The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America (UPenn, 2011); with Christopher S. Grenda and David Nash, Profane: Sacrilegious Expression in a Multicultural Age (University of California, 2014); and with Christopher S. Grenda, The Lively Experiment: Religious Toleration in America from Roger Williams to the Present (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015). More recently he has been working on the First Amendment's religious clauses (his Free Exercise is forthcoming with Cornell University Press, exp. 2016). In addition to that Chris has also written for The New Republic, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Huffington Post, and The Christian Century.
Randall Stephens: When and why did you decide to study American religion?
Chris Beneke: When I began graduate school, I thought I’d be studying political history, or the history of political thought. That plan didn’t survive my first semester. I got hooked on religious history while reading Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan. At some point during that same year, it occurred to me that many of the most illuminating questions about politics and social life in eighteenth-century America had been raised by people whose answers were often religious. I then a wrote an undistinguished master’s thesis on an obscure eighteenth-century clergymen. It was not auspicious, but it was a start.
I should confess that I don’t actually call myself a religious historian. During graduate school, I described what I did as intellectual history. I don’t do that anymore—it takes too much explaining. It also sounds pretentious. But I’m not exactly a religious historian either. I usually describe myself as a historian. If pressed, I say that I study religious toleration. That usually brings the conversation to an amicable close.