In an important sense, I have been working on this book my entire life. It is no exaggeration to say that my life has been characterized by increasing exposure to religious diversity over time. During my forty-eight years as an observer of American religion, I have increasingly come to recognize the role of religion as a source of personal and communal identity as well as of interpersonal and political conflict. My personal and intellectual life has been characterized by increasing exposure to religious diversity, which in turn has shaped the ideas presented in this book.
I spent the first decade of my life in the comfortable ethnic and religious homogeneity of Chicago's southwest side. The city's Garfield Ridge neighborhood was uniformly white, Polish, and Catholic and was dominated by the benign omnipotence of St. Daniel the Prophet parish. My week, and that of everyone I knew, was organized around religious observance: novena 1 on Friday night, confession on Saturday night, and Masses on Sunday morning and the first Friday morning of every month. On Wednesday afternoon, Kinzie Elementary School emptied ninety minutes early, and the Catholic students who were enrolled in public school marched the three blocks to St. Daniel's, to take CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) classes under the supervision of the nuns. I later learned that this practice was upheld by a Supreme Court ruling stating that such released time was not a violation of the Establishment Clause. I played baseball in a league organized by the parish. The older kids went to dances sponsored by St. Daniel's—apparently designed to minimize the likelihood of an unfortunate marriage.
The Catholicism preached and practiced at St. Daniel's was of the pre-Vatican II, nonecumenical variety. St. Daniel's was among the last parishes to switch from the Latin Mass to the vernacular (alternating Masses in English and Polish). As a CCD student at St. Daniel's, I was taught that Roman Catholicism was the "one true Church," and was admonished to pray for "non-Catholics." My early religious training emphasized the importance of personal piety and morality. Significantly, the first U.S. presidential election of which I have clear memories is the 1960 election: We regarded the election of John F. Kennedy (the nation's first Catholic president) as a triumph of faith as well as politics. Nearly four decades later, my mother is still bitterly disappointed by the (apparently plausible) rumors of JFK's marital infidelity.