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I. Anthropological StudyClifford Geertz


II. The Sociology Of ReligionRobert N. Bellah


III. Psychological StudyJames E. Dittes


The articles under this heading describe three approaches to the topic of religion in the social sciences. The history and doctrines of the major religions are discussed in Buddhism; Christianity; Hinduism; Islam; Judaism. The organizational aspects of religion are described in Monasticism; Psychiatry, article onthereligio-psychiatricmovement; Religious organization; Religious specialists; Sects and cults.Various aspects of religious belief and practice are reviewed in Canon law; Civil disobedience; Death; Millenarism; Moral development; Myth and symbol; Nativism and revivalism; Pollution; Religious observance; Ritual.Other relevant material may be found in Charisma; Voluntary associations.Biographical articles that are of relevance to the social scientific study of religion include Aquinas; Augustine; Becker; Bloch;Buber; Calvin; Comte; Durkheim; Erasmus; Febvre; Frazer; Freud; HalÉvy; Huizinga;James; Jung; Lowie; Luther; Malinowski; Marett; Marsilius; Marx; Mauss; Montesquieu; Mooney; Ockham; Rank; Seligman, C. G.; Smith, William Robertson; Spinoza; Tawney; Troeltsch; Tylor; Weber, Max.


The anthropological study of religion has been highly sensitive to changes in the general intellectual and moral climate of the day; at the same time, it has been a powerful factor in the creation of that climate. Since the early discussion by Edward Tylor, interest in the beliefs and rituals of distant, ancient, or simpler peoples has been shaped by an awareness of contemporary issues. The questions that anthropologists have pursued among exotic religions have arisen from the workings—or the misworkings—of modern Western society, and particularly from its restless quest for self-discovery. In turn, their findings have profoundly affected the course that quest has taken and the perspective at which it has arrived.

Perhaps the chief reason for the rather special role of comparative religious studies is that issues which, when raised within the context of Western culture, led to extreme social resistance and personal turmoil could be freely and even comfortably handled in terms of bizarre, presumably primitive, and thus—also presumably—fanciful materials from long ago or far away. The study of “primitive religions” could pass as the study of superstition, supposedly unrelated to the serious religious and moral concerns of advanced civilization, at best either a sort of vague foreshadowing of them or a grotesque parody upon them. This made it possible to approach all sorts of touchy subjects, such as polytheism, value relativism, possession, and faith healing, from a frank and detached point of view. One could ask searching questions about the historicity of myth among Polynesians; when asked in relation to Christianity, these same questions were, until quite recently, deeply threatening. One could discuss the projection of erotic wishes found in the “totemic” rites of Australian aborigines, the social roots and functions of African “ancestor worship,” or the protoscientific quality of Melanesian “magical thought,” without involving oneself in polemical debate and emotional distress. The application of the comparative method—the essence of anthropological thought—to religion per mitted the growth of a resolutely scientific approach to the spiritual dimensions of human life.

Through the thin disguise of comparative method the revolutionary implications of the work of such men as Tylor, Durkheim, Robertson Smith, Freud, Malinowski, and Radcliffe-Brown soon became apparent—at first mainly to philosophers, theologians, and literary figures, but eventually to the educated public in general. The meticulous descriptions of tribal curiosities such as soul loss, shamanism, circumcision, blood sacrifice, sorcery, tree burial, garden magic, symbolic cannibalism, and animal worship have been caught up in some of the grander intellectual battles of the last hundred years—from those over evolutionism and historicism in the late nineteenth century to those over positivism and existentialism today. Psychoanalysts and phenomenologists, Marxists and Kantians, racists and egalitarians, absolutists and relativists, empiricists and rationalists, believers and skeptics have all had recourse to the record—partial, inconsistent, and shot through with simple error as it is—of the spiritual life of tribal peoples to support their positions and belabor those of their opponents. If interest in “primitive religion” among savants of all sorts has been remarkably high, consensus concerning its nature and significance has not.

At least three major intellectual developments have exercised a critical influence on the anthropological study of religion: (1) the emergence, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, of history as the sovereign science of man; (2) the positivist reaction against this sovereignty in the first decades of the twentieth century and the radical split of the social sciences into resolutely psychological approaches, on the one hand, and resolutely sociological ones, on the other; and (3) the growth, in the interwar period, of a concern with the role of ideational factors in the regulation of social life. With the first of these came an emphasis on the nature of primitive reasoning and the stages of its evolution into civilized thought. With the second came an investigation of the emotional basis of religious ritual and belief and the separate examination of the role of ritual and belief in social integration. The concern with value systems and other features of the ideational realm led to an exploration of the philosophical dimensions of religious ideas, particularly the symbolic vehicles in terms of which those ideas are expressed.

Evolutionism and its enemies

Like so much else in anthropology, the study of the religious notions of primitive peoples arose within the context of evolutionary theory. In the nineteenth century, to think systematically about human affairs was to think historically—to seek out survivals of the most elementary forms and to trace the steps by which these forms subsequently developed. And though, in fact, Tylor, Morgan, Frazer, and the rest drew more on the synthetic social-stage theories of such men as Comte and Hegel than on the analytic random-variation and natural-selection ideas of Darwin, the grand concept of evolution was shared by both streams of thought: namely, that the complex, heterogeneous present has arisen, more or less gradually, out of a simpler, more uniform past. The relics of this past are still to be found scattered, like Galápagos turtles, in out-of-the-way places around us. Tylor, an armchair scholar, made no “voyage of the Beagle.” But in combing and organizing the reports of missionaries, soldiers, and explorers, he proceeded from the same general premise as did Darwin, and indeed most of the leading minds of the day. For them a comprehensive, historically-oriented comparison of all forms of a phenomenon, from the most primitive to the most advanced, was the royal road to understanding the nature of the phenomenon itself.

In Tylor’s view, the elementary form out of which all else developed was spirit worship— animism. The minimal definition of religion was “a belief in spiritual beings.” The understanding of religion thus came down to an understanding of the basis upon which such a belief arose at its most primitive level. Tylor’s theory was intellectualistic. Belief in spirits began as an uncritical but nonetheless rational effort to explain such puzzling empirical phenomena as death, dreams, and possession. The notion of a separable soul rendered these phenomena intelligible in terms of soul departure, soul wandering, and soul invasion. Tylor believed that the idea of a soul was used to explain more and more remote and hitherto inexplicable natural occurrences, until virtually every tree and rock was haunted by some sort of gossamer presence. The higher, more developed forms of “belief in spiritual beings,” first polytheism, ultimately monotheism, were founded upon this animistic basis, the ur-philosophy of all mankind, and were refined through a process of critical questioning by more advanced thinkers. For this earnest Quaker the religious history of the world was a history of progressive, even inevitable, enlightenment. [SeeTylor.]

This intellectualistic, “up from darkness” strain has run through most evolutionist thought about religion. For Frazer, a nineteenth-century figure who lived for forty years into the twentieth century without finding it necessary to alter either his views or his methods, the mental progress involved was from magic to religion to science. Magic was the primordial form of human thought; it consisted in mistaking either spatiotemporal connection (“sympathetic magic,” as when drinking the blood of an ox transfers its strength to the drinker) or phenomenal similarity (“imitative magic,” as when the sound of drumming induces thunderheads to form) for true scientific causality. For Durkheim, evolutionary advance consisted in the emergence of specific, analytic, profane ideas about “cause” or “category” or “relationship” from diffuse, global, sacred images. These “collective representations,” as he called them, of the social order and its moral force included such sacra as “mana,” “totem,” and “god.” For Max Weber, the process was one of “rationalization”: the progressive organization of religious concern into certain more precisely defined, more specifically focused, and more systematically conceived cultural forms. The level of sophistication of such theories (and, hence, their present relevance) varies very widely. But, like Tylor’s, they all conceive of the evolution of religion as a process of cultural differentiation: the diffuse, all-embracing, but rather unsystematic and uncritical religious practices of primitive peoples are transformed into the more specifically focused, more regularized, less comprehensively authoritative practices of the more advanced civilizations. Weber, in whom both intellectualism and optimism were rather severely tempered by a chronic apprehensiveness, called this transformation the “disenchantment (Entzauberung) of the world.” [SeeDurkheim; Frazer; Weber, Max.]

On the heels of evolutionism came, of course, antievolutionism. This took two quite different forms. On one side there was a defense, mainly by Roman Catholic scholars, of the so-called degradation theory. According to this theory, the original revelation of a high god to primitive peoples was later corrupted by human frailty into the idol worship of present-day tribal peoples. On the other side there was an attack, mainly by American scholars of the Boas school, upon the “armchair speculation” of evolutionary thinkers and a call for its replacement by more phenomenological approaches to the study of tribal custom.

The first of these reactions led, logically enough, to a search among the most primitive of existing peoples for traces of belief in a supreme being. The resulting dispute, protracted, often bitter, and stubbornly inconclusive as to the existence of such “primitive monotheism,” turned out to be unproductive—aside from some interesting discussions by Lang (1898) concerning culture heroes and by Eliade (1949) concerning sky gods—and both the issue and the theory that gave rise to it have now receded from the center of scholarly attention. The second reaction has had a longer life and great impact on ethnographic methodology, but it too is now in partial eclipse. Its main contributions—aside from some devastating empirical demolitions of evolutionist generalization—came in the field of cultural diffusion. Leslie Spier’s study of the spread of the Sun Dance through the Great Plains (1921) and A. L. Kroeber’s application of the age-area approach to aboriginal religion in California are good examples of productive diffusion studies. However, apart from their importance for culture history, the contribution of such distributional studies to our understanding of religious ideas, attitudes, and practices as such has not been great, and few students now pursue these studies. The call of the Boas school for thorough field research and disciplined inductive analysis has been heeded; but its fruits, insofar as religious studies are concerned, have been reaped by others less inhibited theoretically.

Psychological approaches

The major reaction against the intellectual tradition of the cultural evolutionists took place not within anthropology, however, but in the general context of the positivist revolt against the domination of historicist modes of thought in the social sciences. In the years before World War I the rise of the systematic psychologism of psychoanalysis and of the equally systematic sociologism of the Année sociologique forced evolutionist theorizing into the background, even though the leaders of both movements—Freud and Durkheim—were themselves still very strongly influenced by it. Perhaps even more relevant, it introduced a sharp split into anthropological studies of religion which has resolved into the militantly psychodynamic and the militantly social-structural approaches.

Freud’s major work in this field is, of course, Totem and Taboo, a book anthropologists in general have had great difficulty in evaluating—as Kroeber’s two reviews of it, the first facilely negative, the second, two decades later, ambivalently positive, demonstrate. The source of the difficulty has been an inability or an unwillingness to disentangle Freud’s basic thesis—that religious rituals and beliefs are homologous with neurotic symptoms—from the chimerical ethnology and obsolete biology within which he insisted upon setting it. Thus, the easy demolition of what Kroeber called Freud’s “just so story” concerning primal incest, parricide, and guilt within some protohuman horde (“in the beginning was the deed”) was all too often mistaken for total rejection of the rather more penetrating proposition that the obsessions, dreams, and fantasies of collective life spring from the same intrapsychic sources as do those of the isolated individual.

For those who read further in Freud’s writings, however—especially in “Mourning and Melancholia” and “Obsessive Acts and Religious Practices”—it became apparent that what was at issue was the applicability of theories concerning the forms and causes of individual psychopathology to the explanation of the forms and causes of public myth and group ritual. Róheim (1950) analyzed Australian circumcision rites against the background of orthodox Freudian theories of psycho-sexual development, especially those clustered around the Oedipal predicament. However, he explicitly avoided recourse to speculations about buried memories of primordial occurrences. Bettel-heim (1954) adopted a similar, though more systematic and less orthodox, approach to initiation practices generally, seeing them as socially instituted symbolic mechanisms for the definition and stabilization of sexual identity. Kardiner (1945), taking a neo-Freudian position, sought to demonstrate that the religious institutions of tribal peoples were projections of a “basic personality structure,” formed not by the action of an unconsciously remembered historical trauma but by the more observable traumas produced by child-training practices, an approach later extended and cast into quantitative form by Whiting (Whiting & Child 1953). Erikson (1950), drawing upon developments in ego psychology which conceived the emergence of the adult personality to be a joint product of psychobiological maturation, cultural context, and historical experience, interpreted the religious notions of the Yurok and the Sioux in terms of certain basic modes of relating to the world. These relationships gradually developed during the whole course of childhood and adolescence. Others— notably Devereux (1951)—have attempted to use the autobiographical, case-history approach to determine the relations between personality dynamics and religious orientation in particular individuals; still others—notably Hallowell (1937–1954)—have employed projective tests, questionnaires, reports of dreams, or systematic interviews toward similar ends.

In all such studies, even when individual authors have dissented from many of Freud’s specific views, the basic premise has been Freudian: that religious practices can be usefully interpreted as expressions of unconscious psychological forces—and this has become, amid much polemic, an established tradition of inquiry. In recent years, however, responsible work of this type has come to question the degree to which one is justified in subjecting historically created and socially institutionalized cultural forms to a system of analysis founded on the treatment of the mental illnesses of individuals. For this reason, the future of this approach depends perhaps more upon developments within psychoanalysis, now in a somewhat uncertain state, than within anthropology. So far, perhaps only Kluckhohn’s pioneering Navaho Witchcraft (1944) has attempted to systematically relate psychological factors to social and cultural aspects of primitive religion. The great majority of psychoanalytic studies of tribal beliefs and rites remain willfully parochial.

In any case, not all psychological approaches to religion have been Freudian. Jungian influences have had a certain impact, especially on studies of myth. Campbell (1949), for example, has stressed the continuity of certain themes both cross-culturally and temporally. These themes have been interpreted as expressions of transpersonal constancies in unconscious mental functioning which are at the same time expressions of fundamental cosmic realities.

Simple emotionalist theories have also been extremely popular. There have been two main varieties of these: awe theories and confidence theories. Awe theories have been based on some usually rather vague notion of “religious thrill” experienced by human beings when brought face to face with cosmic forces. A wide range of ethnologists, from Max Műller through Lang and Marett to Lowie and Goldenweiser, have accepted such theories in one form or another. However, awe theories remain mere notations of the obvious—that religious experience is, in the nature of the case, touched with intense feelings of the grandeur of the universe in relation to the self and of the vulnerability of the self in relation to the universe. This is not explanation, but circular reasoning.

Confidence theories also begin with a notion of man’s inward sense of weakness, and especially of his fears—of disease, of death, of ill fortune of all kinds—and they see religious practices as designed to quiet such fears, either by explaining them away, as in doctrines of the afterlife, or by claiming to link the individual to external sources of strength, as in prayer. The best-known confidence theory was that set forth by Malinowski. He regarded magic as enabling man to pursue uncertain but essential endeavors by assuring him of their ultimate success. Confidence, or anxiety-reduction, theories, like awe theories, clearly have empirical foundation but do not adequately explore the complex relationship between fear and religious activity. They are not rooted in any systematic conceptualization of mental functioning and so merely point to matters desperately in need of clarification, without in fact clarifying them.

Sociological approaches

The sociological approach to the analysis of the religions of nonliterate peoples proceeded independent of, and even at variance with, the psychoanalytic approach, but it shared a concern with the same phenomenon: the peculiar “otherness,” the extraordinary, momentous, “set apart” quality of sacred (or “taboo”) acts and objects, as contrasted with the profane. The intense aura of high seriousness was traced by Freud to the projection of unacceptable wishes repressed from consciousness onto external objects. The dramatic ambivalence of the sacred—its paradoxical unification of the commanded and the forbidden, the pure and the polluted, the salutary and the dangerous—was a symbolic expression of the underlying ambivalence of human desires. For Durkheim, too, the extraordinary atmosphere surrounding sacred acts and objects was symbolic of a hidden reality, but a social, not a psychological one: the moral force of the human community.

Durkheim believed that the integrity of the social order was the primary requisite for human survival, and the means by which that integrity superseded individual egocentricity was the primary problem of sociological analysis. He saw Australian totemism (which he, like Freud, made the empirical focus of his work) as a mechanism to this end. For example, the collective rituals involving the emblems of the totemic beings—the so-called bull roarers—aroused the heightened emotions of mass behavior and evoked a deep sense of moral identification among the participants. The creation of social solidarity was the result of the common public veneration, by specific groups of persons, of certain carefully designated symbolic objects. These objects had no intrinsic value except as perceptible representations of the social identity of the individuals. Collective worship of consecrated bits of painted wood or stone created a moral community, a “church,” upon which rested the viability of the major social units. These sanctified objects thus represented the system of rights and obligations implicit in the social order and the individual’s unformulated sense of its overriding significance in his life. All sacred objects, beliefs, and acts, and the extraordinary emotions attending them, were outward expressions of inward social necessities, and, in a famous phrase, God was the “symbol of society.” Few anthropologists have been able to swallow Durkheim’s thesis whole, when put this baldly. But the more moderate proposition that religious rituals and beliefs both reflect and act to support the moral framework underlying social arrangements (and are in turn animated by it) has given rise to what has become perhaps the most popular form of analysis in the anthropological study of religion. Usually called “functionalism”—or sometimes, to distinguish it from certain variants deemed objectionable, “structuralism”—this approach found its champion in Radcliffe-Brown and its major development in Great Britain, though its influence has now spread very much more widely.

Radcliffe-Brown (1952) agreed with Durkheim’s postulate that the main role (or “function”) of religion was to celebrate and sustain the norms upon which the integration of society depends. But, unlike Durkheim (and like Freud), Radcliffe-Brown was concerned with the content of sacred symbols, and particularly with the reasons why one object rather than another was absorbed into rite or woven into myth. Why here stones, there water holes, here camp circles, there personified winds?

Durkheim had held this to be an arbitrary matter, contingent upon historical accident or psychological proclivity, beyond the reach of and irrelevant to sociological analysis. Radcliffe-Brown considered, however, that man’s need for a concrete expression of social solidarity was not sufficient explanation of the structure of a people’s religious system. Something was needed to tie the particular objects awarded sacred status (or, in his terminology, “ritual value”) to the particular social interests they presumably served and reflected. Radcliffe-Brown, resolute empiricist that he was, chose a solution Durkheim had already magisterially demolished: the utilitarian. The objects selected for religious veneration by a given people were either directly or indirectly connected to factors critical to their collective well-being. Things that had real, that is, practical, “social value” were elevated to having spiritual, or symbolic, “ritual value,” thus fusing the social and the natural into one overarching order. For primitives at least (and Radcliffe-Brown attempted to establish his theory with regard to the sanctified turtles and palm leaves of the preagricultural Andaman Islanders and, later on, with regard to Australian totemism), there is no discontinuity, no difference even, between moral and physical, spiritual and practical relationships and processes. These people regard both men and things as parts of a single normative system. Within that system those elements which are critical to its effective functioning (or, sometimes, phenomena empirically associated with such elements, such as the Andaman cicada cycle and the shifting monsoons) are made the objects of that special sort of respect and attention which we call religious but which the people themselves regard as merely prudential.

Radcliffe-Brown focused upon the content of sacred symbols and emphasized the relation between conceptions of the moral order of existence and conceptions of its natural order. However, the claim that the sanctity of religious objects derives from their practical social importance is one of those theories which works when it works and doesn’t when it doesn’t. Not only has it proved impossible to find even an indirect practical significance in most of the enormous variety of things tribal peoples have regarded as sacred (certain Australian tribes worship vomit), but the view that religious concerns are mere ritualizations of real-life concerns leaves the phenomenon of sacredness itself—its aura of mystery, power, fascination— totally unexplained.

More recent structuralist studies have tended to evade both these questions and to concentrate on the role played by religion in maintaining social equilibrium. They attempt to show how given sets of religious practices (ancestor worship, animal sacrifice, witchcraft and sorcery, regeneration rites) do in fact express and reinforce the moral values underlying crucial processes (lineage segmentation, marriage, conflict adjudication, political succession) in the particular society under investigation. Arnold van Gennep’s study of crisis rites was perhaps the most important forerunner of the many analyses of this type. Although valuable in their own right as ethnography and as sociology, these structural formulations have been severely limited by their rigid avoidance, on the one side, of the kind of psychological considerations that could account for the peculiar emotions which permeate religious belief and practice, and, on the other, of the philosophical considerations that could render their equally peculiar content intelligible. [See Gennep.]

The analysis of symbolic forms

In contrast to other approaches—evolutionary, psychological, sociological—the field of what we may loosely call “semantic studies” of religion is extremely jumbled. There is, as yet, no well-established central trend of analysis, no central figure around whom to order debate, and no readily apparent system of interconnections relating the various competing trends to one another.

Perhaps the most straightforward strategy— certainly the most disarming—is merely to accept the myriad expressions of the sacred in primitive societies, to consider them as actual ingressions of the divine into the world, and to trace the forms these expressions have taken across the earth and through time. The result would be a sort of natural history of revelation, whose aim would be to isolate the major classes of religious phenomena considered as authentic manifestations of the sacred— what Eliade, the chief proponent of this approach, calls hierophanies—and to trace the rise, dominance, decline, and disappearance of these classes within the changing contexts of human life. The meaning of religious activity, the burden of its content, is discovered through a meticulous, wholly inductive investigation of the natural modalities of such behavior (sun worship, water symbolism, fertility cults, renewal myths, etc.) and of the vicissitudes these modalities undergo when projected, like the Son of God himself, into the flux of history.

Metaphysical questions (here uncommonly obtrusive) aside, the weaknesses of this approach derive from the same source as its strengths: a drastic limiting of the interpretations of religion to the sort that a resolutely Baconian methodology can produce. On the one hand, this approach has led, especially in the case of a scholar as erudite and indefatigable as Eliade, to the uncovering of some highly suggestive clusterings of certain religious patterns with particular historical conditions—for example, the frequent association of sun worship, activist conceptions of divine power, cultic veneration of deified heroes, elitist doctrines of political sovereignty, and imperialist ideologies of national expansion. But, on the other hand, it has placed beyond the range of scientific analysis everything but the history and morphology of the phenomenal forms of religious expression. The study of tribal beliefs and practices is reduced to a kind of cultural paleontology whose sole aim is the reconstruction, from scattered and corrupted fragments, of the “mental universe of archaic man.”

Primitive thought

Other scholars who are interested in the meaningful content of primitive religion but who are incapable of so thoroughgoing a suspension of disbelief as Eliade, or are repelled by the cultic overtones of this somewhat mystagogic line of thought, have directed their attention instead toward logical and epistemological considerations. This has produced a long series of studies that view “primitive thought” as a distinctive mode of reasoning and/or a special body of knowledge. From Lévy-Bruhl through Lévi-Strauss, and with important contributions from members of the evolutionary, psychoanalytic, and sociological schools as well, this line of exploration has persisted as a minor theme in anthropological studies of religion. With the recent advances in linguistics, information theory, the analysis of cognition, semantic philosophy, modern logic, and certain sorts of literary investigation, the systematic study of symbolic activity bids fair to become, in a rather thoroughly revised form, the major theme for investigation. The “new key” Susanne K. Langer heard being struck in philosophy in the early 1940s—“the concern with the concept of meaning in all its forms”—has, like the historicist and positivist “keys” before it, begun to have its echo in the anthropological study of religion. Anthropologists are increasingly interested in ideational expression, increasingly concerned with the vehicles, processes, and practical applications of human conceptualization.

The development of this approach has come in two fairly distinct phases, one before and one after World War II. In the first phase there was a concern with “the mind of primitive man” and in particular with its capacity for rational thought. In a sense, this concern represented the evolutionists’ interest in primitive reasoning processes detached from the historicist context. In the second phase, which is still in process, there has been a move away from, and in part a reaction against, the subjectivist emphasis of the earlier work. Ideational expression is thought of as a public activity, rather like speech, and the structure of the symbolic materials, the “language,” in whose terms the activity is conducted becomes the subject of investigation.

The first, subjectivist, phase was animated by a protracted wrangle between those who used the religious beliefs and practices of tribal peoples as evidence to prove that there was a qualitative difference between the thought processes of primitives and those of civilized men and the anthropologists who considered such religious activity as evidence for the lack of any such differences. The great protagonist of the first school was the French philosopher Lévy-Bruhl, whose theories of “prelogical mentality” were as controversial within anthropology as they were popular outside it. According to Lévy-Bruhl, the thought of primitives, as reflected in their religious ideas, is not governed by the immanent laws of Aristotelian logical reasoning, but by affectivity—by the vagrant flow of emotion and the dialectical principles of “mystical participation” and “mystical exclusion.” [SeeLÉvy-bruhl.]

The two most effective antagonists of Lévy-Bruhl’s theories concerning primitive religion were Radin and Malinowski. Radin, influenced by Boas’ more general attacks on theories of “primitive mentality,” sought to demonstrate that primitive religious thought reaches, on occasion, very high levels of logical articulation and philosophical sophistication and that tribal society contains, alongside the common run of unreflective doers (“men of action”), contemplative intellectuals (“men of thought”) of boldness, subtlety, and originality. Malinowski attacked the problem on an even broader front. Using his ethnographic knowledge of the Trobriand Islanders, Malinowski argued that alongside their religious and magical nations (which he, too, regarded as mainly emotionally determined) the “savages” also had a rather well developed and, as far as it went, accurate empirical knowledge of gardening, navigation, housebuilding, canoe construction, and other useful arts. He further claimed that they were absolutely clear as to the distinction between these two sorts of reasoning, between mystical-magical and empirical-pragmatic thinking, and never confused them in actual practice. Of these two arguments, the former seems to be today nearly universally accepted and was perhaps never in fact really questioned. But with respect to the latter, serious doubts have arisen concerning whether the lines between “science,” “magic,” and “religion” are as simple and clear-cut in the minds of tribal peoples (or any peoples) as Malinowski, never one for shaded judgments, portrayed them. Nevertheless, between them, Radin and Malinowski rather definitively demolished the notion of a radical qualitative gap between the thought processes of primitive and civilized men. Indeed, toward the end of his life even Levy-Bruhl admitted that his arguments had been badly cast and might better have been phrased in terms of different modes of thinking common to all men. (In fact, Freud, with his contrast between primary and secondary thinking processes, had already made this distinction.) [SeeMalinowski; Radin.]

Thus, the debate about what does or does not go on in the heads of savages exhausted itself in generalities, and recent writers have turned to a concern with the symbolic forms, the conceptual resources, in terms of which primitives (and non-primitives) think. The major figure in this work has been Claude Lévi-Strauss, although this line of attack dates back to Durkheim and Mauss’s influential 1903 essay in sociological Kantianism, Primitive Classification. The writings of E. E. Evans-Pritchard on Zande witchcraft, Benjamin Whorf on Hopi semantics, and Gregory Bateson on Iatmul ritual and, among nonanthropologists, works by Granet, Cassirer, and Piaget have directed attention to the study of symbolic formulation.

Symbolic systems

Lévi-Strauss, whose rather highly wrought work is still very much in progress, is concerned with the systems of classification, the “homemade” taxonomies, employed by tribal peoples to order the objects and events of their world (see Lévi-Strauss 1958; 1962). In this, he follows in the footsteps of Durkheim and Mauss. But rather than looking, as they did, to social forms for the origins and explanations of such categorical systems, he looks to the symbolic structures in terms of which they are formulated, expressed, and applied. Myth and, in a slightly different way, rite are systems of signs that fix and organize abstract conceptual relationships in terms of concrete images and thus make speculative thought possible. They permit the construction of a “science of the concrete”—the intellectual comprehension of the sensible world in terms of sensible phenomena— which is no less rational, no less logical, no more affect-driven than the abstract science of the modern world. The objects rendered sacred are selected not because of their utilitarian qualities, nor because they are projections of repressed emotions, nor yet because they reflect the moral force of social organization ritualistically impressed upon the mind. Rather, they are selected because they permit the embodiment of general ideas in terms of the immediately perceptible realities—the turtles, trees, springs, and caves—of everyday experience; not, as Levi-Strauss says, apropos of Radcliffe-Brown’s view of totems, because they are “good to eat,” but because they are “good to think.”

This “goodness” exists inherently in sacred objects because they provide the raw materials for analogical reasoning. The relationships perceived among certain classes of natural objects or events can be analogized, taken as models of relationships —-physical, social, psychological, or moral—obtaining between persons, groups, or other natural objects and events. Thus, for example, the natural distinctions perceived among totemic beings, their species differentiation, can serve as a conceptual framework for the comprehension, expression, and communication of social distinctions among exogamous clans—their structural differentiation. Thus, the sharp contrast between the wet and dry seasons (and the radical zoological and botanical changes associated with it) in certain regions of Australia is employed in the mythology of the native peoples. They have woven an elaborate origin myth around this natural phenomenon, one that involves a rain-making python who drowned some incestuous sisters and their children because the women polluted his water hole with menstrual blood. This model expresses and economizes the contrasts between moral purity and impurity, maleness and femaleness, social superiority and inferiority, fertilizing agent (rain) and that which is fertilized (land), and even the distinction between “high” (initiate) and “low” (noninitiate) levels of cultural achievement.

Lévi-Strauss contends that primitive religious systems are, like all symbolic systems, fundamentally communications systems. They are carriers of information in the technical Shannon-Weaver sense, and as such, the theory of information can be applied to them with the same validity as when applied to any physical systems, mechanical or biological, in which the transfer of information plays a central regulative role. Primitives, as all men, are quintessentially multichanneled emitters and receivers of messages. It is merely in the nature of the code they employ—one resting on analogies between “natural” and “cultural” distinctions and relationships—that they differ from ourselves. Where there is a distinguishing difference, it lies in the technically specialized codes of modern abstract thought, in which semantic properties are radically and deliberately severed from physical ones. Religion, primitive or modern, can be understood only as an integrated system of thought, logically sound, epistemologically valid, and as flourishing in France as in Tahiti.

It is far too early to evaluate Lévi-Strauss’s work with any assurance. It is frankly incomplete and explorative, and some parts of it (the celebration of information theory, for example) are wholly programmatic. But in focusing on symbol systems as conceptual models of social or other sorts of reality, he has clearly introduced into the anthropology of religion a line of inquiry which, having already become common in modern thought generally, can hardly fail to be productive when applied to tribal myth and ritual.

Whether his own particular formulation of this approach will prove to be the most enduring remains, however, rather more of a question. His rejection of emotional considerations and his neglect of normative or social factors in favor of an extreme intellectualism which cerebralizes religion and tends to reduce it yet again to a kind of undeveloped (or, as he puts it, “undomesticated”) science are questionable. His nearly exclusive stress on those intellectual processes involved in classification, i.e., on taxonomic modes of thought (a reflex of his equally great reliance on totemic ideas as type cases of primitive beliefs), at the expense of other, perhaps more common, and certainly more powerful styles of reasoning, is also doubtful. His conception of the critical process of symbolic formulation itself remains almost entirely undeveloped—hardly more than a sort of associationism dressed up with some concepts from modern linguistics. Partly as a result of this weakness and partly as a result of a tendency to consider symbol systems as entities functioning independently of the contextual factor, many of his specific interpretations of particular myths and rites seem as strained, arbitrary, and oversystematized as those of the most undisciplined psychoanalyst.

But, for all this, Lévi-Strauss has without doubt opened a vast territory for research and begun to explore it with theoretical brilliance and profound scholarship. And he is not alone. As the recent work of such diverse students as Evans-Pritchard, R. G. Lienhardt, W. E. H. Stanner, Victor W. Turner, Germaine Dieterlen, Meyer Fortes, Edmund R. Leach, Charles O. Frake, Rodney Needham, and Susanne K. Langer demonstrates, the analysis of symbolic forms is becoming a major tradition in the study of primitive religion—in fact, of religion in general. Each of these writers has a somewhat different approach. But all seem to share the conviction that an attempt must be made to approach primitive religions for what they are: systems of ideas about the ultimate shape and substance of reality.

Whatever else religion does, it relates a view of the ultimate nature of reality to a set of ideas of how man is well advised, even obligated, to live. Religion tunes human actions to a view of the cosmic order and projects images of cosmic order onto the plane of human existence. In religious belief and practice a people’s style of life, what Clyde Kluckhohn called their design for living, is rendered intellectually reasonable; it is shown to represent a way of life ideally adapted to the world “as it ‘really’ (‘fundamentally,’ ‘ultimately’) is.” At the same time, the supposed basic structure of reality is rendered emotionally convincing because it is presented as an actual state of affairs uniquely accommodated to such a way of life and permitting it to flourish. Thus do received beliefs, essentially metaphysical, and established norms, essentially moral, confirm and support one another.

It is this mutual confirmation that religious symbols express and celebrate and that any scientific analysis of religion must somehow contrive to explain and clarify. In the development of such an analysis historical, psychological, sociological, and what has been called here semantic considerations are all necessary, but none is sufficient. A mature theory of religion will consist of an integration of them all into a conceptual system whose exact form remains to be discovered.

Clifford Geertz


Bettelheim, Bruno 1954 Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Campbell, Joseph 1949 The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon.

Devereux, George 1951 Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. New York: International Universities Press.

Eliade, Mircea (1949) 1958 Patterns in Comparative Religion. New York: Sheed & Ward. → First published as Traite d’histoire des religions.

Erikson, Erik H. (1950) 1964 Childhood and Society. 2d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Norton.

Hallowell, A. Irving (1937–1954) 1955 Culture and Experience. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Kardiner, Abram 1945 The Psychological Frontiers of Society. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1963.

Kluckhohn, Clyde 1944 Navaho Witchcraft. Harvard University, Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Papers, Vol. 22, No. 2. Cambridge, Mass.: The Museum.

Lang, Andrew (1898) 1900 The Making of Religion. 2d ed. New York: Longmans.

Lessa, William A.; and Vogt, Evon Z. (editors) (1958) 1965 Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach. 2d ed. New York: Harper. → Contains a comprehensive bibliography.

LÉvi-strauss, Claude (1958) 1963 Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books. First published in French. See especially the chapters on myth and religion, pages 167-245.

LÉvi-strauss, Claude (1962) 1966 The Savage Mind. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published in French.

Radcliffe-brown, A. R. (1952) 1961 Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses. London: Cohen & West; Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

RÓheim, GÉza 1950 Psychoanalysis and Anthropology: Culture, Personality and the Unconscious. New York: International Universities Press.

Spier, Leslie 1921 The Sun Dance of the Plains Indians: Its Development and Diffusion. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers, Vol. 16, part 7. New York: The Museum.

Whiting, John W.; and Child, Irvin L. 1953 Child Training and Personality: A Cross-cultural Study. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1962.


Sociologists have undertaken three main types of religious study. They have studied religion as a central theoretical problem in the understanding of social action. They have studied the relation between religion and other areas of social life, such as economics, politics, and social class. And finally, they have studied religious roles, organizations, and movements. This article will be concerned primarily with the theoretical study of religion and secondarily with the relation between religion and the social structure.

Historical background

The sociological study of religion has grown out of and remains inextricably related to the much broader effort to understand the phenomenon of religion that has been made by scholars in many fields, especially since the eighteenth century in the West and more recently in other parts of the world. Theologians, philosophers, historians, philologists, literary critics, political scientists, anthropologists, and psychologists have all made contributions. In untangling this immensely complicated story it will be helpful to resort to a simplified schema that focuses on two main lines of intellectual development: the “rationalist” and the “nonrationalist” traditions. (A writer is referred to here as “nonrationalist” not because his thought is considered to be irrational but because he takes the nonrational aspect of human existence as central and irreducible.) Both traditions have roots deep in the history of Western thought and analogues in the thought of some non-Western cultures. The eighteenth century saw a certain crystallization of both traditions, which had important consequences for the nineteenth century and which still affects us in many respects.

The rationalists and nonrationalists

The rationalist tradition, which was closely associated with the rise of secular thought and skepticism in England and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, later stimulated the nonrationalist tendency as a reaction to it. Of course, the rationalists themselves were partly grappling with the great seventeenth-century antirationalist Blaise Pascal. It was the position of the rationalists that the apparently nonrational could not only be brought within the bounds of rational analysis but also could be eliminated as an influence on human action, though most of them doubted that this would ever be possible for the masses. Thus, they held that the obviously absurd doctrines of established religion had come into existence because of ignorance and the deliberate chicanery of the priests, who were serving their own self-interest as well as that of the secular despots who were often their masters. Behind the absurd historical forms, the deists discerned a natural religion in accordance with the dictates of reason.

Rousseau and Kant were transitional figures. Both believed in a generalized “reasonable” religion in preference to any historical faith, but they grounded their religious convictions on human nature (Rousseau) or the dictates of ethical experience (Kant) rather than on purely cognitive arguments. The nonrationalist tradition, which subsequently developed mainly in Germany, emphasized the sui generis quality of religion. Johann Gottfried Herder held that religion was grounded in specific experience and feeling rather than in reason. In the early nineteenth century Friedrich Schleiermacher undertook the first systematic exposition of this position. He held that religion was to be understood neither as crude philosophy nor as primitive ethics but rather as a reality in its own right; it is grounded neither in knowledge nor in action but in feeling. More specifically, he came to think that religion derives fundamentally from the feeling of absolute dependence. Both Herder and Schleiermacher, rejecting as they did a rationalist understanding of religion, opposed the search for a universal natural religion of self-evident reasonableness. Rather, they insisted on taking seriously the particular forms of culture and religion in all their historical diversity. Herder was, of course, one of the most important forerunners of nineteenth-century historicism, and Schleiermacher was one of the first to develop the tools of cultural interpretation (hermeneutics), which provided the main methodological equipment of the movement in Germany.

While the nonrationalist treatment of religion in Germany was closely related to the development of idealist philosophy there, the rationalist treatment of it was closely related to the rise of positivism in France and utilitarianism in England during the nineteenth century. Historicism cut across these distinctions and came to dominate Anglo-French as well as German thought. In both France and England rationalism in its historicist phase took the form of evolutionism.

Comte’s famous theory of the three stages viewed theology as appropriate in the childhood of man; however, it was to be displaced first by philosophy and then by science as men’s rational understanding of the universe gradually increased. Comte interpreted religion in terms that we would now call “functional,” stressing the contribution of belief and ritual to social solidarity and the control of personal feelings. While thus recognizing nonrational factors in religion and, indeed, arguing from them that religion is a permanent and inescapable aspect of human existence, he nonetheless stressed cognitive factors almost exclusively in his theory of religious evolution.

In England, Spencer developed an evolutionary perspective on religion that was even more narrowly cognitive than Comte’s, and Tylor also undertook an extensive effort to understand the religious development of mankind in these terms. In treating the development from animism through polytheism to monotheism as a succession of more and more adequate cognitive hypotheses, he remained thoroughly in the rationalist tradition. Frazer, while formally maintaining the same point of view, embraced a range of material—ritual kingship, human sacrifice, fertility ritual, and the like—which actually demanded a different interpretation. His.Golden Bough (1890) can be viewed as a marvelously intuitive catalogue of central problems that would have to be solved by other means. Finally, in the English tradition, Marett’s discussion (1900) of mana and preanimism came very near breaking through the preconceptions of the rationalist utilitarian school.

Dilthey, who was a follower of Schleiermacher as well as a neo-Kantian, continued the German nonrationalist tradition by stressing the irreducible nature of the religious Weltanschauung and the necessity for an inner understanding (Verstehen) of its particular forms. This tradition led directly into the modern sociological study of religion through the work of Troeltsch and particularly that of Max Weber, who both transcended the tradition in important respects. Postponing a consideration of these men for a moment, we may trace further into the twentieth century the development of the German tradition that was relatively independent of the influence of Weber and Troeltsch. A certain formal culmination was reached in the work of Rudolph Otto. In his important book The Idea of the Holy (1917), he richly developed the basic intuition of Schleiermacher by spelling out the phenomenology of the holy in terms of the numinous—the notion of the mysterium tremendum et fascinosum. Here more clearly than ever was the assertion of the sui generis nature of religion and its “geometrical location” in a certain kind of immediate experience. That experience, according to Otto, can be phenomenologically understood, but it cannot be explained. This point was made quite explicit in the work of van der Leeuw, who shared Otto’s essential position: in the preface to Religion in Essence and Manifestation van der Leeuw said that he specifically disavowed all “theories” ([1933] 1938, p. vi). Thus Otto and the later exponents of this tradition—whether they were phenomenologists (such as van der Leeuw and Mircea Eliade) or were specifically interested in the sociology of religion (Joachim Wach and Gustav Mensching) —have given us a rich array of materials without appreciably advancing our theoretical understanding.

Generalizing the argument so far, we may say that while the nonrationalist tradition jealously guarded the specific nature of religion but eschewed any explanation of it, the rationalist tradition provided a number of ways of explaining religion which in the end explained it away. We will argue, following Talcott ParsonsThe Structure of Social Action (1937), that around the turn of the twentieth century several men from both traditions broke free of their preconceptions and converged on a more adequate approach to religion (and indeed to social phenomena generally).

However, just as we have noted that the non-rationalist tradition continues to our own day in relatively pure form, so we must point out that the utilitarian rationalist position also continues, not so much as a conscious tradition of scholarship as a semiconscious preconception of scholars in many fields. This preconception has been strengthened by its gradual fusion with a Marxian understanding of religion as essentially an ideological cover, either for the defense of the social status quo or for protests against it. Here religion is treated as a weapon in the political-economic struggle or as a preliminary stage in a political movement, a stage that may be outgrown with the attainment of political maturity. What is at issue is not the empirical adequacy of such analyses in particular instances, but rather the generalization of them as adequate for the understanding of the phenomenon of religion.

Foundations of an adequate theory

The architects of a more adequate understanding of religion were Durkheim, Weber, and Freud, though others also made important contributions.

Contributions of Weber and Durkheim

Weber maintained the idea of the centrality and irreducibility of nonrational elements in human action as it had developed in the German tradition, but he was not content with a mere phenomenological description of these elements. According to Parsons’ analysis, Weber began, at least incipiently, to place these nonrational elements within the context of a general theory of social action. This he did through two of his central concerns. The first was with the problems of meaning—of evil, suffering, death, and the like—which are inescapable in human life but insoluble in purely scientific terms. Weber argued that the alternative religious answers to these problems of meaning have had not only profound consequences for the motivation of individuals but also, in the long run, important causal effects on social development. The second of Weber’s concerns, which links irrational elements to a more general theory of action, was with what he called charisma. Charisma is primarily a quality of the individual that places him above normal expectations and endows him with the authority to utter new commandments. Charisma is a relational concept—that is, it comes into existence only when it is recognized by a group. It links deeper levels of psychic organization, within the charismatic individual and in the members of the group who recognize him, with the social process and particularly with the possibility of radical discontinuities in social development. In both cases Weber was arguing for the importance of religion in social action on the grounds of its closeness to powerful nonrational motivational forces and its capacity to give form and pattern to those forces, including its capacity to create radically new forms and patterns.

The rationalist positivist tradition was decisively broken through from within by Durkheim, when he recognized that religion is a reality sui generis. By this he meant that religious representations or symbols are not delusions, nor do they simply stand for some other phenomena, such as natural forces or (contrary to some interpretations of his work) social morphology. Rather, in his social Kantianism, he held that religious representations are constitutive of society. They exist within the minds of individuals so as to inhibit egocentric impulses and to discipline the individual so that he can deal objectively with external reality. These shared representations, with their capacity to direct and control personal motivation, are what make society possible. While his treatment of motivation remained rudimentary, he did point out very clearly the great importance of religious action for stimulating individuals to participate positively in social life (see the discussion of collective effervescence in Durkheim 1912, book 2, chapter 7) and for dealing with tendencies of individuals to withdraw from social life (see the discussion of funeral ritual in 1912, book 3, chapter 5).

Although they started from opposite directions, both Weber and Durkheim seem to have overcome the impasse in which the rationalist and non-rationalist approaches to religion had long been caught: they both placed religion in a theoretical rather than a purely descriptive context, without denying its centrality and irreducibility. However, they lacked any fine-grained structural understanding of the nonrational elements involved, even though they recognized their importance. It was in the work of Freud that a structural understanding of the relevant emotional and motivational elements was to be found for the first time.

Freud’s work on religious symbolism

Freud’s early work on the stages of psychosexual development was applied to religion in Totem and Taboo (1913), where the Oedipus complex with its mixture of dependence, love, and hostility was seen as the core problem of religious symbolism, which he treated as largely projective. Freud’s later ego psychology, heralded in the important essays “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” (1921) and “The Ego and the Id” (1923), provided the basis for a much more active understanding of religious symbolism, which could now be treated not merely as reflecting psychic conflict but as actually affecting the outcome of psychic conflict and redirecting psychic forces. This point of view was applied to religion in the somewhat idiosyncratic but extraordinarily fruitful Moses and Monotheism (1934–1938). “The Future of an Illusion” (1927) represents a reversion to the early projective theory of religion and is neither the final statement of Freud’s position nor even typical of his own late thinking.

By the early 1920s, then, the elements of a more adequate theory of religion had come into existence. However, at just this point the primary preoccupation with religion displayed by most of the great social scientists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries disappeared. Other issues occupied the center of attention. Even today a theoretical concern with religion is only gradually reviving as a central issue in social science.

A theory of religion

Only in the last few years has a new model of human action developed that will allow us to utilize the insights of Weber, Durkheim, and Freud without falling back into the old controversies about idealism and materialism, rationalism and irrationalism, and humanism and science. This is the cybernetic model (for a relevant, though partial, exposition, see Deutsch 1963). Parsons’ action theory is the chief link between earlier social science and cybernetic theory and has itself in recent years been increasingly restated in cybernetic terms. This model, whose basic terms are “energy” and “information,” seems likely to integrate the range of behavioral research that stretches from the work of biologists such as Nikolaas Tinbergen and J. P. Scott on animal behavior to that of philosophers such as Ernst Cassirer and Susanne K. Langer on symbolic forms.

The cybernetic model

An action system may be defined as the symbolically controlled, systematically organized behavior of one or more biological organisms. The energy of such a system is supplied by the organism and is organized through genetically controlled organic structures that are not directly open to symbolic influence. Thus the basic motivation of the action system—its drives and needs—is partially determined by organic structure, although it is subject, through learning processes, to a considerable degree of symbolic control. The precise boundary, or, perhaps better, the area of overlap, between what is genetically and what is symbolically controlled is by no means clear, and important research on the problem is continuing. For present purposes it is only necessary to note the relatively broad plasticity for symbolic learning that is usually recognized, at least in the human species.

Information in such a system consists largely of symbolic messages that indicate something about either the internal state or the external situation of the action system. These messages are understood or interpreted by matching them with previously learned symbolic patterns, which make up the memory of the system. New situations can be understood through a recombination of previously learned elements, so that a new symbolic pattern is created. Thus, the set of symbolic patterns existing in a system will be partially determined by the nature of the external world with which that system has had to deal and by the nature of the laws governing the cognitive processes of the brain. Within these limits there is a wide range of freedom, within which alternative symbolic patterns may operate with equal or nearly equal effectiveness, as is best illustrated perhaps in the phenomenon of language.

The cybernetic model thus conceives of a human action system as autonomous, purposive, and capable of a wide range of external adaptations and internal rearrangements within the very broad constraints inherent in the nature of energy and information. It is precisely the stress on autonomy, learning capacity, decision, and control that gives the cybernetic model the ability, lacking in previous mechanistic and organic models, to assimilate the contributions of the humanistic disciplines— the Geisteswissenschaften—without abandoning an essentially scientific approach [seeSystems analysis, articles onsocial systemsandpolitical systems].

The openness of an action system is always relative to its particular structure. We have noted that energy is structured by genetic information from the organism and by symbolic information from the culture. Energy and information are further structured by two systems that can be seen as integrating organic motivation and symbols: personality and society. These are symbolically patterned motivational systems; the first centers on individual organisms, and the other on groups. Any particular personality or social system will be determined in large part at any given moment by its history, for its learning capacity will be largely a product of the structures it has built up over time. However, if a system has managed to develop a broad and flexible capacity for rapid learning, and if it has a reserve of uncommitted resources, its reaction to any given internal or external situation will be open to a wide variety of alternative choices; in other words, it will have a high degree of freedom.

The role of religion in action systems

Religion emerges in action systems with respect to two main problems. In order to function effectively, it is essential that a person or group have a relatively condensed, and therefore highly general, definition of its environment and itself. Such a definition of the system and the world to which it is related (in more than a transient sense) is a conception of identity. Such a conception is particularly necessary in situations of stress and disturbance, because it can provide the most general set of instructions as to how the system is to maintain itself and repair any damage sustained.

In addition to the identity problem, there is the problem of dealing with inputs of motivation from within the system that are not under the immediate control of conscious decision processes. We have already noted that such motivation is partly under the control of genetic rather than symbolic processes. In addition, as Freud discovered, there are important symbolically organized systems of motivation that are partially blocked or screened off from consciousness through the mechanism of repression; this happens partly as a result of the pattern of child raising. Though these unconscious motivational forces exist in individuals, they are to a large degree shared in groups, because human biology and child-raising patterns are, broadly speaking, similar. The emotions can be seen as signaling devices by which the conscious decision process (the ego, in Freud’s terms) becomes aware of the existence of important inputs of motivation from unconscious levels of the system.

The problems of identity and of unconscious motivation are closely related, for it is just those situations of threat, uncertainty, and breakdown, which raise the identity issue, that also rouse deep unconscious feelings of anxiety, hope, and fear. An identity conception capable of dealing with such a situation must not only be cognitively adequate but must also be motivationally meaningful. It is precisely the role of religion in action systems to provide such a cognitively and motivationally meaningful identity conception or set of identity symbols. It is such a set of symbols that provides answers to Weber’s problems of meaning and to which Durkheim referred in speaking of religious representations. It is also what in large part Freud meant when he spoke of the superego. This mode of analysis leads to a definition of religion very close to that of Clifford Geertz, who wrote: “A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (1966, p. 4).

The conception of religion briefly sketched here—religion as the most general mechanism for integrating meaning and motivation in action systems—applies to all types of action systems, not only to whole societies or groups of them. Many smaller units (individual personalities and groups) appropriate the religious symbols of their social and cultural environment in dealing with their own religious problems, though always with some degree of individual variation. Moreover, even where prevailing religious symbol systems are rejected, the idiosyncratic solutions of individuals and groups to fundamental problems of orientation and identity may be viewed in terms of this scheme as “religious.” Of course, the degree to which religious problems will be salient for any individual or group is quite variable.

Current theoretically relevant research

While the theory outlined above has not previously been stated in exactly these terms, some recent research seems to be guided by a conception of religion as a control system linking meaning and motivation—a conception that is a close parallel of this theory. Three particularly interesting examples of such research will be cited. Each of them concentrates at a traditional level of social science—psychological, social, or cultural—but it is noteworthy that they all transcend the discipline boundaries in trying to understand rehgion.

Analysis of historical figures

The first is the application of detailed psychological analysis to significant figures in religious history. Erik H. Erikson, in Young Man Luther (1958), has overcome a tendency toward psychological reductionism that was evident in some earlier work of this sort. He is careful to place Luther’s life history in its proper social, historical, and religious context. In doing so, he shows how Luther was able to solve his own problem of identity, which had its roots deep in his unconscious conflicts, through constructive innovation with respect to religious symbolism. However, Erikson’s knowledge of the deep motivational forces involved does not lead him to deny the contribution of the religious reformulation itself. Rather, he emphasizes the fusing and forming power of the symbols to synthesize motivational conflicts and control destructive impulses.

Erikson also contributes to the broader problem of religious change by indicating that Luther’s solution, once it was embodied in communicable symbolic form, could be appropriated by others in the same society who had analogous identity problems arising from social-historical matrices similar to Luther’s own. Moreover, although the argument is not worked out in detail, Erikson implies that Luther was able to contribute to certain social and cultural identity problems of Germany in particular and of Western civilization in general. This detailed analysis of the mechanism involved in a major example of religious change, although it involves only one among several types of change, is an important contribution to one of our least understood problems. [SeeIdentity, psycho-social.]

Small-group research

The second new line of research has to do with the analysis of religious phenomena in small groups, as illustrated in Philip E. Slater’s Microcosm (1966). The small-group situation provides a laboratory within which the symbolic processes involved in group formation, as hypothesized by Durkheim and Freud, can be empirically synthesized. Slater shows how the group and its leader become foci for the unconscious anxieties, hopes, and fears of the members in the initial situation of uncertainty and lack of definition. These feelings are handled initially by the development of projective symbols, which are redolent with the mysterious potency of the unconscious feelings, that is, are highly magical and sacred. However, over time, as more and more of the group process becomes consciously understood and as the deeper feelings about the group and the leader are worked through, the group itself becomes “secularized” and the quality of the sacred is relegated to certain group ideals and symbols of group solidarity.

Slater’s comparison of this process of group development with the long-term process of religious evolution is highly suggestive. Particularly important is the perception of the changing role of symbolism with respect to the meaning-motivation balance as the group itself undergoes new experiences and changes in structure. Also of great general significance is Slater’s observation that social and psychological aspects of group process interpenetrate at every point and that a purely psychological or a purely sociological theoretical framework would result in an inadequate understanding of the processes at work.

Analysis of language as symbolic action

A third area of promising research is the analysis of language as symbolic action as it has been developed by Kenneth Burke in his Rhetoric of Religion (1961) and other works. Burke’s theory of artistic form (defined as “the arousing and fulfilling of expectations”), which is based on the Aristotelian theory of catharsis, emphasizes the working through of emotional tensions in symbolic form; thus, it is very close to the theory of religion developed above. Burke has pointed out that the tensions may be social as well as psychological, though they must be presented in personal terms if they are to have emotional impact. He has also pointed out the function of social and psychological control that such symbolic working through performs.

Perhaps Burke’s chief contribution is his insistence on the special formal qualities of language and symbolism generally. Language does not merely reflect or communicate social and psychological realities. Rather, language contains within itself a “principle of perfection” (1961, epilogue), which operates relatively independently of other factors. That is, a terminology, once established, has certain “entelechial” implications. For example, once the terms king, society, and god come into existence, there is the logical possibility that someone will ask what a perfect king, society, or god is and from this analysis actually draw conclusions about existing kings, societies, or ideas of god. Regardless of the many actual social and psychological blocks to carrying through such analyses, the fact is that the possibility of pushing toward terminological perfection is always present, and under certain circumstances it will actually be pursued. This is one of the chief reasons why cultural symbol systems cannot be treated entirely reductionistically. In The Rhetoric of Religion Burke has applied these insights with great brilliance to two key religious documents: the first three chapters of Genesis and Augustine’s Confessions [seeInteraction, article ondramatism].

Religion and society

An interest in the social consequences of religious belief and action is probably as old as the interest in religion itself. In the sixteenth century Machiavelli gave, in his Discourses, a functional analysis of Roman religion which had considerable influence. Spinoza, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Comte continued and developed the analysis of the political significance of religious commitment and the related problems of the influence of religion on personal morality and social solidarity. In one of the earliest quantitative studies in sociology, Durkheim introduced a “religious variable” in his study of suicide (1897). Subsequently many studies of varying breadth and quality have included a religious variable and thus advanced our knowledge of the influence or lack of influence of religion on some aspect of social existence; however, a comprehensive survey of the results obtained is still lacking.

The man who contributed most to the systematic understanding of the interrelations between religion and society and who stimulated more research (both quantitative and nonquantitative) than any other scholar was undoubtedly Max Weber. The most influential single hypothesis in this field is certainly his thesis on the influence of the Protestant ethic on the rise of modern society (1904–1905). Although the cumulated argument and evidence on this thesis are too massive to review here, one recent study by Gerhard Lenski (1961) is worth mentioning, not only because it sheds light on the Protestant-ethic thesis in contemporary America but also because it is perhaps the most successful attempt to apply the methods of survey research to the sociology of religion. Lenski was concerned with the influence of religious affiliations and beliefs on attitudes toward work, authority, education, and a variety of other matters in a large American city, and he found this influence to be considerable. Weber’s ideas on the non-Western religions have been applied much more sporadically (see the incomplete review in Bellah 1963), but as the comparative horizon of the sociology of religion widens, these ideas seem likely to attract more attention. In this same connection, a revival of interest in religious evolution as providing the soundest classificatory system for comparative work can also be expected.

Religious evolution

Although foreshadowings of the idea of religious evolution can be traced as far back as classical times, the first extensive effort in this direction was that of Vico in the eighteenth century. Elaborate schemes of religious evolution with copious empirical illustration were developed in the nineteenth century by Hegel, Comte, and Spencer. In more modest and judicious form, evolutionary ideas provided the basis of the sociology of religion of Durkheim (1912) and Weber (1922). Though long neglected and in some quarters excoriated, the idea of religious evolution has recently been revived (Bellah 1964). It provides the natural link between the kind of theory of religion sketched in this article and the comparative study of religion.

If one defines religion as a control system linking meaning and motivation by providing an individual or a group with the most general model that it has of itself and its world, then it becomes apparent that such a control system can vary in degree of complexity in ways that are not entirely random with respect to the degree of complexity of the social system of which it is a part. Since it has been clear for a long time that levels of social and cultural complexity are best understood in an evolutionary framework, it seems inevitable that religion too must be considered in such a framework.

