Mullen: This missionary effort I’ve been talking about creates an obligation to choose your religion. It works like this: Somebody has a religious affiliation, and then an encounter with a missionary or person of a different background makes them realize that there are other options out there. Those other options might not be appealing, but the presence of all those different options creates a sense that if you stay in the religion to which you’re born, you’re staying in it because you’ve made a choice to remain affiliated and reject other options.
All of this is unequally distributed. If you’re a Christian growing up in a place with a lot of Christians, you’re much less likely to be affected by the knowledge that there are other options available to you. For instance: If you’re a Catholic in a Catholic enclave, then your religion is closely related to your ethnicity and neighborhood. But if, for instance, you’re an American Jew, you’re probably in a very small minority. You’re almost certain to be approached by Christian missionaries. So there’s a kind of asymmetric experience here.
Green: When does that cross over into coercion? You describe African American encounters with proselytization and coercion before and after the Civil War. Religious outreach has a much different valence for a person who is not free to make his or her own decisions. How do you think about that line?
Mullen: There’s a double question when it comes to African American Protestant conversions. They share an awful lot with white Protestant conversions. But in the U.S., the color line is always stronger than Christian unity.
Sometimes, slave owners encouraged conversions to a bastardized Christianity which supported only obedience to masters and had none of the claims of liberation you would find elsewhere in the Bible. At other times, slave owners did everything they could to prevent enslaved African Americans from knowing about Christianity. There are many, many black conversion accounts from slaves who would go to revival meetings and then be whipped by their master. And it’s well known that slaves sometimes had to hold their own meetings separate from white Christians in places called hush harbors. There’s constraint on the freedom black Christians have to practice their religion.
Green: All of this underscores the meta-point of your book: “Religious choice” should have really big air quotes around it. “Choice” does not necessarily happen freely in a vacuum, as we like to imagine.
Mullen: Religious historians have often used the metaphor of a “free market” in religion without deeply examining what that metaphor means. It’s a throwaway line. When I read conversion accounts from so many different kinds of people, they sounded a note of loss as much as gain.
That loss could be your family. If you left the religion of your birth, you were leaving behind your parents or perhaps your spouse. Sometimes people made choices that lost them social position. Other times it was just a sense of leaving behind a former self.
Religion is a kind of perpetual-motion machine. For many people, it brings stability, but it brings destabilization as well. While there is freedom in that system of American religion, I think it also comes at a tremendous cost.