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The History of Religion, Race, Racism & Slavery in America: Where was/is the Church?

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History of Religion, Race, Racism & Slavery in America: Where was/is the Church?

The relationship between religion and race in American history is a complex and varied one. Since both are analytical categories rather than stable ones, the historical and cultural contexts shape how religion and race intersect and interact. Racial categories first emerged as a means of classifying people, and thus the presumed “natural” differences between races were socially and culturally constructed. Similarly, religion and American assumptions about religion are also social constructions. Historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith has long illustrated how religion is not sui generis but rather the result of human activity. For example, European Christians first developed ideas about religion broadly and what it was in moments of encounter and conflict with non-Christian communities. Their initial definitions of religion, then, looked strikingly similar to descriptions of Christianity. As Europeans “discovered” indigenous peoples around the world, they came to similar conclusions about many of them: if those people practiced something that did not look like Christianity, this meant they had either no religion or a very primitive version of it. “The question of the ‘religions,’” Smith wrote, “arose in response to an explosion of data.”


1 American ideas about race developed amid struggles for social domination, competition for economic power, and questions of property. Ideas about race were inextricably linked to these issues. As legal scholar Cheryl Harris argues, “it was the interaction between conceptions of race and property that played a critical role in establishing and maintaining racial and economic subordination.”


2 Ideas about race and understandings of racial identity are then inseparable from issues of power, which is why the development of racial hierarchies seemed a natural step. Throughout American as well as world history, certain races were seen as more evolved, more cultured, more developed than others—and thus better. For the most part, Europeans and Euro-Americans held such assumptions and placed themselves atop the evolutionary spectrum.

In the United States, assumptions about race were constructed in tandem with settler colonialism. Religious Studies scholar Sylvester Johnson has argued that the United States is a racial state since “it was created as an Anglo-American republic of White-only citizens.”


3 The country sought to reach from one ocean, the Atlantic, to the other, the Pacific. White Americans assumed this was the nation’s destiny. To achieve this would require economic success and western expansion. The first was actualized with the help of slavery, and the second required the defeat and/or relocation of Native Americans. Slavery involved the colonies and then the young nation in an international chattel slavery trade, and while the United States would formally close the international slave trade in 1808, an illegal international slave trade continued, exemplified by the illegal arrival of the slave ship Clotilda as late as 1860, and the nation possessed a robust domestic slave trade through the Civil War.


4 Although scholars in most fields reject race as a legitimate classification because “race” has no scientific substance, it is still commonly used in U.S. society. One need only look at the U.S. Census form or apply for a job to see how the categories of race and ethnicity continue to order American lives.

Not surprisingly, racial hierarchies developed alongside religious hierarchies. During the era of European and American colonialism, taxonomies of religion included Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or idolatry; natural and primitive religion or high religion; natural religion or ethical religion. These distinctions were not without judgment. A “primitive” religion was one that worshiped objects or idols instead of focusing on belief and text. In contrast, “ethical” religions emphasized rationality and right rather than the material. Around the turn of the 20th century, many scholars of religion subscribed to an evolutionary model of religion that ranked world religions on an evolutionary scale, and this model ran concurrent to an evolutionary model of culture. This meant that the more evolved societies allegedly had more evolved religions. Scholars like James Freeman Clarke in The Ten Great Religions explained how belief in one deity (as opposed to polytheism) denoted a more sophisticated and less tribal religious worldview. Written texts allegedly expressed more developed religious components compared to those religious traditions that emphasized ritual or practice. Christian, Western, and often Protestant scholars picked the elements of an evolved religion based on their own cultural background. In this formulation, Protestantism seemed to be the best religion; after all, its characteristics were used to define what makes a “good” religion. Not surprisingly, many of the religions deemed “primitive” were also those practiced by indigenous, non-white populations.


Colonial Encounters and Conflicts

Native American cultures were diverse before European contact, and this diversity extended to religious beliefs, practices, and understandings of the world. However, European explorers, colonists, and colonial governments often imbibed a myth that the Americas were an Edenic place of complete and total peace before European contact, a view that also produced a view of Native Americans as simple and childlike, “the noble savage.” This ethnocentric view finds no support in scholarship. Native Americans cooperated with neighbors but also warred with neighbors.


5 As colonization proceeded and Native Americans resisted, Europeans began to lump all Native communities together into a different uniform group: the savage red man whose brutality contrasted sharply with the cultured and evolved white man.

The three primary European powers that came to the new world—Spain, France, and England—offer interesting contrasts in their approaches to religion and race. For the Spanish conquistadors who came with guns to seek gold for the glory of God and Spain, Catholicism was a significant part of their cultural identity. Spaniards were known for their forceful colonial style. Some conquistadors were quite violent, and these men are the source of what is known as the “Black Legend,” which describes the Spanish as a brutal colonial power that terrorized and murdered the Americas’ native population. The Spanish enslaved large numbers of natives very early, especially in the Caribbean, and forced them to work in the mines or in the agricultural fields. The work was hard and death rates were high. Religious “conversion” rarely was more than a mass baptism, with little to no religious instruction afterward. When encountering an indigenous settlement, Spanish conquerors often read a document known as El Requerimiento (The Requirement) that offered natives two choices: convert to Catholicism and accept Spanish power or suffer the consequences of invasion, death, and enslavement.

