Glenn Beck, Cotton Mather, Jenny McCarthy (Reuters/AP/Wikimedia/Chris Keane/Fred Prouser)

"The same rhetoric you hear from religious anti-vaxxers today are the arguments made against Cotton Mather": Peter Manseau

Tracing the surprising roots of American religious history with the brilliant scholar Peter Manseau


Michael Schulson
March 8, 2015 1:30AM (UTC)

Did an Iroquois prophet named Handsome Lake inspire the Book of Mormon? Why were British intelligence agents so concerned about Yiddish during the American Revolution? Did the American Muslim population peak around the year 1810? Why were there so many Sikhs in the lumber mills of the Pacific Northwest, circa 1905?

These are almost certainly questions you’ve never thought to ask. But they all touch on serious topics in American history. And they’re barely a sampling of the issues that come up in “One Nation, Under Gods,” the latest book from the novelist, memoirist and religious historian Peter Manseau.

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There are those who say that America is a Christian nation. As Manseau demonstrates, it’s more accurate to say that we’re a country defined by syncretism—the mingling and melding of practices from different religious traditions. In “One Nation, Under Gods,” Manseau lays out an unexpected history of the United States, in which Muslim explorers, Chinese temple-builders, Hindu philosophers, Shinto soldiers, Ouija-board-wielding hippies and those Sikh lumbermen shape the ideals of a nation, right alongside the familiar Protestant founding fathers.

Reached by phone at his home in Annapolis, Maryland, Manseau spoke with Salon about 18th-century atheists, Puritan anti-vaxxers and whether the United States would be better described as a Hindu nation.

So, how misleading is it to say that the United States is a Christian nation?

One way to approach the question is [through] demographics. And so yes, in a sense we are a Christian-majority country. But we’re also a country that’s influenced by the diversity of other ideas that have always been part of the American story. In writing this book, what I really tried to do is tell the other stories that are left out of that description of America as a Christian nation.

I have a degree in religious studies, but so much of this history was just completely new to me. A lot of the stories in this book have seldom been told.  

I didn’t know them until I went to go looking for them. The stories that we learn about American history all through elementary school, through high school and even beyond, they tend to focus on the Christian influence. I like to use the example of Christopher Columbus. When we think about that image of Columbus, we imagine him striding onto the shore of an island and planting a cross, claiming everything that will become America for Christendom.

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The symbolism of the story is so powerful that when we think about American origins, we can’t help but think of those stories, and yet that leaves out the vast population, not only of those who were here when Columbus arrived, with their own very specific religions, but the religious outliers who traveled with them, [such as] the secret Jews who were known to be among his shipmates.

The challenge of writing the book is that it asks us to question the assumptions of what we think we understand about American history.

What do you think are the most pervasive of those assumptions?

The one that I come back to a number of times in the book is this notion that, in John Winthrop’s [phrasing], we are founded to be a “City upon a Hill,” and that’s what the American enterprise is all about. This metaphor travels down to American history, mainly in the rhetoric of presidential campaigns.

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To me that sort of crowds out all the other interesting stories. Most of those early colonists came here for religious reasons—to live out the types of Christianity that they wanted to live. But traveling with them, and often brought with them by force, were all these other traditions living in the shadows of that City on the Hill. So in Puritan Boston, for example, they had a labor force of African slaves who had no part in this notion of the City on a Hill. They brought their own religious traditions.

At one point, around 20 percent of Africans brought over as slaves were Muslims. As a result, you estimate that the United States population in the early 1800s would have been about 5 percent Muslim.

It was a population that completely disappears as it is absorbed into majority culture. [But] you can’t have a minority culture absorbed into the majority culture without both being changed.

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There was a Christian missionary whose work it was to be an evangelist on slave plantations. He complains that among the Muslim slaves, many of them are blending their Christianity and their Islam. He complains that they’re saying, “Well, once we talked of Muhammad, but now we talk to Jesus. Once we spoke of Allah, and now we must talk of God.” It’s creating a syncretism—which I think is mostly overlooked—through this tradition that was fully suppressed throughout American history.