Here it is possible only to enumerate some of the most important dimensions along which religious evolution can be expected to occur. The central focus of religious evolution is the religious symbol system itself. Here the main line of development is from compact to differentiated symbolism, that is, from a situation in which world, self, and society are seen to involve the immediate expression of occult powers to one in which the exercise of religious influence is seen to be more indirect and “rational.” This is the process of the “disenchantment of the world” that was described by Weber. Part of this process is the gradual differentiation of art, science, and other cultural systems as separate from religious symbolism. Furthermore, changes in the nature and position of religious symbolism effect changes in the conception of the religious actor. The more differentiated symbol systems make a greater demand on the individual for decision and commitment. To support this growing religious individualism, specifically religious group structures are required, whereas at earlier stages religion tends to be a dimension of all social groups. Finally, the capacity for religion to provide ideals and models for new lines of social development increases with the growing symbolic, individual, and social differentiation.

An adequate theory of religious evolution would have to go hand in hand with a general theory of social evolution. For example, the varying saliency of law, custom, and religion as agencies of social control in different societies, which was long ago pointed out by Montesquieu, could probably best be explicated by a general analysis of the evolution of control systems. Moreover, the contribution that a theory of religious evolution could make to a general conception of social evolution is also considerable. Such an approach would begin to indicate the ways in which changes in social structure impinge on the integration of established cultural meanings with the deeper levels of individual personalities and how shifts in that meaning-motivation balance can in turn help or hinder social differentiation.

Robert N. Bellah


Bellah, Robert N. 1963 Reflections on the Protestant Ethic Analogy in Asia. Journal of Social Issues 19: 52-60.

Bellah, Robert N. 1964 Religious Evolution. American Sociological Review 29:358-374.

Burke, Kenneth 1961 The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. Boston: Beacon.

Deutsch, Karl W. 1963 The Nerves of Government: Models of Political Communication and Control. New York: Free Press.

Durkheim, Émile (1897) 1951 Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → First published in French.

Durkheim, Émile (1912)1954 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan. → First published as Les formes elementaires de la vie religieuse, le systeme totemique en Australie. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Collier.

Erikson, Erik H. (1958) 1962 Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. Austen Riggs Monograph No. 4. New York: Norton.

Frazer, James (1890) 1955 The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. 3d ed., rev. & enl. 13 vols. New York: St. Martins; London: Macmillan. → An abridged edition was published in 1922 and reprinted in 1955.

Freud, Sigmund (1913) 1959 Totem and Taboo. Volume 13, pages ix-162 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth; New York: Macmillan.→ First published in German. Freud, Sigmund (1921) 1955 Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Volume 18, pages 67-143 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth; New York: Macmillan.→ First published in German.

Fkeud, Sigmund (1923)1961 The Ego and the Id. Volume 19, pages 12-63 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth; New York: Macmillan. → First published in German.

Freud, Sigmund (1927) 1961 The Future of an Illusion. Volume 21, pages 5-58 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth; New York: Macmillan. → First published in German.

Freud, Sigmund (1934–1938) 1964 Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays. Volume 23 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth; New York: Macmillan. → First published in German.

Geertz, Clifford 1966 Religion as a Cultural System. Pages 1-46 in Conference on New Approaches in Social Anthropology, Jesus College, Cambridge, England, 1963, Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. Edited by Michael Banton. A.S.A. Monographs, Vol. 3. London: Tavistock; New York: Praeger.

Leeuw, Gerardus Van Der (1933) 1938 Religion in Essence and Manifestation: A Study in Phenomenology. New York: Macmillan. → First published as Phanomenologie der Religion. A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Harper.

Lenski, Gerhard E. (1961)1963 The Religious Factor: A Sociological Study of Religion’s Impact on Politics, Economics, and Family Life. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Lessa, William A.; and Vogt, Evon Z. (editors) (1958) 1965 Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach. 2d ed. New York: Harper.

Marett, Rohert R. (1900) 1929 The Threshold of Religion. 4th ed. London: Methuen.

Mensching, Gustav 1947 Soziologie der Religion. Bonn: Rohrscheid.

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Parsons, Talcott (1937) 1949 The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory With Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers. Glen-coe, 111.: Free Press.

Slater, Philip E. 1966 Microcosm. New York: Wiley.

Troeltsch, Ernst (1912) 1960 The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. 2 vols. New York: Harper. → First published as Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen.

Wach, Joachim (1944) 1951 Sociology of Religion. Univ. of Chicago Press

Weber, Max (1904–1905) 1930 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons, with a foreword by R. H. Tawney. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Scribner. → First published in German. The 1930 edition has been reprinted frequently.

Weber, Max (1922) 1963 The Sociology of Religion. Boston: Beacon. → First published in German as Book 2, Chapter 4 of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft.


Religion affords dramatic, insistent phenomena centrally entrenched in the intimate structures and functions of personality. These phenomena are likely to intrigue a psychologist for one of two contrasting reasons: either for their challenging uniqueness or for their vivid illustration of factors of more fundamental and general interest in psychology.

Sometimes, such phenomena as sudden conversion, mysticism, glossolalia, ritual, and intense religious commitment may seem incomprehensible in terms of readily available psychological theories and therefore may spark the development of new ones. Alternatively, they may appear to be particularly vivid instances of processes of central importance to psychology. In this case, these phenomena become a challenge in that they demand an account from those who aspire to a comprehensive theory of personality and its development and change, motivation, emotion, cognition, perception, group behavior, attitudes, values, socialization, guilt, or virtually any other theme of common psychological interest. In particular, religion poses urgent questions about the relation between affective and cognitive processes and between the individual and his social environment.

Religion appears to share with abnormal phenomena this characteristic of presenting seemingly dramatic and unique manifestations which at the same time illustrate processes of central concern to any personality psychologist.

This distinction—between the seeming uniqueness of religion and its instancing of general problems in psychology—suggests alternative strategies in the study of the psychology of religion. One strategy begins with careful attention to the phenomena and to the development of useful descriptive categories to handle them. The other strategy turns to religious phenomena only after a theory has been developed in another segment of personality and behavior. Of the pioneer systematists at the beginning of this century who turned their attention to religion, James (1902) represents the former strategy, Freud (1913; 1927; 1934–1938) the latter.

The phenomena-based strategy generally, although of course not exclusively or necessarily, has been employed by those who were personally more “sympathetic” to religion, who therefore tended to claim a greater richness or validity for their “participant” observations.

The psychology of religion has been marked by a schism between these two strategies. Descriptive, phenomena-based approaches of various kinds have made little progress toward developing genotypical categories useful for theoretical analysis. On the other hand, the “theoreticians” starting “outside” religion have made little use of the distinctions or other descriptive gains made by those interested in the phenomena.

While empirical research by either group has been limited—because practical, design, and measurement problems are formidable—the split, with regard to empirical work, is particularly wide. The theorists have apparently felt that any empirical obligation was already satisfied by demonstration— often clinical—of their theory before they applied it to religion or else by anecdotal application to instances derived from “armchair” observations or library resources. Empirical research by the phenomena-based group has tended to be limited to the most superficial data, such as church attendance or questionnaire self-report of “belief.” Questions of greatest interest and importance have not been asked.

Background and context

Beyond the general psychological fascination which religion may have, impetus for work in the psychology of religion has come from at least three sources. The first, and perhaps the major, impetus has come from practical and theoretical concerns within institutionalized religion, especially Protestantism.

For example, the field of religious education has provided prominent focus, suggesting both problems and theories. Especially among Protestants in the early decades of this century, as sudden adolescent conversion became less normative, those concerned with religious education required that more attention be paid to the processes of religious development. This was encouraged by an optimistic, “liberal” theology which anticipated (in harmony with other progressive ideologies of the time) the possibility of developing ideal Christians, with the aid of scientifically discoverable principles. More recent “existential” concerns, emphasizing the role of “experience” in Christian nurture, as distinguished from intellectual instruction, has again brought new urgency to psychological questions.

During the middle decades of the twentieth century there has also been concern, especially among Protestant and Jewish clergymen, with finding sound psychological bases for dealing, as pastors, with personal and family crises. The acceptance of “depth psychology” has coincided with the development of a less optimistic “neo-orthodox” theology which emphasizes the darker side of human existence rather than its progressive improvement.

Furthermore, the general loosening of traditional religious institutions and roles has sometimes left clergymen searching for a clearer pragmatic basis for defining, and perhaps even justifying, their role. This concern has coincided with greater institutional concern with recruiting, screening, training, and evaluating clergymen. The resulting research on the role, personality characteristics, and motivation of clergymen (Menges & Dittes 1965) has represented a new focus for the psychology of religion. [SeePsychiatry, article onthe religio-psychiatric movement.]

A second impetus, beyond the bounds of institutionalized religion, is a single frequently replicated empirical finding in social psychology: the positive correlation between indices of religion and of prejudice, authoritarianism, or other conservative attitudes. This finding has occasioned a continuing sequence of empirical and theoretical work for two decades. This has perhaps been provoked in part by the conflict in values aroused by the finding: religion is commonly regarded as a desirable value, and prejudice is not, and the official doctrines of organized religions generally repudiate prejudice.

The third impetus arises from the intrinsic connections between religion and psychology, especially clinical psychology. In many ways, religious and psychological enterprises have parallel, if not overlapping, concerns. Both call attention to, and offer conceptualizations about, human aspirations and apprehensions, about the relation of an individual to his total environment, about the processes of coping with stress, and about ameliorating the human condition. It is not surprising, then, that each should be intrigued by the prospective insights of the other.

Contemporary theologians (e.g., Roberts 1950; Tillich 1952) have systematically attempted to make theology take account of psychological formulations. Relatively little “adaption” in the other direction—exploitation of theological formulations for psychological research—has been attempted, although it would seem profitable (Hiltner & Rogers 1962). Theological formulations frequently include implicit or explicit psychological theories, including propositions about both the antecedents and the consequences of particular beliefs or other religious behavior.

Philosophical and logical distinctions

Some methodological attention must be paid to the important distinctions between religion and psychology. Psychological analysis of religion operates within certain clear and logically necessary, but not always understood, restrictions which distinguish it from other intellectual disciplines related to religion. There is sometimes a special problem in relating, or distinguishing between, the psychology of religion and both philosophy and theology.

Logically, the distinction seems clear and has been made in similar terms by writers in the psychology of religion; James devoted an eloquent chapter to the point (1902). Psychology, philosophy, and theology may all be concerned with the same phenomenon, such as a particular belief or a particular ritual, but they ask different questions about the phenomenon. Psychological analysis is concerned with the psychological development and the functions of the belief or ritual. Philosophy is concerned with the correspondence between the belief or ritual and some criterion of truth, logic, or goodness, and theology, with its correspondence with such criteria as the will of God or other given norms of faith. The answers to the psychological questions do not necessarily imply or presuppose answers to the philosophical or theological questions. Even a thorough assessment of the psychological history and functions of a particular belief carries no ordinary implications for the “truth” or “faithfulness” of the belief; these must still be ascertained by the criteria appropriate to philosophy and theology. Both “true” and “false” beliefs may develop out of a particular pattern of social influences or personal motivation. The “genetic fallacy“—the evaluation of belief or behavior in terms of an analysis of its origins—has been soundly discounted by every major writer in the psychology of religion, including Freud (1927), who carefully used the term “illusion,” when applied to religion, to refer to certain wish-fulfilling functions, not to religion’s objective validity. Freud even acknowledged that science, a preference for which he argued on other grounds, was an “illusion” in this same sense.

Yet, despite the logical distinction—well accepted in principle—between psychology, on the one hand, and philosophy and theology, on the other, there remain at least two psychologically understandable grounds for the continuing confusion and blurring —-perhaps more among the audience of the psychologist than by the psychologist himself.

One of these grounds for confusion is an unfamiliarity with, or a mistrust of, discrete disciplines of thought which claim correspondence, not with the “whole truth,” but only with an abstracted and limited segment. Most socializing and reality-orienting processes accustom persons to regard reality as unitary and therefore to expect statements about reality to be similarly unified. Discrete disciplines or systems of thought are expected to be integrated. Differing statements—for example, psychological and philosophical statements about the same belief—are perceived as mutually implicative. If mutual implications cannot be recognized, the statements are perceived as necessarily inconsistent.

The attempt to integrate different statements into a single statement or system often leads to an unwarranted syncretistic identification of terms (for example, “neurosis” and “sin” or “psychological anxiety” and “ontological anxiety“) drawn from discrete psychological and theological systems (e.g., Roberts 1950; Tillich 1952). When such integration is not easily accomplished, then the psychological and philosophical (or theological) systems are seen as antagonistic, competing for the status of the one valid approach. With respect to Copernican astronomy, geology, and biological evolution, the result of long battles is the general acknowledgment that statements about history and function and statements about meaning and truth may both be true without having to be consistently integrated. But this acceptance is not yet universally accorded to psychological analysis. The view commonly persists that a belief must be either psychologically motivated or true (e.g., Havens 1961; Outler 1954).

A second psychological basis for confusion is a persistent notion in our culture, apparently related to Greek philosophy and perhaps to America’s Puritan roots, that psychological history and motives are “unworthy” vehicles for truth. Epistemologically and theologically, it may be argued, in principle, that truth may readily arise through such psychologically discernible processes as social or motivational influences, as well as through pure reasoning; such a view would seem especially consistent with Christian notions of incarnation or Jewish emphasis on the importance of the community. But psychologically, the distinction between rational and emotional aspects of man doggedly persists in our culture and, hence, in psychologies of religion (e.g., Allport 1950; Clark 1958), with higher status accorded the rational aspects. Thus, a discipline, such as philosophy, that is concerned with intellectual processes and criteria may be accorded a superior role, to which the contributions of psychology must be accommodated [e.g., Outler 1954; see also Knowledge, Sociology of].

Phenomena-based approaches

The search within the phenomena of religion for useful descriptive and analytical categories has, ironically, been impeded by the dramatic strikingness of the phenomena. It has been found expedient to conceptualize religion largely in terms of particular phenomena: for example, conversion experience, church attendance, personal prayer, assent to a particular dogma. These phenomena are so insistent and attention to them becomes so entrenched that it becomes difficult to break away from phenomena-based ad hoc categories, into the isolation of more genotypical and psychologically relevant variables.

For example, it is possible that some conversion, some church attendance, some prayer, and some belief—but not all of such instances—may share guilt-coping obsessional characteristics. Scientific progress may be gained by the development of such a category, cutting across groups of behaviors. But such progress has been slow because of the seeming dramatic insistence of the phenomena to be studied in their own terms—just as the descriptive, diagnostic categories of abnormal psychology have only slowly yielded to more “dynamic” variables, cutting across the phenomenological descriptions.

”Religion” as a single variable

The attempt to regard all religion as an integral phenomenon or as a single variable is the most significant and awkward illustration of the persistence of culturally convenient, but scientifically dubious, categories. A society finds it convenient and possible to group a great variety of behavior and institutions within the single category of “religion.” To its own frustration, psychological inquiry has commonly followed this practice.

Argyle (1958), for example, explicitly regards religion as a single quantifiable variable, with institutional membership or attendance, devotional practice, and orthodoxy of belief used as interchangeable indices. Other measures frequently used uncritically as a single index of “religion” are the religious-interest scale of the Allport-Vernon Scale of Values, scales such as Thurstone’s for assessing attitudes toward church, God, and Sunday observances, various tests of religious information, and self-ratings of religiosity.

Most attempts to define religion as a single variable also emphasize the uniqueness of religion as compared to other psychological and cultural phenomena. Such definitions tend to identify religion with mystical characteristics and also serve to exclude, by implication, the application to religion of psychological analyses applied to other types of behavior (Airport 1950; Clark 1958; James 1902).

But the usefulness or validity of such a global, single-variable definition of religion is not easily defended against a sophisticated theoretical viewpoint. As Johnson has dramatically argued:

In the name of religion what deed has not been done? For the sake of religion men have earnestly affirmed and contradicted almost every idea and form of conduct. In the long history of religion appear chastity and sacred prostitution, feasting and fasting, intoxication and prohibition, dancing and sobriety, human sacrifice and the saving of life in orphanages and hospitals, superstition and education, poverty and wealthy endowments, prayer wheels and silent worship, gods and demons, one God and many gods, attempts to escape and to reform the world. How can such diametrical oppositions all be religious? ([1944] 1959, pp. 47-48)

Several recent factor-analytic and correlational studies have suggested a single prominent factor, but it is a factor defined almost exclusively by attitudes toward religious institutions, the visible factor by which Western culture generally identifies religion. The few studies which have used more subtle indices than attitudes toward the church, and more sophisticated samples of persons more familiar with elements of religion other than institutional affiliation, have suggested that religion be considered as reflecting a multiplicity of factors (Dittes 1967).

Furthermore, empirical studies of “religion” defined as a single variable—primarily church affiliation and participation—have not tended to produce consistent, meaningful relations with other variables (perhaps because other variables are also grossly defined, in terms of such easily accessible measures as personality variables, age, education, diagnosis of pathology). Studies using such data typically show that religious involvement is “greater” among women, among young adolescents and those past middle age, among the less educated and less intelligent (when class differences are held constant), among members of the middle class, and among those scoring higher on measures of ethnocentrism and authoritarianism.

Definitions and descriptions which attempt to embrace in a single statement the religions of diverse cultures invariably seem to lose the critical and significant characteristics of any one. The number of facets of religious phenomena increases so greatly as one crosses cultural lines that cross-cultural definition and generalization are exceedingly treacherous. One perhaps ought to be pessimistic about developing a psychology of religion in general and perhaps instead learn more from studying cultural group and individual differences.

Descriptive distinctions

Among those committed to description of phenomena, the use of typologies has represented one attempt to define somewhat less global variables. These types are characteristically taken from those established by practitioners themselves—for example, distinctions between mystic, prophet, priest (e.g., see Clark 1958, chapters 12 and 13).

James (1902) proposed the much-quoted distinction between the religion of the healthy-minded and of the sick soul—perhaps more a distinction between personality types than between religious orientations per se. The distinction appears related to the manic-depressive continuum, with one end representing the extroverted personality (”positive thinking” in Norman Vincent Peale’s terms) and the other a more depressed, introverted, openly conflicted person.

Pratt’s (1920) distinction between subjective and objective worship has persisted, perhaps more as a haunting methodological dilemma than as a genuine phenomenal distinction. Objective worship, typified by the Roman Catholic mass, refers to intention and reference beyond the worshiper; subjective worship refers to self-conscious awareness of the effects of worship on the worshiper, as typified by much Protestant worship.

These typologies have not lent themselves to easy operational definitions, nor have they found themselves as part of more elaborate theoretical statements. Users of typologies have been content with typologies per se, rather than curious about the relation of the type with other variables.

Differing beliefs suggest another variable of potential psychological significance. But when these are taken in the language and the dimensions of the practitioners, they tend to emerge along a single conservative-liberal dimension, highly correlated with general “nonreligious” conservatism-liberalism and its known determinants. Other categories suggested by research in attitudes and perception outside religion, such as suggestibility, conformity, or dogmatism, may be more useful.


Many writers have suggested the important distinction between “authentic” intensive inner religious experience, on the one hand, and routine peripheral religious activity, on the other. The distinction has been labeled internal-extrinsic by Adorno and others (1950), interiorized-institutionalized by Allport (1954), intrinsic-extrinsic by Allport (1959; Allport & Ross 1967), primary-secondary by Clark (1958), committed-consensual by Allen (1965; Allen & Spilka 1967), and religion-religiosity by many. The distinction reflects a value judgment and is analogous to one commonly made by religious participants themselves—especially by those regarded as prophets and reformers—who frequently call attention to the inverse relation between the two types of activity.

In empirical studies most measures used are of explicit, objective religiosity, usually involving participation in, or attitudes toward, the formal religious institution, its overt activities, and its official doctrines. On the other hand, most theoretical efforts, including attempts at establishing distinctions between, and categories of, phenomena, are concerned with the more intrinsic, subjective religion—the inner “spiritual” life, personal attitudes and orientations, values, loyalties, and commitments. Indeed, assuming the present distinction, a major methodological weakness of most empirical research in the psychology of religion is the use of instances of extrinsic religiosity as indices of an intrinsic religious orientation (e.g., Argyle 1958).

Factor-analytic studies (e.g., Cline & Richards 1965; Allen 1965; Allen & Spilka 1967) tend to support the distinction between the explicit institution-oriented religiosity and more personal intrinsic religion. Most attempts to provide scales or other indices for each of these two elements have foundered on the likelihood that each is not a discrete variable but, like “religion” itself, a general rubric covering many independent variables. Allen (1965) and Allport and Ross (1967) report scales of extrinsic and intrinsic religion that have some construct validity (extrinsic religion was correlated with prejudice, but intrinsic religion was not).

Psychoanalytic description

Much psychoanalytic writing is essentially descriptive. It has been a common practice among psychoanalytical writers to identify themes thought to be of psychological significance in religious material. Religious symbols, activities, and legends have provided fertile ground in which both Freudian and Jungian adherents could discover disguised symbolic “meaning.” A recent example (La Barre 1962) argues at length for the phallic symbolism of the snake in contemporary and historical cults and legends, including the Garden of Eden story. This work is classified here as largely descriptive because it focuses on the identification of a single variable rather than on the advancement of a theoretical understanding of the relation between that variable and others.

Freud’s first writing on religion (1907) called attention to several descriptive similarities between religious ritual and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. The theoretical implications of common etiology and common functions have been extrapolated from this observation by others, for example, Ostow and Scharfstein (1954) and Jones ([1923] 1964, chapter 9).

Theory-based approaches

The two major psychological theories generally used in analyzing religious phenomena are both associated with Freud, although neither was fully originated or developed by him. One theory emphasizes the psychological motive of dependence, the position of the mother, and the solicitous aspects of religion. The other theory emphasizes the psychological motive of hostility, the role of the father, and the demanding aspects of religion. Both theories reflect the fundamental hypothesis that the “religious life represents a dramatization on a cosmic plane of the emotions, fears, and longings which arose in the child’s relation to his parents” (Jones [1923] 1964, p. 195).

The general distinction between the more solicitous and more demanding modes of religion has long been noted by many observers both within and without religion. Examples are the common adage of clergymen that their aim is to “comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable” or the distinction between the creative, redemptive, justifying attributes of God—or the “saving,” healing functions of religion—and the wrathful attributes of God—or the demanding, law-abiding, sanctifying functions.

Fromm (1963) has sharply contrasted these two theoretical orientations and has attempted to invoke them sequentially, in relation to changing social conditions, to account for changing emphases in early Christian centuries. Erikson (1958) has both distinguished and blended the theories in an intensive “case study” of Martin Luther’s developing religious convictions. Bakan (1966) has proposed that religion represents the projection and management of parents’ conflicts between personal “agency” motivations—including hostility to children—and nurturant motives.

Theories based on dependence

Dependence-based theories associated with Freud’s second book on religion (1927) emphasize religion as a source of comfort, solace, or assurance in the face of external stresses and frustrations. A protective and projective parent is associated with deferred or fantasied satisfactions, especially in relation to keenly experienced frustrations. The religious response is one of submission, in imitation of such a figure as Jesus, the dutiful son.

Supporting data, beyond general reflections, are not overwhelming. Especially missing are what would be the most convincing data—correlations between evidence of significant life frustrations and submissive reliance in the framework of this particular kind of religious formulation. Some general evidence has accumulated suggesting generally “greater” religious involvement among groups such as the less intelligent and the economically deprived, who, one might infer, experience deprivation, frustration, and a sense of inadequacy. Evidence along these lines has been surveyed by Cronbach (1933), by Argyle (1958, pp. 145-154), and by Dittes (1967).

Theories based on hostility

Freud applied to religion the full range of his Oedipal theory and apparently believed that this application was confirmed by anthropological and historical materials he cited (1913; 1934–1938). Emphasis is placed on relations with a paternal god-figure and on coping with largely “inner” stresses generated by this relation, particularly hostility and rebellion. Various elements of belief and of practice are analyzed as allowing for the expression of such hostility, for its control, and for the consummating receipt of punishment and forgiveness. A prototype is the identification with a Christ-figure who assumes the role of God, yet submits to the father, is crucified, and reconciled through resurrection and ascension.

The subtle and complex variables of motivation and of religion with which this theory is concerned have so far eluded controlled empirical study.

Projection and wish fulfillment

Projection to God of attitudes toward a father are assumed by both theories. This assumption has given rise to empirical tests of various designs to discover whether there is a similarity between attitudes toward God and attitudes toward the actual father. The degree of correspondence discovered has varied widely, perhaps because the research has not carefully taken into consideration the theories’ proposal that such projection takes place under conditions of particular personal motivation.

Wish fulfillment, or perhaps more accurately, “rationalization,” is a general process postulated especially by the theories based on dependence. The degree and process by which conceptualization follows and is made consistent with motivation and practice has attracted varying formulations (e.g., Dunlap 1946). All tend to assume an independent “need to conceptualize” or a “need for consistency” among conceptualizations and between conceptualizations and behavior.

Religion and ethnocentrism

Perhaps the most effective fusion of empirical and theoretical work has developed from the repeated empirical finding of correlations between indices of religion and of conservative social attitudes—especially, because of the cultural importance given them in the mid-twentieth century, attitudes of anti-Semitism and racial prejudice. This correlation was brought into sharp focus and most of the subsequent developments were given direction by the work of Adorno and others (1950).

The finding has, among other things, stimulated attention to definitional problems, cited above, especially to the distinction between religiosity, which Adorno’s measures reflected, and religion. Most theories, guided by an understanding of official religious doctrine, might expect religion to be directly related to liberal attitudes. [SeeAnti-SemitismandPrejudice.]

Beginning with data in the Adorno volume, studies have regularly reported suggestions of a curvilinear relation between ethnocentrism and frequency of church attendance, with both non-attenders and the most faithful attenders showing more liberal attitudes than occasional attenders. If the most regular attendance can be interpreted as an index of more personal internalization of religious norms, beyond perfunctory institutional loyalty, then this may be some evidence of the theoretically expected relation between intrinsic religion and liberalism. Other evidence awaits the definition and measurement of such elements of intrinsic religion as faith, hope, love, trust, freedom, etc.

Personality variables

The relationship between religion and ethnocentrism has led to theory and research aimed at designating the personality characteristics that underlie both variables and mediate the relation. Research findings suggest that a person for whom both conservative ideology and conventional, institution-based religion are functional is a person with a “weak ego” or “severe superego,” who is threatened by external circumstances or internal impulse and therefore likely to be responsive to the unambiguous external controls, structures, and supports provided either by a religious institution and its ideology, rituals, and moralisms or by the strict categorizing and self-enhancement provided by ethnocentric doctrines.

Such an interpretation of the function of religion is supported by a wide range of empirical reports of the correlation between religion (especially as measured by institutional loyalty and adherence to conservative doctrines) and lower intelligence, disrupted emotional life, suggestibility, constricted personality, and awareness of personal inadequacy (Dittes 1967). These findings, suggesting that religion may attract the relatively inadequate and helpless, may be less shocking than first supposed to the exponents of religious traditions whose highest religious celebrations commemorate a captivity or a crucifixion and who generally preach man’s fallen state and fundamental helplessness.

An extension of this general view also seems to account for a range of dramatic phenomena, such as glossolalia, sudden emotional conversion, faith healing, and trance states. Reports, though meager, of personality characteristics and of environmental characteristics associated with such participation suggest the existence of a general trancelike, regressive “ego constriction” that produces greater expression of impulses and greater responsiveness to suggestion and social influence. [SeeHypnosis; Hysteria; Persuasion; Suggestion.]

Finally, the relation between religion and ethnocentrism has stimulated further attention to defining cognitive variables and especially to making the distinction (e.g., Rokeach 1960) between the content characteristics of a belief or attitude and the content-free or structural characteristics of the style, such as the openness or the dogmatism with which it is held. This has led to the hypothesis that religion is related more to elements such as the need for closure than to the conservative elements of ethnocentrism. [SeePersonality, political, article onconservatism and radicalism; Systems analysis, article onpsychological systems.]

James E. Dittes

[Directly related are the entriesAttitudes; Ideology; Myth and symbol; Ritual. Other relevant material may be found inAnalytical psychology; Defense mechanisms; Fantasy; Obsessive-compulsive disorders; Psychoanalysis; Psychology, article onexistential psychology; and in the biographies ofFreud; James; Jung.]


Adorno, T. W. et al. 1950 The Authoritarian Personality. American Jewish Committee, Social Studies Series, No. 3. New York: Harper.

Allen, Russell O. 1965 Religion and Prejudice: An Attempt to Clarify the Patterns of Relationship. Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Denver.

Allen, Russell O.; and Spilka, Bernard 1967 Committed and Consensual Religion: A Specification of Religion-Prejudice Relationships. Unpublished manuscript.

Allport, Gordon W. 1950 The Individual and His Religion: A Psychological Interpretation. New York: Macmillan.

Allport, Gordon W. 1954 The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley. → An abridged paperback edition was published in 1958 by Double-day.

Allport, Gordon W. 1959 Religion and Prejudice. Crane Review 2:1-10.

Allport, Gordon W.; and Ross, J. Michael 1967 Personal Religious Orientation and Prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 5:432-443.

American Journal of Religious Psychology and Education. → Published from 1904 to 1911.

Archiv für Religionspsychologie und Seelenführung. → Published from 1914 to 1915, from 1918 to 1930, and from 1962 onward.

Argyle, Michael 1958 Religious Behaviour. London: Routledge. → A compendium of social-psychological research relating religion, conceived as a single quantifiable variable, with various social and social psychological indices.

Bakan, David 1966 The Duality of Human Existence: An Essay on Psychology and Religion. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Catholic Psychological Record. → Published since 1963.

Clark, Walter H. 1958 The Psychology of Religion. New York: Macmillan. → A textbook primarily surveying early descriptive material.

Cline, Victor B.; and Richards, James M. Jr. 1965 A Factor-analytic Study of Religious Belief and Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1:569-578.

Cronbach, Abraham 1933 The Psychology of Religion. Psychological Bulletin 30:327-361. → A comprehensive survey of 361 publications of varying methodology.

Dittes, James E. 1967 The Social Psychology of Religion. Unpublished manuscript. → Projected for publication in the revised edition of Gardner Lindzey (editor), Handbook of Social Psychology.

Dunlap, Knight 1946 Religion: Its Function in Human Life. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Erikson, Erik H. (1958) 1962 Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. Austen Riggs Monograph No. 4. New York: Norton.

Freud, Sigmund (1907) 1959 Obsessive Acts and Religious Practices. Volume 2, pages 25-35 in Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers. International Psycho-analytic Library, No. 10. London: Hogarth; New York: Basic Books. → First published as “Zwangshandlungen und Religionsübung.”

Freud, Sigmund (1913) 1959 Totem and Taboo. Volume 13, pages ix-162 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth. → First published in German.

Freud, Sigmund (1927) 1961 The Future of an Illusion. Volume 21, pages 5-58 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth. → First published in German.

Freud, Sigmund (1934–1938) 1964 Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays. Volume 23 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth. → First published in German.

Fromm, Erich 1963 The Dogma of Christ. Pages 3-91 in The Dogma of Christ, and Other Essays on Religion, Psychology, and Culture. New York: Holt. → Summarizes the various psychoanalytic theories of religion and applies them to changing social conditions in the early Christian centuries.

Havens, Joseph 1961 The Participant’s vs. the Observer’s Frame of Reference in the Psychological Study of Religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1:79-87.

Hiltner, Seward; and Rogers, William 1962 Research on Religion and Personality Dynamics. Religious Education 57, no. 4. → Both summarizes and evaluates a number of more recent studies; especially urges psychoanalytic and theological sophistication.

James, William (1902) 1963 The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study of Human Nature. Enlarged edition with appendices and introduction by Joseph Ratner. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books. → Based largely on literary records; discusses conversion, mysticism, saintliness, and other phenomena. Establishes typologies which have endured; sets a mood and a philosophic context for the psychological study of religion.

Johnson, Paul E. (1944) 1959 The Psychology of Religion. Rev. ed. New York: Abingdon. → A textbook; includes a good history of the field.

Jones, Ernest (1923) 1964 Essays in Applied Psychoanalysis. Volume 2: Essays in Folklore, Anthropology and Religion. New York: International Universities Press. → Includes 8 chapters on religion summarizing compactly the fundamental psychoanalytic views of religion, plus some intriguing excursions; more compact and less polemic than Freud’s own writings.

Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. → Published since 1961.

La Barre, Weston 1962 They Shall Take Up Serpents. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Lumen Vitae Studies in Religious Psychology. → Published irregularly since 1959, by the Lumen Vitae Press in Brussels. These volumes contain empirical and theoretical studies which originally appeared in the journal Lumen vitae.

Meissner, William W. 1961 Annotated Bibliography in Religion and Psychology. New York: Academy of Religion and Mental Health.

Menges, Robert J.; and Dittes, J. E. 1965 Psychological Studies of Clergymen: Abstracts of Empirical Research. New York: Nelson.

Ostow, Mortimer; and Scharfstein, Ben-ami 1954 The Need to Believe. New York: International Universities Press. → An elementary but fairly comprehensive statement of Freudian theories of the social-controlling and guilt-reducing functions of ritual and other aspects of religion.

Outler, Albert C. 1954 Psychotherapy and the Christian Message. New York: Harper.

Pratt, James B. 1920 The Religious Consciousness: A Psychological Study. New York: Macmillan.

Review of Religious Research. → Published since 1959.

Roberts, David 1950 Psychotherapy and a Christian View of Man. New York: Scribners. → An attempt by a theologian to integrate theological and psychological conceptions.

Rokeach, Milton 1960 The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations Into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems. New York: Basic Books.

Strunk, Orlo Jr. (editor) 1959 Readings in the Psychology of Religion. Nashville: Abingdon. → A fairly comprehensive, condensed collection; emphasizes early descriptive work.

Tillich, Paul 1952 The Courage to Be. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1959. Illustrates an explicit attempt to incorporate psychological insights into theology.

Zeitschrift für Religions-psychologie. → Published from 1907 to 1913.

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Leo P. Ribuffo

For national leaders and specialists in the study of diplomacy alike, the notion that religion has affected United States foreign policy is familiartoo familiar. Whereas the Massachusetts Puritan John Winthrop's charge in 1630 to build an inspiring "city upon the hill" came to be quoted almost routinely by presidents as different as John F. Kennedy, James Earl Carter, and Ronald Reagan to sanctify one version or another of American mission, students of diplomacy rarely go beyond citing such rhetorical conventions to explore the complicated influence of religious ideas or denominational interests.

Thus, any discussion of religion and foreign relations must begin with an appreciation of the diversity of American faiths, their development over the centuries, and the problematical nature of their connection to international affairs. Contemporary liberals who celebrate a "Judeo-Christian tradition" and contemporary conservatives who conflate all "people of faith" both homogenize American religion, past and present. Not only have people of faith differed among themselves about domestic and foreign policy issues, but they have also often done so precisely because they took their respective faiths seriously. Nonetheless, even the most devout among them were also affected, usually without any sense of contradiction, by political, economic, strategic, racial, and ethnic considerations, as well as by personal feelings about worldly success, power, and glory. Furthermore, American foreign policy decisions, especially those relating to expansion, war, and peace, have affected religious life as well as the other way around.

Nor has a high level of religious commitment been constant throughout American history. Both the intensity of belief in the aggregate and the strength of particular religious groups have waxed and waned. So have interdenominational tolerance, competition, and cooperation. Religious groups have proliferated for reasons ranging from constitutional disestablishment to theological disagreement to mass immigration. In this contextand much to the consternation of clergy committed to one orthodoxy or anotherindividual Americans have always tended to create their own syncretic belief systems.


Few of the Europeans who settled North America in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries held the contemporary liberal view that all faiths were essentially equal before God. On the contrary, divergent religious doctrines bolstered imperial rivalries. For the British subjects in North America, almost all of whom were heirs in some respect to Reformation-era Protestantism, Spain and France represented not only economic rivals and strategic threats, but also tyrannical "popery." During the French and Indian War, anti-Catholic sentiment rose and some of the colonies forbade "papists" to bear arms.

Although residents of the thirteen colonies that formed the United States in 1776 were over-whelmingly Protestant, the religious situation already showed signs of the complexity that would become an American perennial. Roughly half of the colonists were at least pro forma Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, but there were also large numbers of Baptists, Lutherans, Dutch Reformed Calvinists, Quakers, and German pietists. Differences among these Protestants may look insignificant to the contemporary secular eye, but they bulked large at a time when taxes were levied to support established churches in most of the states. In addition, the Great Awakening of the 1740s had left a legacy of division in several denominations between evangelical "new lights" and more stolid "old lights." There were also roughly 25,000 Catholics and 2,000 Jews. Equally important, by several criteria the era in which the United States was formed qualifies as the least religious period in the country's history. Fewer than 20 percent of Americans were church adherents. Many of the foremost Founders, including the first four presidents, were influenced to some extent by deism and viewed God as a distant force in human affairs.

Recent religious developments influenced the first and foremost event of American foreign policy: the decision to separate from Great Britain. These also affected the shape of the revolutionary coalition, the size of the country, and the form of the new government. While dividing denominations, the Great Awakening had fostered colonial unity as men and women saved by the same itinerant evangelists hundred of miles apart felt a common bond. To the British government, the Awakening provided further evidence that the colonists needed a resident Anglican bishop to limit their religious autonomy. None was named, but even colonial deists viewed such an appointment as part of the comprehensive British "conspiracy" to strangle American freedom, religious as well as political and economic. The Quebec Act of 1774, which granted civil rights to French Catholics and all but established the Roman Catholic Church in that province, underscored the threat of "ecclesiastical slavery." Now, many American Protestants concluded, British tyranny had allied with papal absolutism. On balance, religious forces and issues speeded the momentum toward independence.

Religious factors also influenced decisions to support the Revolution, remain loyal to King George III, or try to avoid the conflict altogether. Adherents to the Church of England frequently sided with the Crown but there were many notable exceptions, including George Washington. Evangelical heirs to the Great Awakening disproportionately joined the patriot cause; Scots-Irish Presbyterians were particularly zealous. New England Congregationalists, the clearest spiritual heirs of John Winthrop, frequently framed the cause as part of a divine mission. On the other hand, the Declaration of Independence reflected Enlightenment republicanism rather than evangelical Protestantism. Jews usually favored independence. In general, however, religious minorities feared the loss of royal protection. Catholics were wary of living in an overwhelmingly Protestant republic. Yet Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, expectedcorrectly, as matters turned outthat independence would foster disestablishment. Neither Carroll's diplomacy nor military force convinced Quebec Catholics to join the United States. French Canadian bishop Jean-Olivier Briand denounced the invading "Bostonians" and threatened to withhold sacraments from Catholics who aided them.

Decisions about the war were particularly difficult for adherents to what are usually called the historic peace churches. The Society of Friends (Quakers) and the predominantly German pietistsnotably, the Mennonites, Moravians, and Dunkersare best known for their repudiation of violence. But also, instead of building ever larger cities, states, or imperial republics "upon a hill," they hoped to change the world, if at all, through a separatist moral example. During the Revolution, as in all future wars, they struggled to determine the right mix of cooperation and resistance.

Members of all of the peace churches faced some degree of ostracism, seizure of property, loss of employment, and imprisonment when they refused to pay taxes or swear allegiance to the new government. The German pietistspredominantly rural, further from the political mainstream, and generally willing to pay fines in place of military servicesuffered less than the Quakers. The Society of Friends contained some strong loyalists and was suspected of shielding many more. Other members were expelled for fighting in the Revolution; a prowar contingent seceded to form the Free Quakers. Quakers also began their practice of providing humanitarian assistance to all victims of the war

Just as religious affiliations influenced the Revolution, both the war and the ultimate victory decisively affected the religious scene. The departure of loyalist Anglican clergy left the successor Episcopal Church weakened. The alliance with France dampened fears of "popery," much to the benefit of American Catholics. The Constitution precluded religious tests for federal office and the First Amendment banned an "establishment of religion." Religious minorities, sometimes in alliance with Enlightenment deists, began a long but ultimately successful campaign for disestablishment in the states. Thus, although religious denominations would continue to influence foreign policy, they enjoyed no constitutional advantage over secular lobbies. A treaty with Tripoli in 1796 assured the Muslim ruler of that country that the government was "not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." The absence of a federal establishment prompted competition, which in turn encouraged both religious commitments and a proliferation of faiths as clergy from rival denominations competed to win adherents. Also, the grassroots egalitarianism nurtured by the Revolution provided a hospitable environment for the theologically and institutionally democratic Baptists and Methodists.

The victorious revolutionary coalition began to fall apart almost immediately. Disagreements about faith and foreign affairs shaped the development of acrimonious party politics starting in the 1790s. The Jeffersonian Republicans were religiously more diverse and tolerant than the Federalists. Looking abroad, the Republicans tilted toward revolutionary France, while the Federalists typically admired Great Britainwhich they viewed as a bastion of Christianity rather than French infidelity. During the War of 1812, Federalist Congregationalists and Presbyterians reiterated their admiration of British Protestantism and characterized impressed seamen as runaway Irish Catholics unworthy of sympathy. Baptists and Methodists denounced the autocratic Church of England and hailed the Republican President James Madison as a friend of religious liberty.

Above and beyond these controversies was the broad consensus that the United States must expand its territory, trade, and power. Expansion often received but did not require a religious rationale. Thomas Jefferson, who held the least conventional religious beliefs of any president, arranged the Louisiana Purchase, the largest single land acquisition in American history. Even Protestant clergy who viewed expansion as part of a divine plan often supplemented Scripture with economic and geopolitical arguments.

John L. O'Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review, captured the dominant expansionist theme of republican mission when he famously proclaimed the "manifest destiny" of the United States in 1845. The continent was destined to be American by a nonsectarian Providence for a great experiment in freedom and self-government.

Even so, religious controversies relating to foreign policy proliferated between the 1810s and the 1850spartly because the United States was expanding its territory and international interests. Equally important, this era of manifest destiny coincided with another revival among Protestants that lasted at least through the 1830s and the first mass immigration of non-Protestants. By the 1850s the three largest religious groups were the Methodists, Baptists, and Catholics; the population also included 150,000 Jews, most of them recent immigrants from German states.

The second Great Awakening energized virtually every reform campaign of the first half of the nineteenth century. Two in particular intersected with the history of foreign policy: the creation of an organized peace movement and a systematic Protestant missionary effort.

Northern Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians provided most of the leadership and rank-and-file strength of the peace movement. In 1815, David Low Dodge, a devout Presbyterian, founded the New York Peace Society, perhaps the first such organization in the world. There were many other local stirrings in the wake of the War of 1812. In 1828 the most important among them coalesced into the American Peace Society.

Historical accounts of Protestant missionaries typically begin with the creation of the first "foreign" mission board in 1810 and then trace evangelical activities in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. This perspective has a certain plausibility, not least because many missionaries viewed the story that way. Yet it obscures the essential fact that for several generations U.S. foreign policy also occurred on the North American continent. The Africans and Asians encountered overseas were no more alien to bourgeois Protestant missionaries than were the Native Americans whom their precursors had been trying to convert since the 1600s. Moreover, mission boards sent evangelists to American Indian "nations" well into the nineteenth century. As the historian Kenneth Scott Latourette observed in The Great Century in the United States of America (1941), the conquest of the American West was a "vast colonial expansion, nonetheless significant because it was not usually regarded as such."

Missionaries played three major roles in this continental colonialism. First, their glowing descriptions of the land drew settlers westwardsometimes to disputed territory. Oregon was such a case, where the U.S. advantage in population helped secure a peaceful division with Great Britain in 1846. Second, along with Methodist circuit riders and countless local revivalists, missionaries instilled bourgeois traits useful for developing and holding the frontier. Third, they worked to christianize the Indians as part of an effort to assimilate them. In 1819 the federal government began funding churches to inculcate the "habits and arts of civilization" among Native Americans. Missionary successes in this area did not save the Native Americans from the inexorable forces of expansion. The Cherokees in the southeastern United States accepted Christianity and their leader adopted the name Elias Boudinot, after the first president of the American Bible Society. Even so, they were forcibly removed beyond the Mississippi River in the 1830s.

Overseas missions ultimately became, as the historian John K. Fairbank wrote in The Missionary Enterprise in China and America (1974), the nation's "first large-scale transnational corporations." The institutional beginnings were modest. Spurred by the awakening at Williams College and Andover Seminary, Congregationalists took the lead in 1810 in founding the (temporarily) interdenominational American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Within a decade, missionaries were sent to India, Hawaii, and the Middle East. Although diverse denominations soon created their own boards, the ABCFM remained the leading sponsor of overseas missions for the next fifty years.

The fields of activity were determined by opportunity as well as theology. The ABCFM established missions in India and Ceylon because Great Britain barred their establishment in Burma. Not only did the Holy Land have an obvious appeal, but also the Ottoman Empire permitted missionaries to work with its Christian communities (although they were quite willing to offer Protestantism to Muslims and Jews as well as Coptics, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox believers when those opportunities arose).

While rarely advocating racial equality, white religious leaders were nonetheless eager to send black missionaries to sub-Saharan Africa. According to prevailing medical theory, blacks were less susceptible than whites to tropical diseases. Whatever the motives of their (usually) white sponsors, black missionaries often felt a special calling to save Africa from paganism and Islam. In addition, thriving African Christian communities might serve as a refuge from persecution and show the world that blacks could build civilized societies.

The first missionaries concentrated on bringing individual men and women to Christ, perhaps as a prelude to his imminent Second Coming. Always few in number, they hoped to establish indigenous congregations to carry on the work. At first, too, they paid close attention to the quality of faith among aspiring converts. Missionaries and their sponsoring agencies frequently agonized over the question of how much they should modify indigenous cultures. Some evangelical Protestants thought a large measure of "civilization" necessary for Christianity to take hold. In theory, most wanted to change local ways of life as little as possible consistent with the demands of the gospel. In practice, both the prevailing definition of civilized morality and their own personal traits undermined missionary restraint. Inevitably, they fostered values esteemed by middle-class Protestants: hard work, efficiency, technological innovation, sexual propriety, and respect for "true womanhood." The missionaries were usually ignored, often opposed, and sometimes physically attacked. Even converts mixed Protestant precepts with aspects of their previous religious faiths. Missionaries learned to simplify Christianity and relax their requirements for spiritual rebirth.

PreCivil War missionaries did not see themselves as agents of American economic expansion. Frequently they set out for places where trade was negligible and unlikely to develop. They often assailed merchants for their chicanery, sale of alcohol, and promotion of prostitution. Yet Charles Denby, Jr., U.S. minister to China later in the nineteenth century, was correct to see missionaries as "pioneers of trade." Businessmen who contributed to missionary societies and provided free passage on ships agreed. In many cases missionaries were the only translators available to entrepreneurs trying to open foreign markets.

Government officials saw the missionary enterprise as a means to extend American political influence. Writing on behalf of the ABCFM to King Kamehameha of Hawaii, President John Quincy Adams declared that "a knowledge of letters and of the True Religionthe Religion of the Christian's Bible" were the only means to advance any people's happiness. Despite such endorsements, the U.S. government offered less direct help than overseas missionaries wanted.

The Middle East, which attracted the largest number of missionaries before the Civil War, provides a case in point. Commodore David Porter, the American chargé d'affaires in the Ottoman Empire from 1831 until 1843, urged Turkish officials at all levels to safeguard the missionaries, worked to establish consulates in places where they operated, and occasionally arranged visits by the navy as quiet demonstrations of American strength. At the same time, Porter repeatedly warned against offending Muslims. From the perspective of the Turkish government, missionaries were welcome as long as their activities were not disruptive. But their proselytizing inevitably offended not only Muslims, but also Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians. Disruptive responses included riots, destruction of property, and occasional murders.

The missionaries in the Middle East and their patrons at home worked diligently to influence government policy and enjoyed mixed success. Missionaries themselves received consular or diplomatic appointments in Athens, Beirut, and Constantinople. Encouraged by an ABCFM lobbyist, Secretary of State Daniel Webster wrote Porter in 1842 that missionaries should be assisted "in the same manner" as merchants. Indeed, in the Middle East they seem to have received slightly more direct assistance than businessmen. Still, government action fell short of their hopes. Warships were dispatched only to "show the flag," not to fire their cannon in retribution for attacks on missionaries, and the Turkish-American treaty of 1862 contained no provision guaranteeing the right to evangelize.

The worldwide Christian missionary campaign was confined neither to Protestants nor to Americans. From the perspective of the Vatican, the United States itself remained a mission field under the supervision of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith until 1908. While this subordinate status should not obscure the American hierarchy's quest for influence and autonomy, Catholic bishops, priests, and nuns necessarily concentrated on preservingor creatingfaith among millions of immigrants and their children. Thus, few Americans participated in the Vatican's far-flung missionary efforts. Among Protestants, the largest number of overseas missionaries came from Great Britain until roughly 1900. Friendly contacts between Protestant and Catholic missionaries were rare in the early nineteenth century. More typical was the complaint by ABCFM representatives in the Middle East that agents of popery allied with Islamic infidels to thwart their efforts. On the other hand, American Protestant missionaries not only cooperated with their British counterparts, whose efforts predated their own by at least two decades, but also sought protection from British diplomats and warships. This cooperation was both a sign of and modest contribution to the rapprochement that proceeded fitfully between the two countries.

Although no more than two thousand American missionaries had been sent abroad by 1870, their impact on indigenous cultures was occasionally extraordinary. Nowhere was their influence more apparent than in the Hawaiian Islands. When the first missionaries, from the ABCFM, arrived in 1820, Hawaii was already enduring rapidand usually destructivechange through contact with the outside world The missionaries were appalled by many Hawaiian practices, including polygamy, incest, and the "licentious" hula dance. To some Hawaiians, however, these evangelical Protestants seemed preferable to the merchants and sailors who had introduced alcohol, prostitution, and deadly diseases. The missionaries' shrewdest tactic was to cultivate Hawaiian royalty. By 1840 they had transformed the islands into a limited monarchy with a legislature, judiciary, and constitution barring laws "at variance with the Word of Lord Jehovah."

Although the ABCFM initially cited Hawaii as an example to emulate, success there was neither problem-free nor permanent. Many pro forma converts lapsed into what the missionaries considered sin. Despite zealous efforts to exclude religious rivals, advocates of Catholic and Mormon "idolatry" established footholds. Even Hawaiian Christians prayed for relief from white "mission rule." The ABCFM reprimanded its representatives for going beyond their charge to bring the gospel. Yet the political and social changes were irreversible. By the 1850s former missionaries, their children, and protégés had established themselves as Hawaii's elite.

No field offered less promise than China in the early nineteenth century. The population was indifferent. The Manchu dynasty barely tolerated missionaries (often disguised as businessmen) along with other foreign "barbarians" in an enclave near Canton. In 1858 the Reverend Samuel Wells Williams judged the Chinese "among the most craven of people, cruel and selfish as heathenism can make men." Thus, the gospel must be "backed by force if we wish them to listen to reason."

Force came primarily in the shape of the British navy. American missionaries enthusiastically backed Britain's frequent assaults and regretted only that U.S. warships rarely joined the fray. The Opium War that began in 1839 was a turning point for China and the missionaries there. With few exceptions they cheered the British victory, even though it meant continuation of an illegal narcotics trade the Chinese were trying to suppress. Perhaps, they reflected, God was using naval bombardments to open China to the gospel.

The Sino-British agreement that ended the Opium War in 1842 and established five treaty ports was the first of many "unequal treaties" that provoked Chinese resentment. In 1844 the Treaty of Wanghia granted the United States access to these ports and most-favored-nation status. The pact was largely the work of three missionaries, one of whom, Dr. Peter Parker, became U.S. commissioner in China a decade later.

The Taiping Rebellion, led by Hung Hsiuchuan, again showed that evangelism could be a catalyst for extraordinary and wholly unanticipated consequences. After living briefly in the house of a missionary, Hung baptized himself and created a religious movement combining elements of Christianity, Confucianism, his own mystical visions, and a reformist social program. In 1851 he led an uprising against the Manchu dynasty; by the time he was defeated, at least twenty million Chinese had been killed.

Although missionary influence certainly did not cause the Taiping Rebellion, and both Protestants and Catholics repudiated Hung's syncretic faith after an initial show of interest, the revolt made the Manchu court more wary than ever of Western religion. At the same time, the revolt rendered China less able to resist Western power. After further British bombardment, in a few instances aided by the U.S. Navy, China agreed in the late 1850s to new and increasingly unequal treaties with the West. Thus, unlike their colleagues in the Middle East, missionaries in China were guaranteed the right to spread the gospel.

A second Great Awakening at a time of mass non-Protestant immigration energized prejudice as well as domestic reform and missionary activity. Slurs against Jews routinely included the charge that their ancestors had crucified Christ. Nonetheless, Jews seemed less threatening than the more numerous and raucous Catholic immigrants. Neither the nativists who burned convents nor the Catholics who fought back with equal vigor were moved by the fine points of theology. Even so, well-publicized attacks on "popery" by prominent clergy hardly served the cause of tolerance. No clergyman was more prominent than Congregationalist Lyman Beecher. In A Plea for the West (1835), Beecher accused the Vatican of flooding the frontier with ignorant immigrants who were easily manipulated by priests. Unlike anti-Semitism, hostility to Catholics affected national politics. In the mid-1850s the nativist American Party, popularly called the Know-Nothings, became a powerful force in Congress.

As the population grew more diverse during the first half of the nineteenth century, so too did diplomatic personnel and political controversies involving religion and foreign policy. Starting with the Jeffersonian Republicans, Jews served as diplomatic and commercial representatives abroad, notably in Scotland and the Caribbean. The first major post went to Mordecai Noah, appointed consul at Tunis in 1813. Removing Noah two years later, Secretary of State James Monroe claimed that his Judaism had been an "obstacle" to performance of his duties. It seems doubtful that the Muslim ruler of Tunis was discomfited by Noah's religion. Indeed, Noah's appointment continued a diplomatic tradition in which Jews often served as mediators between Christians and Muslims. Responding to inquiries by Noah's political backers of various faiths, Secretary Monroe backtracked to say that his religion, "so far as related to this government," played no part in the recall. Many Jews remained unconvinced.

In 1840 the persecution of Jews in parts of the Ottoman Empire attracted widespread attention. Officials in Damascus charged Syrian Jews with killing a Catholic monk and his servant in order to use their blood in Passover services, arrested dozens of Jews, and tortured some of them to secure spurious confessions. Both the "blood libel" charge and attacks upon Jews quickly spread to other parts of the empire. French diplomats apparently encouraged the persecution in order to maximize their own country's influence. Great Britain led the international protests and the United States joined in. American diplomats were instructed to use their good offices "with discretion" to aid Jewish victims of persecution. According to Secretary of State John Forsyth's instructions, the United States was acting as a friendly power, whose institutions placed "upon the same footing, the worshipers of God of every faith."

Public meetings by Christians and Jews alike encouraged government action. Some Jewish leaders hesitated to rally behind their Eastern coreligionists; others doubted the prudence or propriety of seeking government action. Ultimately, however, the Damascus affair brought American Jews closer together and legitimated demonstrations against anti-Semitism abroad. Six years later they organized protests against the persecution of Russian Jews. During the 1850s, along with such Christian allies as Senators Henry Clay and Lewis Cass, they denounced a treaty that recognized the right of Swiss cantons to discriminate against Jews. The administration of President Millard Fillmore negotiated cosmetic changes in the agreement.

Foreign policy issues prompted animosity as well as cooperation among religious faiths. Many Protestants supported Jewish protests not only because they valued the republican principle of equal treatment of all white citizens, but also because they wanted to set a precedent for receiving equal treatment in Catholic countries. John England, the Catholic archbishop of Charleston, attended a mass meeting condemning the Ottoman persecution of Jews in 1840. Conversely, Jews and Catholics were bitterly divided over the Mortara affair in the 1850s. Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish child in Bologna, Italy, was secretly baptized by a servant and then removed from his family by the church. Caught between Catholic and Jewish constituencies, President James Buchanan claimed that he could not intervene in the affairs of another state.

The Mexican War was the most controversial foreign policy event between the War of 1812 and World War I. Although sectarian religious arguments were not absent, rival interpretations of the nation's nonsectarian republican mission predominated among proponents and opponents alike. According to opponents, President James K. Polk had provoked an illegitimate war with a fellow Christian republic. According to proponents, not only did the United States need to defend itself in an undemocratic world, but also the corrupt Mexican state resembled European autocracies rather than a true republic. Therefore, an American triumph would help to purify Mexico and inspire the forces of liberty everywhere. Instead of fostering freedom, opponents countered, such a victory would increase the territory open to slavery.

