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Bounds of Their Habitation

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Bounds of Their Habitation

  Bounds of Their Habitation


  Race and Religion in American History

  Paul Harvey


  Lanham • Boulder • New York • London

  Published by Rowman & Littlefield

  A wholly owned subsidiary of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.

  4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200, Lanham, Maryland 20706


  Unit A, Whitacre Mews, 26-34 Stannary Street, London SE11 4AB

  Copyright © 2017 by Rowman & Littlefield

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review.

  British Library Cataloguing in Publication Information Available

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Available

  ISBN 978-1-4422-3618-9 (cloth : alk. paper)

  ISBN 978-1-4422-3619-6 (electronic)

  The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992.

  Printed in the United States of America


  Rob Sackett and Christina Jimenez, colleagues

  Kathryn Gin Lum and Edward J. Blum, friends and coauthors


  Andre Johnson and Andrew Manis, preachers and scholars



  Introduction: Religion and Race in American History

  1Red, White, and Black in Colonial American Religion

  2Religious Freedom and Religious Repression in the Early United States

  3Religious Ways of Knowing Race in Antebellum America

  4Religion, Race, and the Reconstruction of Citizenship

  5Race, Religion, and Immigration

  6Religion and Civil Rights: The Color of Power

  7Liberation Theologies and Problems of Religious Freedom in a Conservative Age

  Epilogue: Contemporary Dilemmas of Pluralism

  A Note on Sources


  About the Author


  THIS BOOK STARTED AS A CONVERSATION with John David Smith, general editor for the American Ways series; he and Jon Sisk helped throughout the process of shaping and then finishing this work, and I thank them. My teaching home, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, provided me support and intellectual comrades who have enriched my life and writing career. Too many colleagues to list have conversed with me on the theme of race and religion in American history for more than a quarter century; I hope to thank all of you in person. Those to whom the book is dedicated have been especially inspiring and uplifting, in ways impossible to describe, at various points in my life. So, as always, has Suzi Nishida.

  Bounds of Their Habitation


  Religion and Race in American History

  And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation. (Acts 17:26)

  This book is about the relationship of religion and race in American history. It starts with the premise that both “religion” and “race” are categories invented in the modern world, for particular purposes. The specific ways in which we understand these terms have some roots in antiquity and the medieval era. Yet, as full-blown categories, they are relatively recent creations. Once conjured up, these categories took on lives and realities of their own. From there, they deeply shaped social hierarchies, cultural expressions, and political power.

  Starting around the Renaissance, “race,” the term referring to the organization of social power according to the cultural meanings given to accidents of phenotype, became deeply inscribed in Western thought. It quickly permeated religious beliefs, fables, and mythologies. And around the same era, “religion” came to be demarcated as a separate sphere of human life referring to the human relationship to a transcendent being. Since that time, definitions of and controversies about both terms have proliferated. But in everyday discourse, they have clear and uncontested meanings. They have become “commonsense” terms. Everyone knows what they mean without having to think about it. Since those meanings changed over time, tracing their usage and interconnections will illuminate much about American religious history.

  People know what the terms “religion” and “race” mean, even as scholars debate them endlessly. Yet these terms are useful not so much when defined but when analyzed for what they do and how they work in societies. In the modern Western world, “religion” works as an expression of individual belief generally in some transcendent power. That way of conceptualizing the term excludes a considerable terrain of human behavior from being captured by it. The word thus distinguishes denigrated cultural practices from honored sacred expressions.

  Scholars speak of religion and race being “co-constituting categories.” This is scholarly jargon and shorthand meaning, essentially, that religious concepts formed racial ideas, and racial concepts infused religious ideas in American history. The two worked in tandem to create deeply held notions of where people came from (including origins, myths, and migration stories), who they were as a people, what they as a people were to do with their individual and communal lives, and how they would define themselves among the others around them. Religious ideas created racial categories and imposed race upon individual human bodies—what scholars refer to as “racialization,” or “the imparting of a cultural meanings to human bodies of particular appearances.” That process also helps explain the hierarchies that emerged out of them. But religious ideas also helped undermine racial hierarchies. Likewise, ideas about race created the categories of religion by which people imposed order on the chaos of ideas and practices swirling around them. But as ideas about race came to be seen as human inventions serving social purposes, the religious stories undergirding them also were subject to the same scrutiny.