Why do you think so much of that history has been suppressed in our national imagination?

I think the story of syncretism, which to me is the real story of American religion, is a difficult story to tell. We’re talking about traditions that move underground. These are unofficial traditions that don’t necessarily happen in churches or temples. They happen in homes, they happen in forests or in the streets. So these are traditions that are unfolding for the most part outside of official histories.

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One of the most fascinating sources of information that I came across was this collection of African-American folk practices that was gathered by an amateur ethnographer. He would go off into the field and collect all these ideas about beliefs and spells that people were performing. Often these practices are dismissed as being folk magic or just superstition. But to me they should be thought of as a religious impulse existing outside official bounds of religion. To me they are a religious impulse of people without the power of organized religion. I think that the stories we remember are almost necessarily related to power, related to those with the authority to tell stories, or those considered [to have] the authority to tell stories.

Where do you go digging for those suppressed stories? How many of them are lost?

Well, you go digging for them by trying to read between the lines. So for example, the story I just mentioned about the Christian missionary on slave plantations: He did not write a text called “I Discovered Islam on Slave Plantations”; he wrote a text called “The Religious Instruction of the Negroes.” You go through and you read texts like that and you try to find information that is presented as an exception or a footnote, and you ask, “Well, is it possible that this is not so much an exception, but this was the norm for a certain part of the culture, a certain ignored part of society?”

What’s one story that particularly surprised you?

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Ideas and beliefs move between individuals. One story that illustrates that idea, and that I like quite a lot, is the story of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his eccentric aunt, Mary Moody Emerson. She happened to meet somebody who had recently been to India and regaled her with Indian mythology. And she, as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mentor when he was an adolescent and then while he was in college, wrote to him with great excitement about what she learned about the Hindu god Vishnu, and what relation it might have to Christian revelation.

This is a very early introduction of Hindu religious ideas to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who then filtered out these ideas through the Transcendentalist movement, tapping Henry David Thoreau, whom he actually lent a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. Thoreau brings that copy to Walden Pond and he writes that “the pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.” You find that Hindu influence turning up in writers of the same generation, including Herman Melville. That great American novel, "Moby-Dick," is in some ways a great Hindu novel. It’s obsessed with this idea of the whale as being an avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu, the same God that moved Mary Moody Emerson to write to her nephew.

I am fascinated by the way these ideas move from person to person and filter out through a larger culture.

So, in some ways are we a Hindu nation?

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If you read Melville, you might think we are. America has stood as a symbol in so many different religious traditions that you could have a Hindu interpretation of America, a Buddhist interpretation of America. They live in a nation in which they are welcome, in which they are valued, we hope. It is as much a Hindu nation or Buddhist nation as it is a Christian nation.

Speaking broadly, to what extent are we a religious nation?

The idea that religion was good for society was taken for granted by everyone among the founders. So the question was, if it is good for society, how do you encourage it? The way the founders determined that religion would be encouraged was that if you mostly leave it alone, it’s going to fend for itself pretty well. One way to answer the question of whether or not we are a Christian nation is that in fact we are not, but it’s mainly because Christians didn’t want it to be.

Do you think we should teach more about religion in schools? How should religious history be brought up in school curricula?

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I try to tell the stories of individuals—of particular people with particular problems. I like to think that’s the best way to think and teach about religion, through individual experiences rather than through denominational histories. Focusing on individual concerns is, I think, the way to talk about the complications of belief. Because that’s how everyone lives the complications of belief, in their own personal lives. How do I make sense of this for myself in relation to history, and in relation to the community of which I am a part?

Religious ideas are still mingling with each other and crossing boundaries, even if we like to imagine faith existing in these sealed little categorical boxes. Where do you see this syncretism in the present?

