- New Directions in the History of Religion and Race
During one of the many debates over Chinese immigration that raged in the US Congress during the 1870s, J. K. Luttrell, a Democrat from California, sketched a brief history of San Francisco for his fellow representatives. San Francisco, he said, “in the short space of a quarter of a century has grown from a Mexican hamlet to, in many respects, the second city of our Great Republic.” However, the “heart” of the city was undergoing rapid change, he insisted. “These blocks but a few short years ago were inhabited by people of our own race, surrounded by their loved wives and little ones. There were heard the morning and evening hymn, the fervent prayer to the ever-living God.” But now those blocks had become “a festering sore on the body-politic, a horrible pool of filth and vice in the midst of an enlightened people.” Downtown San Francisco’s “peaceful and happy homes, the Christian church, with its sacred teachings and music and prayers, the neighborhood, with its intelligent culture, and good morals, were forced to give way to barbarism in its most terrible form.” “Hordes of Mongolian pagan slaves,” he [End Page 1007] said, had “flooded” the city, endangering the “free laboring men and women of our own Christian race.”1
In his speech, Luttrell demonstrated the inexorably interwoven natures of religion, race, gender, sexuality, nation, and empire in the nineteenth-century United States. The congressman’s remarks combined settler colonial nostalgia for Manifest Destiny, post–Thirteenth Amendment free labor ideology, white supremacy, conservative gender roles, religious intolerance, and xenophobia in a fevered renunciation of Chinese immigration. Notions of Protestant Christianity and whiteness were inseparable in his remarks, culminating in his invocation of “our own Christian race.” But how could a “race”—according to ethnologists a matter of biology—be “Christian”? Luttrell’s logic erased the existence of “white” people of non-Christian faiths as well as the many converts to Christianity—including among the Chinese—who were not judged white. If a race could be Christian, what difference was there between categories of religion and race?
Recent scholarship has been digging into these questions, helping us understand the complicated history of religio-racial discourse and its effect on ordinary people’s lives and identities. Though US historians have long been interested in such subjects as the religious practices of enslaved African Americans, the activism of the black church, and Native American religious renewal movements, the past fifteen years has seen a surge of scholarship that approaches religion and race not as discrete, static, unexamined categories but as coconstitutive ideologies constantly in flux. Drawing inspiration from intersectionality scholarship that has explored the interrelationship of race and gender, scholars have begun treating religion and race, in the words of Henry Goldschmidt, as “wholly dependent on each other for their social existence and symbolic meanings.”2 Goldschmidt’s anthology Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas (2004), coedited with Elizabeth McAlister, together with Craig R. Prentiss’s anthology Religion and the Creation of Race and Ethnicity (2003), kicked off this surge; many of the most prominent monographs that followed were written by authors who had essays in one of these two books, including Derek Chang, Jennifer Snow, Judith Weisenfeld, and Paul Harvey.3
An important framework charting permutations of religio-racial exchange emerged from this scholarship. The historian Paul Harvey, in Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (2005), tracked...