Next to the First Amendment, then-President Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 has perhaps come to represent the most popular understanding of religious freedom in the collective mind of America. Because of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor, some would like the letter to pass back into the shadow of obscurity under which it rested prior to the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision. Others rejoice that the letter provides the lens through which religion itself is defined and applied in contemporary America. Jefferson’s famous metaphor is important, but it is a star drawing into its orbit the comet of our short attention span.
Then & Now
Religious historians take on the present
In the recent U.S. Supreme Court hearings on whether states have a constitutional right to ban (or refuse to recognize) same-sex marriages, the conservative justices seemed to be preoccupied with the definition of marriage. As Chief Justice Roberts stated, in response to advocate Mary Bonauto, “Every definition that I looked up prior to about a dozen years ago, defined marriage as a unity between a man and a woman as husband and wife. Obviously, if you succeed, that core definition will no longer be operable.” Whereas this and similar comments made during the hearing are perhaps true on their surface—marriage in the past has not been defined as a relationship between same-sex couples—such comments are misleading, suggesting that the definition of marriage has been unchanged “for millennia,” or disingenuous.
As the battle for the Republican and Democratic nominations for president begins to heat up, most candidates, especially GOP ones, are discussing their faith. Four likely contenders for the Republican nomination are Catholic—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal. Several other GOP hopefuls are evangelicals—Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson. Hillary Clinton, the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, has declared that the Methodist commitment to social justice directs her approach to politics. Should prospective voters care about candidates’ religious convictions?
One of the characteristic idiosyncrasies of Americans is that they are always fretting about their identity. They are a people constantly asking themselves, what does it mean to be a “real American”? There are certain literary figures we can instantly associate with the issue of American identity.
My hometown and my grandfather’s were the site of riots connected to race and law enforcement.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was the book of my youth. I didn’t grow up poor in Depression-era Alabama, but I identified with Scout as I read it several times in my teens. My childhood was a middle-class family in the integrated Bronx, but Scout and I shared a house full of books and a lawyer-father blessed with a firm, centering integrity. Later, studying journalism at NYU in the 1980s, I heard that if you wanted to learn what good writing was, read Mockingbird every year.
One hundred and fifty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln died after being shot the night before. That April 15 was the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
A decade ago, I was writing historical novels about black Latter-day Saints history. I was contextualizing the death of Mary Ann Adams Abel, wife of black LDS priest (ordained by Joseph Smith) Elijah Abel, and reading newspapers of the day. What stories were the people who attended Mary Ann’s funeral reading? The most interesting article (for me) was one published in the Deseret Weekly News on December 5, 1877—a week after Mary Ann’s death.
In March 1933, the United States stood on the brink of ruin. Twenty-five percent of the population was unemployed; many people had not worked for several years. The situation was even worse in cities with major industries, where unemployment surpassed the national average. Yet the real worry of the era cannot be captured by statistics alone.
Did Moses influence the founding of the United States? This historical question has generated controversy in Texas, where politicians, historians, and educators have recently debated whether Moses should be listed as an American founder in new social studies textbooks. It all began in 2010, when the Texas State Board of Education said that students needed to "identify the individuals whose principles of laws and government institutions informed the American founding documents, including those of Moses.”
You don’t normally see the names Pope Francis and Robin Williams in the same sentence, but here goes. Early in his career, the brilliant comedian and actor Robin Williams scored big with a performance called Reality—What a Concept. This wonderful play on words came to mind when I heard a few lines from one of Pope Francis’ talks during his visit to the Philippines earlier this year. They gained little attention, but are critical to understanding how he wants to enliven the church and the world. “Reality,” he told a large group of young people, “is superior to ideas.”
This past Saturday, President Obama spoke in Selma, Alabama, marking the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday"—the assault by Alabama state troopers on marchers from Selma to Montgomery for equal voting rights for African Americans. His speech is remarkable for many reasons, but one of the things I find really remarkable is that it ranks as a singular example of presidential exceptionalist rhetoric.
Between April 1831 and February 1832, two officials of the French government under Louis-Philippe toured Jacksonian America. These two officials—Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont—were on assignment to research prisons in the United States and later produced a report of their findings in 1833. But while traveling through America, Tocqueville and Beaumont were also carefully observing political and social life in the new republic. Both men published works on their observations. Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America (1835/1840) and Beaumont wrote a novel, entitled Marie or, Slavery in the United States (1835). Most Americans are familiar with Tocqueville’s work, but Beaumont’s novel is less well known.
In January, a measles outbreak at Disneyland caught the media’s attention. Over 114 cases appeared not only in California, but in six other U.S. states and parts of Mexico. Even though measles was officially eliminated from the United States in 2000, there have been more and more cases of the disease in the last seven years, with over 600 in 2014 alone. That year, one outbreak in an Amish community in Ohio included 383 diagnoses of measles. This particular religious community reconsidered its previous relaxed stance on vaccines. The Amish weren’t opposed to vaccination, but rather didn’t realize that measles was still such a threat to public health.