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date: 27 February 2021

Religious Ceremonies in American Public Lifefree

  • Joseph W. WilliamsJoseph W. WilliamsRutgers, The State University of New Jersey


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.

Distinguishing Public and Private Religious Ceremonies

Despite the seeming ubiquity of public/private distinctions in everyday discourse, clearly differentiating public and private religious ceremonies in colonial and U.S. history proves no easy task. The terms “public” and “private” can mean different things in different contexts, and even widely held definitions have changed over time. Further complicating the picture, U.S. citizens have long debated the proper role for religion in public life, and reached radically different conclusions. Many individuals past and present believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and expect public rituals to reflect this reality. Others view the United States as a thoroughly secular state where religion, at least ideally, remains a private affair.

One option for defining public religious ceremonies is to employ spatial criteria. Here, displays of religiosity are deemed public if and when they occur in venues that are—in theory at least—accessible to all, and not under the control of private institutions or individuals (e.g., public streets and parks, community centers, governmental buildings, and so forth). Though such a criterion offers a useful starting point, in actual fact the spatial boundaries between public and private spaces thus defined often prove quite porous. Some religious ceremonies begin in houses of worship but also incorporate public processions in the streets. Other ostensibly private religious ceremonies spill over into public spaces through various broadcast media, or are simply audible and/or visible to the broader public. Still other religious ceremonies and activities occur in public spaces but are not intended for public consumption. It also is worth noting that most of the religious ceremonies conducted in privately owned houses of worship remain open to the general public. And in the case of missionary religions, great effort is expended to attract outsiders and expose them to particular religious messages.

Moreover, throughout the history of liberal democracies the mere designation of a space as “public” has by no means ensured full and equal access by all. The ability to perform public ceremonies and shape public discourse has often been restricted, through means both formal and informal, on the basis of race, gender, class, religion, and sexuality, among other factors. Cultural theorists and historians in recent decades, in fact, have argued that the very notion of a singular “public sphere” where open dialogue and free expression can occur tends to occlude the (at times tacit) exclusion of outsiders from public life. Building on such observations, a number of scholars instead point to marginalized groups’ formation of numerous “counterpublics.” These “parallel discursive arenas” shield various minority groups’ religious expressions from outside interference even as they provide a means to counter and disrupt more mainstream norms and practices.1

Specifically in terms of U.S. history, the First Amendment to the Constitution protected the free exercise of religion and ended any formal state support for specific religious groups, at least on the national level. These developments certainly enhanced the freedom of religious expression in American public life to a significant degree. Before 1791, religious minorities in the various colonies only experienced limited and varying degrees of religious freedom. And specific Christian denominations often enjoyed formal support from the colonial governments and functioned as a type of public religion. While much changed following the ratification of the First Amendment, formal government support for specific religious denominations persisted on the state level into the 1830s. And scholars continue to debate just how coercive Protestantism remained in American public life even after the full legal disestablishment of the churches.2

In addition, from the earliest days of the new nation a form of civil religion took shape that informed numerous public ceremonies. These ritual performances built upon long-standing colonial practices, such as the Election Day sermons in Puritan New England, which typically included a celebratory procession to the meeting house led by clergy and civil authorities. Execution day sermons likewise functioned as a ritualized expression of the cooperation between church and state. But in the early United States similar public rites increasingly transcended sectarian divisions even as they merged the symbols of the state with explicit religious imagery, including the Bible, references to God, and so forth. Some of the most prominent ritual displays of civil religion occurred during presidential inaugurations, national holidays, and sessions of Congress, not to mention a wide variety of athletic events, charity fundraisers, air shows, and other gatherings (see "Civil Religion").

This article focuses primarily on instances of public religious worship and activism that stood apart from expressions of religious nationalism in the tradition of American civil religion. This caveat aside, the article otherwise employs an expansive definition of public religious ceremonies. Though most of the religious rituals and performances took place in widely accessible public spaces, the article addresses a variety of religious ceremonies that came into view of the general public and reached a wider audience beyond that of the practitioners’ coreligionists. In order to avoid overly simplistic characterizations of a singular public square that was readily accessible to all, whenever possible attention is called to the existence of numerous “publics” and “counterpublics,” and to various restrictions that were placed on the public religious expressions of various marginalized groups. And whereas the term “ceremony” often points to more formal religious gatherings with carefully choreographed rituals and orders of service, the article includes other types of collective religious performances in public arenas, including festivals, protest marches, processions, and religious-themed broadcasts, among others.

