Professor and former Director
Department of History | Religious Studies | Lubar Institute
Charles L. Cohen, the E. Gordon Fox Professor of American Institutions, Emeritus, has taught and written about colonial British North America, American religious history, and the braided histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His scholarship has been recognized by, among other awards, the Allan Nevins Prize of the Society of American Historians for his work on the psychology of Puritan religious experience, terms on the councils of both the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, and the American Society for Church History, and appointment as Distinguished Lecturer, Organization of American Historians. His teaching has been honored by two awards from the UW-Madison History Department, the Emil Steiger Award for Excellence by UW-Madison, a Phi Beta Kappa award from UW-Madison, and listing in Who’s Who of American Teachers. He created UW-Madison’s Advanced Placement Summer Institute; directed the Religious Studies Program from 1997-2005; and was Founding Director the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions (LISAR), whose mission was to create better understandings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by encouraging ongoing discussion of these traditions and their interrelationships among scholars, members of those traditions, and the general public. His book, “Abrahamic Religions: A Very Short Introduction,” will be published in 2019 by Oxford University press.
The adjudication of religious life in the United States plays out on a field generated by, on the one hand, our Constitution and the political institutions that flow from it, and, on the other, by a religious culture that hugely values religious freedom but that has also been highly inflected by various claims that the United States is a Christian nation. These conditions create a central dilemma: are there circumstances in which religious beliefs and the practices that issue from them make a group seem incapable of being good citizens—even though the nation’s basic values would seem to preclude religious identity as a condition of citizenship. The United States has been defined in various ways as a “Christian nation”; if so, how do Jews and Muslims—whose understandings of such things as sacred space, sacred time, food, and the religious meaning of the state, can be quite different from those of Christians—fit into American society? Does religion create potential fault lines around these things, and, if so, how? American political and culture systems can generally handle most differences, but a few issues are explosive—particularly those that question whether a group’s religion precludes its becoming loyal to the United States, i.e., becoming American citizens.
A discussion of the “fifty-word sentence”: a way to teach students how to get to the point while learning a variety of critical research skills.