Religious Intolerance in America

A Documentary History (2nd edition, revised and expanded)

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Editor(s): 
John Corrigan, Lynn S. Neal
  • Chapel Hill: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , February
     2020.
     360 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781469655628.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this revised and expanded edition of Religious Intolerance in America, editors John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal provide a crucial resource for correcting our understanding of the roles religion has played in intolerance in American history spanning from the 15th century up to the present day. Those teaching the American past and present in a variety of disciplines, including religious studies, history, English, sociology, and others will want to include this volume in their undergraduate survey courses and graduate seminars. The book should also inspire individual readers outside of the academy to better familiarize themselves with religious intolerance in the United States. It provides a multitude of primary sources from a variety of time periods that readers can wrestle with as they “combat [the] myths” that bolster religious intolerance “and the culture of hate they produce,” and provide a means for “remember[ing] our past in more accurate ways” (311).

The volume includes an introduction and ten chapters. The first chapter focuses on a specific period, colonial America, the next eight on religious communities throughout US history, and a final chapter on intolerance in the 21st century. The middle chapters cover intolerance against Catholics, Mormons, Native American religious traditions, Jews, “new” religions, and Muslims, among others. Each chapter includes an introductory section averaging around seven pages that sets the scene for the documents as a group and then the texts are broken off into smaller sections that are given about a paragraph each to tie them to their specific historical setting. Corrigan and Neal expertly navigate this difficult terrain, not only aware of the historical difficulties in explaining each of the documents but they are also sensitive to burdensome task at hand. As they put it, “those who unquestioningly believe in America’s success in achieving tolerance have no explanatory mechanism with which to understand religious intolerance” (311). It is their task, then, to provide this framework for their readers to tutor those unaware of religious intolerance in American history and demonstrate, through documents, that America has not been successful in rooting out intolerance.

This task was of paramount importance in 2010 with the publication of the first edition but has only become more crucial in the years since. This is especially true given the resurgence of white supremacy and many members and supporters of the Trump administration bolstering white supremacy and nationalism between 2015 and 2020 and beyond. The final chapter, “Wedding Cakes and White Supremacy: Religious Intolerance in the Twenty-First Century,” tackles the overt, but far more often now covert, religious intolerance of the first two decades of the 20th century. I say covert because, as Corrigan and Neal describe it, religious intolerance—especially rooted in white supremacy—has made its mark by its ability to subtly create communities of intolerance through its (ab)use of technology. Online spaces have become the meeting places of the religiously intolerant, fearful to share their intolerance more openly but feeling liberated on specific social media sites to not only be themselves but also find others with similar ideas and beliefs.

While there are some small issues I would note in the book, these do not distract from its overall force. For example, Corrigan and Neal call the massacre of Mormons at Haun’s Mill a “battle” on page 77, though they correctly call it a massacre two pages later. In this same section they say “[Joseph] Smith’s death” was “accomplished by a mob against an unarmed man” (78) although Smith had a six-shooter with him that he fired at the mob as they stormed his room. Still, the writing in this chapter accurately captures religious intolerance against Mormons in American history, especially in the 19th century, remarkably well. Students will learn a considerable amount about each chapter’s subject through both the editors’ words and commentary as well as reading the documents themselves.

For me, the most striking and memorable section came at the end as Corrigan and Neal situated Religious Intolerance in America in its contemporary setting. At times the editors’ writing shifts from being simply explanatory to a rousing, needed call to action. Because they are inviting the reader to examine religious intolerance, they note the compelling connection between religious intolerance and religious myth. Both are founded on narratives that, quoting David Bromley and Anson Shupe’s Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare (Beacon Press, 1981), purport “to be the ‘truth,’ so that ‘each individual story’ or accusation ‘reinforces the overall stereotype of the enemy, and the overall stereotype in turn makes each story believable’” (310).

According to Corrigan and Neal, “myths defy conventional notions of evidence” (310) and are therefore impervious to intellectual rebuttal. This framework is productive in analyzing a multitude of current issues that divide the United States today and understanding that it is within this mythological framework that many Trump supporters continue to support numerous positions, many directly connected to religious intolerance, that are not borne out by evidence. This is important because the connection to the Trump administration is explicit: the editors directly connect Trump to the rise in Islamophobia in the US over the last several years (279–286). Corrigan and Neal are to be commended for providing such a remarkable new edition of this volume at a critical point in American history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Colby Townsend is a doctoral student in English at Indiana University Bloomington.

Date of Review: 
August 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Corrigan is the Lucius Moody Bristol Distinguished Professor at Florida State University, where he chairs the religion department. He is author or editor of many books on American religious history and coeditor of the journal Church History.

Lynn S. Neal is assistant professor of religious studies at Wake Forest University and author of Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction (UNC Press).

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