State Authority and Religious Pluralism: Debating Religion in World War II America

AHA Session 70
Friday, January 3, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Columbia Hall 10 (Washington Hilton)
Andrew Preston, Clare College, University of Cambridge
Matthew Avery Sutton, Washington State University Pullman

Session Abstract

In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt laid out four freedoms for which American democracy stood: freedom of speech and worship, freedom from fear and want. This panel takes up the second freedom, freedom of worship, and looks at how the government’s commitment to freedom of worship functioned—and fluctuated—during wartime. Unlike freedom of speech, there were only a few efforts to curtail or limit religion for the sake of state security—with Shinto Buddhism representing the primary target of religious suppression. At the same time, World War II has long been understood as the pivotal moment in ushering in “trifaith America.” Yet Americans believed in creeds beyond Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, and not all Protestants, Catholics, and Jews felt their right to worship freely was supported by the state or wanted their religion reinforced by the state.

This panel therefore examines state spaces beset with religious disagreement, tension, and discussion. Together these papers unravel the idea and enactment of religious freedom, positing complex relationships among state authority, war, and religious pluralism. War pushed the government to support religion in new ways, which inadvertently underscored the limits of freedom of worship. The panel will appeal to a broad audience, including those interested in politics and religion, the religious and racial dimensions of the warfare state, and the legal tension embedded in the First Amendment’s religion clauses.

G. Kurt Piehler’s paper, “The Free Exercise of Religion: Religion and New Deal Liberalism at War,” explores the unprecedented expansion of the federal government’s support for the (free) exercise of religion among American servicemen/servicewomen. Federal money supported chapel construction on military bases while government leaders encouraged the formation of the religiously-based United Service Organization. The paper asserts that although federal spending ostensibly promoted religious pluralism, it unintentionally encouraged religious dissent as well.

Anne Blankenship’s paper, “Religious Freedoms Behind Barbed Wire: Worship in Japanese American Incarceration Camps,” examines the organization of religious diversity in Japanese American incarceration camps. Unlike the chaplaincy, the government refused to finance religious organizations in the camps.  While this placed greater burdens on non-Christians, the agency managing the camps prioritized religious freedom. However, the state’s complex and nuanced approach to religion ultimately allowed some practices while banning others.

Ronit Stahl’s paper, “Between Race and Religion: The Army's Approach to African American and Japanese American Chaplains During World War II,” compares the place of two key racial minorities within one religious apparatus of the state, the Army chaplaincy. It argues that the Army pursued an ideology not of “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” but of “Protestant-Catholic-Jew-Negro” as a functional guideline that simultaneously racialized religion and allowed religion to unsettle racial categories.

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