French colonists and soldiers did not enslave Native peoples to the degree of the Spanish, but they too viewed Native Americans as savages. The Jesuit Relations, a collection of letters, journals, and travel logs from French Jesuit priests in New France, contained detailed descriptions of native culture. The Jesuit priests’ dislike of native religion shaped their descriptions of the natives’ religious practice. The religious beliefs and practices of the Native Americans made them “heathens” and “savages” desperately in need of Christ’s salvation.

Evangelizing the Native American in colonial New England involved an important multistep process. Puritan settlers believed they possessed “true” religion, which made it easy for them to identify those with false religion. The Puritans believed that the Native Americans needed their righteous religion and their civilized culture. This English assumption is depicted clearly in the official colonial seal of Virginia, in which a Native American kneels before the English monarch. Queen Elizabeth holds her coronation orb and scepter, bejeweled with a Protestant cross, while the Native American offers tobacco. After first attempting to strip Native Americans of their own culture, the English would then teach them English Protestantism and culture in “praying towns.” Numerous Native Americans resisted and then fought back in the so-called King Philip’s War of 1675–1676. Following this, the English abandoned many praying towns and sold a number of Wampanoag Indians into slavery in the British Caribbean.

As European and Native American interactions continued, some Native Americans increasingly viewed Europeans as a different race. Natchez Natives in colonial Louisiana believed themselves to be “Red Men” as a way to unify their communities against a common French enemy. As they saw the French make clear distinctions between themselves and their African slaves, the Natchez claimed racial power by identifying themselves as superior to the French. Historian and ethnographer Le Page du Pratz refers in his writings to a story told to him by Louisiana Natives. In it they referred to an ancient flood that killed many on earth and the ancestors of all the Red Men were those who sought safety atop a mountain.


6 The Natchez were not alone in this regard. Native communities across the United States adopted racial discourse as part of their arguments for sovereignty as they pushed back against colonial and early republic assumptions of white superiority.7

The mass enslavement of native peoples by the Spanish prompted a large European debate about Native Americans: Was enslavement justifiable and did Native Americans have a capacity for faith? Some even wondered if Native Americans were fully human. Representing these two sides of the colonial Spanish debate were Bartolome de las Casas and Juan Sepúlveda. Sepúlveda concluded that the natives had insufficient intellect to understand Catholicism and Spanish culture. He defended their enslavement because they were savages and heathens. De las Casas argued that the natives were God’s special children and their simple ways were indicative of their childlike state. They had a capacity for the Catholic faith but needed to be taught and nurtured. He suggested that colonial settlements import African slaves to work the mines and fields instead. Around the same time, Pope Paul III entered the conversation with the papal bull Sublimis Deus in 1537, which stated that the Native Americans should not be enslaved but evangelized and instructed in European ways. Though Native Americans were officially deemed human, they were still savages, and as savages they and Africans were inherently different from Europeans.

Europeans and white Americans provided a number of reasons for slavery. One was religion. Europeans often justified slavery by indigenous West African “pagan” and “heathenish” practices. Africans, they argued, had no civilization and no culture. The Africans’ lack of Christianity evidenced their primitive civilization. They were “barbarians” without Christ who did not need to be treated as equals, their enslavement justified because they were barely human.


8 Though West Africa was home to a plethora of religious beliefs and traditions, including even Christianity, Europeans argued that Africans were without “religion”—meaning any legitimate religion. Historians estimate that somewhere between ten million and thirty million Africans were seized during the African slave trade from the 17th to the mid-19th centuries.


The American Republic

Though the colonies and later United States imported a small number of slaves compared to other parts of the Americas, slavery quickly became an important part of American culture and the monetary success of the new nation. Unlike the early, if largely unsuccessful efforts to evangelize Native Americans, slave conversions proceeded very slowly or were even nonexistent until at least the mid-18th century. Many owners worried that Christianization would destroy the religious basis for slavery. Others argued that Christianization offered enslaved Africans the ultimate gift—salvation. Conversion offered them something better than freedom, and thus Christian slaves were better off than Africans still across the ocean. In this argument, everyone allegedly benefited: slaves received salvation and slave owners got free labor.

Pro-slavery Christians cited numerous parts of the Bible to support their stance. They pointed to numerous references to slavery in the Pauline letters of the New Testament. Rather than denouncing slavery, Paul told slaves to be good servants and for owners to be good masters (Colossians 3:22). Pro-slavery Christians also used the Bible to explain the origins of the “Negroid” race. They argued that the “Negroid” came from Cain and understood the mark of Cain to be a darkening of his skin in retribution for killing his brother Abel. They also pointed to the curse of Ham, by which Noah called for Ham’s descendants to be the slaves of his brothers’ offspring. Pro-slavery Christians claimed that Ham’s son Canaan (whom Noah cursed) was the father of the African race (Genesis 4: 11–16).


