its faiths, and its wars, scholars must assimilate broader definitions of religion and build their studies using a more diverse archive. The words of chaplains and soldiers remain important, to be sure, but consideration of the tools of war, how they are used, and what Americans believe about soldiers, leads to a fuller and more textured understanding of the many influences that religion and war have exerted and continue to exert on each other.
From at least the 18th century to the present, religious revivals have been a defining feature of American Protestantism. Though the size, scale, and formatting of revivals have varied over time, their basic function has not: to refresh the faithful, to reclaim the backslidden, and to secure the conversion of the uninitiated. A revival, in any age, was a mass phenomenon, a collective experiential encounter with the divine, whether held within a single congregation or conducted as a regional or even national campaign. As a result, significant numbers of Americans have traced their own conversion experiences to participation in a revival service, and the rhythms of revivalism have given crucial shape to American Protestant church life and history. From colonial Presbyterians to contemporary Pentecostals, the religious lives of a large and diverse swath of the American people have been formed by the vocabulary and ritual technologies of the revival tradition. Beyond its evident importance to the religious lives of practitioners, however, much about the revival tradition has been disputed. Historians and theologians have variously interpreted revivalism as either democratizing or socially conservative, as enabling radical politics or reinforcing the status quo, as genuine outpourings of the Holy Spirit or enthusiastic delusion. The meaning of “conversion,” particularly in regard to Native American and African populations in the colonial and early American periods, has been subject to widespread criticism as an oversimplified term implying a linear movement from one identity to another. Even the broad historical narrative of American revivalism has been subject to debate, including the reality, cohesiveness, and long-term effects of the First and Second Great Awakenings as well as the Pentecostal and healing revivals of the mid-20th century. To survey the history and literature of American revivalism is therefore to confront a wide array of characterizations and conclusions, defying easy assessment.
W. Clark Gilpin
Sin and salvation, as an interconnected pair of ideas, imply that human life as it is ordinarily lived has been diverted from its true good or distorted from its proper form. Taken together, these paired ideas thus imply a narrative of human transformation, a redemptive process that recovers human life from erroneous ways and reorients it toward an ultimate goal or a transcendent power through which life is fulfilled. Narratives of redemption from sin have taken many forms in the course of American history, but in considering any specific example it is useful to recognize its relationship to two especially common patterns. In some cases, the redemptive narrative is organized around a decisive personal experience, and autobiographical accounts of “conversion” that describe such transformative events are common in American religious literature. In other cases, the redemptive narrative accentuates the gradual process of shaping a way of life that incorporates an individual into the ongoing social practice of a community, through spiritual disciplines ranging from meditation and prayer to acts of public witness and compassion. In either of these versions, redemptive narratives frequently hinge on the reconciling work of a transcendent power, in which salvation represents the event or process that incorporates individual persons into a society or a natural order of existence that is itself the subject of a larger, even cosmic history of redemption. In all of these variations, American narratives of redemption have interacted with broader cultural ideas of human nature and the possibilities for human psychological and societal change.
American propaganda cast the Cold War as one of history’s great religious wars, between the godless and the God-fearing, between good and evil. It was a simplistic depiction that was supported and promoted in the highest echelons of government and by the leaders of America’s key institutions. During the course of the presidencies of Harry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, U.S.-Soviet rivalry was transformed from a traditional great power struggle into a morality play that drew on firmly entrenched notions rooted in the American past, above all American exceptionalism and its sense of mission. Truman made religion America’s ideological justification for abandoning America’s wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower used religion to persuade the world that America was a force for good in the international arena. The resulting anti-communist crusade was to have profound consequences for Christian America, contributing to both religious revival and religious repression in the early Cold War period. Over time it caused irrevocable alterations to America’s religious landscape. The anti-communist dynamic unleashed embraced anti-liberalism and was a factor in the rise of the Christian Right and the decline in America’s mainstream churches. In addition, the image of a godless and evil enemy dictated an irreconcilable conflict that precluded the very modes of diplomacy and discourse that might have helped avoid the worst excesses, costs, and consequences of the Cold War.
Jeanne Halgren Kilde
Religions are fundamentally spatial, as they require space in which to assemble, to engage in ritual practices, and to form community. Every religious group that has existed in the United States has made a spatial imprint on the country, and that spatiality—that physical character—is also a constitutive component of religious experience. Spaces not only host religious practices but also contribute to their meaning and salience. Thus, understanding religious life in America includes understanding the spaces in which it occurs. The diversity of religious life in America is apparent from the countless religious spaces and buildings that have occupied the national landscape, including Native American earthworks and burial mounds, Catholic and Protestant missions and churches, Jewish synagogues, Islamic mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and Sikh gurdwaras. But how are we to understand these diverse buildings and spaces? The location of built spaces and the totality of the landscape in which they exist constitute a religioscape, within which they provide information about their religious communities through their size, location, and architectural style. The internal organization and spatial plans of these built spaces also provide information on liturgical and congregational functions and efforts to facilitate religious experiences and establish and maintain authority or power. Considering both these aspects of religious space and architecture provides insight into how religious diversity functions in the United States and how groups have expressed their religious beliefs and interests and interacted with others to cooperate and compete within the American landscape.
Joseph W. Williams
Throughout the history of the British colonies and the United States, Americans from different religious traditions have performed a wide variety of religious rituals in public spaces and forums. Many of these public ceremonies stood in the long tradition of civil religion in the United States, which combined national symbols with nonsectarian references to God, the Bible, and the like, and helped to unify a religiously diverse American populace. In addition to such expressions of religious nationalism, many Americans have not hesitated to perform religious rituals in the public square that reflected much more particularistic religious commitments and identities. A significant majority of these religious ceremonies in American public life demonstrated—even as they reinforced—the social and political dominance of Protestantism. Such was especially the case with the numerous revival meetings held in very public places that repeatedly attracted crowds by the thousands, and the seemingly ubiquitous Christmas and Easter celebrations in much of American society. At the same time, the ever-expanding religious diversity in the United States ensured a corresponding increase in the variety of religious performances that reached the wider public. Religious ceremonies in American public life functioned as important sites of religious cooperation, contestation, and protest; and served as key features of the various counterpublics that minority religious groups created as they challenged the status quo. The emergence of new mass communication technologies during the 20th century made it evermore difficult to draw sharp lines of distinction separating public and private expressions of religion. And despite the fact that an increasing number of Americans disaffiliated from established forms of religion after the turn of the 21st century, public expressions of religiosity showed few signs of abating. Religious Americans of all stripes continued to perform religious ceremonies in public spaces as a means to proselytize, agitate on behalf of specific causes, defend religious values that they perceived to be under threat, and raise awareness regarding the plight of marginalized groups.