Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Myth of American Religious Freedom: Introduction

“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.

The text begins with the story of Charles B. Reynolds, indicted and convicted for blasphemy in 1886.

“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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Thanks for your reference. It does sound like an interesting book!

Tom Van Dyke said...

The morality enforced in law often came from Protestant Christian ideals and was presented as such.

Yes, this supports the argument of the hardcore "Christian Nationists."

Jason Pappas said...

I can readily agree with #2 but I'd have to see the arguments for #1 and #3.

How does the author define “morals?” Are classical virtues such as wisdom, prudence, temperance, and justice subsumed in this ethical designation? How about 18th century virtues such as industry and frugality? Or are these “morals” merely sexual? I’d have to know the authors definition.

Naum said...

@Jason_Pappas, just into early chapters, but as far as "moral establishment", Sehat buttresses his statement by the following…

* …laws (and prosecutions) for blasphemy

* …enactment and enforcement of "blue laws" (observance of Sunday religious "holiday")

* …codification in state constitutions that restricted office to only Protestant Christians — in many cases, not specifically stipulated, but verbiage architected to exclude those of Jewish and Catholic faith — 11 of 14 constitutions prohibited Jews and agnostics from holding office, 7 prohibited Catholic office holders, 9 of 14 limited civil rights to Protestants…

* …a person's demurral from affirming belief in God could limit his ability to testify in court

* …non-theists could not hold or convey property in trust…

Developed through compromise and consensus with 3 groups:

* …old line proponents of state support for churches (i.e., Episcopalians, Congregationalists, some Lutherans, old-line Presbyterians).

* …proponents of the "moderate Enlightenment" who looked to religion to provide moral standards. (i.e., Franklin, John Jay, Washington), zealotry in the group above often pushed these folks into the next group, which was radical for the time, and in public sentiment…

* …champions of "separation of church and state" (i.e., Madison, Jefferson)

Tom Van Dyke said...

That seems to be a very coherent answer, Mr. Naum. Well done, and thank you.

BTW, does Sehat get to the People vs. Ruggles case, New york 1833, iirc?

Although there was mighty talk in favor of Christianity [in dicta, as Brad Hart points out], iirc, the real crime in this blasphemy [calling Jesus a bastard child] was disturbing the peace, not offending God.


Ran across this today, coincidentally:

“Religion, which, among the Americans, never mixes directly in the government of society, should therefore be considered as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not give them the taste for freedom, it singularly facilitates their use of it.” ---Toqueville

Noting a difference between government and society itself. The current crisis involves the question of what happens when government takes on a hostility [some call it "neutrality"] toward what Tocqueville calls that "first political institution," which I would argue is perhaps pre-political, or beyond the political. [Trans-political, whathaveyou---regardless, society and its "mores," ethos, etc.]

Naum said...

@TVD, /yes, People v. Ruggles, though it was 1811

Odd thing about case was that NY had no blasphemy law. But NY Chief Justice James Kent decided that irrespective of the guarantee of religious freedom in NY Constitution and lack of blasphemy law, Christianity was still part of the "common law" of the state. Christianity, he explained, provided "moral discipline" and "those principles which help to bind society together". The decision was unanimous and set early precedent…

…so in one sense, "disturbing the peace", but the courts went further, maintaining that blasphemy, indecency, Sabbath-breaking, even criticizing religious mechanisms of moral obedience (Sehat's words here), threatened to destroy good order and corrupt morals. Everything almost to the letter, but one short step shy of making "Christianity an established religion". Kind of like how Catholics were barred in State Constitutions -- no overt language stating that Catholics were banned, just circuitous verbiage that detailed what someone of Catholic faith would hold as core belief as being deemed disqualifying for office.

Good read, have plowed into part III already, but will do a writeup for Part I and II, as this was just the intro and a little from the first chapter in Part 1…

While Sehat is not overt in detailing, I find it fascinating, in US history, how 3 threads often combine into 2, then splinter back into another arrangement after one weakens or strengthens -- in Part I, a chapter ("A Godless Government") focusing on Madison's masterful orchestration (even though he fell short of his ideal Constitution) and unison with evangelicals over the "institutional" religionists… …but as 2nd Great Awakening swelled ranks of evangelicals and saw the waning of "institutionalists", the old-line and evangelicals then ally against the "religious freedom" champions…

…further into the book, the same thread happens with abolitionists and women's right movements, factions splintered by religion…

…it seems this happens a lot in current of U.S. history, maybe a relic of 2 party government, or winner-take-all politics, or just a global phenomenon -- I think of Republican reformers and industrialists/capitalists v. South Democrats in gilded age, New Deal coalition that held 1930s - 1960s, etc.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Wow, exc stuff, Naum.

I'd only familiarized meself w/Ruggles, and had no idea that the core argument from the court was "common law."

The "common law" thing is something I was unable to get near in the recent attempt at discussion in one of the other threads. Basically, William Blackstone of England, majorass Founder James Wilson, and post-Founding era Supreme Court justice Joseph Story all argued that Christianity was part of the "common law."

Jefferson disagreed, but I think sophistically, claiming that the English Common Law dated from the 700s [iirc], before the arrival of Christianity on Albion's shores.

But the concept of common law is that it developed over time, using judicial precedent where there was no legislation. By Blackstone's time, what was legal and what was not was pretty much understood. When it wasn't, the judge would try to pull out the correct decision from precedent. Or Christianity.

This isn't to say that English common law has any force in 2010. American law, lawyers and judges leaned on English common law in the Founding and post-Founding eras as the baseline.

But eventually, America developed its own body of "positive" law, constitutionally and/or legislatively enacted, so that turning to English common law has no legal force anymore. We have stare decisis instead.

Although, as one legal fellow put it, stare decisis is for suckas! It's a Living constitution. [Or did he say it's a dead one?]

But it's nice to look back on the Founding and post-Founding eras, just to know what we're turning our backs on. The weird thing is that Ruggles has a completely different meaning than I thought it did, and thx, Naum. That's why this is the best blog of its type on the internet. I learn something new here every day.

Jason Pappas said...


Yes, many interesting details. Of course we all knew that the non-establishment in US constitution didn’t apply to state law. I believe it was in the 1830s before Massachusetts disestablished the Congregationalist church. This raises the question of trend and counter-trend with Virginia and the US Constitution embodying the long-term aspirations that eventually dominated American politics--not without pockets of counter-trends along the way.

Many of the details you give have to do with religious ritual (“blue laws”) or decorum (“calling Jesus a bastard child”) etc. Others have to do with restrictions of the franchise or at least qualifications for holding office (which were restricted on numerous non-religious grounds, too). Were there any doctrinal differences that were codified into law? Where there any support for gov't charity for the poor based on religious grounds? Where there any legal codification of pacifism in Quaker areas?

@TVD, interesting comments on common law--a tradition too seldom acknowledged.