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Sensitive Subjects

As we put the finishing touches on this issue, American History associate editor Sarah Cokeley joked that “our magazine is full of stories on two topics my mother banned from dinner table conversation—money and religion.”

When it comes to the history of this nation, those two subjects are unavoidable. The first Europeans who ventured to the New World were seeking freedom from religious persecution and they solemnly claimed their new home in the name of God. Others came for greedier reasons—they were looking for gold. Still others sought to build new businesses based on the continent’s rich forests, seas full of marine life and endless acres of fertile land.

Our nation’s founders, bent on trumping less powerful interests in Great Britain and Europe, invoked freedom as a right bestowed upon them by a creator. Then they established the first secular government in the world. One of the bedrock principles of freedom laid down in the Bill of Rights is that religion cannot be imposed upon anyone or denied anyone. Nonetheless, hundreds of years later, electing an atheist to the presidency is still unthinkable. Even George Washington, whose own attention to organized religion was weak, found value in religious teachings: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” he proclaimed in his Farewell Address as president in 1796, “religion and morality are indispensable supports.”