One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau. Little, Brown & Co. 431 pp.

I finished One Nation, Under Gods the same week religious extremists hacked an atheist blogger to death in the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The murder of Avijit Roy is not obviously tied to Peter Manseau’s religious history of the United States. But there is a common thread there: religious freedom.

In his native Bangladesh, Roy lived under constant threat due to his identity as an atheist. In America, he lived openly as a freethinker. He became an American citizen and contributed his ideas to the complex intellectual fabric of his new home country.

Religious freedom allowed Roy a secure life. The lack of it killed him.

Roy’s story could have been pulled straight from the pages of One Nation, Under Gods. The book makes a compelling argument that America’s religious past has largely been shaped by people living in the margins; that the contributions of America’s indigenous inhabitants, its immigrants and its dissidents are responsible for the religious landscape that we know today.

Here, those contributions are collected together and recounted not as disparate events but as the building blocks of a common political heritage. According to Manseau, America is a land of syncretism, innovation and religious accommodation. It has always been far more than the Puritans’ “shining city upon a hill.”

There are some familiar stories here, too; Jefferson’s deism is one. Manseau, however, goes beyond our third president’s known skepticism of the supernatural and examines the controversy surrounding Jefferson’s donation of his famous library to what is now the Library of Congress.

The source of the criticism? Aside from the expected volumes on statecraft, Jefferson’s library included what Massachusetts’ Rep. Cyrus King called “many books of irreligious and immoral tendency.” Jefferson’s interest in atheist French authors, namely Rousseau and Voltaire, especially enraged King, who deemed them to be “French infidel philosophers.” Another congressman recommended burning the books to prevent the atheist contagion from spreading.

Congress eventually voted to approve Jefferson’s donation (and the creation of the Library of Congress), infidel books and all. But the debate over Jefferson’s books, and by extension, his ideas, is evidence that even in its infancy as a sovereign state, America was no religious monolith.

As befits a book about this nation’s cosmopolitan religious history, Manseau juxtaposes the saga of Jefferson’s library alongside more marginalized stories, like the life of Omar ibn Said, a Senegalese Muslim brought to American shores in chains. Said escaped a cruel master in North Carolina, but his religious devotion proved his undoing: He was spotted offering new moon prayers in a church.

Identified as a runaway slave, then captured and eventually jailed, Said still found a way to leave a mark. With a piece of coal left on the floor of his Fayetteville, N.C., cell, Said began writing on the walls of his prison in Arabic. No one in Fayetteville, of course, even recognized the script. No one in Fayetteville expected a runaway slave to be able to write anything at all.

Yet Said was not an anomaly. As Manseau notes, Muslims comprised approximately 20 percent of the South’s slave labor force. Many of them had religious educations, like Said, and occupied positions of social significance in their communities before being abducted and sold into slavery.

Another prominent example: Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, son of an imam, born in what is now Angola. Like Said, Diallo escaped, only to be caught. And like Said, Diallo befuddled his captors with his piety and education. There, their paths diverge: A benefactor purchased Diallo’s freedom, but Said was sold back into slavery.

As before, however, Said still had his say. Upon request, he completed his autobiography. It is notable for providing a thorough, first-hand account of slavery in the American South and for its syncretic treatment of religion: It begins with the opening lines of the Quran and ends with the Lord’s Prayer.

One Nation, Under Gods tells these stories of American slavery alongside less-familiar accounts. There’s the story of Handsome Lake, half-brother of a Seneca chief and prophet. After recovering from alcoholism, he reported experiencing “wondrous visions” and eventually composed a creation story and moral code based upon them. Called the “Good Word,” Handsome Lake’s code banned the consumption of alcohol and other immoralities. Some speculate that it later influenced another resident of upstate New York: Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism.

Manseau also documents the travails of the country’s immigrants, from early Jewish settlers to Sikh and Chinese workers in the Northwest, persecuted over racial and religious differences, and later the Japanese, imprisoned in internment camps during World War II for the actions of a country they’d already left.

As told in One Nation, Under Gods, these aren’t minor anecdotes. By placing them in a historical lineage with more familiar events like the controversy over Jefferson’s library, Manseau puts these stories, and the philosophical contributions of the people who lived them, on an important historical footing.

That directly contradicts the narrative promoted by the Religious Right. Fundamentalists prefer the fiction that the earliest Americans would be right at home at an event like the Values Voter Summit. Never mind, of course, that this erases a significant portion of American history; this revisionism doesn’t trouble them. In fact, it’s the goal. It is as much a political strategy as it is wishful thinking.

That’s exactly what makes Manseau’s book so relevant to advocates of secular government.

Although there’s a substantial body of work available to debunk the myth of Judeo-Christian America, these books typically focus on the beliefs of the Founding Fathers and other prominent white, European figures of the colonial era. That’s understandable, given the far-right’s tendency to exaggerate and even fabricate tales of piety for these men.

But the case for a pluralistic America is made even stronger when the stories of religious minorities are brought in from the margins and given the level of critical attention they deserve. It reveals the scale of the Religious Right’s falsehood and demonstrates just how unlikely it is that the architects of our democracy intended to privilege one religion over all others.

Thus, One Nation, Under Gods deals a fatal blow to the myth of America as a singularly Christian nation. It is a Christian nation, of sorts, but it has always been more than that. It is a Muslim nation and a Sikh nation and a Buddhist nation. Its religious legacy doesn’t just belong to the Puritans’ ideological descendants. It belonged to Handsome Lake and to those who followed his code, and to Joseph Smith, and those who still follow his.

It belonged to Avijit Roy.

America has never been the tidily fundamentalist society the Religious Right wants it to be. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, another quintessentially American figure, we contradict ourselves. We are vast and contain multitudes.

That is the real story of religion in America. The Religious Right’s version is a paltry imitation. Manseau’s book illustrates this with eloquence and rigor, and it is well worth a read.


Rob's Take:

The conflict between science and fundamentalist forms of religion is long-running. When religion and science clash, many people in the United States are quick to side with faith – even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

In his new book From Pulpit to Podium to Policy (United Writers Press, 145 pp.), Richard Tobias explores the threat to democracy posed by those who would elevate an absolutist faith over reason.

This short, crisply written tome examines issues such as the teaching of evolution in public schools, climate change and even the nature of self-governance. Tobias, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, is well suited to speak to the fundamentalist mind-set, and he warns that too many political leaders in the United States have repudiated science in favor of literalist interpretations of the Bible.

Tobias’ view is not optimistic. A society cannot simultaneously embrace an absolutist interpretation of religion and democratic values such as individual rights  and separation of church and state, he writes.

“If fundamentalism succeeds in forcing its absolutist agenda onto the rest of us, a cascade of destructive decisions is inevitable, the results of which will affect generations to come,” Tobias observes. “Individual freedom cannot persist where the absolutism of a few reigns, because freedom and absolutism are completely antithetical. The democratic experiment begun by our Founding Fathers will be destroyed, ironically at the hands of those whose ancestors came here seeking freedom from the strongly held religious beliefs of their countrymen.”

Readers will find From Pulpit to Podium to Policy an enlightening, if disturbing, discussion of the need for more critical thinking in America. The volume is available in print and e-book versions from Amazon.com. 

Rob Boston