In this complicated ideological context, the major denominations took no official stand on the war. The Disciples of Christ, which had just begun to emerge during the awakening, called it a crime. Presbyterian leaders showed the most enthusiasm, especially about the prospect of saving Mexico from Catholic "idolatry." Congregationalists, Unitarians, and Quakers, the strongest foes of slavery, were also the most ardent opponents of the war.

The issue of Catholic loyalty to the United States engaged American nativists, Mexican military strategists, and the Polk administration. Circulating lurid tales of seductions by Mexican nuns, nativists feared that the Catholic troops, roughly 1,100 in number, would spy for or defect to the enemy. The Mexicans hoped so. Despite their propaganda efforts, only a few Irish-American soldiers switched sides to join the Battalion of Saint Patrick.

As president and leader of the Democratic Party, which received a disproportionate share of the Catholic vote, Polk declined to make the war an anti-Catholic crusade. Emissaries to the Mexican Catholic hierarchy emphasized that their church was not endangered by the U.S. invasion. Polk asked the American bishops to recommend Catholic chaplains for the army. In addition, Moses Beach, Catholic editor of the New York Sun, served as one of Polk's numerous agents seeking to secure a peace treaty. Many American soldiers accepted the ready-made stereotype that Catholicism had corrupted the Mexican government and rendered the population docile, yet some found the priests surprisingly amiable and enjoyed the romance of billeting in monasteries.


The Civil War era affected the American religious life in important ways. What some scholars consider a third Great Awakening began in the 1850s and continued during the war itself. Indeed, the conflict looked much more like an evangelical Protestant war than had the Revolution, the War of 1812, or the Mexican War. Union and Confederate clergy called upon God to aid their respective causes, military camps hosted revival meetings, and soldiers sometimes marched into battle singing hymns. Thoughtful supporters of the Union from President Abraham Lincoln on down framed the war as a time of testing. For many northerners, victory in 1865 proved that the test had been passed and that God truly blessed America and its mission in the world.

The consequences for Catholics were mixed. On the one hand, service for the North and South brought new legitimacy; on the other hand, erstwhile Know-Nothings found a home in the Republican Party. Although Jews served disproportionately in both the Union and Confederate armies, rising evangelical fervor combined with venerable stereotypes about Jewish profiteering to provoke notable anti-Semitic incidents and accusations. Finally, except for the historic peace churches, the war decimated the organized antiwar movement as even fervent pacifists were tempted to acquiesce in violence to end slavery.

Important as these developments were, the Civil War affected the religious scene much less than the powerful trends of the following four decades. Starting in the 1880s, millions of poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants began to arrive from eastern and southern Europe. Although the population remained predominantly Protestant and the elite institutions overwhelmingly so, politics and popular culture were soon affected. For the Catholic and Jewish minorities, the problem of defining and defending their Americanness acquired fresh urgency. Moreover, the "new immigration" coincided with a rapid industrialization rivaled only by that of Germany. Both the benefits and liabilities were obvious. On the one hand, unprecedented wealth was available to a few Americans and upward mobility possible for many. On the other hand, the gap widened between the rich and poor, frequent economic busts interrupted the long-term boom, and violent social conflict escalated. Perhaps God was once again testing rather than blessing America.

Worse yet, perhaps God did not exist at allor at least His mode of governing the universe may have differed from what Christians had taken for granted since the ebbing of the Enlightenment. Amid the social turmoil, Protestants in particular faced serious intellectual challenges. The Darwinian theory of evolution undermined the Genesis account of creation. Modern science raised doubts about all biblical miracles. Less known to the praying public but especially distressing to educated clergy, archaeological discoveries and "higher criticism" of the Bible suggested that Scripture was in no simple sense the word of God.

The religious responses to this social and intellectual turmoil included insular bigotry and cosmopolitan reflection, apocalyptic foreboding and millennial optimism, intellectual adaptation and retrenchment, withdrawal from the world and expanded efforts to perfect it. The choices made by individual men and women involved anguish, ambivalence, and inconsistency. In the aggregate, their decisions transformed American religious life.

By the 1890s Protestantism was entering a fourth Great Awakening, which, like its predecessors, was marked by heightened emotions, stresses and splits within existing denominations, and the founding of new faiths. Among believers in new faiths were the followers of former Congregationalist Charles Taze Russell (known since 1931 as Jehovah's Witnesses), whose teachings required separation from a world ruled by Satan. Other spiritual searchers, convinced that God's grace brought a second blessing with such signs as the gift of speaking in tongues, formed their own Pentecostal churches. Doctrinal differences strained relations within the major denominations. Theological liberals, who often called themselves modernists, viewed the Bible as a valuable but not necessarily infallible book, emphasized Jesus's humanity and moral example, and aspired to build God's kingdom on earth. Theological conservatives, most of whom called themselves fundamentalists after World War I, championed the "inerrancy" of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, and the expectation that God's kingdom would be established only after His miraculous return. While staunch modernists and conservatives occasionally confronted each other in heresy trials, moderates from both camps usually continued to work together until World War I.

Although theological conservatives were not necessarily politically conservative, they emphasized that the church as an institution must above all else save souls. While modernists stressed the church's role in improving this world, their earthly version of God's kingdom fell far short of twenty-first-century political liberalism. Indeed, sophisticated religious ideas coexisted in the typical theological liberal's worldview with routine affirmations of laissez-faire economics. A few theological liberals preached an explicitly "social gospel" in support of workers' rights, a regulatory state, and (occasionally) moderate socialism. Yet even social gospelers were susceptible to anti Semitism, anti-Catholic nativism, and ostensibly scientific theories of "Anglo-Saxon" superiority.

By the 1880s affluent and assimilated American Jews experienced growing social discrimination. By that point, too, anti-Catholic activism was again on the rise. The American Protective Association (APA), founded in 1887, attracted 100,000 members who pledged not to hire or join strikes with Catholics. In countless tracts, efficient, fair, and democratic Anglo-Saxon Protestants were celebrated at the expense of tricky Jews, drunken Irish, sullen Poles, and impulsive Italians. Despite this emphasis on racial or cultural superiority, religious motifs were not absent from this latest form of nativism. Jewish chicanery came naturally, many Christians believed, because Jews had crucified Jesus. Ignorant Catholic peasants from eastern or southern Europe, like the Mexicans defeated in the 1840s, looked dangerously susceptible to clerical manipulation. The affirmation of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1869 and 1870, the increasingly insular papacy of Pope Leo XIII, and the Holy See's suspicion of the American Catholic Church suggested that Protestant fears were not entirely fanciful.

The behavior of Jews and Catholics was much more complicated than even tolerant Protestants supposed. On the one hand, many immigrants were rapidly acculturated and their native-born children considered themselves Americans. On the other hand, rivalry among "nationalities" within the same religious community was commonplace. Sephardic and German Reform Jews viewed Judaism as a religion akin to liberal Protestantism; for the Orthodox eastern European Jews who outnumbered them by the early twentieth century, Judaism was central to cultural identity. Catholic bishops disagreed among themselves about their religion's place in a democracy devoid of a state church but nonetheless dominated by an informal Protestant establishment. Nationalists like Cardinal James Gibbons and Archbishop John Ireland expected Catholicism to thrive in such circumstances. They warned, however, that strict Vatican control would only fuel Protestant animosity.

All of these developments not only affected the immediate relationship between faith and foreign policy, but also left a long legacy of beliefs and institutions. Most obviously, sermons, articles, and books by mainstream clergy put a religious imprimatur on postCivil War expansion. In 1885 the Reverend Josiah Strong's Our Country, the most widely read of these tracts, was published. The book itself was a mixture of nativist themes, popularized Darwinism, apocalyptic fore-boding, and millennial hope. Our Country also reflected Strong's participation in both the home and overseas mission movements. Strong believed that authoritarian religions threatened the political freedom and "pure spiritual Christianity" that Anglo-Saxons had nurtured in the United States. Echoing Lyman Beecher's earlier "plea for the West," he considered the heartland particularly vulnerable. Not only were ignorant European Catholics settling there, but the Mormon heresy was also firmly established.

If the peril was great, so were the opportunities. Despite his ethnocentrism, Strong did not consider eastern and southern European Catholics inherently inferior. If converted to Protestantism and Americanized in the public schools, these ersatz Anglo-Saxons would make the country stronger than ever. "Our country" could then fulfill its destiny. As the fittest nation in the international struggle, the United States would easily impress its institutions on the world.

Beyond tracts and sermons, the fourth Great Awakening sparked a resurgence of overseas missions, which had been suffering from a lack of recruits. In 1886 the cause struck a nerve among hundreds of young people attending a conference under the auspices of Dwight L. Moody, the fore-most evangelist of the day. The next year some of those present took the lead in founding the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM). The Reverend Arthur Pierson, a theological conservative who expected an imminent Second Coming, gave the group a millenarian motto: "The evangelization of the world in this generation." John R. Mott, a Methodist layman, became SVM executive secretary and master organizer. Mott recruited educated missionaries, built a network of supporters on college campuses, and fostered interdenominational and international cooperation. Ties to Canadian Protestants were particularly strong.

The SVM was only the most striking manifestation of growing interest. Once again, diverse religious groups founded mission boards, auxiliary societies, and umbrella organizations. Between 1890 and 1915 the number of overseas missionaries rose from roughly one thousand to nine thousand. This was the largest group of Americans living abroad on a long-term basis. By 1920 Americans and Canadians together made up half of the Protestant missionary force worldwide. Equally important, the campaign to "evangelize the world" became a vivid presence in thousands of congregations. Many Americans first learned something about life in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East, however ethnocentric the perspective, from a returned missionary's Sunday sermon.

The expanding movement reflected general social and cultural trends. Appropriating the military analogies that abounded for two generations after the Civil War, missionaries framed their task as a religious "war of conquest." In an era of scientific racial theories, legal segregation, and disfranchisement of African Americans, denominations led by whites ceased sending black missionaries to Africa. As middle-class women sought to bring the benefits of "social housekeeping" to a corrupt and sinful world, some found careersas well as adventure and fulfillmentin missionary work. By 1890, 60 percent of overseas missionaries were women. Confined to working within their own gender, they focused on such "female" issues as seeking to end the crippling binding of women's feet in China.

The expanding movement also reflected prevailing religious animosities. Isolated Westerners in alien lands, American Protestant and European Catholic missionaries now occasionally fell into ad hoc cooperation during medical or military emergencies, but suspicion continued to characterize their relations in calmer times. The international missionary war of conquest led to increased cooperation among Protestants in other areas. At the same time, the doctrinal differences spreading within most major denominations produced disputes about what exactly overseas missionaries were supposed to do. Theological liberals, especially those with a social gospel bent, emphasized the improvement of living standards both as an ethical imperative and an effective evangelical strategy. According to theological conservatives, preaching of the unadorned gospel was both a Christian duty and a better way to attract sincere converts. Ironically, the cosmopolitan modernists usually sanctioned greater intrusion on indigenous ways of life. A few of them, however, edged toward the position long held by Quakers and Unitarians that no people should be evangelized into surrendering their historic religion.

Indigenous peoples were not passive recipients of the missionary message. In many cases, missionary activity responded to local demands for medical care and education. As early as 1885, eight colleges had been founded in the Ottoman Empire; by the 1910s a majority of missionaries in China were no longer involved in directly spreading the gospel. Moreover, Western learning was sometimes seen as a way to resist further Western encroachments.

As was the case before the Civil War, missionaries sometimes significantly influenced the countries in which they served. A few did so by switching from religious to diplomatic careers. No one followed this path with greater success than Horace N. Allen, who arrived in Korea as a Presbyterian medical missionary in 1884. After tending to a wounded prince, Allen became the royal family's favorite physician and began giving a wide range of advice to the king and queen. After representing Korean interests in the United States, Allen served as secretary to the American legation and then as minister to Seoul from 1897 until 1905. Often evading State Department instructions against meddling in Korean affairs, he secured mining and lumbering concessions for American investors as well as contracts to install trolley, electric, and telephone lines. And while warning missionaries against offending Koreans' sensibilities, Allen used his influence at court to protect them.

Allen's career underscores a major development in late-nineteenth-century foreign policy: an intensified interest in Asia by merchants and missionaries alike. Indeed, religious leaders now frequently stressed the confluence of conversion and capitalism. Lecturing on the "Christian Conquest of Asia" at Union Theological Seminary in 1898, the Reverend J. H. Barrows, president of Oberlin College, envisioned the Pacific Ocean as the "chief highway of the world's commerce." By the 1890s missionaries in the Far East outnumbered those sent to the Middle East for the first time.

The convergence of evangelism, commerce, and politics should be no surprise. Much as merchants sought foreign markets to relieve economic stagnation, and as political leaders thought expansionism an antidote to real class conflict or alleged cultural decline, Protestants looked overseas to solve their particular domestic problems. Indeed, well-publicized missionary campaigns did reinvigorate the churches at home.

Symbolic of an era marked by strong religious hopes, fears, and tensions, the two major political parties in 1896 nominated the most devout pair of presidential candidates in American history: Methodist Republican William McKinley and Presbyterian Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Two years later, McKinley, the winning nominee, ushered in a new phase of "manifest destiny" (a term then still in common use) when he reluctantly led the United States to war against Spain.

As the United States moved toward war, religious leaders followed the general trajectory of opinion with two notable variations. They worried less than businessmen about the domestic side effects and kept a watchful eye on the interests of their respective creeds. Even after the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor, most urged caution, though some Protestant editors could not resist openly coveting Spanish colonies as mission fields. Catholics felt special misgivings because Pope Leo XIII was actively seeking a peaceful settlement. The church hierarchy and press found Protestants altogether too bloodthirsty. Despite his devout Methodism and opportunistic flirtation with the American Protective Association, McKinley was no more eager than Polk had been to start an anti-Catholic crusade. He made at least a show of pursuing papal mediation. Archbishop Ireland, McKinley's emissary to the Vatican, believed that patient diplomacy could have preserved the peace. Pressed by Republican hawks, however, the president decided on war in April 1898 and told Conegress that intervention in Cuba was the duty of a "Christian, peace loving people."

Clergy and laymen outside of the peace churches joined in the patriotic surge. As had been the case with Mexico five decades earlier, Protestants frequently framed the war as a symbolic battle against the Spanish Inquisition and a few warned of treacherous Catholic soldiers. Catholics once again rallied to the flag, urged on by bishops who kept doubts to themselves. In the end, many citizens joined McKinley in viewing the quick victory with few casualties as a gift from God.

Nationalists in the Catholic hierarchy thought they saw a silver lining in the war clouds: now that the United States had clearly emerged as a world power, the American church would have to be respected by the Vatican and allowed to adapt to its special situation. The reaction in Rome was just the opposite. The U.S. military victory provided an additional reason, if any were necessary, for the Vatican to curb these bishops before their tolerance of democracy and religious pluralism spread to Europe. In 1899 Pope Leo XIII condemned an incipient "Americanist" heresy that challenged Vatican authority. Although the Pope did not explicitly accuse any churchmen of "Americanism," his encyclical signaled a turn toward tighter control over Catholic institutions and intellectual life in the United States.

With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the major Protestant denominations supported the wartime annexation of Hawaii and acquisition of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines via the peace treaty. Except among white southerners, qualms about ruling nonwhites deemed unfit for citizenship were generally overshadowed by a sense of missionary duty. Congregationalists and Presbyterians expressed the fewest reservations; Methodists tended to trust their coreligionist in the White House on this issue.

Religious adversaries quickly exported their conflicts to the Philippines, the most Christian land in Asia. While Protestants viewed the over-whelmingly Catholic population as potential converts, Catholic editors asked with sarcasm if they planned to replicate the Hawaiian pattern of bringing disease and disruption. Catholics credited priests with protecting the indigenous population; Protestants portrayed "greedy friars" clinging to their estates. This controversy subsided after the McKinley administration negotiated with the Vatican to purchase the land. Another followed when the superintendent of the new public school system hesitated to hire Catholics. On other fronts, Protestants assailed the army for distributing liquor, sanctioning prostitution, and acquiescing in polygamy among the Muslim minority.

These struggles for religious influence paled beside the squalid little war to defeat the Filipinos seeking independence. Yet only a handful of prominent clergy joined the antiwar movement. The Reverend Leighton Parks, a noted Episcopalian, repeatedly denounced atrocities committed by the American military. Although the Catholic hierarchy sought primarily to evade this controversy lest its church appear unpatriotic, Bishop John Spalding broke ranks to address an antiwar meeting. Protestant expansionists considered suppression of the insurrection a necessary evil on the way to spreading Christian civilization to Asia. The Philippines looked like an ideal base for capturing the great China market in souls.

During the late nineteenth century Christian missionaries, including the substantial American contingent, became the largest group of foreigners in China. Increasingly, too, they were subject to attack as flesh-and-blood symbols of Western intrusion. In 1900 the secret society of Boxers rose up to kill hundreds of missionaries and thousands of Chinese converts. An attack on the legation compound in Peking followed. A combined Western and Japanese military expedition marched to the rescue, engaging in murder, rape, and looting en route. A few missionaries joined in the looting; most at a minimum justified the brutality with the familiar contention that the Chinese only understood force.

The use or threat of force became commonplace during the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Indeed, both presidents illustrate that the American pursuit of world power required no evangelical Protestant motivation. Roosevelt was a pro forma member of the Dutch Reformed Church who may have doubted the existence of God and an afterlife. Yet no president sounded more fervent calls to enforce "righteousness." His endorsement of overseas missionaries was grounded in what he considered practicality. For example, he believed, mistakenly, that missionaries brought stability to China. Taft's Unitarian rejection of the Trinity elicited criticism from grassroots theological conservatives, but he felt none of his denomination's doubts about forcing American ways on others.

Taft's administration was marked by one of the most successful instances of religious activism in the history of American foreign relations: the campaign by Jews and their gentile allies to abrogate a Russian-American trade agreement that had been on the books since 1832. The State Department often investigated and sometimes politely complained about the anti-Semitic acts that increased abroad in the late nineteenth century. The motives behind these diplomatic initiatives were mixed: humanitarian concern; protection of American citizens; responsiveness to Jewish voters; and fears that victims of persecution would immigrate to the United States. The results were mixed, too. Benjamin Peixotto, a Jewish consul appointed to Bucharest in the 1870s, negotiated a temporary remission in Romanian anti-Semitism. The Russian situation grew steadily worse. In 1903 a pogrom in Kishinev left dozens of Jews dead while police stood aside. Similar outbreaks followed elsewhere. Still, the Russian government blandly rebuffed Roosevelt administration inquiries and refused to receive a petition of protest forwarded by Secretary of State John Hay. Nor would Russia guarantee the safety of visiting American Jews.

After discrete lobbying failed to secure action by Taft to revise or abrogate the commercial treaty, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) led an effective public mobilization. As had been the case with the Damascus blood libel persecution in 1840, anti-Semitism abroad inspired cooperation among American Jews, who were now more diverse in national background than ever before. The AJC stressed the "sacred American principle of freedom of religion." Amid widespread hostility to czarist autocracy, thousands of gentiles in civic organizations, state legislatures, and Congress joined the call for abrogation. In December 1912 the Taft administration informed the Russians that the treaty would be allowed to expire the next year.

During the two decades before World War I, religious leaders helped to build a new peace movementa peace movement adapted to an era in which the United States assumed the right to enforce righteousness. Almost all participants in the proliferating peace groups shunned pacifism, a term just coming into general use, often as a slur; many celebrated American and Christian expansion as the best ways to assure global amity in the long run. They typically emphasized prevention of war between "civilized" countries through arbitration and international law. Although a handful of noted Catholics and Jews joined secular peace societies, the religious wing of the movement was overwhelmingly Protestant and disproportionately modernist. For instance, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (FCCCA), formed in 1908 by thirty-three liberal-leaning denominations, sponsored both the Commission on Peace and Arbitration and the Church Peace Union.

The notion that religion influenced the actions of President Woodrow Wilson and his first secretary of state, fellow Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan, is familiar to students of American diplomacytoo familiar. Standard accounts stress their respective religious styles, often in caricature, at the expense of substance. In fact, their lives illustrate the divergent responses to the Protestant intellectual crisis of their time. Equally important, their disagreement about World War I underscores the peril of tracing an unambiguous American conception of mission from John Winthrop's "city upon a hill" to the early twentieth century and beyond.

Both Wilson and Bryan felt some religious skepticism during their college years. Wilson's father, a modernist Presbyterian minister, urged him to cease worrying about doctrine and simply love Jesus. Thereafter, Wilson lived comfortably as a religious liberal, sometimes poking fun at orthodox assaults on Darwinism and at visions of hellfire. Along with other liberal Protestants, he saw the world improving under the amorphous guidance of "Divine Providence." With few exceptionsnotably, his own election as presidenthe rarely credited God with direct intervention. As the "people's book of revelation," the Bible inspired human action to achieve high personal and social standards but contained little practical advice. Among the actors Wilson lauded were "my missionaries." Unlike Roosevelt, he sensed their role as agents of change rather than stability. China, a republic after the revolution of 1911, had been "cried awake by the voice of Christ," Wilson said.

Although Bryan followed the theologically conservative path, he was initially undogmatic on many doctrinal issues. For example, he corresponded with Leo Tolstoy, whose heterodox Christianity he thought compatible with his own conception of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. Like many of his fellow citizens, Bryan was torn between peace and world power. As secretary of state he both negotiated "cooling-off" treaties with two dozen countries and supported military intervention in the Mexican Revolution. Bryan resigned in 1915 because he considered Wilson's strictures on German submarine warfare a lapse from neutrality. Yet Bryan went beyond the secular crisis at hand to affirm a restrained sense of American mission at least as old as the president's internationalist activism. Rather than descending into European-style power politics, the United States should "implant hope in the breast of humanity and substitute higher ideals for the ideals which have led nations into armed conflict."

After Congress declared war in 1917, religious leaders supported the cause at least as strongly as did other elites. With customary flamboyance, conservative evangelist Billy Sunday declared that Christian pacifists should be left to the lynch mob and the coroner. Although usually less blunt, liberal Protestants maintained that German militarism must be destroyed as a prerequisite for international peace. With customary prudence the Catholic hierarchy stepped carefully from neutrality to "preparedness" to patriotic cooperation. Cardinal Gibbons dutifully forwarded Pope Benedict XV's peace proposals to the White House, fended off plausible allegations of a papal tilt toward the Central Powers, and headed an interfaith League for National Unity. All of the major denominations mobilized to offer religious and social services to their men in uniform. Churches and synagogues conducted war bond drives and disseminated propaganda for the Committee on Public Information. Few discouraged the zealous rhetoric that sometimes did lead to the lynch mob and the coroner.

Grassroots skepticism was greater than might be inferred from the behavior of mainstream clergy and congregations. Pentecostals, still on the fringe of theologically conservative Protestantism, were especially unenthusiastic. Roughly 65,000 draftees claimed conscientious objector status; overwhelmingly, these men came from the peace churches. In the Selective Service System and in the courts, Jehovah's Witnesses fared worse than the less strident and more familiar Quakers and Mennonites.


Missionaries, representatives of the Federal Council of Churches, and delegates from the newly formed American Jewish Congress converged on the Versailles peace conference in 1919. Like their secular counterparts, religious interest groups discovered that a humane international order was more easily promised than attained. The fate of Armenians in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire provided a brutal case in point. Protestant missionaries had tried unsuccessfully in 1894 and 1895 to secure Western military action to halt Turkish pogroms. They pressed their case again after the Ottoman government orchestrated the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during World War I. Wilson rejected armed intervention but would accept Armenia as a U.S. mandate under the League of Nations mandate. Congress quickly dismissed this proposal.

No event associated with religion during World War I proved more consequential for U.S. foreign policy than the British promise in the Balfour Declaration to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The question divided Zionists and non-Zionists within Judaism. Reform Jews in particular thought a full-fledged state might prejudice their status as U.S. citizens. Protestant missionaries were adamantly opposed because they expected a hostile Arab reaction that would, in turn, disrupt their own efforts. According to Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Christians would resent control of the Holy Land by the "race credited with the death of Christ." Nonetheless, Wilson gave early and repeated support to the Zionist cause.

Ultimately, World War I changed American religion much more than religious beliefs or activities affected the conduct of the war or the shape of the peace. There were noteworthy organizational consequences. The Federal Council of Churches asserted itself as the premier voice of the de facto Protestant establishment. More convinced than ever of human sinfulness and Jesus's imminent return, theological conservatives founded the World's Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA) in 1917. The National Catholic War Council, renamed the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC), remained in operation after the armistice. So did the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), which had been a haven for conscientious objectors and pacifist social gospelers.

Even more important, the emotional charge of the war and its offspring, the Red Scare of 1919 and 1920, fueled religious anxieties and animosities. The main clashes involved domestic issues, especially Prohibition, looser sexual mores, and the possibility of a Catholic president. Yet several domestic developments intersected with foreign policy. In 1924 the prevailing nativist zeitgeist eased passage of the Johnson-Reed Act, which sharply curtailed immigration. Amid a nationwide surge of anti-Semitism, the Foreign Service joined other elite institutions in rejecting Jewish applicants on the basis of their religion.

Except for strongly separatist sects, clergy and churchgoers still paid attention at least to some portion of the outside world. Although bitterly disappointed by the defeat of the Treaty of Versailles, liberal Protestants persisted in urging American affiliation with the League of Nations. A handful of social gospelers expressed cautious interest in the "Soviet experiment." Catholic clergy used their pulpits to denounce Mexican anticlericalism as well as atheistic communism. Influenced by a form of Bible prophecy called premillennial dispensationalism, fundamentalists became avid if unconventional students of foreign affairs. They found in Zionism fulfillment of the prophecy that the Jews would regather in the Holy Land shortly before Jesus's return and speculated that the Antichrist might be on earth already in the person of Benito Mussolini.

The evident decline of the Protestant missionary movement during the 1920s looks in retrospect like a pause and an adaptation to domestic and international trends. Few now thought that the world could be converted within a generation and some doubted the right to convert anybody. A Chinese student movement directed specifically against Christianity left many missionaries disheartened; others responded to rising Chinese nationalism by urging renegotiation of the "unequal treaties" granting special privileges to westerners. The modernist philosopher William Ernest Hocking, head of a layman's inquiry into missions that was completed in 1932, recommended against attacking "non-Christian systems" of thought. Theological conservatives in the major Protestant denominations felt no such qualms. Nor did Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, all of whom hoped to save at least some portion of humanity. Moreover, in 1912 the American Catholic Church finally authorized an overseas mission society, popularly known as the Maryknolls.

Thus, in religion as in commerce, the United States was not isolated from the rest of the world during the interwar era. What is usually misconstrued as isolationism is the pervasive belief that the United States must keep out of any future European war. This sentiment needed little encouragement to flourish, but no group encouraged it more actively than the Protestant clergy. Of 19,372 ministers polled by a pacifist magazine in 1931, 12,076 said they would never sanction a war. Few of these ministers were absolute pacifists themselves. Rather, most were making symbolic amends for their martial ardor in 1917 and 1918.

The coalition Franklin D. Roosevelt created during his presidency was as complex in its religious dimensions as in its explicitly political aspectsand foreign policy was central to the complications. Roosevelt himself was an Episcopalian with an uncomplicated faith in God and a genuine commitment to religious tolerance. His supporters included a large majority of Catholics and Jews, southern theological conservatives still loyal to the Democrats as the party of segregation, and a small but vocal minority of Protestant modernists attracted to the Soviet Union and the Popular Front. Opponents included a distinctive religious right. These Protestant and Catholic theological conservatives viewed the Roosevelt administration as a subversive conspiracy and some of them considered it the American arm of an international Jewish plot.

Roosevelt's strongly anticommunist Catholic constituency required constant attention. The hierarchy and press in particular opposed the president's recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933. The Good Neighbor Policy appealed as an entrée for the American church in Latin America, but complications soon arose. The administration seemed too neighborly to the Mexican revolutionary government, whose anticlericalism sometimes turned into outright persecution. Moved by ten thousand letters, a probable congressional investigation, and the approaching 1936 election, Roosevelt quietly urged Mexico to curb its anti-Catholicism.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Americans overwhelmingly favored neutrality and legislation banning arms sales to either side. The Catholic clergy pointedly preferred a victory by the insurgent general, Francisco Franco, despite his alliance with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Lay opinion was less monolithic. According to a Gallup poll in 1938, 42 percent of Catholics sided with the Spanish republic. Nonetheless, wariness of Catholic political power reinforced Roosevelt's decision in 1938 not to seek an end to the arms embargo, an action that would have benefited the loyalists. Meanwhile, liberal Protestants criticized Catholic priests for tilting toward Franco and far right fundamentalists discerned hitherto unobserved merit in the Roman church. Similarly, religious appeals, loyalties, and animosities affected the tone of the debate about American participation in World War II. In urging aid to the Allies in the 19391941 period, Roosevelt saidand perhaps half believedthat Germany planned to abolish all religions and create an international Nazi church. Even clergy, however, typically framed the argument in terms of geopolitics and general morality rather than religious ideas or interests. Protestant ministers who had recently vowed to stay aloof from any European war now endorsed administration policies that undermined neutrality. Nor was there a clear correlation between theology and foreign policy positions. For instance, the anti-Semitic radio priest Charles Coughlin, numerous far right fundamentalists, and the social gospelers at Christian Century magazine all chastised Roosevelt as he moved from efforts to repeal neutrality legislation in 1939 to undeclared naval warfare against German submarines in late 1941. After Pearl Harbor, the major denominations rallied to the flag. They did so with fewer rhetorical excesses than during 1917 and 1918, however, and some prominent mainstream Protestants remained pacifists.

As had been the case with the Spanish-American War and World War I, Catholics trod a distinctive path to the same patriotic destination. They feared from the outset that the European war would promote communist expansion; most also initially rejected aid to the Soviets after Germany invaded in June 1941. Here, too, clergy were less flexible than their parishioners. Responding with varying degrees of finesse, Roosevelt urged Joseph Stalin to ease restrictions on religion, professed to see signs of religious freedom in the Soviet Union, and tried to convince Pope Pius XII to soften his strictures against communism. Some bishops came around to the position that the Soviet people, as opposed to the regime, deserved help in their resistance to nazism. In striking contrast to the prudence of the World War I years, the hierarchy displayed its divisions in public. One bishop spoke under the auspices of the noninterventionist America First Committee, another joined the interventionist Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, and several sniped incessantly at the president.

In December 1939, Roosevelt named Myron Taylor, an Episcopalian, as his personal representative to the Vatican. Roosevelt hoped simultaneously to court Catholic voters, establish a listening post in Rome, and influence papal pronouncements on the war. Taylor's mission had no significant impact on the pope but did revealand probably exacerbateddomestic religious tensions. Only a few Protestant leaders managed to express grudging acquiescence. On the whole, Roosevelt was accused of religious favoritism and chided for violating the First Amendment; theological conservatives discerned a capitulation to satanic popery.

No foreign policy question associated with religion has elicited greater controversy than whether or not more European Jews could have been saved from the Holocaust. American Jews denounced Adolf Hitler's regime from 1933 onward. Once again they found gentile alliesbut not enough of them. The level of American anti Semitism reached a peak during the interwar years. Limits on immigration were strictly enforced, often at the behest of anti-Semites in the State Department and the foreign service. Reports that the Nazis had begun to exterminate European Jewry were readily available by late 1942. The president was urged to bomb the death camps, announce plans to punish genocide, and extricate Jews from such inconstant Axis satellites as Romania and Bulgaria. The latter two tactics showed the most promise. Nonetheless, Roosevelt took no effective action until he created the War Refugee Board in January 1944. In short, even after the United States entered the war, greater effort could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.


World War II catalyzed the revival evangelical Christians had been praying for since the 1920s. Like its four predecessors, this fifth Great Awakening reshaped religious life in unanticipated ways and influenced the relationship between faith and foreign affairs. Three aspects of the revival stand out. First, while modernist churches stagnated, theologically conservative Protestantism flourished, with Billy Graham leading one branch of the movement from fundamentalism toward a less separatist and less strident "evangelicalism." Second, Catholics grew more assertive and (especially after the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965) more cosmopolitan. Third, the bulk of the awakening coincided with the Cold War, which officials from the White House on down described as a spiritual battle against "godless communism."

The relationship between Cold War faith and foreign policy is often misconstrued in ways comparable to clichés about the Wilson era. Once again, standard accounts render the religious beliefs of policymakers in caricature and postulate an unambiguous sense of mission from John Winthrop to John Foster Dulles. Despite his image as a Puritan avenger, Dulles himself was a theologically liberal Presbyterian who began in the 1930s to use the Federal Council of Churches as a convenient forum for publicizing his foreign policy prescriptions. Insofar as he became a dogmatic cold warrior by the time he was named secretary of state in 1953, Dulles was moved by Republican partisanship rather than religious doctrine.

Unlike Dulles, Reinhold Niebuhr applied serious religious ideas to foreign policy. Yet Niebuhr's image as the premier theologian of the Cold War needs refinement. In Niebuhr's view, because human beings are fallible and sinful (at least in a metaphorical sense), even their best actions fall short of altruism and yield ironic results. This "neo-orthodox" worldview is consistent with any number of conflicting positions on foreign policy. Indeed, without changing his theology, Niebuhr had moved from the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation to the interventionist Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. In The Irony of American History (1952), he sounded more reflective than the typical Cold War ideologist. Applying neo-orthodox premises, he warned the United States against international arrogance and described communism and American capitalism as arising from the same "ethos" of egotism. Niebuhr was less dispassionate in dayto-day polemics against those whose skepticism about the Cold War exceeded his own. Moreover, valued for his intellectual reputation rather than his ideas, Niebuhr had no discernible impact while serving as a State Department consultant.

Religious interest groups, rather than serious religious ideas, did affect foreign policy. Yet here, too, we must beware of exaggerating their influence or their uniformity. For instance, while many in the missionary movement lobbied on behalf of Chiang Kai-shek during the Chinese civil war, others initially hoped to arrange a modus vivendi with the communists. Although a remarkable mobilization by American Jews nudged President Harry S. Truman toward quick recognition of Israel in 1948, prominent Reform Jews organized the American Council for Judaism to lobby against a full-fledged Jewish state.

The Catholic role in the Cold War especially needs to be extricated from folklore. Certainly priests, nuns, and lay leaders mobilized against international communism, particularly after Soviet satellites suppressed Catholicism in Eastern Europe. Yet, following a long tradition, non-Catholics overstated the church's power and understated the autonomy of its adherents. When Catholics joined in urging Italians to vote against communism in 1948, they were advancing Truman administration policy rather than vice versa. And contrary to legend, Cardinal Francis Spellman was not responsible for Ngo Dinh Diem's appointment as prime minister of the Republic of Vietnam.

On balance, international events between Pearl Harbor and the mid-1960s fostered increased tolerance as well as surface religious consensus. Partly as a reaction against Nazi genocide, anti-Semitism began a steady decline in the late 1940s. Ubiquitous invocations of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" not only legitimated Judaism, but also minimized differences within Christianity. Nonetheless, division and animosity persisted beneath the rhetorical conventions. The National Council of Churches, which superseded the Federal Council in 1950, appeared to be the authoritative voice of Protestantism, yet its leaders barely noticed the extraordinary revival among theological conservatives.

The tension between Catholics and Protestants was harder to ignore. Most clashes concerned such domestic questions as birth control and federal aid to education, but foreign policy was involved too. Yielding to Protestant complaints, Truman in 1951 abandoned his attempt to establish formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the country's best-known Catholic politician during the early 1950s, provoked even greater controversy. Although their attitudes ranged from pride to disgust, Catholics disproportionately considered McCarthy an admirable anticommunist. His zeal furthered the rapprochement between the Catholic and Protestant political right begun during the 1930s. Conversely, prominent liberal Protestants considered McCarthy the latest personification of Catholic authoritarianism; some chided the church for failing to condemn him. Ironically, such attacks reinforced defensiveness among Catholics struggling to break out of their insularity. In 1960, John F. Kennedy proved that a cosmopolitan Catholic could be elected president. Equally important to his victory, however, Kennedy combined secular urbanity with wartime heroism and public commitment to winning the Cold War.

The next two decades revealed both the fragility of Cold War orthodoxy and the superficiality of the domestic religious consensus. Indeed, the collapse of the former during the Vietnam War hastened the deterioration of the latter. American escalation in 1965 not only reinvigorated the pacifist remnant that had survived World War II; in addition, between 1965 and 1970 roughly 170,000 draft registrants applied for conscientious objector status. In contrast to the Korean "police action," mainstream religious figures opposed the war. In 1966 prominent liberal Protestants and Jews took the lead in founding Clergy and Layman Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV), a nondenominational coalition whose arguments against escalation usually echoed those of secular doves. Members ranged from chastened cold warrior Reinhold Niebuhr to African-American social gospeler Martin Luther King, Jr. Ultimately, the Vietnam conflict widened the split between Protestant theological liberals and conservatives. Most evangelicals and fundamentalists either stood aloof from this worldly issue or supported American policy.

For the first time, numerous Catholics remained part of a peace movement after the United States entered a war. Indeed, the radical priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan became vivid symbols of nonviolent resistance for doves and hawks of all faiths. In 1968, when Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy sought the Democratic presidential nomination as antiwar candidates, only strict fundamentalists worried about their Catholicism. In 1971 the bishops reversed their earlier endorsement of the war to advocate a "speedy" peace.

The Catholic left remained active following the war. By 1970 roughly half of all American Catholic missionaries served in Latin America, where many joined local clergy in opposing brutal dictatorships. Some of these priests and nunsalong with a few bishopsbecame proponents of "liberation theology," whose advocates adapted Marxist analysis and urged the church to champion the Third World poor.

Clearly, many Catholic liberals now felt sufficiently secure to risk accusations of disloyalty. Yet ironies abounded. These allegations often came from within their own church. Reversing the historical pattern, working-class Catholics pushed rightward by the turmoil of the 1960s often thought their priests too liberal. Liberals themselves came face to face with questions that had perplexed Protestants earlier in the centuryfor example, whether anyone should be converted from an ancestral religion. Finally, Catholics looked increasingly American to the rest of the country because they, too, were obviously divided among themselves.

In 1976 the two major political parties nominated the most devout pair of presidential candidates since McKinley and Bryan. Both Episcopalian Gerald Ford and Baptist Jimmy Carter considered themselves "born again" Christians. A competent lay theologian, Carter stands out as the only modern president whose foreign policy was affected by serious religious ideas. Simply put, he took to heart Niebuhr's warning against national egotism. Thus, within limits set by prevailing Cold War assumptions, Carter was distinctive in his calls for national humility, wariness of military intervention, and respect for poor and nonwhite countries. For a growing number of his constituents, stunned by the lost Vietnam War and wary of Soviet exploitation of détente, humility seemed a source of the country's diplomatic problems.

Many of Carter's harshest critics were moved by religious concerns. After helping him defeat Ford, evangelical voters discovered that Carter was theologically, culturally, and politically more liberal than they had thought. By 1979 clergy were organizing a militant minority of theological conservatives into a "new Christian right." Interested primarily in domestic issues, they routinely adopted the foreign policy prescriptions of staunch Republican cold warriors, with one important twist: the strong belief that Israel deserved special protection because it fulfilled the Biblical prophecy that Jews would regather in the Holy Land on the eve of Jesus's return. This philo-Semitic interpretation of Scripture was one aspect of the new Christian right that actually was new.

A Jewish political right began to form at roughly the same time, with deep concerns about foreign policy. As early as 1967, some Jews had begun to reconsider their political alliances when Protestant and Catholic liberals sharply criticized Israel's attack on Egypt. Then, Soviet limits on the emigration of Jews seemed to illustrate the failure of détente. Despite initial misgivings, Jewish groups rallied behind the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which in 1974 denied most-favored-nation trade status to communist countries restricting emigration. Carter not only continued détente, but also pushed Israel harder than Egypt during the peace negotiations of 1978 and 1979. By that point, prominent Jewish intellectuals were helping to formulate an influential "neoconservative" critique of détente in general and Carter's diplomacy in particular. Losing to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Carter received only 45 percent of the Jewish vote.

Reagan never wavered in his conviction that God blessed America. Nor did he doubt the nation's missionor his ownto end the Cold War by bringing down the Soviet "evil empire." A Protestant with a Catholic father and eclectic religious interests, he was well suited to manage a religious coalition as complex as Franklin Roosevelt's. In addition to moderate Protestants, the Republican base since the 1850s, his backers included Jewish neoconservatives as well as evangelicals and fundamentalists on the right. Furthermore, Reagan was the first Republican to win the Catholic vote twice.

Despite Reagan's frequent denunciations of communist evil before evangelical audiences, Catholics played a larger role in his Cold War diplomacy. No Catholic was more important in this respect than Pope John Paul II. The pope and the president coordinated efforts to weaken communism in Eastern Europe; their tactics ranged from public denunciations to covert Central Intelligence Agency funding of the anticommunist underground via the Vatican. When Reagan established full diplomatic relations with the papacy in 1984, Protestant theological conservatives in his coalition barely complained.

Cooperation across denominational lines also marked the opposition to Reagan's foreign policy. The grassroots movement to hold nuclear arsenals at their current levelsthe "nuclear freeze"became a powerful symbolic challenge to the administration's military buildup during the early 1980s. Advocates of the freeze included veteran pacifists in FOR and AFSC, theological liberals in Clergy and Laity Concerned (as CALCAV was renamed after the Vietnam War), and half of the Catholic bishops. Catholics were particularly active in providing humanitarian aid and opposing military intervention in Central America. Victims of rightist "death squads" in the El Salvador civil war included missionary nuns. While the U.S. Catholic Conference urged peace talks between the Salvadoran government and leftist rebels, numerous parishes assisted refugees who reached the United States. These actions were particularly impressive because Pope John Paul II gave de facto support to Reagan's anticommunist intervention in Central America.

By the 1990s the Cold War had ended but the effects of the fifth Great Awakening continued to be felt. In numbers, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and charismatics (as Pentecostals increasingly called themselves) constituted the religious mainstream. To an unprecedented degree, theological liberalism and conservatism correlated respectively with political liberalism and conservatism. Conservatives especially sponsored a resurgence of overseas missions; fifty thousand Americans lived abroad as missionaries or representatives of faith-based humanitarian organizations, often working closely with strong indigenous churches. To some extent the dream of the earliest missionaries had come true. At the end of the 1990s, there were 258 million Christians in Africa and 317 million in Asia.

Although references to the Judeo-Christian tradition lingered, use of this phrase to describe American religious life was even more problematic than during the 1950s. Significant numbers of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists came to the United States after immigration law was liberalized in 1965. Astute political leaders took notice. President Carter denied any animosity toward Islam during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and 1980; President George H. W. Bush stressed the same point during the war against Iraq in 1991. Moreover, the appearance of yet another "new immigration" reinforced the American identity of those Catholics and Jews descended from earlier immigrants.

As Israel became both more secure and less central to their own identity, American Jews no longer felt obliged to defend all Israeli foreign policy. From the time President Carter negotiated the Camp David Accords of 1978 and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979, the United States served as primary mediator in what was called (with undue optimism) the Middle East "peace process." The Oslo Accords signed at the White House in 1993 established a quasi-independent Palestinian National Authority in territory contested by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. As with Protestants and Catholics, Jewish approaches to foreign policy increasingly correlated with their religious beliefs. While Conservative and Reform Jews overwhelmingly endorsed negotiations in general and the Oslo agreements in particular, Orthodox Jews were skeptical or hostile. In 1998, President William Jefferson Clinton prodded the Israelis at the Wye River negotiations to surrender more disputed territory to the Palestine Authority. Once again, Conservative and Reform Jews responded favorably while Orthodox Jews joined Israeli hawks in opposition. Like Protestants and Catholics, Jews were now openly divided on a foreign policy issue.

The expansion of missionary activity overseas may have stirred increased persecution of Christian minorities around the world. Religious conservatives had no doubts about it and sought legislation mandating a diplomatic response. Humanitarian motives aside, these activists hoped to keep evangelicals and fundamentalists politically involved in the postCold War era. Furthermore, recalling the impact of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, they thought religious freedom could be used to undermine Chinese communism. Still wary of imposing Christianity on non-Christian cultures, liberals hesitated to join the campaign. Even so, in 1997 and 1998, 100,000 Protestant and Catholic congregations sponsored annual days of prayer to "shatter the silence" about persecution. Ultimately, a broad coalition extending beyond the ranks of Christians and Jews supported the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which passed Congress unanimously in 1998. The IRFA established an Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department, a comparable position in the National Security Council, and an independent commission to monitor persecution.

Both the breadth of the coalition and the constitutional ban on preferential treatment of any religion required officials to concern themselves with small sects as well as large denominations, and with minor harassment as well as with serious violations of human rights. For instance, the commission's reports criticized European democracies for treating Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Scientologists (products respectively of the second, fourth, and fifth Great Awakenings) as second-class faiths. The chief concern, however, was the arrest, torture, or killing of believers, usually Christians but sometimes Muslims, too, in communist states and Islamic republics. American government responses ranged from public denunciations to behind-the-scenes diplomacy. No country attracted greater attention than the People's Republic of China, which persecuted both the Falun Gong, an indigenous mystical religion, and Christian churches unwilling to register with the government. Religious activists, including some Protestant liberals and the Catholic bishops, joined the unsuccessful campaign to deny China permanent normal trade relations status. Indeed, despite the passage of the IRFA, American policy toward religious persecution abroad in the early twenty-first century resembled that of the early nineteenth century: a mixture of popular protest and diplomatic inquiries without direct economic or military intervention.


Five generalizations can be made about the history of religion and foreign policy. First, notwithstanding the frequent, formulaic references to John Winthrop's "city upon a hill," the impact of Reformation era Protestantism is typically over-simplified and exaggerated. Appeals to an amorphous Providence and Enlightenment republicanism rather than invocations of a Puritan mission were the main motifs of nineteenth-century manifest destiny. Similarly, Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt needed no Christian doctrine to bless their efforts to extend American power. Even those devout Protestants who tried to apply religious beliefs to foreign affairs not only disagreed about specifics, but also disputed the overall nature of the national mission. Although less often acknowledged than international Wilsonian activism, a visceral Bryanismthe sense that the United States should lead the world by separatist moral examplehas been and remains a powerful force.

Second, religious beliefs and interests did not change the outcome of any first-rank foreign policy decisionfor example, whether or not to declare independence, expand westward, develop an "informal empire" abroad, or fight a war. These factors, however, have affected the ways in which Americans framed and debated such major questions.

Third, religious concerns have influenced the outcome of some second-level foreign policy decisions. Abrogation of the Russian-American commercial treaty in 1912 and passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment in 1974 serve as cases in point. Awakenings and immigration have rendered "people of faith" increasingly diverse. In this pluralist context, religious interest groups have been most effective when they found allies outside of their own communities and invoked widely held American values.

Fourth, the role of missionaries merits special attention. As has been the case with businessmen and soldiers, a relatively small number of Americans were able to exert great influencefor good or illin a few distant lands. Missionaries not only facilitated political and economic expansion, either deliberately or inadvertently, but also inspired, educated, and infuriated foreign elites.

Fifth, major foreign policy decisions have affected domestic religious life more than the other way around. Often the effects were unanticipated. For instance, the revolutionary war with France undermined fears of "popery"; World War I exacerbated the multisided conflict among Catholics, Jews, Protestant modernists, and theological conservatives; and World War II sparked a religious revival that defied cosmopolitan predictions of secularization. These five general trends will probably persist for the foreseeable future, though with no diminution of ironic results.


Abrams, Elliott, ed. The Influence of Faith: Religious Groups and U. S. Foreign Policy. Lanham, Md., 2001. Essays on the contemporary situation by authors from diverse ideological perspectives.

Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, Conn., 1972. Still the best one-volume survey.

Chatfield, Charles. The American Peace Movement: Ideals and Activism. New York, 1992. Historical survey from a sociological perspective.

Ehrman, John. The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs, 19451994. New Haven, Conn., 1995. The best study of the neoconservatives and foreign policy.

Fairbank, John K., ed. The Missionary Enterprise in China and America. Cambridge, Mass., 1974. Excellent collection of essays with implications beyond China.

Feingold, Henry L. The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 19381945. New Brunswick, N.J., 1970. Still the most insightful study of Roosevelt's policy.

Field, James A., Jr. America and the Mediterranean World, 17761882. Princeton, N.J., 1969. Much material on missionaries.

Flynn, George Q. Roosevelt and Romanism: Catholics and American Diplomacy, 19371945. Westport, Conn., 1976. The standard work on the subject.

Fogarty, Gerald P. The Vatican and the American Hierarchy from 1870 to 1965. Stuttgart, Germany, 1982. Good coverage of the hierarchy's role in American politics and foreign policy.

Gribbin, William. The Churches Militant: The War of 1812 and American Religion. New Haven, Conn., 1973. The standard work on the subject.

Hall, Mitchell K. Because of Their Faith: CALCAV and Religious Opposition to the Vietnam War. New York, 1990. Standard account of the main religious group opposing the war.

Harrington, Fred Harvey. God, Mammon, and the Japanese: Dr. Horace N. Allen and Korean American Relations, 18841908. Madison, Wis., 1994. Biography of an important missionary and diplomat.

Hennesey, James. American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States. New York, 1981. Still the best one-volume synthesis.

Hero, Alfred O., Jr. American Religious Groups View Foreign Policy: Trends in Rank-and-File Opinion, 19371969. Durham, N.C., 1973. Good use of survey data.

Hunter, Jane. The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn of the Century China. New Haven, Conn., 1984. Fine social history with implications beyond China.

Jacobs, Sylvia M., ed. Black Americans and the Missionary Movement in Africa. Westport, Conn., 1982. An anthology that approaches the subject from varied angles.

Johannsen, Robert W. To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination. New York, 1985. Places the religious response in broad cultural context.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. The Great Century in the United States of America A.D. 1800A.D. 1914. Volume 4 of The Expansion of Christianity. New York, 1941. Insightful pioneering work.

Marchand, C. Roland. The American Peace Movement and Social Reform, 18981918. Princeton, N.J., 1972. The best treatment of the Progressive-era religious peace movement is in chapter 9.

May, Ernest R. Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America As a Great Power. New York, 1961. New edition, Chicago, 1991. Good on religious aspects of 1898 diplomacy.

Merk, Frederick. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation. New York, 1963. An astute essay on the varied conceptions of American mission in the nineteenth century.

Pierard, Richard V., and Robert D. Linder. Civil Religion and the Presidency. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1988. The best single account of the subject.

Piper, John F., Jr. The American Churches and World War I. Athens, Ohio, 1985. The standard work on the subject.

Pratt, Julius W. Expansionists of 1898: The Acquisition of Hawaii and the Spanish Islands. Baltimore, 1936. Chapter 8 is still a valuable analysis of religious opinion.

Ribuffo, Leo P. "God and Jimmy Carter." In his Right Center Left: Essays in American History. New Brunswick, N.J., 1992. The connection between Carter's Niebuhrian beliefs and his foreign policy.

Rosenthal, Steven T. Irreconcilable Differences: The Waning of the American Jewish Love Affair with Israel. Hanover, N.H., 2001. Thorough treatment of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel.

Sachar, Howard M. A History of the Jews in America. New York, 1992. Comprehensive survey.

Sarna, Jonathan. Jacksonian Jew: The Two Worlds of Mordecai Noah. New York, 1981. Biography of an important early diplomat and politician.

Silk, Mark. Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II. New York, 1988. Insightful essay on religion and politics.

Toulouse, Mark G. The Transformation of John Foster Dulles: From Prophet of Realism to Prophet of Nationalism. Macon, Ga., 1985. The fullest examination of Dulles and religion.

Welch, Richard E., Jr. Response to Imperialism: The United States and the Philippine-American War, 18991902. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979. Good account of religious opinion and conflicts in chapter 6.

Wyman, David S. The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 19411945. New York, 1984. A broad look at American attitudes.

See also Colonialism and Neocolonialism; Continental Expansion; Cultural Imperialism; Dissent in Wars; Immigration; Nativism; Pacifism; Race and Ethnicity; Wilsonian Missionary Diplomacy.


"Christ deserves to be called the Prince of Peace because He has given us a measure of greatness which promotes peace.

"Christ has also led the way to peace by giving us a formula for the propagation of good. Not all of those who have really desired to do good have employed the Christian methodnot all Christians even. In all the history of the human race but two methods have been employed. The first is the forcible method.

"The other is the Bible planbe not overcome of evil but overcome evil with good. And there is no other way to overcome evil.

"In order that there might be no mistake about His plan of propagating good, Christ went into detail and laid emphasis on the value of example'so live that others seeing your good works may be constrained to glorify your Father which is in Heaven.'

"It may be a slow processthis conversion of the world by the silent influence of a noble example, but it is the only sure one, and the doctrine applies to nations as well as to individuals. The Gospel of the Prince of Peace gives us the only hope that the world hasand it is an increasing hopeof the substitution of reason for the arbitrament of force in the settling of international disputes."

William Jennings Bryan, "The Prince of Peace" (1908)

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The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The first part of this provision is known as the Establishment Clause, and the second part is known as the Free Exercise Clause. Although the First Amendment only refers to Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the fourteenth amendment makes the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses also binding on states (Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 60 S. Ct. 900, 84 L. Ed. 1213 [1940], and Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 67 S. Ct. 504, 91 L. Ed. 711 [1947], respectively). Since that incorporation, an extensive body of law has developed in the United States around both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

To determine whether an action of the federal or state government infringes upon a person's right to freedom of religion, the court must decide what qualifies as religion or religious activities for purposes of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has interpreted religion to mean a sincere and meaningful belief that occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to the place held by God in the lives of other persons. The religion or religious concept need not include belief in the existence of God or a supreme being to be within the scope of the First Amendment.

As the case of United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78, 64 S. Ct. 882, 88 L. Ed. 1148 (1944), demonstrates, the Supreme Court must look to the sincerity of a person's beliefs to help decide if those beliefs constitute a religion that deserves constitutional protection. The Ballard case involved the conviction of organizers of the I Am movement on grounds that they defrauded people by falsely representing that their members had supernatural powers to heal people with incurable illnesses. The Supreme Court held that the jury, in determining the line between the free exercise of religion and the punishable offense of obtaining property under false pretenses, should not decide whether the claims of the I Am members were actually true, only whether the members honestly believed them to be true, thus qualifying the group as a religion under the Supreme Court's broad definition.

In addition, a belief does not need to be stated in traditional terms to fall within First Amendment protection. For example, Scientology—a system of beliefs that a human being is essentially a free and immortal spirit who merely inhabits a body—does not propound the existence of a supreme being, but it qualifies as a religion under the broad definition propounded by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has deliberately avoided establishing an exact or a narrow definition of religion because freedom of religion is a dynamic guarantee that was written in a manner to ensure flexibility and responsiveness to the passage of time and the development of the United States. Thus, religion is not limited to traditional denominations.

The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion has deeply rooted historical significance. Many of the colonists who founded the United States came to this continent to escape religious persecution and government oppression.

This country's founders advocated religious freedom and sought to prevent any one religion or group of religious organizations from dominating the government or imposing its will or beliefs on society as a whole. The revolutionary philosophy encompassed the principle that the interests of society are best served if individuals are free to form their own opinions and beliefs.

When the colonies and states were first established, however, most declared a particular religion to be the religion of that region. But, by the end of the American Revolution, most state-supported churches had been disestablished, with the exceptions of the state churches of Connecticut and Massachusetts, which were disestablished in 1818 and 1833, respectively. Still, religion was undoubtedly an important element in the lives of the American colonists, and U.S. culture remains greatly influenced by religion.

Establishment Clause

The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from interfering with individual religious beliefs. The government cannot enact laws aiding any religion or establishing an official state religion. The courts have interpreted the Establishment Clause to accomplish the separation of church and state on both the national and state levels of government.

The authors of the First Amendment drafted the Establishment Clause to address the problem of government sponsorship and support of religious activity. The Supreme Court has defined the meaning of the Establishment Clause in cases dealing with public financial assistance to church-related institutions, primarily parochial schools, and religious practices in the public schools. The Court has developed a three-pronged test to determine whether a statute violates the Establishment Clause. According to that test, a statute is valid as long as it has a secular purpose; its primary effect neither advances nor inhibits religion; and it is not excessively entangled with religion. Because this three-pronged test was established in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 91 S. Ct. 2105, 29 L. Ed. 2d 745 (1971), it has come to be known as the Lemon test. Although the Supreme Court adhered to the Lemon test for several decades, since the 1990s, it has been slowly moving away from that test without having expressly rejected it.

Jesus, Meet Santa

Christmas and the first amendment have had a rocky relationship. A decades-long battle over the place of worship and tradition in public life has erupted nearly every year when local governments sponsor holiday displays on public property. Lawsuits against towns and cities often, but not always, end with the courts ordering the removal of religious symbols whose government sponsorship violates the First Amendment. Since the 1980s, however, the outcome of such cases has become less predictable as deep divisions on the Supreme Court have resulted in new precedents that take a more nuanced view of the law. In such cases, context determines everything. Placing a nativity scene with the infant Jesus outside a town hall may be unconstitutional, for example, but the display may be acceptable if Santa Claus stands nearby.