It is also important to note that, beginning with Jürgen Habermas, scholarly arguments regarding public spheres have frequently focused on the formation of public opinion, and the possibility of rational, unconstrained debate between citizens regarding political issues.3 Whereas some of the ceremonies that will be described explicitly promoted religious visions of the common good, others did not overtly seek to shape public policy. Instead, they offered a very public means for various religious groups to signal their presence in American society, to convert unbelievers, or cooperate in interfaith ventures, among numerous other functions.

Revivals as Public Religious Ceremonies

Dating back to the founding of the British colonies, Protestantism has served as the dominant religion on the American scene. And from the early 1700s on, revivalism served as a perennial ceremonial expression of public Protestantism. Revival meetings evolved in both form and function, but typically incorporated sermons, songs, and prayers that were specifically tailored to catalyze powerful, emotion-laden experiences. Ideally, these ritual performances culminated in an individual’s conversion to Christianity, and/or an intensified sense of commitment to God and Christian mission. And the explicit focus on the proselytization of outsiders meant that by their very nature most revivals retained a strong public element.

As it happens, some of the earliest expressions of revival meetings on American soil epitomized the public dimensions of the revival meeting tradition. The most famous revivalist associated with the so-called Great Awakening of the early 18th century, George Whitefield, frequently delivered his messages in fields alongside peddlers and entertainers in the burgeoning colonial marketplace. Instead of dry, meticulously argued sermons, the British-born evangelist outlined the Christian gospel to his listeners using a new brand of entertaining preaching that drew inspiration from the theater.

Many revival meetings from the 1700s forward took place in churches. But much like Whitefield’s marketplace sermons, a large number also occurred in open fields, large tents, public buildings, or other settings readily accessible to the public. The best known revivalists were celebrities in their own right, and it was not uncommon for civic leaders to work with local ministers to help secure venues that could accommodate the large crowds. At least a few popular evangelists, such as Billy Sunday at the turn of the 20th century, periodically required the construction of temporary wooden “tabernacles” when visiting communities that lacked sufficiently large public meeting places.

If the cultivation of personal and corporate piety served as the stated objective for revival services, the very public nature of such meetings throughout colonial and U.S. history also ensured their symbolic import for Protestants’ identity—especially white Protestants’ identity—and for adherents’ conception of the nation itself. The mass gatherings would have reinforced white Protestants’ awareness of their cultural and numerical dominance, and lent an aura of inevitability to the privileges and power that they often enjoyed in the courts, public schools, popular culture, as well as popular opinion.

Not all Protestants, much less other religious groups, were equally invested in the religious and social status quo in the United States, and revivals could just as easily disrupt the prevailing state of affairs. Early evangelical proponents of revival frequently battled critics who accused them of undermining the social order due to the revivalists’ emphasis on emotional public displays and the prevalence of untrained ministers. This latter feature in particular helped open the door for various marginalized groups to challenge the default white male leadership of prominent American religious institutions.

Stories of female preachers dot the historical record in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Often inspired by the widespread revivalistic fervor, these “biblical feminists” typically hailed from more marginalized Christian groups and defied the social norms of their day as they publicly exhorted their fellow citizens to pursue a life of holiness.4 More established Christian denominations seldom allowed women to preach during this time, whether in revivals or other settings, and for many the strong influence of “separate spheres” ideology by the early 1800s cemented norms associating women with the home and domestic responsibilities. But the simultaneous increase in rhetoric depicting women as the protectors of social morality led some to argue on behalf of a greater female presence and influence in society. And even in more mainstream revivals and camp meetings women increasingly testified publicly. One of the “new measures” popularized by the early 19th-century revivalist Charles Grandison Finney, for instance, included an expanded role for women in leading congregations in prayer.

This expansion of female leadership engendered staunch resistance, especially—though not exclusively—in the American South. And other religious leaders used revival services to reinforce socially conservative forms of Christianity that explicitly curtailed female authority in the home, church, and society more generally. Even so, the prominence of women in the revival tradition only grew throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

A similar ambivalence characterized the relationship between revivalism and the black community. Beginning in the 1700s, revival-style meetings proved an effective means for Protestant ministers to win African American converts. Indicative of the growing Christianization of the African American community, a number of black men were eventually licensed to preach, especially by Methodist and Baptist church bodies, and numerous black men and women publicly recounted their spiritual transformation during the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s. Still, in the vast majority of mixed-race revivals, the formal leadership positions were reserved for white men.

Following high-profile slave rebellions in the early decades of the 1800s, laws were increasingly enforced throughout the South that severely limited public religious services led by black ministers, or meetings where African Americans were in the majority. Such restrictions pushed black religion further out of the public eye, and scholars have outlined the emergence of an “invisible institution” that took shape as enslaved believers met in secret. Here, beyond the reach of white slaveholders, black Christians in the South melded revival-style preaching and singing with West African ritual forms that survived the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean. These worship styles offered African Americans on southern plantations one outlet for coping with the brutality of the slave system, and continued to shape many African Americans’ resistance to discrimination in the aftermath of the Civil War. In the process, such rituals helped to unify a significant portion of the Black Church, and functioned as an important feature of postbellum African American counterpublics that nurtured the communal and political lives of black Americans.

