Steven Waldman has produced an excellent overview of the development of religious liberty in the United States. It is well-written, as one would expect of a journalist (the Beliefnet.com founder is a veteran of Newsweek, among other publications), but also well-researched and reasonably nuanced. Experts on particular eras or subjects will find details about which they can justly complain, but on the whole, Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom deserves high marks.
Just one of the book’s 18 chapters is devoted to the early colonies. Waldman overstates the extent to which Puritans enforced repressive laws with “sadistic enthusiasm.” Yet he is certainly correct that no colony—not even Rhode Island or Pennsylvania—embraced a modern, liberal conception of religious freedom.
America’s Founders rejected Old World approaches to church-state relations. They shared a commitment to protecting religious liberty, and many Founders were coming to question the efficacy of religious establishments. These views contributed to the adoption of a constitution that banned religious tests for federal offices, and to the crafting of a First Amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”