date: 10 March 2018
Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion in North America
Summary and Keywords
The history of religion in the United States cannot be understood without attending to histories of race, gender, and sexuality. Since the 1960s, social and political movements for civil rights have ignited interest in the politics of identity, especially those tied to movements for racial justice, women’s rights, and LGBT rights. These movements have in turn informed scholarly practice, not least by prompting the formation of new academic fields, such as Women’s Studies and African American studies, and new forms of analysis, such as intersectionality, critical race theory, and feminist and queer theory. These movements have transformed how scholars of religion in colonial North America and the United States approach intersections of race, gender, and sexuality.
From the colonial period to the present, these discourses of difference have shaped religious practice and belief. Religion has likewise shaped how people understand race, gender, and sexuality. The way that most people in the United States think about identity, especially in terms of race, gender, or sexuality, has a longer history forged out of encounters among European Christians, Native Americans, and people of African descent in the colonial world. European Christians brought with them a number of assumptions about the connection between civilization and Christian ideals of gender and sexuality. Many saw their role in the Americas as one of Christianization, a process that included not only religious but also sexual and cultural conversion, as these went hand in hand. Assumptions about religion and sexuality proved central to how European colonists understood the people they encountered as “heathens” or “pagans.” Religion likewise informed how they interpreted the enslavement of Africans, which was often justified through theological readings of the Bible. Native Americans and African Americans also drew upon religion to understand and to resist the violence of European colonialism and enslavement. In the modern United States, languages of religion, race, gender, and sexuality continue to inform one another as they define the boundaries of normative “modernity,” including the role of religion in politics and the relationship between religious versus secular arguments about race, gender, and sexuality.
Keywords: race, religion, gender, sexuality, intersectionality, feminist, LGBT, critical race theory, identity
Scholars who set out to study religion in colonial North America and the United States confront an immediate difficulty: the religion of the people they seek to study is already shot through with various kinds of difference. These differences may include gender, sex, nationality, race, age, class status, or ability, among others. Studying race, gender, and sexuality in American religion forces the scholar to ask a series of more fundamental questions. How did we come to this set of interests or concerns? What do these analytical categories mean, both for scholars and for the people who ostensibly inhabit, possess, or enact some aspect of religion, race, gender, and sexuality in the areas that scholars study? What is at stake in thinking about these terms together, rather than separately? And, of course, the question of definition: How did these categories come about and what do they mean?
This article addresses each of these questions. It starts not with definitions, as scholars often do, but with two examples from the archives of American religion. The first recalls a Native American woman encountering white Protestant missionaries in the early 19th century. In the summer of 1817, Catharine Brown arrived at Brainerd, a mission school in Tennessee, where she asked to enroll. Brown was a young woman at the time and came from an elite Cherokee family. She dressed much like other Cherokee women of her status and like other Indians living in the Southeast, donning an eclectic mix of indigenous and European clothes and accoutrements. Brown wore “earrings and knobs, rings, and a large necklace” that put her at home among other indigenous women in this region, but that caused alarm for the white missionaries at Brainerd, for whom it looked “like ‘Indian superabundance’ of finery, something excessive.”1 The missionaries found her character wanting, complaining that she was “proud and haughty, loaded with earrings and jewelry.”2 Aesthetic extravagance also portended a sexual license unbecoming of white womanhood. Even still, white missionaries also recognized what they considered good traits in Catharine Brown. One recalled her “fair complexion” and described her appearance as “genteel and prepossessing.”3
The missionaries accepted Brown into the school, and as she deepened her involvement with Christianity over time, her dress became more modest, shorn of its previous adornments, and more similar to that of pious white Christian women. Several years later, a traveler named Lucius Verus Bierce encountered Brown at her father’s inn in Alabama. He commented on her appearance: “She was probably one fourth Indian, beautiful form, thick set for one of her tribe, dressed in the American style, and but for the small, dark eye, prominent cheek bones and glossy hair would have passed well for an American lady.”4 As historian Joel Martin notes, another way of putting Bierce’s description would be to say that he saw Brown “as almost, but not quite, ‘white.’”5 In this historical example, Martin introduces a powerful, if all too routine, encounter between a Cherokee woman and white Christian missionaries, underscoring the negotiations of racial reading that transpire. This narrative of Christian conversion cannot be understood apart from one of gendered racial conversion, however incomplete the latter winds up being. Catharine Brown’s story becomes, in Martin’s telling, a vivid demonstration of how different forms of identity come together—that is, a story that could not be told without accounting for the ways that religion, race, gender, and sexuality were woven together.
