Alexandria Digital Research Library

Negotiating Authority: The Criminalization of Religious Practice in the United States

Gray-Hildenbrand, Jenna Dawn
Degree Grantor:
University of California, Santa Barbara. Religious Studies
Degree Supervisor:
Rudy V. Busto
Place of Publication:
[Santa Barbara, Calif.]
University of California, Santa Barbara
Creation Date:
Issued Date:
Sociology, Criminology and Penology, Political Science, General, Law, Religion, General, History, United States, Metaphysics, Legal Studies, American Studies, and Native American Studies
Ghost Dance
"I AM" Activity
Dissertations, Academic and Online resources
Ph.D.--University of California, Santa Barbara, 2012

This dissertation utilizes a defendant-centered approach to the study of religion and law as a way to understand religious communities whose practices have been criminalized. Rather than asking about the legality of laws criminalizing religious practice, this dissertation asks how religious individuals and communities negotiated competing claims of authority over their religious practice. Shifting the analysis to the defendants increases our understanding of the development and, in some cases, escalation of conflicts between religious communities and the state. This approach also helps us to see how these conflicts are catalysts for change not only in the teachings and practices of the religious community but also in the construction and enforcement of the law.

Drawing on archived trial transcripts, letters, local newspapers, and taped interviews, this dissertation analyzes the criminalization of the Ghost Dance among the Lakota in 1890, the fraud trials of the leaders of the "I AM" Activity in the early 1940s, and the criminal prosecutions of serpent handlers in the 1940s and 1970s in order to address why some religious practices are criminalized while others are not. Each case study represents one of the three groups most commonly targeted with criminal laws: Native Americans, metaphysical movements, and Christian sects. Each case study is also chosen from one of the three eras when the criminalization of religious practice peaked: the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the Roosevelt administration, and the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. The comparative nature of this project highlights the ways groups are treated differently by the government based on their proximity to white, normative understandings of religion.

By defining an action as criminal, the government articulates the limits of tolerance, marks the frontier of the abnormal, places a value on conformity, and encourages an optimum behavior toward which all should strive. Therefore, by investigating criminal prosecutions of religious practitioners, we gain a better understanding of the shifting boundary between deviant criminal activity and constitutionally protected religious practice as well as the role of the state in policing this boundary and reinforcing hegemonic understandings of "normal" and "abnormal" religion.

Physical Description:
1 online resource (312 pages)
UCSB electronic theses and dissertations
Catalog System Number:
Inc.icon only.dark In Copyright
Copyright Holder:
Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand
Access: This item is restricted to on-campus access only. Please check our FAQs or contact UCSB Library staff if you need additional assistance.