As a nation grounded in the appropriation of Native land and the destruction of Native peoples, Christianity has helped define what it means to be “American” from the start. Even though neither the Continental Congress nor the Constitutional Convention recognized a unifying set of religious beliefs, Protestant evangelicalism served as a force of cohesion that helped Americans rally behind the War for Independence. During the multiple 19th-century wars for Indian removal and extermination, Christianity again helped solidify the collapse of racial, class, and denominational categories behind a love for a Christian God and His support for an American nation. Close connections between Christianity and American nationhood have flared in popularity throughout American history, particularly during wartime. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the closely affiliated religious and racial categories of Christianity and whiteness helped solidify American identity. However, constructions of a white, Christian, American nation have always been oversimplified. Slavery, land-grabbing, and the systematic genocide of Native peoples ran alongside the creation of the American myth of a Christian nation, founded in religious freedom. Indeed, enslavement and settler colonialism helped contrive a coherence to white Protestantism during a moment of profound disagreement on church government, theology, and religious practice. During the antebellum period, white Protestants constructed a Christian and American identity largely in opposition to categories they identified as non-Christian. This “other” group was built around indigenous, African, Muslim, and sometimes-Catholic religious beliefs and their historic, religious, and racial categorizations as “pagans,” “heathens,” and “savages.” In the 19th-century republic, this “non-Christian” designation defined and enforced a unified category of American Protestants, even though their denominations fought constantly and splintered easily. Among those outside the rhetorical category of Protestantism were, frequently, Irish and Mexican Catholics, as well as Mormons. Enforced segregation of African Americans within or outside of white Protestant churches furthered a sense of Protestant whiteness. When, by the late 19th century, Protestantism became elided with white middle class expectations of productive work, leisure, and social mobility, it was largely because of the early 19th-century cultural associations Protestants had built between white Protestantism, republicanism, and civilization. The fact that the largest categories of immigrants in the late 19th century came from non-Protestant cultures initially reified connections between Protestantism and American nationalism. Immigrants were identified as marginally capable of American citizenship and were simply considered “workers.” Protestant expectations of literacy, sobriety, social mobility, and religious practice helped construct Southern and Eastern European immigrants as nonwhite. Like African Americans, New Immigrants were considered incapable of fulfilling the responsibilities of American citizenship. Fears that Catholic and Jewish immigrants, like African Americans, might build lasting American institutions to change the cultural loci of power in the country were often expressed in religious terms. Groups such as the No-Nothing Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Immigration Restriction League often discussed their nationalist goals in terms of historic connections between the nation and Anglo-Protestantism. During the Great Depression and the long era of prosperity in the mid-20th century, the Catholic and Jewish migrants gradually assimilated into a common category of “whiteness” and American citizenship. However, the newly expansive category of postwar whiteness also further distanced African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and others as perpetual “foreigners” within a white, Protestant, Christian nation.
Janine Giordano Drake
Michael J. McVicar
The phrase Religious Right refers to a loose network of political actors, religious organizations, and political pressure groups that formed in the United States in the late 1970s. Also referred to as the Christian Right, representative organizations associated with the movement included Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Tim LaHaye’s Council for National Policy, Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America, and Ed McAteer’s Religious Roundtable. Leaders and organizations associated with the Religious Right made a broad-based religious appeal to Americans that emphasized traditional family values, championed free-market economics, and advocated a hardline foreign policy approach to the Soviet Union. They also criticized secular and materialistic trends in American culture that many in the Religious Right associated with the moral and economic decline of the nation. The organizations of the Religious Right had a major influence on the 1976 and 1980 presidential elections by directly affecting the political fortunes of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Although many of the organizations declined and disbanded in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, some of the organizations of the Religious Right persisted into the 2000s and continue to shape policy discussions, drive voter turnout, and influence religious and political life in the United States. Even though actors in the Religious Right appealed broadly to the conservative cultural sensibilities of Americans from Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, and Jewish backgrounds, the movement most capably mobilized white evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. The decentralized nature of white evangelical Protestantism means that organizers associated with the Religious Right mobilized coalitions of activists and rank-and-file members from large conservative denominational bodies such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, and the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, while also drawing support from independent churches associated with Reformed, Pentecostal, charismatic, and nondenominational Protestantism. Further, the term Religious Right has also been used by scholars and journalists alike to identify a broad ecumenical coalition of activist Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and other cultural conservatives who have made common cause with Protestants over social issues related to sexual morality—including resisting abortion rights, combating pornography, and fighting against rights for homosexuals—since the 1970s. Scholars often trace the roots of the Religious Right to the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, a series of theological and institutional disputes that split conservative Protestants in the early 20th century. In the intervening decades between the 1920s and 1970s, conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists developed an institutional subculture of churches, colleges, and voluntary societies that created a popular perception of their withdrawal and isolation from mainstream social and political culture in the United States. This institutional separation, however, did not stop conservative Protestants from contributing to many of the most important political controversies of the 20th century, including debates over cultural change, economic theory, and foreign policy during the Cold War. By the late 1970s, a unique convergence of social changes and new developments in law, politics, and media led to the emergence of a distinct coalition of special interest political groups that have since been labeled the Religious or Christian Right. These groups had a profound effect on electoral outcomes and public policy debates that has persisted well into the 21st century.
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.
David C. Kirkpatrick
After the Second World War, the drama of Protestant missions featured a diversifying cast of characters. Local actors in the Global South, alongside reform-minded missionaries from the North, revised the mission script. At the level of conciliar discourse, this can be seen in perhaps two primary ways: a widened table of leadership and a widening of the Christian mission itself. An increasingly diverse Protestantism shifted the trajectory of missions toward national control and social Christian emphases. Yet, these shifts in method and theology produced strikingly divergent results for mainline Protestantism and Protestant evangelicalism. For the former, the story was largely one of global dissolution, at least institutionally. Organizations such as the World Council of Churches (b. 1948), which represented the soaring hopes of the ecumenical movement, fractured under the pressure of radical student protests, postcolonial resistance, and declining donations from disillusioned churches in the 1960s and 1970s. Seen in a different light, however, mainline Protestant mission was the victim of its own advance, both abroad on so-called mission fields and at home in the United States. In many cases, mission schools directly contributed to the growth of nationalism through their curriculum and educational methods. Backlash against missionary leadership and control often centered around these educational institutions. In the North, while the institutions of mainline Protestant mission have largely declined, their progressive values are widely assumed today within wide swaths of American life in particular—especially within universities, mainstream media, and the Democratic Party. For Protestant evangelicalism, the mission story is largely one of global diffusion—explosive demographic growth, especially among those practicing Pentecostal forms in the Global South, and a rapid expansion of mission and relief organizations. Within a context of increasing diversity, evangelical mission agencies, rather than sidelining traditional Protestant mission approaches, constructed new forms of evangelical mission and social Christianity. This reshaping of global evangelicalism was the result of a multidirectional conversation often led by Latin Americans. Indeed, an entire generation of theologians, shaped by the global Cold War, rejected the importation of traditional mission methodologies. As Latin Americans shifted to postcolonial social Christianities, they pulled many in global evangelicalism with them. In terms of theological methodology, they synthesized the pursuit of justice with the evangelical offer of personal salvation. While the vast majority of Christians lived in Europe and North America in 1910 (the year of the epochal Edinburgh World Missionary Conference), in 2010 the vast majority of Christians lived in the Global South. Thus, at the level of conciliar discourse, the evangelical table of leadership and theology increasingly reflected its demographic center located within contexts of poverty, injustice, and widespread inequality.
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.