The second example comes from historian Robert Orsi’s discussion of journalist Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. Covington spent two years living among a group of mostly poor evangelicals in the southeastern United States in the early 1990s. They drew upon snake handling as part of their evangelical religious practice, as a way to live within a context of “violence and danger.”6 Orsi lauds Covington for the sensitivity of his portrayal of these communities, at least until Covington describes his last night among them, which he spent at the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in Kingston, Georgia. On that night, a dispute breaks out over the role of women in the church, and Covington is silenced when he attempts to argue for the equality of women. At that point, another preacher called Punkin’ Brown enters the scene in Covington’s narrative. He reaches into the snake box, pulls out a rattler, and wraps it around his shoulders. “As he does so,” Orsi writes, marking Covington’s words in quotation marks:
Punkin’ Brown makes a sound that Covington records as “haaagh,” an explosive, angry grunt, and as he bears down into his nasty, woman-hating sermon, the preacher uses the sound to set the cadence of his attack and to underscore his rage. Covington makes sure we hear this. “Haaagh” appears ten times on a single page—and it is thus—“haaagh!”—that he reestablishes the border between himself and the handlers that he has up until then so courageously been tearing down . . . The evangelist [Punkin’ Brown] brushes his lips with the serpent and wipes his face with it and always there is the brutal “haaagh!” like “steam escaping from an underground vent.” Punkin’ Brown has become a nightmare, a subterranean creature, a snake himself.7
Orsi reflects on this narrative turn: “The work of rendering Punkin’ Brown into ‘Punkin’ Brown’ first secures the identity of the observer as safely separate from the other and then establishes the observer’s superiority.”8 Here, Orsi captures the transformation of the person Punkin’ Brown into the character “Punkin’ Brown,” now marked off by scare quotes. His analysis of Covington’s narrative foregrounds the role of representation—the ways that language constitutes people or religions (or genders, sexualities, or races) in particular and contingent ways. It also indexes longer histories of racialized and gendered norms for defining what constitutes “good” or “true” religion, as Orsi demonstrates the ways that Covington finally casts Brown’s religious practice outside the boundaries of proper belief.
These accounts underscore two points to keep in mind moving forward: the mutual imbrications of religion, race, gender, and sexuality at different points in North American history and the role of representation and narrative in the constitution of religion. Scholars have retold the history of American religion with various forms of race, gender, or sexuality at the center. In some of the best examples of this work, scholars find they often cannot examine one of these categories (say, gender) without attention to others (say, race or sexuality). This article looks to the various theoretical and methodological models that have informed how critical race and feminist scholars in particular have approached religion, race, gender, and sexuality not only as discrete categories but also as overlapping and mutually constituting analytics. Toward this end, I attend to two of the most influential approaches in the humanities and social science: intersectional studies of identity and poststructuralist analysis of social formations and representation. Granted, these approaches overlap, and I tease them apart in this discussion for heuristic reasons. The second half of this article covers a genealogical sketch of American religion that foregrounds attention to race, gender, and sexuality. My choices here are intended to be suggestive rather than comprehensive.
The Politics of Identity
In the contemporary United States, terms of religion, race, gender, and sexuality have become crucial to the ways that people understand themselves. Modern surveys, census questionnaires, and daily paperwork filled out for jobs or other sorts of applications commonly ask questions about racial identity and about sex or gender. They sometimes ask about religious affiliation or sexual orientation as well. These categories form the bedrock of modern ways of identifying oneself. Yet scholars across the humanities and the social sciences disagree about how to approach each individually, much less how they come together. One difficulty that arises concerns the very ways that people use these terms, which can include colloquial usage or analytical ways of employing them. Scholars attentive to such categories suggest two points about the ways that Americans think about identity. First, the categories most commonly used today have not been consistent or stable throughout the history of colonial America and the United States. And second, the very concern that many Americans today have with understanding and naming identity or identities is itself a more recent development. In other words, the extent to which “identity” has become an important way for Americans to understand themselves and to engage in political and public discourse has its own history.9
Struggles for civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s advanced a series of political movements motivated by identity. These decades saw activists fighting for the rights of African Americans, women, Native Americans, Chicanos, workers and union members, LGBT people, and many others. Historians have suggested, sometimes pejoratively, that these movements replaced earlier emphases on class struggle with a new cultural politics based on identities—women, men, black, white, straight, gay, and so forth. Indeed, the 1960s and 1970s did witness new forms of investment in the politics of identity, especially as they related to identities demarcated by race, gender, and sexuality in need of legal and social protections against discrimination. Religion has been implicated in this history in various ways. While some black activists found empowerment in African American traditions of Christianity or Islam that bolstered black rights movements, white feminist and queer activists often targeted religious institutions as sites of oppression. Historians of the women’s rights and LGBT movements have regularly slotted religion on the side of conservatism, overlooking moderate and progressive movements within religious groups.10 Scholars of religion have commented on the explosion of interest in Asian religions in this period, in addition to new immigration, that likewise reshaped the politics of religious demographics.
Scholars of religion who study race, gender, and sexuality do not fall outside of this social context. At their best, however, they try to be attentive to this history—or, more accurately, the historicity—of identity terms. What does this mean? If today most people living in the United States employ terms related to gender, race, and sexuality to name identity, colonial Americans more commonly identified themselves according to their kin relationships, their occupation, their place of birth, their status as free or unfree, or their religion, which most often meant a denomination of Protestantism (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, and so forth). This observation may seem minor or obvious, but it leads to two important points. Different kinds of identity become more important in different historical periods. And, second, some identities very important for people living in the United States today did not exist in earlier periods.