Over the course of the 20th century, the revival tradition continued to evolve. The rise of the divine healing movement in particular added a distinctive new element to many revival services. Whereas internal salvation traditionally provided the central drama of revivals, the transformation of physical bodies now took center stage in many meetings. Promises of dramatic physical healings attracted diverse audiences that included individuals suffering from a wide variety of ailments, as well as curious and skeptical onlookers.

The burgeoning pentecostal movement in particular produced a diverse set of healing evangelists who promised tangible manifestations of the divine power. Some of the best known early pentecostal revival meetings, which were led by the African American William J. Seymour in Los Angeles, California, frequently featured divine healing. Flamboyant figures such as the healer John Alexander Dowie garnered national attention as they directly challenged the medical establishment. And the Latino pentecostal healer Francisco Olazábal’s lengthy healing campaign in Spanish Harlem during the Great Depression proved so successful that he began holding multiple services in different languages, including Spanish, English, and Italian. The healing movement also helped to greatly expand the role of female evangelists. Aimee Semple McPherson’s unique combination of divine healing, Hollywood-inspired theatrics, and revival-style preaching, attracted crowds by the thousands across the country beginning especially in the 1920s. Decades later the healer Kathryn Kuhlman followed McPherson’s example. Her services drew individuals from across the Christian denominational spectrum, and by the end of her life she stood alongside figures such as Oral Roberts as one of the most prominent healing evangelists of her generation.

Many 20th-century Protestant revivalists stayed focused on more spiritual forms of salvation, and the best known revival preacher of the era, Billy Graham, reached millions with his repeated, straightforward calls for repentance from sin. The high point of Graham’s “crusades,” which took place in stadiums and auditoriums around the world, involved the “altar call.” Potential converts were asked to publicly signal their commitment to Christ, and walk forward to the stage. There they were met by trained counselors who answered questions and outlined a traditional account of the Christian gospel message. Countless others encountered Graham’s ministry through radio and television broadcasts. The tone and tenor of his sermons epitomized the neo-evangelical impulse to steer a middle way between hard-nosed Christian Fundamentalism and many mainline Protestants’ embrace of theological liberalism. And in at least some respects, for example, his resistance to segregation in his meetings and his willingness to work with Catholic leaders, Graham nudged fellow white evangelicals toward greater openness and interaction with other Americans. Historians continue to debate Graham’s legacy, but few would question the import of his revival meetings in shaping many Americans’ notions of the United States as a distinctly Christian nation.

Despite the intimate connection between revivalism and Protestant religiosity, its sheer prevalence in American public life established a ritual template that would help shape the religious observances of a variety of non-Protestant communities as well. The Protestant gatherings, for example, created a conducive environment for the Catholic mission movement during the second half of the 19th century. These “parish missions” built on long-standing trends in the Catholic Church since the Counter Reformation, and fostered an emotional style of piety among Catholic Americans that closely resembled that of many of their Protestant neighbors. Other observers perceive a continuation of “mass ritual in the revival tradition” in such diverse gatherings as the Woodstock Rock Festival in 1969 and the New Age Harmonic Convergence of August 1987. Viewed from this perspective, such events may not have promoted conservative Christian notions of salvation from sin, but they did perpetuate the same type of highly experiential, feeling-centric ethos that made revivals such powerful displays of public religiosity.5

Christian Holidays as Public Rites

Alongside revivalism, celebrations of Christian holidays, most notably Christmas and Easter, further illustrated Protestantism’s permeation of American public culture. To be sure, 17th-century Puritans and other like-minded Protestants—many of whom shared the Puritans’ Calvinistic theology—rejected Christmas celebrations as tainted Catholic holdovers. They were convinced that such celebrations promoted frivolous distractions in place of the serious pursuit of God. Yet other Christians disagreed. And over time the widespread resistance to Christmas celebrations faded markedly, due in no small part to the declining appeal of staunch Calvinism, not to mention the growing presence of Catholics in the antebellum United States.

In its original incarnations in the colonies and early United States, the Christmas holiday retained a strong communal element, as seen in the practice of doling, wherein the young and economically disadvantaged wandered the streets in groups and demanded gifts from wealthy individuals. But beginning in the early 19th century—just as the figure of Santa Claus was popularized—the public, communal element of Christmas increasingly gave way to strong focus on family-centric, gift-giving rituals in the home. Despite these changes, broader communal celebrations of Christmas by no means disappeared. During the 20th-century department stores and townships sponsored countless Christmas parades. And in places such as Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia in the early 1900s, shoppers were encouraged to participate in caroling and hymn singing in a store setting that had been transformed with religious symbolism and imagery.

