Charles L. Cohen is the E. Gordon Fox Professor Emeritus of American Institutions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he directed the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions. Winner of the Society of American Historians' Allan Nevins Prize as well as several distinguished teaching awards, he studies early American history, American religious history, and the braided history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He is a coeditor of Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America (2008); Theology and the Soul of the Liberal State (2010); Gods in America: Religious Pluralism in the United States (2013); and The Future of Interreligious Dialogue: A Multireligious Conversation on Nostra Aetate (2017). The Abrahamic Religions: A Very Short Introduction, covering the braided histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, appeared in 2020.
How religion is lived and expressed publically in the United States is adjudicated by an ever-changing framework configured by the Constitution, the political institutions that flow from it, and a religious culture that hugely values religious freedom while also being inflected by various claims that the United States is a Christian nation. These conditions create a central dilemma: are there circumstances in which religious beliefs and the practices that issue from them make a group seem incapable of being good citizens—even though the nation’s basic values would seem to preclude religious identity as a condition of citizenship? The United States has been defined in various ways as a “Christian nation”; is it? And, if so, how do Jews and Muslims—whose understandings of such things as sacred space, sacred time, food, and the religious meaning of the state, can be quite different from those of Christians—fit into American society? Does religion create potential fault lines around these things, and, if so, how? American political and culture systems can generally handle most differences, but a few issues are explosive—particularly those that question whether a group’s religion precludes its becoming loyal to the United States, i.e., becoming American citizens.