As we drive from place to place Trail and I like to learn about our world by listening to college history lectures from The Great Courses. Our most recently completed series is American Religious History presented by Professor Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D. We’d had a preview of Dr. Allitt’s style in on of our American History lectures where he presented the modern history section of the course. He is actually a Brit and has a lovely disarming accent which gives great character to his presentation and a little of an outsider’s perspective on American History.
The course traces American religious tradition from the pilgrims to the founding of the country, and right up into the modern era. It is presented both chronologically and by topic so that you get both an overall arc of religious history in America as well as thinking on such critical topics as war and civil rights. Coming out of the course I have a much better understanding of the origins and underlying principles of America’s many protestant churches. Prior to this course, I was generally aware of each but not certain exactly what their take on Christianity was or how it came to be.
I am not a religious person myself, in so much as I don’t profess a faith. Yet I live in a culture steeped in religion and so I make it my business to understand religion as best I can so that I can have meaningful dialogs on the subject with others and better understand their perspectives. If you ever debated the idea of America being a Christian country, this is a course you really should listen to. The professor illustrates in great detail the spectrum of answers to that question. In law, it is expressly secular, and that reflects the rather secular nature of many of our most influential founding fathers, yet there is no denying America is deeply religious and Christianity is the preeminent faith that has very much shaped our history and culture. The beginning and end of the course remark on how a nation that is expressly secular, is at the same time one of the most earnestly Christian in the modern world.
I like to read the critiques of the courses after listening to them. While most are favorable to the course, some expressed they felt the professor short changed certain faiths (generally those of the reviewer). There were a few specific examples where they thought he’d given an unbalanced view, and in doing a little research I am inclined to agree. He favors entertaining anecdotes that cast some religious leaders in an unfavorable light when there is quite a bit more to the story. Even college professors have limited knowledge and a bias to keep the interest of their audience with colorful historical stories. Always be at least a little skeptical and take the time to research things that you find interesting in any course or article. None the less on whole I think professor Allitt is even-handed and genuinely respectful and fascinated with the range of religious expression, and more than anything admiring of the vitality of American religious belief.
For those of you out there, like myself, who are interested in the history of American agnosticism or atheism, I’m afraid you won’t find much here. The closest you will find is a discussion of how many of the founding fathers were of a deist/naturalist bent and how this dramatically affected the declaration of independence and the constitution. It also notes they badly miscalculated when they expected enlightenment views would undermine religious faith in America’s future and that nearly all predictions of the weakness of religion in America turned out to be very wrong each time they were proffered.