Framing the American Narrative as a Story of Diversity, Part Two: American Religious History

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I spend the first couple weeks of my survey class emphasizing the diverse origins of North America. The Native, Spanish, French, and Dutch populations, I argued, left and indelible impact on the continent that is often overlooked when we focus on Angl0-American settlement. Now I want to briefly describe how I do the same thing in my American Religious History course, which I’m teaching concurrently.

On one of the first days we address this issue head on: why is it that the Puritans are the first group we think of when we imagine the origins of American religious history? Students provide the obvious answers: they’re British, they’re simultaneously vilified for hypocricy and deified for seeking “religious liberty,” they’re devout and faithful, and, I quickly add, they’re Protestant. In many ways, the Puritans provide many of the paradoxes and tensions that the class will focus on for the semester: competing beliefs of America as a chosen (and Protestant!) land, a collusion of religious belief and political action, mixed conceptions of religious liberty, and an emphasis on religiosity as central to social life. But in many ways the Puritan way of viewing these was the exception during the first century of British settlement, not to mention a late-comer to the colonization scene. So we put a placeholder in our Puritan discussion and look elsewhere for the foundations of American’s religious heritage.

In many ways, the strategy is the same as in the survey class: I spend quite a bit of time on the wide variety of Native religions as well as Spanish, French, and Dutch settlements. But in each region we also talk about what role religion played in their conceptions of power, society, and inter-cultural contact. We give particular attention to Catholic settlements, not just the Spanish and French, but also in Maryland, for one central reason: everywhere Anglo-Protestants looked in colonial America, they were never far from a Catholic presence. Even in the Northeast, where indigenous tribes were more of a worry, captivity narratives often spoke about the Catholic control (phantom or not) of the indian raids. And as they marched both westward and southward, they were going to encounter even more Catholic cultures that tested not only their notions of religious truth–though it certainly tested that–but also their notions of liberty and freedom, ideas that were constantly in flux. Framing early America colonization as a move toward Protestant dominance overlooks just how outnumbered they were during the seventeenth century.

One of the concluding lessons during one class is simple: America had more religious diversity prior to British contact than after. At least for a while.

We don’t even get to the Puritans until after we’ve spent several classes on indigenous, Catholic, Dutch, and even Anglican (in the Chesapeake) traditions. And even once we talk about Winthrop and his “City on a Hill,” we note that within a few years we have strong dissenting events with Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. The “holy commonwealth” was never as homogenous or orderly as let on. We talk about the incidental religious diversity experienced in New York, New Jersey, and the Carolinas, where the Anglican establishment was never able to gain a strong enough footing. And then we talk about the deliberate diversity in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, where they consciously bucked the notion that societies had to be united around one shared belief. From the very beginning of even British colonization, we argue, there is already stiff competition.

In one way, despite my desire to follow current trends in colonial America, the class is oriented around a trajectory toward the formation of the United States. But only in a subversive way: by the time we get to the “Was America founded as a Christian nation?” question, about which we will have organized group projects (more on that later), students clearly see that the answer is more complex. What did it mean to be “Christian”? What did it mean to be a “nation”? All of these different colonial societies provided different answers, even before the Revolutionary period and the advent of a Whiggish separation theory.

I strongly feel this story of diversity is crucial for today, the Age of Obama. We need to learn that, on the one hand, our present generation didn’t invent the idea of a diverse society. That’s been there all along. And second, for those who fear “diversity” and long for a period when America was “great” and unified under a homogenous Anglo-Protestant order, it is important to see that such an era never existed. America has always been a competition between beliefs, a hodgepodge of divergent practices and ideas forced to interact with each other. How we’ve dealt with that diversity is the true story, and its lessons have never been more relevant than today.

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