"The motto In God We Trust has been viewed by some as a backdoor attempt to get God into government."

Author Carpenter-Vascik has gathered factual material concerning the shaping of America, revealing it as a country that both upholds religious freedom and also one which, at times, has sought to deprive its own people of that freedom. The issue has run like a hidden river through much of our history. Our most storied settlers, the Pilgrims, a group from which we draw such folklore as the first celebration of Thanksgiving, fled from religious persecution in the Old World yet practiced it in regard to other groups.

Examining the events of early settlement times to the present day, the author presents an America that may not fit with our general idealism regarding religious tolerance. For example, Roger Williams who came here in 1630 soon got in trouble for preaching that government should not control religion. Exiled, Williams created a colony that welcomed people of all religions at a time when the state of Maryland was imposing the death penalty for Jews and atheists. The anti-Catholic sentiment was so deeply ingrained in our national psyche that it arose in the modern era when John F. Kennedy campaigned for president, feeding on paranoia about an “American Pope.” The Founding Fathers, the author suggests, were charged with a daunting task: to create a “national government” unlike any seen before, that would uphold religious freedom without establishing a religious rule.

Frankly picking apart the history we approve of and the history that has been purposely glossed over, Carpenter-Vascik provides a bold, refreshing viewpoint. For the first 100-plus years of our nationhood, for example, we regarded the largely Catholic celebration of Christmas in December with suspicion. Only in the late 1800s did most Americans begin to see the holiday as a harmless, joyful, and family-oriented commemoration. Religious loyalty oaths were once required for government office (and still are, in some states). Carpenter-Vascik sagely points out the paradox that mainstream Americans have often despised the Christianity of Catholics while at the same time hounding, harassing, and even executing those who did not believe in the Christian view of God, such as Mormons and Jews.

The author offers much material for study and organizes it in an erudite fashion, showing a strong historical bent and a talent for constructing sophisticated, thoughtful prose. She highlights the spiritual convictions and contributions of such disparate figures as Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, and Andrew Jackson. A lengthy appendix provides copious documentation in the form of speeches, letters and other materials from the framers of the Constitution (although, curiously, no footnotes are included).

Raised in a religiously mixed household (Catholic and Protestant), the author comes by her wish to clarify these issues from a rational perspective. It is her personal observation that immigrants to America have, from the beginning, brought a rich mix of cultures, customs, and beliefs “along with their many associated understandings and traditions” and that this constitutes a “fluid, ongoing process.” The author concludes that there will continue to be attempts to subvert the first amendment and establish Christian dominance in the US. But religion, she stresses, is above all a personal matter, and that may be its greatest strength.

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