“Americans so completely confuse Christianity and freedom in their minds that is almost impossible to have them conceive of the one without the other.” ~Alexis de Tocqueville
I love reading accounts that challenge conventional thinking and traditional orthodoxies, even if I’m not in agreement with the author’s thesis. And readers here are well attuned to the notion that America’s religious history is more nuanced than religious conservatives “Christian Nation” and decrying of the exile of religion from the public square vs. liberal conceptions of “the separation of church and state” that defends religious freedom. Enter The Myth of American Religious Freedom by David Sehat.
Is US religious history not a history of progressive and unfolding freedom? Is it instead, a history of religious conflict? Did that conflict involve extended periods of religious coercion and the continual attempt to maintain religious power and control? These questions are the core of Sehat’s book.
“It is well that there should be some means of suppressing a noisy and offensive blackguard like REYNOLDS. …and whether he be suppressed as a blasphemer or merely as a plain blackguard is a matter of very minor consequence” ~NY Times
Sehat details what he terms the threefold myth of American religious freedom, fables that make it difficult to understand the religious politics of the present.
The myth of separation, that US protected religious liberty through the First Amendment’s separation of church and state — though important to some of the founding fathers (i.e., Jefferson, Madison), the First Amendment did not create the separation they advocated. Religious and moral regulations, instead, formed a moral establishment that connected religion and state.
The myth of religious decline, the idea that religious belief and adherence has waned is inaccurate — in 1776, only 17% of the national population belonged to a church. In the 19th century, under the influence of evangelical expansion, church attendance began to increase sharply. By 1850, 35% of Americans were church members. By 1906, the number was 51%. And in 2000, the number was 62%, though not specifically Christian churches. Because evangelical theology demands the intervention of believers into public life in an attempt to shape the world according to the dictates of their conscience, religion has, over the last 200 years, become more important to the public life of the US, rather than less.’
The myth of exceptional liberty, that religious liberty in the US forms the cornerstone of American liberty and makes the US into a beacon of freedom to the world — through the regulation of morals religious partisans maintained power. The morality enforced in law often came from Protestant Christian ideals and was presented as such. Foreign observers, including John Stuart Mill and Tocqueville, saw this dynamic with particular clarity and were keen to point out that religiously derived, moral coercion seemed endemic to American society and government.
Sehat goes on to distinguish “institutional establishment” (government paid clergy) from “moral establishment” (laws uphold and promote Christianity). In later chapters, social movements of slavery, segregation and women’s rights are examined in this light. As I continue through the text, will log more blurbs and thoughts here.