On the question of religious displays, the First Amendment has two broad answers depending on the sponsor. Any private citizen can put up a nativity scene on private property at Christmas time: citizens and churches commonly exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of speech to do so. But when a government sets up a similar display on public property, a different aspect of the amendment comes into play. Governments do not enjoy freedom of speech, but, instead, are controlled by the second half of the First Amendment—the Establishment Clause, which forbids any official establishment of religion. All lawsuits demanding that a crèche, cross, menorah, or other religious symbol be removed from public property allege that the government that put it there has violated the Establishment Clause.

The Supreme Court has reviewed challenges to government sponsored displays of religious symbols under the Lemon test. Based on criteria from several earlier decisions and named after the case Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 91 S. Ct. 2105, 29 L. Ed. 2d 745 (1973), the test recognizes that government must accommodate religion but forbids it to support religion. To survive constitutional review, a display must meet all three requirements or "prongs" of the test: it must have a secular (nonreligious) purpose, it must have the primary effect of neither advancing nor inhibiting religion, and it must avoid excessive entanglement between government and religion. Failing any of the three parts of the test constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Starting in the 1980s, the test began to divide the Supreme Court. Conservative justices objected because it blocked what they saw as a valid acknowledgment of the role of religion in public life; opposing them were justices who believed in maintaining a firm line between government and religion. In significant cases concerning holiday displays, the Court continued to use the Lemon test but with new emphasis on the question of whether the display has the effect of advancing or endorsing a particular religion.

This shift in emphasis first emerged in 1984 in a case involving a Christmas display owned and erected by the City of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in a private park. The display included both a life-sized nativity scene with the infant Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and secular symbols such as Santa's house, a Christmas tree, striped poles, animals, and lights. Pawtucket residents successfully sued for removal of the nativity scene in federal district court, where it was found to have failed all three prongs of the Lemon test (Donnelly v. Lynch, 525 F. Supp. 1150 [D.R.I. 1981]). The decision was upheld on appeal, but, surprisingly, in Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 104 S. Ct. 1355, 79 L. Ed. 2d 604 (1984), the Supreme Court narrowly reversed in a 5–4 vote and found the entire display constitutional.

The majority in Lynch stressed historical context, emphasizing that the crèche belonged to a tradition "acknowledged in the Western World for 20 centuries, and in this country by the people, by the executive branch, by the Congress, and the courts for two centuries." The display, ruled the Court, passed each prong of the Lemon test. First, the city had a secular purpose in celebrating a national holiday by using religious symbols that "depicted the historical origins" of the holiday. Second, the display did not primarily benefit religion. Third, no excessive entanglement between government and religion existed. Perhaps most significantly, the Court saw the crèche as a "passive symbol": although it derived from religion, over time it had come to represent a secular message of celebration.

Lynch laid bare the deep divisions on the Court. By emphasizing context, the majority appeared to suggest that the ruling was limited to circumstances similar to those in the case at hand: religious symbols could be acceptable in a holiday display if used with secular symbols. The majority did not enunciate any broad new protections for governments eager to sponsor crèches. Nonetheless, the opinion did not satisfy the dissenters, who sharply criticized the majority for failing to vigorously apply the Lemon test. They noted that the city could easily have celebrated the holiday without using religious symbols, and they saw the crèche as nothing less than government endorsement of religion.

The emphasis on context became even more pronounced in a 1989 case, County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573, 109 S. Ct. 3086, 106 L. Ed. 2d 472. In Allegheny, a Pennsylvania county appealed a lower court ruling that had banned its two separate holiday displays: a crèche situated next to poinsettia plants inside the county courthouse, and an eighteen-foot menorah (a commemorative candelabrum in the Jewish faith) standing next to a Christmas tree and a sign outside a city-county office building. Each religious symbol was owned by a religious group—the crèche by the Catholic Holy Name Society and the menorah by Chabad, a Jewish organization. Viewing the displays in context, the Court permitted one but not the other, and its reasoning turned on subtle distinctions.

The Court deemed the crèche an unconstitutional endorsement of religion for two reasons. First, the presence of a few flowers around the crèche did not mediate its religious symbolism in the way that the secular symbols had done for the crèche in Lynch. Second, the prominent location doomed the display. By choosing the courthouse, a vital center of government, the Court said the county has sent "an unmistakable message" that it endorsed Christianity.

But the menorah passed constitutional review. Like the crèche in Lynch, its religious significance was transformed by the presence of secular symbols: the forty-five-foot Christmas tree and a sign from the city's mayor that read, "During this holiday season, the city of Pittsburgh salutes liberty. Let these festive lights remind us that we are keepers of the flame of liberty and our legacy of liberty." Even so, members of the majority disagreed on precisely what message was sent by the display. Justice harry a. blackmun read it as a secular message of holiday celebration. In a more complicated view, Justice sandra day o'connor said it "acknowledg[ed] the cultural diversity of our country and convey[ed] tolerance of different choice in matters of religious belief or non-belief by recognizing that the winter holiday season is celebrated in diverse ways by our citizens." Whatever the exact message, the majority agreed that it did not endorse religion.

Since the 1980s the thrust of Supreme Court doctrine has been to allow publicly sponsored holiday displays to include religious symbols. This expansive view of the First Amendment grew out of the Court's acknowledgment that local governments can accommodate civic tradition. Religious symbols on their own are unconstitutional. A display including such symbols may pass review, however, if it features secular symbols as well. Context is the determinant: to avoid violating the Establishment Clause, a crèche or menorah may need a boost from Santa Claus.

The Court has stated that the Establishment Clause means that neither a state nor the federal government can organize a church. The government cannot enact legislation that aids one religion, aids all religions, or prefers one religion over another. It cannot force or influence a person to participate in, or avoid, religion or force a person to profess a particular religious belief. No tax in any amount can be levied to support any religious activities or organizations. Neither a state nor the federal government can participate, whether openly or secretly, in the affairs of any religious groups.

Federal and state governments have accepted and implemented the doctrine of the separation of church and state by minimizing contact with religious institutions. Although the government cannot aid religions, it can acknowledge their role as a stabilizing force in society. For example, religious institutions, along with other charitable or nonprofit organizations, have traditionally been given tax exemptions. This practice, even when applied to religious organizations, has been deemed constitutional because the legislative aim of a property tax exemption is not to advance religion but to ensure that the activities of groups that enhance the moral and mental attitudes of the community will not be inhibited by taxation. The organizations lose the tax exemption if they undertake activities that do not serve the beneficial interests of society. Thus, in 1983, the Supreme Court decided in Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574, 103 S. Ct. 2017, 76 L. Ed. 2d 157, that nonprofit private schools that discriminated against their students or prospective students on the basis of race could not claim tax-exempt status as a charitable organization for the purposes of federal tax laws.

It is also believed that the elimination of such tax exemptions would lead the government into excessive entanglements with religious institutions. The exemption, therefore, is believed to create only a minimal and remote involvement between church and state—less than would result from taxation. The restricted fiscal relationship, therefore, enhances the desired separation.

Religion and Education The many situations in which religion and education overlap are a source of great controversy. In the early nineteenth century, the vast majority of Americans were Protestant, and Protestant-based religious exercises were common in the public schools. Legal challenges to these practices began in the state courts when a substantial number of Roman Catholics arrived in the United States. Until 1962 when the U.S. Supreme Court began to directly address some of these issues, most states upheld the constitutionality of prayer and Bible reading in the public schools.

In the 1962 case of engel v. vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 82 S. Ct. 1261, 8 L. Ed. 2d 601, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a prayer that was a recommended part of the public school curriculum in the state of New York. The prayer had been approved by Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders in the state. Although the prayer was nondenominational and student participation in it was strictly voluntary, it was struck down as violative of the Establishment Clause.

Agostini v. Felton

In June 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back restrictions that it had imposed twelve years earlier on federal aid to religious schools. In a 5–4 decision in Agostini v. Felton, 117 S. Ct. 1997 (1997), the Court ruled that public school teachers can teach remedial education classes to disadvantaged students on the premises of parochial schools—a dramatic reversal of the Court's earlier hard line.

Federal law provides funds for such services to all children of low-income families under title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C.A. § 6301 et seq.). But in 1985 the Court barred public school instructors from teaching title I classes on parochial school premises. In Aguilar v. Felton (473 U.S. 402, 105 S. Ct. 3232, 87 L. Ed. 2d 290), the majority ruled that the mere presence of public employees at these schools had the effect of unconstitutionally advancing religion. To comply with the order, New York parked vans outside of parochial school property to deliver the services, a system that cost taxpayers $100 million between 1985 and 1997.

In a 1995 challenge, New York City argued that intervening cases had invalidated the Supreme Court's earlier ruling. Upon accepting the case on appeal in 1997, the Court agreed. In her majority opinion, Justice sandra day o'connor held that Aguilar had been overruled by two more recent cases based on the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind, 474 U.S. 481, 106 S. Ct. 748, 88 L. Ed. 2d 846 (1986), and Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, 509 U.S. 1, 113 S. Ct. 2462, 125 L. Ed. 2d (1993). O'Connor said that the two cases—permitting a state tuition grant to a blind person who attended a Christian college, and allowing a state-employed sign language interpreter to accompany a deaf student to a Catholic school, respectively—made it clear that the premises in Aguilarwere no longer valid.

Although limited specifically to title I programs, the decision added fuel to another long-standing controversy. Proponents and opponents of school vouchers—a system under which parents would be able to allocate their tax dollars to their children's private school education—disputed whether the case indicated that the Court was moving toward embracing the voucher idea.

In 1963, the Supreme Court heard the related issues of whether voluntary Bible readings or recitation of the Lord's Prayer were constitutionally appropriate exercises in the public schools (abington school district v. schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 83 S. Ct. 1560, 10 L. Ed. 2d 844). It was in these cases that the Supreme Court first formulated the three-pronged test for constitutionality. In applying the new test, the Court concluded that the exercises did not pass the first prong of the test: they were not secular in nature, but religious, and thus they violated the Establishment Clause because they violated state neutrality requirements.

Although students in public schools are not permitted to recite prayers, the practice of a state legislature opening its sessions with a nondenominational prayer recited by a chaplain receiving public funds has withstood constitutional challenge. In Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, 103 S. Ct. 3330, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1019 (1983), the Supreme Court ruled that such a practice did not violate the Establishment Clause. In making its decision, the Court noted that this was a customary practice and that the proponents of the bill of rights also approved of the government appointment of paid chaplains.

The Supreme Court has also held that a religious invocation, instituted by school officials, at a public school graduation violates the Establishment Clause (lee v. weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 112 S. Ct. 2649, 120 L. Ed. 2d 467 [1992]). Subsequently, the Court made clear that even indirect school support of a prayer given by students violates the First Amendment. In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 120 S.Ct. 2266, 147 L.Ed.2d 295 (2000), the Court held that a Texas public school district could not let its students lead prayers over the public address system before its high school football. The school district's sponsorship of the public prayers by elected student representatives was unconstitutional because the schools could not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion.

In 1980, the Supreme Court overturned a Kentucky statute requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments, copies of which were purchased with private contributions, in every public school classroom (Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 101 S. Ct. 192, 66 L. Ed. 2d 199). Although the state argued that the postings served a secular purpose, the Court held that they were plainly religious. Four of the Supreme Court's nine justices dissented from the Court's opinion and were prepared to conclude that the postings were proper based on their secular purpose.

Because the Establishment Clause calls for government neutrality in matters involving religion, the government need not be hostile or unfriendly toward religions because such an approach would favor those who do not believe in religion over those who do. In addition, if the government denies religious speakers the ability to speak or punishes them for their speech, it violates the First Amendment's right to freedom of speech. The Supreme Court held in 1981 that it was unconstitutional for a state university to prohibit a religious group from using its facilities when the facilities were open for use by organizations of all other kinds (Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 102 S. Ct. 269, 70 L. Ed. 2d 440). The principles established in Widmar were unanimously reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, 508 U.S. 384, 113 S. Ct. 2141, 124 L. Ed. 2d 352 (1993). In 1995, the Supreme Court held that a state university violates the Free Speech Clause when it refuses to pay for a religious organization's publication under a program in which it pays for other student organization publications (Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 115 S. Ct. 2510, 132 L. Ed. 2d 700).

Facing another education and religion issue, the Supreme Court declared in Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 68 S. Ct. 461, 92 L. Ed. 649 (1948), that public school buildings could not be used for a program that allowed pupils to leave classes early to receive religious instruction. The Court found that this program violated the Establishment Clause because the tax-supported public school buildings were being used for the teaching of religious doctrines, which constituted direct government assistance to religion.

However, the Court held that a release-time program that took place outside the public school buildings was constitutional because it did not involved religious instruction in public school classrooms or the expenditure of public funds (Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 72 S. Ct. 679, 96 L. Ed. 954 [1952]). All costs in that case were paid by the religious organization conducting the program.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also held that states may not restrict the teaching of ideas on the grounds that they conflict with religious teachings when those ideas are part of normal classroom subjects. In Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 89 S. Ct. 266, 21 L. Ed. 2d 228 (1968), the Court struck down a state statute that forbade the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools. The Court held that the statute violated the Establishment Clause because its purpose was to protect religious theories of creationism from inconsistent secular theories.

In Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 107 S.Ct. 2573, 96 L.Ed. 2d 510 (1987), the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana "Creationism Act" which prevented any teaching of evolution in public schools unless the course was also accompanied by the teaching of biblical creationism. In his majority opinion, Justice william brennan wrote that the Lemon test had to be used to judge the constitutionality of the Creationism Act. The state contended that the law was simply designed to promote academic freedom by ensuring that students would hear about more than one theory on the origins of life. However, the Court noted that teachers were permitted to present more than one such theory before the law had been passed. The actual purpose of the law, then, had to be to make sure that creationism was taught if anything at all was taught. Brennan ruled that the act did not have a secular purpose and that it did not advance academic freedom. To the contrary, it restricted the abilities of teachers to teach what they deemed appropriate. Brennan also pointed out that Louisiana provided instructional packets to assist in the teaching of creationism but did not provide similar materials for the teaching of evolution. This demonstrated an interest in promoting creationism and religion.

In a 1993 case, the Supreme Court held that the Establishment Clause did not prevent a public school from providing a sign language interpreter for a deaf student who attended a religiously affiliated school within the school district (Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, 509 U.S. 1, 113 S. Ct. 2462, 125 L. Ed. 2d 1). Commentators have noted that this case demonstrates the Court's willingness to uphold religiously neutral government aid to all school children, regardless of whether they attend a religiously affiliated school, where the aid is designed to help the children overcome a physical or learning disability. As of 2003, it was not clear, however, whether the Court would extend this holding to more general forms of aid to children in religious and public schools alike.

Government and Religion The closing of government offices on particular religious holidays is unconstitutional if no secular purpose is served (Mandel v. Hodges, 54 Cal. App. 3d 596, 127 Cal. Rptr. 244 [1976]). But if employees won the closing through collective bargaining, it is permissible even without a secular purpose (Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Kent County, 97 Mich. App. 72, 293 N.W. 2d 723 [1980]).

Government display of symbols with religious significance raises Establishment Clause issues. In the 1984 case of Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 104 S. Ct. 1355, 79 L. Ed. 2d 604, the Supreme Court upheld the right of a city to erect in a park a Christmas display that included colored lights, reindeer, candy canes, a Santa's house, a Christmas tree, a "SEASONS GREETINGS" banner, and a nativity scene. The Court decided the inclusion of the nativity scene along with traditional secular Christmas symbols did not promote religion to an extent prohibited by the First Amendment.

Since the mid-1990s, displays of the Ten Commandments in public buildings other than schools has become more common. Several judges drew national attention when they posted the Ten Commandments in their courtrooms, thereby triggering litigation. Alabama trial judge Roy Moore used the publicity from his refusal to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom to run for and be elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in November 2000. After taking office in January 2001, he briefly avoided controversy by posting the Ten Commandments in his chambers rather than in the Supreme Court's courtroom. However, Moore installed a 5,300 pound Ten Commandments monument in the judicial building on a summer night in 2001. A group of citizens objected and filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court. In November 2002, the federal court issued an order directing Moore to remove the monument. Moore refused and vowed to appeal the decision (Glassroth v. Moore, 242 F.Supp. 2d 1068 [M.D.Ala.2002]). In 2003, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court decision in Glassroth v. Moore, 335 F. 3d 1282. Despite a federal court order to remove the monument, Moore refused. Finally, in September 2003, the other members of the Alabama Supreme Court had the monument removed. Moore was suspended from office while a judicial inquiry commission reviewed his conduct.

Free Exercise Clause

The Free Exercise Clause guarantees a person the right to practice a religion and propagate it without government interference. This right is a liberty interest that cannot be deprived without

due process of law. Although the government cannot restrict a person's religious beliefs, it can limit the practice of faith when a substantial and compelling state interest exists. The courts have found that a substantial and compelling state interest exists when the religious practice poses a threat to the health, safety, or welfare of the public. For example, the government could legitimately outlaw the practice of polygamy that was formerly mandated by the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) but could not outlaw the religion or belief in Mormonism itself (Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 25 L. Ed. 244 [1878]). The Supreme Court has invalidated very few actions of the government on the basis of this clause.

Religious practices are not the only method by which a violation of the Free Exercise Clause can occur. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 63 S. Ct. 1178, 87 L. Ed. 1628 (1943), the Supreme Court held that a public school could not expel children because they refused on religious grounds to comply with a requirement of saluting the U.S. flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. In that case, the children were Jehovah's Witnesses, and they believed that saluting the flag fell within the scope of the biblical command against worshipping false gods.

A more recent decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ignited a firestorm of controversy. The appeals court, in Newdow v. U.S. Congress, 292 F.3d 597 (9th Cir. 2002), ruled that Congress had violated the Establishment Clause when, in 1954, it inserted the words "Under God" into the pledge. Therefore, a California school district's daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance injured the daughter of an atheist father, for the pledge sent a message to her that she was an "outsider" and not a member of the political community. The defendants vowed to petition the Supreme Court to review the case. The Ninth Circuit stayed its ruling until the Supreme Court resolved the issue by either denying review or taking the appeal.

In Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 92 S. Ct. 1526, 32 L. Ed. 2d 15 (1972), the Supreme Court held that state laws requiring children to receive education up to a certain age impinged upon the religious freedom of the Amish who refuse to send their children to school beyond the eighth grade because they believe that doing so would impermissibly expose the children to worldly influences that conflicted with Amish religious beliefs.

In 1993, Congress passed the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which provides that "[g]overnment shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, "unless the government can demonstrate that the burden advances a compelling governmental interest in the least restrictive way. This statute was enacted in response to the Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 110 S. Ct. 1595, 108 L. Ed. 2d 876. The Smith case involved a state law that denied unemployment compensation benefits to anyone who had been fired from his or her job for job-related misconduct. This case involved two individuals who had been fired from their jobs for ingesting peyote, which was forbidden by state law. The individuals argued that their ingestion of peyote was related to a religious ceremony in which they participated. The Supreme Court ruled that the Free Exercise Clause did not require an exemption from the state law banning peyote use and that unemployment compensation could therefore lawfully be denied.

RFRA directly superseded the Smith decision. However, soon after it was enacted, many courts ruled that RFRA violated either the Establishment Clause or the separation of powers doctrine. In the 1997 case of City of Boerne v. P. F. Flores, 1997 WL 345322, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6–3 to invalidate RFRA on the grounds that Congress had exceeded the scope of its enforcement power under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment in enacting RFRA. Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment permits Congress to enact legislation enforcing the Constitutional right to free exercise of religion. However, the Court held that this power is limited to preventative or remedial measures. The court found that RFRA went beyond that and actually made substantive changes in the governing law. Because Congress exceeded its power under the Fourteenth Amendment in enacting RFRA, it contradicted vital principles necessary to maintain separation of powers and the federal-state balance and thus was unconstitutional.

Although the Free Exercise Clause protects against government action, it does not restrict the conduct of private individuals. For example, the courts generally will uphold a testator's requirement that a beneficiary attend a specified church to receive a testamentary gift because the courts refuse to question the religious views of a testator in the interest of public policy. Similarly, the Free Exercise Clause does not protect a person's religious beliefs from infringement by the actions of private corporations or businesses, although federal and state civil rights laws may make such private conduct unlawful.

The government cannot enact a statute that wholly denies the right to preach or to disseminate religious views, but a state can constitutionally regulate the time, place, and manner of soliciting upon the streets and of conducting meetings in order to safeguard the peace, order, and comfort of the community. It can also protect the public against frauds perpetrated under the cloak of religion, as long as the law does not use a process amounting to a prior restraint, which inhibits the free exercise of religion. In a 1951 case, the Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional for a city to deny a Baptist preacher the renewal of a permit for evangelical street meetings, even though his previous meetings included attacks on Roman Catholicism and Judaism that led to disorder in the streets, because it constituted a prior restraint (Kunz v. New York, 340 U.S. 290, 71 S. Ct. 312, 95 L. Ed. 280).

State laws known as Sunday closing laws, which prohibit the sale of certain goods on Sundays, have been declared constitutional against the challenge of Orthodox Jews who claimed that the laws created an economic hardship for them because their faith requires them to close their businesses on Saturdays and who therefore wanted to do business on Sundays (Braunfield v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599, 81 S. Ct. 1144, 6 L. Ed. 2d 563 [1961]). The Supreme Court held that, although the law imposed an indirect burden on

religion, it did not make any religious practice itself unlawful.

In United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252, 102 S. Ct. 1051, 71 L. Ed. 2d 127 (1982), the Supreme Court upheld the requirement that Amish employers withhold social security and unemployment insurance contributions from their employees, despite the Amish argument that this violated their rights under the Free Exercise Clause. The Court found that compulsory contributions were necessary to accomplish the overriding government interest in the proper functioning of the Social Security and unemployment systems.

The Supreme Court has also upheld the assignment and use of Social Security numbers by the government to be a legitimate government action that does not violate the Free Exercise Clause (Bowen v. Roy, 476 U.S. 693, 106 S. Ct. 2147, 90 L. Ed. 2d 735 [1986]).

In the 1989 case of Hernandez v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 490 U.S. 680, 109 S. Ct. 2136, 104 L. Ed. 2d 766, the Supreme Court held that the government's denial of a taxpayer's deduction from gross income of "fixed donations" to the Church of Scientology for certain religious services was constitutional. These fees were paid for certain classes required by the Church of Scientology, and the Court held that they did not classify as charitable contributions because a good or service was received in exchange for the fee paid.

In Jimmy Swaggart Ministries v. Board of Equalization, 493 U.S. 378, 110 S. Ct. 688, 107 L. Ed. 2d 796 (1990), the Court ruled that a religious organization is not exempt from paying a state's general sales and use taxes on the sale of religious products and religious literature.

Similarly, the Court decided in Heffron v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness(ISKCON), 452 U.S. 640, 101 S. Ct. 2559, 69 L. Ed. 2d 298 (1981), that a state rule limiting the sale or distribution of merchandise to specific booths was lawful, even when applied to ISKCON members whose beliefs mandated them to distribute or sell religious literature and solicit donations in public places.

Military regulations have also been challenged under the Free Exercise Clause. In Goldman v. Weinberger, 475 U.S. 503, 106 S. Ct. 1310, 89 L. Ed. 2d 478 (1986), the Supreme Court held that the Free Exercise Clause did not require the U.S. Air Force to permit an Orthodox Jewish serviceman to wear his yarmulke while in uniform and on duty. The Court found that the military's interest in discipline was sufficiently important to outweigh the incidental burden the rule had on the serviceman's religious beliefs.

However, a law that places an indirect burden on the practice of religion so as to impede the observance of religion or a law that discriminates between religions is unconstitutional. Thus, the Supreme Court has held that the denial of unemployment compensation to a Seventh-Day Adventist who was fired from her job and could not obtain any other work because of her refusal to work on Saturdays for religious reasons was unconstitutional (Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 83 S. Ct. 1790, 10 L. Ed. 2d 965 [1963]). The Sherbert case was reaffirmed and applied in the 1987 case of Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Commission of Florida, 480 U.S. 136, 107 S. Ct. 1046, 94 L. Ed. 2d 190.

In the 1993 case of Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 113 S. Ct. 2217, 124 L. Ed. 2d 472, remanded on other grounds, the High Court overturned a city law that forbade animal slaughter insofar as the law banned the ritual animal slaughter by a particular religious sect. The Court found that the law was not a religiously neutral law of general applicability but was specifically designed to prevent a religious sect from carrying out its religious rituals.

In Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 92 S. Ct. 1079, 31 L. Ed. 2d 263 (1972), the Supreme Court affirmed that prisoners are entitled to their rights under the Free Exercise Clause, subject only to the requirements of prison security and discipline. Thus, the Court held that a Texas prison must permit a Buddhist prisoner to use the prison chapel and share his religious materials with other prisoners, just as any other prisoner would be permitted to so act.

States have been allowed to deny disability benefits, however, to applicants who refuse to submit to medical examinations for religious reasons. Courts have held that this is constitutional because the state has a compelling interest in verifying that the intended recipients of the tax-produced assistance are people who are legitimately entitled to receive the benefit. Likewise, states can regulate religious practices to protect the public health. Thus, state laws requiring the vaccination of all children before they are allowed to attend school are constitutional because the laws are designed to prevent the widespread epidemic of contagious diseases. Public health protection has been deemed to outweigh any competing interest in the exercise of religious beliefs that oppose any forms of medication or immunization.

A number of cases have involved the issue of whether there is a compelling state interest to require that a blood transfusion be given to a patient whose religion prohibits such treatment. In these cases, the courts look to the specific facts of the case, such as whether the patient is a minor or a mentally incompetent individual, and whether the patient came to the hospital voluntarily seeking help. The courts have generally authorized the transfusions in cases of minors or mentally incompetent patients in recognition of the compelling government interest to protect the health and safety of people. However, the courts are divided as to whether they should order transfusions where the patient is a competent adult who steadfastly refuses to accept such treatment on religious grounds despite the understanding that her or his refusal could result in death. As of 2003, the Supreme Court had not ruled on this issue, and therefore there was no final judicial opinion on the propriety of such orders.

The use of secular courts to determine intra-church disputes has raised issues under both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court decided in the 1871 case of Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 20 L. Ed. 666, that judicial intervention in cases involving ownership and control of church assets necessarily had to be limited to determining and enforcing the decision of the highest judicatory body within the particular religious group. For congregational religious groups, such as Baptists and Jews, the majority of the congregation was considered the highest judicatory body. In hierarchical religions, such as the Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy, the diocesan bishop was considered the highest judicatory authority. The Supreme Court consistently applied that principle until its 1979 decision in Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 99 S. Ct. 3020, 61 L. Ed. 2d 775. In that case, the Court held that the "neutral principles of law developed for use in all property disputes" could be constitutionally applied in intra-church litigation. Under this case, courts can examine the language of the church charters, real and personal property deeds, and state statutes relating to the control of property generally.

Religious Oaths Prohibited

The Constitution also refers to religion in Article VI, Clause 3, which provides, "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." The provision is binding only on the federal government.

In early American history, individual states commonly required religious oaths for public officers. But after the Revolutionary War, most of these religious tests were eliminated. As of 2003, the individual states, through their constitutions or statutes, have restrictions similar to that of the U.S. Constitution on imposing a religious oath as a condition to holding a government position.

Freedom to express religious beliefs is entwined with the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of expression. The federal or state governments cannot require an individual to declare a belief in the existence of God as a qualification for holding office (Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 81 S. Ct. 1680, 6 L. Ed. 2d 982 [1961]).

Congress took an unprecedented step when it passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. (Pub. L.105-292, 112 Stat. 2787). The law seeks to promote religious freedom worldwide. It created a special representative to the secretary of state for international religious freedom. This representative serves on a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an advisory organization. The act gives the president authority to take diplomatic and other appropriate action with respect to any country that engages in or tolerates violations of religious freedom. In extreme circumstances, the president is empowered to impose economic sanctions on countries that systematically deny religious freedom.

further readings

Blomquist, Robert F. 2003. "Law and Spirituality: Some First Thoughts on an Emerging Relation." UMKC Law Review 71 (spring).

Haarscher, Guy. 2002. "Freedom of Religion in Context." Brigham Young Univ. Law Review 2002 (spring).

Semonche, John E., ed. 1985. Religion and Law in American History. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Skotnicki, Andrew. 2000. Religion and the Development of the American Penal System. Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America.

Spiropoulos, Andrew C. 1997. "The Constitutionality of Holiday Displays on Public Property (Or How the Court Stole Christmas)." Oklahoma Bar Journal (May 31).

Williams, Cynthia Norman. 2003. "America's Opposition to New Religious Movements: Limiting the Freedom of Religion." Law and Psychology Review 27 (spring).


Charities; Ecclesiastical Courts; Flag; Immunization Programs; Parent and Child; Schools and School Districts; Scopes Monkey Trial.

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Religion may be defined as (1) a recognition of or belief in a superhuman power or god(s) commanding obedience and worship; (2) a feeling of reverence or spiritual awareness of such a power expressed in life conduct and/or ritual observances; and (3) a system of faith including beliefs, worship, conduct, and perhaps a code of ethics or philosophy. Individuals with an awareness of a divine or higher power develop a view of life that is different from those who have no faith position. Religion may affect all of life because of the perspective individuals use to interpret life experiences, to set personal and family goals, and to make value-based decisions. The particular ways in which religion will make a difference in life depend on many factors or dimensions of religion, including, but not limited to, the importance of religion to the individual (salience), devotional practices and sense of relationship with the divine, specific beliefs and emphases, the degree of support and shared activities by the religious community, congregational worship, the rewards expected for faith and the acting out of its values, and views of and behaviors toward significant others (family, friends, etc.).

The intersection of religion with family life is important to families and to society. Many controversial political and social issues are grounded in religious arguments or attitudes. The role of religion in family functioning is being recognized, as is its potential importance in family life education, psychological counseling, and marriage and family therapy.

Religiosity may be categorized along two global dimensions. One dimension captures the depth of one's religious experience. At the more superficial or peripheral (distal) end of this continuum, researchers might assess religious affiliation of one or more family members or individual participation and devotion. At the more in-depth (proximal or core aspect) end of the continuum, researchers might measure an increasing internalization of religion, shared religious interaction such as praying together, a shared sense of the sacred or divine within family relationships, and the expression of religion in attitudes and behaviors. Typically, the more distal aspects of religion are explored in large, nationally representative surveys, while the more proximal aspects are investigated in smaller, more detailed, but less representative studies. The second continuum is that of the quality of the religious experience from toxic (negative) to enhancing (positive). Some may experience religion as fearful and rigid, abusive, violent, guilt-inducing, or patriarchal (Haj-Yahia 1998). Others may experience religion as loving, egalitarian, and nonviolent (Rahim 2000), even though they depend upon the same religious traditions and scriptures. The best research on religion and the family will assess both global dimensions in ways that are theoretically pertinent to the family variables being considered. The ambiguous results of some past research (Booth et al. 1995) may reflect incomplete assessment of both dimensions. In contrast, Annette Mahoney and colleagues (1999) investigated family outcomes with both distal (individual religiousness and religious homogamy) and proximal religious measures. Stronger relationships were found with proximal measures than with distal measures. Family outcomes (marital adjustment, reduced conflict, improved conflict resolution strategies) were more positive with enhancing proximal factors involved than with toxic or distal associations.

Religion and Family Composition

Religious variables appear to affect several issues involving family composition: mate selection, interfaith or intrafaith marriage, fertility, contraception, and abortion. In some countries, parents arrange marriages. In many Muslim and African nations, as well as in India, polygamy is common, and some African nations have had polygynous marriages as a part of their religious heritage (Fu 1996). In the United States, mate selection is less likely to be religiously homogamous if people belong to a small religious group, have an unbalanced sex ratio (few people from whom to choose), and develop cultures and values similar to those outside the religious group. Apparently the more assimilated people become, the more likely intermarriage is. Evelyn Lehrer (1998) noted that the greater the religiosity and the commitment to their faith, the less likely people are to intermarry. Bernard Lazerwitz (1995) found that Jewish intermarriages increased with the number of generations since immigration, a finding also reported for Muslim immigrants to North America (Hogben 1991). By 1990, 25 percent of Jewish adults were living in interfaith marriages. Marriages depend upon many relational factors, but those who marry within their general faith community have one less arena of differences to resolve.

In North American society, cohabitation has increased, although it remains controversial. Low levels of religious participation and commitment have been correlated with higher rates of cohabitation (Thornton 1992). Religious participation typically decreases with cohabiting and increases with marriage. In addition, more conservative attitudes about premarital sexuality generally accompany more proximal measures of religiosity, findings that appear worldwide among a variety of religions. In recent decades, liberalization of sexual attitudes has occurred among many, especially in northern Europe, where cohabitation has increased to approximately 20 percent of couples in some countries (Fu 1996). Despite such changes, same-sex unions remain very controversial, with negative views frequently held by those with conservative beliefs.

Fertility (the birthrate of various groups) appears to be associated with aspects of religiosity. More traditional religiosity, both in the United States and around the world, seems to be correlated with both marriage and with desiring and having a greater number of children after marriage (Arnett 1998). Traditionalists may focus more on possible long-term rewards of rearing children as opposed to the more obvious short-term costs. Nevertheless, both Roman Catholic and Protestant fertility rates have been decreasing, and some couples choose not to have children. This choice was not practical until contraceptive options became available. Religious beliefs influence their use around the world.

Religious variables seem to predict strong attitudes about abortion (Jenkins 1991). Frequent worship attendance and religiosity had a significant negative relationship with abortion. This correlation may be related to the strong pro-life advocacy of some religious groups (such as Catholicism and fundamentalist Protestantism in the United States). Those who get abortions in spite of their religious beliefs to the contrary may be stressed by guilt.

Religion and the Marital Relationship

Two common areas of family research are marital quality (satisfaction and adjustment) and stability (whether marriages remain intact or end in separation or divorce). Virtually all research finds a significant relationship between most aspects of religion and stability (e.g., marginal affiliation or toxic religion may help dysfunctional marriages remain intact) (Call and Wheaten 1997). Satisfaction is most often associated with more proximal and enhancing religious factors (Mahoney et al. 1999).

One theory suggests that religion gives couples the opportunity for shared values and norms (such as fidelity), joint participation in activities, and supportive joint social networks which promote marital satisfaction. This theory fits the research on couples married fifty years or more by Howard Bahr and Bruce Chadwick (1985), who found higher marital satisfaction among those who frequently attended worship services than among those who did not. A study of Seventh Day Adventists' homogamous marriages also showed that higher marital satisfaction was associated with more frequent worship attendance. (Dudley and Kosinksi 1990).

Among reasons for staying together (stability) are the belief that marriage is a lifetime commitment, love, and religious commitment and values (Kaslow and Robison 1996). Some religious groups emphasize the importance of a lifetime commitment to one's partner (e.g., Judaism, Catholicism and fundamentalist Protestantism, Islam, Confucianism). If people internalize such values and/or religious cultural pressures are great, the risk of divorce is reduced. Perhaps the Hindu, Catholic (such as Italy), and Eastern (e.g., Japan) cultures are largely responsible for their low divorce rate (Fu 1996). In contrast, Muslim countries have high divorce rates (e.g., divorce because of infertility). Vaughn Call and Tim Heaton (1997), in a national survey of the United States, found that when couples regularly attending religious activities together, it lowered the risk of divorce, but wide differences in spouses' attendance patterns increased the risk. Wives' religious beliefs about commitment and nonmarital sex correlated to stability more highly than did husbands' beliefs. Patriarchal religious groups in which wives are not allowed to work outside the home also have a low divorce rate (e.g., lack of income without family support).

Couples do not always agree or understand each other's viewpoints. In times of conflict, attitudes and the way partners resolve their differences (including religious differences) can affect marital satisfaction and stability. Mark Butler, Brandt Gardner, and Mark Bird (1998) investigated the effects of prayer during couples' conflicts with a small homogamous sample. Respondents reported that using prayer reduced hostility and increased empathy for partners. When the divine view of the problem was sought, a shift in focus from getting one's own way to considering the spouse's view and seeking mutual satisfaction allowed more satisfactory resolution. Howard Wineberg (1994) explored marital reconciliation for those in very troubled marriages. Of the wives who remained married for a year after attempting to reconcile (approximately one-third), religion had the strongest association with reconciliation. More research needs to be done to find how religion makes a difference.

Unfortunately, domestic abuse is one reaction to conflict. Patriarchal family and gender role values sometimes raise the risk of abuse, but the patriarchal values of Islam and Hinduism, for instance, do not support domestic violence. Christopher Ellison, John Bartkowski, and Kristin L. Anderson (1999) found self-reported perpetration of domestic violence to be inversely related to regular attendance at religious services in the United States.

Parenting and Family Relationships

General consensus affirms that parents influence children and having children affects couples. In general, religiosity of parents appears to have a positive impact on the quality of parent-child relationships (Varon and Riley 1999), including those within ethnic minorities (Barbarin 1999). Becoming a parent may increase some people's affiliation with or commitment to religion (Palkovitz and Palm 1998). Two specific areas related to religious variables are styles of parenting, particularly regarding discipline, and the transmittal of values and faith heritage. Discipline methods can be controversial. For instance, conservative and fundamentalist Protestants emphasize that parents are responsible for taming the sinful nature of their children and shaping their wills as they believe their bible requires. Spanking is often the discipline method used to promote submission to a God who is just, merciful, and forgiving but who also punishes sins (Bartkowski and Ellison 1995). Others believe that spanking or corporal punishment of any kind can and does lead to abuse some of the time and is harmful to the development of children. Jean Giles-Sims, Murray Straus, and David Sugarman (1995) found that young, single mothers and members of some ethnic groups are more likely to spank and that spanking is most likely to escalate into abuse among single parents and step-parents and adults with severe stress (such as unemployment) or social-psychological problems.

Parents and grandparents influence their children's values, behavior, and religion. Scott Myers's (1996) longitudinal study suggested parents' religiosity, traditional family structure, and family relationships influence the transmission of religious beliefs and practices to children. Parents' marital satisfaction and warmth, emotional closeness, and sense of acceptance accentuated behavioral imitation by children. Religious grandparents seem to keep modeling their faith: High religiosity predicts grandparents willing to care for sick grandchildren.

Divorce can affect children's perception of God and religion. Children of divorced parents often have to cope with the absence of a loved parent, less income, less time with the custodial parent who is working, and time alone. Young adult children of divorce recalled for Joianne L. Shortz and Everett L. Worthington, Jr. (1994) their thoughts when as children they tried to make sense of and cope with their parents' divorce. Some were angry with God, asked faith questions or avoided religion, and pleaded with God for a miracle. Others leaned on their faith, seeking God's guidance; attending worship regularly; sought support from clergy and congregation; and tried to live their faith by performing good deeds.

Prevention and Coping with Special Problems

Troubled or hurting members affect the whole family. Although not the only factor, religion seems to deter some negative behaviors and give strength and comfort promoting health and well-being. Religion may make the lives of parents less stressful: Higher levels of religiosity have been correlated to many beneficial outcomes including lower use of drugs and alcohol (Corwyn and Benda 2000; Bahr et al. 1998); a reduced risk of suicide (Stack 1998); lower rates of delinquency (Evans et al. 1996); buffering of stress (Kendler, Gardner, and Prescott 1997); and delays in starting sexual activity (Plotnick 1992). It is possible that frequent involvement in religious organizations deters undesirable behaviors by providing students with a belief system and values to guide decisions, positive reinforcement, and wholesome activities with friends who share the same values.

Although sexual activity among adolescents has increased since the 1980s, conservative religious groups emphasizing chastity are less likely to have members involved in premarital sex. The risk of premarital sexual activity is less in the countries in which girls marry close to the age of puberty and are closely chaperoned until wed. Those adolescents who cohabit in spite of their religious values of chastity are likely to feel guilt and stress, but high levels of religiosity seem to protect many U.S. high-school students from the ordinary psychological stress more often felt by students with low religiosity (Sorenson, Grindstaff, and Turner 1995).

Participation in religious activities deters adult crime (Evans et al. 1995) and domestic violence. The positive side of religion also appears in its apparent ability to help families cope with health problems and death. Patients' attitudes and families' emotions and care interact for family wellbeing. Bernard Spilka, William Zwartjes, and Georgia Zwartjes (1991) found that highly religious families were able to work together, developing even closer family relationships to deal with a child's cancer. Of course, families can also blame God for painful experiences if they see God as judgmental and punishing (toxic religion), which is not helpful. Susan McFadden (1995) noted that religion can offer a sense of meaning to life, the calming effect of prayer, and services such as economic and social support to nursing home residents, all of which help residents' family members to cope.

Health itself seems at times to be influenced by religion. Christopher Ellison's and Jeffrey Levin's (1998) review of literature indicated that a high level of religious involvement correlated with positive health status across groups, different religions, cultures, socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity. Positive mental health and psychological wellbeing also benefit from religious involvement. Several pathways are used: social support, frameworks of meaning, coping resources such as healthful lifestyles and emotional strengthening through religion, and prayer for and by others (positive relationship with health outcomes). Even death's timing seems to be influenced by religion. Ellen Idler and Stanislav Kasl (1992) found that fewer religious people died a month or so before special religious holidays, but more died immediately afterwards. A study of mortality (Hummer et al. 1999) even found a correlation between longer life (months and years) and frequent religious participation.


Religion is a multidimensional concept that has often been used simplistically by researchers to show correlations with family life outcomes, even though the theories behind the associations were not always understood. Researchers are increasing their efforts to focus on theories to explain the complex religion-family relationships and to design and use more proximal (core) measures of religiosity as well as to assess the positive and/or negative qualities of religious experiences. While recognizing that religious groups differ in many ways, researchers need to discover more about the processes by which the social, cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and behavioral aspects of religion are translated into relationships and behaviors in the family context.

See also:Abortion; Anabaptists (Amish, Mennonite); Buddhism; Catholicism; Circumcision; Confucianism; Discipline; Divorce: Effects on Children; Evangelical Christianity; Family Ministry; Family Values; Fictive Kinship; Food; Health and Families; Hinduism; Infidelity; Interfaith Marriage; Islam; Judaism; Marital Quality; Marriage Ceremonies; Mormonism; Nonmarital Childbearing; Protestantism; Sexuality Education; Sikhism


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ruth cordle hatch walter r. schumm

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The United States is a nation of religious believers. National surveys consistently find that nine in ten Americans affiliate with a religion or religious denomination. This is true regardless of age. Older adults, however, participate on average in certain religious activities more frequently than younger individuals. Religion also appears to represent a more salient influence in the lives of older adults. A possible explanation for this may be found in the differing life experiences and developmental trajectories of todays older Americans, unique features characteristic of their period of religious socialization, and anticipation of forthcoming challenges associated with aging. Both personal and social resources provided by religious belief and participation, and by religious institutions, can prove valuable as adults age through the life course and face the physical and interpersonal changes that often accompany old age.

This entry will explore these and other issues, particularly as they relate to the consequences of religious involvement in the lives of older adults. After describing the field of religious gerontology, the area of study devoted to the relationship between religion and aging, existing research that characterizes the role of religion in older adulthood will be summarized. This includes scientific findings documenting (a) patterns of religious participation; (b) determinants of religious participation; (c) the role of religion in preventing illness and promoting health, longevity, and psychological well-being; and (d) the social and psychological functions and benefits of both formal participation in organized religious activities and private religious involvement.

Religious gerontology

The field dedicated to the study of religion among older adults and across the life course is known as religious gerontology. This large field of study encompasses basic and applied research and writing on a wide range of topics, including human services delivery, pastoral counseling, theology, ministry, congregational programming, community intervention, health services research, behavioral and psychiatric epidemiology, and social and health indicators related to quality of life.

Systematic empirical research in religious gerontology dates to the early 1950s, when the sociologist David O. Moberg began a series of investigations into the impact of religious participation on the general well-being of older adults. He found that indicators of personal adjustment to aging were higher among people who were involved in organized religious activities. These included active church membership, attending worship services, and serving in church leadership roles. Small-scale studies on similar topics continued to appear throughout the next two decades.

Beginning in the middle 1980s, religious gerontology experienced a period of dramatic growth that has continued to this day. Both qualitative and quantitative research has flourished, with an emphasis on the identification of factors that are associated with positive life circumstances in older adulthood. Qualitative research using a variety of historical, literary, and phenomenological methods has been instrumental in fashioning a deeper understanding of the critical significance of meaning and context as adults move through the stages of the life course, from youth to senescence and death. Much of this research is cross-cultural and takes a comparative approach. The best of this work is in Aging and the Religious Dimension and Religion, Belief, and Spirituality in Late Life (Thomas and Eisenhandler, 1994, 1999).

Another key development has been recognition of the importance of religion in the lives of older adults by public and private institutions that fund research studies. Foremost among these is the National Institute on Aging (NIA) of the National Institutes of Health. Throughout the 1990s the NIA funded several large studies of religion, aging, and health by leading scientists, including the psychiatrist Harold G. Koenig, the sociologist Neal Krause, the epidemiologist Jeff Levin, and the team of the sociologist Robert Joseph Taylor, and the psychologist Linda M. Chatters. Findings from these studies provide considerable support for the idea that active religious involvement is both an epidemiologically and a therapeutically significant factor in the lives of older adults, regardless of gender, social class, race or ethnicity, or religious affiliation.

Many other signs point to the institutionalization of religious gerontology as a defined field of study. These include establishment of the Forum on Religion, Spirituality, and Aging within the American Society on Aging, and a Religion and Aging special interest group within the Gerontological Society of America; publication of the large edited volume Aging, Spirituality, and Religion: A Handbook (Kimble et al.), and of a scholarly journal, Journal of Religious Gerontology ; and funded academic centers for education and research, notably the Center for Aging, Religion, and Spirituality at Luther Seminary, in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, North Carolina.

Patterns of religious participation

Many studies in religious gerontology have sought to document how often older adults engage in various kinds of religious expression. Through this research gerontologists typically differentiate among several discrete dimensions of religious participation. These include formal or organizational religiousness, informal or nonorganizational religiousness, and what is termed subjective religiousness.

Gerontologists define organizational religiousness as public participation in organized activities of churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions. Indicators of organizational religiousness include affiliating with a denomination or congregation, regularly attending worship services, taking a leadership role in ones congregation, and volunteering at ones place of worship. According to data from the 1990 General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, attendance at religious services at least once per week is increasingly common among successively older age groups. Among adults age sixty-five and older, at least weekly attendance exceeds 46 percent. This represents a rise of nearly 10 percent over data collected in the 1970s.

Gerontologists define nonorganizational religiousness as participation in private religious activities, most typically at home or with ones family. Nonorganizational religious indicators include regular prayer, participation in study of the Bible or other scriptures, watching religious television or listening to religious radio, and saying grace at meals. Findings from the 1988 General Social Survey paint a picture for many of these activities that is similar to that for organizational religiousness. Daily prayer, for example, is considerably more common in older than in younger adults. Nearly three-quarters of adults age seventy-five and over pray at least every dayalmost twice the frequency of adults age eighteen to twenty-four.

Besides organizational and nonorganizational religiousness, both of which have to do with religious behavior, religious gerontologists are interested in self-assessments of personal religious attitudes, beliefs, and motivations. These are sometimes classified under the heading of subjective religiousness. Indicators of subjective religiousness include self-ratings of overall religiousness, reports of the importance of religion, intense feelings of religiousness, and professions of belief in God or a higher power. National survey data are less consistent for this type of religiousness than for public or private religious behavior, but still show markedly higher ratings among older adults.

An important issue that arises in interpreting data on age patterns in religious participation is the need to address aging, period, and cohort effects. The disentanglement of these possible effects is an issue that arises frequently in gerontological research. It concerns identifying the underlying explanation for age differences observed in a particular phenomenon, such as the age differences that exist in patterns of religious participation. Only through multiwave longitudinal studies lasting many decades can these three types of effects begin to be separated. Until such studies are conducted in religious gerontology, the best that scientists can do is to rely on reasoned speculation.

The presence of a cohort effect in religious participation is suggested by generational differences in religious socialization experienced by older age cohorts. Examples include religious formation before Vatican II among Catholics, during the flourishing of Classical Reform Judaism, and prior to the decline of mainline Protestantism in the face of evangelical inroads. Not all of these trends, however, imply greater religious training in prior generations. Further, as Moberg noted, if a cohort effect were present, then we would expect to observe less religious participation among each successive generation of older adults. There is little evidence for this; as trends toward greater religiousness in older age have persisted for decades.

This might be explained by the presence of a period effectthat is, an influence of a past epoch or event of religious or societal history that significantly impacted all people living at a certain period of time, but exerted a differential or diffused impact across subsequent periods. Examples, both secular and religious, include the Great Depression, World War II, and the charismatic movement. Evidence of a period effect in religious participation, however, is weak. Not only have trends toward greater religiousness in older age persisted, but absolute levels of religiousness have persisted as well. For example, in the United States national survey data on the frequency of weekly attendance at religious services, across all groups, has hovered just above 40 percent for decades.

Cohort and period effects on religious participation may still be present to a limited extent in certain subgroups of the population, but the most acceptable explanation for greater levels of religiousness observed among older adults is the presence of an actual aging effect. This means a trend toward greater religiousness throughout the life course, signifying increasing reflection on matters of ultimate concern as people age. The psychologist Sheldon S. Tobin, writing from psychoanalytic and developmental perspectives, explains that religion offers continuity across the life course through emphasizing the enduring meaning of life, engendering a sense of being blessed, and providing personal and community resources that enhance coping with age-related losses.

Determinants of religious participation

In contrast to the many national probability-sample studies of patterns of religious participation, research on the determinants or predictors of religiousness in older adults has drawn mostly on small, nonrandom samples of patients, community-center attendees, church members, or students. Since the advent of research funding by the NIA in the 1990s, this has begun to change. Reliable national findings pointing to differences in religious participation by age, gender, race or ethnicity, social class, and other sociodemographic variables are starting to accumulate.

Taylor and Chatters have presented quite a bit of evidence for significant sociodemographic differences in religious participation among older adults, especially older African-Americans. Older age, more education, greater income, being married, female gender, and living in the southern United States each has been found in multiple studies to predict greater levels of organizational, nonorganizational, and subjective religiousness. These important findings firmly contradict commonly held assumptions that religious people, especially religious older people and older African-Americans, tend to be poorer and less educated.

In one NIA-funded study, Levin, Taylor, and Chatters analyzed data from four separate national probability-sample surveys of older adults conducted from the early 1970s to the late 1980s. Collectively these surveys examined twenty religious indicators of all three types (organizational, nonorganizational, and subjective) of religiousness in a total of over six thousand respondents. Significant racial differences were found for sixteen of these variables; significant gender differences were found for twelve variables. In every instance greater levels of religiousness were found among African-Americans and females. Gerontological research among older Hispanics, Jews, and Asian-Americans has focused less on religion, but sociodemographic correlates of religious participation have been identified in these groups.

Religious participation and health

Since the middle 1980s research findings have begun to accumulate on the salutary effects of active religious involvement on objective and subjective indicators of quality of life among older adults. Foremost among these are studies of the impact of organizational and nonorganizational religious participation on a host of psychosocial and health-related outcomes. Scientific investigations by medical sociologists, social epidemiologists, health psychologists, and physicians have confirmed a generally positive effect of religion in relation to physical health and to measures of mental health and psychological well-being. Much of this research has been funded by the NIH and has been conducted by prominent scientists at leading universities and academic medical centers.

Various dimensions of religious participation have been found to be positively associated with a wide range of health indicators in older adults. These include global self-ratings of health, functional disability, physical symptomatology, prevalence of hypertension, prevalence of cancer, and even rates of death. Many studies, for example, have found that active participation in organized religion seems to be associated with greater longevity. In epidemiologic terms both public and private religious behavior seems to be a protective factor against morbidity and mortality.

Likewise, religious dimensions have been shown to have protective effects in relation to a wide variety of measures of mental health and psychological well-being in older adults. These include self-esteem, self-efficacy or mastery, coping, life satisfaction, happiness, addictive behaviors, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. Longitudinal research by Koenig and colleagues at Duke University suggests that religious participation not only exerts a protective or preventive effect, but also may be therapeutic, hastening recovery from clinical depression in hospitalized medically ill patients.

An important issue in social, psychiatric, and epidemiologic research on religion, aging, and health has been the differential saliences of organizational, nonorganizational, and subjective religiousness as sources of protection. Reviews of existing research findings have reached the following consensus: (a) organizational religious involvement is fairly stable throughout the life course, and then declines on average among the very old or disabled; (b) nonorganizational and subjective religiousness also remain stable throughout the life course, then increase slightly on average, perhaps to offset existing declines in organizational religiousness; (c) organizational religiousness is positively associated with greater physical and mental health and well-being; and (d) nonorganizational religiousness seems to be inversely related to health and well-being.

This latter observation is surprising and seems contrary to expectations, yet it has been observed, off and on, for many years. Only with the advent of good longitudinal studies has this anomalous finding been interpretable as a methodological artifact of the cross-sectional nature of most gerontological research on religion. In short, among very old or disabled respondents, nonorganizational religiousness may increase in response to health-necessitated declines in public worship. This would show up in analyses of study data as an inverse or negative effect of nonorganizational religious behavior on health. It does not mean, of course, that private religious practices cause illness; rather, illness or disability leads to an increase in certain types of religious expression as compensation for the inability to practice others. The complexity of this issue exemplifies the importance of longitudinal research for religious gerontology.

Functions of religion among older adults

Research findings such as those summarized above provide the who, what, where, and when of religions influence in the lives of older adults. With few exceptions religion has consistently been found to be an important source of meaning, coping, and adjustment with positive consequences for health and well-being. Understanding the how and why of this seemingly beneficial impact of religion is another matter altogether. The question that needs to be asked is what are the functions, characteristics, expressions, or manifestations of being religious or practicing religion that account for its being a protective factor? Or, in simpler terms, just what is it about religion that explains its impact on health and other outcomes?

Gerontologists have pursued efforts to answer this why question. A variety of sophisticated theoretical perspectives, frameworks, and models have been advanced to explain why religious participation is so vital for the well-being of older adults. For example, the sociologist Christopher G. Ellison discusses how religious participation benefits older adults by (a) reducing the risk of acute and chronic stressors, such as marital problems or deviant behavior; (b) offering institutional or cognitive frameworks, such as a sense of order, meaning, or coherence, that serve to buffer the harmful effects of stress and lead to successful coping; (c) providing tangible social resources, such as religious fellowship and congregational networks; and (d) enhancing personal psychological resources, such as feelings of worthiness. In addition, Koenig outlines ways that religious faith helps older adults who are suffering physical challenges by emphasizing interpersonal relations, stressing the seeking of forgiveness, providing hope for change, emphasizing the forgiveness of oneself and others, providing hope for healing, providing a context and role models for suffering, engendering a sense of control and self-determination, promising life after death and ready accessibility to God, and providing a supportive community.

Another approach to understanding the salutary functions of religion comes from a more epidemiologic perspective. Levin and the sociologist Ellen L. Idler, among others, have described those biobehavioral and psychosocial functions of religion that could account for its positive effects on rates of morbidity and mortality. The key here is to identify the factors that mediate a religion-health relationshipfactors that, independently of religion, are known to prevent illness and promote health. These include healthy behaviors and lifestyles (promoted by active religious affiliation and membership); socially supportive resources (offered by regular religious fellowship); physiological effects of positive emotions (engendered by participation in worship and prayer); health-promoting beliefs and personality styles (consonant with certain religious and theological beliefs); and cognitions such as hope, optimism, and positive expectation (fostered by faith in God or a higher power).

In summary, religion is a key feature and salient force for good in the lives of older adults. Both public and private religious activity is common throughout the life course, and increasingly engaged in by older people. Attendance at worship services and the practice of prayer are especially representative expressions of religiousness. Research has identified age, gender, race or ethnicity, and other sociodemographic factors as important sources of variation in religious expression. Other research points to both organized religion and private or informal religious involvement as epidemiologically significant sources of protection against physical and mental illness and mortality. These findings can be explained by the salutary functions of religious participation, including the provision of personal and interpersonal resources and of a context and meaning for age-related changes in life circumstances such as health.

Jeff Levin

See also Social Support.


Atchley, R. C. Religion and Spirituality. In Social Forces and Aging: An Introduction to Social Gerontology, 8th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1997. Pages 294315.

Clements, W. M., ed. Religion, Aging and Health: A Global Perspective. Compiled by the World Health Organization. New York: Haworth Press, 1989.

Ellison, C. G. Religion, the Life Stress Paradigm, and the Study of Depression. In Religion in Aging and Health: Theoretical Foundations and Methodological Frontiers. Edited by Jeffrey S. Levin. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994. Pages 78121.

Fecher, V. J. Religion & Aging: An Annotated Bibliography. San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press, 1982.