Religious and racial identities have shifted over the course of American history. Since the mid-20th century, people in the United States have moved away from denominational markers (Methodist, Baptist, and Lutheran) toward broader categories, like Christian, Catholic, or Jewish, or claims to being spiritual or atheist. Specific denominational identities have given way to theologically broader terms of identity, as theological distinctions have become less important than differences in political and cultural values. Racial identities, too, have shifted greatly. The emergence of the black power movement placed racial identity at the center of national (and international) political movements. It also inspired movements for Red Power among Native Americans, as well as identity movements based on gender (women’s rights and later transgender rights) and sexuality (lesbian and gay rights). The emphasis on racial identity also prompted many white Americans to revisit their own ethnic pasts, contributing to what historian Matthew Jacobsen Frye has called a “white ethnic revival,” a push to reassert white ethnic identities such as Italian American or Irish American.11
Gender and sexual identities have likewise changed over time. It is very common today to hear a person identify as straight or gay. In the past five years, identifying as transgender or cisgender has also entered public discourse, especially with the attention given in media and popular culture to transgender celebrities, such as Chaz Bono, Caitlyn Jenner, and Laverne Cox. These are good examples of categories that did not exist two hundred years ago. This is not to say that colonial or indigenous people living in the Americas did not sometimes embody gender roles in non-normative ways. But there was no concept of a transgender identity as such. Following the work of philosopher Michel Foucault, historians have shown how terms like “homosexual” and later “heterosexual” were not invented until the late 19th century.12 Even then, they were not terms people used as identities but rather categories constructed by psychiatrists and sexologists. “Homosexuals” were named as a particular kind of people—those who were gender “inverts” or who slept with others of the same sex—but those people often did not see themselves as part of a community. Often, they thought of themselves as sick and in need of medical attention. Over the course of the 20th century, and once named by these medical experts as a kind of people, homosexuals in turn began to organize politically and to see themselves as particular kinds of persons, as lesbians or gays for instance. This is not to say that no one had same-sex sex before the late 19th century. Of course, many did. But they did not see themselves as “gay” or “lesbian”—or as belonging to LGBT communities—as many people do today.
Gender terms also have more recent histories within the English language. In colloquial settings, people use gender and sex interchangeably, but these terms have changed over time to mean different things, depending on context. Gender is commonly used to designate the cultural and social expression often but not always tied to sex, male or female. Common expectations align female persons with femininity and male persons with masculinity, though these arrangements are never quite so fixed. Sex usually names the biological or genetic sex of a person (in most cases, male or female, though the category intersex has become important in the latter half of the 20th century to name certain kinds of sexual variation). While the two-sex model is common today, historians have shown that other models have existed. A number of feminists and queer theorists and historians of science have challenged this dichotomy between gender and sex and have argued that sex, too, is a category constituted through cultural discourse, including the discourse of science.13
The political and social movements of the 1960s and 1970s also shaped academic analysis, sparking the emergence of new fields like African American studies, women’s studies, Chicano studies, Asian American studies, and LGBT studies—fields that would develop into institutional programs or departments in later decades. A number of participants realized early on that these academic and political movements would need to develop better ways to approach the politics of identity, especially how diverse forms of identity intersect.
Black feminists paved the way in theorizing intersections of identities through groups like the Combahee River Collective, which formed in 1974 to create space for thinking about the intersections of race, gender, and lesbianism. Intersectional analysis gained greater visibility as an academic method following the publication of two essays by feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw: “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics,” published in 1989, and “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” published in 1991.14 In these essays, Crenshaw called for analysis of the intersections between patriarchal and racist oppression, between feminist and anti-racist organizing, and between different types of representational practice, including racial and gender stereotypes.15 Intersectional analysis pushed against the tendency for critical race studies and second wave feminist theory to ignore the experiences and needs of black women, in particular. Through the 1980s and 1990s, intersectionality became one of the most important, if not dominant, methods of feminist and anti-racist analysis across a number of fields in the humanities and social sciences.
Although religion has not been one of the most prominent categories of analysis for intersectional thinking, scholars of religion and womanist and feminist theologians have brought religious experience and practice into these conversations. Take, for instance, the publication of Weaving the Visions: New Patterns of Feminist Spirituality, edited by Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow. Published in 1989, this collection of essays expanded the discussion of feminist spirituality started with Christ and Plaskow’s groundbreaking 1979 collection Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader, which brought together an array of Christian, Jewish, and other spiritual voices to consider the relationships among women, religion, and patriarchy. As important as that book was, Christ and Plaskow noted some of its shortcomings, including “the absence of voices of woman of color, the invisibility of lesbians, and (with the exception of an essay by Sheila Collins) a failure to discuss issues of class and educational background.” They also diagnosed the unintended but no less negative impact of these limitations, which had the “effect of identifying ‘women’s experience’ with the experiences of primarily white, heterosexual, and middle-class women.”16Weaving the Visions diversified these conversations, including contributions by womanist theologian Dolores Williams and Chicana thinker Gloria Anzaldúa, for instance, whose work pushed readers to think about the multiple dimensions of human experience, especially for woman of color.
