The Evolution of Religion in America
Religion in the United States
of America has become personalized due to the oppressive nature of
Christianity and other institutionalized organizations. The oppression
of women, no matter the ethnicity, has caused America’s notions of
religion to evolve in ways that personalize spirituality to suit the
needs of the individual or community. Prior to racial slavery, women
were slaves to men, “That experience, which was available to men prior
to the invention of slavery, was the subordination of women of their
own group” (Lerner 77). Slavery is a form of oppression that only
intensified the split between American minorities and the governing
white paradigm. This oppressive force acted as a catalyst for new
spiritual growth among Americans that were at the top of the American
hierarchy. Patriarchy exists in the Christian religion and has thus
oppressed women to the point where they have become disillusioned with
dominate religion and those in control.
Americans have been able to
make religion adapt to them as opposed to conforming to certain
religious constructs and obligations. With the breaking down of social
hierarchy, a backlash of oppression, religion has taken on a new
significance as people are investing interest in personalizing religion
to suit new individual and social needs. Some have left god behind all
together and seek to obtain a sense of purpose through haunting acts
self control and meticulous habits. Others have created hybrids of
already established religions in order to not leave differing cultural
origins behind. Women have had to add the maternal to religion where
patriarchy has left it out.
The oppressive force of Christianity has
lead to Americans personalizing religion in order keep up with an
evolving social atmosphere. The Christian Church has spread disease,
patriarchy, and racial oppression, all over the world. It is important
to realize the origins of Christianity when discussing its influence
To those who have accepted the myth that the
church improved the status of women, it will come as a startling
revelation to learn that, on the contrary, it was the Christian Church
itself which initiated and carried forward the bitter campaign to
debase and enslave the women… (Davis 229).
should be seen as responsible for the degradation of women as well as
other minorities. Elizabeth Gould Davis, in her book The First Sex,
discusses how early Christianity, which derived from Hebraic tradition,
taught that women do not have souls and only exist to serve man (230).
Women want to claim back a sense of agency which man has taken away
through organized religion. This is why Americans will go to all links
to have a sense of control, purpose, and identity. Americans have
tailored religious affairs in the U.S. in order to make up for, or in
response to, the oppression that has taken place in all American
history. Davis claims, “In spite of the social advances of the past
hundred years, the doctrine of female inferiority is still tacitly
accepted by the vast majority of the population of the United States”
(328). One example of this is the way that women make themselves suffer
in order to conform to the accepted notion of beauty. Religion can take
many forms when Americans look to themselves to define self worth as
opposed to an oppressive American religious culture.
personalization of religion in the U.S. can be seen taking form in
innumerable shapes. Americans can take traditional religions like
Christianity and bring new aspects to it while keeping some of the old.
Another way to manage the expectations of a society and religion is to
create a whole new religion all together. Jean Graybeal in her article
entitled Cathy on Slenderness, Suffering, and Soul claims that weight
control has become a religious phenomenon among women. As a backlash to
women’s growing power in the United States, Graybeal claims, women are
encouraged to diminish their bodies and recoil from strength (181).
Graybeal relates the suffering taking place in modern dieting to
medieval Christianity (191).
Modern women may not find fulfillment
in Christianity any longer but some of the ways in which religion is
being personalized show clear signs of past oppression being the cause.
Dieting as a personalized religion gives us“…a way to experience the
values and virtues of devotion, persistence, and faith in an era when
such values have lost their anchors in traditional religions and in
traditional women’s roles” (191). Since women are no longer getting
what they need from religion, they still need to find some way to
practice their virtues. With weight control diseases becoming a serious
problem in America and the never ending celebrity worship, it seems
women are willing to suffer themselves to perfection.
politics supported the oppression of women and were against women
becoming equal; this lead to women, especially black women, no longer
supporting the power that oppressed both their home and the public
sphere. Black women, having Christianity forced on them through
slavery, had to interject themselves into a religion that they were
left out of and oppressed by. This created not only hybrid forms of
Christianity but also more personalized forms. Sue Monk Kidd’s novel
The Secret Life of Bees shows how women began to form more personalized
perspectives of the world and how spirituality fit into it. It was no
longer the white master and his white god; the black Mary exemplifies
this shift. August claims in the novel, “May and June and I take our
mother’s Catholicism and mix in our own ingredients. I’m not sure what
you call it, but it suits us” (90). The Catholicism passed down from
though slavery was now beginning to break as America moved into a more
pluralistic society. African Americans had various forms of Western
religion pushed on them when they came to America and they had to find
a way not to lose sight of their own culture. Whites used religion and
notions of white supremacy to validate oppression of this form. Many
African Americans would mix African religion with Catholicism to get a
hybrid form of Christianity.
In Kidd’s novel the black women
characters have personalized their religion. They have the Wailing Wall
to put aside worry and they prey to the Black Mary to heal their
suffering. There is an emphasis on the maternal side of things which is
not found in traditional Christian notions. Instead of a man being the
head of their personalized religion, they prey and worship the feminine
side of things, represented in “Our Lady of Chains” (110). The
tradition of worshiping a black Mary, among August’s people, was passed
down from woman to woman; they are bringing back the feminine where it
was left out in fundamental Christianity or Catholicism.
Temper, Lynn Dumenil states, “Certainly religious faith persisted, but
religion was less important in the public arena of American life”
(130). By 1964, the time The Secret Life of Bees was set in, there was
less of a focus on mainstream religion, especially among African
Americans. Many continued to mold and reshape religious beliefs over
time. Spiritual responsibility was internalized and no longer took
place in strictly public areas. Individuals could build their own
unique faith which could incorporate personal characteristics not
derived from dominate Christianity.
Religion will always evolve to
meet the needs of constantly evolving humanity. Oppression as served as
a catalyst for social change and improvement. The enduring human spirit
will rise to overcome struggle and come out a more learned and
experienced species. Through hardship we are able to learn from the
mistakes of the past. The personalizing of religion shows the human
capacity for adaptation and ability to triumph over adversity.
Davis, Elizabeth Gould. The First Sex. Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books Inc., 1972. 229, 230, 328.
Dumenil, Lynn. Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995. 130.
Jean. “Cathy on Slenderness, Suffering, and Soul.” God in the Details:
American Religion in Popular Culture. Ed. Eric Michael Mazur & Kate
McCarthy. New York: Routledge, 2001. 181, 191.
Kidd, Sue Monk. The Secret Life of Bees. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. 90, 110.
Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy: The Woman Slave. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. 77.