Theory & Religion Series: The Americanization of Religious Minorities

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by Rebecca Barrett-Fox

* This post is part of the Theory & Religion Series, where contributors are asked to discuss a current project they are working on, or a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

In The Americanization of Religious Minorities: Confronting the Constitutional Order, Eric Michael Mazur (now the chair of Judaic studies and a professor of American studies at Virginia Wesleyan College and the author of some other terrifically useful texts) points to a gap between two foundational religious texts in U.S. history, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Article 16 and the First Amendment, and their application in the lives of actual people. The freedom of religion guaranteed in these texts is, says Mazur, “the gift with the greatest potential to be given by this country to the world.” However, the “gift” of religious freedom has never been fully realized; rather “it is a promise that, like the messiah, is always coming but never here” (ix).

Mazur examines three cases of religious minorities interacting with the American constitutional order: Jehovah’s Witnesses (mostly 1930-1950), Latter-Day Saints (mostly in the second half of the 1800s), and Native American religious traditions (from the early 1800s to the 1990s). Each experiences congruence (the Witnesses), conversion (the Mormons), or conflict (Native American religionists) with the constitutional order, for “if the central functions of the order are challenged, the competing system must be either realigned or destroyed” (134). Mazur does not provide deep legal analysis but rather compares across cases to demonstrate patterns of engagement “in light of their symbolic impact on cultural dominance and religious hegemony” (xvi).

His first move is to posit the engagement not as state versus minority religion but as two competing religious communities: American Protestantism and religious minorities—interestingly, all indigenous in their own ways. When such minorities are “unable to find themselves reflected in the cultural presuppositions of the legal system,” they have limited choices as they can “neither simply accept the system as it is nor live freely denying its applicability” (xxii). Mazur’s cases illustrate the adaptability of religion in the face of the order of things even as that order changes with U.S. demographics and law (though Mazur notes that the situation for minorities “has not necessarily improved with the wane of Protestant cultural hegemony” (xxv)—perhaps best exemplified by the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision delivered in 2014 by a Supreme Court that, for the first time, lacked a Protestant.)

Mazur’s comparisons also highlight the risk of marginalization that those who reject the authority of the legal system face and the risks that they may pose to the nonviolent coexistence of religious adherents (and not) of various stripes. The potential for danger emerges when religious nationalists—who “aggressively oppose… the movement of modern nation-states toward an increasingly secular identity” (138)—feel hopeless to change the constitutional order and either disengage or strike back. Within the U.S., this has included groups like Christian Identity, which influenced Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, but the comparisons that Mazur was unable to make in the late 1990s keep the citations to The Americanization of Religious Minorities coming, more than 15 years later.

Indeed, the foundation that Mazur lays in The Americanization of Religious Minorities makes the book, which is relatively short, teachable and useful as a model for further scholarship. Since 1999, the number of hate groups has increased dramatically, and many ground their ideology in religion. “Lone wolf” actors engage in domestic terrorism inspired by religious fervor, from Army of God hero Scott Roeder (who murdered abortion provider George Tiller in Tiller’s Lutheran church one Sunday) to Frazier Glenn Miller, a neopagan Odinist who killed three people in an anti-Semitic rampage in Overland Park, Kansas, on April 14, 2014, the first day of Passover. But one does not need to look as far as extremist violence to find recent examples of conversion, congruence, and conflict between the American constitutional order and U.S. religious minorities. For example:

* Members of Christian Exodus began to encourage “personal secession” after its efforts in the early 2000s to encourage mass migration of Christian patriots to South Carolina failed. It is currently working to build networks of like-minded individuals who reject, as far as possible, government intervention in their lives in California, Colorado, Panama, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

* Since the Great Recession made visible structural changes in the U.S. and global economies, new questions emerged among the Amish about their rejection of unemployment insurance benefits. As Amish move into industries in which they are in direct competition with English (non-Amish) workers, such as construction, there are calls to reconsider the Amish’s exemptions from social security and unemployment insurance taxes, which may make bids from Amish contractors more competitive than their English counterparts.

* In 2008, Texas law enforcement and child welfare workers raided the Yearning for Zion ranch near rural Eldorado, Texas. Home to several hundred members of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints sect, the ranch was the suspected site of underage marriage, bigamy, and the sexual abuse of children. Though public backlash to the raid was widespread when images of FLDS mothers and their children circulated publically and Oprah Winfrey visited the ranch to speak with mothers about the overzealous removal of children from their homes, multiple convictions were achieved through the raid, including further convictions for FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.

* In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in support of the wildly unpopular Westboro Baptist Church’s right to picket funerals with their message of God’s hatred for America.

* Conservative Christian commentators continue to recommend civil disobedience, predict mass social disorder, and to even advise listeners to “prepare for martyrdom” if the same-sex marriage is further legally recognized.

* This April 15, thousands of American would-be taxpayers will voice their religiously-justified opposition to military spending by refusing to pay taxes, withholding a symbolic amount of their taxes to register their dissent, or redirecting taxes that would go to support war to social justice causes.

In other words, every day we see new examples of how useful Mazur’s framework for understanding church-state conflict is. The book remains vitally relevant in understanding these potential conflicts, congruencies, and conversions.

Mazur, Eric Michael. The Americanization of Religions Minorities: Confronting the Constitutional Order (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1999).

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is a professor of sociology at Arkansas State University, where she teaches courses in the sociology of religion and sexuality. Her work has appeared in The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Proteus: A Journal of Ideas, Radical Teacher, The Journal of Hate Studies, and The Bulletin for the Study of Religion as well as Religion Dispatches. Her first book, an ethnographic study of Westboro Baptist Church, is forthcoming from the University Press of Kansas. She wishes to thank Sherry Wright for assigning Mazur’s The Americanization of Religious Minorities in REL 602: Religious and Legal Issues in US History at the University of Kansas. She welcomes conversation at rbarrettfox@astate.edu.

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