One, Nation, Under Gods: a provocative new history of religion in America.

Author:Jones, Sarah E.
 
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One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau. Little, Brown & Co. 431 pp.

I finished One Nation, Under Gods the same week religious extremists hacked an atheist blogger to death in the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The murder of Avijit Roy is not obviously tied to Peter Manseau's religious history of the United States. But there is a common thread there: religious freedom.

In his native Bangladesh, Roy lived under constant threat due to his identity as an atheist. In America, he lived openly as a freethinker. He became an American citizen and contributed his ideas to the complex intellectual fabric of his new home country.

Religious freedom allowed Roy a secure life. The lack of it killed him.

Roy's story could have been pulled straight from the pages of One Nation, Under Gods. The book makes a compelling argument that America's religious past has largely been shaped by people living in the margins; that the contributions of America's indigenous inhabitants, its immigrants and its dissidents are responsible for the religious landscape that we know today.

Here, those contributions are collected together and recounted not as disparate events but as the building blocks of a common political heritage. According to Manseau, America is a land of syncretism, innovation and religious accommodation. It has always been far more than the Puritans' "shining city upon a hill."

There are some familiar stories here, too; Jefferson's deism is one. Manseau, however, goes beyond our third president's known skepticism of the supernatural and examines the controversy surrounding Jefferson's donation of his famous library to what is now the Library of Congress.

The source of the criticism? Aside from the expected volumes on statecraft, Jefferson's library included what Massachusetts' Rep. Cyrus King called "many books of irreligious and immoral tendency." Jefferson's interest in atheist French authors, namely Rousseau and Voltaire, especially enraged King, who deemed them to be "French infidel philosophers." Another congressman recommended burning the books to prevent the atheist contagion from spreading.

Congress eventually voted to approve Jefferson's donation (and the creation of the Library of Congress), infidel books and all. But the debate over Jefferson's books, and by extension, his ideas, is evidence that even in its infancy as a sovereign state, America was no religious monolith.

As befits a book about this nation's cosmopolitan...

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