The Myth of American Religious Freedom.
The Myth of American Religious Freedom. By David Sehat. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. x + 356 pp. $29.95 cloth.
Every few months a conservative religious activist sparks a flurry of debate by claiming that the "separation of church and state" is not in the U.S. Constitution. David Sehat, in his wonderful new book The Myth of American Religious Freedom, shows us that such activists are right. Sort of. At least in part. "We will never understand the source," he explains, "the development, or the stakes in the debate about religion in public life until we acknowledge that for much of its history the United States was controlled by Protestant Christians who sponsored a moral regime that was both coercive and exclusionary" (8). The United States was not a nation of church-state separatism; nor was it a nation of religious freedom.
Sehat argues that Americans have forgotten the power of the Protestant moral establishment, which was represented most explicitly in politics and law. They have also omitted stories of religious dissent "from the American historical consciousness," which "is a major flaw in our national narrative" (2). He argues that modern Americans--on both the right and the left--are confounded by a "threefold myth of American religious freedom" (4). The first, he explains, is that of separation. While Thomas Jefferson and James Madison may have hoped to separate church from state, the Constitution did not. Instead, the founders as a whole allowed for the creation of a moral establishment that linked religion and morality to government. Second, Americans assume that with time and modernization, religious activism in the United States has declined. While "remnants" of Puritan and colonial religiosity "may still be found in our constitutions or law, they are no longer really pertinent" (5). Yet he explains that in the last two hundred years, religion (and specifically evangelical Christianity) has become more important in American public life than ever. The final myth that Sehat shatters is that of "exceptional liberty." American laws, he explains, usually derived from Protestant notions of morality. As a result, "behind the claim of exceptional liberty stood the reality of religious control" (7).
To prove these arguments, Sehat analyzes the last two hundred years of American history. He begins with an excellent excavation of the many ideas and influences that made their way into the first amendment, and shows how the meaning of the amendment was immediately subject to intense debate. Did the amendment, he asks, "create a government supportive of religion and tolerant of unbelief, or did it support the secular government of the godless Constitution while tolerating religious belief?." His answer: "It was totally unclear" (49). The ambiguity of the amendment allowed the burgeoning evangelical movement of the Second Great Awakening to create the moral establishment.
In the nineteenth century the moral establishment vacillated from periods of strength to moments of weakness. It also faced a barrage of challenges from dissenters. Sehat examines the ways in which Protestant moral values could be used by critics to challenge the establishment. In particular, abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison smartly appealed to Christian ideas as they fought for the liberation of slaves, as did women's rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The Civil War and Reconstruction eras temporarily divided proponents of the moral establishment, but the breach was short lived. In the late nineteenth century, as North and South reconciled, the nation's Protestant leaders renewed their efforts to rebuild the faltering establishment. The public schools, racial segregation, Mormon polygamy, and women's suffrage became the battlegrounds upon which the establishment and the proponents of dissent and individual liberty took up arms. "By the end of the nineteenth century," Sehat writes, the moral establishment again "emerged triumphant" (183).
The rest of the book focuses on the unraveling of the moral establishment across the twentieth century. The rise of the social sciences, labor unions with their own moral visions, and the modern political system all undermined the authority of the moral establishment. In the 1940s, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Everson v. Board of Education invoked Jefferson's "wall of separation" thereby ahistorically inserting "the myth of American religious freedom" into law (237). In the final chapters of the book, Sehat skillfully analyzes the subsequent court cases that helped define the terms of the modern debate over separation of church and state. And, of course, he analyzes the ways in which the rejection of the moral establishment sparked a new conservative moral "majority" intent on restoring Protestant hegemony.
The Myth of American Religious Freedom is a clear, well-argued, carefully researched book that serves as a model of the ways in which excellent and thorough scholarship can also be relevant to contemporary American life. Sehat moves seamlessly between the past and the present, making his research pertinent to issues and debates still at the heart of American culture. Yet the book opens with a curious first line in which Sehat confesses, "I used to be an evangelical" (vii). Although others will disagree, I am not convinced that we needed to know that Sehat has seen the light; and then seen the light again, in order to effectively write this book. The book should--and does--stand on the strength of its research and its argument. Sehat's personal faith (or the lack thereof) set a surprising tone for a book that went to great lengths after the preface to avoid polemics. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful, important, and refreshingly iconoclastic book that should be read by scholars and laypeople alike.
Matthew Avery Sutton
Washington State University
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|Author:||Sutton, Matthew Avery|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2011|
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