The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Race in American History

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Kathryn Gin Lum, Paul Harvey
Oxford Handbooks
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     632 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


On her 2018 album Whistle Down the Wind, the American treasure Joan Baez sings a song in response to the horrific 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine African American church members were murdered by a young white man motivated by racial hatred. The song,“The President Sang Amazing Grace,” recalls President Barack Obama’s moving eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor. One stanza notes, “We argued where to place the blame / On one man’s hate or our nation’s shame / Some sickness of the mind or soul / And how the wounds might be made whole.” The editors of this excellent volume, Kathryn Gin Lum and Paul Harvey, likewise signal the seriousness and relevance of the essays in their book by alluding to the Mother Emanuel shooting. By placing the tragedy in the long and complex history of religion and race in the United States, Gin Lum and Harvey invite us to engage deeply with this most vexed area of our national story. Over the course of thirty-four illuminating essays, the book “addresses the religious experiences, social realities, theologies, and sociologies of racialized groups in American religious history, as well as the ways that religious myths, institutions, and practices contributed to their racialization” (3). So much is at stake here; as the editors note, “the power to determine right or wrong religion has been intimately connected to the power to racialize” (5). 

This insight, combined with the more commonly acknowledged obverse—that a group’s racial identity often influences its religion (i.e., that in the United States, race and religion are co-constitutive )—is the basic thesis of the volume. The first half of the book, “Theoretical and Topical Overviews,” features essays that examine key theories and topics in race and religion to demonstrate this thesis. The slippery terms “race” and “religion” are put through their paces in K. Merinda Simmons’s opening essay. Other topics covered in this section include the Iberian Atlantic racialization system of limpieza de sangre, questions of gender and sexuality in relation to race and religion, and the racial and religious foundations of American imperialism. As Elizabeth Jemison notes in her essay, there is great benefit to the intersectional approach on display in the volume, in which diverse topics and categories “shape each other, rather than analyzing one [category], such as race, in isolation” (81). The first half of the book also includes a series of essays that follow the “Race and _______” format, in which a variety of religious actors are discussed in relationship to race and popular culture. These essays work as valuable parts of the volume’s entire narrative but could also be used as stand-alone introductions to questions of race and religion as they relate to a particular religious tradition or pop culture genre. For example, Jodi Eichler-Levine’s essay on Judaism and race shows how the American setting contributed to the complicated racialized whiteness of most Jews, discusses racial and ethnic difference among Jews, and includes a challenging meditation on Jewishness and blackness in America. 

Gin Lum and Harvey, in addition to underscoring how race and religion construct and inform each other, also point out the centrality of Christianity in the history of race and religion in the US. As African Americans, Native Americans, and many others adopted the religion as their own, “Christianity could no longer be synonymous with whiteness.” Yet, Gin Lum and Harvey note that the “powerful confluence of Christianity, civilization and whiteness has fundamentally shaped American notions of religion and race” (11). While this argument is maintained throughout the collection, it is especially prominent in the second half of the book, “From Colonies to the Present.” Here, contributors turn to chronological explorations of race and religion in specific times and places in the evolving nation. Not all of these essays explicitly take up the relationship of Christianity to whiteness and perceived national, racial, and religious norms, but the tensions of this relationship are present throughout. For example, Emily Clark’s chapter, “African American Religions in the 19th Century,” demonstrates that a diverse field of African American religions, rather than limiting participants to Protestant acceptability, instead created a “new spirit of religious self-determination” and creativity (404). In Khyati Y. Joshi’s excellent chapter, “South Asian Religions in Contemporary America,” we learn how racial phenotypes and genealogies in conjunction with religious categorization have influenced South Asian inclusion and exclusion in terms of legality as well as in day-to-day interactions with others. Other essays deal head on with white Christians. Richard A. Bailey discusses the vast literature on the Puritans to reveal the intersection of religion and racialization in colonial New England. Carolyn Dupont’s chapter provides a radiograph of white Protestant internal conflicts concerning support—and rejection—of the civil rights movement. The tightly focused essays from the second half of the book will be useful supplements to many course syllabi, and one can also imagine using this portion of the book as a backbone of readings for a course on US religious history in general. 

In any collection of essays like this one, the editors must make choices about what can be included and what must be left out, and except in cases of egregious omission, it is not helpful to list topics that could have been covered but were not. To my mind, the editors should be congratulated for pulling together a capacious, challenging, and fair group of essays that deliver on the volume’s promise to consider race and religion in American history in a comprehensive manner. With that said, the role of whiteness in racial construction is broached frequently in the essays, but this is an area of study that deserves even more attention moving forward. One small way the book could have been strengthened was if the authors had referenced each other’s essays in their own chapters to emphasize the volume’s considerable consonance. But overall, this book is a provocative and exciting resource for the study of race and religion in the United States.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brett Hendrickson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Lafayette College.

Date of Review: 
June 13, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kathryn Gin Lum is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies in collaboration with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University.

Paul Harvey is Professor of History and Presidential Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado.


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