9 Reason might suggest that pro-slavery Christians could use either the mark of Cain or the curse of Ham but not both; after all, the flood Noah and his family survived killed everyone else. An article in the 1850 Southern Presbyterian Review titled “The Mark of Cain and Curse of Ham” suggests otherwise; in it the author cites both these biblical figures to argue that “the special Providence of God” created “the varieties found existing in the family of man.” In other words, God created the different races on purpose. The 1850 essay notes some problems in using both the Cain and Ham rationale for slavery but only in the spirit of strengthening pro-slavery arguments. Although the author concludes that multiples races of people could be attributed to Ham, he does “not doubt that the African negro descended from this [cursed] son of Noah.”


10 The alleged curse of Ham and the mark of Cain deemed the African race distinctive and gained force through their appeal to an ultimate faith—God’s word in the Bible. If God made Africans different, no human act could reverse the curse and the mark. The result was a widespread white belief in the “fact” that Ham was the ancestor of all Africans. “Ham was the ultimate representative of the heathen,” as Sylvester Johnson puts it, “because the fundamental ‘fact’ of racial origins rendered blacks the descendants of Ham.”


11 That many northern and a few southern white Christians argued that all were equal in God’s eyes, rendering slavery illicit, did not require equality before American law. In this view, the reputed curse of Ham and mark of Cain still marked African Americans as inferior. Thus, abolition and support for black equal rights were not necessarily one and the same.

Not surprisingly, ideas about whiteness and its inherent superiority developed alongside Christian arguments for slavery and black inferiority. Part of white supremacy’s power came from its ability to present whiteness as religiously neutral, normal, and natural.


12 American conceptions of Jesus reinforced that naturalness of whiteness. White Christians imagined Jesus as one of their own, although the Bible nowhere describes Jesus’s physical appearance. Nineteenth-century visual images depicted Christ as white, and the mass images circulated by Bible tract societies and Protestant benevolent groups blanketed the American landscape. As Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum argued, “by wrapping itself with the alleged form of Jesus, whiteness gave itself a holy face.”


13 Nativism prospered amid this religiously entrenched white supremacy from the 19th century into the early 20th century. Nativists were American-born Protestants who were opposed to all immigration, and from the 1820s to the 1880s, the massive immigration of Catholics from Ireland, Germany, the Italian principalities, and Poland, with some from Mexico and French Canada, constituted the largest threat to a perceived white Protestant hegemony in the United States. As their immigration proceeded, Catholics surged from only eighty churches and seventy thousand worshipers to thousands of congregations where almost sixteen million Catholic men, women, and children worshipped by 1916.


14 Protestant nativism frequently mixed religious with racial prejudice. Whiteness might have been supreme in the new nation, but only a certain type of whiteness was desired. Political cartoons often characterized the Irish similarly to African Americans, and nativists later discriminated against darker-skinned “swarthy” Italian immigrants on grounds somewhere between the religious, the ethnic, and the racial.


15 Catholics were foreign, dangerous, and practiced superstition. They threatened America because they bore allegiance to the papacy, a foreign power, and the common 19th-century equation of ethnicity with race only solidified white Protestant anti-Catholicism.

Nativists targeted more than just Catholics as Christian “others.” A new sect, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons, was also suspect. Joseph Smith founded Mormonism during what historian Jon Butler termed the “antebellum spiritual hothouse,” a period of Christian diversity and revivalism from the 1820s into the 1840s. All of Smith’s religious questions were answered when God and Jesus appeared to him, followed later by an angel named Moroni, who ultimately led Smith to a hillside in upstate New York. There Smith found golden tablets upon which were written the history of Moroni’s people, or the Book of Mormon, whose revelation made Smith a vibrant prophet.

Anti-Mormonism followed immediately. Non-Mormons targeted Mormonism for their claim that the Book of Mormon was sacred Christian scripture and especially for the polygamy that Smith introduced into Mormonism in the 1830s. Mormons were dangerous outsiders and religious others whose presence disturbed “normative” Protestants.


16 Outsiders and the press quickly referred to Mormon “harems” and associated Mormon treatment of women with slavery. With this came the conception of Mormons as another race—something other than white, the “Morman race”—because of polygamous inbreeding and because their women were not treated like the majority of white women.


17 Even the Supreme Court case of Reynolds v. United State that outlawed polygamy in the nation associated it with the practices “of Asiatic and of African people.” Ironically, perhaps, 19th-century Mormons themselves linked religion and race. The Book of Mormon described Native Americans as descendants of a fallen and sinful group of early Hebrew Christians, and the church denied the priesthood to black Mormon men until 1978.


