Special to CNN
Editor's note: Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and a visiting professor at Emory University. His most recent book is "God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush."
President Obama's mention of "nonbelievers" in his inaugural address represents an important broadening of the circle of acceptability in American life, an acknowledgement of our growing diversity and a fuller embrace of the principles articulated in our nation's charter documents.
One of the hallmarks of American life, dating to the 17th century, is its religious pluralism.
The Atlantic seaboard during the colonial period was home to everyone from Puritans, Roman Catholics and Dutch Reformed to Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, Swedish Lutherans, Anglicans, Huguenots, Mennonites and Schwenckfelders. Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654, refugees from South America after the Portuguese takeover of Recifé.
Somehow it all worked, especially in the crucible of religious pluralism in the Middle Colonies: New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where William Penn launched his "Holy Experiment" of religious toleration.
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