Peter Manseau is a novelist, journalist, and curator of the upcoming “Religion in Early America” exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. This interview is based on his new book One Nation Under Gods: A New American History (Little, Brown and Company, January 2015).
JF: What led you to write One Nation Under Gods?
PM: A few years ago the question of religion’s role in the creation of the United States was receiving quite a lot of attention. I followed these discussions, and read a few excellent books considering Christian influence in early America, including Steven Waldman’s Founding Faith, Thomas Kidd’s God of Liberty, and of course, John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? To further the discussion of religion’s role in American history, I wanted to gather a wide-ranging set of stories about other kinds of religious influence that can be seen from the beginning.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of One Nation Under Gods?
PM: Since its founding, the United States has undeniably been a majority Christian country, but demographics only tell part of religion’s role in our shared history. As it has through other aspects of culture – literature, art, music – America has been shaped through the minority influence of beliefs and practices on the margins of dominant religious views, despite frequently violent efforts to suppress this influence by the majority.
JF: Why do we need to read One Nation Under Gods?
PM: In the ongoing conversation about the place of conflicting religious ideas in American culture, it’s important to remember that these are not new questions. Many know this in theory, and perhaps have some awareness of arrival of Jews in New Amsterdam, or the presence of Islam among the enslaved, but what One Nation Under Gods tries to do is bring this diversity together into a narrative considering such moments central rather than peripheral to the American story.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
PM: Strictly speaking, I’m not an American historian. My doctorate is in religion, and as a writer I wear a number of hats (novelist, memoirist, journalist), though I do like to think the skills required of other literary genres helped me complete a character-driven narrative history like One Nation Under Gods. Yet though my academic training was not in American history, as someone who writes mainly about belief, it was probably inevitable that I would look to the rich territory of the nation’s multi-religious past.
JF: What is your next project?
PM: As I completed edits on this book, I realized there was a story I wished I’d included: the significant and mostly forgotten influence of spiritualism on nineteenth century America. To tell this story in a compelling way, I’m at work on a narrative history that uses a few colorful figures to describe how technology—electricity, photography, the telegraph—helped spread belief in communication with the dead well beyond mediums and table-rapping séance rooms. Like One Nation Under Gods, it’s an attempt to vividly portray the negotiation between the margins and the mainstream, though this time I’ll focus on the unexpected influence of just one set of unorthodox beliefs.