John Corrigan and Lynn S Neal, Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).  304 pp.. 978-0-8078-7118-8. Reviewed by Chris Beneke for the Journal of Southern Religion.

Histories of religious difference in the United States are generally cheerful tales.  They move from persecution to toleration and acceptance, from the brutal executions and sectarian conflicts of the seventeenth century to the multicultural pluralism of the twenty first.  This characterization may be truer of popular histories than academic work, which is considerably fonder of paradox and the disclosure of oppression.  Still, we were due for a corrective to the prevailing narrative, and Corrigan and Neal have delivered it.  The authors not only call into question the nation’s stated commitment to religious liberty; they also hint at the ways in which this commitment has itself abetted religious intolerance by obscuring its more subtle workings.  In a series of topical chapters devoted to the treatment of Native Americans, Roman Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and a host of other religious groups, Religious Intolerance in America carries readers from the earliest colonial efforts to stamp out dissent to late twentieth-century anticultism.  Each chapter includes a series of illuminating historical texts that offer a glimpse of the legal, ideological, and political contours of American religious intolerance.  These excerpted sources will prove useful to general readers, students, and serious researchers alike, who will surely discover some new and fascinating primary material.

"Along the way, Corrigan and Neal emphasize violence and violent rhetoric as constitutive and mutually reinforcing elements of intolerant white Protestant institutions and cultural forms."  


Corrigan and Neal’s volume vibrantly illustrates the sometimes conspicuous, but more often insidious ways, in which religious intolerance has shaped American life.  The early chapters are especially adept at tracing the theme of the biblically cursed Amalekites through the brutal efforts to “blot out” Mormonism and traditional Native American worship.  Along the way, Corrigan and Neal emphasize violence and violent rhetoric as constitutive and mutually reinforcing elements of intolerant white Protestant institutions and cultural forms.  The later chapters focus more centrally on the links between race, gender, and religion.  Corrigan and Neal argue that the nation’s trajectory of religious intolerance—especially what the author’s see as a tradition of theological conservatism, cultural insensitivity, and reactionary violence—reached its “culmination” (219) in the tragic 1993 siege and assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

The book is not without some flaws.  Corrigan and Neal’s preference for highlighting instances of religious intolerance in a book on religious intolerance is understandable.  Nonetheless, it might have been a richer volume if they had given more attention, for instance, to the careful, culturally sensitive reasoning of the U.S. Supreme Court in cases such as Yoder v. Wisconsin (1972) and Employment Division v. Smith (1990) where substantive provisions were made for the religious exercise of marginal groups.  These cases also demonstrate how majority standards and legal norms have been delicately balanced with the unequal burdens carried by minority religions.  Religious Intolerance in America also sometimes veers away from the historical and toward the political.  There is an unmistakable call to left-leaning political action and a discernible lack of sympathy for Christian conservatives—nor any mention of Islamic fundamentalism and its connection to September 11th—throughout the sections on modern America.  Moreover, by downplaying the expansion of religious liberties and massive increase in religious diversity since the middle of the eighteenth century (and by avoiding comparisons with other regions of the globe), the book makes it difficult to apprehend the relative weight of American religious intolerance.  Gauging by sheer numbers, there may be more anti-Semitic bigots in the United States today, and the web may allow them a wider platform to distribute their vitriol, but it is surely misleading to say that American anti-Semitism has “increased over time.” (169)

One of the universal tragedies of human existence is our inability to recognize injustice in our midst.  One lesser failing of our own age is the inclination is to compensate by discovering injustice in every social and political interstice.  On the first count, Religious Intolerance in America counts as a great success.  It represents a vital labor of both historical recovery and modern empathy, the kind of book that every liberal democracy requires.  While Corrigan and Neal might have better accounted for the narrowing scope and decreasing severity of religious intolerance in the United States, they have produced a unique and essential volume, and we will be better off because of it. 

Chris Beneke
Associate Professor of History
Bentley University

Volume XII, Table of Contents


Search The Journal of Southern Religion
This site was designed by Randall J. Stephens and is  maintained by Emily Clark. © 1998-2010 by
The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5253