Recently, I had a short blog post about a new book I’ve read, One Nation, Under Gods. I love the book, and thought I might write a longer post about it now. And I need to since I’m going to be lending it to my parents to read tomorrow.
One Nation, Under God is a new book by Peter Manseau, a writer who has his doctorate in religion from Georgetown University. This is a book that is definitely needed considering that many Christians in the US are doing their best to rewrite history to fit their fantasy that the US was founded as a “Christian Nation”, though of course they don’t agree on what a “Christian Nation” actually would be. The book presents the facts very well and is not favorable to any particular side.
The book’s strength is that it relates the changing religions in the US, and to a lesser degree, the whole of North America, to the politics and culture of the times. It starts us in 1492, bringing in the state of European religions to how it affected the urge to colonize the New World. From the likely hidden Jews on Columbus’ ships, forced into a masquerade by the murderous Roman Catholics in Spain, to the Muslim slaves of the conquistadors, and the native Americans, we have how religion mix, mesh and change, showing that no religion has some inviolate “truth”.
Next is the immigration of the various northern sects of Christianity coming in from Europe, those who were sure that their versions of Christianity were the only “pure” ones. They, of course, promptly decided that anyone who disagreed with them once they crossed the Atlantic needed to be killed or to be banished from the colonies that they established. Their quest for a free place to worship was an entirely selfish desire that they would do anything to forbid anyone else access to. Their various “shining cities on the hill” were bastions of fear of the “other”. We do have the surprising story that Cotton Mather, famous from his sermons often included in Early American Literature classes, trying to encourage the use of a native African superstition which was essentially vaccination to stop smallpox, an awful disease that killed Mather’s family. Mather’s slave, renamed Onesimus after the slave that Paul returned to his master, told him of this practice. Mather did his best to encourage his society to do this but felt the sting of rejection for his new ideas because any attempt at relieving disease was considered going against the will of his god and his god’s divine judgment.
We also had Jews migrating in this period since they were persecuted by most other contries that had some form of Christianity as the state religion. For example, Jews were forbidden in England for 300 years. In the book, it describes the plight of Jews that had to leave a South American colony that had changed hands between the Netherlands and Portugal. With Portugal came the Inquisition, so they begged passage to New Amsterdam aka New York City. They were nearly kept from there too, until the Jewish backers of the Dutch traders threatened to pull their backing.
The book then considers the interaction of native American religion and that of the colonists as they have lived in the US colonies for a generation or two. I found that a meeting between the Six Nations, a powerful alliance of native American tribes, including the Iroquois, and the colonists of the colonies happened close by where I currently live. A treaty was negotiated and the printer of that treaty was Benjamin Franklin. Apparently, the long lived and stable alliance between the tribes, called the Gayanashagowa, caused Franklin to question why the colonies could not do the same thing. Pennsylvania was also the first colony to have a concept of religious freedom, thanks to the Quakers, which were persecuted by other Christians in the other colonies.
The interactions between the native Americans and colonists continued. Unsuprisingly, the treaty from before was broken by the colonists and the people of the Six Nations were relegated to the western part of what became the state of New York. From this area we also get the origins of more Christians sects, including Mormonism and the rise of the apocalyptic sects who insist that their god is returning “real soon now”. The Great Disappointment came from this area, a precursor to the continued promises of the “end times” that we still have now and the continued failure of those promises.
After this we have the acceleration of the exposure of America to other religions as the ease of travel and communication increases. The exotic became fascinating to Americans and Hindu gurus gave lectures to packed houses. As there was a need for laborers, the Chinese immigrated and brought their religions along with them. Looking for religious freedom, the followers of minority religions came to the US, including Sikhs, as of all things, lumberjacks. The Japanese who immigrated, became part of the military during WWII and that forced recognition of other religions in the armed forces other than Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. Of course, all of these people met hatred and resistance. But they also influenced those who interacted with them.
The book does skip what I consider an important part, the rise of evangelical Christianity in the first half of the 20th century and the use of media to spread their conservative nonsense. However, the book would likely be half again as thick. We are now in the 60s and 70s, where alternative religions spring up, with the beatniks, hippies, yippies and psychedelia. Scientology is created, and its history is just as silly as you might think.
Again, the book skims over the religious conservatism from in the late 70’s and 80s, where Christianity becomes Jesus as Rambo, and wannabee theocrats, and ends up at the last presidential election, where we have two candidates that are outside of the standard white American Protestant/Catholic realm. Barack Obama is from the root of the African American church, described earlier in the book, and Romney is Mormon. Other religions are gaining a foothold, as is atheism, but that is also given less space than I would have hoped for.
The book does a wonderful job of showing how religions change each other, and how tolerance changes religion. The notes section is great and goes into much detail on where the author found his information, that evidence that any one should look for to back up claims made by anyone. It would be an excellent textbook for a class on American history, and it is a welcome antidote to the outright lies told by so many Americans.
Incidentally, Dr. Manseau is currently working on a exhibit about religion in the US for the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. Another book of Manseau’s, written with Jeff Sharlet, called Killing the Buddah: A Heretic’s bible also intrigues me. Perhaps that will be something to get through interlibrary loan.