A similar blend of religious symbolism, festival, and consumer culture emerged in connection with many Americans’ celebration of Easter. Most notably, an annual Easter parade took shape in New York City in the latter decades of the 19th century, as fashionably dressed churchgoers streamed out of houses of worship and onto Fifth Avenue. The crowds for the New York parade eventually exceeded one hundred thousand people year after year, and various cities duplicated the New York City spectacle.

Christian critics bemoaned the commercialization of their religious holy days, and the way symbols such as Santa Claus and the Easter bunny steadily encroached upon more traditional Christian themes. But explicitly Christian images and symbolism did not disappear from Christmas and Easter-related public ceremonies, and some scholars have underscored how the commodification of Christian holidays often facilitated a sacralization of the marketplace and of American consumer culture more generally.6 The evolution of Christian holidays also shined a bright spotlight on the extent to which Christian public performances shaped the experiences of non-Christian Americans. Most spectators and participants in public Christmas and Easter celebration throughout U.S. history were affiliated in one or another with Christianity, yet numerous others undoubtedly were not. As such, the continued prominence of Christmas and Easter pointed to Christianity’s continued hegemony in American culture.

The sheer ubiquity of Christmas rituals and symbolism in American culture posed a dilemma for non-Christian groups. Because celebrations of the holiday often proved unavoidable, many religious minorities adopted traditions of gift giving, Christmas trees, and the like. At other times non-Christian groups emphasized their own alternative traditions during the holiday season. The celebration of Kwanzaa, which spread among African Americans beginning in the 1960s, often incorporated distinctly spiritual elements and reverence for ancestors. And one of the most visible Jewish public rituals in the United States, the lighting of public menorahs around the country during Hanukkah, gained popularity shortly thereafter in the 1970s. Spearheaded in particular by Orthodox Jews in the Chabad-Lubavitch tradition, these lighting ceremonies commemorated the rededication of the Second Temple in the immediate aftermath of the Maccabean revolt in the second-century BCE. They also called attention to the Jewish presence in American life, at times in dramatic fashion. In New York City, public lightings in Manhattan and Brooklyn incorporated menorahs that stood over thirty feet tall, while the highest-profile ceremony occurred annually on the White House grounds in Washington, DC, and at times involved U.S. presidents.

Immigration and the Steady Diversification of Public Religious Ceremonies in the United States

Whereas the sheer ubiquity and prominence of revivalism and Christian holidays underscored Protestants’ social power in the United States, other religious groups signaled their place in American public life through a variety of other public rituals. At times, religious minorities made their presence known through processions in the streets. In other instances they joined with Protestants or other religious groups in very public displays of interfaith cooperation and unity. Still other religious ceremonies served as potent sites of protest against perceived injustices and discrimination.

On the one hand, the religious practices of Americans have always proved markedly diverse. Different Native American tribes employed a wide variety of ritual forms long before any white settlers arrived to form settlements in places like Jamestown and Boston. And Catholic missionaries and explorers likewise predated the appearance of Protestants in North America. But on the other hand, Protestants’ eventual numerical and social dominance tended to suppress the number of highly public rituals performed by other religious groups. Despite the religious protections provided by the First Amendment, religious minorities continued to navigate a public environment that was largely defined by Protestantism, and that reflected Protestant sensibilities.

More than any other factor, continued immigration fueled the growing number of non-Protestant religious ceremonies in American public life. New immigration patterns during the 19th century dramatically augmented the number of Catholic and Jewish Americans in particular, and with increased numbers came increased confidence to perform public rituals. This proved especially true in the various ethnic and religious enclaves that formed in emerging urban centers. Italian immigrants, for instance, continued long-standing Catholic traditions brought over from Italy where they honored patron saints of specific Italian towns or regions. These annual celebrations, known as feste, typically culminated in a procession through the neighborhood as friends and family marched behind a statue or other image of the patron saint. While such demonstrations often incorporated more formal religious activities within a church, the broader community could easily witness, and even participate in, the festival-like activities and atmosphere on the streets.

Such public religious celebrations of a group’s presence and participation in U.S. society frequently underwent significant changes over time. Second- and third-generation Americans’ improved socioeconomic standing often facilitated an escape to the suburbs. And some came to question the religious mores of their elders, as seen in the evolution Latino Americans’ observance of El Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Observed over a three-day period beginning on October 31st, this annual festival combined Catholic symbolism with indigenous practices, and typically included the creation of altars to honor deceased relatives and loved ones, the visiting of graves, and calacas-themed imagery depicting skeletal figures dressed in colorful clothing and engaged in joyful activities. Whereas the Day of the Dead was recognized in Mexico as a formal public holiday, in the United States public ritual observance functioned as a source of solidarity for Latino Americans who often felt isolated from mainstream American culture. And by the 1970s Latino activists—many of whom wanted to distance themselves from the Catholic Church—self-consciously used the celebrations to counter nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment in various segments of the U.S. population.

