David Mislin is Assistant Professor in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University. This interview is based on his new book, Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of a Secular Age (Cornell University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Saving Faith?
DM: I’ve always been interested in exploring how people in the United States think about religious diversity in a democratic society. During grad school, I realized that many American Protestants in the late 1800s were far more welcoming of other faiths than historians have previously recognized. My desire to acknowledge these Protestants’ outlook – and to identify what prompted them to adopt it – led to Saving Faith.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Saving Faith?
DM: In the late 19th century, mainline Protestant clergy became more worried than ever before about unbelief and secularism. These anxieties led them to reevaluate their views of other faiths, ultimately inspiring them to adopt a favorable and inclusive view of religious diversity.
JF: Why do we need to read Saving Faith?
DM: How we deal with religious diversity continues to be central to American public life – just look at the rhetoric in the current presidential campaign. Saving Faith offers historical perspective on the origins of our current attitudes. More importantly, the book explores just how difficult religious pluralism can be. The figures in my book struggled to reconcile two commitments. On the one hand, they truly valued inclusivity; on the other, they believed in the validity of their particular form of Protestantism. This tension is still a reality for people of faith living in a pluralistic society. Although Saving Faith examines the past, readers will see clear parallels to contemporary discussions.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DM: During high school, I developed a strong interest in U.S. history. In college I became fascinated by the place of religion in American public life, especially the way that we discussed diversity in the aftermath of 9/11. It wasn’t until after college that I put these two interests together and decided to continue my studies with a focus on American religious history.
JF: What is your next project?
DM: I’m working on a new book project that traces how Americans have understood the concept of evil. I’m looking at the period from just before the Civil War through the present day. “Evil” is a word that’s employed constantly in political discourse and popular culture. In this book, I will offer a concrete analysis of what the term has meant in particular historical moments and consider how conceptions of evil have shaped American culture and politics.
JF: Thanks, David!