Race Science and Reconstruction

Arguments about African inferiority linked biblical texts with forms of 19th-century “science.” Polygenesis, a theory arguing that each of the separate races descended from distinct species, reached its height of scientific credence in the mid-19th century. This idea understood the different races to be akin to different species and ranked them by intellectual capacity and moral behavior. A popular 1854 book, Types of Mankind, by Josiah C. Nott and George Gliddon employed perceived physiological distinctions between white and “Negroid” races to ascertain cerebral differences.


18 Nott and Gliddon proposed that the “Negroids” in the American slave states had made some improvements and had become “more humanized” than their African counterparts, but that they had not nearly reached the level of the more advanced races. A southerner, Nott particularly believed that the “Negroid” and white Europeans were completely different races, although he was more interested in the inherent inferiority of Africans implicated in polygenesis than in polygenesis itself as a racial theory.


19 Using the Bible as a text for supporting his polygenetic thought, Nott believed that the “Almighty in his wisdom has peopled our vast planet from many distant centres, instead of one, and with races or species originally and radically distinct.”


20 Nott and others saw God as the source of racial hierarchy. Either alone or combined, polygenesis’s conception of separate biological ancestral lines and its references to Ham or Cain created a distinct genealogy for Africans and African Americans, to which other race “scientists” would add Native Americans as inferior to Europeans and Euro-Americans.

The Union’s victory in the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 that ended slavery opened a divisive, bitter battle to rebuild the South’s culture, politics, and religion. White southerners wanted to restore antebellum white ideology no matter that slavery had ended, white northerners wanted to purify the South, and African Americans wanted to create their own autonomous personal and religious lives. All three groups saw their view of the future as the one desired by God. Their different idealized visions informed their criticisms of the others. Southern blacks appreciated the help northerners offered but were frustrated by their paternalism; additionally they found themselves terrorized by southern white hostility. Southern whites found northerners unreasonable and blacks ignorant, while northern whites believed in the charitable benevolence of their goals though often viewed blacks as naively over-hopeful for contrition from white southerners.


21 In fact, many northern white Christians believed that southern blacks and former slaves first needed to be civilized, after which they could be uplifted from their lowly state.


Race, Religion, and Native Americans

Colonial-era missions to Native Americans were only mildly successful. If Spanish and French Catholic missions were the most successful in gaining converts, disease and warfare that decimated Native populations often came to the aid of evangelists and colonial agents. At the beginning of the 19th century, most Christian missions to Native Americans had flopped. Despite these failures, American Christians continued their efforts and received direct help from the federal government when, in 1819, Congress created the Civilization Fund, which encouraged missionaries to aid in the Indians’ “civilization process.” The legislation supported mission schools, which taught white American culture and Euro-American trades to Native American children in locations sometimes hundreds of miles away from their homes and families. Christianity was a key component of instruction. The Bible was employed to teach English, simultaneously denigrating Native languages and religions. Boarding school agents and teachers frequently cut the hair of Native children and dressed them in Euro-American clothes.22 The Commissioner of Indian Affairs told the teachers in 1889 to “carefully avoid any unnecessary reference to the fact that the students are Indians.”


23 In short, the schools sought to eradicate Native American culture and religion alike. To “save the man,” it was necessary to “kill the Indian.”


24 More legislation over the course of the 19th century further supported such elimination. Though the Supreme Court would overturn the 1830 Removal Act, scores of Native communities were forced west nonetheless. In Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Annual Message to Congress, he continued the assault on Native American cultural and religious traditions, arguing that once removed away from reservations within the United States onto reservations in frontier areas, missionaries could proceed, with the blessings of the federal government, to missionize in any way they saw fit. The 1838 Trail of Tears proved the severe harshness and inherent violence of this policy and foreshadowed what followed. Before the Civil War, the federal government’s primary policy toward Native Americas was removal west and placement on reservations or in mission scholars. In the 1870s, during and after the Indian Wars, the federal government implemented President Grant’s so-called peace plan with Native Americans, assigning Christian missionaries to oversee the day-to-day operations on Indian reservations and enticing them with financial support. In 1884, Congress passed the Religious Crimes Code that banned traditional Native American religious practices on reservations. This suppression, together with the mission schools for Native children now found throughout the reservations, represented a systematic attempt to eradicate “heathenish” Native American cultures perceived to be obstructing the nation’s destiny.

The federal and social repression of Native cultures also stimulated a growing Native American prophetic tradition. While most scholars focus on the Ghost Dance movement of the late 19th century, it is important to note that during the War of 1812, brothers Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh spread a prophetic vision of Native American past and future that inverted the Euro-American assumptions of white supremacy and Native barbarism.


