When you combine the American propensity toward religiosity with the nation’s struggles with slavery and segregation, you get an idea of the powerful union of religion and race.
It’s a relationship Paul Harvey finds fascinating and has made his life’s work.
Known as one of the country’s early pioneers of the study of religion and race in American history, Harvey has been teaching college classes in Colorado Springs for more than two decades.
“It feels good – I’ve been doing a lot of research and writing for the last 25 years, which is something you do on your own in your office, and this is a recognition of a lifetime of academic work,” he said.
Harvey, a professor of American history from the 16th century to the present at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, was named a “Distinguished Professor” by the CU Board of Regents this month and recognized at a campus reception Monday evening.
He’s only the seventh UCCS professor to win the prestigious award – the university system’s highest honor – since the recognition program began in 1977.
Title holders demonstrate exemplary performance in research or creative work, excellence in classroom teaching and supervision of individual learning, and service to the profession, the university and its affiliates.
Rob Sackett, a UCCS history professor who helped nominate Harvey for the award, describes his colleague’s work as “not a remote academic exercise but a narrative that connects race and religion, and in that way gets to the heart of American culture.”
The relationship between religion and race in America is as important today as it was centuries ago, Harvey said.
“Religion has been fundamental for much of American history for creating structures of racial hierarchy and was fundamental in the 20th century to undermining them,” he said.
With today’s debates over the United States’ immigration policies and volatile race relations, Harvey said he sees a revival of “older forms of the connections between religion and racism,” such as white nationalist movements that “speak a language that comes from much older American history.”
At any point in history, however, juxtaposing forces work against each other, he said.
The expansion of immigration for the past 50 years and the changing demographics of a more diverse society may be spiraling in the opposite direction, Harvey said, as U.S. immigration policies move toward tightening.
“History just continues, so there’s not going to be an end,” he said. “We’re a part of a process of history, and we don’t often know where those things are going.”
That being said, Harvey added that much of what is playing out today in the political realm has been a common theme of the past. In the early 20th century, for example, conflict over race and religion led to The Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted immigration from southern and eastern European countries – such as Italy and Russia – as well as people of Jewish descent.
“There was the idea that the wrong kind of people were coming into the country with the wrong religion, and it fundamentally changed U.S. immigration policy,” Harvey said. “I think we’re seeing that going on right now.”
The 1924 law was in place until it was changed in 1965.
Harvey is on sabbatical for the fall semester, working on his 12th and 13th books. One is a biography, his first, on Howard Thurman, an author, philosopher, educator and civil rights leader who died in 1981. The other is a compilation of lectures he will present in February on Southern religion in a global context, a series of studies of three people from the South who were involved in international cultural movements.
Although Harvey thinks it remains difficult for American schools to emphasize history as a subject, he believes it’s important for everyone to study history.
“It makes us who we are,” he said. “We have to understand the past to understand who we are and what’s going on in the present.”