Alongside feminist and womanist theologians, historians and religious studies scholars have also worked toward intersectional forms of analysis. Since the 1970s, women’s historians have pushed against older trends in the field that emphasized political and intellectual histories foregrounding the role of male elites. Recovering the history of women has forced scholars to examine the domestic sphere alongside the public sphere and to reassess the boundaries of what is considered “political.” In a now-classic essay, “Women’s History Is American Religious History,” Ann Braude demonstrated how attention to the presence of women in religious institutions, rather than the absence of men, upended narratives of religious declension and complicated anxieties about the feminization of American Christianity.17 Scholars of African American history have likewise challenged accounts of America’s past that downplay or ignore the role of slavery and racial oppression or that relegate blacks merely to the status of slaves or actors in the civil rights movement. In the 1980s and 1990s, historians like Hazel Carby and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham challenged two fronts in American history: they called women’s historians to better account for the role of race and pressed scholars of African American history to include women and attention to gender and sexuality in their work.18 They also offered new models for examining intersectional forms of identity.
From Identity to Identification
Intersectional analysis emerged alongside and in conversation with feminist theoretical writing in the 1980s and 1990s that questioned commonly received categories, like “woman,” asking whether there was something essential about women or whether such a category was contingent upon linguistic, social, and cultural forces. Scholars who have engaged in intersectional work have been quite attentive to metaphors of intersectionality, understanding that how we imagine such intersecting to take place matters for how we do history and how we engage in the politics of identity. It is helpful to consider the application of intersectional analysis to American history alongside overlapping feminist theoretical and critical race studies scholarship that has pressed against the very categories that historians have depended upon to write history.
In “The Evidence of Experience,” historian Joan Scott draws on poststructuralist and postcolonial theory to challenge historians’ reliance upon shared experience as a foundation for claims to identity. Scott worries that efforts to recover the history of marginalized groups—such as women, African Americans, lesbians, and gay men—too often relies upon ungrounded assumptions of common experience across history. The legitimacy of women’s history, in this way of thinking, depends upon positing a universal category of “woman” (or black, or gay, or working-class) that could serve as a foundation for explaining women’s experience across cultural and historical difference. The problem with this approach is that it all too often assumes the universality of white women’s experience and, consequently, either ignores the history of nonwhite women or assimilates their histories under the sign of a universalized but unmarked white womanhood. For Scott, this approach essentializes the role of experience, which becomes the basis for claims to shared identity, rather than exploring the history of experience itself. “Talking about experience in these ways,” she explains, “leads us to take the existence of individuals for granted (experience is something people have) rather than to ask how conceptions of selves (of subjects and their identities) are produced.”19
Higginbotham draws upon Elizabeth Spelman’s Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought to explain how universalizing or essentializing a shared experience based on modern categories of identity runs into further problems when scholars attempt intersectional analysis. White feminists, she writes, “typically discern two separate identities for black women, the racial and the gender, and conclude that the gender identity of black women is the same as their own.”20 This approach sees differences in race and gender as discrete identities that can intersect, like two (or more) roads crossing at a given point. In this model, identity is additive: one can be white, and a woman, and lesbian, and a Methodist. Historians like Higginbotham and Scott reject this way of understanding identity and experience, proposing that scholars examine not the convergence of discrete identities but rather their co-constitution. In other words, they shift our attention from identity to the work of identification, that is, to the set of historical and linguistic processes through which identity comes to seem natural. In the first model, one can layer any number of identities, but the assumption is that what it means to be “woman” or “black” or “Methodist” is fixed. The second method points out that these terms are co-constituted, such that none of the terms are inherently stable, but shift when they intersect. Critical race studies and feminist scholars in the 1980s and 1990s often turned to poststructuralist analyses of discourse to understand how subjects are constituted through language and what feminist philosopher Judith Butler would call “performativity.”21 Scholars of American religion have likewise joined these conversations, insisting that categories of religion also shape these social discourses and the formation of identity. Consider histories of race.
In the contemporary United States, race seems to be self-evident, something that we know when we see it. Indeed, for most Americans, one of the primary signs of race is visual—the color one’s skin. Yet, at various points in U.S. history, visual evidence has proven faulty, as when “blacks” have “passed” as “white,” or when Native Americans, like Catharine Brown, appear “almost white.” Historians of whiteness have also demonstrated how some people usually identified as “white” in modern America were understood as nonwhite in the not too distant past. Irish Americans and European Jews in the 19th century, and Italians in the first half of the 20th, fell short of normative standards of whiteness, a failure that was often depicted through visual metaphors and representations. Nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans caricatured Irish Americans by depicting them with “primitive” or apelike facial features that suggested a lower level of evolution. Jewish, Italian, and Irish American whiteness was not a given, but rather a cultural process and an ongoing negotiation. Such examples suggest that while race appears self-evident, and while visual evidence is often the basis for reading race, it has a long and contentious history.
