Extensive series fills gaps in coverage of religion history

Sunday, November 15, 1998

“We can't teach much about religion in American history,” a Pennsylvania teacher told me last week.

Why not?

“Because it isn't in the textbooks, and there's nothing age-appropriate for our students to read.”

She's right. Beyond brief discussions of Native Americans and Puritans, most textbooks say little or nothing about the beliefs and practices of any other religious traditions. And after the Civil War, religion disappears almost entirely. Believe it or not, four of the most popular texts devote more space to railroads than to religion for the entire post-Civil War history of the United States.

Now, at long last, help is on the way. This month, Oxford University Press begins releasing a 17-volume series on Religion in American Life, written for students age 12 and up. Some of the nation's leading scholars have contributed to this series, which will help teachers and students fill the gaps left by inadequate textbook treatment of religion.

The first volume out is Church and State in America by Edwin Gaustad, one of the nation's most distinguished scholars of American religious history. It's a good place to start, since religious liberty is the key to understanding the role of religion in American society. Thanks largely to
the First Amendment, this nation is the most religious among Western nations, as well as the most religiously diverse in the world.

Soon to come will be volumes covering Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Orthodox, Muslims, Native Americans, Hindus, Buddhists and other faith groups in the United States. Specific topics such as immigration and African-American religion will be also be addressed in future volumes.

Once school and classroom libraries make this series available to students, there will be one less excuse for avoiding religion in U.S. history. Why is this important? Because students can't understand much about the development of our nation without understanding a good deal about religion.

The American Revolution, for example, isn't adequately understood without consideration of the First Great Awakening, part of what John Adams characterized as the change in “religious sentiments” that was “the real American revolution.” The story of immigration is incomplete and distorted without study of the central role religion played in the immigrant subcultures formed in America between 1880 and 1910. Study of the founding of African-American churches provides the best foundation for understanding Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and other developments in our history.

As these few examples suggest, study about religion isn't an “add-on” to an already overcrowded course. Much of American history is religious history. While the required topics and themes need to be taught , they should be taught in a different way. The Oxford series will make it possible for teachers to re-focus their teaching.

Use of the series shouldn't be confined to American history. Students in world history or geography can deepen their understanding of the religions t the heart of the world's cultures and civilizations by reading the volumes on the various faith groups. Literature teachers will find that all the volumes provide historical context for major American literary works. Primary source documents such as sermons, memoirs, letters, poems, and songs, found throughout the series, are great resources for the study of American literature.

Beyond the required curriculum, these books would make excellent texts for elective courses. The three chronological volumes, covering the religious history of the United States from the colonial period to the present, could serve as the basis for a course in Religion in American History.

Other courses — Religion in America or World Religions in America — could be designed using all or some combination of the volumes on the various faith traditions.

Religious people, ideas, events, and movements, from the colonial period to the present, have been at the heart of the American story. Without understanding the role of religion, we don't understand our history — or one another. The Oxford series gives schools a new opportunity to ensure that we can do both.

For more information about the series Religion in American Life, contact Oxford University Press, 198 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016-4313.