Religious Pluralism and the American State

This fall I’ll be teaching a university writing seminar titled ‘Religious Pluralism and the American State’. I’ve made the syllabus available online and I’ve put up a basic course website.

Here is the course description:

Two of the most pressing questions about American religion and its public role are intertwined: how should religions relate to one another, and how should religions relate to the state? In this class you will take up these two questions through the historical analysis of texts about the interactions of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, and Native American religions with one another and with the federal and state governments. You will investigate how law has regulated the public sphere and the civil square in which religious interactions take place, but also how religious actors have driven those interactions. We will trace the history of American pluralism, from the fact of diversity in eighteenth century to the idea of pluralism in the twenty-first century. Because this is a writing seminar, you will write three essays: one expositing a document about a religious conflict, a second interacting with other historians’ interpretations, and a third based on original research into religious conflict.

I’m looking forward to the reading list for the course. We’ll be reading most of three great books: Steven K. Green’s The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America, David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom, and William Hutchison’s Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal.

But I’m mostly looking forward to teaching the primary sources, which range from eighteenth-century texts such as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and John Leland’s The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, to nineteenth-century texts such as essays by Isaac Mayer Wise in the Occident and court cases about blasphemy, polygamy, and Bible reading, to twentieth-century texts about Jehovah’s Witnesses, drugs, and the ministerial exception. (I try to bring the course right up to the present by using Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.) There are a lot of ‘echoes’ in the texts: for example, James Madison’s ‘Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments’ is quoted in several of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts, and the question of school prayer and Bible reading comes up again and again.

I think the problem of how an open society can both permit wild religious diversity and full religious expression is one of the most crucial questions facing our democracy. I hope this course will be a small contribution to helping the students and myself think through the question.