We're coming a new context; when hasn't that been true of this youthful nation? And any emerging identity requires a new history. Over the last fifty years, women's histories, African-American histories, native histories and gay histories have intruded into our stories and reshaped our understanding of the past. Peter Manseau in One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History is offering us the raw material for a new religious history just as unsettling of old verities.
The book is episodic, eighteen loosely connected chapters about various religious eruptions in what for Europeans was a "New World."
Some are delightful such as the saga of Mustafa Zemmouri. Born a Muslim in North African Morocco where some religious interaction was traditional, he was enslaved by Christian Portuguese and Spanish adventurers and carried as a servant along on the doomed trek of the Spanish Narváez Expedition across what became Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, through modern Texas, and the desert Southwest, finally meeting up with other Spaniards in California. Only four of the original members survived; Zemmouri had become the indispensable intermediary with native peoples along the way acting as translator (language skills were good for slave survival?) and religious healer. Sent back north to guide some Franciscans, he seems to have taken off to join the Zunis. The Spanish telling of what followed has the natives killing him. But Manseau reports other possible endings:
Other chapters I'd characterize as entertaining include a depiction of 19th century women's rights activists participating in an infatuation with what they understood of Hinduism and an exploration how psychedelic enthusiasms intertwined with the anti-Vietnam war movement of the 1960s.
Of course much of the history of religion on this continent is not at all benign. Manseau characterizes the expansion of the Franciscan missions into California, the Christianizing of the "heathen," as "an American jihad" and he means to evoke something more like ISIS than interior struggle for right relationship to God. He recounts the early colonies' "Jew bills" restricting full rights to Christians, riots against Sikh laborers in Washington State, and the mixed story of Chinese exclusion and assimilation through which these workers preserved loyalty to ancestors and ancient places.
A book as ambitious as this one can be impressive; Manseau has obviously been researching for years and this does impress. But such a book leaves the reader wanting a narrative with less loose ends. That's normal when a new identity is coming into being. America the multi-religious is both old and effectually very new. We need a new past; this is a solid, necessary contribution to finding one.