I try to take seriously the ways in which religious ideas or religious symbols show up in the broader culture. For example, Buddhists are a very small religious group in terms of their actual numbers; it’s estimated there are only about a million Buddhists in the United States. It’s less than one percent of the population. But I’ve seen all these surveys that suggest that the number of people who claim the Buddha as a teacher they revere, or as someone who spiritually inspires them, is easily more than ten times that number.

That is a perfect example of a minority religious tradition having an influence on the larger culture around it. These are the ways religious ways move between subcultures and the larger culture. I like to take seriously even the kitsch elements of the ways in which religious ideas move within culture. You can find a dozen different varieties of Buddha statue now at a place like Home Depot.

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Do you think that religious ideas and religious symbols move differently around our culture today than they did hundreds of years ago? Or is there a certain constant in how syncretism takes place?

Certainly we’re exposed to many more religious ideas now than we would have been. And I think that inevitably changes the speed at which someone may change their religious identity or development, and drop what they had known before.

But it has always been there. One story I give in the book is about Cotton Mather, who was among the most important Puritan preachers of his day. It was taken for granted by Puritan society that you do not treat illness. You simply found out what sin had brought about the wrath of God, and you atoned for that sin and hoped for the best. During a time of smallpox epidemic in Boston, Cotton Mather asked his African-born slave if he had ever had smallpox, and the man described a process that seemed like a rough version of inoculation.

As Mather learned more and more, he discovered that other African-born men and women in the city of Boston had been exposed to this practice. This practice was often as much a religious ritual as it was a medical procedure. And it was part of an entire religious world-view which you could interact with the will of the divine, and you could even change it based on human action. And this was entirely counter to what Cotton Mather thought about as an orthodox minister. When he was exposed to this idea, he began saying, well, this might be a way forward for our community. It’s another example of a majority culture being formed, being reshaped by the minority culture that is around it.

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Mather’s adoption of this basic inoculation technique also inspired our country’s first anti-vaxxers, right?

Right. It’s a funny connection. The exact same rhetoric that you hear from religious anti-vaxxers today are the arguments made against Cotton Mather. You can find it on anti-vaxxer websites, that vaccines are against God because they are working against God’s will. And this is exactly what people said to Cotton Mather about inoculations.

Some things don’t change, do they? We’re not as different from the past as we often imagine we are.

I think that’s definitely true. In some ways, the book is a chronicle of the changes that have occurred through all the influences of these minority traditions throughout American history. But in every chapter I like to think it’s about the same set of questions and challenges. Those questions and challenges, of being somebody in a minority tradition within a majority culture, they are pretty much the same.

One particular religious trend that is often portrayed as new—and, to some people, terrifying—is the rise of atheism and the religiously-unaffiliated “nones.” Are the nones as new as we imagine?

Well, we tend to think about early American history as being pious and very Christian. But when you go back and look at some early chronicles of what it was actually like in colonial America, you remember that though there were cities, there also were people spread way out in the countryside. They didn’t have a church to go to, they weren’t part of the community, they were just kind of living their life. They were largely indifferent to religion.

Religious indifference is part of American culture from the very beginning, as well as atheism. Atheism starts off in the colonial era as being a real insult. To call someone an atheist was to question their moral rectitude. But what happens as Enlightenment ideas filter into America is that people start to equate atheism not only with standing against religious authority, but standing against the crown, because church and crown were inseparable. So “atheist” takes on this ring of the enlightened intellectual, and ends up being a patriot, someone who’s willing to stand up to any authority, whether it be religious authority or royal authority.

Do you think there is something unique about our particular moment in American history and American religious history? Where are we headed?

One does not write a 500-year history, which “One Nation Under Gods” is, and not just feel that we are more of the same. A number of the themes have endured. The players changed, the ideas involved changed, but many of the themes endure. And this is a process without a real endpoint. There’s no telos or destination for what we’re doing in the American experiment.


Michael Schulson

MORE FROM Michael Schulson

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