The Rise, Fall, and Future of America as a "Christian Nation"

Martin Marty leads a morning seminar in the Out of Many program. Photo by Newberry photographer Catherine Gass.

Origins has been on a hiatus of late as all of us here recover from the week-long workshop that kicked off the Scholl Center’s “Out of Many: Religious Pluralism in America” program. The week featured wonderful morning seminars with scholars from across the field, afternoon research sessions devoted to fashioning new curriculum, and a grand evening lecture that we’ve previewed here before. We discussed a number of issues around introducing the study of America’s religious diversity into humanities classrooms, and over the next weeks we will be sharing some of the insights and outcomes of our efforts. So stay tuned.

Our first dispatch comes from one of the morning seminar leaders, Kevin Schultz. An Assistant Professor of History and Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago, Kevin lead a morning seminar that put his work on interfaith dialogue in post-World War II America into a much broader context. He showed how the “tri-faith” ideal that informed the notion that America was a “Judeao-Christian” nation throughout the Cold War emerged from a much longer, and more contentious social, cultural, and legal histories that overwhelmed older definitions of “Christian America” that were distinctly, and hegemonically, Protestant. Over at Kevin’s own Teaching United States History blog, he reflects on how the morning seminar also reminded him of the importance of nuance and complexity in discussing such potentially controversial topics. Here is a taste of his post:

Throughout the endeavor we kept coming back to one idea: that many of those who advocated on behalf of the idea of a Christian nation were not simply bigots trying to put other people down (although there has been a good bit of that, as David Sehat taught us in his award-winning The Myth of American Religious Freedom). But there was also the important notion that these people in the past were putting forward ideas that they thought would save America, and that still today we hold in high reverence. Those people who hated Catholics in the 19th century? They almost always hated slavery too.  Those Puritans who castigated Anne Hutchinson? They brought things like education and literacy with them… .

I’m prompted to wonder what, if anything, today’s Christian nation folks are bringing that will be looked back upon and widely applauded. But more on the topic of teaching the survey, it reminded me that it is our duty as explicators of the past to be fair to all actors, to try to understand their motives as well as their actions.

You can read the rest of Kevin’s reflection here. And check back for further reports.

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