Peter Manseau is a journalist, historian, and novelist. His most recent book, One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History, is a deeply researched account that challenges standard Christian perspectives of the country’s story. Here, he offers a list of counter-intuitive facts about religion in America.
1. Islam was here from the beginning.
Far from a twenty-first century problem, the fraught relationship between Islam and Christianity shaped the earliest interactions between the Old World and the New. In the shadow of the Reconquista — the reconquering of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors — the Spanish established laws to prevent Islamic influence from reaching the Americas, yet made use of enslaved Muslim converts to Catholicism in the explorations that opened the continents to European influence.
Oblivious to the fact that many of these converts might have changed faith in name alone, the conquistador Francisco Vazquez Coronado led an army of them deep into lands later known as Texas, New Mexico, and Kansas. Nearly a century before other religious travelers dreamed of building a “city upon a hill” in Massachusetts, they were the first of a forgotten Muslim population that later included 20 percent of all Africans sold into bondage.
Allah was here from the beginning, brought in chains.
From the first arrival of Europeans until deep into the nineteenth century — longer than the United States has existed as a republic — the beliefs of those already living in North America transformed every new faith brought to its shores.
From Roger Williams cataloging the dozens of gods he counted among the Narragansett, to the Indian slave woman Tituba who lit the fuse of the Salem Witch Trials, to Joseph Smith writing an entire new scripture to reconcile the lore and legends of Native America with those of the Bible, the story of Christianity’s introduction to the continent was not merely one of indigenous conversion, but of mutual influence.
3. Christianity in America was transformed by slavery.
In the beginning of slavery in the English colonies, it was assumed that Christians should not be slaves. Christian servants might work for a predetermined period under indenture, but the duration of their servitude was limited by definition. Only non-Christians could be trapped in bondage for life.
This arrangement proved untenable, however. If slavery was defined in relation to belief, then conversion would become a potential path to freedom. Colonial laws were rewritten out of religious and financial necessity: “The conferring of baptisme,” a Virginia statute of 1667 states, “doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom.”
The legal possibility of keeping Christians as slaves only gradually translated into the conversion of an entire people. Many of the beliefs and practices the enslaved had brought with them endured, and later were smuggled into the dominant faith in the forms of worship styles that spread widely during the Second Great Awakening.
4. Atheism helped set the stage for the American Revolution.
Atheism has always been as much about politics as belief. Long before “atheist” was a label proudly worn by some, it was an insult used to call into question one’s moral rectitude. As a colonial sketch of the “character of an atheist” put it: “An atheist is an overgrown libertine . . . and therefor is as constant to his word as the wind.” Such sentiments can be seen even today in several state constitutions that still require office holders to believe in God.
Yet in the middle of eighteenth century, with Enlightenment ideas gaining ground in the colonies, the possibility of applying reason to religion gave the word “atheist” a hint of the forward-thinking intellectual, and this too had political implications. “The Atheist is a man who doubts of the King’s Right to the Crown,” another colonial scribe wrote, “and during the Doubt, refuses the Oath of Allegiance, or pays no Obedience to Supremacy.”
The line separating belief from non-belief is far less static than we might think; it is situational, shifting with the religious associations of those in power. In the second century, the followers of the upstart faith known as Christianity were called “atheist” because they refused to acknowledge Roman gods. On the eve of the American Revolution, it became a bold protest in favor of reason and self-rule.
5. Belief in America is frustrating for both believers and non-believers, and it should be.
To be part of a religiously pluralistic society is to engage in a paradox: Belief matters both very much and not at all, because we have the right to believe as we please. No one is immune to this paradox’s occasional frustrations. Those who believe that religion is, as Salman Rushdie put it recently, “a medieval form of unreason” are asked to appreciate that it is nonetheless what the theologian Paul Tillich called “a matter of ultimate concern” to many. Those belonging to one creed or another are called upon to act as if faith, no matter the grandeur of its claims, is not so ultimate after all.
Despite the ideological distance between these positions, we live in unspoken agreement that we are bound together by something more significant than our individual beliefs. We do so in the hope that the challenge of making a nation of peoples professing many faiths and no faith can also be a strength. Members of groups with conflicting commitments may have their identities, their sensibilities — and, too often, their bodies — assaulted by proximity to those with radically different ideas, but all are joined in the inevitability that they will be enriched and transformed by difference as well.