Fusion Religion: How Syncretism Went from Prohibition to Prescription in 20th-century America

“In the 1970s, fusion religion became flesh and dwelt among us. ”

Team Members/Contributors

Brett Grainger Villanova University Contact Me

About this sabbatical grant for researchers

My proposed research project for the Sabbatical Grant, titled “Fusion Religion,” probes the origins and implications of the striking reversal in public attitudes to syncretism that took place during the “long 1960s” (from 1965 to 1975). It will explore how popular “fusion” movements—musical fusion (the blending of jazz, rock, and funk music with non-western instruments, scales, and rhythms) and culinary fusion (the so-called "California cuisine") helped to reverse the religious and racial associations of syncretism.

Before syncretism could become suitable for white, middle-class Americans, it had first to be purged of its troubling associations with “primitive,” non-white, or creole populations. How did such a transformation take place? In their origins, both culinary fusion and musical fusion had strong connections to the esoteric and eastern spirituality of the counterculture. However, through the magic of the marketplace, the cultural industries that marketed fusion as a tangible product helped reverse the sacred prohibition and make it into a cultural prescription.

“Fusion Religion” defends syncretism as an analytic framework for helping historians avoid imagery that reduces habits of religious eclecticism and borrowing to “salad bar religion,” a style of “picking and choosing” that is random, arbitrary, and purely individualistic. Such approaches have led scholars to dismiss eclecticism as ephemeral or insignificant, despite its growing popularity. The analytic framework of “fusion religion,” in contrast, offers a deeper understanding of the cultural and historical processes that have shaped these larger syncretic patterns in religious life and shows syncretism to be a significant force in modern American life, not simply in “borderlands” spaces or in traditional societies in developing countries, where the majority of scholarship has focused.