The Puritans were a group of people loosely defined through their shared adherence to the reformed theological tradition, largely following the work of John Calvin. Beginning in the 16th century, the Puritan movement took root in specific regional locales throughout Germany, Scotland, the Low Countries, and England. Following Queen Elizabeth’s settlement of 1559, which mandated conformity with the Church of England, the church’s authority splintered further as Protestants clashed with the episcopal polity, or church hierarchy. Religious conflict intensified from the 1580s through the end of James I’s reign, through repeated appeals to antiquity and patristics (writings from early Christian fathers) as pleas for further reform. Religious tension and persecution under the repressive regime of Archbishop Laud caused Puritans to leave England in search of new lands and communities.
When the Pilgrims and Puritans migrated to North America in 1620 and 1630, respectively, they did so with the intention of contesting the power of the crown to mandate religious uniformity. They believed in a Calvinist-based religion that espoused a separation of church and state, but that also privileged the spiritual authority of the individual to such a degree as to leave no clear signposts about how the disparate individuals practicing these faiths should form communities. Puritan congregations in New England allowed laymen as well as women new forms of spiritual self-discovery as they orally translated the evidence of grace recorded upon their souls into communal knowledge and a corporate identity that fashioned itself as a spiritual beacon to the world. Missionary encounters soon redefined Puritan faith, theology, and pious practices. Puritan identity in 17th century North America reconstituted itself through a particular confluence of interaction with foreign landscapes, native tribes, Africans, and new models of community and social interaction.
Susanah Shaw Romney
On the mid-Atlantic coast between 1624 and 1664, the Dutch developed a successful and expansive colony, one that depended on particular interactions among women and men from American, European, and African backgrounds. Unlike some other colonial efforts, such as Jamestown, New Netherland had white women colonists from its inception. In contrast to Plymouth and other English settler colonies, a population of African men and women did the crucial work of establishing the colony’s initial infrastructure in its first years. What is more, a thriving cross-cultural trade between Netherlanders and Munsee, Mahican, and Mohawk residents of the region nurtured the development of the infant colony. Looking at the colony’s establishment and growth reveals that complex interactions among ethnically distinct families gave New Netherland its particular form and character. As European and African populations took root, many households engaged in the frontier trading economy, creating a web of connections reaching into multiple indigenous villages. Women and men cooperated to sustain this trade over long distances by relying on marriage and the economic unit of the household to organize production and exchange. In addition, the colonial government used these households to stake claims to the ground and to define Dutch jurisdiction, just as they recognized that residence by Indian or English households determined where Dutch power ended. Thus ethnic and gender relations shaped not only the colony’s internal hierarchies, but also its economy and its very boundaries.
Dynamic and creative exchanges among different religions, including indigenous traditions, Protestant and Catholic Christianity, and Islam, all with developing theologies and institutions, fostered substantial collective religious and cultural identities within African American communities in the United States. The New World enslavement of diverse African peoples and the cultural encounter with Europeans and Native Americans produced distinctive religious perspectives that aided individuals and communities in persevering under the dehumanization of slavery and oppression. As African Americans embraced Christianity beginning in the 18th century, especially after 1770, they gathered in independent church communities and created larger denominational structures such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the National Baptist Convention. These churches and denominations became significant arenas for spiritual support, educational opportunity, economic development, and political activism. Black religious institutions served as contexts in which African Americans made meaning of the experience of enslavement, interpreted their relationship to Africa, and charted a vision for a collective future. The early 20th century saw the emergence of new religious opportunities as increasing numbers of African Americans turned to Holiness and Pentecostal churches, drawn by the focus on baptism in the Holy Spirit and enthusiastic worship that sometimes involved speaking in tongues. The Great Migration of southern blacks to southern and northern cities fostered the development of a variety of religious options outside of Christianity. Groups such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, whose leaders taught that Islam was the true religion of people of African descent, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews promoting Judaism as the heritage of black people, were founded in this period. Early-20th-century African American religion was also marked by significant cultural developments as ministers, musicians, actors, and other performers turned to new media, such as radio, records, and film, to contribute to religious life. In the post–World War II era, religious contexts supported the emergence of the modern Civil Rights movement. Black religious leaders emerged as prominent spokespeople for the cause and others as vocal critics of the goal of racial integration, as in the case of the Nation of Islam and religious advocates of Black Power. The second half of the 20th century and the early 21st-first century saw new religious diversity as a result of immigration and cultural transformations within African American Christianity with the rise of megachurches and televangelism.