  This book traces the long interaction, construction, deconstruction, but continued life of race and religion from the seventeenth century to our contemporary world. In doing so, I hope to convey, through historical narrative and biographical vignettes, some sense of the complicated story of that interaction. The title of the book, from Acts 17:26, tells both sides of that story—how God made “of one blood” all nations (always a favorite verse fragment for religious liberals and pluralists), and how God had then determined the “bounds of the habitation” of those people He had created (the favored fragment for those interested in proper religious order and hierarchy among diverse peoples). This book develops these ideas through a series of thematic chapters, each focusing on particular individuals and events. There is an “American Way” to religion and race unlike any other place in the world. The rise of religious pluralism in contemporary America (together with the continuing legacy of the racism of the past and misapprehensions in the present) makes understanding it crucial.

  * * *

  Religious diversity characterized the Americas before Europeans or Africans came, and their arrival reinforced regional religious variety. A riot of religions has been a reality, a “fact on the ground,” in American history, not through intent but simply through the historical processes by which people from all parts of the globe met on the continent. That story began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when peoples from Europe, Africa, and the Americas first interacted throughout the American continent from Canada to Peru and Brazil, and
everywhere in between. But while a de facto pluralism (perhaps better termed as the “reality of human religious diversity”) was always a reality, so was the de jure religious rule of those who defined themselves as having the right religion, over those defined as not. As the story progressed, this increasingly took the form of Euro-American Christians defining the terms, orders, and daily realities for non-Christian peoples, and eventually for Christian peoples who were of other-than-European descent.

  Religiously diverse, colonial America was not pluralist in any modern sense. Different varieties of the Christian faith were (sometimes grudgingly) tolerated, if not in the same colony, at least in the same region. While this may seem a paltry parody of pluralism to contemporary eyes, it was, for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century viewers, a remarkably motley array of religious sects and beliefs jostling against one another, an Atlantic world of religions. Euro-American migrants, and sometimes Indians and Africans as well, could find worship within a Puritan, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Quaker meeting house all within the same day in some locations (especially in the middle colonies, always the most religiously diverse of North America). By the mid-eighteenth century, Americans heralded this religious ferment, what we might now see as diversity among the Christian sects, as a crowning glory of life in the New World. Later, in the revolutionary and constitutional era, American philosophes such as Thomas Jefferson allied with evangelicals to push forward revolutionary ideas and practices of religious freedom that found their way into state constitutions and eventually into the First Amendment, the crowning glory of religious freedom in the United States.

  Religious diversity was a fact of life in colonial America. Religious freedom, in its modern sense, was not. Defining religious freedom remained a struggle to be waged over centuries. Colonial-era residents of North America—Spanish, French, Dutch, German, English, Native American, African, and others—struggled to comprehend the facts of diversity on the ground while defending their own notions of faith, doctrine, and practice within their own communities. Religious freedom, then, was limited and ethnocentric; for many, it meant the freedom to practice the one true faith and repress all others. For Euro-Christian colonizers especially, religious freedom certainly did not extend to non-Christian practices, which were by definition heathen and thus suspect.

  A complex of historical factors (such as the gigantic global enterprise of colonizing the New World and then populating it with Europeans and African slaves) and mythic groundings (such as stories from the Old Testament and diverse indigenous American and African traditions) influenced the construction of modern racial categories. Euro-American Christianity was hardly the sole or even primary force in this process. Yet religious myth, originating from interpretations of biblical stories as well as speculations about God’s Providence, played an important role in the formation, revision, and reconstruction of racial categories in the modern world. In short, religion played a significant part in creating race. Yet if Christianity fostered racialization, it also undermined it. Biblical passages were powerful but ambiguous, and arguments about God’s Providence in colonization, proselytization, the slave trade, and slavery were contentious. Christian myths and stories were central to the project of creating racial categories in the modern world, but the central text of Christianity, the Bible, was also amenable to more universalist visions, and in that sense it was not a fully reliable ally for theorists of racial hierarchy.

  For much of the eighteenth and, even more so, nineteenth centuries, race and religion were joined in the project of civilization. Christianizing others involved civilizing them. Sometimes this involved brutally stripping colonial subjects, especially Native Americans, of their own civilizations. This included language, religious belief, and cultural practice. “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” was the motto of nineteenth-century white reformist groups devoted to Indian education. At other times, the joining of Christianization and civilization underwrote idealistic crusades of bringing formerly enslaved peoples into American civilization, as in the abolitionist movement and, later, in the creation of black schools and colleges during Reconstruction. In other instances, the intertwining of Christianity, civilization, and whiteness justified the complete exclusion of peoples from the American Republic, notably in legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Progressive Christian writers such as Josiah Strong articulated a Christian nativism, warning against the dilution of the Protestantism which had been instrumental in forming American democracy. In short, the connections between religion and race were complicated; idealism and brutality often went hand in hand, as did notions of inclusion together with the instruments of exclusion. Idealism and imperialism often joined in projects both inspiring and ignoble.