Idler, E. L. Religious Involvement and the Health of the Elderly: Some Hypotheses and an Initial Test. Social Forces 66 (1987): 226238.

Kimble, M. A.; McFadden, S. H.; Ellor, J. W.; and Seeber, J. J., eds. Aging, Spirituality, and Religion: A Handbook. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1995.

Koenig, H. G. Aging and God: Spiritual Pathways to Mental Health in Midlife and Later Years. New York: Haworth Press, 1994.

Koenig, H. G. Research on Religion and Aging: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Koenig, H. G.; Smiley, M.; and Gonzales, J. A. P. Religion, Health, and Aging: A Review and Theoretical Integration. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Krause, N.Religion, Aging, and Health: Current Status and Future Prospects. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 52B (1997): S291S293.

Levin, J. S. Religion. In The Encyclopedia of Aging, 2d ed. Edited by George L. Maddox. New York: Springer, 1995. Pages 799802.

Levin, J. S., ed. Religion in Aging and Health: Theoretical Foundations and Methodological Frontiers. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994.

Levin, J. S.; Taylor, R. J.; and Chatters, L. M. Race and Gender Differences in Religiosity among Older Adults: Findings from Four National Surveys. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 49 (1994): S137S145.

Maves, P. B. Aging, Religion, and the Church. In Handbook of Social Gerontology: Societal Aspects of Aging. Edited by Clark Tibbitts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. Pages 698749.

McFadden, S. H. Religion and Spirituality. In Encyclopedia of Gerontology, vol. 2. Edited by James E. Birren. San Diego: Academic Press, 1996. Pages 387397.

McFadden, S. H. Religion, Spirituality, and Aging. In Handbook of the Psychology of Aging, 4th ed. Edited by James E. Birren and K. Warner Schaie. San Diego: Academic Press, 1996. Pages 162177.

Moberg, D. O. Religion and Aging. In Gerontology: Perspectives and Issues. Edited by Kenneth F. Ferraro. New York: Springer, 1997. Pages 179205.

Taylor, R. J., and Chatters, L. M. Religious Involvement among Older African-Americans. In Religion in Aging and Health: Theoretical Foundations and Methodological Frontiers. Edited by Jeffrey S. Levin. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994. Pages 196230.

Thomas, L. E., and Eisenhandler, S. A., eds. Aging and the Religious Dimension. Westport, Conn.: Auburn House, 1994.

Thomas, L. E., and Eisenhandler, S. A., eds. Religion, Belief, and Spirituality in Late Life. New York: Springer, 1999.

Tobin, S. S. Preserving the Self Through Religion. In Personhood in Advanced Old Age: Implications for Practice. New York: Springer, 1991. Pages 119133.


See Age; Age-period-cohort model; Biomarkers of aging; Cohort change; Epidemiology; Evidence-based medicine; Developmental psychology; Fruit flies; Gerontology; Life cycle theories of aging and consumption; Life events and stress; Narrative; National Institute on Aging; Neurospsychology; Panel studies; Personality; Physiological changes; Primates; Psychological assessment; Psychosocial-behavioral interventions; Reaction time; Rodents; Roundworms; Qualitative research; Surveys; Veterans care; Yeast

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Though difficult to define from an intercultural perspective, religion informs the lives of virtually every society as a complex system involving beliefs, behavior, organizational structures, and symbols. Problems in satisfactorily defining the term emerge from the manifold ways in which religion expresses itself, the varied roles that it performs both for individuals and for social groups, and the plethora of academic disciplines that study it.


Beliefs that may be deemed religious range from precisely articulated perceptions of a complex array of anthropomorphic deities, such as the myriad levels of divinity recognized in Hinduism, to vague notions of impersonal, overarching powerfor example, the concept of mana recognized in many Polynesian societies. Behaviors include a variety of practices, such as the silent meditation practiced on a personal level by mystics from a diversity of religious traditions, including Buddhism and Christianity, and complicated ritual scenarios involving scores of people such as the annual Sun Dance that has provided the central corporate religious experience for many American Indian groups on the Great Plains. Religions organizational structure may be simple groupings of individuals brought together temporarily for specific religious purposes, such as the big meetings held by some Aborigines in the Western Australian desert, as well as multileveled hierarchies that have endured over millennia (for instance, the Roman Catholic Church). Symbolic representations with religious dimensions can be discrete metaphors that stand for a single concept (e.g., a shamans characterization of his or her mystical experience as a death and rebirth) as well as variegated iconographic vocabularies of interrelated images, such as that which characterized medieval and Renaissance Christianity and which continues to afford ways for Christians to communicate about their faith.

Social scientists and others have noted that religion plays varied roles in society, including validating other features of a society, such as its political or economic system, and compensating individuals for the limitations that their humanity imposes on them and for the prohibitions dictated by specific societal norms. Religion also has an integrative function as it provides a focus for cultural identity, endorses those values and norms that ensure that a person will truly be a respectable member of the society, and discourages behavior that undermines social cohesion. Religion also offers answers to some of lifes persistent problems, especially the meaning of death and the possibility of an afterlife.

The study of religion is genuinely multidisciplinary, and different fields stress different emphases in their approaches to the concept. Sociologists, for example, usually highlight the organizational structures and patterns of behavior as central to their concerns, whereas practitioners of philosophy, theology, and comparative religious studies focus their attention on beliefs. Literature and art history are most likely to foreground religious symbolism. Priding itself on its holistic approach to society and culture, anthropology is more apt than other disciplines to pay more or less equal attention to all four components of religion.

The problem of defining religion is further complicated when one attempts to differentiate it from other systems of belief, behavior, organization, and symbolism. These attempts often rely on terms that themselves need definition and clarification: sacred, transcendent, supernatural, spiritual, and ultimate. Most of these terms suggest that religion focuses on nonroutine phenomena that are set apart in some way from nonreligious experience (the secular or the profane ). But exactly what sets them apart and the degree to which they differ from the rest of life have not been consistently articulated. What may be perceived as sacred phenomena in some systems of belief may be regarded as secular elsewhere. Mysterious lights, for example, may signal the presence of a supernatural entity, or they may be explained as the product of gases emitted by decaying vegetation. One may base the decision whether to eat meat on religious proscriptions, or the decision may be simply a nutritional issue.

Another contributor to the difficulty in defining religion is that although religion is apparently universal that is, found in all societiesthe concept of a system of beliefs, behavior, organizational structures, and symbolism distinct from other social systems is largely a Western construct. Many languages have no equivalent for the English word religion, though the societies that speak those languages evince much that would be considered religious in Western terms.


Theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of religion generally reflect different emphases in how the concept is defined. Whereas social scientists, for example, usually focus on how religion operates within specific cultural contexts, theologians and comparative religion scholars may examine the nuances of religious beliefs. But one area of concern that has transcended a range of academic disciplines is the issue of origins. For example, a historian may be interested in how Mormonism emerged from the ferment of religious enthusiasm that characterized the burned-over district of western New York in the early nineteenth century, or in tracing the origins of Christian apocalypticism of the twenty-first century to Zoroastrian beliefs in Persia from perhaps as early as the tenth century bce.

More fundamentally, interest in origins has often addressed how religion as a system originated in the human individual and collective psyche: as a response to dream experiences (the view of the nineteenth-century anthropologist E. B. Tylor), out of fear and guilt regarding a primordial father figure (one of the ideas articulated by Sigmund Freud), as a product of the human tendency to personify incomprehensible natural forces (articulated by the eighteenth-century philosopher and historian Giambattista Vico, among others), as a method for suppressing social discontent and for promoting adherence to a societys power structure (advocated by philosophers from Plato to Marx), and even as the product of revelation from a god or other spiritual being or force (the stance assumed by many religious adherentsat least in regard to their own religions). Of course, many other explanations of religions origin have been and continue to be proposed, and many of them lack the criterion of testability upon which many academic fields insist in order for an idea to be more than hypothesis. Consequently, many other issues in religion have received more scholarly attention.

Many sociologists, in particular, look to the pioneering concepts of Émile Durkheim, a late-nineteenth-century social scientist who argued that religion is principally a social phenomenon. Drawing upon data from the religions of Australian Aboriginal groups, he proposed that the object of religious belief and behavior was, in fact, the society itself, and that religion operated to maintain social stability through the devotion of its adherents. Whereas many of his contemporaries were more attracted by the issue of religions origins, Durkheim concentrated on how religion operated. This concern anticipated the functional emphases of anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, who early in the twentieth century examined how religion operated as a support for other social institutions andin Malinowskis casehow it might assist believers in their everyday lives by providing ways of dealing with issues that lay beyond their scientific knowledge. Malinowski studied the culture of the Trobriand Islanders, Melanesians who inhabited an archipelago to the east of New Guinea and who relied on seafaring for much of their livelihoods. He noted that Trobriand sailors did not evoke religion when they were operating within the peaceful lagoons just offshore from their island homes, but when they faced the potentially uncontrollable forces of the open seas, they turned to religious beliefs and behavior to complement their knowledge of ocean currents, the weather, and other variables.

Though they might reject the designation functionalist as too simplistic for how they approach the study of religion, many social scientists nevertheless continue to deal principally with how religion operates in social life collectively and in the lives of individuals. Durkheims belief that the object of religious interest symbolizes the society finds echoes in the more recent ideas about civil religion. Sociologist Robert Bellah has suggested that in many societiesthe United States, in particularpatriotism has developed beliefs, behaviors, organizational structures, and symbolism tantamount to a religious system (1967).

Many social scientists have been especially interested in the nature of religious participation: who finds given religious systems amenable to meeting their particular needs and who performs what roles in religious behavior and organization. In heterogeneous, stratified societies such as those in the West, research has attempted to correlate membership in a particular class or caste with participation in a particular religious system or subset thereof. For instance, the wealthy and highly educated populations in the United States are more likely to affiliate with branches of Christianity that stress the importance of formal liturgy, whereas middle- and lower-class individuals prefer Christian groups that stress less organization and underscore instead the importance of personal religious experience. Ethnicity also has been a frequently identified variable in determining religious affiliation. In fact, some ethnic groups in the United Kingdom and France use religion, particularly Islam, to reinforce and signal their ethnic cultural identity. In the latter half of the twentieth century, researchers became more and more interested in ways in which gender might affect not so much a persons specific affiliation but the nature of that persons involvement in religion. While the womens movement was encouraging a more visible, active role for women in many Christian denominations in the West, researchers looking at religions in other parts of the world often found that women traditionally had been central in local religious belief and polity.

Another focus of social scientific interest in religion has been the way in which it interacts with other systems of ideology in a society. Max Weber is an important early figure in this interest because of his demonstration of the way in which Protestant Christianity, especially Calvinism in western Europe, created a milieu conducive to the emergence of capitalism by emphasizing individualism and hard work, among other values. Of particular interest in the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been the association between religion and nationalism. Islamic-based governments, primarily in the Middle East, have become among the most important participants in global politics, and competition between different branches of Islam (Sunni and Shia, in particular) has characterized their internal politics. Christianity has assumed a similar role in some Western nation-states such as the United States, where fundamentalist groups have become powerful elements on the political landscape. Sociologists and political scientists have shown particular interest in measuring the ways in which religious affiliation has affected the voting patterns of the U.S. electorate and in shaping the programs of the politicians they support.

An important and very fundamental development in social scientific interest in religion concerns the way in which scholars position themselves in regard to their subject. Conventionally, social scientists have been urged to develop a stance of methodological agnosticism in which they eschew their own religious beliefs at least temporarily and adopt a perspective of cultural relativism that is not concerned with whether a religious belief is true or whether a ritual actually produces the results that its practitioners desire. Instead, researchers have attended to the internal consistency of belief systems, the social and cultural functions of ritual, and the extent to which adherents lend credence to beliefs and rituals. Recently, however, some social scientists have begun to recognize that this perspective brings with it certain assumptions that color what researchers observe, how they report what they encounter, and the directions taken by their analyses. Influenced by the set of ideas loosely known as postmodernism, researchers have become more aware of the role of their own religious ideas in their work and have become more forthcoming about those ideas. The cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, for example, was usually very open about his own Roman Catholicism in his work focusing on the symbolic dimension of religious systems. In addition to this move toward reflexivity on the part of religious researchers, some social scientists have begun to accept that religious beliefs may often stem from actual wondrous events that an individual has experienced and which the social group interprets in terms of the events relation to indigenous ideas about the sacred, the supernatural, the spiritual, or the ultimate.

New tools have allowed social scientists to explore traditional areas of religious study more fully and accurately. The availability of computer programs, for instance, allows demographic studies to be done more quickly and with a larger number of variables than was feasible before the computer age. Meanwhile, technology has taken religious studies into some new, still controversial, and largely unexplored areas such as the possibility of a genetic basis for the need for religion. Interestingly and perhaps counterintuitivelythe growth of technology during the latter half of the twentieth century did not parallel a decline in religious adherence; instead, many religions have witnessed significant growth as technology has blossomed.


Literally thousands of religious systems flourish throughout todays world. Although many of these appeal only to small groups (and have consequently been labeled tribal or primal-indigenous religions), even these may exert international influence through the globalized mass media and through such phenomena as cultural tourism. Other religious systems are truly world religions whose practitioners believe that they can and should promulgate their beliefs to everyone. Despite their purported international scope, though, these world religions are often focused on specific territories. For example, the largest religious system, Christianity (with more than two billion adherents), developed in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea and then spread primarily through Europe and then to those parts of the world that were subjects of European colonialism. Most branches of Christianity retain primary geographical ties with Europe or with the United States, but some are flourishing most luxuriantly in other parts of the worldRoman Catholicism in Central and South America and in Africa, for example.

Meanwhile, Islamsecond in number of adherents to Christianity with perhaps a billion and a half followersmaintains its primary geographical association with southwestern Asia and southeastern Europe. But it has spread throughout the world, and, in fact, the country with the most Muslims is Indonesia. Hinduism, with close to a billion practitioners, remains principally associated with the Indian subcontinent, and Buddhism, with maybe half a billion adherents, also has an Asian focus. Nevertheless, both these religions have had enormous influence elsewhere, especially as replacements for or supplements to Christianity. The diaspora of the Jewish population has made Judaism a world religion with a symbolic attachment to the nation of Israel.

As contact between societies becomes more efficient, these world religions as well as more local systems of belief, behavior, organizational structures, and symbolism will spread more widely. Meanwhile, they will continue to influence one another to create syncretistic systems such as the Native American Church, which blends Christianity, various North American Indian religions, and ritual behavior that apparently originated in Mexico; and Vodoun, the principal religion of Haiti, which merges Roman Catholic Christianity and several West African religious systems, with influences from native Caribbean religions. The endurance of religions whose roots lie in the distant past, as well as the emergence of new religions, often the result of syncretism and other processes of cultural exchange, ensures that social scientists and other scholars who specialize in the study of religion will not lack for subject matter any time soon.

SEE ALSO Animism; Anthropology; Buddhism; Christianity; Church and State; Church, The; Coptic Christian Church; Cults; Durkheim, Émile; Ethnicity; Heaven; Hell; Hinduism; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Jainism; Judaism; Malinowski, Bronislaw; Monotheism; Polytheism; Protestant Ethic; Protestantism; Radcliffe-Brown, A. R.; Rastafari; Religiosity; Roman Catholic Church; Santería; Shinto; Sociology; Weber, Max


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Carmody, Denise. 1979. Women and World Religions. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Eliade, Mircea, ed. 1987. The Encyclopedia of Religion. 16 vols. New York: Macmillan.

Guthrie, Stewart Elliott. 1993. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lessa, William A., and Evon Z. Vogt, eds. 1979. Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach. 4th ed. New York: Harper and Row.

Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents.

McClenon, John. 1994. Wondrous Events: Foundations of Religious Belief. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Smith, Huston. 1991. The Worlds Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: Harper.

Wilson, Brian. 1990. The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism: Sects and New Religious Movements in Contemporary Society. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Yinger, J. Milton. 1970. The Scientific Study of Religion. New York: Macmillan.

William M. Clements

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349. Religion


1. the property or jurisdiction of an abbot.
2. the time during which a person serves as an abbot.
the practice of going naked for God; the beliefs of some ascetic sects in ritual nakedness. See also 287. NAKEDNESS Adamite. n. Adamitic, adj.
anagoge, anagogy
1. Obsolete, a spiritual or mental elevation.
2. a mystical interpretation of a text (usually the Bible.) anagogic, adj. anagogically, adv.
the study of hidden meanings, usually in Bible passages.
1. Theology. the doctrine or theory concerning angels.
2. the beliefs concerning angels.
the appearance to men, in visible form, of angels.
the principles of those who oppose the with-drawal of the recognition or support of the state from an established church, usually used in referring to the Anglican church in the 19th century in England.
Theology. 1. any doctrine concerning the end of the temporal world, especially one based on the Revelations of St. John the Divine.
2. the millennial doctrine of the Second Advent and the reign of Jesus Christ on earth. apocalyptic, apocalyptical, adj.
a formal apology, especially on behalf of some belief or doctrine.
relinquishing of a religious belief. apostate, n., adj.
being of or contemporary with the Apostles in character.
the worship of children.
the doctrines and practices of a sect growing out of Babism and reflecting some attitudes of the Islamic Shia sect, but with an emphasis on tolerance and the essential worth of all religions. Bahai, n., adj. Bahaist, n., adj.
obtuse or narrow-minded intolerance, especially of other races or religions. bigot, n .bigoted, adj.
a pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, involving worship of nature spirits and the practice of sacrifice, magie, and divination. It was influential on the Tibetan form of Buddhism.
Caodaism, Caodism
the doctrines of an Indochinese religion, especially an amalgamation of features from Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and spiritualism. Caodaist, n .
belief in a church or religious system.
the state of eternal coexistence; eternal coexistence with another eternal entity. coeternal, adj.
the practice of converting people to a religion. convertist, n .
the worship of the world.
a term used in 16th-century Germany for secret sympathies toward Calvinists, held by professed Lutherans. crypto-Calvinist, n.
the quality or state of a person markedly characterized by religious devotion. devotionalist, n .
the doctrines and practices of an order of Celtic priests in ancient Britain, Gaul, and Ireland. Druid, n., adj. Druidic, Druidical, adj.
Theology. 1. the doctrine of two independent divine beings or eternal principles, one good and the other evil.
2. the belief that man embodies two parts, as body or soul. dualist, n . dualistic, adj.
the use of a thesis to state a belief, as the Ecthesis of Heracïius, for-bidding discussion of the duality of Christs will.
a mania for religion.
the appearance to man, in visible form, of a god or other supernatural being.
official recognition of a church as a national institution, especially the Church of England. Cf. antidisestablishmentarianism .
Obsolete, a complete, usually public, confession.
religious doctrines or practices that are easily understood by the general public. exoteric, n., adj.
the beliefs of the familists, members of an antinomian sect of 16th-and 17th-century Europe. familist, n . familistic, adj.
the character, spirit, or conduct of a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics. fanatic, n .
whipping or flogging as a religious practice for the mortification of the flesh. flagellant, n., adj, flagellator, n .
the state or quality of being non-Jewish, and especially a heathen or pagan. gentile, n., adj.
1. a belief or practice of heathens.
2. pagan worship; idolatry.
3. irreligion.
4. barbaric morals or behavior. heathen, n., adj. heathenistic, adj.
the worship of heroes.
the principles, attitudes, and practices of priests as a group, both Christian and non-Christian. hieratic, adj.
a mania for priests.
1. the performance of holy works.
2. the holy work itself.
High Churchism
the principles that distinguish the Anglican church from the Calvinist and Protestant Nonconformist churches, especially deference to the authority and claims of the Episcopate and the priesthood and belief in the saving grace of the sacraments. High Churchist, High Churchite, n .
the art of sacred speaking; preaching. homiletic, homiletical adj.
Hsüan Chiao
Taoism, def. 2.
the religion of a fourth-century Asiatic sect whose beliefs were composed of Christian, Jewish, and pagan elements.
the belief in or worship of idols. idolatry, idolist, n. idolatrous, adj.
a view that admits no real difference between true and false in religion or philosophy; a form of agnosticism. indifferentist, n . See also 28. ATTITUDES .
adherence to a theory or doctrine of divine influence, inspiration, or revelation, especially concerning the Scriptures.
the beliefs of the Izedis, a Mesopotamian sect said to worship the devil. Izedi, Yezdi, Yezidi, n .
a dualistic, ascetic religion founded in the 6th century B.C. by a Hindu reformer as a revolt against the caste system and the vague world spirit of Hinduism. Jain,n.,adj. Jainist, n.
a Christian sect founded by Cornelius Jansen, 17th-century Dutch religious reformer. See also 205. HERESY .
the relation between Jehovah and his people and church.
the policies and measures concerning religion introduced by Emperor Joseph II of Austria (1741-90). Also Josephism .
the study of homiletics. kerystic, adj.
tolerance or broadmindedness, especially in matters of religion; the liberal interpretation of beliefs or doctrines. latitudinarian, n., adj.
Theology. 1. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.
2. the judging of conduct in terms of strict adherence to precise laws. legalist, n. legalistic, adj.
the study of public church ritual. liturgist, n.
the system of church rituals and their symbolism. liturgiolo-gist, n .
Low Churchism
the principle that the Church of England is really little different from the Protestant Nonconformist churches in England and thus that the authority of the Episcopate and the priesthood, as well as the sacraments, are of comparatively minor importance. Low Churchman, n.
the killing of something for the purpose of sacrifice.
1. the doctrine of a generalized, supernatural force or power, which may be concentrated in objects or persons.
2. belief in mana. manaistic, adj.
1. the condition of being a martyr.
2. the death or type of suffering of a particular martyr.
3. any arduous suffering or torment.
Obsolete, a list, register or book of martyrs.
the worship of Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism as the source of all light and good. Mazdaist, n .
the preachings of the American William Miller (1782-1849), founder of the Adventist church, who believed that the end of the world and the return of Christ would occur in 1843. Millerite, n.
a West Indian Negro cult, probably of West African origin, that believes in the Obeah.
1. the doctrine that an immediate spiritual intuition of truth or an intimate spiritual union of the soul with God can be achieved through contemplation and spiritual exercises.
2. the beliefs, ideas, or practices of mystics.
the revival of paganism. neopagan, adj. neopaganist, n., adj.
a person who has no religion; a religious skeptic.
1. the state or position of being without religious faith or belief.
2. advocacy of such a state or position. nullifidian, n., adj.
a belief that certain secret, mysterious, or supernatural agencies exist and that human beings may communicate with them or have their assistance. occultist, n., adj.
Philosophy. the doctrine that the human intellect has as its proper object the knowledge of God, that this knowledge is immediate and intu-itive, and that all other knowledge must be built on this base. ontologist, n. ontologistic, adj.
the doctrines and beliefs of certain Gnostic sects that worshiped serpents as the symbol of the hidden divine wisdom and as having benefited Adam and Eve by encouraging them to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Also Ophitism . Ophite, n. Ophitic, adj.
the religion of the Orphic mysteries, a cult of Dionysus (Bacchus) ascribed to Orpheus as its founder, especially its rites of initiation and doctrines of original sin, salvation, and purification through reincarnations. Also Orphicism . Orphic, n., adj.
the condition, quality, or practice of conforming, especially in religious belief. orthodox, adj.
1. a hedonistic spirit or attitude in moral or religious matters.
2. the beliefs and practices of pagans, especially polytheists.
3. the state of being a pagan. paganist, n., adj. paganistic, adj.
1. the belief that identifies God with the universe.
2. the belief that God is the only reality, transcending all, and that the universe and everything in it are mere manifestations of Him. pantheist, n., adj. pantheistic, adj.
the worship of the Church Fathers.
ostentatious piety; sanctimoniousness.
the doctrine or theory of spiritual beings. pneumatologist, n. pneumatologic, pneumatological, adj.
the study of the history of ecclesiastical disputes.
a derogatory term for the practices and beliefs of priests or the priesthood.
1. the behavior of a prophet or prophets.
2. the philosophical system of the Hebrew prophets.
the religious beliefs of a West Indian sect who worship the late Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie (given name: Ras Tafari), and who believe that black people are the chosen of God, and that their promised land is Africa. Their use of marijuana in rituals was widely publicized.
recusancy. recusant, adj.
resistance to authority or refusal to conform, especially in religious matters, used of English Catholics who refuse to attend the services of the Church of England. Also called recusance . recusant, n., adj.
the act or quality of being renewed, reformed, or reborn, especially in a spiritual rebirth. regenerate, adj.
the strict adherence and devotion to religion. religionist, n . religionary, adj.
the worship of relics.
advocacy of the reunion of the Anglican and Catholic churches. reunionist, n . reunionistic, adj.
a person who believes in divine revelation or revealed religion.
the principles, institutions, or practices of the Rosicrucian Order, especially claims to various forms of occult knowledge and power, and esoteric religious practices. Rosicrucian, n., adj.
Sabianism, Sabaeanism, Sabeanism
the religious system of the Sabians, a group, according to the Koran, entitled to Muslim religious toleration. They have been associated with the Mandeans, who claim direct descent from the followers of John the Baptist. See also 25. ASTRONOMY .
the religious doctrines of the Samaritans.
the appearance of Satan on earth.
a division especially peculiar to a Christian church or a religious body. schismatic, n . schismatical, adj.
the doctrines and beliefs of a religious movement founded in the mid-20th century by L. Ron Hubbard, especially an emphasis upon mans immortal spirit, reincarnation, and an extrascientific method of psychotherapy (dianetics). Scientologist, n., adj.
1. a view that religion and religious considerations should be ignored or excluded from social and political matters.
2. an ethical system asserting that moral judgments should be made without reference to religious doctrine, as reward or punishment in an afterlife. secularist, n., adj. secularistic, adj.
the simulation of religious, seraphic ecstasy.
1. a person who delivers sermons.
2. a person who adopts a preaching attitude.
1. the act of delivering a sermon.
2. sermons taken collectively.
1. the tenets of the primitive religion of northern Asia, especially a belief in powerful spirits who can be influenced only by shamans in their double capacity of priest and doctor.
2. any similar religion, as among American Indians. shamanist, n . shamanistic, adj.
the doctrines and practices of Shinto, the native religion of Japan, especially its system of nature and ancestor worship. Shinto, n., adj. Shintoistic, adj.
the practices of simony, especially the making of a profit out of sacred things. simonist, n. simoniac, n., adj. simoniacal, adj.
1. a philosophical system evolved by Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, especially its advocacy of a simple and natural life and of noninterference with the course of natural events in order to have a happy existence in harmony with the Tao.
2. a popular Chinese religion, purporting to be based on the principles of Lao-tzu, but actually an eclectic polytheism characterized by superstition, alchemy, divination, and magic. Also called Hsüan Chiao .
a system of government in which a deity is considered the civil ruler. Also called thearchy .
the study of God and His relationship to the universe. theologist, n . theological, adj.
a religious ecstasy in which the devotee believes that he is the deity.
the state or condition of being formed in the image or likeness of God. theomorphic, adj.
a manifestation or appearance of God or a god to man. theophanic, theophanous, adj.
the doctrines or tenets of a deistic society in post-Revolutionary Paris that hoped to replace the outlawed Christian religion with a new religion based on belief in God, the immortality of the soul, and personal virtue. theophilanthropist, n . theophilanthropic, adj.
the belief that knowledge not accessible to empirical study can be gained through direct contact with the divine principle. Theosophist, n. Theosophic, Theosophical, adj.
treatment of illness or disease by prayer and other religious exercises. theotherapist, n .
the beliefs and practices of the Therapeutae, a Jewish mystical sect in Egypt during the 1st century A.D.
Turcism, Turkism
Obsolete, the religion of the Turks, i.e., Islam.
the principles of the Vaudois or Waldenses, who did not acknowledge the primacy of the Pope. Waldensian, adj.
the religious system of the Wahhabi, a Muslim order founded by Muhammad Ibn-Abdul Wahhab.
Bible. the worship of idols instead of God; idolatry.
the Kongo and Kimbundu system of religion, characterized by worship of a snake deity during voodoo rites.
the doctrines and practices of a dualistic Iranian religion, especially the existence of a supreme deity, Ahura Mazda, and belief in a cosmic struggle between a spirit of good and light and a spirit of evil and darkness. Also called Zoroastrism, Zarathustrism, Mazdaism . Zoroastrian, n., adj.

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Russia has been multireligious from its very inception. When Kiev Rus adopted Eastern Orthodoxy in 988, a gradual Christianization began, advancing slowly from urban elites to the lower classes and countryside. Pagan belief and practice persisted, however, and was sometimes incorporated into Orthodox ritual. Prerevolutionary historians termed the resulting syncretism "dual faith" (dvoyeveriye ), emphasizing the survival of paganism and superficiality of the Orthodox veneer. While simplistic, that reductionist view of popular religion suggests the complexity of religious cultures, the institutional backwardness of the church, and the daunting geographic scale of the task it faced. Not until the eighteenth century did the church, in any real sense, construct the administrative tools needed to standardize and regulate popular Orthodoxy.

By that time the empire was exploding in size and religious diversity. Although medieval Russia had absorbed peoples of other faiths (such as the Muslim Tatars), religious pluralism became a predominant feature in the modern period. The state annexed vast new territories of Siberia and eastern Ukraine (in the seventeenth century) and then added an array of new lands and peoples in the eighteenth (Baltics, western Ukraine, Belarus) and nineteenth centuries (the Caucasus, Poland, Finland, and Central Asia). That expansion increased the size and complexity of the non-Orthodox population exponentially. Although, according to the census of 1897, the population remained predominantly Eastern Orthodox (69.3%), the empire had substantial numbers of non-Orthodox believers (often concentrated in geographic areas): Muslims (11.1%), Catholics (9.1%), Jews (4.2%), Lutherans (2.7%), Old Believers (1.8%), and various other Christian and non-Christian groups. Indeed, the figures on the non-Orthodox side are understated: the census failed to record adherents of persecuted movements seeking to evade legal trouble.

This waxing religious pluralism posed a serious problem for a regime once imbued with a messianic identity as the Third Rome. Although the process of accommodation commenced in the seventeenth century, it sharply accelerated in the eighteenth, as the regime sought to recruit foreign mercenaries, specialists, and colonists. To reaffirm the precedence of the Russian Orthodox Church, the government adopted the principle of static religious identity: each subject was to retain the original faith (the sole permissible form of conversion being to Orthodoxy, with conversion from Orthodoxy criminalized as apotasy). For state officials devoted to raison d'état what mattered most was stability, not salvationmuch to the chagrin of Orthodox zealots. Indeed, that secularity prevailed in the imperial manifesto of April 17, 1905, which, in a futile attempt to quell the revolution of 1905, granted freedom of religious belief. After an interlude of broken promises and rising tensions, the February Revolution finally brought full religious freedom (including freedom of official religious affiliation and practice).

That freedom was short-lived: Once the Bolshevik regime came to power in October 1917, it persecuted religious groups, with the assumption that such superstition would promptly wither away. Dismayed by signs of a religious revival, in 1929 the party unleashed a massive assault on all religions, systematically closing houses of worship

and subjecting not only clergy but also believers to repression. To no avail: The January 1937 census revealed that 55.3 percent of those over age 14 declared themselves believers. That impelled the regime to redouble its efforts. In 19371941, hundreds of thousands were arrested and large numbers executed.

Although World War II forced the Stalinist regime to tolerate the reestablishment of many religious organizations, these encountered growing pressure that continued past Stalin's death in 1953. The post-Stalinist regimes proved indefatigable in efforts to efface the remnants of superstition. They did achieve a reduction in organized religion: the number of religious organizations in the USSR declined by a third (from 22,698 in 1961 to 15,202 in 1985).

Even if religious organizations had dwindled, the government proved far less effective in combating religious observance. Indeed, data from the latter period of Soviet rule showed clear signs of religious revival. In the case of baptism, for example, even if the aggregate figures between 1979 and 1984 decreased (by 6.7%), authorities could not fail to notice increases in some non-Russian republics (19.9% in Georgia, for example) and even in the RSFSR (1.5%). Baptism rates, moreover, skyrocketed among non-Orthodox Christians, with increases of 43.6 percent among Lutherans, 33.3 percent among Methodists, and 52.1 percent among Mennonites. Data about monetary contributionsan increase of 17.8 percent between 1979 and 1984 gave the regime further cause for worry. These funds allowed established religions to bolster their central administrations (45.9% of funds), expand support for clergy (14.3%), and spend more on religious artifacts and literature (17.4%).

Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika in the mid-1980s brought a significant improvement in the status and activism of religion. That, doubtless, was a key factor behind the stunning 36.6 percent increase in religious groups in the Soviet Union (from 12,438 in 1985 to 16,990 in 1990); in the RSFSR, the rate of growth was only slightly slower32.6 percent (from 3,003 in 1985 to 3,983 in 1990). The expansion of organized religion hardly abated after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991: In the Russian Federation, the number of registered religious organizations rose fivefold (to 20,200 on December 31, 2000).

That growth has been somewhat troubling for the Russian Orthodox Church. Although a majority of the citizens in the Russian Federation profess some vague allegiance to Orthodoxy, observants are relatively few (4.5%), and still fewer attend services on a regular basis. Still more alarming has been the exponential growth of non-Orthodox religious groups, especially Christian evangelical and Pentecostal movements. In an effort to contain cult movements, the law on religious organizations (October 1997) posed barriers to the registration of new religious groups, that is, those that had emerged within the last fifteen years, chiefly from foreign missions. Nevertheless, by the closing deadline for registration on December 31, 2000, Russian Orthodoxy claimed only a slight majority (10,913) of the 20,200 religious organizations in the Russian Federation; the rest consisted of Muslim (3,048), Evangelicals (1,323), Baptists (975), Evangelical Christians (612), Seventh-Day Adventists (563), Jehovah's Witnesses (330), Old Believers (278), Catholics (258), Lutherans (213), Jews (197), and various smaller groups.

See also: catholicism; hagiography; islam; jews; monasticism; orthodoxy; paganism; protestantism; russian orthodox church; saints


Anderson, John. (1994). Religion, State, and Politics in the Soviet Union and Successor States. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Corley, Felix. (1996). Religion in the Soviet Union: An Archival Reader. New York: New York University Press.

Geraci, Robert P., and Khodarkovsky, Michael. (2001). Of Religion and Empire: Missions, Conversion, and Tolerance in Tsarist Russia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Hosking, Geoffrey A. (1991). Church, Nation, and State in Russia and Ukraine. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Lewis, David C. (1999). After Atheism: Religion and Ethnicity in Russia and Central Asia. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Gregory L. Freeze

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religion, a system of thought, feeling, and action that is shared by a group and that gives the members an object of devotion; a code of behavior by which individuals may judge the personal and social consequences of their actions; and a frame of reference by which individuals may relate to their group and their universe. Usually, religion concerns itself with that which transcends the known, the natural, or the expected; it is an acknowledgment of the extraordinary, the mysterious, and the supernatural. The religious consciousness generally recognizes a transcendent, sacred order and elaborates a technique to deal with the inexplicable or unpredictable elements of human experience in the world or beyond it.

Types of Religious Systems

The evolution of religion cannot be precisely determined owing to the lack of clearly distinguishable stages, but anthropological and historical studies of isolated cultures in various periods of development have suggested a typology but not a chronology. One type is found among some Australian aborigines who practice magic and fetishism (see fetish) but consider the powers therein to be not supernatural but an aspect of the natural world. Inability or refusal to divide real from preternatural and acceptance of the idea that inanimate objects may work human good or evil are sometimes said to mark a prereligious phase of thought. This is sometimes labeled naturism or animatism. It is characterized by a belief in a life force that itself has no definite characterization (see animism).

A second type of religion, represented by many Oceanic and African tribal beliefs, includes momentary deities (a tree suddenly falling on or in front of a person is malignant, although it was not considered "possessed" before or after the incident) and special deities (a particular tree is inhabited by a malignant spirit, or the spirits of dead villagers inhabit a certain grove or particular animals). In this category one must distinguish between natural and supernatural forces. This development is related to the emergence of objects of devotion, to rituals of propitiation, to priests and shamans, and to an individual sense of group participation in which the individual or the group is protected by, or against, supernatural beings and is expected to act singly or collectively in specific ways when in the presence of these forces (see ancestor worship; totem; spiritism).

In a third class of religion—usually heavily interlaced with fetishism—magic, momentary and special deities, nature gods, and deities personifying natural functions (such as the Egyptian solar god Ra, the Babylonian goddess of fertility Ishtar, the Greek sea-god Poseidon, and the Hindu goddess of death and destruction Kali) emerge and are incorporated into a system of mythology and ritual. Sometimes they take on distinctively human characteristics (see anthropomorphism).

Beyond these more elementary forms of religious expression there are what are commonly called the "higher religions." Theologians and philosophers of religion agree that these religions embody a principle of transcendence, i.e., a concept, sometimes a godhead, that involves humans in an experience beyond their immediate personal and social needs, an experience known as "the sacred" or "the holy."

In the comparative study of these religions certain classifications are used. The most frequent are polytheism (as in popular Hinduism and ancient Greek religion), in which there are many gods; dualism (as in Zoroastrianism and certain Gnostic sects), which conceives of equally powerful deities of good and of evil; monotheism (as in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), in which there is a single god; supratheism (as in Hindu Vedanta and certain Buddhist sects), in which the devotee participates in the religion through a mystical union with the godhead; and pantheism, in which the universe is identified with God.

Another frequently used classification is based on the origins of the body of knowledge held by a certain religion: some religions are revealed, as in Judaism (where God revealed the Commandments to Moses), Christianity (where Christ, the Son of God, revealed the Word of the Father), and Islam (where the angel Gabriel revealed God's will to Muhammad). Some religions are nonrevealed, or "natural," the result of human inquiry alone. Included among these and sometimes called philosophies of eternity are Buddhist sects (where Buddha is recognized not as a god but as an enlightened leader), Brahmanism, and Taoism and other Chinese metaphysical doctrines.


See J. Wach, Comparative Study of Religions (1951, repr. 1958); J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (3d ed., 13 vol., 1955; repr. 1966); V. T. A. Ferm, Encyclopedia of Religion (1959); J. Hick, The Philosophy of Religion (1963); J. de Vries, The Study of Religion (tr. 1967); G. Parrinder, ed., Man and His Gods (1971); M. Eliade, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion (16 vol., 1986); E. L. Queen 2d et al., ed., The Encyclopedia of American Religious History (1996).

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Wherever human beings travel, we bring our religions with us. "Godspeed, John Glenn," the farewell words spoken to the first American astronaut into orbit, exemplifies the characteristic human drive to carry faith into space.

Many astronauts who are religious have spoken of finding their faith strengthened by the experience of traveling in space. The ability to look back on Earth as a small blue planet, and to see the fragility of life and human existence, is an experience that brings many space travelers closer to the creator. The astronauts of the Apollo 8 mission, orbiting the Moon for the very first time in 1968, broadcast back to Earth a reading from the book of Genesis on Christmas day, in the belief that the passage discussing the creation of the world expressed their feelings of the awe and majesty of creation.

While some astronauts are agnostic or atheist, others have been highly religious. Astronauts from most of the major religions on Earth have been represented in space, including representatives of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism. Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, one of the two astronauts who were the first men to land on the Moon, brought with him a small vial of consecrated wine and a tiny piece of communion wafer, in order to celebrate the holy sacrament on the surface of the Moon.

For other astronauts, the spiritual experience of space is not expressed in the terms of formal religion. After landing on the Moon with Apollo 14, Astronaut Edgar Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences to reconcile the spiritual and humanistic values of religious traditions with scientific insights. The spiritual insight granted from spaceflight, and seeing Earth from orbit without political boundaries or petty human conflict, is profound. This insight has been tagged "the overview effect" by author Frank White.

Historically, religion and science have had a difficult relationship: in 1600, for example, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Inquisition for writing that the universe is infinite and includes an indefinite number of worlds. In 1630 the scientist Galileo Galilei was tried by the church on a charge of "suspicion of heresy" for writing that Earth circled around the Sun. He was forced to recant his position, and was subjected to imprisonment. It would take over four centuries for the Roman Catholic Church to review the results of the trial and rescind the sentence.

It is now widely conceded by theologians that there is no inherent conflict between science and religion, and modern scientists have included followers of all religions, as well as agnostics and atheists. Some philosophers and scientists such as Frank Tipler have looked even further, and foreseen the development of human potential into God in a future "Omega point" at the final collapse of the universe, elaborating on theological concepts developed by the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Religionand religious persecutionhas always been a significant force to move outward. In American history, the Pilgrims were driven to settle Plymouth, Massachusetts, as a religious colony; and the settlement of Utah was incited by intolerance toward the Mormon Church in the eastern United States. Some theorists expect that the same forces may also drive space colonization, as religious intolerance has not been eliminated in the centuries since these events.

The scriptures are silent on the subject of life on other worlds. If we explore other worlds, and find other forms of intelligent life, this will bring out many questions to be addressed by religion. Do beings of other planets have souls? Are they eligible for salvation? Do they have religion, and if so, what god or gods do they worship? Questions such as these have been addressed in science fiction. Science fiction writers who have addressed the question of the religious implications of spaceflight include, among others, Arthur C. Clarke, Mary Doria Russell, James Blish, and Philip José Farmer.

see also Clarke, Arthur C. (volume 1); Galilei, Galileo (volume 2).

Geoffrey A. Landis


Clarke, Arthur C. "The Star." In Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. New York: Tor Books, 2001.

Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. Paris, 1794.

Reissued in Thomas Paine: Collected Writings. New York: Library of America, 1995.

Russell, Mary Doria. The Sparrow. New York: Villard Books, 1996.

White, Frank. The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. Washington, DC: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1987, revised 1998.

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religion Code of beliefs and practices formulated in response to a spiritual awareness of existence. It may involve either faith in a state of existence after earthly death, or a desire for union with an omnipotent spiritual being, or a combination of the two. Polytheistic religions, such as those of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, entailed the worship of many distinct gods or personifications of nature. Many cultures classified their deities into hierarchies known as pantheons; some religions, such as Hinduism, still have such pantheons. Other ancient religions, some of which incorporated belief in a state of existence after death, were more of a system of ethical philosophy concentrating on metaphysical contemplation (for example, Buddhism and Taoism). The ancient Hebrews were among the first people to worship a single omniscient and omnipotent being, Yahweh. He gave them His protection in return for their total faith and obedience. Common to all religions dominated by a single omnipotent force (monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is the idea that the power is all places at once, and that it is beyond the physical plane occupied by humans. In many religions, both monotheistic and polytheistic, sacrifice to an individual god or to God is an important element, either in propitiation, or to redeem the faithful from some wrongdoing, or in thanksgiving.

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re·li·gion / riˈlijən/ • n. the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods: ideas about the relationship between science and religion. ∎  details of belief as taught or discussed: when the school first opened they taught only religion, Italian, and mathematics. ∎  a particular system of faith and worship: the world's great religions. ∎  a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance: consumerism is the new religion. PHRASES: get religion inf. be converted to religious belief and practices.DERIVATIVES: re·li·gion·less adj.

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religion state of life (as of monks) bound by vows and a rule XII; religious order or rule; system of faith in and worship of a divine power XIII; recognition of a divine being to whom worship is due XVI. — (O)F. religion — L. religiō, -ōn- obligation (as of an oath), bond between man and the gods, scrupulousness, scruple(s), reverence for the gods; (in late L. from V) religious (monastic) life: of uncert. orig.
So religious bound by monastic vows; imbued with religion XIII; pert. to religion XVI; sb. as pl. monks, etc. XIII, as sg. XIV. — OF. religious (mod. -ieux) — L. religiōsus. religiosity XIV. — L.

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religion Religion is a set of beliefs, symbols, and practices (for example rituals), which is based on the idea of the sacred, and which unites believers into a socio-religious community. The sacred is contrasted with the profane because it involves feelings of awe. Sociologists have defined religion by reference to the sacred rather than to a belief in a god or gods, because it makes social comparison possible; for example, some versions of Buddhism do not involve a belief in God. Religion is also contrasted with magic, because the latter is thought to be individualistic and instrumental. See also INVISIBLE RELIGION; NEW RELIGIONS; SECULARIZATION.

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This entry includes seven subentries:

African Diaspora
East and Southeast Asia
Indigenous Peoples' View, South America
Latin America
Middle East

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religionabrasion, Australasian, equation, Eurasian, evasion, invasion, occasion, persuasion, pervasion, suasion, Vespasianadhesion, cohesion, Friesian, lesion •circumcision, collision, concision, decision, derision, division, elision, envision, excision, imprecision, incision, misprision, precisian, precision, provision, scission, vision •subdivision • television • Eurovision •LaserVision •corrosion, eclosion, erosion, explosion, implosion •allusion, collusion, conclusion, confusion, contusion, delusion, diffusion, effusion, exclusion, extrusion, fusion, illusion, inclusion, interfusion, intrusion, obtrusion, occlusion, preclusion, profusion, prolusion, protrusion, reclusion, seclusion, suffusion, transfusion •Monaghan • Belgian •Bajan, Cajun, contagion, TrajanGlaswegian, legion, Norwegian, region •irreligion, religion •Injun • Harijan • oxygen • antigen •sojourn • donjon • Georgian •theologian, Trojan •Rügen •bludgeon, curmudgeon, dudgeon, gudgeon, trudgen •dungeon • glycogen • halogen •collagen • Imogen • carcinogen •hallucinogen • androgen •oestrogen (US estrogen) •hydrogen • nitrogen •burgeon, sturgeon, surgeon

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This entry is not a survey of the various forms that "religion" has taken in human history; rather, it treats the nature of religion as a problem in the philosophy of religion. It will be concerned with attempts to develop an adequate definition of religion, that is, to make explicit the basic features of the concept of religion.

General Definition and Characteristics

examination of definitions

A survey of existing definitions reveals many different interpretations.

"Religion is the belief in an ever living God, that is, in a Divine Mind and Will ruling the Universe and holding moral relations with mankind."James Martineau

"Religion is the recognition that all things are manifestations of a Power which transcends our knowledge."Herbert Spencer

"By religion, then, I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of Nature and of human life."J. G. Frazer

"Religion is rather the attempt to express the complete reality of goodness through every aspect of our being."F. H. Bradley

"Religion is ethics heightened, enkindled, lit up by feeling."Matthew Arnold

"It seems to me that it [religion] may best be described as an emotion resting on a conviction of a harmony between ourselves and the universe at large."J. M. E. McTaggart

"Religion is, in truth, that pure and reverential disposition or frame of mind which we call piety."C. P. Tiele

"A man's religion is the expression of his ultimate attitude to the universe, the summed-up meaning and purport of his whole consciousness of things."Edward Caird

"To be religious is to effect in some way and in some measure a vital adjustment (however tentative and incomplete) to whatever is reacted to or regarded implicitly or explicitly as worthy of serious and ulterior concern."Vergilius Ferm

If we take these definitions as attempts to state necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be a religion, it is not difficult to show that none of them is adequate. With respect to necessary conditions, consider Martineau's definition. It is clear that such a belief does not have to be present in a religion. No polytheistic religion recognizes a single divine ruler of the universe; and there are religions, such as Hinayana Buddhism, in which beliefs in personal deities play no role at all. Bradley and Arnold identify religion with morality, but there are primitive societies in which there is no real connection between the ritual system, with its associated beliefs in supernatural beings, and the moral code. The latter is based solely on tribal precedent and is not thought of as either originating with or sanctioned by the gods. If, as would commonly be done, we call the former the religion of the culture, we have a religion without morality. As for McTaggart and Tiele, it seems likely that if we specify "piety" or "feeling of harmony" sufficiently to give them a clear and unambiguous meaning, we will be able to find acknowledged religions in which they do not play an important role. It would seem that we could avoid this only by construing "piety," for example, to cover any state of feeling that arises in connection with religious activities. It does seem plausible to regard some of the definitions as stating necessary conditions, as in Caird and Ferm. However, it is doubtful that these are sufficient conditions. Does any "ultimate attitude" or any "vital adjustment" constitute a religion? As William James points out (The Varieties of Religious Experience, Ch. 2), it seems doubtful that a frivolous attitude toward life constitutes a religion, even if it is the fundamental attitude of a given person. And Ferm's overcarefully worded statement would seem to admit any attitude with respect to anything considered important to the ranks of the religious. This would presumably include one's attitude toward one's spouse, toward one's vocation, and, in many cases, toward one's athletic activities. At this point one wonders what has happened to the concept of religion. Many of the definitions are deficient on grounds of both necessity and sufficiency. To return to Martineau, it is quite conceivable that such a belief might be held purely as a speculative hypothesis, without affecting the believer's feelings and attitudes in the way that would be requisite for religious belief. And as for McTaggart, it seems clear that one could from time to time have such a sense of harmony without this being integrated into anything that we would call a religion.

It is noteworthy that most of these definitions stress one aspect or another of religion to the exclusion of others. Thus, Martineau and Spencer represent religion as some sort of belief or other cognitive state; Frazer, as ritual (conceived in a utilitarian fashion); Bradley and Arnold, as a kind of moral attitude and activity; and McTaggart and Tiele as a certain kind of feeling. One might attribute the failings of these definitions to their one-sidedness. One could hardly expect to get an adequate statement of the nature of so complex a phenomenon as religion, essentially involving, as it does, all these forms of human activity by restricting oneself to belief, feeling, ritual, or moral attitude alone. Caird and Ferm escape this particular failing by concentrating on a comprehensive term such as attitude or adjustment, which itself embraces belief, feeling, and moral attitude. But, as we have seen, these formulations do not come measurably closer to providing a set of necessary and sufficient conditions.

There are other ways of construing definitions of religion. Instead of taking the above statements as attempts to specify features that are common and peculiar to cases of religion, we might take each of them as an attempt to state the essence of religion, that central feature in terms of which all religious phenomena are to be understood. This approach to the matter is explicit in the following statements:

"The essence of religion is a belief in the persistency of value in the world."Harald Høffding

"The heart of religion, the quest of the ages, is the outreach of man, the social animal, for the values of the satisfying life."A. E. Haydon

"The essence of religion consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence."Friedrich Schleiermacher

There are two distinguishable interpretations of claims of this type. They might be interpreted genetically, as accounts of the origin of religion. The claim would then be that what is specified as the essence of religion is the original root from which all phenomena of religion have sprung. Thus, Julian Huxley, like Schleiermacher working with a conception of the essence of religion as a kind of feeling, says, "the essence of religion springs from man's capacity for awe and reverence, that the objects of religion are in origin and essence those things, events, and ideas which arouse the feeling of sacredness" (Religion without Revelation, p. 111). Similarly starting with Høffding's formulation, we might try to show how typical religious doctrines, rites, and sentiments grew out of an original belief in the persistency of value. However, since we know virtually nothing about the prehistoric origins of religion, speculation in this area is almost completely unchecked by data, and it seems impossible to find any rational basis for choosing between alternative genetic accounts.

However, we might also give a nongenetic interpretation. Saying that the essence of religion is a feeling of absolute dependence, for example, might mean that the full interrelatedness of the various features of religion can be understood only if we view them all in relation to a feeling of absolute dependence. This claim would be independent of any view of the origin of religion. The difficulty with this is that there would seem to be several different features of religion that could be taken as centralsuch as ritual, a need for reassurance against the terrors of life, or a need to get a satisfactory explanation of the cosmosand it is illuminating to view the rest of religion as related to each of these. How is one to settle on a unique essence?

characteristic features of religion

Despite the fact that none of the definitions specifies a set of characteristics which is present when and only when we have a religion, or gives us a unique essence, it does seem that they contribute to our understanding of the nature of religion. It appears that the presence of any of the features stressed by these definitions will help to make something a religion. We might call such features, listed below, religion-making characteristics.

  1. Belief in supernatural beings (gods).
  2. A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  3. Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  4. A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  5. Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
  6. Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  7. A worldview, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an overall purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  8. A more or less total organization of one's life based on the worldview.
  9. A social group bound together by the above.

Interrelations of characteristics

Religion-making characteristics do not just happen to be associated in religion; they are intimately interconnected in several ways. Some of these connections have been indicated, but there are others. For example, the distinction between sacred and profane objects is based on other factors mentioned. It is not any intrinsic characteristic of a thing that makes it a sacred object; things of every conceivable kind have occupied this positionanimals, plants, mountains, rivers, persons, and heavenly bodies. Certain objects are singled out as sacred in a given community because they typically arouse such feelings as awe and a sense of mystery, and thus the members of that community tend to respond to these objects with ritual acts. Again, the emotional reaction to sacred objects may be rationalized by conceiving the object to be the habitation or manifestation of a god. The awe aroused by the wild bull led to its being identified with the wild god of intoxication, Dionysus. The very special impression made by Jesus of Nazareth on certain of his contemporaries was expressed by calling him the Son of God. These examples make it sound as if emotional reactions to sacred objects come first and that these reactions are then explained by positing gods as their causes. But it can also happen the other way round. The acceptance of beliefs about the gods and their earthly habitations can contribute to the evocation of awe and other feelings in the presence of certain objects. The members of a religious community are taught to hold certain objects in awe by being taught various doctrines about the gods. Thus, Christians are taught to regard the cross and the consecrated bread and wine with reverence by being told of the Crucifixion and the Last Supper.

A similar reciprocal relationship holds between ritual and doctrine. A doctrine can be introduced as the justification of an already established ritual. Thus, the myth of Proserpine being carried off to the underworld and remaining there half the year seems to have been introduced as an explanation of a preexisting magical fertility cult, in which an ear of grain, perhaps called the corn maiden, was buried in the fall and raised sprouting in the spring. On the other hand, changes in doctrine can engender, modify, or abolish rituals. Beliefs about the divine status of Jesus Christ played an important role in shaping the Christmas festival.

Definition in terms of characteristics

If it is true that the religion-making characteristics neither singly nor in combination constitute tight necessary and sufficient conditions for something being a religion, and yet that each of them contributes to making something a religion, then it must be that they are related in some looser way to the application of the term. Perhaps the best way to put it is this. When enough of these characteristics are present to a sufficient degree, we have a religion. It seems that, given the actual use of the term religion, this is as precise as we can be. If we tried to say something like "for a religion to exist, there must be the first two plus any three others," or "for a religion to exist, any four of these characteristics must be present," we would be introducing a degree of precision not to be found in the concept of religion actually in use.

Another way of putting the matter is this. There are cultural phenomena that embody all of these characteristics to a marked degree. They are the ideally clear paradigm cases of religion, such as Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, and Orphism. These are the cases to which the term religion applies most certainly and unmistakably. However, there can be a variety of cases that differ from the paradigm in different ways and to different degrees, by one or another of the religion-making characteristics dropping out more or less. For example, ritual can be sharply de-emphasized, and with it the demarcation of certain objects as sacred, as in Protestantism; it can even disappear altogether, as with the Quakers. Beliefs in supernatural beings can be whittled away to nothing, as in certain forms of Unitarianism, or may never be present, as in certain forms of Buddhism. And, as mentioned earlier, in certain primitive societies morality has no close connection with the cultic system. As more of the religion-making characteristics drop out, either partially or completely, we feel less secure about applying the term religion, and there will be less unanimity in the language community with respect to the application of the term. However, there do not seem to be points along these various dimensions of deviations that serve as a sharp demarcation of religion from nonreligion. It is simply that we encounter less and less obvious cases of religion as we move from, for example, Roman Catholicism through Unitarianism, humanism, and Hinayana Buddhism to communism. Thus, the best way to explain the concept of religion is to elaborate in detail the relevant features of an ideally clear case of religion and then indicate the respects in which less clear cases can differ from this, without hoping to find any sharp line dividing religion from nonreligion. (Cf. Ludwig Wittgenstein's notion of "family-resemblances" among the things to which a term applies.)

An adequate definition of religion should throw light on the sorts of disputes and perplexities that typically produce a need to define religion, such as disputes over whether communism is a religion, and whether devotion to science can be called a man's religion. So long as we are dealing with definitions of the simplistic type that we have criticized, these problems are not illuminated. Each party to the dispute will appeal to a definition suited to the position he is defending, and since none of these definitions is wholly adequate, there is an irreducible plurality of not wholly inadequate definitions to be used for this purpose. Person A, who claims that communism is a religion, will give, for instance, Caird's statement as his definition of religion, and person B, who denies this, will choose Martineau's. Obviously, the position of each is upheld by his chosen definition. Hence, it would seem that the only way to settle the dispute is to determine which is the correct definition. However, we have seen that this gets us nowhere; no such definition is wholly adequate.