Emily Suzanne Clark
Religion and race provide rich categories of analysis for American history. Neither category is stable. They change, shift, and develop in light of historical and cultural contexts. Religion has played a vital role in the construction, deconstruction, and transgression of racial identities and boundaries.
Race is a social concept and a means of classifying people. The “natural” and “inherent” differences between races are human constructs, social taxonomies created by cultures. In American history, the construction of racial identities and racial differences begins with the initial encounters between Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. Access to and use of religious and political power has shaped how race has been conceived in American history. Racial categories and religious affiliations influenced how groups regarded each other throughout American history, with developments in the colonial period offering prime examples. Enslavement of Africans and their descendants, as well as conquered Native Americans, displayed the power of white Protestants. Even 19th-century American anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism intersected racial identifications. At the same time, just as religion has supported racial domination in American history, it also has inspired calls for self-determination among racial minorities, most notably in the 20th century.
With the long shadow of slavery, the power of white supremacy, the emphasis on Native sovereignty, and the civil rights movement, much of the story of religion and race in American history focuses on Americans white, black, and red. However, this is not the whole story. Mexican-Americans and Latinx immigrants bring Catholic and transnational connections, but their presence has prompted xenophobia. Additionally, white Americans sought to restrict the arrival of Asian immigrants both legally and culturally. With the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the religious, racial, and ethnic diversity of the United States increased further. This religious and racial pluralism in many ways reflects the diversity of America, as does the conflict that comes with it.
Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence Speech” of July 1979 was a critical juncture in post-1945 U.S. politics, but it also marks an exemplary pivot in post-1945 religion. Five dimensions of faith shaped the president’s sermon. The first concerned the shattered consensus of American religion. When Carter encouraged Americans to recapture a spirit of unity, he spoke in a heartfelt but spent language more suitable to Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency than his own. By 1979, the Protestant-Catholic-Jewish consensus of Eisenhower’s time was fractured into a dynamic pluralism, remaking American religion in profound ways. Carter’s speech revealed a second revolution of post-1945 religion when it decried its polarization and politicization. Carter sought to heal ruptures that were dividing the nation between what observers, two decades hence, would label “red” (conservative Republican) and “blue” (liberal Democratic) constituencies. Yet his endeavors failed, as would be evidenced in the religious politics of Ronald Reagan’s era, which followed. Carter championed community values as the answer to his society’s problems aware of yet a third dawning reality: globalization. The virtues of localism that Carter espoused were in fact implicated in (and complicated by) transnational forces of change that saw immigration, missionary enterprises, and state and non-state actors internationalizing the American religious experience. A fourth illuminating dimension of Carter’s speech was its critique of America’s gospel of wealth. Although this “born-again” southerner was a product of the evangelical South’s revitalized free-market capitalism, he lamented how laissez-faire Christianity had become America’s lingua franca. Finally, Carter wrestled with secularization, revealing a fifth feature of post-1945 America. Even though faith commitments were increasingly cordoned off from formal state functions during this time, the nation’s political discourse acquired a pronounced religiosity. Carter contributed by framing mundane issues (such as energy) in moral contexts that drew no hard-and-fast boundaries between matters of the soul and governance. Drawn from the political and economic crises of his moment, Carter’s speech thus also reveals the all-enveloping tide of religion in America’s post-1945 age.
Christopher D. Cantwell
Home to more than half the U.S. population by 1920, cities played an important role in the development of American religion throughout the 20th century. At the same time, the beliefs and practices of religious communities also shaped the contours of America’s urban landscape. Much as in the preceding three centuries, the economic development of America’s cities and the social diversity of urban populations animated this interplay. But the explosive, unregulated expansion that defined urban growth after the Civil War was met with an equally dramatic disinvestment from urban spaces throughout the second half of the 20th century. The domestic and European migrations that previously fueled urban growth also changed throughout the century, shifting from Europe and the rural Midwest to the deep South, Africa, Asia, and Latin America after World War II. These newcomers not only brought new faiths to America’s cities but also contributed to the innovation of several new, distinctly urban religious movements. Urban development and diversity on one level promoted toleration and cooperation as religious leaders forged numerous ecumenical and, eventually, interfaith bonds to combat urban problems. But it also led to tension and conflict as religious communities busied themselves with carving out spaces of their own through tight-knit urban enclaves or new suburban locales. Contemporary American cities are some of the most religiously diverse communities in the world. Historians continue to uncover how religious communities not only have lived in but also have shaped the modern city.
