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.
Emily Suzanne Clark
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Michael P. Guéno
Religion was a point of cultural conflict, political motivation, and legal justification throughout the European and American colonization of North America. Beginning in the 14th century, Catholic monarchs invoked Christian doctrine and papal law to claim Native American “heathenry” or “infidelity” as legal grounds that legitimized or mandated their policies of military invasion and territorial occupation. More progressive Christian thinkers argued for the recognition of Native Americans as human beings entitled to certain natural-law protections that morally obligated Spain to conquer and convert them for their own benefit. Spain and France worked with the church throughout the 16th and 17th centuries to establish missions throughout seized Native American territories, while English colonists often segregated Native Americans into “praying towns” for their moral benefit or the sanctity of the colonies. After the United States declared independence, American politicians quickly identified dissolution of Native American cultures as a necessary step in undermining tribal saliency and in ensuring the political dominion of state and federal governments. By the 19th century, policymakers were convinced that encouraging Indians to put aside their “savage ways” would help tribal populations achieve cultural and spiritual salvation through Christianity. In 1869, President Grant initiated a “Peace Policy” that granted Christian missions contracts and federal funding to civilize and Christianize the Native American peoples of assigned reservations. The federal government established boarding schools for the children of tribal communities to teach English, Christianity, and occupational skills in order to “Kill the Indian in him and Save the Man.” During the 19th and 20th centuries, federal legislation stripped Native Americans of lands, property, and rights, while federal agencies forbade the practice of indigenous Native American religions. Subsequent courts legitimated the historic claim of European nations to Native American lands pursuant to the “Doctrine of Discovery,” thus ruling these policies either legal or unreviewable. While judicial decisions throughout the 20th century also recognized tribal rights to land, water, and self-government as well as the legal obligation of the federal government to protect tribal resources, these rulings have been inconsistently realized. Throughout the history of the United States, law has articulated, in the language of privilege, right, and moral prescription, American values and visions of ideal relations. As American culture has changed, federal policy has swung back and forth among initiatives to relocate, terminate, assimilate, and appropriate Native American cultures. Religion and law have advanced agendas of conquest and colonization and become means by which Native Americans peoples have resisted those agendas.