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The United States remains the most religious nation in the industrialized world, according to an international survey. Yet the government’s national museum complex, the Smithsonian Institution, has never mounted an exhibition on how faith played out in the cradle of the country. Its National Museum of American History will address that omission two summers hence, when it opens Religion in Early America, an exhibition that will boast priceless artifacts as well as a BU pedigree.
The exhibition’s guest curator, Peter Manseau, is a scholar and author who was an administrator in the College of Arts & Sciences religion department for two years in the early 2000s. Assisting him is Stephen Prothero, a CAS religion professor, the primary academic advisor to the Smithsonian’s broader initiative in religious education, which was inspired by Prothero’s work on the PBS series God in America and his writings on religious literacy.
Manseau’s backstory is worth its own exhibition. The son of a censured Catholic priest who refused to resign despite marrying a nun and fathering children—a story Manseau recounted in his memoir Vows—he says the exhibition will aim to hit three marks in educating the public: religious “diversity, freedom, and growth” in colonial and early America.
The diversity leg will surprise those who assume non-Christian religions are a modern arrival on these shores. Among the display items will be an Islamic text written by a Muslim slave in Georgia. “Many of the slaves who came from West Africa…were Muslims,” although many were forced to abandon their practice, Prothero says. Other items will include George Washington’s christening gown; Roger Williams’ compass, used by Rhode Island’s founder to find his way there after his banishment from the Massachusetts colony over theological disagreements; the Bible on which Washington swore the presidential oath; the Jefferson Bible, famously shorn by the third president of all passages referring to miracles; and a Revolution-era Torah scroll.
For all the country’s religiosity, then and now, Prothero sees a countercultural aspect to the exhibition. “I think there’s nervousness in almost all public institutions now around religion—whether it’s public schools, public universities, or national museums—that it’s a kind of hot-button issue with all the culture wars stuff going on.” Focusing on the republic’s early days sidesteps modern controversies, he says: “You’re not having to talk about Jerry Falwell.” Yet it might still remind people of the debate between the religious right, whose members insist that the United States was founded as a Judeo-Christian nation and has strayed from God, and those who say the Enlightenment-inspired, mostly Protestant founders consciously erected barriers to the religious antagonisms that had torn Europe for centuries.
This debate leads to what Prothero hopes will be the crucial takeaway from the exhibition: “Religion matters. Whether you’re religious or not, whether you think religion is stupid, whether you think God exists, is irrelevant. Religion has a huge impact on personal lives, but also on politics, economics, history.”
By focusing on individual Americans and their religious objects, Manseau says, “we hope visitors will learn that the story of religion in early America was not only about churches and worship, but about individuals, communities, and beliefs and practices that influenced every aspect of life.”
For a prolific author like Prothero, whose most recent book is The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation, working on a museum exhibition—which seeks short, fact-based descriptions of its objects—was a departure from the freedom afforded by books to expound at length and to be opinionated. “When you have a card over an object, you might have 40 words,” he says. “You can’t get into a whole lot of Christian nation debate.”