Rock and roll, a popular music craze of the mid-1950s, turned a loud, fast, and sexy set of sounds rooted in urban, black, working class, and southern America into the pop preference as well of suburban, white, young, and northern America. By the late 1960s, those fans and British counterparts made their own version, more politicized and experimental and just called rock—the summoning sound of the counterculture. Rock’s aura soon faded: it became as much entertainment staple as dissident form, with subcategories disparate as singer-songwriter, heavy metal, alternative, and “classic rock.” Where rock and roll was integrated and heterogeneous, rock was largely white and homogeneous, policing its borders. Notoriously, rock fans detonated disco records in 1979. By the 1990s, rock and roll style was hip-hop, with its youth appeal and rebelliousness; post‒baby boomer bands gave rock some last vanguard status; and suburbanites found classic rock in New Country. This century’s notions of rock and roll have blended thoroughly, from genre “mash-ups” to superstar performers almost categories unto themselves and new sounds such as EDM beats. Still, crossover moments evoke rock and roll; assertions of authenticity evoke rock. Because rock and roll, and rock, epitomize cultural ideals and group identities, their definitions have been constantly debated. Initial argument focused on challenging genteel, professional notions of musicianship and behavior. Later discourse took up cultural incorporation and social empowerment, with issues of gender and commercialism as prominent as race and artistry. Rock and roll promised one kind of revolution to the post-1945 United States; rock another. The resulting hope and confusion has never been fully sorted, with mixed consequences for American music and cultural history.
Robert O. Self
Few decades in American history reverberate with as much historical reach or glow as brightly in living mythology as the 1960s. During those years Americans reanimated and reinvented the core political principles of equality and liberty but, in a primal clash that resonates more than half a century later, fiercely contested what those principles meant, and for whom. For years afterward, the decade’s appreciators considered the era to have its own “spirit,” defined by greater freedoms and a deeper, more authentic personhood, and given breath by a youthful generation’s agitation for change in nearly every dimension of national life. To its detractors in subsequent decades, the era was marked by immature radical fantasies and dangerous destabilizations of the social order, behind which lay misguided youthful enthusiasms and an overweening, indulgent federal government. We need not share either conviction to appreciate the long historical shadow cast by the decade’s clashing of left, right, and center and its profound influence over the political debates, cultural logics, and social practices of the many years that followed.
The decade’s political and ideological clashes registered with such force because post–World War II American life was characterized by a society-wide embrace of antiradicalism and a prescribed normalcy. Having emerged from the war as the lone undamaged capitalist industrial power, the United States exerted enormous influence throughout the globe after 1945—so much that some historians have called the postwar years a “pax Americana.” In its own interest and in the interest of its Western allies, the United States engaged in a Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union over the fate of Europe and no less over the fate of developing countries on every continent. Fiercely anticommunist abroad and at home, U.S. elites stoked fears of the damage communism could do, whether in Eastern Europe or in a public school textbook. Americans of all sorts in the postwar years embraced potent ideologies justifying the prevailing order, whether that order was capitalist, patriarchal, racial, or heterosexual. They pursued a postwar “normalcy” defined by nuclear family domesticity and consumer capitalism in the shadow cast by the threat of communism and, after 1949, global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. This prevailing order was stultifying and its rupture in the 1960s is the origin point of the decade’s great dramas.
