The history of religion in the United States before and after it became a constitutional republic is fascinating, at times strange, inspiring as well as embarrassing and, far too often, unknown among many Americans.
There's now a new chance to fix that last problem. And that's to read Bryan F. Le Beau's terrific new A History of Religion in America. Although it's done in two volumes, it totals roughly just 400 pages and is tightly written though with lots of footnotes for extra reading if this or that subject interests the reader.
This is a sweeping story by a local historian and teacher. Le Beau is retired from the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth. He was a professor of history, provost and vice president for academic affairs there. He now teaches an occasional course at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
In this kind of effort, as he acknowledges, it's impossible to touch on every single development or trend. Among the things he misses, for instance, is the founding of Unity, the alternative Christian (some would say "Christianish") movement with international headquarters in the Kansas City area. But the essential outline of the story of religion in America is here, often in intriguing detail.
Because I write about religion, I've read quite a few histories of Christianity and other faith traditions. What I found especially interesting about Le Beau's work is discovering details I didn't know and accounts of movements about which I knew almost nothing.
That discovery process began early in the first volume's treatment of "Native America religion," which Le Beau quickly acknowledges should be "Native American religions," plural. That's similar to anyone writing about "First Century Judaism," which really should be "First Century Judaisms," to take note of the several approaches to that tradition that existed then.
The rapidity of change is made clear in these books, too. For instance, Le Beau writes that "Before 1690, 90 percent of all congregations in Colonial America were either Congregationalist. . .or Anglican. . . By 1770, only 20 percent of all congregations were Congregationalist and 15 percent Anglican." The country's early years, in other words, were full of movement and even surprise -- not unlike religion in America today.
The various revivals and "Great Awakenings" that took place in America's early centuries also helped change the religious landscape. In fact, in the half century after independence, Le Beau writes, quoting another scholar, "the overall rate of religious adherence, the percentage of the population that belonged to a church doubled from 17 percent to 34 percent. . ."
And you, like many others, may have believed that almost everybody in early America's history was deeply attached to a religious congregation. Just not so.
Across these pages we learn about the religious roots of slaves (some were Muslim); the growth of the anti-slavery movement and how people of faith played various roles, both for and against slavery; the effect of the Civil War on religion in a reunited nation; the creation of native-born religions, such as Christian Science, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormonism; the ways immigration changed the religious landscape, including the often-opposed presence of Catholics; the development of the Social Gospel Movement; Fundamentalism's rise; the stark effect World War I had on people of faith who had wrongly imagined humanity was perfectible; the shock of the Holocaust and America's tepid response to it; the role of religion in the Civil Rights Movement; the post-war decline of Mainline Protestant denominations; how clergy helped lead the anti-war movement in the Vietnam era, which I wrote this recent column about; the growing political presence of conservative Christians; the rise of the religious unaffiliated; the growing interfaith movement, and on and on.
It's really a breath-taking story and it shapes who we are today as Americans. This is an important primer. I wish every high school senior were required to read it.
* * *
WHY GOD PUNISHES US WITH HURRICANES
And now for something completely different: This bit of animated satire to help you understand why God uses natural disasters to punish humans for, uh, well, doing stupid stuff, at least stuff that's stupid in the eyes of Pat Robertson. Warning: Occasional "adult" language and thinking.