  In the twentieth century, Christian thought helped undermine the racial system that it had helped to create. In the twentieth century, ideas of cultural pluralism that percolated through the progressive intellectual world of the early twentieth century eventually found their way into an American discourse of religious pluralism. This was never all-inclusive. For groups whose spiritual practices did not constitute a discernible “religion” and thus did not enjoy the benefits of First Amendment protection, religious freedom remained a more distant ideal. Yet for many others, including those who were excluded by the legacy of racist immigration legislation and others who historically had been dishonored, religious pluralism as an ideal in public discourse constituted a true revolution.

  In the 1950s and 1960s, black and Latino civil rights activists finally penetrated the walls of the segregation. The civil rights revolution in American history was, to a considerable degree, a religious revolution, one whose social and spiritual impact inspired numerous other movements around the world.

  The contemporary United States is, demographically speaking, a largely Christian nation. Even after recent declines in those claiming adherence to some Christian tradition, about seventy percent still are in that column. In other ways, and increasingly so, the United States is a religiously diverse place, thanks largely to its history of successive waves of immigration that brought to these shores (just to name a few) German Protestants, Central European Anabaptists, Irish Catholics, French Huguenots, Italian and Eastern European Catholics, Polish and Russian Jews, Latino Catholics from Mexico and Central America, Japanese Buddhists, Chinese Confucians, East Indian Sikhs, Thai Buddhists, Middle Eastern and South Asian Hindus and Muslims, Southeast Asian Hindus and Muslims, African Muslims and Christians, and Pentecostal celebrants from Central America and the Caribbean. Religious conflicts occupy courts and other places in the public square. In recent years, those have often come from religious conservatives who feel embattled, even persecuted, even though they historically created a powerful Protestant moral establishment that effectively governed the country for the better part of two centuries. In other cases, they have arisen from conflicts between particular religious practices (such as Islamic prayer times and rituals) and the demands of the modern workplace. Yet even in the tense environment after September 11, 2001, incidents of ethnoreligious conflict, although sometimes frighteningly violent, remained relatively sporadic in comparison to the consistently violent and intolerant religious and cultural conflict that still characterize many other regions.

  The current balancing act of a demographically Christian nation with a rising pluralist population will shape race and religion in the decades to come. The implicit, de facto Protestantism of the American Republic historically has defined public discourse, shaped public ceremonies, and dominated public life in the personage of political officials. Moreover, racial profiling as applied to black or Middle Eastern Muslims affects lives and individual liberties in a way that is simply unthinkable for the dominant Protestant majority. In this way, the nexus between “religion” and “race” has never died. But it undeniably exerts a relatively smaller influence in comparison to the power of that dualism in earlier centuries. Religious pluralism requires an official rhetoric of respect
and neutrality. However imperfectly practiced, religious pluralism has opened up spaces for ethnic groups and minority religions that were formerly surveilled and suppressed.

  Religion and race remain tied together in the public mind. Although religion is no longer racialized in the ways it was in previous centuries, religious congregations tend to be racially separated, a simple reality of how Americans of diverse ethnic backgrounds have ordered their lives. Race still has a color, and a religion, even while the public rhetoric of American religion is ostensibly raceless and colorless. Thus, in a society sometimes said to be moving into a “post-racial” era, ethnic and racial constructions remain a central ordering fact of religious life. Americans remain united by an unusually high association with faith, with religious belief, but divided by faith since the institutions reflecting those beliefs still tend to be divided by race, culture, and politics. Given the history of race and religion in America, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise. And yet, given that history, it is possible to envision it being otherwise.


  Red, White, and Black in Colonial American Religion

  IN 1723, A PLAINTIVE PLEA from an anonymous group of mixed-race slaves arrived in the letter file of a newly installed bishop who oversaw Anglican affairs in the American colonies. These slaves were, they wrote, “baptised and brouaht up in a way of the Christian faith and followes the wayes and Rulles of the chrch of England.” They wrote to complain about the law “which keeps and makes them and there seed Slaves forever.” They also criticized their masters, who kept them from following the Sabbath: “Wee doo hardly know when it comes for our task mastrs are [as] hard with us as the Egyptians was with the Chilldann of Issarall.” Their letter concluded with an explanation of why they did not sign their names: “for freare of our masters for if they knew that wee have Sent home to your honour wee Should goo neare to Swing upon the Gallass tree.” These mixed-race slaves insisted that their religious status gave them rights to freedom and respect. They were willing to fight for those, whether through imploring pleas to imperial officials or in rebelling against governing authorities.

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