25 The most popular prophetic tradition to cross tribal boundaries would come later in the century. In early 1889 during an eclipse of the sun, a Paiute man named Wovoka experienced a vision in which he talked with God and saw a restorationist future for Native Americans. If Native communities practiced the Ghost Dance (a group round dance) and followed certain ethical rules (most of which were reminiscent of the Christianity Wovoka’s adoptive white family taught him) then the land would restore itself to its pre-European arrival state. Living and deceased Indians would be reunited in a Native paradise here on earth, while whites vanished, died in the world’s regeneration, or moved back across the ocean (the fate of whites varied tribe to tribe). The Ghost Dance movement spread quickly across the American West and into the Plains. Its message of an Indian millennium was no doubt attractive to oppressed tribal communities, and for many communities, the emphasis on dance and connecting with their ancestors maintained continuity with individual tribal practices. Christian missionaries working on reservations and the federal government both viewed the success of the Ghost Dance as a sign of failure and danger. They watched as Native tribes fell back into “barbarism,” dancing “wild and crazy.”


26 The Ghost Dance movement spread and ended swiftly. On December 29, 1890, U.S. Calvary troops disarmed a camp of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and a gun discharged. The troops opened fire on a community of Ghost Dance followers, killing over two hundred men, women, and children. Many abandoned the Ghost Dance afterward. The following year, the Sioux at Pine Ridge told an anthropologist, “The dance was our religion, but the government sent soldiers to kill us on account of it. We will not talk more about it.” 27


A New Era of American Imperialism

White Protestant missionaries evangelized abroad as well as out west. Many went into the Pacific world and Caribbean world following America’s victory abroad during the Spanish-American War. Presidents too, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, “expressed an interest in broadening America's ‘civilizing’ influence in the world.”


28 This emphasis on white America’s civilizing influence helped rebuild the nation following the Civil War. Northern and southern whites each claimed that God supported their cause and demonized each other before the Civil War. Immediately following the war, many northerners supported racial justice, black leaders, and racial uplift in religious terms, just as southern whites employed religion in supporting the Ku Klux Klan and, later, Jim Crow legislation enacting racial segregation. However, by the end of the 20th century, northern and southern whites would come together, deeply committed to “the theological association of whiteness with godliness,” meaning, of course, Christian godliness.


29 The Spanish-American War of 1898 afforded white male America the opportunity to demonstrate its military power and for former Confederate and Union soldiers to fight together. The popular revivals of Dwight Moody also brought white northern and southern Protestants back together under a common banner. The increasing mass production of white Jesus imagery, particularly in Sunday school publications, amplified the ubiquity of Jesus’s whiteness.

The power of whiteness was found elsewhere too, even in places dedicated to cultural diversity. In 1893, the city of Chicago was host to the World’s Fair and the World’s Parliament of Religions. Organized by white American Protestant men, the World’s Parliament was billed as a celebration of the world’s great religions and the world’s first interreligious dialogue on a formal stage. In his opening remarks, event organizer C. C. Bonney explained how all the world’s religions were deeply related; though “each must see God with the eyes of his own soul,” the God they saw was the same. The World’s Parliament of Religions began each day with the Lord’s Prayer, which the organizers identified as the “universal prayer.” Over the course of a few weeks, scholars of religion from around the world delivered 194 speeches—152 speeches on Christianity, 12 on Buddhism, 11 on Judaism, 8 on Hinduism, 2 on Islam, 2 on Zoroastrianism, 2 on Shintoism, 2 on Confucianism, 1 on Taoism, and 1 on Jainism.


30 Noticeably absent was any representative from an indigenous religion. While the organizers of the World’s Parliament may have planned the event with some goodwill toward others, the celebration seemed to focus more on white Protestantism than world dialogue.


31 During the weeks of the speeches, event-goers could also wander around the other exhibits of the World’s Fair, where many of the non-European exhibits were overly exotic and often engaged the American penchant for Orientalism.


32 Imperialism at home meant keeping a certain type of American under control and denying authority to those who did not fit the mold. Political organizations formed to keep Catholics out of power included the American or Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s and the American Protective Association in the late 1880s. The latter concerned itself with immigration, and in 1892, created and then circulated throughout the United States a fabricated document entitled “Instruction to True Catholics.” It was supposedly from the pope and instructed all Catholics on the following year’s feast of St. Ignatius Loyola to rise up in arms and kill their Protestant neighbors as a precursor to a Vatican invasion of the country. Though fictitious, many Protestants saw it as containing some truth.


33 They had long viewed Catholics with suspicion for their papal—that is, foreign—allegiance, and the influx of darker-skinned Catholic immigrants prompted some to label Catholics as another race. Jewish immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to an increase in anti-Semitism in America. Jews were sometimes classified as immoral, warped Christ-killers, and/or an inferior race.


34 The early 20th-century eugenics movement, under the leadership of Madison Grant and others, classified Jews as possessing inferior physical size and strength and an enhanced, ruthless self-interest.


35 The second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s targeted Catholics and Jews in addition to African Americans. White vigilantes labeled all three as dangerous others, but the law primarily focused on one of those three: American blacks.

The rise of “Jim Crow” laws, the term probably deriving from early 19th-century anti-African American caricatures, clearly illustrates how America’s race problems did not end with slavery’s abolishment. For the most part, Jim and Jane Crow laws focused on physical segregation and voting. Segregation laws banned interracial marriages and kept Americans of different races separate in public spaces, public services, schools, and more. Segregation laws in western states often expanded restrictions against other races. For example, an Arizona law prohibited “marriage of a person of Caucasian blood with a Negro, Mongolian, Malay, or Hindu.”


