More than thirty years ago, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a perceptive analysis of the American republic to which he gave the provocative title, The Irony of American History. Nowhere is this "irony of American history" more evident than in the role of religion played in a republic conceived and founded as a secular state. On the one hand, the important social and political role played by religion in American society has been widely recognized by both American and European observers throughout this nation's history. On the other hand, the United States has been frequently described as "the oldest secular state" and, indeed, "the most thoroughgoing, if not the only truly secular state." A few years after his book on American history, Niebuhr addressed this particular paradox in a volume of essays published under the title of Pious and Secular America, in which he argued that America was more secular than any other nation, but also was more religious.
To anyone unacquainted with American history, such affirmations would appear to be in conflict and totally irreconcilable. Any characterization of America as a secular state would suggest to many, in the absence of acquaintance with American history, that religion is in some way limited only to the private sphere and, therefore, isolated from the currents of American public life or the body politic that the role of churches and synagogues, as well as religion in general, is relegated to the essentially personal and private concerns of American citizens. Such an impression, however, would be completely contrary to the reality of the American experience.