I am looking forward to reading Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda’s new edited book, The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America (U of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). They have put together a nice group of authors to reflect on this question, including my own graduate school mentor/advisor, Ned Landsman.
Over at Religion in American History, Randall Stephens interviews Chris Beneke about the book. Here is a taste:
Stephens: It seems that the scholarly literature of tolerance/intolerance and the religious/irreligious roots of America’s founding can’t help but be tied to contemporary debates about church and state. Could you say something about the connection between the history being written on these subjects and the current debates about religion in American public life?
Beneke: I really hope that people who have a say in the decisions on these issues today-including judges and law clerks-will read The First Prejudice. But it would be a poorly prepared judge or law clerk that read only our book. As much as we sought to engage the literature on church-state relations, our conclusions were about seventeenth and eighteenth-century people who lived in a very different world.
Having said that, I think there are some scholars-notably Sarah Barringer Gordon and Tisa Wenger-whose recent books connecting religious studies and religious history to church-state issues resemble ours and do speak directly to larger questions about religion in modern public life. Steven K. Green and David Sehat have also expanded our appreciation for the subtle ways in which freedom can be limited, even under conditions of formal disestablishment. But our collective, comparative attention was focused on early modern Europe. It’s partly for this reason that The First Prejudice supplies a broader (if I were immodest, Randall, I would say “essential”) context for historians who are looking at the intentions of the founders and the political, cultural, and juridical legacies that developed thereafter. It’s just not possible to understand the reasoning behind the First Amendment, and similar provisions made in the states, without knowing a good deal about the contemporary meaning of religious liberty, the contours of religious interaction, the landscape of different faiths, and the social conditions that regulated relations between them. That’s what our contributors provided. Brilliantly.