At this point there is a temptation to brand the dispute purely verbal, a reflection of different senses attached to the word religion. It may seem that the disagreement can be dissolved by persuading all parties to use the word in the same sense. But this is a superficial reaction that does not adequately bring out how much the parties to the dispute have in common. In fact, Martineau and Caird represent two contrasting emphases within a common framework. Suppose that A and B begin with the same paradigm, orthodox Protestant Christianity. But A gives greatest weight to the moral-orientationemotion elements in this paradigm. As long as anything strongly manifests these elements, as long as it serves as a system of life orientation for the individual who is bound to it by strong emotional ties, he will call it a religion. B, on the other hand, gives greatest weight to the belief in a personal God and the complex of emotions, ritual, and devotional acts that is bound up with that belief. Thus, although they have basically the same concept of religion, they will diverge in their application of the term at certain points. Once we realize that this is the true situation, we can state the problem in a more tractable form. We can enumerate the religion-making characteristics and determine which of them communism has and in what degree. Then we can proceed to the heart of the disputethe relative importance of these characteristics. Insofar as there is a real issue between A and B, once both are in possession of all the relevant facts, it is whether communism is similar to clear cases of religion in the most important respects, that is, whether the respects in which it is like Protestant Christianity are more important than those in which it is different.

Types of Religion

In the case of so complex a concept as religion, it is desirable to supplement the very general portrayal of basic features with some indications of the varying emphases placed on them in different religions. To do this, we must develop a classificatory scheme.

William James has reminded us that in every religion there is some sort of awareness of what is called divine and some sort of response to this divinity. This being the case, a very fruitful way of classifying religions is to ask in the case of each: "Where is the divine (the object of religious responses) primarily sought and located, and what sort of response is primarily made to it?" In answering these questions for a given religion, the religion-making features most stressed in that religion will also come to light. According to this principle of division, religions fall into three major groups: sacramental, prophetic, and mystical.

location of the divine

In sacramental religion the divine is sought chiefly in thingsinanimate physical things like pieces of wood (relics of saints, statues, crosses), food and drink (bread and wine, baptismal water), living things (the totem animal of the group, the sacred cow, the sacred tree), processes (the movements of the sacred dance). This does not mean that the thing itself is responded to as divine, although this can happen in very primitive forms of sacramental religion, called fetishism. Usually the sacred thing is conceived to be the habitation or manifestation of some god or spirit. Thus, the ancient Hebrews treated the elaborate box that they called the Ark of God as the habitation of their god, Yahweh; the Hindus consider the river Ganges sacred to the god Shivathey believe that Shiva is in some specially intimate relation to that river, and they bathe in its waters to benefit from his healing power. The Roman Catholic finds the presence of God concentrated in the consecrated bread and wine, which, he believes, has been transformed into the body and blood of Christ. At a more sophisticated level the material thing may be taken as a symbol of the divine rather than as its direct embodiment, as in the definition of a sacrament given in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace."

In prophetic religion the divine is thought to manifest itself primarily in human societyin the events of human history and in the inspired utterances of great historical figures. It is not denied that nature issues from the divine and is under divine control, but it is not in nature that God is most immediately encountered. The divine reality is to be discovered in great historical eventsthe destruction of cities, the rise and fall of empires, the escape of a people from bondage. The hand of God is seen in these matters because God is encountered more immediately in the lives and the inspired words of his messengers, the prophets, who reveal in their utterances God's nature, his purposes and commands, and derivatively in the sacred books that contain the records of these revelations. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the three chief prophetic religions, are sometimes called religions of the book. Here the key term is not sacrament but revelation. Prophetic religion, unlike the others, stresses the word as the medium of contact with the divine. (An example is the opening of the Gospel of John.) For the ritualist, and still more for the mystic, whatever words he may use, the consummation of his endeavors is found in a wordless communion with the divine. In prophetic religion, however, the linguistic barrier is never let down; it is not felt as a barrier at all.

The center of mystical religion is the mystical experience, which at its highest development dominates the consciousness, excluding all awareness of words, nature, even of the mystic's own self. In this experience the individual feels himself pervaded and transformed by the divine, identified with it in an indivisible unity. The world and all its ordinary concerns seem as naught as the mystic is caught up in the ineffable bliss of this union. It is not surprising that those who have enjoyed this experience, and those who aspire to it, should take it to be the one true avenue of contact with the divine and dismiss all other modes as spurious, or at least as grossly inferior. Rituals and sacraments, creeds and sacred books, are viewed as paltry substitutes, which are doled out to those who, by reason of incapacity or lack of effort, miss the firsthand mystic communion; or else they are external aids that are of use only in the earlier stages of the quest, crutches to be thrown away when direct access to God is attained.

response to the divine

In sacramental religion, where the divine is apprehended chiefly in material embodiments, the center of religious activity will be found in ritual acts centering on these embodiments. The sacred places, animals, statues, and such, must be treated with reverence, approached and made use of with due precautions; and around these usages tend to grow prescribed rites. Since the sense of the divine presence in certain objects is likely to be enhanced by participation in solemn ceremonials centering on these objects, the religious activity becomes a self-perpetuating system, embodying what is currently called positive feedback.

In sacramental religion, the ritual tends to absorb most of the religious energies of the adherents and to crowd the other elements out of the center of the picture. Primitive religion, which is strongly sacramental in character, is often unconcerned with moral distinctions; and we might speculate that the progressive moralization of religion is achieved at the expense of ritual preoccupations. We can see this conflict at many points in the history of religions, most notably in the denunciations that the Hebrew prophets directed against the ritual-minded religionists of their day, and in their exhortations to substitute thirst for righteousness for the concern for niceties of ceremony. Even in its highest developments, sacramental religion tends to slacken the ethical tension that is found in prophetic religion. Where sacramentalism is strong in a monotheistic religion, the natural tendency is to take everything in nature as a divine manifestation. If everything is sacred, then nothing can be fundamentally evil; and thus the distinction between good and evil becomes blurred. One of the elements in the Protestant Reformation was a protest against tendencies to blurring of this sort, which took place in the largely sacramental medieval form of Christianity.

The typical response of prophetic religion to the divine is also nicely coordinated with the chief form in which the divine is apprehended. The reaction naturally called for by a message from the divine is acceptance. This involves both an intellectual acceptance of its contentsbelief that whatever statements it makes are trueand obedience to the commands and exhortations it contains. Hence, in prophetic religion faith is the supreme virtue, and affirmations and confessions of faith play an important role. This is illustrated by the insistence of such great Christian prophetic figures as Paul and Martin Luther on faith in Christ as both necessary and sufficient for salvation and by the Muslim practice of repeating daily the creed "There is no God but Allah, and Muammad is his prophet." It is important to realize that faith in this sense means far more than the intellectual assent to certain propositions. It also involves taking up an attitude on the basis of that affirmation and expressing that attitude in action. The Jewish prophet Micah expressed the essence of prophetic religion when he said, "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" Thus, it would not be incorrect to say that the emphasis in the prophetic response is ethical, providing we do not separate ethics from the believing acceptance of the divine message that is its foundation.

To understand the typical response of mystical religion, we must remember that for the mystic, immediate identification with the divine is of supreme importance. Therefore he concentrates on an ascetic and contemplative discipline that will be conducive to the attainment and maintenance of that condition. He tends to become involved in abstentions and self-tortures designed to wean him from his attachment to things of this world, and in contemplative exercises designed to withdraw the attention from finite things, leaving the soul empty and receptive to influences from the divine. He will make use of ceremonies and will accede to moral principles insofar as he believes them to be efficacious in furthering his ultimate goal. But ultimately they must go; when union with God has been achieved, they are of no more significance. Thus, like sacramentalism, mysticism tends toward the amoral. Only rarely does either become completely amoral, and then for different reasons. For the sacramentalist, conventional moral distinctions may come to seem unimportant because he views everything as equally saturated with the divine; they seem unimportant to the mystic because every finite object or activity is outside the mystic union, and so all are, in the end, equally worthless. The righteous and the wicked are equally far from the true religious goal. While united with God, one does not act.

place of doctrine

Finally, we may compare the three types of religion with respect to the status of beliefs and creeds. Since faith is central for prophetic religion and since the word is stressed as the primary medium of divine manifestation, it is not surprising that in prophetic religion, creed and doctrine are emphasized more than in the others. Mystical religion, at its purest, is indifferent to matters of belief and doctrine. The mystical experience and the divinity it reveals are often regarded as ineffable, not to be expressed in human language; hence, mystics tend to reject all doctrinal formulations as inadequate. At best, a mystic will admit that some formulations are less inadequate symbols of the unutterable than are others. Thus, in such predominantly mystical groups as the Sufis and the Quakers, little or no attempt is made to enforce doctrinal conformity. And in an extreme form of mysticism, like that of Zen Buddhism, any doctrinal formulation is discouraged. Sacramental religion occupies a middle ground in this respect. In its more primitive forms, it is often extremely indefinite about belief. It has been said that primitive man "dances out his religion." Certainly the elaboration of ritual in primitive religion far outstrips the associated theory. The primitive will often possess an incredibly detailed set of ritual prescriptions but have only the haziest idea of what there is about the nature or doings of the gods that makes them appropriate. In its more developed forms, sacramental theology becomes more definite, but it is still true that to the extent that a religion is preoccupied with a sacramental approach to the divine, it is more impatient than prophetic religion with doctrinal subtleties.

We can coordinate this classification with the list of religion-making characteristics by pointing out that sacramental religion stresses sacred objects and ritual, prophetic religion stresses belief and morality, and mystical religion places chief emphasis on immediate experience and feeling.

concrete application

When we come to apply our scheme to particular cases, we must not suppose that any religion will fall completely in one class or another. In fact, it is better not to think of types of religions, but of religious tendencies that enter in varying proportions into the makeup of any actual religion. However, we can usually say that one tendency or another predominates in a given religion. Thus, Buddhism and philosophical Hinduism are predominantly mystical; Judaism, Islam, and Confucianism are primarily prophetic; and popular Hinduism, in company with all polytheistic and primitive religions, is primarily sacramental. Often a religion that begins with a definite bent will admit other elements in the course of its development. Islam, which began as the most severely prophetic of religions, has developed one of the world's most extreme group of mystics in the Sufis, who are completely out of harmony with the spirit of Muammad, no matter how they may continue to express themselves in his phrases. Again, in Tibet, Buddhism has undergone a development quite foreign to its founder's intentions, blossoming into an extremely elaborate sacramentalism.

Christianity furnishes a good opportunity to study the intermingling and conflict of the different tendencies. It began as an outgrowth of Jewish prophecy, but in the process of adapting itself to the rest of the Western world it took on a considerable protective coloration of both the sacramental and mystical, and these aspects have remained with it throughout its career. Christian mysticism presents a good example of an element existing in a religion that is dominated by another element. As the price of toleration, Christian mystics have had to pay lip service to the official theology and to the prophetic moral element; and as a result, mystic thought and practice in Christianity have seldom received the extreme development found in India. In those cases where the mystical spirit has burst the fetters, as with Meister Eckhart, official condemnation has often resulted.

Looking at Christianity today, it can be said that although it is predominantly a prophetic religion, as compared with Hinduism and Buddhism, with respect to its internal divisions the Catholic wing (both Roman and Greek) tends more toward the sacramental, while the Protestant is more purely prophetic, with mysticism appearing sporadically throughout. In Catholicism the elaborateness of prescribed ceremonies, the emphasis on the necessity of material sacraments for salvation, and the insistence on a special status for consecrated priests are all typically sacramental. In Protestantism the emphasis on the sermon (the speaking forth of the Word of God) rather than on ritual, the emphasis on the Bible as the repository of divine revelation, and the moral earnestness and social concern are all earmarks of the prophetic spirit. "Religion" new copy p. 235:

See also Buddhism; Chinese Philosophy: Religion; Christianity; Creation and Conservation, Religious Doctrine of; Epistemology, Religious; Islamic Philosophy; Jewish Philosophy; Philosophy of Religion, History of; Philosophy of Religion, Problems of; Philosophy of Religion; Religion and Morality; Religion and the Biological Sciences; Religion and the Physical Sciences; Religion, Naturalistic Reconstructions of; Religion, Psychological Explanations of; Religious Experience, Argument for the Existence of God; Religious Experience; Religious Language; Theism, Arguments For and Against.


Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion, translated by John Oman (New York: Harper, 1958), and The Christian Faith, translated by H. R. Mackintosh (Edinburgh, 1956), contain classic statements of the view that religion is essentially a mode of experience. A more recent statement of this point of view that emphasizes mystical experience is in W. T. Stace, Time and Eternity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952). The moral aspect of religion is stressed in Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, translated by T. M. Greene and H. H. Hudson (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1934), and in John Baillie, The Interpretation of Religion (New York: Scribners, 1928). Conceptions of religion from the standpoint of philosophical naturalism are to be found in Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism (London, 1865); Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, translated by George Eliot (New York: Ungar, 1957); George Santayana, Reason in Religion (New York: Scribners, 1905); John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1934); and Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950).

Stimulating discussions, not so easily classified, are Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, translated by R. Ashley Audra (New York: Holt, 1935); William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longman, 1902); Josiah Royce, The Sources of Religious Insight (New York: Scribners, 1912); John Oman, "The Sphere of Religion," in Science, Religion and Reality, edited by Joseph Needham (New York: Macmillan, 1925); and Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: Macmillan, 1926). Important discussions from the social sciences include Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, translated by J. W. Swain (London: Allen and Unwin, 1915), and Bronisław Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954). James H. Leuba, A Psychological Study of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1912), and Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation (New York: Harper, 1958), provide extensive critical discussion of a wide variety of definitions, as well as presenting original conceptions.

other recommended titles

Banton, Michael, ed. Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. Reprint edition, London: Routledge, 1990.

Batson, C. Daniel et al. Religion and the Individual: A Social-Psychological Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Berger, Peter. The Social Reality of Religion. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1967.

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Reprint edition. New York: Basic, 2002.

Braun, Willi, and Russell McCutcheon, eds. Guide to the Study of Religion. London: Cassell, 2000.

Byrne, Peter. Natural Religion and the Nature of Religion. London: Routledge, 1989.

Clarke, Peter, and Peter Byrne, eds. Religion Defined and Explained. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Derrida, Jacques, and Gianni Vattimo, eds. Religion. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Godlove, Terry. Religion, Interpretation, and Diversity of Belief: The Framework Model from Kant to Durkheim to Davidson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Guthrie, Steward. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Hick, John. An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Lawson, E. Thomas, and Robert McCauley. Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Phillips, D. Z. Religion without Explanation. Oxford: Blackwell, 1976.

Smart, Ninian. The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Yinger, J. Milton. The Scientific Study of Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1970.

William P. Alston (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)

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This article is concerned with the basic nature of religion as such and with the common elements found in the various religions of mankind.

Problems of Definition

A precise but comprehensive definition is difficult. The problem can be examined best by considering religion from several different points of view or under several distinct aspects.

Nominal Definition and the Universal Fact of Religion. The etymology of the Latin word religio is disputed. Some have tried to connect religio with other Latin terms (relegere, religare, reeligere, relinquere ), but each scholar has been influenced by his personal ideas, and no accord has been reached. Philological investigation of the use of the word has revealed some interesting aspects of Roman religiosity, which was characterized by a scrupulous attention to all signs or manifestations of invisible powers or forces. But the problem becomes much more complicated when one wishes to examine the phenomenon of religion in cultures that do not use the Latin word. The languages that have an equivalent general term are rare, and the terms selected for comparison have turned out, ordinarily, to be descriptions merely of one of the duties considered essential by the respective civilization. In fact, there are very few cultures in which the question of the essence of religion has been formally raised; as a general rule, each takes its own religion as an obvious norm. Furthermore, the same thing happened in the development of the science of religions itself. In the 19th century some scholars maintained that there were peoples without religion, until it was recognized that such investigators had simply failed to find religion, as they themselves conceived religion, among certain primitive tribes.

Empirical Definition. Even when it was once admitted that all peoples have a religion, the question remained: how could investigation be carried on if the investigators had no precise idea of the object of their research? This was a purely theoretical question, which in practice did not hamper scholarly investigation. As in the case of other sciences, the science of religions began with working hypotheses, which were more or less exact and which were gradually corrected in the process of research itself. In the end it was possible for this science to isolate and delimit empirically a specific object proper to it.

In the totality of human experiences and activities the religious phenomenon presents itself as irreducible to any other category save its own and as definitely and always belonging to its own category and no other. At the same time every religion implies a choice that is so total and exclusive, affecting as it does the personal destiny of every human being in irrevocable fashion even where no clear notion of a transcendent absolute exists, that no religion seems able to tolerate its inclusion in the cadre of a general definition. Therefore, for the religious man, the definition of religion could be only that of his own religion. Actually the disagreement or diversity is such that the outsider can operate only with a selection of a minimum of statistical religious data that will be admitted by any of the existing religions.

Religious-minded men, concerned with the problem of general accord, will appeal instinctively to a revelation. It is clearly established that there are civilizations, however, among which it is necessary to include all the "primitives" and also the major polytheistic groups, that profess theoretical and practical relativism in matters of religion and affirm that no one religion in particular, but all religions together, fulfill the religious function of mankind in the world and before God. And those who, like Plato and the Aztecs, awaited a future revelation adopted the same attitude regarding their contemporary world. Accordingly, to come to closer grips with the problems, it seems necessary to distinguish between the religions founded on a revelation in the strict sense and other religions.

Theological Definition. In the case of revealed religions, which are at the same time religions of salvation, the problem of definition seems simple, for it is given by revelation itself, at least implicitly. Revelation indicates specifically under what conditions a man can fulfill his destiny and be saved. The theology of the salvation of unbelievers indicates precisely under what conditions the individuals who do not know the revelation can participate in salvation. But the interpreters of the revelation do not say whether there are really any nonrevealed religions that deserve the name of religion. The special polemical character of the inspired writings that criticize the pagan religions do not permit on the basis of their arguments a definitive judgment to be passed on the religions in question.

The revealed religions, however, do not make salvation the primary end and immediate object of religion. From the subjective point of view, religion is a virtue that leads man to render to God the homage that is due to Him. As an objective manner of behavior and concrete manifestation of virtue, it comprises belief in one God, personal and infinite in His attributes; an attitude of absolute respect and submission; exterior acts that express this belief and this attitude in worship; and, as required by all exterior human activity, institutions to regulate that activity.

Historical Definition. There is a science of religions, however, that is a branch of anthropology. This science does not teach the norms of the true religion, and it is not occupied solely with the institutions that have come from revelation. It includes within its scope what men have come to employ, so to speak, as substitutes for revelation, along with many contradictions that baffle science itself. Yet it is precisely the tentative efforts of science in themselves that make possible a better grasp of the whole amplitude of the problems of man and religion.

On the level of the collection of documents to be studied, science ought to begin, then, with a very broad conception of its object and thus let nothing escape it that may sometime be able to clarify an aspect of the religious phenomenon. The definition of the latter, accordingly, will be entirely pragmatic, and will embrace belief, rite, and institution that occupy in a group the place that revelation reserves for religion. Furthermore, it is well known how difficult it is to enter into the spirit of an environment in which one has not been reared. Hence it is rash to try to decide too quickly whether this or that conception is closely connected or not with what other religions believe and practice. This kind of judgment and distinction can be made only after long work and study.

Phenomenological Approach

It is possible, it seems, to employ a criterion that is less pragmatic, negative, or exterior, for marking out or defining the object of research. A specific domain may be circumscribed, once that is distinct, e.g., from metaphysics and techniques, by a characteristic aspect inherent in all that is religious in the broadest sense of the term and that is proper to itself. This is the concept of "the sacred."

The Sacred. The sacred is opposed to the profane. Although the majority of primitive and ancient peoples never separated the two domains in their interpretations and usages, they distinguished them sharply enough by their different psychological reactions. The sacred, as distinct from the profane, represents an order of reality, the presence of which commands man's attention and at the same time escapes him; it is simultaneously desired and regarded with awe. In other words, it possesses an essentially ambivalent character, which makes man feel at once irresistibly attracted by its grandeur and frightened by its superiority.

This double character of the sacred, which R. Otto called fascinans and tremendum, is one of the keys to the discovery and interpretation of religious phenomena. But research becomes science only from the moment it occupies itself with putting order into the material collected and when it succeeds, by comparison and distinction, in producing a classification. It is then necessary to select from the categories obtained that which should be called religion. The discussions that have agitated the science of religion for more than a century demonstrate clearly that all that was believed "to take the place of religion" cannot be included in its essence and its history. Many essential facts of history have changed category as progress has been made in understanding.

Religion and Magic. One of the facts to emerge clearly from the constant revision of ideas mentioned is this: two kinds of phenomena exist that can indeed occupy the place of religion but that assume conceptions of the world and of the position of man that are diametrically opposed, namely, religion and magic. The fact that so many theories have been advanced to explain the hypothetical passage of one to the other by an evolutionary process and the fact also that the civilizations that claim to include magical practices in religion had to invent myths to explain this inconsistency show that both science and religions perceive an essential difference between religion and magic.

The opposition between them is clearly evident from both their respective conceptions of the order of the world and of man's attitude in this world. Magic believes in an ensemble of automatic forces that gives the man who knows their techniques an unconditional efficacy or power independent of every other will except his own. Religion, on the other hand, acknowledges a universe that always remains, and one in which man always remains, dependent on a good will that is absolutely beyond the reach or power of techniques effective in themselves. Even if man, in order to reconcile the two conceptions, claims that he has received his knowledge and power from the divinity, who then loses control over them in such cases, there is an implication that the feeling of an ultimate dependence that one tries to avoid is still present. This distinction made, the inductive work required to determine the constituent elements of religion becomes feasible.

Double Usage of the Term "Religion." The science of religions always studies religion and magic together because their opposition clarifies problems. For the sake of simplification, the two continue to be studied under the one heading, religion, and the specific religion studied is even defined according to the proportion and combination of the two in the theory and practice of its environment. This is the pragmatic usage, the broad sense of the term, and it is so employed in the expression science of religions.

But on a different level of research, science is not merely concerned with each "religion." It tends to make comparisons and then to distinguish and establish constants in order to define religion more precisely as a system of coherent phenomena, distinct from other concurrent phenomena, and in opposition to magic in particular. It is not yet a philosophy of religion but rather a synthesis of historical data. Few peoples have produced a conscious and critical elaboration of these elements. Therefore, it is precisely the function of the science of religions to explain in their name, without misrepresenting them, what they conceive implicitly, namely, the precise content and trends of their religious feeling, which is often complex but coherent in practicetheir religion in the strict and exact sense.

Content of Religions

At the outset it is essential to consider a matter of basic importance, namely, the object of religion and the conception of this object.

Object of Religion. Religion is opposed to the anarchy of magic by an attitude of dependence that is felt and accepted within definite limits. This attitude itself, therefore, assumes a certain conception of its object. Investigation shows that this attitude is always directed to a reality superior to man, a reality that is beyond the control of man's will and all the forces of nature. Those who maintain that this reality is merely the projection of the attitude itself emphasize at least that such an attitude and such an object are connected and that man does not have the choice or decision.

This reality belongs to the category of the sacred, with its characteristic ambivalence. But while magic tries, in spite of the fear it provokes, to make itself master of the sacred in order to use its power, religion sees in fear a reason for respect because it sees in the attraction of the sacred a reason for acknowledgment or surrender. This is accepted dependence. The difference, however, is not only in the subjective attitude, but in the object itself, because it is conceived in a different manner.

Specialists in the science of religions believed for some time that there were two successive attitudes in the history of religion. According to this view man first tried to control the sacred by "incantation," and often-repeated failure then forced him to resign himself to "invocation." This is the theory of "From Spell to Prayer," according to the formula of R. R. Marset (18661943). A knowledge of the facts, which was less distorted by evolutionary theory, then suggested that man in all periods felt inclined to try one method or the othera procedure that is closer to the historical and psychological truth. But invocation, prayerthe religious act par excellenceassumes that the sacred is conceived as having ears for hearing, a heart for understanding, and a freedom to replyin brief, that the sacred is regarded as a person. Furthermore, it may be noted in passing that an act such as prayer implies that man by his reason did not merely construct an object of thought as a logical response to a question on existence, a first principle. It was necessary also that, in some manner, he should "feel" it as living, for otherwise, he would not have prayed to it. As U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (18481931) once said, "Zu einem Begriff betet kein Mensch" (No man prays to a concept).

Vagueness in the Concept of Divinity. It must be kept in mind, however, that religion finds expression not only in prayer but also in sacrifice, purifications, and consecrations, whose mechanism of efficacy and objective presuppositions are much more ambiguous than in the case of prayer. They can leave the personal character of the divine very vague. Likewise, the much Divine (Θε[symbol omitted]ον), the One, the Logos, the Brahman, etc., may well inspire a strong feeling of complete dependence; but all these seem to be limited to the representation of a transcendent order that is hardly favorable to dialogue, but an order that men seek to recognize and to venerate by a strict submission.

In this case, however, one notes quickly a discord between speculative conceptions and the religious attitude in which the personal representation unfailingly reappears. Whether this situation results from psychological need or is due to the power of religious experience is not clear. Yet this Absolute, the alleged impersonal divine force, is prayed to in moving fashion by the Sioux as Wakonda, by the emperor of China as Heaven, or by the Stoic Cleanthes as Zeus. Perhaps this inconsistency exists only for modern Westerners, who find difficulty in thinking of the personal except in anthropomorphic terms. More deeply, however, it is perhaps the religious sense itself that perceives that this lofty Reality is so different from all other human experiences that it cannot be included in any of the contradictory categories of Western thought. On the other hand, the knowledge that man has of this Reality is so closely connected with the immensity of the universe and its orderimpressive even for a primitive in his own little universewith this All that is at once calm and agitated, that man, as the whole history of religions bears witness, is led to hesitate constantly between the personal and the impersonal, looking now at the one and now at the other according to the circumstances in which he believes that he encounters, or desires to approach, the one or the other. The religious sense itself influences him to respect what he knows of the nature of the sacred reality without imposing his own ideas upon it. Nevertheless, a historical description of the manner in which men conceive the object of their acts of submission and homage cannot assume a rigorous and exclusive precision. In any case, the inclusion of a strict notion of person would limit to an extreme degree the range of a historical definition of the object of religion. On the other hand, the personal aspect always makes itself felt.

Transcendence and Unicity of the Object of Religion. The same ambiguity marks the question of the transcendence and unicity of the object of religion. These are two interdependent aspects, and in their regard the majority of religions are uniformly vague. Just as very few cultures are concerned about the absolute origin of the universe, although they consider it vitally important to fit man into the totality of the universe that actually exists, so also, like the ancient philosophers, they are much more conscious of the sovereignty of divinity than of the need of defining its internal nature. The chief preoccupation of religions that are not strictly and aggressively monotheistic is the multiplicity of the elements or relations that mark man's dependence. Concrete expression is given to these relations under the form of spirits or gods.

At first sight it would seem rather easy to oppose polytheism and monotheism. But when one begins to interpret images and names, this opposition between the one and the many frequently eludes precise analysis. The Great Gods of many African peoples can bear collective names and not belong to the grammatical class of animate beings, and yet they are treated as persons. Similarly, in the most highly developed religions of the Greco-Roman world and the ancient East there is a constant intermingling of notions of many individual gods and of unique divinity. One gets the impression that the sovereignty of the gods, which is their essential prerogative, is a collegiate sovereignty, with or without hierarchy, in which each god is absolute ruler of a part of reality, and all the gods together are absolute Master of the universe in its totality. In worship each god, when he is invoked, seems to be regarded as the momentary expression of all divinity (Kathenotheism), and in popular piety one god is in practice given a place above all others as the equivalent of all (henotheism). Accordingly, many ethnologists in dealing with very primitive peoples do not hesitate to state that some of their gods appear as "hypostases" of the cosmic God, as a remote foundation or beginning from which they do not separate themselves completely. Perhaps a total manifestation of Divinity, always identical with itself, is beyond the range of human experience. In fact, the knowledge of the divine that men have is always acquired through perception in depth of particular aspects of the universe. Hence the transcendence of the divine is never perceived except through its immanent manifestations.

Philosophy is primarily concerned with examining thoroughly and describing precisely each and every aspect of experience. Religion, on the other hand, is concerned essentially with taking a thing just as it thinks that it perceives it, and it adopts practical behavior to it in accordance with this perception. But even the ancient philosophers, although deliberately remaining very close to myth, which among ancient peoples gave expression to constructions of reality actually experienced, were always tempted by the idea that impersonality and indetermination were characteristic of transcendence, while its manifestations in the universe could only be limited and therefore multiple.

On the basis of historical investigation, apart from revelation, it must be concluded as very probable that transcendence and a certain unicity are consciously present even when a multiplicity of gods is recognized and that, in spite of its various manifestations in the universe, divinity remains entirely other and, above all, sovereign. It is only as a result of reactions of very complex origin that the monotheistic religions rejected other systems and thus opposed in a consistent and strict manner every tendency that would lead to involvement in cosmic manifestationsespecially biological and immanent manifestationsof the absolute Reality, transcendent and unique, and regarded before all as sovereign.

Attitudes. It is easy to see that the manner in which religion is conceived determines man's attitude toward it. As a matter of fact there is necessarily a reciprocal reaction between religious representations and attitudes, and scientific observation can hardly do more than note a complex ensemble in which it is difficult to distinguish what is tendency or trend and what is experience. But to suppose that everything in religion is merely a subjective projection is an opinion that is not based on science but reflects rather philosophical criticism. On the contrary, the fact that the divine is represented as personal, endowed with consciousness, freedom, and initiative, seems to indicate clearly that men feel themselves really at grips with objective forces of a spiritual character: religiously minded men have thought even that God is not so much the object of religion as its subject, the active agent who determines even man's own initiative. In revealing Himself in a certain manner, He actually directs even man's reaction. It is very likely for this reason that in religions that are strictly theistic there is recourse also to divination in order to know exactly in a given case what the Divinity expects of man or will, on His side, accept.

Submission to a person considered as superior and free necessarily includes respect in the state of dependence. But some pagans have gone even further. Sometimes they give feminine titles to God without, however, making him a mother goddess. But the great majority of those who believe in a Sky God, i.e., the most transcendent form of the divine, call him Father. This name, however, does not allude to creation or to any kind of filiation but rather to the nature of his general comportment toward man and that of man toward him. Again, fear can be dominant when the transcendence of the divine is associated with cosmic manifestations like the great calmness of the sky and its violent storms. Yet one should not forget that a terrible mother goddess, such as the Hindu goddess Kali, is at the same time a beloved mother. Reasoning is certainly not the determining factor in such cases, but rather man's experience in his daily life in the world. At a lower level, yet very close to the one just mentioned, God can be conceived in a manner little different from the spirits of nature, those manifestations of multiple and contradictory forces that are anthropopathic, i.e., having the same feelings or passions as man. In this case even respect disappears, and transcendence is reduced to a low level. Magic can take the upper hand.

These last phenomena mark the limit of religious facts and go even beyond it. If there were not other nuances and other conceptions, which come into play at the same time, it would no longer be possible in these instances to speak of religion in the strict sense of the term.

Expression by Religious Rites. An interior attitude, especially if it is felt with at least some intensity, is expressed normally by gestures, words, or actions. These manifestations should be the starting point for the observer who wishes to study the spiritual content of religions. At any rate, they are of prime importance for verifying the affirmations obtained by questions, discussions, or literary speculations in which the presence of the stranger and the judgments that are unconsciously suggested by his attitudes exercise a marked influence on the spontaneity and sincerity of statements made.

It is well established that there are no civilizations without religious rites. These rites may be reduced to the minimum, even to the point that many inexperienced observers do not perceive them, especially if they are spontaneous, and have little that is formalistic or ceremonial about them. Such is the case in the majority of the religions of the primitives with regard to the Supreme Heavenly Being.

Prayer. Prayers are found everywhere and range from spontaneous invocations without fixed formulas to hymns of literary character, which cannot always be successfully distinguished from incantations. They are addressed to all entities that a religion conceives as representing the divine in any manner. They relate to all needs and desires and may include moral and spiritual values. Even among the pagans, and perhaps especially among the primitives, there are prayers stressing social justice, individual virtues, and unity.

Sacrifice. But the rite that is most significant and at the same time most difficult to analyze is sacrifice. The term is often employed to designate rites that are very dissimilar and ambiguous. But in such a phenomenon, since it is a human act, what ought to be decisive respecting a definition is the interior attitude of the subject and then, indirectly, the nature of the Being to which appeal is made. The sovereign gods only, either alone or on a sharing basis, are objects of sacrifices. These sacrifices are direct offshoots of the primitive offerings of first fruits of the chase or gathering. Accordingly, they are acts whereby man deprives himself of his goods in order to recognize by so doing the absolute rights of divinity over his property and over himself. But when excessive anthropomorphism enters into the representation of the divine or when the destruction of goods is made to satisfy inferior beings, eventually there is no longer any idea of true sacrifice. There is then a question rather of gifts that are sent on their way by death or fire to the world of spirits. Between these two extremes all ambiguities are possible. If the same word is applied to all cases in which there is destruction of property or offering, it loses all precise meaning and designates an aspect that is merely exterior and material. Hence it is necessary to distinguish sacrifices, offerings, gifts, presents, contracts (do ut des ), magic, blackmail, etc.

Passage Rites. Another rich category of rites comes from the ambivalence of the sacred, namely, passage rites, i.e., purifications, consecrations, and other precautions that are intended to protect the man who approaches the sacred or who leaves the domain of the sacred to return to the profane world. In this case, especially, it is difficult to draw the line between religion and magic because the interested parties themselves do not try to define precisely their interior attitude. This is the situation particularly respecting "confessions," "taboos," or interdicts, the meaning of which depends entirely on the circumstances and on the mentality of the milieu.

Feasts and Ceremonies. Finally, the extremely important category of rites, or rather of cycles of rites, namely, that of feasts and ceremonies, is difficult to classify as religious in the strict sense. But these rites must be studied carefully if one wishes to get a precise idea of the religious phenomenon. They are passage-rites in one of their aspects, but the passage in question is no longer that from the sacred to the profane or vice versa. They celebrate and effect rather the passage of an individual or of a group, or of all nature, from one state to anotherage, religious or social function, or season. Their internal structure leads scholars to classify them more and more as mystery rites because of the parallel with the Hellenistic mysteries. From the religious point of view it is to be noted that these rites disregard, but do not exclude, the idea of homage or invocation to a divinity. On the other hand, they express a deep and strongly felt submission to a superior cosmic order, which is often characterized by greater intensity than submission to God. Their function is to subject all growth in man and nature to a process of total renewal of being. This process is carried out ordinarily under the form of various symbols of death and rebirth. The complete acceptance of the conditions of human existence exhibits subjectively all the characteristics of the religious attitude. But, objectively, these rites are marked by the absence of the worship of divinity, for the sovereign will and intervention of divinity are not evoked. The "gods," if mentioned at all, are only models who were the first themselves to experience the operation of the cosmic law of renewal.

These rites, despite their aspect of dependence, are easily exposed to magic interpretations and deformations, which are all the more dangerous because they corrupt a highly spiritual element. Their danger is inherent in the fact that the universal structure to which man recognizes that he belongs and to which he wishes to be closely joined is not explicitly represented as an order willed by God. On the other hand, it seems that religious life can gain in depth only where, as in Christianity, the mysterical rite is an integral part of the worship of God. There is then no longer question of mysteries but of sacraments.

Mythology. A separate place must be given to mythology. At the outset it is necessary to understand "myth" in the correct sense that has only recently become clear. myth is the normal form for expressing the content of religion before the elaboration of philosophical definitions, and even side by side with them. Myth is also rite. It cannot be said that a myth is always the explanation of a rite or that every rite postulates a myth. The recitation itself of the myth is a rite, as is shown by the conditions required for communicating it: secrecy, night, ceremonies, etc. The myth seeks to give expression to religious experience without separating it from the concrete elements of that experience. To maintain this connection is properly the function of symbols. Only the myth projects this experience beyond actual and profane time in order to emphasize the absolute value attributable to it.

Religion in Relation to the Individual and Society

After the explanation of the objective elements (representations) and subjective elements (attitudes) of religion, which are both expressed by exterior acts (rites), it must now be emphasized that because of the importance of the social factor in the life of men, especially in the realm of expression, religions necessarily have a social aspect. The significance of the social expression of religion is brought out by the latest classification of types of religion into tribal, national, and universal. The first two types show clearly that the religious experience of individuals, which is the basis of all religious life, becomes a religion, i.e., an institution that leaves a trace in history, only if other individuals participate in it. This participation is the guarantee and necessary sanction of the objectivity and authenticity of the private experience. In the two types mentioned the collectivity whose sanction is decisive is the natural collectivity (cultural or political) whose exclusive solidarity encompasses strictly the life of the individuals concerned.

But the need of collective sanction, even outside the revealed religions, is much more evident in the universal religions that rise in some way on the ruins of the natural collectivities whose authority has been shattered by the contact and mingling of cultures. Religious experience and its exigencies remain, but they seek their collective guarantee in a collective organization proper, founded on the one religion only, and with its specialized officers.

Priesthood. Priesthood, however, is earlier than the universal religions. It is not found, it is true, at the tribal stage, at which there are specialists for the efficacious rites of magic and animism, while the relation with the supreme divinity remains the prerogative of tribal members, each acting for himself and for the natural groups for which he is responsible. Priesthood appears first in the national religions as a specialization of all religions functions, after the manner of specialization of political functions. Just as the nation develops out of the political centralization occasioned by foreign aggression or by the initiative of individuals who, in order to assure their domination over their group and neighboring groups, make use of a power that was acknowledged in their case as needed for the protection of tribal territory, so this new unity embraces generally a nonhomogeneous collection of cultural groups that had traditionally been independent.

This new situation calls for a religious justification in accordance with the mentality of tribal cultures. Political power, which is of profane origin, seeks an alliance with the natural representatives of these groups. These representatives are stripped of their political functions, but by way of compensation they are invested, in the name of these groups, with the specialized religious function. A universal reflex is to be noted in ancient civilizations in this respect: a religious solidarity is reestablished when the cultural solidarity is destroyed. At the tribal stage secret societies then have their birth. At the national stage, the sacerdotal function comes into being. In the universal religions the priesthood becomes completely independent, at least in essence, of the political power, and vice versa. Even in these religions, however, some mutual understandings are necessary and are deliberately sought in order to take into account the religious mentality of the masses and to regulate the conflicts of authority and interest between specialists.

Prophetism. Yet in this evolution of the sociology of religions toward specialization of functions, reactions in an opposite direction are not lacking. On the religious plane prophetism makes its appearance, and its characteristic note is universality. prophetism may be described as a protest of the individual conscience against the excesses of specialization. The prophet himself, however, needs collective sanction. If he gets it within his own group, he becomes a reformer; if not, he will become the founder of a new religion more independent of the cultural or political structures of his milieu.

But in this connection it is necessary to correct the sociological classification of religions since the term "universal religion" is ambiguous. In fact, universality is inherent in genuine religious experience. Hence, even in the most primitive religions, as soon as they give an important place to the personal Sky God, universality is present, since they consider, often in a touching manner, that their cult is necessary for the maintenance of the whole universe, including other religions and cultures. This kind of thinking, however, does not limit itself to the creation of a single universal religion, but it continues to regard every religion as charged with a function in the whole. It has a prophetic tendency, but this confines itself to stressing the necessity of individual religious experience by visions (Native North Americans) or by ecstasy (shamanism; see shaman and medicine man).

The prophet is not only universal in his outlook but tends to pass beyond the national religion into a single universal religion by the deepening of his experience in respect to the transcendent Creator or Sky God. Such a universal religion is opposed to the utilitarian or egoistic preoccupations of the specialists or of societies closed in upon themselves.

Morality. The problem of the relations between religion and morality must be situated in a similar perspective (see religion and morality). If morality is identified with fidelity to the individual conscience to the point of excluding all collective sanctions and all objective norms, one may be tempted to consider tribal or national religions as completely amoral. Correspondingly, universal religions will be relegated to the domain of strictly private life. But if it is considered that tribal and national religions arise in groups in which the individual feels that he is truly himself, both in security and defined by function only in the perfect solidarity of the group, it follows that the group's religion and its morality are completely identified. The one expresses and effects the desired integration of the individual into the human group; and the other, his integration and that of the group into the universe. Man and society regard themselves as members of this universe. It should be noted, furthermore, that the individual desires this integration intensely, for it gives him a meaning. And this integration is not purely passive or impersonal, since even in the most strictly clannish religions the protest of the individual expresses itself in his beliefso surprising to the ethnologistin the "distant god," who is invoked in precise terms as a recourse against the community that has become unjust. There is no effective revolt but solely an appeal to the transcendent witness because the experience of life teaches daily the necessary reality and practical primacy of group solidarity.

On the other hand, if it is true that the apparent history of human societies is that of a "progressive laicization," there are grounds for questioning the rationalistic optimism of the 19th century and for observing, furthermore, that the so-called rational system of morality influences consciences only to the extent that they are sustained, however unknowingly, by religious values still widespread in the milieu that follows it. Such a system of morality collapses as soon as individuals change their milieu without taking their religion with them, just as every detribalized individual finds himself without moorings and lost.

Salvation. The sociological classification of religions and the corrections required have been covered sufficiently. It is necessary to pass to other distinctions that, strictly, concern aspects only of religions. These aspects are wrongly regarded as being capable in themselves of defining a religion, such as monotheism, polytheism, and animism. They are only ingredients, however, the combination of which characterizes each particular religion. Yet there is one aspect that appears to be more specific, namely, the idea of salvation. Some think that every religion is a salvation religion, while others hold that only universal religions can be salvation religions. The former, however, can find the idea of salvation in all religions only on condition that they recognize that, in tribal religions in particular, the idea of salvation is entirely implicit. The tribal religions do not have a pessimistic metaphysics that would teach the necessity of a savior since they propose and effect a perfect integration of individuals into their group and into their universe, in order that they may participate in their values, without separating the sacred and the profane. The attitude of these religions is not one of preoccupation with saving or transforming their world but of maintaining it, and themselves with it, by adhering scrupulously to its actual structures.

It is to be emphasized that Christianity does not belong in either category. It is not solely a religion of salvation, but a religion of redemption.

Origin and Evolution of Religion

The analysis presented above has eventually led to the questionat least in simplified formof the origin and historical variations in religion. Since the prehistoric documentation is obviously inadequate by its very nature, it is necessary to employ ethnological comparisons as much as possible to clarify origins. It may be stated without qualification that no culture, however primitive and backward, has been found that does not have ideas on divinity, spirits, human survival, and supernatural forces, along with corresponding rites. The problem of religion seems indeed to be identical with the problem of man (hominization).

The whole evolution of religion seems to be summed up in a diversification of syntheses and proportions of the same universal elements. Apart from a few notable exceptions, a certain parallelism is evident between the inordinate development, on the one hand, of magic, animism, fertility rites, and finally, polytheism, and on the other, the cultural changes that have produced civilizations that became more and more complex in their economic and political techniques. The great civilizations belong to general history rather than to the history of religions since they, in particular, have only developed further a political and philosophical heritage that was constituted in its entirety before history. Revealed religions alone pose specific problems, since they constitute conscious reactions against the tendencies of evolution. The Bible, and to some extent Zarathushtra, go very definitely against the trend of their contemporary milieus. All else that can be said on these subjects falls in the sphere of philosophy and theology, and not in that of sciences such as anthropology and sociology.

See Also: religion (in primitive culture); religion, philosophy of; religion, sociology of.

Bibliography: General works. h. pinard de la boullaye, L'Étude comparée des religions, 3 v. (3d ed. Paris 1931). g. mensching, et al., Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 5:961975, 986991, with good bibliog. f. kÖnig, ed., Religionswissenschaftliches Wörterbuch (Freiburg 1956). f. kÖnig, ed., Christus und die Religionen der Erde: Handbuch der Religionsgeschichte, 3 v. (2d ed. Vienna 1961). p. tacchi venturi, Storia delle religioni, 2 v. (4th ed. Turin 1954). m. brilliant and r. aigrain, eds., Histoire des religions, 5 v. (Paris 195356). f. heiler, Erscheinungsformen und Wesen der Religion (Stuttgart 1961). a. brunner, Die Religion (Freiburg 1956). m. eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, tr. r. sheed (New York 1958). m. eliade and j. kitagawa, eds., The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology (Chicago 1959). j. wach, The Comparative Study of Religions (New York 1958). p. schebesta, Der Ursprung der Religion (Berlin 1961). w. schmidt, Der Ursprung der Gottesidee, 12 v. (Münster), v. 1 (2d ed. 1926), v. 212 (192555). Special works. r. caillois, L'Homme et le Sacré (2d ed. Paris 1953). b. hÄring, Das Heilige und das Gute (Freiburg 1950). m. eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, tr. from Fr. w. r. trask (New York 1959); Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, tr. from Fr. p. mairet (New York 1960); Birth and Rebirth, tr. from Fr. w. r. trask (New York 1958). r. otto, The Idea of the Holy, tr. j. w. harvey (2d ed. New York 1958). r. allier, Magie et religion (Paris 1935). c. h. ratschow, Magic und Religion (2d ed. Gütersloh 1955). t. ohm, Die Liebe zu Gott in den nichtchristlichen Religionen (Krailling, Ger.1951). a. kirchgÄssner, Die mächtigen Zeichen: Ursprünge, Formen und Gesetze des Kultes (Freiburg 1959). b. malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion (New York 1955). r. will, Le Culte, 3 v. (Paris 192535). f. heiler, Das Gebet: Eine religionsgeschichtliche und religionspsychologische Untersuchung (5th ed. Munich 1923). a. vorbichler, Das Opfer auf den uns heute noch erreichbaren ältesten Stufen der Menscheitsgeschichte (Mödling 1956). a. e. jensen, Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples, tr. m.t. choldin and w. weissleder (Chicago 1963). j. de vries, Forschungsgeschichte der Mythologie (Freiburg 1961). p. radin, The World of Primitive Man (New York 1960).

[j. goetz]

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Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, wrote in 1939: "A definitive history of the Negro Church would leave practically no phase of the history of the Negro in America untouched." Understanding African-American religionor more accurately, the religious history of peoples of African descent in North Americais crucial for any rounded view of the African-American experience. Religion is often inseparable from culture, as was the case in traditional Africa, and encompasses more than institutional expressions. B. B. King once said that he felt closest to God when he was singing the blues, and African-American art, dance, and literature incorporate and reflect symbols, values, and themes. This essay will focus primarily on some of the principal issues, institutional and intellectual developments, and periods in the study of African-American religious history and culture.

A guiding principle for understanding this topic is that African-American religion is not simply an extension or form of Euro-American Christianity. Early historical work on African-American religion, such as that of Carter G. Woodson on "the Negro Church," focused almost exclusively on the institutional history of Protestantism. Yet to view African-American religious history as merely another chapter in the expansion of European Christianity would be to ignore the special circumstances of the religious pilgrimage of African Americans and gloss over the impact of other religious traditions.

A second guiding principle is that African-American religion is an evolving phenomenon that has taken shape over three centuries of slavery and that has continued to develop since the late nineteenth century. Today African-American religion takes on a variety of expressions, institutional and intellectual, creative and mundane, yet always acknowledging the past, while addressing the present and envisioning the future.

A final guiding principle is the fact that African-American religion is not monolithic. The differences within African-American religious culture are as important as the similarities. The religious outlook of someone of African descent in the Low Country of Carolina and Georgia about 1710, before the impact of the Great Awakening, might understandably be different from that of someone subject to the religious instruction of a white Presbyterian clergyman active in organized plantation missions after 1829. The religious profiles of a member of the Mother Bethel African Methodist Church in Philadelphia in 1880, a communicant of St. Cyprian's Roman Catholic Church in Chicago in 1924, of Zion Baptist Church in rural Mississippi in 1954, and of the Pentecostal C. H. Mason Temple in Memphis today will have significant differences. Generalizations about African-American religion must account for changes over time, including changing demographics and geographic variables.

Indeed, regional geography is an important qualifying factor in understanding the uniqueness of the African-American religious experience in the United States. Vaudou in Haiti, the Trinidadian cult of Shango, the practices of Santería in Cuba, and the Candomblé rituals found in Brazil exemplify a high degree of syncretism, or perhaps better what James Noel calls "creolization," between West African traditions and Euro-Christian, principally Roman Catholic, culture. In contrast, Africans who were brought or born into the predominantly British environment of North America were more likely to adapt or remodel their religious beliefs and practices in terms of the prevailing regional religious culturelow church Protestant Evangelicalism. Except for the Sea Islands of the Georgia coast, and a few other places where African slaves were isolated from the dominant white society, the children and grandchildren of those who survived the ordeal of the Middle Passage created a new syncretic religious worldview in America.

Slave Religion

Most Africans who were brought into the colonies of British North America originated from the coast and interior of West and West Central Africa. Approximately 60 percent of the slaves imported into the territory later known as the United States arrived between 1720 and 1780. Legal United States involvement in the international slave trade ended in 1808. Unlike what occurred in much of the Americas, the growth of the slave population in the United States, particularly in the American South, was by natural increase. The end of the slave trade did little to retard the increase of this population. In fact, in 1825 the United States had approximately 36 percent (1,750,000) of the slaves in the Americas, despite the dramatic increase in the arrival of new imports. For many of these individuals, knowledge of Africa was acquired indirectly and was only one of many cultural influences. Therefore, an understanding of the formative influences on the religious experience of African-American slaves, while recognizing the importance of the African cultural base, must take into account the New World cultural experience.

Traditional African languages had no single word for religionreligion was synonymous with a way of life. The importation of Africans into the Americas marked a transference of African ways of perceiving and responding to the spirit world, but just how strongly African influences or Africanisms survived is subject to debate. Proponents of the retention of African beliefs and practices, such as Melville Herskovits, Lawrence Levine, Sterling Stuckey, and Albert J. Raboteau point to spirit possession, musical forms, dance patterns such as the "ring shout," mounded-grave decorations, conjuring practices, and the identification of African divinities with specific saints in Roman Catholic folk piety as evidence of the survival of African traditional religion in the New World. The slaves' preference for the baptismal ritual of total immersion ("river baptisms") is often cited as an especially strong link with the West African river cults.

Other scholars, such as the early Herskovitz, E. Franklin Frazier, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Robert E. Park, have taken the view that traditional African beliefs and practices gradually weakened and in some cases died as the result of the complex interplay of forced acculturation, voluntary adaptation, and assimilation. The terrors of the Middle Passage called into question the omnipotence of the African gods and the ability of the ancestors to come to the aid of the distressed. Dealers in slaves intentionally broke up families and kinship groups and sought to create cultural anomie and linguistic confusion among the new arrivals. Slave buyers shunned the purchase of individuals who had operated as religious specialists in Africa and waged a destructive campaign against all religious practices, including the use of ritual drums that might serve as the focal point for the reconstruction of traditional African social groups on the plantations.

A third group of scholars navigate the complex issue of African influences by interpreting African-American religion as a modern phenomenon that emerges from the encounter of African slaves with European slave traders and slave holders. Charles Long, a historian of religion and the preeminent proponent of this view, maintains that African-American religion is black people's collective awareness of their own autonomy and experience of a divine other, not just a version of Christianity or any other faith tradition. This communal experience is also not confined to institutions. It is a way of being, a perspective on life that allows African Americans to liberate themselves from the oppression of Euro-Americans and to seek new and authentic expressions of human consciousness and community that take into account their value and origins. What is specifically African in African-American religion, then, is a religious consciousness that emerged out of the encounter of African slaves with Europeans.

The Christianity of Europeans is the faith tradition with which African Americans are most associated. African slaves in the Americas did not receive intensive indoctrination in Christianity for several generations. Europeans at first doubted that Africans had souls worth saving, and owners of slaves in the English colonies initially opposed the introduction of Christianity, not only because of lingering doubts about the religious capacity of the African but also because of fears that offering baptism to Africans implied spiritual equality and might spark resistance. European missionaries, such as those of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, who sponsored preaching among Africans in the Carolinas, persisted, and over time converts were made. The conflict between proponents of chattel slavery and the church diminished after the mid-1600s, when new laws partially relieved owners' anxieties by stating that baptism did not alter the civil estate of a slave. By 1706 at least six colonies had legislation stipulating that baptism did not make any change in the slave's status "as to his bondage, or freedom."

In the New World environment, Africans adapted and transformed European language and religious beliefs and in the process created a new African-American identity. The southern-born children and grandchildren of the Africans who participated in the transatlantic passage had to find religious meaning and seek religious expression within the predominantly white Protestant evangelical environment. The outburst of religious revivals in the 1740s and again in the early 1800s helped dismantle the colonial establishment of Anglicanism in the South and Congregationalism in New England and proved attractive to many African Americans, slave and free. Black converts and lower-class whites shared in the evangelical emphasis on conviction of sin, individual salvation, ecstatic worship, and the recompense of heaven.

An African-American Christian population of significant size and, in some places, of surprising independence developed during and after the American Revolution. Most black Christians belonged to mixed congregations where the egalitarian legacy of the Great Revival lingered on, despite inroads made by white racism among evangelicals. Independent African-American preachers, such as the Rev. Andrew Bryan of the First African Church of Savannah, established in 1788, planted numerous congregations, mostly Baptist, until a frightened white South curbed the religious freedom of blacks in the wake of the Denmark Vesey insurrection of 1822 and that led by Nat Turner in 1831. No reliable figures exist for the number of African Americans who became Christians during the era of the pioneer black preachers, but it is important to acknowledge that this experience of relative religious independence and a shared evangelical ethos provided a benchmark by which blacks could judge later efforts to use Christianity as a means of social control.

Although growing numbers of blacks, slave and free, had embraced Christianity by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the camp meetings and other mechanisms used by the evangelical preachers were limited in scope. In some places, such as among the Gullah peoples of the Sea Island district of South Carolina, and in Louisiana, where Roman Catholicism and West Indian-derived practices of voodoo intermixed, religious syncretism or creolization was so strong as to violate mainstream Christian sensibilities. Even in parts of the South, where free blacks and whites experienced common fellowship in local churches, little effort was made to reach the plantation slave.

Although many slave owners were made uneasy by some of the radically egalitarian implications of Christianity, many became convinced that Christianity, properly catechized, could make slaves more docile. In 1829, the Reverend William Capers appealed to plantation owners in South Carolina to allow him to go to their slaves. Supporters of the plantation missions were motivated by the biblical mandate to share the gospel, but they also wanted to rid the slaves of their "heathen" ways, and, as Capers argued, improve plantation efficiency on the premise that a Christian slave would be more obedient.

Nat Turner's insurrection in 1831 cast doubt on Capers's assertion, but gradually many in the white South were won over to the notion that "lessons on salvation and lessons on duty" were compatible and that the South had a divine mandate to convert and civilize the "children of Ham"as Africans were often called because of the pro-slavery interpretation of the story told in Genesis 9. When abolitionists chastised southerners for the sin of slavery, the apologists of "the peculiar institution" pointed to plantation missions as evidence of their fulfillment of the Christian duty to civilize and convert and of the legitimacy of their custodial rule over "the darker race."

Just how strongly, if at all, African-American slaves internalized the religious model placed before them by whites is a difficult question. Was the Christian slave successfully indoctrinated with the notion that piety and obedience were inseparable? Or did Christianity, as expressed in the secret or "hush arbor" meetings of slaves, in their prayers and in their songs (spirituals), offer a basis from which both individual psychological independence and organized resistance could spring forth? Frederick Douglass reported that he observed fellow slaves who scoffed at the religious pretensions of whites; personally he found hypocrisy at the root of slaveholding Christianity, which he termed "bad, corrupt, and wicked." But he thought of the Christianity of Christ as impartial and "good, pure, and holy." If we are to judge by the testimony of ex-slaves, many of whom eagerly sought to read the Bible for themselves once freedom came, they had successfully appropriated Christianity in order to give meaning to their lives and cope with systematic efforts to deny their humanity. Estimates are that one in seven of the adult slaves belonged to an organized church, primarily Baptist or Methodist, by the time of the Civil War, and many more had been exposed to the influence of Christianity.

The religious outlook of the African-American slave was a complex and highly creative adaptation of European Christianity and African traditional religion to everyday needs. A few rejected Christianity altogether and retained Islam or their traditional African religion, or became persistent skeptics. Many slaves originally sought the protection and power of the conjurer, but after a period of religious instruction and Christian baptism, many came to the conclusion that conjuration was the work of the devil. Although masters attempted to enforce discipline through the use of Christianity, the slaves heard the sermons preached in the plantation chapels with a critical ear, sorted out the wheat from the chaff, and constructed a religious story in which they were the chosen of God. Although they might have, as the spirituals reflect, trouble and sorrow in this world, they could hope for the joys of heaven where "de' bottom rail become de' top rail."

Labeled as "otherworldly" and "compensatory," this use of Christianity has been judged dysfunctional by those who emphasize the need for radical political and social transformation. Discussed in the manner of Gary Marx and others, the "opiate-versus-inspiration debate," as it is sometimes referred to, forces our view of the religious culture of the African-American slave into opposing and limiting channels. By recognizing the multiple dimensions of the sacred cosmos operative in the slave quarters and "hush-arbors," we come close to understanding what the African-American slaves meant when they spoke of their beliefs in God as helping them to "keep on keeping on." They testified that they had a "home in glory land" and that no earthly master could close them out of God's house. As historian John Boles wrote, "There was a fateful ambiguity at the heart of the slave response to Christianity, and the fervent rebel, and the passive, long-suffering servant were equally authentic expressions of black religion." Once they had been "killed dead" in the spirit and were reborn, African-American Christian slaves became participants in another community than that which numbered them with cattle and cotton. This suggests Charles Long's view that African-American religion is black people's awareness of their own autonomy and experience of a divine other independent of whites.