The social movements of that decade drew Americans from the margins of citizenship—African Americans, Latina/o, Native Americans, women, and gay men and lesbians, among others—into epochal struggles over the withheld promise of equality. For the first time since 1861, an American war deeply split the nation, nearly destroying a major political party and intensifying a generational revolt already under way. Violence, including political assassinations at the highest level, bombings and assassinations of African Americans, bombings by left-wing groups like the Weathermen, and major urban uprisings by African Americans against police and property bathed the country in more blood. The New Deal liberalism of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman reached its postwar peak in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and then retreated amid acrimony and backlash, as a new conservative politics gained traction. All this took place in the context of a “global 1960s,” in which societies in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere experienced similar generational rebellions, quests for meaningful democracy, and disillusionment with American global hegemony. From the first year of the decade to the last, the 1960s were a watershed era that marked the definitive end of a “postwar America” defined by easy Cold War dualities, presumptions of national innocence, and political calcification.
To explain the foregoing, this essay is organized in five sections. First comes a broad overview of the decade, highlighting some of its indelible moments and seminal political events. The next four sections correspond to the four signature historical developments of the 1960s. Discussed first is the collapse of the political consensus that predominated in national life following World War II. We can call this consensus “Vital Center liberalism,” after the title of a 1949 book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., or “Cold War liberalism.” Its assault from both the New Left and the New Right is one of the defining stories of the 1960s. Second is the resurgence, after a decades-long interregnum dating to Reconstruction, of African American political agency. The black freedom struggle of the 1960s was far more than a social movement for civil rights. To shape the conditions of national life and the content of public debate in ways impossible under Jim Crow, black American called for nothing less than a spiritual and political renewal of the country. Third, and following from the latter, is the emergence within the American liberal tradition of a new emphasis on expanding individual rights and ending invidious discrimination. Forged in conjunction with the black freedom movement by women, Latino/as, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and homophiles (as early gay rights activists were called) and gay liberationists, this new emphasis profoundly changed American law and set the terms of political debate for the next half century. Fourth and lastly, the 1960s witnessed the flourishing of a broad and diverse culture of anti-authoritarianism. In art, politics, and social behavior, this anti-authoritarianism took many forms, but at its heart lay two distinct historical phenomena: an ecstatic celebration of youth, manifest in the tension between the World War II generation and the baby boom generation, and an intensification of the long-standing conflict in American life between individualism and hierarchical order.
Despite the disruptions, rebellions, and challenges to authority in the decade, the political and economic elite proved remarkably resilient and preserved much of the prevailing order. This is not to discount the foregoing account of challenges to that order or to suggest that social change in the 1960s made little difference in American life. However, in grappling with this fascinating decade we are confronted with the paradox of outsized events and enormous transformations in law, ideology, and politics alongside a continuation, even an entrenchment, of traditional economic and political structures and practices.
The decade of the 1980s represented a turning point in American history—a crucial era, marked by political conservatism and an individualistic ethos. The 1980s also witnessed a dramatic series of developments in U.S. foreign relations, first an intensification of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and then a sudden relaxation of tensions and the effective end of the Cold War with an American victory. All of these developments were advanced and symbolized in the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan (1981–1989), a polarizing figure but a highly successful political leader. Reagan dominates our memories of the 1980s like few other American leaders do other eras. Reagan and the political movement he led—Reaganism—are central to the history of the 1980s. Both their successes and their failures, which became widely acknowledged in the later years of the decade, should be noted. Reaganite conservatives won political victories by rolling back state power in many realms, most of all in terms of taxation and regulation. They also succeeded in putting America at the unquestioned pinnacle of the world order through a victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, although this was unforeseen by America’s Cold Warriors when the 1980s began. The failures of Reaganite conservatism include its handling of rising poverty levels, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and worsening racial tensions, all problems that either Reaganites did little to stem or to which they positively contributed. In foreign affairs, Reaganites pursued a “war on terror” of questionable success, and their approach to Third World arenas of conflict, including Central America, exacted a terrible human toll.
The 1950s have typically been seen as a complacent, conservative time between the end of World War II and the radical 1960s, when anticommunism and the Cold War subverted reform and undermined civil liberties. But the era can also be seen as a very liberal time in which meeting the Communist threat led to Keynesian economic policies, the expansion of New Deal programs, and advances in civil rights. Politically, it was “the Eisenhower Era,” dominated by a moderate Republican president, a high level of bipartisan cooperation, and a foreign policy committed to containing communism. Culturally, it was an era of middle-class conformity, which also gave us abstract expressionism, rock and roll, Beat poetry, and a grassroots challenge to Jim Crow.