36 Jim and Jane Crow laws also made it more difficult for racial minorities to exercise their right to vote. Literacy tests, which required voters to pass an exam in order to vote, were a common means of restricting black voters in the South. White Christianity was part of the muscle behind segregation. White southerners continued to call for the integrity of the white sacred order. Their slave-owning ancestors had argued that God takes care of humanity in the same way that they took care of their slaves. After the Civil War, Southern racists argued that God ordained the separation of the races and had given them different languages. They quoted Acts 17:26 to support racial segregation: “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation.”


37 Interracial sexuality was a big concern for some white segregationists who viewed school integration and mixed-race relationships as disruptions of God’s law.


38 By the 20th century, segregationists identified integration as a Communist plot, linking integration with Communist atheism.


Religion and Rights

In a nation and society ripe with legal and social racial segregation, African American churches and homes offered powerful social and religious spaces where African Americans could have control over their daily lives. The effective local and national racial segregation of many Christian denominations before and after the Civil War almost ironically created black churches and denominations where African Americans had authority to advance their own spiritual growth and civic engagement. Education, from lectures about renters’ rights to history lessons to book clubs, was available at black churches. They became social hubs where black social clubs could meet and organize events. It then comes as no surprise that black churches became key centers in the protest for civil rights.


39 This was the case for both mainline Protestants and smaller religious communities. Black Catholics had been advocating for equal political and religious rights since the 19th century. The first meeting of five Black Catholic Congresses, organized in large part by former slave and lay Catholic Daniel Rudd in 1889, evidenced the desire of black Catholics to have more active voices in their churches. In the early 20th century, Father Divine, who claimed to be God in a body, founded the International Peace Mission Movement. This utopian society focused on the equality of all, since everyone was made in the image of God, and the movement found success and popularity with its “love feasts,” buffets of food blessed by Father Divine and served for free during the Great Depression. The Moorish Science Temple, also originating in the 1910s, offered a new religious and racial identity for black Americans: Moorish and Muslim. Some of founder Noble Drew Ali’s ideas seem to be echoed by the Nation of Islam originating in the 1930s, including the contention that Islam was the original religion of African Americans. Ali taught that a return to Islam and a recognition of their true ethnic and racial identity (Moorish, which Ali associated with Morocco) would help followers find real salvation.


40 Black churches brought together theological innovation and social critique. Prophetic religion is not a uniquely black church phenomenon, but it was particularly successful there. In this case, the term “prophetic” refers to the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). The old Hebrew prophets were social critics who spoke out about the corruption they saw around them. Thus, prophetic religion does the same. It critiques the current social authorities in power, identifies the corruption in the world, and includes a call for action. The world is corrupt, but it does not have to be. People can change it if they have the courage to do so. Prophetic religion instructs listeners to not be passive bystanders.


41 Speaking frequently from a perspective of prophetic religion was Martin Luther King Jr., whose religious background shaped his civil rights platform. For example, he argued that “unearned suffering is redemptive,” meaning that the suffering of all racial minorities was redemptive for humanity.


42 Since Jesus Christ suffered and redeemed humanity, suffering, especially unearned suffering, can lead to good. King believed that the suffering of America’s black population was also unearned, and because it was unwarranted, it could save the soul of the nation from her sinful past. King and the rest of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference advocated nonviolent protests. He and others—including his fellow clergymen, Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, and many African American grassroots organizations—planned nonviolent protest campaigns across the South, leading to the 1963 Birmingham Campaign and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march. Part of the protests’ fame is due to the infamy of white law enforcement officers, Alabama’s Bull Connor, and white vigilantes who violently attacked peaceful protestors, seeing themselves as protectors of white Christianity.

Black Christians were not alone in their critique of white supremacy. The Nation of Islam (NOI) under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad identified “the black man” as the original man and original creation of Allah; furthermore, whites were the creation of an aberrant scientist a few thousand years ago. This reversal of white supremacy and proclamation of black supremacy attracted a wide following, including the NOI’s most famous convert Malcolm X. A charismatic and captivating speaker, Malcolm X eclipsed Elijah Muhammad in popularity. But although he was an avid Muhammad pupil, Malcolm broke ties with the NOI in 1964 to become an orthodox Muslim. Although he became more interested in dialoguing with the civil rights movement, Malcolm remained committed to a policy of “by any means necessary” until his assassination in February 1965.43 Malcolm’s criticism of the integrationist movement represents one node on the spectrum of black power. Calls for black power were sometimes critical of what proponents called a blind focus on racial integration; others saw the two as working together; and some called for racial separatism. For many, the black power movement was about uplifting the social and political identity of African Americans.44 Some black theologians, most prominently James Cone, used black power as a starting point for a new take on Christian theology that centered blackness and God’s stance in solidarity with the oppressed.