Christianity in the Antebellum North

By focusing too exclusively on the South, we run the risk of missing important facets of the antebellum African-American religious experience. There were individual African-American Christians of note in the North, such as Lemuel Haynes, the first African American officially ordained to the Christian ministry and who served as pastor of white congregations in New England; Phillis Wheatley, who wrote religious verse read in both America and Europe; and Jupiter Hammon, a slave on Long Island, New York, who counseled Christian endurance in the hope of heaven. Though few in number until after 1800, independent black churches were organized in the North. Separated from the bulk of the country's black population, African-American Christians in the North kept the plight of their sisters and brothers in chains in their prayers; supported causes such as temperance and education, so as not to provide the apologists for slavery with an argument that freedom would ruin the slave; served as Underground Railroad stations; and assisted in the cause of abolition. They organized voluntary associations to support educational endeavors and to care for widows and orphans, and they served as the focal points of black life in the northern city, where prejudice and discrimination were prevalent.

The northern religious landscape took on more definition with the formation of the first black denominations. Following the pattern of white Christians in the post-Revolutionary era, black Christians organized into denominations. Sometimes the struggle for denominational independence was a particularly dramatic one, as was the case with black Methodists in the Philadelphia area led by Richard Allen. A former slave and convert to Christianity, Allen was convinced that the plain and simple gospel as preached by the spiritual heirs of John Wesley, the English founder of Methodism, was best suited to the unlettered black. However, white authorities resisted when Allen and other Philadelphia black Methodists in the 1790s sought greater control over their own religious affairs by establishing their own church. Armed with a decision from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1816, to the effect that Allen and his coadjutors had a legal right to the church property and self-governance, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination was organized in 1816. About six years later, black Methodists in New York City likewise achieved denominational independence under the banner of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. As suggested by the label "Methodist," both groups replicated much of white Methodist ritual, doctrine, and polity while seeking to liberate themselves from the prejudicial control of white Methodists.

By the Civil War, the AME church had about twenty thousand members and had planted new missions as far west as California. Urged on by the zealous efforts of Daniel Alexander Payne, the AME church established its first institution of higher education, Wilberforce College (now Wilberforce University) and theological school, Payne Seminary, at Xenia, Ohio. The AME Zion denomination numbered about five thousand and would not expand significantly beyond the Northeast until after the Civil War, when the denomination's representatives worked aggressively among the freedmen. Eventually the denomination transferred most of its central operations to North Carolina, where it established a church newspaper and publishing house, and at Livingstone College in Salisbury.

The earliest separate black Baptist congregations appeared in northern cities in the early 1800s. Blacks customarily worshiped with white Baptists, but the "Negro Pew" was tolerated and eventually blacks sought to organize their own congregations. In 1805, Thomas Paul became the first pastor of the First African (or Joy Street) Baptist Church of Boston, and in 1808 he assisted in the organization of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. Independent black Baptist congregations eventually emerged in most northern cities, but the traditional Baptist emphasis on local autonomy retarded the development of regional associations until the formation of the Providence Association in 1834 and the Union Association in 1836, both in Ohio, and the Wood River Association in 1839 in southwestern Illinois.

Sparked by interest in developing missions in Africa, black Baptists gradually moved toward more national organizations. The American Baptist Missionary Convention became the first such cooperative arrangement in 1840. In the decades after the Civil War, black Baptists debated whether or not to continue partnerships with northern white Baptists in foreign missions and the publication of religious literature. The nationalist or independent spirit finally triumphed in the formation of the first truly national black organization, the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. Inc., in 1895. The cooperationists formed the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention in 1897.

Because of Baptist disunity during most of the nineteenth century, the African Methodist story tends to assume center stage in accounts of the institutional history of African-American religion. Better organized than the Baptistsand fortunate to have denominational historians such as Bishop Daniel A. Payne and Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tannerthe northern-based African Methodists dominate the documentary record. But statistics of denominational membership published by the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that black Baptists outnumbered black Methodists as the century drew to a close. This was largely due to expansion in the South after Emancipation when the ex-slaves, though heavily recruited by agents of the northern-based denominations, black and white, elected to form new congregations in which they could hear preachers familiar with the religious style found in the antebellum plantation congregations.

Civil War to World War II

When slaves deserted their masters during the Civil War or became contraband as Union troops advanced on Southern soil, a new religious landscape began to emerge. Eager to read the Bible on their own and worship without white oversight, the freed slaves were convinced that their emancipation was tantamount to the deliverance of the Children of Israel from the pharaoh of Egypt. African-American Christians seized the moment and left the denominations of their former masters in large numbers. The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1870 at Jackson, Tennessee, and was comprised principally of former members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, who did not desire to join the northern-based African Methodists. As if by spontaneous combustion, black Baptist congregations appeared in great numbers throughout the South. These Baptist churches and their Methodist counterparts in the small towns and rural areas represented the core religious culture of African Americans in the South between the Civil War and World War I. Heavily influenced by the folk practices of the "invisible institution" and often criticized for its demonstrative religious stylewith emphasis on dramatic conversion experiences, emotional preaching and "testifying"southern African-American religion developed its own internal dynamic. African-American churches in the North, with their educated ministers and more formal worship styles, developed differently. On the eve of World War I, therefore, two African-American religious cultures existed: one northern and urban, the other mostly southern and rural.

Despite the cultural differences between the northern and southern black religion, most observers agreed that the church was central to African-American life as the twentieth century dawned. "The Negro Church," Booker T. Washington wrote in 1909, "was the first institution to develop out of the life of the Negro masses and still retains the strongest hold upon them." "The Negro church of today," W. E. B. Du Bois had written six years earlier, "is the social center of Negro life in the United States, and the most characteristic expression of the African character." An institution so central to African Americans could not escape internal discussion of the prevailing social and political issues raised in the larger society.

One of the most important issues concerned the role that women should play in male-dominated institutions such as the church, where the pulpit had been traditionally defined as "men's space" and the pew as "women's place." The AME Zion church authorized the ordination of women in the 1890s, the AME church in 1948, and the CME church in 1954. Appealing to the principle of congregational autonomy, the major black Baptist conventions avoided legislating policy on the ordination of women. Conservative attitudes at the congregational level, where gender bias among the male clergy is strong, has proved to be an obstacle to many women who have sought ordination. The Church of God in Christ, the largest black Pentecostal body, prohibits the ordination of women.

Historically, women have been in the majority in the mainline black denominations, yet men have dominated the leadership. Women serve as "mothers of the church," are active in missionary societies, educational efforts, and a wide variety of charitable causes, and serve local congregations in numerous capacities, such as teachers, stewardesses, and deaconesses. Yet men hold denominational offices and monopolize the clergy rosters to a greater degree than in the more liberal white Protestant churches. Women who wish to exercise the gift of the spirit have had to operate as independent evangelists, such as Jarena Lee did after an originally futile appeal to Richard Allen and

the African Methodists in the early 1800s. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Rebecca Cox Jackson (who eventually joined the Shakers) possessed spiritual gifts that the established black denominations did not formally recognize. Amanda Berry Smith left the AME Church in order to exercise her ministry more freely, joined the Holiness Movement, and thereby served as a precursor for the many women who found the freedom to develop their own ministries within the orbit of the burgeoning Pentecostal and Holiness movement, which flourished in the "sanctified" storefronts of the urban North. For example, Elder Lucy Smith (18741952) founded All Nations Pentecostal Church in Chicago and conducted a multidimensional ministry that dealt with the material as well as the spiritual needs of her members.

African-American women such as Maria W. Stewart, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Ida Wells-Barnett channeled their gifts for ministry into social justice causes outside of the male-dominated churches. Stewart and especially Watkins Harper became well known in their time as champions of abolition, temperance, the civil rights of African Americans and women, and the education of African-American children. In the late nineteenth century, Wells-Barnett championed these causes, and also became well known for her anti-lynching campaign. Although working independently of established black churches, these women nevertheless remained affiliated with them, particularly African Methodism. Watkins Harper, whom Carla Peterson calls a "poet-preacher," published her poetry, stories, and essays in the major papers of the AME church throughout her long career.

The majority of reform- and ministerially-minded black women, however, formed auxiliary organizations in churches that maintained and supported the financial and spiritual health of these institutions. For example, the Women's Parent Mite Missionary Society of the AME Church, founded in 1874, supported new churches in the western United States and in South Africa. Sarah Elizabeth Miller Tanner, an active member of this group whose son was active in AME missions in South Africa, and whose husband was Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner, witnessed to the efforts of these churchwomen in an 1896 article in the A. M. E. Church Review. Black Baptist women also founded organizations that served as the "backbone" of their churches and communities. Baptist women led by Nannie Helen Burroughs formed the Women's Convention of the National Baptist Convention in 1900, and operated the National School for Girls in Washington.

Many of these church womenAME, Baptist, and otherwisewere also active in the club movement, which stressed self-help, charitable, and civic work, and served as a focal point for women's independent identity. Beset by racism in the larger society and confronted by patriarchal attitudes within their denominations, African-American churchwomen had to confront multiple challenges. They played an especially important role in bridging the gap between church work as traditionally defined and secular reform activity. The demands upon them intensified with the outbreak of World War I.

The centrality of women in the local congregation became all the more apparent because of external social forces in the flight from field to factory once the call for labor went out from the North. After 1910, in the early years of the Great Migration, males, particularly young males, went north lured by the promise of better jobs. Women and the young were left to carry on congregational life. Urbanization proved to be no panacea. Indeed, in poor urban areas, church adherence was increasingly the sphere of women and children. This is especially true of the independent churches, known as "storefronts." In an extensive study done in the 1980s, researchers found that in 2,150 black churches, of various denominations, women outnumbered men by a factor of 2.5 to 1. Some observers have spoken of the "feminization of the black church" because of the relative absence of males, especially young males, in urban congregations.

The urbanization of African-American religion also precipitated an institutional crisis in the existing black churches. In 1910 nearly 90 percent of the nation's black population lived in the South, mostly in rural regions and small towns. Since the end of the Civil War, the church had assumed a dominant position in the life of southern blacks, whose institutional development in other areas was restricted by racial apartheid. By default, then, the churches served multiple purposesworship, education, recreation, and socialization. Northern black leaders, as well as some Southern leaders (e.g., Booker T. Washington) pointed to such problems as overchurching, undereducated ministers, pastors with multiple charges, congregations too small to maintain programs and property, and too little emphasis on the social and political problems of the day. Carter G. Woodson referred to rural churches as "mystic shrines" while writing approvingly of northern urban churches as progressive centers of "social uplift." This debate over the mission of the black church was heightened by the Great Migration because it placed new demands upon existing denominational and local church resources and programs.

The population shift put severe strains upon existing denominational structures. Home missionary boards lacked adequate resources to cope with the need in the North, and congregations in the South were left depleted and deserted. Competition among the three major black Methodist bodies prevented a cooperative effort in addressing the needs of the migrants. The National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., underwent a contentious division in 1915, which resulted in the formation of a rival body, the National Baptist Convention of America Unincorporated, later named National Baptist Convention of America in 1916. The internecine war continued for years, draining away critically needed resources. The secretary of the Home Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., reported in 1921: "We have quite a number of destitute fields both North and South and in many cases no opportunity for religious worship."

The regional shift in America's black population portended difficulties because as World War I began the black denominations were heavily weighted to the South. In 1916 the U.S. Census of Religious Bodies credited the National Baptists with 2,939,579 members, 89 percent of whom were in the South. The AME Church had 548,355 members and was 81.2 percent southern. The AME Zion Church was 84.6 percent southern with a total membership of 257,169. The CME Church, composed principally of the descendants of ex-slaves, was 95.5 percent southern and 245,749 members strong. None of the Pentecostal or Holiness bodies, which became so important in the urban North after the Great Migration, receive recognition in the 1916 religious census.

In addition to placing strains upon ecclesiastical structures inherited from the nineteenth century and oriented primarily toward the small town and rural church, urbanization offered African Americans new religious options. Baptist and Methodist preachers now had to compete with the agents of the Pentecostal and Holiness churches. These churches put great emphasis on an intense personal experience of the Holy Spirit. The Church of God in Christ, led by Charles Harrison Mason, held its first Pentecostal general assembly in 1907. Having started as a rural church in Mississippi, the denomination grew to become a fixture in the northern city. Ill at ease in the more formal worship services of the established northern churches, many migrants organized prayer bands, started house churches, or moved into the storefronts where speaking in tongues (sometimes referred to as the practice of glossolalia) received the blessing of the Pentecostals. The Church of Christ (Holiness), U.S.A., under the leader-ship of Elder C. P. Jones, likewise expanded as a result of the burgeoning black populations of urban industrial America. Other Holiness and Pentecostal churches were founded by denominationally independent religious entrepreneurs who recognized that the migrants from the South desired something that the northern black middle class churches did not offer.

Many of the migrants wanted religious environments that reminded them of their churches back home, where they were known by and part of an extended family. The ecstatic worship services and musical styles favored by the Pentecostal and Holiness preachers caught the attention of these ex-southerners. When hard times befell them in the North, migrants sought out spiritual havens in the urban wilderness. Holiness and Pentecostal churches multiplied everywhere, and existing Baptist and Methodist churches split or sponsored daughter congregations as the migrant population swelled. On occasion, northern black Christians criticized their "brothers and sisters" from the South for falling short of northern cultural expectations and the existing class norms. In turn, migrants shunned some northern black churches, where the elaborate and elegant services made them feel out of place. Some fell away from organized religion all together. Others responded to their crisis of faith in the city by transplanting churches from the South led by the pastors who had followed them northward.

The tension between the two cultural streams that came together after the beginning of World War I is illustrated by the reluctance of the older African-American congregations in Chicago to accept gospel music. Gospel music was popularized by Thomas Dorsey, the "father of gospel music," who joined Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago in 1921. Unlike the purveyors of commercialized gospel today, early gospel music was church centered. Yet as Mahalia Jackson, the best-known singer of gospel, learned while growing up in New Orleans, the musical distance between the honky-tonk and a Holiness revival with its beating and tambourine shaking is not that great. Dorsey, building on the work of predecessors such as Charles Albert Tindley, was the principal force behind the introduction of blueslike gospel songs into the northern black churches. About 1930, observers of the Chicago scene reported that "Negro churches, particularly the storefront congregations, the Sanctified groups and the shouting Baptists, were swaying and jumping as never before. Mighty rhythms rocked the churches. A wave of fresh rapture came over the people." Jackson earned worldwide acclamation for her solo renditions of gospel classics, and the pioneering touring groups such as the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi helped make gospel so popular that today it is rare to find a black church, of whatever denomination or class composition, that closes its doors to the gospel sound.

Religious diversity, even dissonance, resonated from the large, densely crowded, black urban centers after World War I. After examining data from the 1926 Federal Census of Religious Bodies, Miles Mark Fisher exclaimed: "Almost in every center, particularly urban, is some unorthodox religious group which makes a definite appeal to Negroes." The Jamaican-born black nationalist Marcus Garvey discouraged talk of founding a new church, but he and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (19181927) had many followers who sought collective redemption in the back-to-Africa ideology. There were also some supporters, such as George Alexander McGuire, the founder of the African Orthodox Church, who did initiate Garveyite-inspired demonstrations. The UNIA collapsed after the deportation of its "Black Moses" in 1927, but other charismatic personalities came forward offering often exotic visions of heaven on earth. Father Divine set up a series of Peace Missions during the Great Depression, offering his devotees the unusual mix of "God" in the flesh and a refuge from society's problems. Scores of religious entrepreneurs opened shop in the black ghettos, where they competed with the mainline denominations. Frequently referred to as cults and sects, the groups led by these new messiahs often died when their founders did, but some managed to survive under different leadership, as, for example, the one led by Daddy Grace (the United House of Prayer for All People). Representatives of the mainline churches frequently decried the proliferation of these alternative groups, arguing, as the Baptist Miles Mark Fisher did, that the principal message of the cults and sects was "Let us prey," not "Let us pray."

The appearance on urban street corners of black adherents of Islam and Judaism added to the perception that African-American religion was undergoing a radical reorientation in the interwar period at the expense of the historic black denominations. The first black Jewish group recognized by the federal religious census was founded in 1896 by William S. Crowdy, a Santa Fe Railroad cook, in Lawrence, Kansas. African Americans wearing the yarmulke and speaking Yiddish came to the attention of a wider public in the 1920s. Located primarily in the boroughs of New York City, these teachers of black Hebraism appropriated and adapted the rituals and teachings of Orthodox Judaism. Though never large in number, the followers of Rabbi Arnold Ford and other proponents of Black Judaism generated a great deal of interest among the curious and the skeptical.

Islam was not entirely unheard of among African Americans before the mysterious figure of Wallace D. Fard appeared in the "Paradise Valley" of Detroit in 1930 to wake up the sleeping "Lost-Found Nation of Islam." There is increasing evidence that a small but not insignificant number of enslaved Africans brought knowledge of the Qur'an and Islamic law to North America. But modern Islam among African Americans begins with the career of Noble Drew Ali, a native of North Carolina and founder of Moorish Science in Newark, New Jersey, about 1913. However, the man who most popularized Islam for African Americans was the one-time disciple of Wallace Fard, Elijah Muhammad, who capitalized on the interest of urbanized blacks in the religiously exotic. Himself a migrant from Georgia, Muhammad (formerly Elijah Poole) assumed leadership of the Nation of Islam after Fard's disappearance in 1934, and moved its headquarters to Chicago. The Nation's version of Islam did not fare well under the scrutiny of orthodox scholars of the Qur'an, and eventually the sect broke into rival factions. Nevertheless, it has had a significant impact upon many African Americans, chiefly the young and angry like Malcolm X who believed that traditional black Christianity was a "pie-in-the-sky" religion.

Attention to the new religious options that appeared in black urban America during the period between World War I and World War II should not be at the expense of the story of the mainline black churches. Stimulated by the crisis brought about by the influx of thousands from the South, the established churches struggled with a redefinition of mission during these decades. Richard R. Wright, Jr., examined the record of black church involvement within the public sphere in 1907 and concluded that only a few churches had "attacked the problems of real city Negroes." His own work in Chicago's Institutional Church and Social Settlement, founded by Reverdy Ransom, and later at Chicago's Trinity Mission and Culture Center, which Wright organized in 1905, convinced Wright that black churches needed a more compelling definition of urban mission than presently at hand. Prior to World War I outreach primarily involved mission and charity work with the intent of recruiting new members. As Wright and Ransom discovered for themselves, pastors who addressed contemporary social problems born of urban and industrial growth were deemed too radical by denominational officials.

Most black preachers, urban and rural, still thought of sin and salvation in individualistic terms. The black denominations lagged behind their white counterparts in adopting the theological message of the social gospel movement with its focus upon the problems of urban America. Beginning with the era of the Great Migration, however, many more black churches incorporated programs into their understanding of "church work" that went beyond the traditional emphasis on praying and preaching. They assisted with needs in housing, employment, education, recreation, and health care. The instrumentalist use of the church to better the community is today so widely accepted that black clergy or congregations who show no interest in everyday problems have little appeal or credibility among African Americans.

Although black denominations were spared the bitter internecine battles that erupted in the 1920s between the white fundamentalists and modernists over such issues as the interpretation of the Creation story in Genesis, their efforts to merge have failed. Concerned about institutional inefficiency and lost opportunities to influence the larger society and motivated by the ideal that Christ's church be one, representatives of the three principal branches of black Methodism began meetings in 1915 to discuss the possibility of merger. But leaders of the CME church (formerly the Colored Methodist Episcopal church and since 1954 the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church), balked at union because of fears of being dominated by the two larger northern black Methodist bodies: the AME and the AME Zion churches. Division among black Methodists was widened by the segregation of 315,000 in the Central Jurisdiction, a nongeographical entity, of the predominantly white United Methodist Church in 1939 after the merger of the northern and southern branches of Methodism (the segregated structure was abolished in the 1960s). Black Baptists likewise have been unable to heal the divisions within their ranks. The National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., remains the largest of all black church connections, claiming about 7.5 million members and 30,000 local churches in the late 1980s.

The contemporary black Baptist story is still best told in terms of the local congregation. Ministerial alliances at the local level have fostered interdenominational cooperation where there has been sufficient need for common action. In many congregations, the minister is still the dominant personality. Critics have argued that the domineering role played by the pastor in black congregations has retarded the development of lay leadership. The preeminence of the black minister in African-American religious culture has historical roots. Because of the class and caste attitudes of whites in the South, the ministry remained one of the few professions accessible to blacks. Even in the North, where political boundaries were defined by patterns of residential segregation and black political participation was restricted, black ministers were called upon to speak for their community before local authorities. Participation in electoral and protest politics has engaged the energies of many contemporary black clergy, but they have had to divide their time between their civic roles and their pastoral roles.

Civil Rights Era to the Present

The internal life of African-American churches probably escaped the attention of most of white America until the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began to catch the eye and ear of the news media. Rooted deep in the black Baptist tradition, King was schooled in the preaching tradition of the black church of the South. While doing advanced theological training in the North, he became proficient in the major currents of thought among liberal, socially aware Protestants. This made it possible for him to appeal to the conscience of white America during the civil rights struggle and to enlist the aid of allies from the more liberal white denominations. Yet the grassroots participation of thousands of black churchgoers who marched and sang and prayed transformed King's protest of racial segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, into a mass movement. From the vantage point of these people of faith, a civil rights march was as much a religious crusade as a social movement. While the cause of civil rights united black religious leaders across denominational lines and cemented alliances with progressive forces in the predominantly white Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities, there were disharmonious chords. The Rev. Joseph H. Jackson, who served as president of the National Baptist Convention from 1953 to 1982, resisted the attempt of King and others to move the largest Protestant denomination in the world into activist or protest politics. As a result, King, with the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Gardner C. Taylor, and others, formed the Progressive National Baptist Convention in 1961 under the motto: "Unity, service, fellowship, peace."

One of the most important influences on King's thought and activism was Howard Thurman, an African-American churchman of major stature in his own right. A theologian, mystic, professor, and founder of the first interracial church in the United States, Thurman knew King informally through his father. Like many others in the civil rights movement, though, King was compelled by Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited, a small but powerful book that Thurman wrote in the late 1940s in the wake of his meeting with Mohandas K. Gandhi.

The civil rights movement, of course, was not confined to institutional church circles. Nor are its religious dimensions fully measured by focusing, for example, on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by King. Organizations with a more secular orientation, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), also had crucial roles to play. But even the members of SNCC were animated by a vision of the grassroots black church, especially in the South, an institution that propelled the crusade that eventually broke down the barriers of legalized segregation. While a form of religious sectarianism among many African Americans has led to withdrawal and isolation from the public sphere, orthodox or mainline black churches have for the most part been instrumental in bringing America closer to Dr. King's dream of the "beloved community."

A dramatic scenario for the re-envisioning of America unfolded in the decade of the 1960s, when the call for Black Power was heard. Originating among young radicals, many of whom were estranged from the traditional black church, the largely secular Black Power movement quickly drew a theological response. It came first from individuals such as James Cone, who were situated in academic environments, but it eventually engaged the thinking of denominational representatives. Their statements revealed both agreement with the diagnosis of the wrongs of American society as portrayed by advocates of Black Power, but also some uneasiness regarding the means necessary to achieve a just society. King had taught that nonviolence was ethically essential given the witness of the New Testament. During the civil rights crusade, local churches served as training grounds in nonviolent resistance. In contrast, the more strident advocates of Black Power carried weapons and, rhetorically at least, endorsed their use in conflicts with the police and others in authority. Steeped in the traditional Christian doctrine that the use of violence is a betrayal of the ethics of Jesus, most black Christians remained skeptical of the means the militants justified.

Nevertheless, the Black Power advocates made a lasting impact on black churches. By raising cultural awareness, black nationalistsas Garvey had done in the 1920s and earlier back-to-Africa proponents such as Bishop Henry M. Turner of the AME church did in the 1880sstimulated interest in and debate over the essential question of "how black is black religion?" Black Muslims also played a significant role in this challenge to black Christian churches. African-American clergy in the predominantly white Protestant groups organized caucuses in which they examined their historic and contemporary relationship with their host denominations. This analysis led to demands for representation in the higher echelons of institutional life, for more black clergy, and for the incorporation of distinctively African-American religious styles in worship. Black Roman Catholics also experienced a renaissance of pride in "blackness," variously defined. Representations of a Black Jesus appeared in Roman Catholic sanctuaries, and the refrains of gospel music could be heard during Mass sung in English following the reforms of Vatican II (19631965). In other religious traditions such as the Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Lutheran, African Americans also pressed for a greater appreciation of the rich African and African-American religious heritage.

Womanism is one of the most important intellectual and activist traditions of the black Christian churches to emerge from the civil rights, black theology, and women's movements of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. In the late 1980s Jacquelyn Grant, Katie Geneva Cannon, Delores Williams, and Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, some of the major figures of this black feminist movement, confronted the paternalism of the black churches, the racism of white feminist theologians, and the sexism, racism, and classism of American society at large. Recognizing their roots in the struggles of generations of black women, and taking their name from an expression in Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mother's Gardens, they identify themselves as thinkers, teachers, activists, and preachers with a commitment to the well being of African-American women, men, and children. These pioneering women have initiated a powerful and growing movement in seminaries and divinity schools throughout the United States. By training both male and female ministers to think more holistically, they have made an impacthowever modeston both black and white denominations.

One of the most prominent and successful ministers in this tradition is the Reverend Vashti Murphy McKenzie. A graduate of Howard University's divinity school and a member of a prominent black Baltimore family, McKenzie is the first black woman preacher to speak at the democratic national convention. She is one of a few female ministers to lead a large AME congregation, and more important, one of the few black women to be appointed to the office of bishop in the AME church. McKenzie is also a much sought-after speaker.

For all of the gains of womanists such as McKenzie, Grant, Cannon, and othersincluding being part of the leadership of mainline African-American churches, sitting on the faculty of major seminaries and divinity schools, heading venerable professional organizations such as the Society for the Study of Black Religion, and sitting on the boards of powerful educational organizations such as the Association of Theological Schools and the Fund for Theological Education, African-American women still fight for recognition in black churches. Obtaining such recognition means getting congregants to revise their sense of a male, preacher-centered culture.

At the core of the complex religious pilgrimage of peoples of African descent in America is the importance of the local congregation of believers who celebrate together the rites of passage of its members from baptism to Christian burial. Most black churches, however, emphasize preaching over the sacraments, in contrast to liturgical traditions such as Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism. The spoken word, whether in sermon or song, is at the core of black worship, and the male preacher remains the embodiment of the word. Indeed, the roster of celebrated black preachers is long. The Rev. C. L. Franklin of Detroit is but one example. Called "the most imitated soul preacher in history" by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Franklin shepherded more than ten thousand members of Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church at the height of his popularity. He carried the sermon to an art form, was heard on the radio by a large audience, and sold millions of records.

In spite of their paternalism, black churches historically have served as the centers of African-American life and identity. Benjamin Mays, the distinguished educator in Atlanta and mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote of the church of his youth in rural South Carolina: "Old Mount Zion was an important institution in my community. Negroes had nowhere to go but to church. They went there to worship, to hear the choir sing, to listen to the preacher, and to hear and see the people shout. The young people went to Mount Zion to socialize, or simply to stand around and talk. It was a place of worship and a social center as well. There was no other place to go."

The black mainline denominations so central to the lives of persons like Benjamin Mays experienced a renewal in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s that was largely spawned by a growing black middle class. Churches such as Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago under Jeremiah Wright reinterpreted the ongoing issues of civil justice and economic empowerment in terms appropriate to an African-American laity with college and graduate degrees, middle-class aspirations, and professional careers. This educated and upwardly mobile laity, also known as buppies, demanded an equally educated and professionalized ministry with graduate degrees from prestigious institutions such as the University of Chicago Divinity School. By the same token, this prosperous laity itself brought resources of its own to these churches. As Cheryl Gilkes and Beverly Hall point out, such churches, many of them large complexes or megachurches, have health and wellness programs, day care and fitness centers, job training, and men's, women's, and youth's programs staffed by qualified professionals from among the laity.

The nondenominational Word of Faith Movement, which exploded in the 1980s, and continues to thrive into the twenty-first century, also draws adherents from the black middle class. This movement, however, appeals to a larger cross section of African Americans, and preaches a theology of prosperity. According to its adherents, God wants his people to be prosperous, even wealthy. But in order for one to obtain material prosperity, one must have unwavering faith in God's promises and follow God's commands. While not exclusively an African-American phenomenon, blacks nevertheless constitute a large part of the leadership and the membership of these Word churches. Fred Price of South Central Los Angeles is one of the most prominent black ministers in this movement. Milmon Harrison notes that blacks are attracted to this movement because it foregrounds the material well-being that has always been a part of black religious traditions.

In spite of their differences, the Word of Faith churches and revitalized mainline churches share a common criticism. Critics contend that neither the revitalized mainline black denominations nor the Word of Faith churches are concerned about poor blacks. Both groups succumb to the lure of middle-class America and leave the poorest of the poor behind. Such critics often credit the Nation of Islam with being able to reach into the ranks of the youthful street gangs and to make converts among African Americans in the country's prisons. While there is some truth to their criticisms, they overlook the various street ministries sponsored by mainline black churches or independent evangelical preachers and the extensive community services such as "meals on wheels" programs, Head Start schools, and recreational facilities, found in most places where black churches are active.

The work that black churches do to meet the needs of African Americans often entails a kind of grassroots ecumenism. In his study of a group of small congregations in northern California, theologian and pastor James Noel noted that "it is quite common for members of a particular Marin City congregation to have members of their immediate or extended family represented in other Marin City congregations. Consequently, when it comes to things like pastoral care, and even more self-conscious corporate efforts such as economic development, Marin City pastors [of different denominations] have been involved in 'an ecumenical team ministry' directed toward the community." This kind of collaborative effort and pooling of resources across denominational lines has always characterized black religious institutional life, and is even carried on in the academy, where, as Cheryl Gilkes rightly observes, African-American seminarians in field education placements regularly work across denominations. In professional organizations, African Americans of different denominations and faiths also collaborate with their Hispanic, Asian, and Euro-American colleagues. Examples of the latter are exemplified in anthologies such as Inheriting Our Mothers' Gardens, edited by Katie Cannon, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Kwok Pui-Lan, and Letty Russell, and The Ties That Bind, edited by Anthony Pinn and Benjamin Valentin.

Formal expressions of ecumenism on the order of Euro-Christian institutions, however, have been minimal. The major black denominations have indeed been involved in ecumenical agencies such as the National Council of Churches. But there exists no national organization made up exclusively of representatives of the black denominations that could work for a reduction in competition and redundancy at the local level, as well as speak more authoritatively on matters of public concern. The partially successful attempts at African-American ecumenism include: the Fraternal Council of Negro Churches (1934early 1950s); the Black Poweroriented National Conference of Black Churchmen (19671973); the Congress of National Black Churches (1978present). One of the most successful formal ecumenical efforts by the black church is the Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of six primarily black denominations at the Atlanta University Center.

However successful these ecumenical efforts might be, whether formal or informal, they do not diminish the fact that the needs and issues facing most black churches are often overwhelming. HIV/AIDS, troubles facing black youth, especially black males, women and welfare reform, and the like outstrip the resources of these institutions, and often exacerbate the churches' own inability to address the sexuality and gender issues at the core of many of these social ills. Recently, financial assistance has come from the conservative wing of the federal government. Only time will tell whether this kind of support will fuel the biblical conservatism dogging these churches and testing their fifty-year-old identity as grassroots civil-rights organizations. Robert Franklin, Kelly Brown Douglas, and Cornel West bring these matters to the fore and offer fresh assessments and challenges.

During the 1950s, when the crusade to break down the walls of prejudice and discrimination crested, some observers wondered what the fate of the black churches would be if racial assimilation replaced racial apartheid. Since the historic African-American denominations had originated in protest to the exclusionary policies prevalent among white Christians, so the argument went, the rationale for separate black religious institutions weakened as the predominantly white denominations became more egalitarian. That African-American religious institutions continue to expand some four decades after Martin Luther King Jr. trumpeted the call for a new day in the relationship between black and white America should signal that African-American religion has been more than a simple reaction to the religious experiences and practices of Americans of European descent. It stands as an enduring witness to the multicultural texture of the entire American experience.

See also African Methodist Episcopal Church; African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; African Orthodox Church; African Union Methodism; Baptists; Black Power Movement; Candomblé; Catholicism in the Americas; Christian Denominations, Independent; Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Frazier, Edward Franklin; Gospel Music; Gullah; Islam; Judaism; Nation of Islam; National Baptist Convention, U.S.A.; National Black Evangelical Association; Protestantism in the Americas; Santería; Tanner, Benjamin Tucker; Voodoo


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milton c. sernett (1996)

marcia c. robinson (2005)

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Debate Over Teaching Evolution and Intelligent Design Continues

The national debate over the teaching of evolution versus other alternative theories continued in 2005 and 2006. Supporters of a theory known as intelligent design have attempted to integrate its teachings with those of evolution. These proposals, however, have been rebuked by many members of the scientific community, who view intelligent design as theology rather than science. The dispute reached something of a climax in December 2005, when a judge in Pennsylvania ruled that public schools in that state could not teach intelligent design because the concept is really creationism in disguise.

The argument over the teaching of evolution in public schools extended through much of the 20th century. In one of the century's most famous trials, John Scopes, a biology teacher in Tennessee, was charged with violating the state's Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Scopes was prosecuted by William Jennings Bryan and defended by Clarence Darrow. The trial, dubbed the "Scopes Monkey Trial," has long been remembered for the interactions between Bryan and Darrow, as well as for certain assertions made about the creation of life.

The Scopes trial did not resolve constitutional questions regarding the teaching of evolution in schools. The U.S. Supreme Court finally addressed this issue in 1968 by invalidating a state statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution. Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 89 S. Ct. 266, 21 L. Ed. 2d 228 (1968). By the latter part of the 20th century, scientists had largely accepted evolution, even though many aspects of evolution are in apparent contradiction with Biblical stories. Some states attempted to balance teaching of evolution and the Bible by requiring schools to teach both creationism and evolution. The Court invalidated one of these types of laws in 1987. Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 107 S. Ct. 2573, 96 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1987).

During the 1980s, some individuals, largely associated with academia, began to develop new theories on the creation of life. These theorists strategically separated themselves from specific references to creationism. They instead focused their arguments on assertions that life on Earth is too complex to have been developed as a random occurrence. According to their arguments, an intelligent being must have designed the system that created life on this planet.

Proponents of intelligent design direct much of their attention on discrediting evolution. Ostensibly, their goal is to allow schools to teach intelligent design as an equally viable alternative to the theory of evolution. This argument, however, depends largely on the characterization of intelligent design as science. Although defenders of this movement say that they do not need to identify a specific "designer" in order to prove their theory, many who oppose this movement say that the theory is really based on religious beliefs rather than science.

Some scientists have taken firm positions in opposition to the intelligent design movement. In October 2005, for instance, six Nobel laureates joined other scientists and religious leaders in opposing the teaching of intelligent design in schools. According to a letter sent by these laureates to all 50 governors in the U.S., teaching intelligent design in the classroom could cause American students to fall behind students abroad. "We certainly will not be able to close this gap if we substitute ideology for fact in our science classrooms," the letter said.

Intelligent design advocates secured what they viewed as a victory in November, when the Kansas Board of Education approved new science standards that cast doubt on the theory of evolution. According to supporters, the decision would allow local schools to broaden the scope of their science classes by offering not only natural explanations for phenomena, but also supernatural explanations for these occurrences. In contrast, opponents of the proposals said that the state would become a "laughingstock" of the nation because of how the Kansas standards define science.

Boards in several other states have considered and approved other challenges to evolution. In Alabama, for instance, biology textbooks must bear disclaimers that read, "Evolution is a controversial theory." According to reports, states that have boards of education consisting of elected members are more likely to have standards that challenge evolution than states where board members are appointed. Polls have indicated that the American public is split on the treatment of evolution and alternative theories of creation in schools.

A local school board in Dover, Pennsylvania in October 2004 initiated a requirement that ninth-grade biology teachers read a statement introducing intelligent design to their classes. It represented the first instance in which intelligent design was formally included as part of a curriculum. A group of 11 parents sued the school board to prevent this policy from taking effect. The case drew national attention.

In December 2005, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III struck down the policy. His opinion discredited intelligent design as "a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory." Moreover, the judge said that the board hid its true motive, which was to "promote religion in the public school classroom." According to the judge, "This case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on [intelligent design], who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources." Kitzmiller v. Dover Area Sch. Dist., 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Penn. 2005).

About a month after the Pennsylvania decision, a rural school district in California cancelled an elective intelligent design course. Schools in several others states continued to consider whether to attempt to teach the theory as a challenge to evolution in light of the Kitz-miller opinion. The National Center for Science Education, along with other organizations, has said that it will continue to challenge the teaching of intelligent design in the schools.

Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down Voucher Program

The Florida Supreme Court in 2006 struck down a statute that authorized a program that provided vouchers for children at failing schools. The decision was based on an interpretation of the state's constitution and cannot be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The statute in question was considered to be one of Florida Governor Jeb Bush's chief accomplishments.

In 1999, Florida became the first state to offer a statewide voucher program to children from kindergarten to grade 12. The voucher program consisted of three parts. First, the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) provided $3,900 to children who attended a school that failed Florida's Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) two years in a row. The vouchers would allow a child to attend a religiously affiliated school. Second, the McKay Scholarship, instituted in 2001, provides funding for children with disabilities. Third, the Corporate Tax Credit, also begun in 2001, provides tax incentives for businesses that provide scholarships for private schooling to low-income students.

In creating the OSP, the Florida Legislature expressed the collective belief that students should not be forced to remain in a failing school against the wishes of the students' parents. The program was designed "to provide enhanced opportunity for students in this state to gain the knowledge and skills necessary for postsecondary education, a career education, or the world of work." The scholarship would give students at failing schools the opportunity to attend a better public school or to attend a private school that may provide superior education.

Shortly after its establishment, various parents of children who attended public schools in Florida, as well as several organizations, filed complaints alleging that the voucher program was unconstitutional under both the Florida and U.S. constitutions. A trial court originally held that the OSP violated the state constitution, but this decision was reversed by the First District Court of Appeals. Bush v. Holmes, 767 So. 2d 668, 675 (Fla. App. 2000). Two years after the case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school voucher programs were constitutional under the Establishment Clause to the federal constitution. Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639, 122 S. Ct. 2460, 153 L. Ed. 2d 604 (2002). Thus, the plaintiffs' claims under the Establishment Clause were dropped from the case.

Article I, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution provides, "No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of sectarian institution." The trial court found that the OCP violated this provision, and the court of appeals agreed. Bush v. Holmes, 886 So. 2d 340 (Fla. App. 2004). Under state law, the Florida Supreme Court was required to hear the appeal because the appellate court had rule a state statute unconstitutional.

Opponents of the voucher program noted that simply because a school is a private school does not mean that a student will receive a superior education. The FCAT scores of private schools are not made available to the public, which means that parents cannot be assured that a private school's performance is better than that of a failing public school. Critics of the program said that the OCP and the voucher system in general does little or nothing to improve education. Instead, these critics charged that using tax dollars to fund vouchers to private schools allowed the state legislature to "move itself out of the costly education business."

In addition to Florida's constitution, 36 other state constitutions have similar bans on funding of religious institutions. Few states have voucher programs in place, although several have considered them after the Zelman decision. The case drew attention on a national basis because it could provide guidance to those states that are considering such a program.

In a five-to-two ruling, the Florida Supreme Court held that the OCP violated the Florida Constitution. Instead of Article I, Section 3, the court focused its attention on a second constitutional provision. Under Article IX, Section 1(a), the state constitution requires the state to provide a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools." The court determined that this provision not only man dates that the state provide for children's education, but it also restricts the means by which the state can offer this education. The court also concluded that private schools are not uniform because they are exempted from many requirements imposed on public schools.

The court directly addressed its view of the voucher programs in general. "We do not question the basic right of parents to educate their children as they see fit," wrote Chief Justice Barbara J. Pariente. "We recognize that the proponents of vouchers have a strongly held view that students should have choices. Our decision does not deny parents recourse to either public or private school alternatives to a failing school. Only when the private school option depends upon public funding is the choice limited."

Bush immediately criticized the ruling, calling it a "blow to educational reform." According to Bush, "It temporarily removes a critical tool for improving Florida's public schools and it also challenges the power of the Florida Legislature to decide as a matter of public policy the best way to improve our educational system." Bush also indicated that he would explore amendments to the Florida Constitution in response to the decision. Other supporters of the voucher program expressed concern that the decision could bring an end to the McKay Scholarship Program and to other voucher programs.

The plaintiffs in the case were supported by several organizations, including the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

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Traditionally, "religion" has been synonymous with "spirituality." The increasing divergence between the two terms, however—particularly within highly secularized Western cultures, where the former indicates denominational affiliation, the latter an often unchurched seeking—raises the question whether there is now a contrast between religious films and ones of spirituality. If the religious film usually promotes adherence to a single institutionalized faith, the film of spirituality may well tap various—sometimes incompatible—belief systems, respecting all but refusing to grant primacy to any one. Thus Andrei Tarkovsky's (1932–1986) career-end summa, Offret (The Sacrifice, 1986), splices Japanese and Christian beliefs into an ecumenical spirituality to match the coupling of yin and yang on the kimono of its protagonist, Alexander, who beseeches God to save the world from nuclear annihilation. Different belief systems—primarily Christian and Buddhist—are also fused in the more mainstream The Matrix (1999). The supernatural, meanwhile, an apparently cognate category, is usually less productive of spirituality than of audience frissons, as in the ghost film.

The possibility that a cinema of religion once prevailed and then declined presents itself most forcibly in the case of American film, whose deference towards religion sinks palpably as the desired national audience comprises fewer and fewer WASPS (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants). Among American directors, a deeply personal approach to religious themes has been rare, and is strongest in Martin Scorsese (b. 1942), whose Catholic background may be of relevance. In Mean Streets (1973), Charlie holds his hand above a candle, imagining hell, and the possibility that his sexual habits may take him there is underlined by the cut from its flame to the orange-lit bar where he prances with a near-naked dancer. The perils of the flesh recur in the controversial Last Temptation of Christ (1988)—that temptation being the recurrent one for cinematic priests: love of a woman. The later Kundun (1997), however, shows religion free of the earlier lures and passions. Scorsese is a rare exception to the rule whereby American cinema subordinates religiosity to its governing system of genre, as when it uses priests in token fashion as avuncular light relief (in countless films) or an embodiment of the main protagonist's conscience, as in On the Waterfront (1954).


The genre system has often been described as founded upon standardization. Variation may recommend a new product, but the deviation from the norm must not be so great as to make spectators feel cheated. Should this happen in a religious film, they may well not only walk out but accuse the filmmakers of the severest infraction—blasphemy. The religious film could thus be the least elastic of genres.

Whereas other genres can be seen as emerging and declining, hybridizing with others to prolong their lives, the religious film is unusually stable. Its sole durable combinations have been with two genres of which it is highly compatible, and it has surely been affected by their demises: silent melodrama and the historical epic. This fusion means that the Good-Evil distinction of silent melodrama differs from that of later melodrama in being mapped directly onto the maxims of Christianity, not just the vague, instinctual feeling that certain things are right and others wrong, which is prevalent in subsequent decades. The demise of this earlier melodrama is rooted in its limitation of the audience to adherents of Christianity—a liability as society becomes more diverse, multicultural, and skeptical—and in the disappearance of silent cinema itself.

The second genre cross-pollinated with the religious film is the historical epic. Silent cinema is often both melodrama and epic, as in the films of D. W. Griffith (1875–1948), particularly The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). As melodrama loses its explicit link to Christianity, however, the epic remains the religious film's lone partner in a pact to lure audiences by combining the visual impressiveness of the legendary "cast of thousands" with the authority of the text to be illustrated. The enormous crowds can become a material form of the sublimity invoked by the text, suggesting religion's world-conquering power. Such is the case in the great Hollywood biblical epics of the 1950s and early 1960s, such as The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), King of Kings (1961), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). The epic and the religious film may be potentially strange bedfellows, however, as the epic fascination by excess is often charged with threatening religious morality with prurient hypocrisy. Hollywood and the religious film are also potentially incompatible in a culture of celebrity, it being arguable that religious films should not cast actors with "star quality" but rather figures with sufficient presence, dignity, and credibility to represent (not eclipse) the "real stars," their sacred prototypes. Pier Paolo Pasolini's (1922–1975) Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964) is a particularly widely praised example of effective nonstar casting.

As the new site of epic experience became the science fiction film, its implicit spectator became less the adult member of a single faith community than the child animated by a generalized sense of wonder: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was the first film of a spirituality popularized still further by Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and George Lucas's Star Wars (1977). No wonder that a British census saw some householders give Jedi as their religion. As the 1960s saw the heavily touted dawning of a supposed Age of Aquarius and the Western rise of less traditional forms of religion, Hollywood abandoned the "religious film" for horror films showering frissons upon unchurched youth, the new primary audience, as in Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973). In Kevin Smith's Dogma (1999), which clearly identifies with two rebel angels striving to reenter heaven through a loophole, countercultural and youth culture urges validate rebellion. Similarly, other films may deem religion crazed, maligned, and even abusively authoritarian (e.g., Carrie [1976], Lawnmower Man [1992]). "Religious film" persists in its strong form only in certain Catholic or neo-Catholic directors who are mostly Italian (Franco Zeffirelli [b. 1923], Ermanno Olmi [b. 1931]): after all, no sounding of Italian society can ignore the pervasive influence of Roman Catholicism. The 1960s upheaval in the genre system may virtually bury its once most solid, predictable element: the religious film.


If cinema issues from Western societies driven by modernity, can it ever be anything other than an object of suspicion for believers, particularly those of non-Western societies whose norms and jurisprudence invoke religious texts, aspiring to theocracy rather than democracy? One reply (from one group—the Christian one—in one part of the world—the moneyed West) may be that cinema is a powerful evangelical tool. Accept the idea that God is representable—one reading of the Christian belief that God condescended to represent himself in a man, Jesus the Christ, though fears of blasphemy may cause indirection in representing him—and cinema becomes a potential medium for fulfilling the "Great Commission" of Matthew 28:19–20 by disseminating the Good News. The films that do so will probably not be the ones acclaimed in Western multiplexes; rather, they will be produced by particular faith groups rather than big studios, and be watched as one-off events in tents—as the the very first Western films were. Their effectiveness may not be overwhelming—many Muslims will leave a film of Christ's life before the Resurrection, as they see the Crucifixion as the end of the story, and Jesus as merely a man—but the visual message can draw the world's unlettered masses as the stained glass of medieval cathedrals had done. Strict followers of Islam and Orthodox Judaism, who reject the possibility of figurative religious representation, will reject film too, as did the Taliban in Afghanistan. In practice, though, Islamists' views on cinema have not always been so theologically grounded: clerics may have burned cinemas to protest their supposed corruption of the Iranian populace under the shah, but once in power the Ayatollah Khomeini (1900–1989) incorporated film into a program of promoting "Islamic culture." In this moralistic program, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were acceptable imports, despite their origins in the corrupt West.

In recent years, the issue of cinema's capacity to convert has been raised most forcibly by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). Despite its association with Gibson, it is no typical Hollywood blockbuster production: during shooting, the industry was skeptical of a film in Aramaic, an apparently eccentric star folly. This deeply personal project by a believing Catholic

b. Warsaw, Poland, 27 June 1941, d. 13 March 1996

Although Krzysztof Kieślowski began his career as a documentarist, subsequently becoming a leading figure in the pre-Solidarity ferment of Poland's Cinema of Moral Anxiety, in the 1980s his work took a turn toward the philosophical, then the ethico-metaphysical, that yielded dramatizations of religious and spiritual issues of a seriousness rivalled in recent decades only by the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. This spiritual-metaphysical turn is often linked to Kieślowski's first collaboration with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a Catholic lawyer, in 1985's No End, but a philosophical and metaphysical concern with chance and destiny also pervades Kieślowski's Przypadek (Blind Chance, 1987).

The collaboration with Piesiewicz on Dekalog (The Decalogue, 1989) marks an intensification of Kieślowski's investigation of religious, ethical, and metaphysical issues. The Decalogue comprises ten fifty-odd minute films, each loosely tied to one of the Ten Commandments, each lodging an enigmatic witness—termed an angel by some critics—in the margins of the various stories about the inhabitants of a single housing block. With the exception of "Dekalog 1," which relentlessly tracks the implications of "thou shalt have no other gods before me," the witness in each story is the series' main link to a transcendence whose purposes are unclear. In "Dekalog 1" the dialogue of faith and unbelief pursued by many religious films shapes the difference between the rationalist character Krzysztof and his Catholic sister Irena. Consulting the meteorological office, Krzysztof calculates that a nearby frozen mini-lake is safe for his son Pawel to skate. He is proved cruelly and inexplicably wrong, and the disaster of Pawel's drowning suggests the intervention of unknown forces (a computer that behaves strangely? the witness encamped by the lake? a punitive God?). The film ends with Krzysztof overturning a row of candles before an image of the Madonna in a partly completed church: like many people crying out to God or gods, he finds suffering incomprehensible. Later parts of The Decalogue are more ethical than spiritual, though the presence of the witness supplies a continual undertone of the metaphysical.

Metaphysical enigma pervades La Double vie de Véronique (The Double Life of Véronique, 1991), about two identical girls who live, separately, in Poland and France, and experience different fates. The film leaves provocatively open the question of whether any wider order frames their stories and might render them comprehensible. Similarly mysterious is the status of the judge in Trois couleurs: Rouge (Three Colours: Red, 1994), who is godlike, and may be God incognito, being apparently able to steer the chance encounters of a young girl (Valentine) towards a prospective lover, Auguste. Issues of theodicy loom large, however, as Valentine meets Auguste through a ferry-sinking that drowns hundreds: divine election appears to be distinctly capricious. But Red is no Buñuelian, simply blasphemous indictment of the divine, for the events remain mysterious. Kieślowski's sensitivity to suffering and his desire to pose questions rather than offer answers—particularly not pat ones—resonate with the Western spirituality of recent times.


Przpadek (Blind Chance, 1987), Bez Końca (No End, 1985), Dekalog (The Decalogue, 1989), La Double vie de Véronique (The Double Life of Véronique, 1991), Trois couleurs: Bleu (Three Colours: Blue, 1993), Trois couleurs: Blanc (Three Colours: White, 1994), Trois couleurs: Rouge (Three Colours: Red, 1994)


Andrew, Geoff. The "Three Colours" Trilogy. London: British Film Institute, 1998.

Coates, Paul, ed. Lucid Dreams: The Films of Krzysztof Kieślowski. Trowbridge, UK: Flicks Books, 1999.

Garbowski, Christopher. Kieślowski's Decalogue Series: The Problem of the Protagonists and Their Self-transcendence. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Insdorf, Annette. Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski. New York: Hyperion, 1999.

Stok, Danusia, ed. and trans. Kieślowski on Kieślowski. London and Boston: Faber, 1993.

Paul Coates

emphasizes both the nails driven through the hand of Jesus and the sword the gospels said would pierce the heart of his mother, and is shaped by Mary's agonized following of her son's Passion. Industry astonishment at its box-office success indicates the distance between contemporary Hollywood and the 1950s era of the biblical epic. While some objected to its violence, it could be deemed an inevitable part of a realistic account of the brutal arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, though some of the indignities visited upon his body do indeed lack scriptural warrant (as when the cross to which he has been nailed falls forward, crushing his body excruciatingly). Gibson cinematizes and elaborates upon the Stations of the Cross, whose medieval and Renaissance iconography he echoes at points. Many Christians found it a powerful, conscience-shaking reminder of the intensity of Jesus's suffering for the sins of the world, and Pope John Paul II reportedly averred after a viewing "it is all true." If any have been converted by the film, it has been as individuals within the ticket-buying public for a commercially released work, not as members of the communities assembled for a free screening where that kind of film evangelizes the non-Christian world, Gibson's evangelizes one sometimes seen as "post-Christian."

Insofar as cinema enters non-Western societies, it does so initially as a foreign body. Local religious hierarchies' fears of a possible Trojan horse can be soothed by pointing to such phenomena as the Indian mythological films that flesh out divine exploits for communities watching in an awed hush. The Indian mythological films are for local consumption, however, and aesthetic cogency is not their primary aim. Critical films—such as Satyajit Ray's Devi (1960), where a man's idolatry of his daughter-in-law extends into viewing her as the incarnation of the Goddess—are viewed more widely, through an international festival and art-cinema network. Their primary allegiance is not to any faith, but to the aesthetic. One result may be a cinema with a complexion like that of the New Iranian cinema, which arguably becomes enigmatic and allegorical by omitting almost completely one of the primary motivations of many Iranians—religion—to address which might endanger both film and filmmaker.

Conflicts between religious (traditional) and secular (modern) orders pervade many of the most significant films on religious topics. Religion becomes the venal ally of the czarist authorities in a Soviet film like Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925). The secular-religious conflict animates the disagreements between believing knight and skeptical squire in the plague-ridden medieval world of Ingmar Bergman's (b. 1918) Det Sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957), and continues—internalized—in the heart of a doubting pastor in his Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light, 1963), the most explicitly religious film in his trilogy about "the silence of God." A similar contrast runs between father and son in Devi: the absence in Calcutta of the skeptical son Umaprasad frees his believing father to cast his daughter-in-law as an incarnation of the goddess Durga. Such strong contrasts make for powerful dramas that are most intense when most unresolved and mysterious. Lars von Trier's dissolution of the mystery at the end of his Breaking the Waves (1996), by way of contrast, may enact a Kierkegaardian leap from the aesthetic to the religious: heavenly bells toll for Bess, who had prostituted herself for her husband and feared that the accident that sent him home may have been God's cruel answer to her selfish prayer not to be parted from him; despite appearances, and the condemnation of a sectarian church, she was a saint. A similar leap marks the end of another Danish film, Carl Dreyer's (1889–1968) Ordet (The Word, 1955), where one character—Inge—is resurrected. Meanwhile, modernity mocks religion relentlessly in Viridiana (1961), Simón del desierto (Simon of the Desert, 1965), and La Voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1969), all by the Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel (1900–1983), which view saintliness as a ludicrously inadequate response to inveterate social problems.

Despite various attempts to define what Paul Schrader has called a "transcendental style" of cinema, believers may be skeptical of conflations of the aesthetic and the religious. Conventions of seeing are arguably more important than any particular stylistic strategy: believers will see the transcendent in any pious retelling of biblical events or the lives of the saints, however kitschy, while evocations of an uncategorized ontological strangeness presuppose unchurched spectators. The formal strategies usually termed "transcendental" are deviations from norms. Schrader describes them quasireligiously, as stylistic "asceticism," and finds them exemplified in the works of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson (1901–1999) in particular. Others might see them as "modernist" rather than "religious": leaving characters on one side of the image to rediscover them mysteriously present on the other—a perceptual dislocation in the Schrader/Scorsese Taxi Driver (1976)—becomes "transcendental" only when married to explicitly mystical content, as in Tarkovsky's Nostalghia (Nostalgia, 1983). For the theologian Amédée Ayfre, religious form and content meet in a focus upon the face, the location of the eyes so often termed windows of the soul. Such a spiritually limned cinema of the face is found in, for instance, Kieślowski, Bergman, the Dreyer of La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928), and the Larisa Shepitko of Voskhozhdeniye (Ascent, 1976). It avoids mainstream cinema's dissection of a (usually female) body into fetishized parts. Its aim is agape, not eros. Meanwhile, the work of Tarkovsky—especially Stalker (1979)—often evokes a spirituality of desolation—what St. John of the Cross called "the dark night of the soul"—by averting the head to show only its back, while the focus upon hands and feet in the late films of Bresson may reinforce a general absence of signifiers of the divine. Bresson's nonprofessional actors themselves are framed not as revelations, as in Italian neorealism, but as ciphers. The result has been seen as verging upon nihilism, as in L'Argent (Money, 1983), whose reworking of a Tolstoy story omits the original's charting of the positive contagion of the Gospel in its second half.