In “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” Higginbotham asserts that race is a socially constructed category, just like religion, gender, and sexuality. “More than this,” she explains, “race is a highly contested representation of relations of power between social categories by which individuals are identified and identify themselves.”22 Higginbotham insists upon understanding race not in isolation but in relation to other social categories, and in this essay she demonstrates racial constructions of gender, class, and sexuality. She also points to the doubling of these social categories. They become tools for naming the racial characteristics of certain kinds of people in relationship to others but also the means through which people come to understand themselves. In this way, social categories of race operate both at the level of representation and in the very production of personal experience (as Joan Scott has also observed). To translate this observation to the language of Michel Foucault, Higginbotham and Scott insist that subjects are constituted through discourses of race, gender, sexuality, and religion at the very same time that this formation as a subject offers the possibility for understanding oneself in particular ways (such as in terms of identity for modern Americans) and to understanding others through the power of representation. Finally, as Higginbotham argues, one cannot discuss race without attention to power. Racial variation (like differences in religion, gender, and sexuality) has rarely been treated as benign; more often, variation has been plotted onto social hierarchies that have manifested through colonial relations and the oppression of those deemed below the threshold of civilization. An approach to American religion that holds together social categories of race, gender, and sexuality shows us new ways of imagining this history, including ways that upend conventional narratives of American religion that have emphasized the role of white Christianity and of male participants, which have often gone unmarked.
The biases of American religious history are deeply entrenched in historical myths of the United States. One approach to telling this national history—a pedagogical ritual that Americans reenact every November—begins with conflating the Pilgrims and the Puritans fleeing religious persecution in Great Britain. They resettle in New England, where they established their own “city upon a hill,” to borrow from the sermon that John Winthrop delivered to his fellow Puritans in Massachusetts in 1630. The phrase, now ubiquitous in American national and political rhetoric, comes from the Gospel of Matthew (5:14), just after Jesus refers to his followers as “the light of the world.” For centuries, Americans have drawn upon this phrase to draw a direct connection among those early Puritan colonies in New England, the predestined formation of the United States, and that country’s status as a divinely sanctioned (Christian) nation. This narrative marks the modern nation not only as Christian (and specifically Protestant), at least historically, but also as dominantly white, as least at its founding. Indigenous Americans play a minor role in this national myth, in euphemistic Thanksgiving stories of reciprocity, while the presence of enslaved Africans is often entirely erased. So too does this account leave out the earliest European colonizers, the Catholic Spanish who settled in Florida and in the southwestern regions of the contemporary United States.23
Historians of American religion have done much to challenge this oversimplified narrative. We cannot begin to talk about the history of religion in the United States without first acknowledging that the United States was founded as a nation on land that was colonized by Europeans, the vast majority of whom were Protestant and Catholic. European colonists encountered indigenous people already living on these lands. They also brought with them a great number of African people held captive as slaves. At their best, historians of religion in colonial America now tell this story not as a benevolent narrative about Puritans escaping persecution to found what would become a free nation, but rather as a history of contact, negotiation, and conflict among various kinds of people living on these lands since the late 15th century. The United States, in such accounts, no longer materialized from the courageous intentions of the Puritans; it emerges as much, if not more so, from histories of colonization and oppression, including the mass genocide of indigenous peoples and their forced relocation in the 19th century; the enslavement and later legal and social oppression of people of African descent; the exclusion of people of Asian descent from American citizenship in the late 19th and much of the 20th century; and the slow and uneven advance of full citizenship for nonwhites, women, and sexual minorities.
Discourses of religion, race, gender, and sexuality have intimately shaped this history. We can see this point more clearly by returning to the history of race. Colloquial usage of this term today often suggests scientific differences among humans on the basis of skin color or popular science. Two of the most common ways for talking about race, black and white, reveal the emphasis upon visual evidence and skin color as key determinates. But other terms—like Hispanic, Latino, Anglo-Saxon, Asian American, or African American—point to a shared language or geographic origin. These differences betray the social origins of the category of race. Indeed, historians of race and racism have traced the history of these concepts back to medieval Europe, through the Reformation, and through the development of modern nations. Throughout this history, discourses of religion have played an important role in shaping race and racism, one further compounded by assumptions concerning gender and sexuality.
Religious Genealogies of Race and Modernity
In his history of racism, George Frederickson explains how European Christians in the 12th and 13th centuries added to their long-standing hostility toward Jews new forms of Christian anti-Jewishness. After the doctrine of transubstantiation was officially espoused during the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, Christians increasingly accused Jews of stealing the consecrated Host and inflicting upon it the same kinds of torture they ostensibly exacted upon Jesus—in effect, repeating this crime against Christians. These myths of Host-stealing and desecration fueled popular representations of Jews as not merely unconverted but actually evil. “The terminology and frame of reference continued to be religious,” Fredrickson writes, “but the conception of Jews as willing accomplices of Satan meant, at least to the unsophisticated, that they were beyond redemption and should probably be killed or at least expelled from Christendom.”24
European Catholic animus against non-Christians accelerated in the 15th and early 16th centuries, when the Spanish decreed that Jews and Muslims had either to convert to Christianity or leave. A number of Jews converted, but Spanish Catholics remained anxious about the status of these conversions. And “the Inquisition proceeded,” Frederickson explains, “from the assumption that Jewish ancestry per se justified the suspicion of covert ‘judaizing.’”25 Such worries about Christian heresy or “judaizing” issued from Catholic assumptions about Jewish blood—indeed, anxieties about “limpieza de sangre,” or the purity of blood, would continue to justify discrimination even against the next generation of Christian children born to Jewish converts, including those who had intermarried with non-Jews. Spanish anxieties about the purity of blood would contribute to the idea that “to be truly Spanish in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one had to claim to be of pure Christian descent.”26 The Spanish were not alone in such proto-racial thinking. The Irish in Britain occupied a somewhat analogous role to the Jews and Moors in Spain—cast as the “others” against which an “us” could be consolidated.27
We should read Frederickson’s account of Spanish anxieties about the purity of blood alongside Higginbotham’s observation that, in the 15th and 16th centuries, “the concept of ‘race’ came increasingly to articulate a nationalist ideology.”28 “Racial representations of nation,” she explains, led to the idea of the “French,” the “Germans,” or, as we have seen, “the Spanish,” as national groupings—as kinds of people whose lineages could be traced and whose national histories could be told. The rise of nation-states was fueled in part by theological and political disagreements about Christianity, by the fractures opened between Catholics and Protestants (and among the various sects of Protestantism itself).
