Bounds of Their Habitation
Race and Religion in American History
The prolific Paul Harvey has given us yet another book that is both a joy to read and breathtaking in its sweep. Bounds of Their Habitation is a masterful synthesis of the growing literature on race and religion in US history. This book seamlessly weaves together stories of white Christian racial theologies, African American religious resistance, Native American traditional and prophetic religious movements, Latino/a Catholicism and Pentecostalism, and many more. Its flaws are perhaps inherent in the genre: it would be difficult for such a concise and wide-ranging text to dig too deeply or offer new insights to specialists in the field. But these were never the goals for this book. Rowman and Littlefield’s “American Ways Series” aims to provide “concise, accessible treatments of central topics in the American experience” for general audiences and undergraduate classrooms. This book elegantly fulfills that mission.
This is not a text for readers seeking new theoretical analysis of race and religion. Harvey’s introduction briefly historicizes both of these categories as products of the modern world, and concisely introduces the idea that they are historically co-constituted (4). Religious ideas and practices actively worked to create race, he explains, even as ideas about race continually reshaped the categories of religion. However, the book’s promise to map the history of that co-constitution is not consistently fulfilled. The raw material is there in spades and the stories are skillfully told. But Harvey rarely slows the pace of his narrative to explain just how race and religion were defining and redefining each other through the history he relates.
The exceptions come when Harvey is drawing on historians who have already done this interpretive work. Chapters 3 and 5, for example, include excellent analysis of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American views of Asian religions and Asian immigrants. Harvey builds especially on Michael Altman’s forthcoming Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu (Oxford University Press, 2017) to show how evangelicals, mariners, intellectuals, Transcendentalists, and more helped shape the emerging category of Hinduism through their fascination with the people and traditions of the Orient. Even the most liberal efforts to forge a unity of religions defined the East in opposition to the West, Harvey explains, and so participated in the racialization of the “Hindu.”
The title, Bounds of Their Habitations, hints at the book’s central thesis, one that is well sustained throughout the book. Harvey explains that Acts 17:26—the source of this phrase—illustrates both sides of the complicated story of race and religion in America: “how God made ‘of one blood’ all nations” while at the same time “determined the ‘bounds of the habitation’ of those people He had created.” In other words, the core thesis of this book is that religion—Christianity in particular—simultaneously forged the boundaries of race, and provided the resources to transcend them. Harvey weaves his titular phrase throughout the book to remind us how Christianity both forged and challenged racial boundaries. But if race and religion are truly co-constituted, then race was simultaneously making and re-making the categories and the practices of religion. That side of the story, not only in this book but also in the field of American religious history more generally, remains mostly untold.
Tisa Wenger is associate professor of American Religious History at Yale University.
Add New Comment
Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.