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Book Review: One Nation, Under Gods

By (January 30, 2015) No Comment

One Nation, Under Gods:one nation cover

A New American History

by Peter Manseau

Little, Brown, 2015

The often-overlooked fact that the United States is a country absolutely planted and steeped in religious faith lies at the heart of Peter Manseau’s latest and most prodigiously entertaining and thought-provoking book, One Nation, Under Gods. The book’s subtitle proclaims it “a new American history,” which it certainly isn’t and clearly isn’t intended to be; in reality, it’s something far rarer and more gripping: the spiritual biography of a country.

That biography lays bare the deeply dysfunctional psychology of a land colonized by layer upon layer of new religions, each far more hateful of the other than any of them was of sin or apostasy. The massive edifice of white, propertied Protestantism that eventually emerged as the dominant mode glowered at all rivals and upstarts, and Manseau, bless him, sees a light of hope in that fact:

However, it is that tension – between the marginal and the mainstream – that the nation so many faiths have come to call home has forged its commitment, clear on paper if not always in practice, to become a place where, paradoxically, belief matters both very much and not at all, because we have the right to believe as we please.

Through the bristling advocacies of lightning-rod figures like Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, through the revisited drama of the Salem witch trials and the alleged witch Tituba, through the surprising stories of Jewish and Hindu and Muslim, through the lurid eccentricities of that quintessentially American vaudeville, Mormonism, Manseau leads his readers into the combination of faith and fraud at the heart of the country’s psyche. It’s an enormous trove of material, and it’s uncanny how sure-footed Manseau is in avoiding the dull patches the subject seems to invite. As you read along, you can sense his amusement as he illuminates one great encounter after another, as in the case of Jacob Lumbrozo, a Portuguese Jew coming to the colonies in 1656, settling in Maryland and, in 1657, finding himself in a theological conversation with John Hoffsett, Josias Cole, and Richard Preston. He explains to them that in Jewish belief, the Messiah is just a figure anointed by God, not the Son of God the Christians proclaim:

This response already might have labeled the doctor a blasphemer, but his self-incrimination had only begun. As if springing a trap, Cole then peppered Lumbrozo with questions, eager to lead him into ever greater perdition.

“And what was he that was crucified at Jerusalem?”

“He was a man.”

“But then how did he do all his miracles?”

“He did them by the art of magic,” Lumbrozo said.

“How did his disciples do the same miracles after Jesus was crucified?”

The answer was apparently clear enough to Lumbrozo. Just as other, more experienced physicians had taught him the medical arts, surely one of history’s greatest practitioners of magic would teach his techniques to pupils eager to learn.

“He taught them his art,” Lumbrozo replied matter-of-factly.

(“In popular memory of these events,” Manseau perhaps unnecessarily points out, “it should be noted, the men are often depicted as well into their cups by this point.”)

He also tells with an appealing irony the story of Beverly minister John Hale, who in 1697 talked to a backwoods faith healer who’d injured himself:

During a mishap while chopping wood, he had cut halfway through his leg with an adz. He tied up the gash with cloth, recited the magic verses the crone had taught him, and was healed within days. When he recounted the words to Hale, the shocked minister found this backwoods healer “almost as ignorant in Scriptures as an heathen.”

And our gimlet-eyed de Tocqueville is good enough not to leave out the perennial congregational black sheep, the wretched unbeliever:

The colonial atheist was a boor, but he was also to be pitied. Compassionate souls would have nodded along to the quotations from Alexander Pope, likewise published in Boston in the 1730s: ‘An Atheist is but a mad ridiculous Derider of Piety.’ But one should try to keep their derision in perspective: “Atheists put on false Courage and Alacrity in the midst of their Darkness and Apprehensions,” Pope continued, “like Children, who when they go in the dark, will sing for fear.”

One Nation, Under Gods is a sparkling work and a very pleasingly playful one, just exactly the pitch of light but learned inquiry that the vexed question of religion in America desperately needs, and the embattled secular humanism at the book’s core is as refreshing as it is rare. “Though the epic of belief and unbelief in America seems from the start to be one of weaker faiths and unpopular ideas vanquished by those strong enough to impose and unpopular ideas vanquished by those strong enough to impose creeds and consequences as they see fit,” Manseau insists, “the more enduring theme in this saga is resistance.”