During the second half of the 20th century, the diversification of public religious ceremonies was greatly aided by the passage of the Hart-Celler Act in 1965. The legislation removed a long-standing quota system that favored immigration from certain regions of Europe, and in the process opened the door for a dramatic increase in non-Christian religions in the United States. Soon, more and more Americans caught glimpses of processions that spilled outside of the Hindu temples dotting suburban neighborhoods, witnessed practitioners of Tai Chi methodically working through a series of purposeful bodily movements outdoors, heard the Muslim call to prayer broadcast from nearby mosques, or encountered Hare Krishna devotees chanting in airports or in other public places.

The burgeoning religious diversity also spurred a marked increase in religious experimentation, which in turn impacted a variety of public rituals. The 1960s in particular witnessed growing challenges to the entrenched power of largely white, Protestant, male elites, including civil rights, feminist, and antiwar movements. These developments encouraged many to question inherited forms of religiosity, and some individuals rejected monotheistic traditions altogether in favor of Asian traditions, eclectic forms of spirituality beyond the reach of organized religion, or no religious observance at all. If such experimentation often led to highly individualized forms of religiosity that lacked a strong institutional or public element, in other instances religious seekers found alternate ways to build community and bring their religiosity into the public arena. Individuals tied to the Neopagan Reclaiming tradition, which sought to combine the Goddess movement with political activism, periodically engaged in public rituals at threatened environmental sites. Religious symbolism and ritual also abounded at the Burning Man festival. Held in the Nevada desert since the early 1990s, the week-long event attracted thousands of individuals joined by a desire to experience fully inclusive community, radical self-expression, and a respite from the strictures of modern consumer culture.

Significantly, the increasingly pluralistic environment in communities around the United States fostered a growing ecumenism in many public religious rituals. Already by the mid-20th century more and more Americans began to embrace tri-faith notions of the United States’ religious identity, which, it was argued, stemmed from a shared “Judeo-Christian” heritage that united Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Though initially cultivated during World War II, such ideas gained additional traction with the advent of the Cold War, as Americans increasingly defined themselves over-and-against the “godless” Soviet Union.

Whereas more progressive religious leaders eventually eschewed the language of “Judeo-Christian America” as the nation became evermore diverse religiously, the symbolic power of ecumenical unity continued to resonate, especially during times of national tragedy and hardship. High-profile ritual performances connected to the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, serve as a case in point. Interfaith gatherings “On Behalf of a United People in Time of National Emergency” were held throughout the period of U.S. involvement in World War II. A similar interfaith service for peace during the Gulf War in 1991 culminated in a candlelight march to the White House. And in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 a nationally broadcast ceremony featured a message by the evangelist Billy Graham, and also included prayers, Scripture readings, and comments by a diverse slate of religious leaders representing Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Countless similar events occurred throughout the country during the 20th and early 21st centuries, albeit in lower-profile venues, and typically on a much smaller scale.

Rituals of Protest and Conflict in American Public Life

A long tradition of religion-infused protest extends throughout every period of colonial and U.S. history. To name just a few examples, during the Revolutionary era local and national authorities proclaimed official days of thanksgiving and fasting, and individuals’ participation served to confirm their patriotism and resistance to British rule. In the late 1800s, so-called Woman’s Crusades bolstered the temperance movement as concerned citizens engaged in saloon sit-ins. Typically armed with Bibles, these women planted themselves inside or immediately outside a saloon, and then began to sing hymns and pray loudly. Nearly one hundred years later a group of individuals calling themselves “Católicos por La Raza” staged a protest prayer vigil outside St. Basil’s Cathedral in Los Angeles, California, during a midnight Christmas Eve mass. Participants were discontented with the second-class status of Latino Catholics within the Catholic Church, and the confrontation that ensued ended with several arrests and injuries. Such events eventually led some Latino Catholics to publicly burn their baptismal certificates. And in 2016 members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota organized a protest camp near an oil pipeline construction site that threatened their sacred places. Their efforts attracted international attention as the tribe members were joined by thousands of supporters, including fellow Native Americans from hundreds of tribes as well as religious and secular activists.

