An Interview with Chris Beneke on The First Prejudice

Randall Stephens

About a week ago Paul blogged on Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda's, The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America (Univ. Pennsylvania Press, 2011). The edited volume, "presents a revealing portrait of the rhetoric, regulations, and customs that shaped the relationships between people of different faiths in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America. It relates changes in law and language to the lived experience of religious conflict and religious cooperation, highlighting the crucial ways in which they molded U.S. culture and politics." I recently caught up with Chris by email and asked him some questions about the project and the work being down on tolerance/intolerance.

Randall Stephens: What is the unifying theme of The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America?

Chris Beneke: Our title, The First Prejudice, plays on the popular understanding of religious liberty as the nation’s “First Freedom.” It also draws on the proposition that religion was initially the source of the deepest prejudice to afflict early Americans and the object of the first large-scale efforts to mitigate prejudice. We asked our contributors to be attentive to the distinguished and extensive historiography on church and state, but not beholden to it. The idea was to create a history of religious tolerance and intolerance that took into account a broader range of religious and cultural interaction than histories of religious liberty have traditionally done. For us, it presented an opportunity both to build a compelling new narrative of early American religious history-where religious differences are at center stage-and to develop a common set of reference points and questions that would frame more useful conversations about tolerance and intolerance in America.

Stephens: Why did religious tolerance develop in the West when and where it did?

Beneke: In a sense, it depends on what you mean by tolerance (I know it’s annoying when historians say that, but there, I’ve gone and done it). If you mean what Willem Frijhoff calls “everyday ecumenism,” or at least everyday cooperation and non-violence, then it’s very old indeed. Historians have been hard at work in the archives over the past two-plus decades, discovering that sort of tolerance in surprising places across medieval and early modern Europe. But as a commonly accepted ideal, as a stated commitment to some form of equality, and a legal practice that guaranteed a modicum of protection, tolerance is something that developed in the intellectual capitals of northern Europe during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And though I risk irritating my intrepid co-editor and some contributors by saying this, I think that it took hold in a much more fundamental and irrevocable way in the early national United States.

Stephens: When it comes to religious tolerance did the early United States differ all that much from Great Britain and western Europe?

Beneke: Here's the very short answer: official church establishments persisted across most of Europe into and beyond the twentieth century. In the United States, they did not. The U.S. may have maintained an unofficial Protestant establishment for many decades (via instruments such as the common law, public education, state religious tests.), but the fact that it was un-official and the fact that it was accompanied by substantive protections for free exercise, was critically important. For all the disingenuity involved, an un-official establishment was surely more hospitable toward religious minorities than almost any official establishment might have been. Maybe just as importantly, the commitment to disestablishment and religious liberty meant that the religiously intolerant had to explain themselves and find ways to wrap bigotry in the mantle of tolerance.

These factors have always kept American religious intolerance in check.

Stephens: How did particular religious groups or individuals "wrap bigotry in the mantle of tolerance"? Are you referring to anti-Catholic crusading in the mid-19th century?

Beneke: That’s a very good example. One common theme in American religious history is the excoriation and the marginalization of the allegedly intolerant, a point that John Corrigan and Lynn Neal have recently made well. Roman Catholicism is a prime example. Mormonism is another. More recently, it’s been Islam. Of course, as the controversies over burqas in France illustrate, we aren’t alone in this. In general, however, if you want to limit religious violence and religious discrimination, it’s better to have strong public norms in favor of tolerance, than not.

Stephens: It seems that the scholarly literature of tolerance/intolerance and the religious/irreligious roots of America's founding can't help but be tied to contemporary debates about church and state. Could you say something about the connection between the history being written on these subjects and the current debates about religion in American public life?

Beneke: I really hope that people who have a say in the decisions on these issues today-including judges and law clerks-will read The First Prejudice. But it would be a poorly prepared judge or law clerk that read only our book. As much as we sought to engage the literature on church-state relations, our conclusions were about seventeenth and eighteenth-century people who lived in a very different world.

Having said that, I think there are some scholars-notably Sarah Barringer Gordon and Tisa Wenger-whose recent books connecting religious studies and religious history to church-state issues resemble ours and do speak directly to larger questions about religion in modern public life. Steven K. Green and David Sehat have also expanded our appreciation for the subtle ways in which freedom can be limited, even under conditions of formal disestablishment. But our collective, comparative attention was focused on early modern Europe. It’s partly for this reason that The First Prejudice supplies a broader (if I were immodest, Randall, I would say “essential”) context for historians who are looking at the intentions of the founders and the political, cultural, and juridical legacies that developed thereafter. It’s just not possible to understand the reasoning behind the First Amendment, and similar provisions made in the states, without knowing a good deal about the contemporary meaning of religious liberty, the contours of religious interaction, the landscape of different faiths, and the social conditions that regulated relations between them. That’s what our contributors provided. Brilliantly.


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