What we today call “modernity” was very much forged amidst these fights among Christians, with their encounters with non-Christians living in Europe, and through contact with the peoples of Africa and of the Americas. Unpacking the assumptions of what Robert Orsi calls the “paradigm of normative ‘modern religion’” requires us to understand that against which the modern was staged. For Orsi, that “other” included to a considerable degree “the rejection of the Catholic doctrine of the real presence”—the idea that God or the divine could materialize in the everyday world—“and its relegation to a (Catholic) past out of step with modernity.”29 Protestant and later British Enlightenment assumptions about the ontology of religion cast aside (or into “the past”) Catholic practices that would find the divine in the sacred Host or centuries later in the waters of Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in the Bronx, New York, a replica of the grotto in Lourdes, France, where Mary appeared in 1859 to Bernadette Soubirous.30 The disenchantments of the Protestant Reformation joined the exultation of reason, and of reasonable religion, during the Age of Enlightenment. Reasonable religion was a matter of the mind, a commitment of belief. It rose above what Scottish philosopher David Hume criticized as the enthusiasm of those Protestants who were too fervent, too emotional, and the superstition of Catholics, impressed by the magic of priests who supposedly conjured Christ in the Eucharist.31
This articulation of reason as one of the bases for normative conceptions of modern religion was from the start both racialized and gendered. “Religious distinctions and racial taxonomies went hand in hand,” Orsi writes, “as much as religion was racialized, race was religionized.”32 For Orsi, the axis of presence and absence central to Catholic and Protestant battles in Europe would animate ongoing Protestant hostility toward Catholics in America, but it would also shape European Protestants’ encounters with non-Christians, including Native Americans and peoples from Africa, whose religious practices assumed divine presences that would be deemed pre-modern or irrational. They would continue to define non-Protestants against normative but naturalized assumptions that pitted moderns against non-moderns, masculine reason against feminine emotion, modest desires against immodest ones, and white bodies against non-white bodies.
Religion, Sex, and Civilization in the “New World”
In “Sexuality in American Religious History,” historian Ann Taves puts the “sexual body” at the center of narratives of American religion. She organizes her essay around questions of legitimacy—what is legitimate sex, legitimate marriage, and, one could add, a legitimate American or Christian?—and their role in the formation of the U.S. nation-state.33 Taves’s inquiry into the sexual history of American religion becomes just as much a racial and gender history. The native inhabitants of the Americas enjoyed great diversity, both culturally and linguistically. But they did not operate with anything like the modern concept of race until well after Europeans first invaded these territories. European Protestants and Catholics brought with them to the Americas a host of assumptions about cultural and religious difference that informed their views of racial difference. These assumptions often tethered racial superiority to signs of civilization, which for Protestant and Catholic Europeans alike were tied to Christian sexual morals and modes of dress. Indeed, before the advance of scientific models of racism in the 19th century, these religious and cultural markers proved more dominant. For English and Spanish colonizers alike, Taves writes, “the primary distinctions between the native peoples and the colonizers” did not issue from modern notions of racial difference. Rather, they were “religious (pagan, heathen), cultural (savage, wild-men, barbarian), and geographical (native, Indian, aborigine).”34
When the Spanish traveled to the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries, they drew upon two interpretive traditions to assimilate the native inhabitants of these lands to their own worldviews. They could be viewed as subhuman or monstrous creatures or they could be understood as “simple children of nature,” as “noble savages” who could be educated or civilized as Christians.35 The latter tradition won out in church and colonial policy, and Spanish colonization often included the conversion of native peoples (not that this emphasis dampened the violence of colonial rule that native people experienced). Indians were understood as pagans “who had never heard the word of Christ” rather than “infidels, like Jews and Muslims, who had been exposed to the gospel but had rejected it.”36 Thus, the Spanish did not see Indians as “racially” distinct in a modern or proto-modern sense, as they did Jews, and so they set themselves the task of converting Indians to Christianity. With few exceptions, British and French missionaries along the eastern seaboard likewise expected to Christianize Native Americans, a process that involved not merely what we might today consider a change in “belief” but rather the adoption of European cultural practices that were part and parcel of what Europeans considered “civilization.” Sexual mores were key among them.
