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 questions by studying 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 read primary and secondary sources about the American Revolution and disestablishment, moral reform, temperance, and abolition, polygamy the school system, pacifism, civil rights, and political movements, ranging from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century.

An anti-alcohol pledge from a moral reform society; Thomas Jefferson’s gravestone mentioning the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom; Thomas Whall, a Catholic student who refused to recite a Protestant prayer at the Elliot School in Boston.
An anti-alcohol pledge from a moral reform society; Thomas Jefferson’s gravestone mentioning the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom; Thomas Whall, a Catholic student who refused to recite a Protestant prayer at the Elliot School in Boston.

Learning goals

After taking this course, you will

  • understand the recurring conflicts between religions and the state in the United States, and so reflect on what religious identity and practice means;
  • be familiar with the main events of American religious history and be able to relate them to American political history;
  • be able to read historical documents closely and connect them to the writings of historians.

How to succeed at this course

This course will make two main demands on you. The first is to think about the big-picture relationship between law and religion in the United States. The first class will introduce you to the main grounds of interaction between religions and the state, then subsequent classes will introduce you to many details. Your job is to think through the connections from one class period to the next. The second job is to learn the skills of a historian: to pay close attention to sources from the past and to bring those sources into the conversation that historians are having about the past. The assignments in this course are designed as a sequence to help you learn these skills, and you will have a chance to do each of them more than once. Your best strategy for succeeding in this course is to do all the readings so that you can make connections between them, and to work on your written assignments as a sequence that will lead you to deeper historical understanding.

Required texts

I suggest that you purchase the following books, available from the campus bookstore and doubtless elsewhere. Almost all of the remaining readings will be available in the university libraries.

  • Gordon, Sarah Barringer. The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-674-04654-2.
  • Green, Steven K. The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash that Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-19-982790-9.
  • Noll, Mark A. God and Race in American Politics: A Short History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-691-14629-4.
  • Sehat, David. The Myth of American Religious Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-019-538876-3.