45 Calls for red power and Native rights also arose in the 1960s.


46 The American Indian Movement formed in 1968 in response to police brutality toward Native Americans, but its focus expanded and hoped for “a new American majority . . . that is committed toward prevailing upon the public will in ceasing wrongs and in doing right.”


47 The group coordinated several small protests (such as a one-day sit-in on Mount Rushmore), a nineteen-month armed occupation of abandoned Alcatraz Island in the late 1960s, and a seventy-one-day occupation at Pine Ridge Reservation that included a standoff with law enforcement. This protest, known as Wounded Knee II and specifically referencing the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, gained much national attention, especially when Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather to the 1973 Academy Award ceremonies where she, speaking in Brando’s name, refused the Academy Award for best actor, focusing her speech on the portrayal of Native Americans in the media, particularly by Hollywood.


Twentieth-Century Immigrants

In 1924, a new U.S. Immigration Act seriously curtailed immigration by establishing immigrant quotas based on the 1890 census. The effect was dramatic, especially in terms of religion. Immigration from northern and western Europe could continue flowing easily, but immigration from eastern Europe, the Middle East, and eastern Asia (such as China) became substantially constricted. The restrictions on southern and eastern European immigration slowed the arrival of Jews and Catholics, and the restriction on immigration from Asia drastically curtailed the incoming movement of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others. Of course, the 1924 Immigration Act was not the first legal attack on immigration; the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan both attempted to halt Asian immigration. The constraints were not lifted until 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a new Immigration and Naturalization Act at the foot of the Statue of Liberty that abolished previous restrictions and brought anew an influx of religious, racial, and ethnic diversity across the next half-century.

American religion scholar Peter Williams has employed the terms “ethnic,” “import,” and “export” religion to quantify and describe the new religious variations entering the United States.


48 Ethnic religions include those brought by immigrants and practiced primarily in their immigrant communities. If these ethnic religions included Catholicism and Judaism, whose practice was tolerated but scarcely always embraced, or practices of bhakti yoga, home puja, and karma yoga by Hindu immigrants after 1965, it also included religions that led to exclusion and even imprisonment. White Christians labeled Chinese laborers as racial others and dangerous outsiders, and political cartoons supporting the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act illustrated the laborers’ undesirability and “pagan” practices.


49 As non-Christians and non-white, racial others were viewed as exotic, dangerous, and uncivilized.


50 Japanese immigrants who brought Mahayana and Pure Land Buddhism to the U.S. west coast, especially in the early 20th century, found themselves under triple suspicion during World War II—racial, political, and religious—and when so many were interned during World War II, they often could only practice their Buddhism privately in the camps throughout World War II.


51 Export religions were often fairly new sects but were grounded in older traditions and reversed traditional negative relations between race and religion. Transcendental Meditation and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness often appealed to white Americans taken with the Asian origins that repelled other American whites. Import religions included more traditional forms of Hinduism and Buddhism and often generated strong interest from well-educated white Americans, especially Christian “seekers” disillusioned by the religion of their youth or those simply in search of something more meaningful, including a religious foreignness rooted in perceived racial difference.


52 Immigrants from Mexico reflecting distinctive Latinx rather than western or eastern European Catholic practices occupy a special place in understanding relations between race and religion. One reason is simple: the first large group of “Mexicans” in the United States did not cross a border to arrive but were included in the nation when U.S. borders changed as a result of the admission of Texas to the Union in 1845 and the success of the Mexican-American War between 1846 and 1848. Many Catholic communities in the American Southwest emphasize visual and material ritual practices.


53 These traditions range from vibrant parades on December 12 for the feast of La Virgin de Guadalupe to the Penitentes’ unique practices of self-flagellation and crucifixion reenactment. These “immigrants” were later followed by more Latinx immigration from Mexico, the Caribbean (especially Puerto Rico and Cuba) and, after 1970, Central America. Many brought a rich practice of Catholicism and active ministries that 20th-century Hispanic immigration in the Southwest and beyond have expanded through bilingual clergy and Spanish language masses. This Latinx Catholicism has long provided a hub of grassroots activism, benevolent aid to parishioners and the larger community, and centers for civil rights organizing. The latter has been necessitated by frequent xenophobic response to Latinx immigration, both legal and illegal. This xenophobia is more than tinged with racism but also sometimes bespeaks a lingering anti-Catholicism, and the increase of Protestant Pentecostalism in Mexico and Central America plus Pentecostalism’s increasing presence in American Latinx immigrant communities has not eased the racial and often religious hostility directed toward Latinx immigrants.


54 Just as Muslims are not new to America, neither are negative views of Islam. The Barbary Wars of the 19th century’s first decade reinforced traditional Christian fears and hatred of Islam and cast the Islamic Ottoman Empire, Muslim leaders, soldiers, pirates, and North Africans generally as America’s opposite.


