Are we a Christian nation? The religious affiliations of the new Congress certainly make it look that way. As our “representative” body, the Congress is 91% Christian, a figure only slightly below the 95% of lawmakers that called themselves Christian in the early 1960s.
Congress is certainly more diverse than that of fifty years ago, but it is nonetheless out of step with American demographics. The overall population is about 71% Christian. And most significantly, the unaffiliated or “nones” are one hundred times more prevalent in the general public (23%) than in Congress (0.2%).
Undoubtedly the tension between our Christian majority and the rise of the “nones” is a huge story. But another fact that pushes against the notion of America as a “Christian nation” is the underappreciated history of Jews and Muslims at the time of the founding of our country.
Many people know the famous letter of George Washington to the Hebrew congregations of Newport, Rhode Island. But not as many appreciate the presence of Jews in the early southwest. “Hidden Jews” populated New Mexico and Colorado, and families still tell stories of forebears that preserved Jewish identities and ritual practices centuries after fleeing the Inquisition. Some told stories of lighting candles on Friday nights without knowing the origin of the practice or avoiding pork because their grandmothers told them to. And some, even Latino Catholic priests, found clear genetic links to the Jewish heritage in their blood.
A current exhibit at the New York Historical Society, “The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World,” shows the influence of the relatively small number of Jews in early America. Its flashiest artifact comes from the southwest in New Spain: the autograph memoir of a 16th-century Jew named Luis de Carvajal the Younger. Carvajal learned from his father that he was Jewish and circumcised himself, calling himself a “member of the Hebrew nation and of the pilgrims to the West Indies.” Arrested for proselytizing, he was burned at the stake in 1596 at the age of 30. Leonard Milberg, the collector who spotted the manuscript on auction and rescued it from obscurity, wants “to show that Jews were part of the fabric of life in the New World.”
Muslims had an even stronger presence in early America, though that fact rarely makes it into our history books. Large numbers of African Muslims were brought to these shores as slaves. As Peter Manseau’s One Nation Under Gods argues, Muslims were here by the thousands and are the most suppressed religion in the history of our country. The founding era saw African princes in New Orleans and religious teachers who wrote Arabic on the walls of American jail cells. Geographically isolated communities off the coast of Georgia retained some Islamic traditions well into the 19th century or later.
But the individual identities of the vast majority of Muslim slaves in America are lost. Scholars estimate that between 10-30% of people brought as slaves from West Africa were Muslim.
Let that number sink in. And couple it with the observation of John Adams, who called the appearance of a Roman Catholic in his day “as rare as a comet or an earthquake.” In other words, during the first decades of our country, there were probably more Muslims here than Catholics. And that’s a story none of us Americans learned in school.