The most well-known religious performances drawing attention to discrimination in U.S. society involved the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Protesters led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others often sang songs and hymns with prominent religious themes as they participated in nonviolent demonstrations for racial equality. Iconic images of the Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 showed Reverend King walking alongside a diverse set of religious leaders, including Jewish rabbis, a Greek Orthodox archbishop, and a Roman Catholic nun.

Not all Americans appreciated the burgeoning religious diversity in the United States Best known for their acts of intimidation and violence against African Americans and anyone who supported racial integration, members of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan embodied the most extreme expressions of nativism in the United States. They envisioned the nation in purely Protestant terms, rejecting in particular the presence of Catholics and Jews in the United States. And at the height of their influence in the 1920s they descended on Washington, DC, by the tens of thousands and marched through the nation’s capital in their signature white robes.

If most U.S. citizens rejected the Klan’s message of white supremacy, other religious groups in the 20th-century United States were nonetheless profoundly uncomfortable with their fellow Americans’ growing embrace of religious pluralism, and with secularists’ perceived gains in legal and public arenas. The rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s, symbolized by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority political organization, underscored these widening rifts in U.S. society. And religious Americans of various stripes organized numerous political marches and protests—often in front of the Supreme Court building and other seats of government—as they voiced their positions for and against a whole host of controversial issues ranging from abortion, to same-sex marriage, prayer in public schools, U.S. military intervention, and so forth. Religious symbols and ritual performances were not always the focal points of these events. And some individuals were in fact protesting the perceived outsized influence of religion in American life. Even so, as individuals lined up on both sides of the culture wars, prayers, hymns, and religious-themed posters served as common features of public protests during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Mass Communication Technologies and the Transformation of Public Ritual

The advent of new mass communication technologies in the 20th century, including the radio and television, dramatically transformed public rituals in the United States For the first time, Americans could simultaneously witness and partake in ceremonies en masse regardless of the various participants’ location. Not only did such innovations exponentially expand the number of individuals who could take part in publicly accessible rituals, but they also blurred sharp differentiations between private and public spheres. Performances recorded and broadcast from a seemingly limitless number of places—public or private—could then be shared in a similarly limitless number of locales, including stadiums, restaurants, cars, houses of worship, homes, and so forth.

While the first religious radio broadcast in the early 1920s featured a sermon, the variety of religious performances on the dial quickly expanded, and soon religious radio performances became a staple of American religious life. Prominent early adopters of the medium included Father Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest from Royal Oak, Michigan, who built up a weekly audience that numbered in the millions. Initially a strong proponent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, Coughlin eventually became a fierce critic of the president, and gave voice to strident anti-Communist and anti-Semitic views. The liberal minister Harry Emerson Fosdick, who served as prominent figure in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the 1920 and ‘30s, also reached millions with his National Vespers Hour. And in 1929 the Mormon Tabernacle Choir entered the national consciousness with its weekly radio broadcast. Conservative evangelical radio programs included Charles E. Fuller’s Old Fashioned Revival Hour, which combined evangelistic preaching with music, and became the most popular radio program in the nation by the 1940s. For her part, Aimee Semple McPherson was the first woman to preach over the airwaves. She bought a radio station for her ministry, and frequently utilized Hollywood actors who helped bring a dramatic element to her “illustrated sermons.” The phonograph likewise served as an important new communication vehicle for religion, especially in the African American community. Major record labels disseminated the sermons of ministers such as Calvin P. Dixon, sometimes referred to as the “Black Billy Sunday,” as well as various gospel choir recordings.

The proliferation of television stations in the 1940s and ‘50s facilitated a whole new level of audience engagement with broadcast public performances, and religious actors were quick to capitalize on the new medium. Some of the most well-known and successful early figures included the Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, as well as Norman Vincent Peale, pastor of Marble Collegiate Church and proponent of spiritualized forms of positive thinking. The future of televangelism, however, would be dominated in large part by conservative Protestants, many of whom, like McPherson, identified with the pentecostal-charismatic movement. Already in the mid-1950s Oral Roberts began broadcasting his tent revival healing services. And in the succeeding decades numerous other ministers, including Pat Robertson, Reverend Ike, Jim and Tammy Bakker, T. D. Jakes, Creflo and Tammi Dollar, Paula White, and Joel Osteen, among others, built up truly global followings through their use of radio and television. They quickly adapted a wide variety of religious service and performances for the airwaves as their programs reached directly into individuals’ homes. And many purveyed versions of the so-called prosperity gospel that promised wealth and healthy bodies to those who exercised faith and aligned their thoughts and words with positive affirmations derived from scripture. Despite several high-profile financial and sexual scandals associated with prominent ministries beginning in the 1980s, televangelists’ religious performances served as a fixture of public religion in the United States by the latter decades of the 20th century.