55 Late-20th-century backlash against Muslims fed by the several Middle East wars once again fused anti-Islamic and racial prejudice. Following the New York City terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, some citizens targeted anyone perceived to be Muslim based on appearance and presumed racial identity. Several Sikh men—who “looked like” Muslims because of their beards, dastaars, and South Asian, or at least “different,” appearance—experienced attacks, combined racial and religious prejudice, and sometimes murder. For example, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American and owner of a gas station in Arizona, was murdered in 2001 by a man who believed he was a Muslim and a terrorist. In 2012, five men and one woman were murdered at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin by a white supremacist whose hatreds fused religion with race.


56 Seemingly so different, religion and race have found themselves powerfully linked in American history, most often and certainly most devastatingly in negative ways. Their precise associations have shifted over time, yet their broad association have shown little decrease from the days of the early republic to the early 21st century.


Discussion of the Literature

Although American religious history has a long and lively historiography, work that directly engages race as a category of analysis is relatively new. Some of the earliest works on American church history, such as Robert Baird’s Religion in America (1844), reflect the white supremacy analyzed in this article.


57 Many works that came after Baird’s simply did not engage groups beyond white Christians.


58 Whiteness remained neutral in American religion historiography, and race played a small role until the rise of ethnic studies in the wider academy. African American Studies has been a field for over a century, and work on the “negro church” or “black church” was been robust since the Harlem Renaissance, but African American religion did not become a significant part of American religious history until Albert J. Raboteau’s 1978 Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. Historians of American religion began to take Native Studies and Indigenous Studies seriously in the late 20th century. Just as the civil rights movement prompted the academy to pay more attention to African American religions, the American Indian Movement played a role in scholars’ increased attention. Vine Deloria Jr.’s Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969) and God is Red: A Native View of Religion (1972) made clear to scholars that colonialism had not wiped out indigenous identity and culture, and they deserved academic attention. More significant though is postcolonial theory. Stories of American religion are more attentive to the experiences of the marginalized, the subaltern, and the oppressed. In the case of African American religious history and Native American religious history, both the historical actors and the historiography assumed these subjects had race. Their non-whiteness was palpable and a significant part of their story in ways that did not seem to affect white Americans. That their race was a burden was a major shaper of their religious beliefs and practices.

Though whites are the dominant social and political actors in American history, studies of white American religion with race as the foremost rubric of analysis are relatively rare. White privilege’s impact on the academy allowed for whiteness to seem the norm and thus unseen in narratives of American religious history. Inattention to the construction and work of whiteness in American religion has enabled this unspoken assumption that race only shapes the experiences of people of color. As Judith Weisenfeld argues, this allows race to be “the only explanatory rubric necessary for understanding the religious sensibilities and actions of particular racialized peoples.”


59 Some of the most persuasive and innovative work in the field is that which is attentive to the construction of race and intersectionality. For example, “white” as a racial signifier means nothing without a point of comparison. These studies follow the experiences of one or more religious groups in conversation with larger conversations about race, in terms of critical race theory, interactions with other communities, dynamics of power and politics, immigration, another facet of identity (such as gender), or some combination of these. Numerous works on religion and 20th- and 21st-century immigration have further clarified the power of whiteness in American religion, as well as resistance to it. -Religion and Race in America, Emily Suzanne Clark

Primary Sources

Every collection of primary sources on American religion is inherently about religion and race, and thus there are far more resources available to those interested in religion and race in American history than can be cataloged here. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill maintains an expansive online library of primary sources called Documenting the South. Many of its sources highlight the intersections of religion, whites, and blacks in the South. Of particular interest may be the collection of slave narratives. Also helpful for race and African American religion is Milton Sernett’s edited volume African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness.


60 Creighton University made available online The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, the letters and field reports from Jesuits missionizing in the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Jesuit Relations offers detailed descriptions of Native American religious practice and belief, though through the eyes of Jesuit priests. A number of universities and missionary societies also possess archives with rich collections pertaining to Native American religions, such as Marquette University or Jesuit universities that house Jesuit archives (e.g., Santa Clara University or Gonzaga University). Protestant missionary publications like The Missionary Herald and federal records like The Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and The Bureau of Ethnology Annual Reports are also helpful points of intersection between whites and Native Americans. For religion and racism, American periodicals are a rich resource. Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization, The Century Magazine, Scribner’s Monthly, Puck Magazine, Life, and Time, as well as popular and local newspapers contain news reports and opinion essays that capture their context well. The Library of Congress possesses a wide array of political cartoons and other prints that illustrate religious and racial intolerance.

Primary sources on American Islam include the FBI’s declassified files on the Nation of Islam, the Archive of Muslim American History and Life at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and the archival holdings at the Arab American National Museum. The resources at the American Jewish Historical Society are a wonderful repository of primary sources on American Jewish history and life. The Buddhist Churches of America Collection at the Japanese American National Museum is helpful for primary sources on early Buddhist immigrants. The South Asian American Digital Archive contains archival material on Hinduism as a religion and as a race.

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