RELST 238/338 – Religion & Race: Course Description


This course examines the intersections of religion and race in America. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., said that “it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that 11:00 on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours – if not the most segregated hours – in Christian America,” seeming to suggest that race should not be a factor in religious fellowship. Yet a close examination of how religions are expressed in American culture reveals that they contain the seeds of racial separation within their own teachings – in terms of how they understand themselves, and others.

In this class, students will examine trends among American religious communities, investigating how they have articulated notions of race about themselves and about others. Not specifically an investigation of racism as a social force, this class will survey how constructions of racial difference have been an integral part of the expression of American religion.


By the end of the semester, students enrolled in this course:

Should be familiar with the closely related development of religious and racial categories in American history and culture;

Should understand how religion and race have functioned as markers defining the boundaries between American communities, whether imposed by those communities themselves or by others; and

Should understand the complexities involved in grappling with concepts of religion and race as social constructions, both historically and in contemporary American culture.

Texts & Readings

The following texts are available at the VWU bookstore. You are free to purchase them elsewhere, but should check with me to be certain you are purchasing the proper edition(s).

Davies, Sharon. Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America (DAVIES).

Frey, Robert Seitz, and Nancy Thompson-Frey. The Silent and the Damned: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank (FREYs).

Marsh, Charles. God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (MARSH).

In addition, articles may be distributed occasionally in class or linked to the class Web site.



In-Class Participation (20 points):

You are expected to attend all classes and complete all assignments. In addition, you are expected to participate fully in class discussions and engage the materials in class. Regular and thoughtful participation in class, as well as enthusiastic participation in the assignments, will be rewarded in this category; mindless blather will not. .

Students enrolled in RELST 338 will have additional responsibilities presenting class readings and leading class discussions; evaluation of these responsibilities will be included in this category. In addition, on occasion I will engage you directly in informal conversation about the materials during class, and will evaluate you based on your ability to discuss the materials substantively and meaningfully

Analyses (6 x 10 points, or 60 points)

Six times over the course of the semester, you are expected to submit an analysis of the “race of” / “race &” aspects of each of the religious groups covered immediately previous to that due date. The analysis is expected to be an opportunity for you to synthesize the seeming opposite-yet-related aspects of religion and race for that religious group:

How is this particular religious group identified as a race by others? and
How does this group use the concept of race for itself (or apply it to others)?
How might these constructions of race have an impact on members of this religious community?

Your analysis should be less of a summary and more of an integrated argument, and I expect your conclusions (answers to the last of the three questions, above) to be speculative rather than factual, so long as they are reasonable based on class readings and discussions. Each analysis should be 2-4 pages long (double-spaced, 1″ margins), and is due on the dates noted in the “Schedule of Readings & Assignments.”

Integrated Final Analysis (20 points)

On the last regular class meeting, you will be given an assignment that will give you the opportunity to analyze course topics in terms of our class discussions and past assigned readings. Your analysis will be evaluated based on how well you integrate those materials (by making specific reference to their contents and ideas), how much of those materials you are able to integrate, and how creatively insightful you are about those materials. Additional reading / research will not be required, but will not be discouraged.

This final analysis is due on the date noted in the class “Schedule of Readings & Assignments.”

Unauthorized assistance or evidence of any willful breech of academic integrity will be dealt with in the most severe manner. (For possible actions and penalties, please see the VWU Honor Code).

General Classroom Policies