Public Religious Ceremonies in the Late 20th, Early 21st Centuries

If the traumatic events of 9-/1 initially led to very public displays of religious unity on the part of many Americans, its more lasting legacy for religious ceremonies in American public life, it appears, involved intense division among Americans over the role of Islam in American society and culture. Other key developments at the turn of the 21st century likewise raised new questions regarding the future of public religious expressions in the United States even as they opened up new possibilities for innovation.

For one, the Internet rapidly reshaped the nature of public religious ceremonies for many. Any one person or group with a recording device and an Internet connection could now disseminate their religious performances around the globe. And any one person or group with a computer and an Internet connection could observe and to a certain degree participate in those same ceremonies. Building on these new tools, a healing revival known as the “Florida Healing Outpouring” gained international attention in 2008. Led by a heavily tattooed 32-year-old Canadian evangelist, Todd Bentley, the nightly meetings were streamed over the Internet, and the remote audience was frequently instructed to receive God’s healing power over the airwaves. In time individuals logged in from over one million unique computers to view the services from locations worldwide. Few public ceremonies could attract the same level of participation as Bentley’s meetings, yet countless other religious communities utilized Internet technology in a similar fashion as they made their religious ceremonies readily available to their fellow citizens and to the world, quite often in real time. Whereas radio and television had already added a significant transnational dimension to many religious performances, the Internet suddenly brought this same capacity to the average religious practitioner.

Another dramatic transformation in American religion during the early 21st century involved the rapidly rising number of Americans who disaffiliated from institutional religion. This group included atheists and agnostics, though individuals who identified with “nothing in particular” represented the largest segment. As late as the 1980s the percentage of these religious “nones” stood at less than 10 percent of the population. But by 2007 the number jumped to 16 percent. And in 2014 the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans approached one quarter of the U.S. population.7 Scholars have offered a variety of explanations for this transformation of American religion, with some viewing it at least in part as a backlash against the very public intermingling of religion and conservative politics. It is difficult to predict the long-term impact of the “rise of the nones” on public religious observance in the United States, and whether or not the growth in religious disaffiliation represents a harbinger of more secularized public arenas in the future. Yet if the past is any indication, then religious ceremonies will long remain a prominent feature of American public life.

Review of the Literature

Much of the discussion of religious ceremonies in public spaces stresses various expressions of civil religion. And numerous works that focus on religion’s contributions to debates over public policy only pay cursory attention to the ritual dimensions of religion in American public life. But even setting those works aside, the literature touching on different types of public religious ceremonies is vast.

Protestant revivalism has received significant scholarly attention. Even as 20th-century historians shed the providential frameworks of earlier interpreters, a few prominent scholars still cast revivalism as a key—if not the key—organizing principle in American religious history, depicting it as a response to the perpetual frontier in the United States, or viewing it and related trends as catalysts for widespread cultural changes.8 Subsequent scholarship has increasingly challenged these evangelical-centric narratives of American religion, raising new questions regarding revival traditions in the process. Was the extent of revivalism’s impact at various points in history as large as some scholars claimed? Did past historians overstate its uniquely American character?9 How did revivalism affect religious minorities and other marginalized groups?10 And how can we best describe the intense emotion and bodily experiences tied to revivals?11 In answering questions such as these, historians have underscored revivalism’s impact in particular on women, African Americans, and Latino Americans, as well as its regional variations. They also have paid much greater attention to the embodied dimensions of revival rituals.

The evolution of scholarly debates over revivalism illustrated the growing influence of social and cultural history, as well as the increased focus on “lived religion” in the study of American religion. These same trends also helped to decenter Protestantism in many scholarly works, and by extension led to more sustained discussion of non-Protestant religious ceremonies in American public life. A growing number of studies have explored religious rituals that assisted various religious minorities as they established their place in American society and culture. Some of these analyses have addressed the way in which public rituals facilitated immigrants’ navigation of urban environments, provided a means of resistance to nativism in the broader culture, or helped religious minorities negotiate thorny questions surrounding Americanization as they found their place within existing religious communities.12 Though some of these rituals clearly took the form of protest, scholars at times have also effectively utilized the language of cultural healing to understand the functions and effects of religious minorities’ public religious performances.13

Studies of the intersection of religion and mass communication frequently shined a bright spotlight on the larger-than-life religious celebrities that emerged due to new technologies, most of whom were (and are) Protestant.14 And a number of observers called attention to the ways in which the rise of televangelism and related developments reflected the pervasive influence of consumer and therapeutic culture on modern American religion.15 Recent scholarship also has deepened our understanding of the role of various broadcast media in the rise of the so-called prosperity gospel, and stressed the import of religion for making sense of seemingly more secular manifestations of the pursuit of health, wealth, and happiness, such as the Oprah phenomenon.16 And scholars continue to bring to light the use of mass media by oft-overlooked groups and individuals.17

If a number of academic studies have already begun to assess the impact of early 21st-century developments on public religious ceremonies, several areas of inquiry are likely poised for even great consideration moving forward. These include scholarly assessments of the transformative effect of the Internet on public performances of religion; the increased transnational dimensions of religious ceremonies in public life; the role of religious rituals in climate change protests; public ceremonies as sites of interreligious conflict, especially in relation to the role of Islam in American public life; and the yet-to-be-determined impact of the “rise of the nones” on acts of public religious observance in the United States.

