SINCE the nation's founding, American life and culture have been distinctively shaped by two central dynamics: a depth of religious piety and searching, and a brilliant constitutional innovation separating church and state.
"We are the Lord's free people," said puritan William Bradford. And since his arrival in 1620 the exercise and development of religious faith and denominations in America has been unparalleled in world history - often having an intolerant, coercive, or merely superficial character, but more often giving comfort and meaning to life in a way that is both intelligent and real.
So too in America today, the most essential questions and issues are not at bottom economic or political but are religious - dealing both with personal ethics and with ultimate values. Behind Vice President Dan Quayle's invoking of values and "cultural elites" lies a debate over what informs our beliefs.
Are spiritual values real? In the late 20th century, can religion survive modernity? Can spirituality be more than a soothing poetic mantra in the face of human aggression and modern science, which seeks to break man into a collection of chemical impulses?
However one answers these questions, they must be asked and researched with integrity. Yale critic Harold Bloom's new book, one of many recent inquiries, wonders whether American spirituality has congealed into a single unconscious set of assumptions - an "American religion" that informs how we think both individually and as a nation. Though brilliant, Dr. Bloom is so tone deaf to the nature and depth of religious life as it is actually lived that the book distorts what it seeks to explain. Sadly, as Not re Dame scholar Jay Dolan notes, his treatment of Christian Science and Mary Baker Eddy is "the weakest part of the book." It is so grossly inaccurate and even contrived as to be irresponsible.
Writing on religion should take seriously its search for truth. Mrs. Eddy's lifework deserves and will withstand truthful inquiry.