Whereas many post-1960s religious films focus upon priests racked by internal spiritual torment, the female religious path seems often to run through physical victimization and to end in sainthood (see, for example, Breaking the Waves). This itinerary is central to Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc, and Joan has interested many filmmakers, particularly French ones, such as Bresson, Jacques Rivette, and Luc Besson. The leading French director of the nouvelle vague, Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), has addressed religion in "Je vous salue, Marie" (Hail Mary, 1985) and Hélas pour moi (Woe Is Me, 1993), which link Christian and classical mythological themes to the interest in relationships between older men and younger women found in some of his nonreligious films of the same period. Godard questions the adequacy both of representation in general and of the representation of the divine in particular.

The majority of films about life within the single-sex religious orders are drawn—as cinema is so often—to the female order, in this case the convent, which, even at its best, becomes a place from which to escape into "real life": The Sound of Music (1965) is the most widely disseminated instance. Mainstream cinema's polarization of female images—between adoration and demonization, "the mother and the whore"—is reproduced in convent films, whose nun is either angelic, fun-loving and/or musical, or vaguely sinister and possibly deranged. From Michael Powell's Black Narcissus (1947), whose color stresses the earth-moving status of lipstick applied to a nun's lips, to Jerzy Kawalerowicz's austerely formalized Matka Joanna od aniolów (Mother Joanna of the Angels, 1961) and Ken Russell's flamboyant The Devils (1971), various films see female celibacy as catalyzing breakdowns far more spectacular than priestly ones. It is thus intriguing to note that one of the most restrained and credible versions of a priest thus tormented should have been the work of a woman, The Third Miracle (1999), by Agnieszka Holland.


It may be valuable in the end to consider the opinions of an institution more powerful than this encyclopedia, more authoritative than this author: the Roman Catholic Church. Popular perceptions of the interrelationship of art and religion often focus upon the bans and boycotts instigated by organizations such as the Catholic League of Decency and highlighted by media that feed on the spectacle of protest and the identification of religion with "Thou shalt nots." The Vatican can commend as well as forbid, however. In 1995, to mark the centenary of cinema, it listed forty-five "Best Films" in three categories: "Religion," "Values," and "Art." The religious films were heterogeneous, ranging from Hollywood epics to films by Tarkovsky, though—as might be expected—Jesus and the saints comprise almost half of the main protagonists. Only Tarkovsky and Dreyer appeared twice in the "Religion" section; Bergman was restricted to the "Values" section, with The Seventh Seal (1957) and Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957). The full list of religious films is: Andrey Rublyov (Andrei Rublev, 1969), Babettes gæstebud (Babette's Feast, 1987), Ben-Hur (1959), Francesco, giullare di Dio (The Flowers of St. Francis, 1950), Francesco (1989), The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), La Passion de Notre-Seigneur Jésus Christ (Life and Passion of Christ, 1905), A Man for All Seasons (1966), The Mission (1986), Monsieur Vincent (1947), Nazarin (1959), The Word (1955), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), The Sacrifice (1986), and Thérèse (1986). The list can be accessed, with comments, at It may be significant that only three of these are set in the twentieth century (one only just: Nazarin, in 1905), reflecting the often embattled status of religion within the modernity of which cinema is a prime mediator.

SEE ALSO Epic Films;Historical Films


Agel, Henri, and Amédée Ayfre. Le cinéma et le sacré. Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1961.

Ayfre, Amédée. Cinéma et mystère. Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1969.

Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1993.

Baugh, Lloyd. Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-figures in Film. Franklin, WI: Sheed and Ward, 2000.

Black, Gregory. Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Cawkwell, Tim. The Filmgoer's Guide to God. London: Danton, Longman, and Todd, 2004.

Coates, Paul. Cinema, Religion, and the Romantic Legacy. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003.

Fraser, Peter. Images of the Passion: The Sacramental Mode in Film. Trowbridge, UK: Flicks Books, 1998.

Holloway, Ronald. Beyond the Image: Approaches to the Religious Dimension in Film. Geneva, Switzerland: World Council of Churches, 1977.

Marsh, Clive, and Gaye Ortiz, eds. Explorations in Theology and Film. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1997.

May, John R., and Michael Bird, eds. Religion in Film. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982.

Naficy, Hamid. "Islamizing Film Culture in Iran: A Post-Khatami Update." In The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation, and Identity, edited by Richard Tapper, 26–65. London and New York: IB Tauris, 2002.

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. Translated by John W. Harvey. London and Edinburgh: Humphrey Milford and Oxford University Press, 1926.

Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Cinema: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Paul Coates

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In literature that explores the issues of race and prejudice, religion often emerges as the foundation of conflict and divisiveness between individuals or groups. This is not surprising, since such literature by definition centers on ideas of exclusion and intolerance. In addition, religions are often closely associated with specific ethnic or racial groups, as with Judaism; in these cases, religion can become a source of persecution for a character or group. However, religion can also appear as a positive force that unifies and sustains those who endure suffering borne of racism and prejudice.

Religion in Literature

Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953) is a classic example of how religion can become a lightning rod for hysteria that divides a community and targets individuals for persecution. The play depicts the infamous witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. In the drama, the townspeople engage in a frenzy of accusation and confession that culminates in the hangings of several innocent people. The charges that fracture the austere Puritan community center on people suspected of interacting with the devil. Once indicted, a defendant can either confess to the sin and implicate others, or face death. These accusations are made based on personal grudges and prejudices instead of evidence, and the ruling bodies equate protestations with guilt: as Deputy Governor Danforth puts it, "you must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between." Although people's religious beliefs are apparently behind the persecution in the play, the work also parallels the entirely political movement of McCarthyism that was sweeping the nation at the time it was written.

Religion is also a divisive force in Midnight's Children (1980), by Salman Rushdie. The novel parallels the rise of India as a free nation with the birth and growth of two Indian boys—one Muslim, one Hindu—who are switched at birth. The book illustrates the devastating effects of religious intolerance and separatism, depicting the chaotic formation of the Muslim and Hindu nations of Pakistan and India, as well as the later independence of Bangladesh. At the same time, Rushdie demonstrates how people's religion is often simply a trait assigned by their birth.

In The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, Amin Maalouf offers a historical account of the medieval Euro-Christian assault on the "holy lands" from the perspective of the Muslims who fended off the Christian intruders, a point of view rarely presented. Here, religion serves two purposes that might seem contradictory: Christianity is used to unify Europeans in their desire to reclaim the holy lands, while at the same time casting those of any other religion as unfit to care for such a sacred place. Ultimately, religion acts as a unifying force, bringing together different Muslim groups in the region to repel the invading Christian hordes.

Religion also serves a dual purpose in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory (1940; first published in the United States under the title The Labyrinthine Ways). In the book, a Catholic priest discovers he is the last of his kind in the Tabasco region of Mexico, where Communist revolutionaries have forced all other priests to either flee or renounce their faith by marrying. The goal of the revolutionaries is simple: "No more money for saying prayers, no more money for building places to say prayers in. We'll give people food instead, teach them to read, give them books. We'll see they don't suffer." The priest's insistence on continuing to serve his followers makes him a target and eventually leads to his execution. In the end, the priest tells his captor that "if there's ever been a single man in this state damned, then I'll be damned too." The priest accepts his fate. Although he has more than one opportunity to escape unharmed, his duty to his religion is more important than his own well-being. In this way, religion sustains his spirit even as it is the very reason for his persecution.

A similar situation exists for Primo Levi and his fellow Jews in "A Good Day," a chapter from Levi's memoir Survival in Auschwitz (1947). As they journey to the factory where they are forced to work, the prisoners see the hills that mark the gas chambers at Birkenau, where they believe they will soon meet their end. They are all resigned to this fate except "a group of Greeks, those admirable and terrible Jews of Salonica," whose faith leads them to sing songs of their upcoming freedom. All ten thousand in their camp are imprisoned simply because they are Jews; their nationalities range from Italian to Polish to Greek, but their religion means that they are all equally condemned. Here, the faith that dooms them also sustains some of them. However, Levi points out that in such dire circumstances—bitter cold, starvation, hard labor, hopelessness—their "only purpose is to reach the spring."

The trappings of religion are used to explore race and ethnicity in Jhumpa Lahiri's "This Blessed House," found in her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999). In the story, a newly wedded Indian American couple discovers many Christian ornaments scattered throughout the house they have just purchased. Sanjeev, the husband, wants to throw them out since he and his wife are not Christian; however, his wife—who goes by the name Twinkle—finds them beautiful. She begins to display them on the mantle above the fireplace, partly because she enjoys them and partly because she feels a need to assert some level of independence in their relationship. Sanjeev is worried only that others will see the artifacts and incorrectly assume the couple is Christian. He implies a certain prejudice toward Christian Indians. Ultimately, the objects help the couple define their expectations for each other in their new marriage. The artifacts themselves hold power beyond their religious association.


Religion is often intertwined with ethnic or racial identity and is therefore a common sub-theme in literature dealing with race and prejudice. Religion is sometimes presented as the basis for discrimination, but it can provide the strength that helps the persecuted endure and the inspiration that helps the persecutors discover their humanity. As in life, religion may have as many purposes in literature, the best of which will instruct, inspire, and elevate.


Greene, Graham, The Power and the Glory, Penguin, 1991, pp. 194, 200, originally published in 1940.

Lahiri, Jhumpa, "This Blessed House," in Interpreter of Maladies, Mariner Books, 1999, pp. 136-57.

Levi, Primo, "A Good Day," in Survival in Auschwitz, translated by Stuart Woolf, Simon & Schuster, 1996, pp. 71-76, originally published in 1947.

Miller, Arthur, The Crucible, in Vol. 2 of The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 2d edition, edited by Paul Lauter, Heath, 1994, pp. 1980-2053, originally published in 1953.

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Gonzales Initiates Program to Protect Religious Freedom

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in February 2007 announced that the Justice Department had launched a program entitled the "First Freedom Project," which is designed to aid the protection of religious liberties. The program focuses on educating the public about laws that protect religious freedom. It will also promote improved communication with religious, civil rights, and community leaders so that issues related to religious liberties are brought to the attention of the Justice Department.

The term "First Freedom" is used to describe the freedom of religion, referring specifically to the fact that this is the first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights. President George W. Bush has been known to express his faith more openly than any president in history. In his proclamation for Religious Freedom Day in 2006, Bush said, "The right to religious freedom is a foundation of America. Our Founding Fathers knew the importance of freedom of religion to a stable democracy, and our Constitution protects individuals' rights to worship as they choose. We reject religious discrimination in every form, and we continue our efforts to oppose prejudice and to counter any infringements on religious freedom."

The Department of Justice has been delegate responsibility for enforcing a number of civil rights statutes that are designed to protect religious liberty. Among these laws include the following: laws that bar discrimination against individuals on account of religion in the areas of education, housing, credit, public facilities, and public accommodations; laws that prohibit local zoning authorities from discriminating against churches, other houses of worship, and religious schools; laws and protect the religious rights of prisoners; and certain criminal statutes that prohibit acts of violence against others based on the victims' religion.

The new initiative charges the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to sponsor a number of programs that focus on the protection of religious rights. One goal is for the department to work on the continued expansion of the enforcement of civil rights statutes. The department will also create a Task Force on Religious Liberty, which will review the department's policies that impact religious liberty, coordinate religious liberty cases, and improve the department's outreach to various communities.

In addition to those efforts, the department plans to improve education about how the federal government can protect religious freedoms. The Justice Department will initiate a series of regional seminars, where civic and religious leaders, as well as members of the public, can learn about laws protecting religion and can learn how to file complains. The department will also increase efforts to reach out to various civil and religious organizations by holding meetings and speaking engagements, as well as by distributing informational literature.

Gonzales announced the launch of the initiative at a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tennessee on February 20, 2007. At the meeting, Gonzales focused on the historic emphasis on religious freedom in the United States. "Throughout our history, nothing has defined us as a nation more than our respect for religious freedom," Gonzales said. "It is not confined to members of one church or the followers of one set of beliefs. Through this initiative, the Justice Department continues its vigorous efforts to enforce protections against religious discrimination."

Gonzales later said that he chose the Southern Baptist Convention because the group has been "very interested in the protection of religious freedom." Church leaders praised the attorney general's actions after the meeting. "The attorney general's desire to address the major meeting of SBC leaders to announce this initiative shows both the importance of the issue and the commitment of the Justice Department at the highest levels to defend every individual American's religious freedom rights, particularly their free exercise rights, which are too often infringed," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "This initiative is needed and should make a real difference. When individuals find themselves in a confrontation concerning their free exercise rights, it helps to have the attorney general and the Department of Justice on your side."

Not everyone to comment about the announcement were entirely positive about the program. Some Christian leaders noted that Gonzales had failed to address all of the aspects of religious freedom. "The First Amendment has two protections for religious freedom—prohibition on religious establishments and protection for free exercise of religion," said Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. "The administration has often ignored the importance of the no-establishment principle by supporting attempts of governments to endorse a religious message, using tax dollars to fund pervasively religious organizations, allowing religious discrimination in hiring for federally funded projects, and going to the Supreme Court to cut back on the rights of citizens to challenge such practices."

Gonzales made his announcement at the same time that the department released the release of a report that details efforts of the Justice Department in protecting religious freedoms. According to the report, during the period of 1995 to 2000, the department reviewed only one case of religious discrimination in educational institutions and conducted no investigations. During the same length of time between 2001 and 2006, the department reviewed 82 cases and conducted 40 investigations.

In his speech before the Southern Baptist Convention, Gonzales provided several exam-ples of cases in which the department had intervened on behalf of those who had experienced discrimination. In a case arising from New Jersey in 2006, the Justice Department argued successfully on behalf of a student who was prohibited by her school from singing the Christian song "Awesome God" at a talent show. In another case, the department defended a sixth-grade girl who had been suspended from school for wearing a headscarf that was required by her Muslim faith.

Kansas School Board Throws Out Anti-Evolution Standards

In 2005, a conservative Kansas School Board made international news for adopting "anti-evolution" science education standards for its public schools. Educational standards are used to develop tests to measure students' understanding of the sciences. The controversial standards had required a critical evaluation of biological evolution. In application, this meant students were instructed that the evolution theory of all life on Earth having a 'common origin' had been challenged by fossils and molecular biology. Further, the standards instructed that scientific controversy existed over whether changes in one species over time can lead to a new species.

The victory was short-lived. In the 2006 state elections, three of the conservative Board members were ousted in favor of a more moderate majority. The new majority of the Board adopted new science standards in February 2007 (again revised in June 2007). The new standards were intended to reflect mainstream scientific views of evolution. Even the standards' definition of science was changed, specifically limiting it to the search for natural explanations of what has been observed in the universe.

The changing anti- and pro-evolution standards were mostly the manifestation of changing political whims, and the 2006 Democratic upheaval in many state and local elections again preordained the most recent version. Part of the new standards, "Teaching With Tolerance and Respect," evidenced a more modern approach:

"Science studies natural phenomena by formulating explanations that can be tested against the natural world. Some scientific concepts and theories (e.g., blood transfusion, human sexuality, nervous system role in consciousness, cosmological and biological evolution, etc.) may differ from the teachings of a student's religious community or their cultural beliefs. Compelling student belief is inconsistent with the goal of education. Nothing in science or in any other field of knowledge shall be taught as absolute knowledge. A teacher is an important role model for demonstrating respect, sensitivity, and civility. Science teachers should not ridicule, belittle, or embarrass a student for expressing an alternative view or belief. Teachers have the opportunity to display and demand tolerance and respect for the diverse ideas, skills, and experiences of all students."

But this change could be short-lived as well. The controversy over evolution and its counterpart "intelligent design" (which posits that there is intelligent causation [rather than random chance] to explain the complexity and order of the universe) had been going on since 1999. The new standards represented the fifth version adopted in the previous eight years.

Also in question was whether the new standards really reflected the views of a majority of Kansas citizens. The overall voter turnout for the election was only 18 percent, the lowest in 14 years, and the media reported that several groups favoring the teaching of evolution had campaigned heavily to stimulate voter turnout among moderate and liberal voters. According to USA Today, an independent poll by the media suggested that about half of Kansans thought evolution should be taught alongside intelligent design. "I feel like if you give two sides of something, most people are intelligent enough to make up their own minds," Ryan Cole, a 26-year-old from Smith County, was reported as saying.

Following the adoption of the new standards, the Intelligent Design Network presented petitions with 4,000 signatures opposing them. This suggested the possibility that if a different group of voters showed up for the next election, the outcome could again be different, and educators remained uncertain if the new standards would again be overturned. (Under Kansas law, the next mandatory review of standards must occur prior to 2014.)

While the controversy fell along political lines (the "conservative" Republicans voting for the old standards; the new Board members being Democrats or (one) moderate Republican), it had philosophical underpinnings as well. Some citizens accused the Board of promoting atheism. Others suggested the new standards undermined families and discredited parents who reject materialism.

In 2006, legal disputes, political, legislative, or school debates over the issue of how evolution should be taught cropped up in no less than seven states, including California, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, Ohio, and South Carolina. In Dover, Pennsylvania, voters removed school board members who had required the mention of intelligent design in the biology curriculum, while an Atlanta suburb became embroiled in a legal dispute over the placement of 35,000 stickers in biology textbooks declaring evolution "a theory, not a fact." In South Carolina, however, that approach was approved, along with mention of other theories such as intelligent design.

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Stephen W. Angell
Genevieve Slomski

Origins and History of African American Religious Traditions

African American Female Religious Leadership

African American Churches during Reconstruction

African American Churches in the Twentieth Century

Evolving Trends among African American Churches

Religious Leaders

The first Africans who arrived on North American shores brought their own religious worldviews with them. While a minority had been Muslims or Christians prior to their kidnapping by slave traders, most adhered to their native African religions. Hundreds of different religions developed, but in general, the Africans believed that the world had been created by a high god who removed himself from direct intervention in worldly affairs after the act of creation.



In Africa, worshipers directed their prayers to intermediary spirits, chief among whom were their ancestors or the “living dead.” If proper offering was made to an ancestor, the individual would be blessed with great prosperity, but if the ancestor was slighted, misfortune would result. In addition, the Yorubas worshiped a variety of nature spirits, or orishas. These spirits often possessed their devotees, who then became mediums of their gods. This kind of spirit-possession is a prominent feature of some modern African American religions, such as Santeria, which recently has spread across large urban areas including Miami and New York. Also a part of the African worldview, especially among the Bakongo, was the practice of magic, variously known in the New World as obeah, vaudou (voodoo), or conjure. This magic, designed to help friends (myalism) or to hurt enemies (obeah), at one time was widely practiced by Africans throughout the Western Hemisphere.

The type of African spirituality that took root in North America merged elements from many African cultures. Since slave masters intentionally mixed Africans from many tribal backgrounds, no “pure” African religion preserving one tradition emerged. Nevertheless, the longstanding scholarly controversy over the degree to which African traditions have been retained in African-based religions is gradually being resolved in favor of those who see extensive survivals. In addition to singing, church music, and preaching style, aspects where an African influence has generally been conceded, scholars have made persuasive arguments for African survivals in family structure, funeral practices, church organization, and many other areas.


The first sustained effort at converting African Americans to Christianity was made by the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which sent

missionaries to North America in 1701. These missionaries had little success among the Africans; many mocked those who imitated the whites too closely and, thus, resisted the missionaries. In addition, white slave masters often resented losing slaves’ time to church services and feared that slaves would lay a claim to freedom through conversion. The numerous colonial laws, starting with Virginia in 1669, proclaiming that conversion failed to entitle slaves to freedom did not comfort some slave masters, who suspected that Christianity would undermine slave discipline—indeed, some remained unconvinced of the advisability of missionary efforts until emancipation occurred. On the other hand, some slave masters believed the Christianization of Africans to be justification for enslaving them.

Subsequent efforts to convert African Americans to Christianity were more successful. In his seven missionary tours throughout North America between 1742 and 1770, the spellbinding orator George Whitefield effected the conversions of large numbers of both black and white Americans. The ministry of Methodist circuit riders, such as Francis Asbury, was also well received by African Americans at the end of the eighteenth century. Baptist and Methodist churches were the most successful in attracting African American members. Since these churches did not require their ministers to be well educated, doors were opened for aspiring African American ministers, many of whom lived in states where teaching African Americans to read and write was forbidden by law. Furthermore, the Baptists and Methodists were not as hostile to the emotionalism of African American preachers and congregations as were more staid denominations, such as the Episcopalians. Finally, the anti-slavery stance of notable Methodist and Baptist leaders, such as John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and John Leland, and the greater degree of equality nurtured within many Baptist and Methodist congregations were attractive to African Americans.


Probably the first organizing effort by African Americans to bear fruit in an independent African American congregation was the Silver Bluff Baptist Church in South Carolina, which came into existence between 1773 and 1775. David George, an African American, and seven other men and women formed its organizing nucleus. George Liele, one of George’s associates, often preached at the Silver Bluff Church before emigrating to Jamaica in 1782. Andrew Bryan, one of Liele’s converts, founded the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, in 1788.

Bryan’s life well represented the complex predicament faced by African American religious leaders in the antebellum South. In the early years of his ministry, Bryan was whipped and twice imprisoned by whites who feared him. But he bought his freedom, prospered, and eventually came to own much property, including eight slaves; his death in 1812 was mourned by blacks and whites alike. While many African American churches continued to be served by white ministers until 1865, African American pastors, licensed ministers, and exhorters ministering to African American Baptist and Methodist congregations were not at all unusual at this time, either in the South or the North.


Before the Civil War, African American Catholics were confined largely to Maryland and Louisiana. However, Catholics made greater efforts to convert African Americans after the Civil War. By the end of the nineteenth century, nearly 200,000 African American Catholics were worshiping in the United States, but more Protestant African American ministers existed than did African American priests in the Catholic churches.


While white preachers urged African Americans to convert, and many predominantly white congregations welcomed them into membership, racial prejudice was never absent from the religious scene. Although the level of discrimination varied from region to region and congregation to congregation, some factors were relatively constant.

One such factor was the relative paucity of ordained African American clergy. To take the Methodists as an example, some African American ministers were ordained as deacons within the Methodist Episcopal Church prior to 1820, but none in the following four decades. No African American Methodist minister was ordained by the Methodist Episcopal Church to the higher office of elder or consecrated as a bishop prior to the Civil War, unless he was willing to emigrate to Liberia.

Other discriminatory practices also formed part of the religious landscape. The Methodists and many other denominations tried to reserve the administration of sacraments as the exclusive province of white clergy. Segregated seating in churches was pervasive in both the North and the South. Church discipline was often unevenly applied. Of course, racial discrimination in the churches was only a small part of the much larger political and moral controversy over slavery.

Resistance to discrimination took many forms. In the North, Peter Spencer in Wilmington, Delaware, Richard Allen in Philadelphia, and James Varick in New York, led their African American followers out of white Methodist churches and set up independent African American congregations. In Allen’s case, his departure was preceded by a dramatic confrontation over segregated seating in Philadelphia’s white Methodist church. Each of these men then used his congregation as the nucleus of a new African American Methodist denomination—Spencer formed the African Union Church in 1807; Allen, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in 1816; and Varick, a denomination eventually called the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion) in 1821.

Meanwhile, in Charleston, South Carolina, a more explosive situation was taking shape. Morris Brown, an African American Methodist minister from Charleston, who had helped Richard Allen organize the African Methodist Episcopal Church, organized an independent African American Methodist church in his home city. The authorities harassed Brown’s church and sometimes arrested its leaders. Nevertheless, within a year, more than three-quarters of Charleston’s African American Methodists had united with him. The oppression of African Americans in Charleston was so severe that many members of Brown’s congregation, including prominent lay leaders, joined the insurrection planned by Denmark Vesey to take over the Charleston armory and, eventually, the whole environs of Charleston. The conspirators, apprehended before they could carry out their plans, testified that Brown had not known of their scheme, and the minister was allowed to move to Philadelphia, where Richard Allen made him the second bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

A few African Americans became acquiescent as a result of Christianity. One such example was Pierre Tous-saint, a black Haitian slave who fled in 1787 to New York with his white owners, the Berards, just prior to the

Haitian Revolution. In 1811, Mrs. Berard manumitted Toussaint on her deathbed. Over the next 40 years, Tous-saint became a notable philanthropist, contributing funds to the building of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. However, when the cathedral opened, Toussaint did not protest when a white usher refused to seat him for services. Some American Catholics recently revived the controversy over Toussaint, by campaigning for his canonization. Many African American Catholics have strongly objected, seeing Tous-saint as passive and servile and thus a poor candidate for sainthood.


The mid-nineteenth century saw increased anti-slavery activity among many African American church leaders and members. Some gave qualified support to the gradual emancipation program sponsored by the American Colonization Society, which sought to encourage free African Americans to emigrate to Africa in order to Westernize and Christianize the Africans. Virginia Baptist pastor Lott Cary and Maryland Methodist minister Daniel Coker were the two most prominent African American religious leaders to emigrate to Africa in the 1820s. By the 1850s, enough African American Methodists were in Liberia for the Methodist Episcopal Church to consecrate an African American bishop, Francis Burns, to serve the Liberian churches. While some black Americans were emigrating to Africa, others emigrated to the West Indies—Episcopalian Bishop James T. Holly, for example, settled in Haiti to undertake missionary work.

Because of the extreme repression in the slave states, African Americans were unable to openly express their views on political issues. They were, however, often able to make their views clear; for example, a white minister who dwelled too long on the Biblical text that servants should obey their masters was apt to find his African American listeners deserting him. In addition, African American Christians often held secret meetings in “brush arbors,” rude structures made of pine boughs, or in the middle of the woods. There they could sing spirituals and pray openly for the quick advent of freedom. Slave revolts, on the other hand, provided a violent outbreak of dissent much feared by whites. The 1831 revolt of Nat Turner, a Baptist preacher, in Northampton County, Virginia, was suppressed only after tremendous bloodshed had been visited upon both African Americans and whites. Frightened whites in the South intensified their surveillance of African American churches in the aftermath of the Turner revolt. Even conservative African American preachers, such as Presbyterian John Chavis in North Carolina and the Baptist “Uncle Jack” in Virginia, were prohibited from preaching.

African American leaders in the North could afford to be more open and forthright in their political stance. Most rejected outright the views of the American Colonization Society in favor of the immediate abolition of slavery. Presbyterian minister Henry Highland Garnet was a prominent abolitionist, urging African American slaves in 1843 to “let your motto be RESISTANCE! RESISTANCE! RESISTANCE!” African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Daniel Payne and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Bishop Christopher Rush, both emigrants from the Carolinas to the North, were outspoken abolitionists who, after the mid-1840s, became the most prominent leaders in their respective churches.

Frederick Douglass was one of the few leading African American abolitionists who did not pursue a ministerial career, and even he had briefly served as an African Methodist Episcopal Zion preacher in New Bedford, Massachusetts. African American clergy were extraordinarily active in recruiting African American men to join the Union armies during the Civil War, after the Emancipation Proclamation opened up the possibility of military service to them. During the Civil War, nearly a dozen African American ministers, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Henry McNeal Turner, served as chaplains to African American army regiments.


Early African American women ministers sometimes served as traveling evangelists, especially within African American denominations. While Sojourner Truth’s oratory has become appropriately famous, Maria Stewart, Jarena Lee, Zilpha Elaw, and other early nineteenth century women also spoke eloquently and, in Leeaposrsquo;s and Elaw’s cases, traveled widely and labored diligently. None of these women were ordained, but Elizabeth (no last name known), a former slave from Maryland whose ministry began in 1796, spoke for many female preachers when she was accused of preaching without a license: “If the Lord has ordained me, I need nothing better.” Rebecca Cox Jackson left the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1830s when she felt that men denied her the chance to exercise her ministry, and she eventually became head eldress of a predominantly African American Shaker community in Philadelphia.

During the postbellum years, some African American women sought and obtained formal ordination from their denominations. Sarah Ann Hughes, a successful North Carolina evangelist and pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was ordained by Bishop Henry McNeal Turner in 1885, but complaints from male pastors caused her ordination to be revoked two years later. The AME Church would not ordain another woman until 1948, when Rebecca Glover was ordained. Two women were ordained, however, by African Methodist Episcopal Zion bishops not long after the Hughes controversy—Mary J. Smalls in 1895 as a deacon and in 1898 as an elder, and also Julia A. J. Foote in 1894 and 1900, respectively. Pauli Murray, a distinguished lawyer and educator, in 1977 became the first African American woman to be ordained a priest in the predominantly white Episcopal Church. In 1989, Barbara Harris became the first woman bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church.

Throughout American history, many African American women exercised their ministry through para-ecclesiastical structures, such as women’s temperance and missionary societies, while others, such as Anna Cooper and the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Frances Jackson Coppin, became renowned educators.


African American church membership grew explosively after the Civil War, especially in the South, where the African American clergy played a prominent part in the Reconstruction governments. African Methodist Episcopal minister Hiram Revels became the first African American to serve as a U.S. senator, when the Mississippi legislature sent him to Washington, D.C., in 1870. However, Revels was only the groundbreaker; many African American ministers went on to serve in the Congress or in their state governments. African American participation in Reconstruction politics was effective in large part because ministers in the AME and AME Zion Churches, and many African American Baptist ministers carefully and patiently educated their congregation members on every civic and political issue. (Although the newly established African American denomination, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, largely stayed away from politics during Reconstruction.)

Even though African Americans were largely expelled from Southern state governments after the end of political Reconstruction in the 1870s, many African American ministers and laity continued to play an active political

role in such issues as temperance, often campaigning on behalf of prohibition referenda. The Southern white campaign of terror, lynching, and disfranchisement steadily reduced African American political power and participation, however, until the onset of mid-twentieth century civil rights movements.


As the system of racial segregation imposed in the 1880s and 1890s took hold, African American ministers coordinated a manifold response. First, they forthrightly challenged new segregation laws, engaging in civil disobedience and boycotts. For example, when the city of Nashville, Tennessee, segregated its street cars in 1906, influential Baptist minister R. H. Boyd led an African American boycott of the streetcars, even operating his own streetcar line for a time. No defeat was ever seen as final.

Second, African American ministers helped to nurture a separate set of African American institutions to serve African Americans excluded from white establishments. The Congregationalists, Baptists, and Northern Methodists established schools in the South for African Americans during Reconstruction, but the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and Christian Methodist Episcopal bishops forged ahead with the establishment of their own network of schools. The African American denominations also built up their publishing houses, and the books and periodicals that they published were vital to the black community. Virtually every institution with ties to African American communities received some support from African American churches.

Third, some African American ministers believed that the civil rights retreats of the late nineteenth century should spur African Americans to leave the United States for a destination where their full civil rights would be respected. A “Back to Africa” movement grew to enable African Americans to find a home where they could run governments, banks, and businesses without interference from whites. Thus, Bishop Turner helped to organize a steamship line to carry African Americans back to Africa, and two shiploads of African American emigrants sailed to Liberia in 1895 and 1896 as a result of his efforts. Some African American church leaders, such as Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishop Lucius Holsey and AME Bishop Richard Cain, held views similar to those advocated by Turner, but many more church leaders opposed Turner’s emigrationism vigorously. Simultaneously, African American missionary work continued to occupy the attention of African Americans at the end of the nineteenth century. Under the guidance of Bishops Payne and Turner, for example, the African Methodist Episcopal Church had a vigorous missionary presence in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and South Africa.


In the twentieth century, African American religious life was characterized by a far greater degree of diversity and pluralism. At the same time, traditional African American concerns, including the continuing quest for freedom and justice, were not only maintained but also strengthened. Pentecostalism, which burst on the American scene in 1906, became a major religious force within the African American community. William Joseph Seymour, a preacher and son of ex-slaves from Louisiana, led an extraordinary interracial revival in Los Angeles from 1906 to 1909 that enabled Pentecostalism to spread worldwide. The claim that all heavenly gifts that were available to early Christians, including faith healing and speaking in tongues, were available to modern Christians, gave great impetus to the movement. The Pentecostal-oriented Church of God in Christ, founded by Charles H. Mason, who attended Seymour’s revival, became the second largest African American denomination in the United States. In the latter part of the century, the charismatic or Neo-Pentecostal movement has revitalized many congregations within mainline African American denominations.

The liturgy of the African American churches was transformed with the introduction of gospel music in the early part of the twentieth century. Influenced by the work of such composers as Charles Tindley, Charles Price Jones, Lucie Campbell Williams and Thomas Dorsey, the new music enabled worshipers to praise God with rhythms and harmonies imported from more secular musical genres, such as blues and jazz. This new fusion sparked the creation of compositions that perhaps expressed the deep religious feelings of ordinary worshipers in the pews more appropriately than any previous music. New instruments were brought into the churches for the performance of these new musical compositions including guitars, drums, and, eventually, synthesizers and electronic instruments. This music initially encountered strong resistance in many African American congregations, but the popularity of such performers as Mahalia Jackson and the passage of time have enabled it to win a very wide acceptability. Church choirs and

ensembles, such as the Dixie Hummingbirds, helped to gain for gospel music an ever-increasing audience. While both Methodists and Baptists played a part in the spread of gospel music, the Holiness-Pentecostalist churches stemming from the 1906 revivals in Los Angeles played an especially important role in its increasing popularity.

The black nationalism of Bishop Turner came to full flower in the work of such men as Marcus Garvey (and his chaplain general, George A. McGuire), Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X. This black nationalism aided the growth of non-Christian religions, such as Islam and Black Judaism, within the African American community. Black nationalists often rejected Christianity as too complicit with slaveholding and racial oppression. A spectacular rise of storefront churches occurred, some of which were led by flamboyant showmen, such as Father Divine and “Sweet Daddy” Grace. Each of these trends has been significantly aided by the African American migrations after 1915 from Southern states to the North, which greatly strengthened African American communities.

A somewhat later migration from the Caribbean provided support for the growth of a diverse range of religions within the African American community including the Episcopal Church, Seventh-Day Adventism, Roman Catholicism, Rastafarianism, santeria, and voodoo. An early Caribbean migrant was Sarah Mae Manning, who brought up her son, Louis Eugene Wolcott, in Boston within the Episcopal Church. He later achieved fame as a Muslim under the name of Louis Farrakhan.

Many black ministers became advocates of a Social Gospel movement. One of the most famous was Rev. Ransom of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who

came into prominence between 1901 and 1904 as pastor of an Institutional Church in Chicago. (Institutional churches provided a range of social services to needy members and neighbors, in addition to regular worship.) Social Gospellers highlighted the reality of collective, societal sin, such as the starvation of children and the denial of human rights, and maintained that Christian repentance of these sins must be followed by concrete actions to rectify injustice and to assist the poor. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was profoundly influenced by this Social Gospel movement.

Many ministers and congregations maintained a kind of political involvement that built on a long tradition within the African American community and often with Social Gospel concerns in mind. Chicago AME minister Archibald Carey was a behind-the-scenes political organizer early in the twentieth century who effectively represented the interests of the African American community. New York’s Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Floyd Flake and Atlanta’s Andrew Young and John Lewis were ministers who achieved election to the U.S. House of Representatives, with Powell rising to the chairmanship of the influential Education and Labor Committee during the 1960s.

Other African American ministers, including Malcolm X, Al Sharpton, and Calvin Butts, have played important roles as community organizers, although never serving in elective office. Jesse Jackson’s attempts to gain the Democratic nomination for president in 1984 and 1988 brought the electoral clout of the African American church into the spotlight. The African American church’s strong involvement in political, economic, and social affairs helps to point out its continuing and central relevance—even indispensability—within the national context.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s was deeply influenced by the African American church context from which its most prominent organizer, Martin Luther King Jr., sprang. Its demonstrations, speeches, and movement songs were suffused with biblical images drawn from the Book of Exodus and other parts of the Bible. It was their deep religious faith that made it possible for the movement to keep progressing along a nonviolent path, even when King’s home in Montgomery was firebombed or the Ninth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963 also was bombed, with four young girls the casualties of that violence. In a significant sense, King inherited his activism from his father, Martin Luther King Sr., also a Baptist pastor, who had led rallies and economic boycotts against racial discrimination as far back as the 1930s.

But it is also worth recalling that many African American religious leaders in the 1960s thought that King’s brand of social activism was too radical. One of King’s most determined critics during the 1960s was the theologically conservative president of the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., Inc., Joseph H. Jackson. The attempt by King’s ministerial allies to unseat Jackson as president of the convention in 1960 and 1961 led to a schism, with King and his supporters forming a new denomination, the Progressive National Baptist Convention. King came under further criticism when, in 1967 and 1968, he made it clear that his advocacy of pacifism extended to opposition to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

The Black Theology movement, which grew rapidly after King’s assassination, attempted to fashion a critique of the prevalent Christian theology out of the materials that Malcolm X and the Black Power movement provided. African American theologians were skeptical of the integrationist and non-violent thrusts of the Civil Rights movement, calling the African American community toward greater pride in and reliance upon the community’s own cultural resources. One such theologian, Albert Cleage, pastor of the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Detroit, argued that Jesus was a black messiah and that his congregation should follow the teachings of Jehovah, a black god. “Almost everything you have heard about Christianity is essentially a lie,” he stated. Cleage was representative of many black theologians in arguing that black liberation should be seen as situated at the core of the Christian gospels. In the 1980s, African American women such as Jacquellyn Grant, Delores Williams, and Katie Cannon have formulated “womanist” theologies, which seek to combat the triple oppression of race, class, and gender suffered by most African American women.


In most African American congregations, sermonizing is an interpersonal skill that African Americans have elevated to the level of art with such notable elements as call and response and repetition of phrases. The exuberance of all participants is highly dependent upon the tradition within which one worships. For example, in the more highly liturgical traditions such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, sermons only tend to be instructional. By contrast, non-liturgical Protestant denominations, including Baptist and Pentecostal churches, tend to view sermons as verbal sacraments.

In the 1990s, nondenominational churches reached a new high in popularity, usually centered upon a solitary, charismatic figure. As the medium is the message, performance was as important as the words themselves. Among the most highly regarded “artists” were Gardner C. Taylor, pastor emeritus of Brooklyn, New York’s Concord Baptist Church of Christ; Barbara King, founder and minister of Atlanta’s nondenominational Hillside Chapel and Truth Center, Inc.; and James Forbes, senior minister of New York City’s Riverside Church. They were just a few of those who were earmarked as the great preachers of the late twentieth century. In 1996, both Forbes and Taylor were deemed two of the 12 most effective preachers by a Baylor University survey, and Taylor was named as one of President Bill Clinton’s favorite evangelists.


In the twenty-first century, African American religions are undergoing substantial changes. The religious searches of prosperous middle-class African Americans has brought about surging enrollment at African American mega-churches in many of the nation’s metropolitan areas, such

as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Dallas. A growing interest in do-it-yourself spirituality has greatly enlarged the readership of inspirational writers, such as Iyanla Vanzant and T.D. Jakes. There has been an unprecedented interest in racial reconciliation among conservative Christian churches, joining liberal Christians who have pioneered in this area since the 1960s, even while an upsurge in African American church burnings, especially in the rural South demonstrated that the nation still has much work to do in addressing racism. Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan achieved spectacular success with his Million Man March in October 1995, stressing such spiritual themes as atonement, but he has not fashioned an effective follow-up to this headline-grabbing event. Meanwhile, the urban poor, especially young African American men, seem to be staying away from the churches in ever-increasing numbers.

Large African American churches, such as the Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Maryland with 12,000 members, have attracted the African American middle-class worshippers in unprecedented numbers. They have done so with very diverse offerings. For example, Ebenezer offers marriage counseling, workshops on financial planning, a ministry to lawyers and a socially involved, intellectually informed ministry. Many of the megachurch ministers, such as Ebenezer’s pastor and assistant pastor, have doctoral degrees. African American megachurch members reach out to young African American men who are still in poverty, even though their churches are often in the suburbs, miles away from inner city problems. Some African American churches have traditionally had large memberships, but the new megachurches feature younger pastors who have earned doctorates and are often still in their 30s or 40s. Unlike their white counterparts, African American megachurches often seek out social involvement and uplift with the poor. Other African American mega-churches can be found in such metropolitan areas as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Memphis.

Increasingly, African American ministerial leadership is passing from those who were on the front lines of civil rights struggles in the 1960s to their children’s generation. Perhaps this reality is best symbolized by events in Atlanta in the late 1990s. In July 1997, 75-year-old Joseph Lowery, who had helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with his colleagues Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, stepped down from the presidency of that organization. Meanwhile, Bernice King, who was five years old when her father was assassinated, has established a successful ministry at the Greater Rising Star Baptist Church in Atlanta. Similar to her father, she preaches a message of forgiveness and reconciliation, and she calls upon churches to commune and fellowship more across racial and ethnic lines. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. previously preached, opened a new sanctuary seating 1,600 worshipers in March 1999. The old church building, only half as large, was taken over and maintained by the National Park Service.


On the whole, African American churches continue to address a wide variety of social problems affecting the African American community. Perhaps most urgently, many churches have strong anti-drug programs. Some congregations have undertaken vigorous action against crack houses. Parochial schools, feeding centers, and housing for senior citizens are also part of the African American church’s outreach to the community.

Many African American ministers have noted, however, the growing division of the African American community along lines of social class and have exhorted middle-class African Americans to give more generously to programs that aid the poor. James Cone, a leading African American theologian, has stated that African American churches need to devote less time and attention to institutional survival and more to finding ways to deal with such pressing issues as poverty, gang violence, and AIDS. In 1997, five historically African American denominations formed Revelation Corporation of America, a partnership between corporations, charities, and churches; the income from the corporation will be used to help to subsidize home ownership among moderate-income residents of big cities, such as Philadelphia and Memphis.

African American churches have been involved in a wide variety of ecumenical efforts with white churches. While mainline Christian organizations, such as the National Council of Churches of Christ, have been involved in efforts for human rights for all and interracial reconciliation since the 1960s, it has only been since the 1990s that evangelical Christian organizations have joined in similar movements.

In 1994, predominantly African American and predominantly white Pentecostalist churches formed an inter-racial umbrella organization for the first time. The Promise Keepers, a Christian men’s movement designed to motivate men to become better husbands and fathers, fully included African Americans in the staff and leadership of the organization. In June 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution apologizing for its previous defense of slavery and “unwaveringly” denouncing “racism, in all its forms, as deplorable sin.”

The predominantly white National Association of Evangelicals and the National Black Evangelical Association agreed to hold their future meetings jointly. Still, some racial discontent continued to surface among evangelical Christians. The National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. withheld its support from one of the Reverend Billy Graham’s crusades because of Graham’s refusal to support affirmative action. In addition, E. Edward Jones, president of the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., refused to accept the Southern Baptist Convention’s apology for slavery and racism, charging that the resolution was simply a cover for aggressive evangelism in the African American community that would draw members away from historically African American churches.

Dialogue among individual denominations continues to nurture the spirit of cooperation between them, with the result of establishing closer working relationships on the national and community levels. In June 1997, leaders of eight historically African American denominations met in Hampton, Virginia, in a week-long conference. The church leaders evinced a remarkable spirit of unity, but agreed to disagree on such issues as whether it could be the church’s responsibility to help redeem society by pursuing social and economic change, or the church was only responsible for the salvation of individual souls.

African American men from four Methodist denominations met in Atlanta in October 1998, addressing issues relating to families, male mentoring, and reconciliation between their various traditions. Bishops from these four denominations—the predominantly white United Methodist Church and three African American Methodist denominations, the African Methodist Episcopal, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Churches—continue to explore the possibility of a merger early in the twenty-first century.

In the era of the “megachurch,” storefront churches—historically, often the only place where African Americans could go for help in time of need—move against the trend toward massive congregations and televised sermons, offer Bible study and a sense of community in an intimate setting. An urban phenomenon, storefront churches are frequently created by unordained ministers and are independent of denominational hierarchies. Yet, these churches are often the lifeblood of urban communities plagued by violence and poverty. The social services and community outreach these churches offer to populations sometimes considered beyond help, pick up where the government leaves off.

African American churches also have found themselves compelled to address issues related to the multiethnic tensions of the 1990s. In the aftermath of the devastating arson attacks on black churches in 1996, white churches and African American churches joined together in some cities to offer workshops against racism. Leading African American pastors in Los Angeles have deplored both the violence of police revealed in the Rodney King incident and the violence of inner city rioters, while advocating urgent attention to the problems of inner-city residents. For example, James Lawson of the Holman United Methodist Church stated that those who burned buildings during the 1992 Los Angeles riots were“responding to a society of violence, not simply a society of racism,” and issued “a call to repent.” In Queens, New York, an African American Baptist congregation in 1991 warmly welcomed the opportunity to perform an ordination service for a Korean American minister, Chong S. Lee.

Black ministers and congregations have been increasingly opening themselves to frank discussions of human sexuality, impelled in part by the public health threat posed by the AIDS crisis, which has hit African American communities especially hard. In 1999, 5,000 churches participated in the Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, a 100% increase in only 10 years. Franklyn Richardson, senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, New York, is one minister who has openly discussed AIDS with his congregation; Richardson’s brother died of AIDS in 1993. Some African American congregations are still uncomfortable, however, about augmenting their traditional advocacy of monogamy and premarital abstinence with encouragement for sexually active individuals to use condoms to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases. Often, African American ministers from conservative religious traditions (e.g., many Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Pentecostalists) are able to discuss this matter with their congregations only in an informal manner, if at all.

The cause of gender equality continues to make progress in African American churches. While two predominantly white denominations, the United Methodist and Protestant Episcopal Churches, have elevated African American women to the episcopacy in the past two decades, none of the largest historically African American denominations have done so. Nevertheless, women in some African American churches are achieving more prestigious ministerial assignments. Vashti McKenzie, a former model, disc jockey, and radio program director, has served as pastor of the Payne Memorial AME Church, an “old-line” church in Baltimore, since the early 1990s. Her innovative ministry, she says, is designed to “provide a message of hope for a hurting community.” More than 600 female pastors are ensconced in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Preaching the gospel in a faithful but relevant fashion remains the most important objective of black churches. In a recent survey, 22% of African American clergy considered the most important problem of the African American church to be “lack of evangelism in fulfilling its religious role.” That was more than twice the figure for any other problem identified. Ministerial training and financial support are other areas needing improvement in many African American churches. African American churches are not in danger of losing sight of their many, vital, and extremely significant functions, within both the black community and American society as a whole. It is safe to predict that the African American churches will continue to sustain and develop their important and prophetic witness.


While many African American Methodist and Baptist denominations have shown only limited membership growth, other African American denominations are showing marked membership increases. Foremost among these are the Pentecostalist churches, whose lively worship and extensive social ministries are attracting members from all classes within the African American community. The largest of these denominations, the Church of God in Christ, is now estimated to have over three million members. Charismatic congregations, also known as neo-Pentecostalist, within such mainline African American churches as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, are also thriving and for similar reasons.

Other groups that have made substantial membership gains among African Americans include the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches and Islam. While estimates differ, apparently more than 1.5 million African Americans now belong to the Roman Catholic Church, which has worked hard in recent years to be sensitive to their needs. In many inner cities, it has maintained churches and schools in predominantly African American neighborhoods, although closings, mostly for financial reasons, are increasing in such dioceses as Detroit. Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church has been receptive to some liturgical variation, allowing gospel choirs and African vestments for priests in African American churches. Nevertheless, Roman Catholics confront some serious problems in serving African American parishioners. Fewer than 300 of the 54,000 priests in the United States are African American, meaning that some African American congregations must be served by white priests. In 1989, George A. Stallings Jr., a priest in Washington, D.C., broke away from Catholicism, arguing that the Catholic Church was still racist and did not do enough for its African American members.

In such large cities as New York, Afro-Caribbean immigrants are swelling the ranks of the Episcopal Church. For example, a substantial majority of the 1,300 members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn are Caribbean immigrants. At least three Episcopal churches in New York City have escaped closing by church authorities because of the influx of members from the Caribbean. The Episcopal Church is not the only predominantly white denomination to seek to attract new immigrants of African descent to its pews. Presbyterian Church (USA) officials plan to increase their denomination’s ethnic minority membership to about 300,000, or about 10% of total membership, within the next seven years, in part by targeting their outreach to new immigrants of African descent.

Mainstream Islam, despite raising its own complexities, has also made large gains in the United States. Of the six million Muslims in this country, one million are believed to be African American. Most African American Muslims do not distinguish between people of different races and worship cordially side by side with recent Muslim immigrants from Asia and Africa. Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, however, which retains Elijah Muhammad’s black separatist teachings, continues to maintain a devoted following. Farrakhan was embroiled in much controversy over the years as a result of his negative statements about Jews, Palestinian Arabs, and Asians.

Due to its conservative stance on gender issues, Islam has proven to be more popular among African American men than among African American women. Following Farrakhan’s successful Million Man March in 1995, he is able to fill the house, even in smaller cities such as Tallahassee, Florida, and hold his audiences spellbound for hours with a mixture of religious prophecy, candid social commentary, and moral exhortation for youth, but surprisingly the march did not achieve for him a sustained national presence. The chief organizer of the Million Man March, Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, converted to the Nation of Islam in April 1997, and then suffered the termination of his ministerial standing in his former denomination, the United Church of Christ.

Farrakhan, along with other prominent African Americans, including Senator Barack Obama (D–Illinois), marked the tenth anniversary of the Million Man March by staging a second march, the Millions More Movement, in Washington, D.C., in October 2005. African and Afro-Caribbean religions, such as the Yoruba worship of the spirits (orisha), Cuban santeria, and Haitian voodoo, have also been gaining ground in African American communities and on some African American college campuses. Caribbean immigrants to the United States have helped to stimulate the growth of these African-derived traditions. A typical Haitian American voodoo congregation in Brooklyn, New York, was the subject of Karen McCarthy Brown’s groundbreaking work Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Some African Americans in the United States are also attracted by the honor shown to ancestors in these African traditions. Iyanla Vanzant, brought up as a Christian but who later identified herself as a Yoruba priest-ess, has provided low-key advocacy of these traditions in her best-selling works.


The most successful African American ministers today employ as many forms of media as possible in order to find and keep their audiences. T. D. Jakes, for example, might seem at first glance to be just a typical pastor of a mega-church, the Potter’s House in Dallas, with over 35,000 members. But what sets him above the crowd is his authorship of over one dozen books, many of them bestsellers, a popular program on the Black Entertainment Television (BET) cable network, and an active revival schedule that finds him packing venues such as Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. His popular Internet Web page makes his thought widely available to the computer literate. Some former Potter’s House members have been critical of the church, citing excessive control, legalism, and cult-like brainwashing techniques among its leadership.

Johnnie Coleman, pastor of the Christ Universal Temple, runs a seminary for pastors and has a radio ministry. Her fellow Chicagoan, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, also gets his message out through radio broadcasts and an active publishing program, including a weekly newspaper, The Final Call, sold on street corners nationwide. While pastors continue to spread their ideas through sermons on cassette tapes and in print, the most successful find many more ways to reach out.

One prominent African American minister who has encountered some failures is Henry J. Lyons, a St. Petersburg, Florida, Baptist minister who in 1994 became president of the National Baptist Convention of the USA, Inc. On July 9, 1997, Lyons’s wife Deborah Lyons was arrested and charged with arson at a Florida home that her husband owned together with Bernice Edwards, director of public relations for his denomination and Henry Lyons’s alleged mistress. This eventually led to state and national criminal investigations and indictments against Henry Lyons. Florida authorities charged Lyons with racketeering and grand theft in February 1998. They alleged that he had misappropriated denominational funds and swindled millions of dollars from large corporations by selling bogus membership lists. Five months later, Lyons was indicted by the federal government on 56 counts of extortion, fraud, and tax evasion.

Lyons requested forgiveness from his local congregation and his denomination. On February 27, 1999, Lyons was convicted of all three counts brought against

him by the state of Florida. On March 16, 1999, he resigned his office as president of the National Baptist Convention, and S. C. Cureton assumed the post until new elections were held. Lyons then pleaded guilty to five charges brought by the federal government on the following day. He was sentenced to five and one half years in a federal penitentiary and had to return $214,500 of donations that he had not distributed.


African American churches in the South were literally under fire in the 1990s. These incidents of church arson invoked grievous memories of racist violence during the 1960s, particularly the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixth Street Baptist Church in which four small girls were killed on September 15, 1963. In 1996, the peak year, 119 of 297 churches affected by arson nationwide were predominantly African American. In other words, while African American churches constituted about 6% of the nation’s churches, more than 40% of arson cases occurred that year at African American churches.

In response, President Clinton declared the “investigation and prevention of church arsons to be a national priority.” In June 1996, President Clinton established the National Church Arson Task Force and proposed a three-pronged strategy that called for prosecution of the arsonists, the rebuilding of church edifices, and the prevention of additional fires. In addition, on July 3, he signed the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996, which passed both chambers of the Congress unanimously.

Independently, Mac Charles Jones, associate general secretary for racial justice of the National Council of Churches of Christ, met with pastors of more than 30 burned-out churches and heard numerous stories of racist graffiti and threats issued against the pastors. African Americans concerned that the conflagrations were related took steps toward fighting the terrorism. To that end, the NAACP urged the Justice Department to investigate; in compliance, a full-scale civil rights investigation was initiated. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) also instituted a fund for the affected congregations.

Despite federal government involvement though, only 34% of the cases had been solved as of November 1998, and investigations continue as of 2007. (Those who have been charged with arson of African American churches have included 68 whites, 37 African Americans, and one Hispanic American.) In addition, neither the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) nor the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF)—which together have more than 200 agents on the case—have been able to find a common link among these crimes.

In 2006, three white university students at Birmingham-Southern, a Methodist-affiliated liberal arts college, gained national attention by setting fire to nine rural Alabama churches. Allegedly, five fires were set first as a “joke,” then the next four to lead the police astray. Five of the churches were white, and four were African American.


The Imani Temple, the first African-American Catholic Congregation, was founded in Washington, D.C., by George Augustus Stallings Jr., a former Roman Catholic priest, in July 1989. The schism occurred when Stallings performed a mass based on an experimental rite currently being used in Zaire, in defiance of the prohibition of his archbishop, James Hickey. This was the first schism from the Roman Catholic Church in the United States since 1904.

Stallings also voiced a number of criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the schism: “There are not enough black priests, not enough black church members, and some of the relatively few black churches that exist are being closed and consolidated. The black experience and black needs are addressed minimally in church services and life.” He also asserted that “we could no longer afford to worship white gods in black houses.” Thirteen African American Catholic bishops issued a statement denouncing Stallings and accused him of expressing “personal disappointment [and] individually felt frustration” under the guise of charges of racism.

Black Catholic reactions to these developments were mixed. Many expressed sympathy for Stallings’s concerns, but were unwilling to leave the Roman Catholic Church. Stallings assumed the title of archbishop of Imani Temple in 1991 and, at the same time, ordained a woman to the priesthood of the African American Catholic Congregation. Stallings has also relaxed the Catholic teaching on abortion for his congregation members and has declared the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to be a saint.

In forming his denomination, he has experienced some setbacks. Several formerly close associates split with Stallings in 1991, alleging a lack of fiscal accountability in the church and accusing him of taking his liturgical innovations too far. In 1994, Stallings dedicated a new cathedral for his denomination in Washington, D.C. As of the same year, his denomination claimed 4,200 members in seven cities in the United States and in Lagos, Nigeria. As of 2007, there were 13 Imani temples under Stallings’ leadership.


The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was founded in 1816 at a conference convened in Philadelphia by Richard Allen, who was elected as its first bishop. In the following years, it grew throughout the North and Midwest and, after the Civil War, expanded quickly throughout the South and the West. In 1991, the church claimed about 3.5 million members, about one million of whom are found in churches in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean as a result of successful missionary efforts. It oversees about 8,000 churches, and the AME Church sponsors seven colleges and two seminaries in the United States and several colleges and educational centers in Liberia and South Africa.

Payne Theological Seminary is located in Wilber-force, Ohio, at the site of the church’s oldest school, Wilberforce University, founded in 1856. Turner Theological Seminary is one of six schools that have joined to form the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. About one-third of local AME congregations sponsor low-income housing, schools, Job Corps programs, or care for senior citizens. The African Methodist Episcopal Church’s chief governing bodies are the General Conference, the Council of Bishops, and the General Board. It publishes the following periodicals: the Christian Recorder; the Voice of Missions, and the AME Church Review. In 2000, Rev. Vashti Murphy McKenzie was elected the church’s first woman bishop.


Originally known as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was founded in 1821 in New York City. James Varick was elected its first “superintendent”; the title of the presiding officer was later changed to bishop. In 1848, the word “Zion” was added to the name of this church in order to avoid confusion with that founded by Richard Allen. It grew slightly prior to 1860, but expanded quickly in such Southern states as North Carolina and Alabama after the Civil War.

As of 1997, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church claimed approximately 1.3 million members, 100,000 of whom lived in Africa, England, India, South America, or the Caribbean. It possesses nearly 3,100 churches worldwide. The church supports three colleges, two of which are junior colleges, and one seminary. The four-year college and the seminary are Livingstone College and Hood Theological Seminary, both located in Salisbury, North Carolina. The denomination is governed by a general conference, a board of bishops, and a correctional council. Its publications include the weekly Star of Zion, the Quarterly Review, the monthly Missionary Seer, and the quarterly Church School Herald<