Further Reading

  • Barnes, Linda L., and Susan S. Sered, eds. Religion and Healing in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Brekus, Catherine A. Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
  • Dawson, Lorne L., and Douglas E. Cowan, eds. Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • Espinosa, Gastón, and Mario T. García, eds. Mexican American Religions: Spirituality, Activism, and Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
  • Hangen, Tona. Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion, and Popular Culture in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
  • Lee, Shayne, and Phillip Luke Sinitiere. Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
  • Lofton, Kathryn. Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
  • Marchi, Regina M. Day of the Dead in the USA: The Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.
  • Martin, Lerone A. Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
  • McClymond, Michael James, ed. Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America. 2 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007.
  • Orsi, Robert A., ed. Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
  • Orsi, Robert A. ed. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950 (3d ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
  • Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • Taves, Ann. Fits, Trances, & Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • Weiner, Isaac. Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism. New York: New York University Press, 2013.


  • 1. Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56–80. For representative examples of scholarly discourse regarding “public spheres,” “counterpublics,” “informal publics,” and “public religion,” as well as various applications of these ideas in studies of American religious history, see Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991, Originally published 1962); Robert A. Orsi, ed., Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999); William H. Swatos Jr. and James K. Wellman, eds., The Power of Religious Publics: Staking Claims in American Society (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999); Lowell W. Livezey, ed., Public Religion and Urban Transformation: Faith in the City (New York: New York University Press, 2000), esp. chap. 1; Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); and Randall J. Stephens, The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), esp. 120, 130, 322–223, fn. 52.

  • 2. See Tracy Fessenden, Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007); and David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  • 3. Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.

  • 4. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims.

  • 5. Catherine L. Albanese, America: Religions and Religion (3d ed.) (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999), 417–418.

  • 6. Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

  • 7. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2015). Available online.

  • 8. Representative works include William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978); Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1957); and William Warren Sweet, Revivalism in America: Its Origin, Growth and Decline (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944). Also see the various contributions to the “Symposium on Religious Awakenings,” Sociological Analysis 44.2 (Summer 1983): 81–122.

  • 9. See Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); and Jon Butler, “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction,” Journal of American History 69 (1982): 305–325. Also see Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), esp. chap. 6.

  • 10. Representative works include Michael J. McClymond, ed., Embodying the Spirit: New Perspectives on North American Revivalism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); David L. Chappell, “Religious Revivalism in the Civil Rights Movement,” African American Review 36.4 (2002): 581–595; Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Gaston Espinosa, “‘El Azteca’: Francisco Olazabel and Latino Pentecostal Charisma, Power, and Faith Healing in the Borderlands,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 67.3 (1999): 597–616; and Sylvia R. Frey and Betty Wood, Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

  • 11. See, for example, Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, & Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); and John Corrigan, Business of the Heart: Religion and Emotion in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

  • 12. See, for instance, various essays in Orsi, Gods of the City; Gastón Espinosa and Mario T. García, eds., Mexican American Religions: Spirituality, Activism, and Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008). Also see Robert A. Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950 (3d ed.) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

  • 13. See various essays in Linda L. Barnes and Susan S. Sered, eds., Religion and Healing in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

  • 14. Representative works include Tona Hangen, Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion, and Popular Culture in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); and Christopher Owen Lynch, Selling Catholicism: Bishop Sheen and the Power of Television (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998). Also see Christopher Lane, Surge of Piety: Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016); David Edwin Harrell, Pat Robertson: A Life and Legacy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010); Matthew Avery Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Shayne Lee, T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher (New York: New York University Press, 2005); and David Edwin Harrell, Oral Roberts: An American Life (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).

  • 15. See, for instance, Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (New York: New York University Press, 2015); Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (New York: New York University Press, 2009); Mimi White, Tele-Advising: Therapeutic Discourse in American Television (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992); and Steve Bruce, Pray T. V.: Televangelism in America (New York: Routledge, 1990).

  • 16. See Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); and Milmon F. Harrison, Righteous Riches: The Word of Faith Movement in Contemporary African American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

  • 17. See, for example, Lerone A. Martin, Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2014); and Jonathan L. Walton, Watch This!: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (New York: New York University Press, 2009).