This book was originally written in 1982, just after the election of Ronald Reagan, when religion was still a subject that Americans, both Democratic and Republican, could respect. Liberals still recognized in Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Berrigan brothers examples of the progressive role religion had played throughout American history. Conservatives understood that our culture’s institutions and values were built on a Christian foundation. But with the election of Reagan and the rise of the religious right as a political force in American public life, what split there was widened into a chasm. To acknowledge the positive role of religion in American life, as in the abolitionist movement, marked an historian as a member of the religious party. The emphases in academia in those days was on the divisions that tore us apart, not on the continuities that held us together.
Yet, there is an argument to be made, whether one is personally religious or not, that religion has played an important role in shaping our nation. All such arguments are not part of some “Christian Identity” movement trying to prove that we are and always have been a “Christian nation” in which certain Christians, but not all, deserve a privileged part. Perhaps now in the 21st century we are ready to recognize the role of religion, both good and bad, and in doing so build a bridge across that chasm.
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