European Christians were often shocked by the cultural and sexual customs of Native Americans, which they took as signs of paganism and lack of civilization. Of course, indigenous Americans varied greatly in their gender and sexual practices, but Europeans often found their dress inappropriate and their commitments to monogamy too lax (some Native American groups, including the Pueblo, Narragansett, and Massachusetts Indians were mostly monogamous).37 For Catholics and Protestants alike, proper sexual expression proved central to being a Christian and thus an essential element in the process of conversion. “Sexual fidelity in monogamous marriage was a primary metaphor for the relationship between the converted Christian and a monotheistic god,” writes Taves. “Sexual infidelity in marriage (adultery), nonprocreative sex (sodomy, buggery), and sex outside of marriage (whoredome, fornication),” she continues, “were metaphorically linked to religious infidelity or heresy (blasphemy, atheism, witchcraft).”38 Taves suggests the powerful connection between this “constellation of ideas” that links together “particular beliefs about sexuality, gender, marriage, and Christian civilization” and 20th-century rhetoric about “traditional family values.” Since at least the 1970s, conservative Christians have drawn upon the language of family values to articulate a critique of modern American sexual liberalism—they have found the seeds of America’s downfall in loosening sexual morals, including sex before marriage and the acceptance of LGBT people, alongside advances in women’s equality and support for transgender inclusion. This rhetoric continues the long tradition of moral jeremiads that draw together the American nation-state with (sometimes secularized) assumptions about Protestant Christian purity.39 As Taves suggests, more recent articulations of family values and moral purity draw from much longer histories of Christian colonialism and the emergence of religious and cultural assumptions about racial difference.
American Religion and the Emergence of Modern Racism
Considering contact in North America requires that we look at how European Americans changed as well through encounters with Indians and people of African descent. Anglo-American Protestants created “new traditions of meaning” when they came into contact with Native Americans. One way concerned how they read their Bibles. Christians have long read the Bible as a living document, one through which they can readily understand their own lives (as opposed to reading it purely as a historical or literary document, practices that become more common and authoritative in the shift toward modernity). Anglo-American Protestants could read their escape from religious persecution in Europe as analogous to Israelites fleeing bondage in Egypt. Their arrival in the New World resonated with Israelites settling in the promised land. Such readings led Anglo-American Protestants to compare indigenous Americans to peoples in the Bible, including Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, and Canaanites—all groups that “the Lord blotted out so that Israel could enjoy a land flowing with milk and honey.”40 This new biblical comparison bolstered Anglo-American Protestants’ belief in their own religious and racial superiority and justified violence against Indians. As one 19th-century Methodist bishop wrote: “Now, it may be that this rapid disappearance [of Indians] before a superior race is in the order of an overruling Providence. It is declared in the book from which there is no appeal, ‘For the nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish.’”41
Such biblical readings also shaped how white Christians understood people of African descent. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the idea that African people were descended from Ham became increasingly common as a justification for their enslavement. This theological move leaned upon the biblical account of Ham, the son of Noah. After Noah had become drunk and passed out, Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” (Gen 9:22) and told his brothers. Once Noah learned of Ham’s transgression, he cursed Ham’s son Canaan by declaring, “lowest of the slaves shall he be to his brothers” (Gen 9:25). Here, a (mysterious) sexual transgression justified the oppression and enslavement of an entire people, thereafter marked for this sin by the darkness of their skin. This theological reading also shaped constructions of whiteness, as whites became “the people of God,” those who would uphold order and honor, including sexual propriety.42
But whites were not the only Americans to draw upon the Bible to understand their place in life. African Americans developed a long tradition of seeing themselves in the story of Exodus, though here America was no longer the “New Canaan” that Puritans had imagined but rather Egypt, the site of enslavement. Blacks identified themselves with the Israelites, escaping slavery and searching for a new promised land. As Eddie Glaude as shown, 19th-century black Americans developed through such readings a sense of their own chosenness and destiny, which propelled black nationalist movements and sustained critiques of the (white) American state. In such movements, Glaude writes, “the nation is imagined not alongside religion but precisely through the precepts of black Christianity.”43 This history demonstrates the flexibility of rhetorical and religious constructions, which could be used to mobilize social movements and social critique even as they framed the national contexts in which those movements emerged.
