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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.

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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.