Series on American Religions Offers Concise Insights


By Claudia Bushman and

Richard Bushman

Oxford U. Press

144 pp., $21


By Edwin S. Gaustad

160 pp., $21


By Hasia R. Diner

144 pp., $21

Why does America work?

The world is torn by religious and ethnic warfare, today as down through history. Yet the nation made up of a multitude of ethnic groups and perhaps the greatest religious diversity is not.

It's certainly not that Americans are free of bigotry - or ever have been.

Much of the answer lies in 16 little words - the religious liberty clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

It's sometimes forgotten that the Colonial period in America was as fraught with religious persecution as the shores early settlers had left behind: Baptists were flogged and Quakers were executed in Boston, Presbyterians were jailed and Jews were exiled in New York, Anglicanism was pushed as the state-sanctioned church in Virginia.

Religious liberty became as crucial to the forefathers as political liberty, and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led the way. Believing that religious freedom was the foundation on which all other freedoms rested, Jefferson composed a bill for establishing religious freedom, which led to the First Amendment. He thought it so essential that he requested he be remembered on his tombstone for only two documents - that bill and the Declaration of Independence.

Conflict that consumed Europe for centuries was thus avoided in the new United States. "In place of religious warfare, Americans have substituted discussion and debate," says Edwin Gaustad in Church and State in America, the first in a new 17-volume series from Oxford University Press by distinguished historians on religion in American life.

The series, to be launched next month with three volumes, is written primarily for junior high and high school students for use in schools, libraries, and for home schooling. Virtually nothing has been available for that age level, says Jon Butler, professor of history and religion at Yale University, who, along with Harry Stout, professor of American Christianity at Yale, conceived and is editing the series. (Freedom Forum First Amendment Center of Vanderbilt University is producing a teacher guide for each volume.)

In addition to three volumes covering historical periods, the series will include denominational volumes and topical volumes (native Americans, African-Americans, women, immigration).

The first, "Church and State in America," is a lucid primer for understanding today's debates on religious freedom as Congress passes laws in response to Supreme Court decisions and groups press for a constitutional amendment.

In surveying the "American experiment" from 1500 to the present, it reveals how challenging the interpretation of the religious liberty clause has been - and how the court has reversed itself on several occasions. It shows how crucial those guarantees have been over the past 200 years for minority faiths. The other initial volumes present the sagas of two of those faiths - those of Jews and Mormons.

Jews in America, by Hasia R. Diner, tells the fascinating story of how an ancient faith, despite trials, flourished and was reshaped in a new land: from the first Jews that arrived in the 17th century from Spain via a period in Brazil; to the creation of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism in response to life in democratic America; to the ordination of the first woman rabbi.

Mormons in America tells the remarkable story of how a new religion was born, developed amid persecution and hardship, and became one of the world's fastest growing faiths. Along with the riveting pioneer tale of settlement in Utah, the struggles for acceptance within US society, and renunciation of polygamy, it gives great insight into Mormon beliefs and the elaborate organization of community life that is a hallmark of the faith.

The first three texts are concise (about 150 pages each), engagingly written, and well illustrated.

If the series maintains the same quality, it promises to be a lively and accessible read for anyone interested in the various human dramas that constitute America's religious journey.

As religious diversity is now growing in the US, and some are concerned about what values will hold the country together, a series that explains Americans clearly to one another is something to be valued.

* Jane Lampman is the Monitor's religion and ethics writer.

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