Theological readings of race allowed European Christians to engage differently with Indians than they did with people of African descent. By the early 19th century, as we saw with the example of Catharine Brown, Indian converts could become “almost white.” Theological assumptions about racial difference precluded Africans from ever approximating Christian “whiteness” in such a way. European Christians debated whether Africans could even be converted—a debate essentially about whether Africans were human and thus capable of the reason necessary for conversion. Others worried that conversion of African slaves, which would make them brothers in Christ, would necessitate granting their freedom. The racial attitudes that European Americans harbored toward Africans were far from inevitable. Medieval European representations of sub-Saharan Africans ranged in the 15th century from “the monstrous and horrifying to the saintly and heroic.”44 But in the midst of the Atlantic slave trade, European conceptions of African religious and cultural difference—the idea that Africans were “heathens” or “savages”—took on new racialist logics to justify enslavement. If people were enslaved because they were heathens, then Christian conversion would necessitate granting their freedom. “Once their enslavement was rationalized on the basis of race—on the basis of a ‘divinely ordained’ hierarchy of biologically distinguishable human groups,” Taves explains, “then salvation and enslavement could coexist.”45 Fredrickson describes the justification as changing from “heathenism to heathen ancestry.”46
Assumptions about differences in “blood” and the need to maintain the purity of white or Christian blood shaped both the emergence of anti-black racism and subsequent fears, especially in British America, of interracial sex and marriage. This fear drove “anti-miscegenation” laws and fears about racial mixing in British America in ways that did not prevail in other parts of the Americas, where interracial relationships were more common. These differences led to somewhat distinctive genealogies of race and racism in the United States, especially compared to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The history of black slavery and struggles for freedom (first from slavery and then and now for racial quality) have been constitutive of U.S. racial and religious politics, forging “the metalanguage of race” that Higginbotham so aptly observed. While some historians have insisted upon a break between the pre-history of race, indebted to religious views of difference, and modern forms of racism, Henry Goldschmidt pushes against any such “clear distinction.” “Distinctions between race and religion,” he writes, “may ultimately rest on the popular equation of modernity with secularization, a reductive contrast between ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition.’”47
Indeed, constellations of race, religion, gender, and sexuality did not disappear with the ascendance of biological notions of race in the 19th century nor with the emergence of American “modernity.” Nor did it collapse all racial difference into a simple black‒white binary. The ascendance of racial categories and racialist thinking across the 19th century did work to contain the civilizing powers of Christian conversion. “In the age of [Andrew] Jackson,” Martin concludes his essay on Catherine Brown, no matter how sincere her prayer or “how properly she behaved, her eye would always remain ‘dark,’ her cheekbones ‘prominent,’ and her hair ‘glossy.’”48 Not only African Americans but also Native Americans, Asians, and other non-European peoples would be cast outside the bounds of whiteness, no matter how close they came.
Whiteness itself, though, has also remained a contested category. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish and then Italian Catholics who immigrated to the United States found themselves subject to racialized otherness. Anglo-Protestant Americans commonly depicted Irish Americans with ape-like features, suggesting a lower level of evolution. While these depictions drew from long-standing assumptions about the degeneracy of Irish blood, prejudice against Irish Catholicism was just as influential. Deemed superstitious and backward, Irish Catholics (and later Italians), some worried, were unfit for American democracy. Mormons also fell short of normative whiteness, largely because of their religious practices of polygamy, which fell outside Christian ideals of sexual propriety that emphasized monogamy.49 Still, one of the biggest threats to whiteness was the possibility that blacks and whites would intermarry. The problem here, as Taves points out, was not only that blacks and whites might have sex and bear children but that such relationships might be legitimated by American law and by social and religious customs.
White anxieties about racial mixing have continued to shape legal discourse and political and religious rhetoric, including the language of “traditional family values” that Taves has named. These entanglements surfaced, for instance, in American debates about public school segregation leading up to and following the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which overturned the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that allowed for state-sanctioned segregation.50 “The most common argument” against desegregation, historian Jane Dailey has argued, “was theological: integration encouraged miscegenation, which contradicted divine Word.”51 The architects of Brown, she explains, went to great lengths to make this case look “to be about anything but sex and marriage.”52
The Court followed the strategy of the NAACP to bring down segregation, which included sidestepping or downplaying how such a case might affect long-standing Jim Crow restrictions on interracial sex and marriage—at the time, marriage or sex between whites and blacks was illegal in twenty-seven states. The racial animus here was not merely legitimated by religious beliefs but constituted through racial theologies that developed over the course of American history, including theologies of segregation that developed with the collapse of legal slavery. For many white southerners, Brown was most certainly and explicitly concerned with sex, Dailey insists. They feared that allowing students to take classes together would usher in a new age of leniency that would encourage the formation of mixed race relationships, including romantic and sexual ones.53 One Christian southerner wrote to Governor Stanley in 1954:
In the early 1830s, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was less than three years old, the Lord invited members of the Church to seek wisdom by study and by the exercise of faith:
“And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).
This is more than a simple exhortation to learn about the gospel. It is an invitation from the Lord to recognize that not all sources of knowledge are equally reliable. Seeking “out of the best books” does not mean seeking only one set of opinions, but it does require us to distinguish between reliable sources and unreliable sources.
Recognizing that today so much information about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be obtained from questionable and often inaccurate sources, officials of the Church began in 2013 to publish straightforward, in-depth essays on a number of topics. The purpose of these essays, which have been approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has been to gather accurate information from many different sources and publications and place it in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org, where the material can more easily be accessed and studied by Church members and other interested parties.
The Church places great emphasis on knowledge and on the importance of being well informed about Church history, doctrine, and practices. Ongoing historical research, revisions of the Church’s curriculum, and the use of new technologies allowing a more systematic and thorough study of scriptures have all been pursued by the Church to that end. We again encourage members to study the Gospel Topics essays cited in the links below as they “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”