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"Sehat has written a wonderful intellectual history of the United States addressing a topic of perpetual concern to Americans since the founding."-American Historical Review
"This is a compelling history and is engagingly told.... This excellent book advances an interesting twist on the traditional legal interpretations of the free exercise clause and makes a compelling case for a careful reexamination of our assumptions regarding its history.... More than any other book I have read over the last six months, I find myself continuously referencing this analysis."—Law and Politics Book Review
"This is a smart and sophisticated book. It should be widely, and carefully, read."—Journal of Church and State
"David Sehat is a myth-demolishing historian in the mold of C. Vann Woodward and Edmund Morgan. Just as they destroyed myths about liberty, slavery, and segregation, Sehat now devastates the idea that the United States was born, reared, and raised in religious freedom. He shows that, instead, control and power have long dominated American religious history. This is a rich and sad saga that delves brilliantly into law, politics, and reform. Deeply researched and passionately argued, The Myth of American Religious Freedom transforms how we think about religion and the United States."—Edward J. Blum, author of Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898
"This vigorously argued, carefully documented book traces the coercive function of religiously derived moral norms throughout the history of American law and politics. Sehat gives little comfort to today's advocates of a greater role for religion in public life, but he also calls into question the historical foundation of most defenses of a sharp church-state separation. This smart, provocative book invites a wide and attentive readership." —David A. Hollinger, President, Organization of American Historians, 2010-2011
"Sehat provides food for thought...he unmasks and attacks the moral establishments across American history." -Kirkus
"New and compelling. Timely. An important corrective to the ongoing culture wars between the religious right, which claims this country was birthed on a Christian foundation, and secularists, who insist that the First Amendment spells out a separation of church and state." -Publishers Weekly
"Sobering and persuasive." -The Christian Century
"The Myth of American Religious Freedom is a clear, well-srgued, 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...a wonderful, important, and refreshingly iconoclastic book...."—Matthew Avery Sutton, Washington State University
"David Sehat boldly slices through all of American history."—The Journal of American History
"A short review cannot do justice to David Sehat's complex book...a detailed history of federal and state policies affecting religion...persuasive."—The Journal of Southern History
"[Sehat] makes his case convincingly...A knowledge of Sehat's argument would elevate the substance of contemporary political debates about the separation of church and state, about religious tests for political office, and about finding common moral ground."—Southern Humanities Review
In this weighty text spanning all of American history, Sehat (History/Georgia State Univ.) argues that despite an overarching narrative of religious freedom, the United States has never truly practiced freedom of religion, rightly understood.
Instead, a moral establishment, marked by Protestantism, has continually attempted to squash dissent and the voice of other faiths. For the most part, it has been quite successful. The author points to early court cases, such as those on blasphemy, to suggest that even in the first years following the ratification of the Constitution, Christian viewpoints stood as de factolaw. The abolitionist and suffragist movements both posed unique challenges for the moral establishment, which Sehat defines as "the creation of an active religious minority who believed that God had established moral norms, and that it was incumbent upon them to enforce those norms through law."As the slavery question was settled, the establishment began to practice a moral superiority over freed blacks, while continuing to fight women's rights. Into this late-19th-century setting entered two other challenges, Catholicism and Mormonism, which sought religious freedom and parity yet were continually denied it. The American narrative throughout these eras, and into the 20th century, spoke of religious liberty, yet Sehat argues that this concept was mere fancy. The reality was far more complex and volatile. "Protestants wanted a connection between religion and the state," writes the author, "that relied on both a common nonsectarian Christianity and an institutional separation between church and state while still protecting absolute religious freedom. This was an impossible position." The author argues that in order to move ahead as a society marked by true freedom of religion, it is imperative to recognize that such freedom has not actually existed in the history of American culture and law.
Sehat provides food for thought in a sometimes acidic tone, as he unmasks and attacks the moral establishments across American history.
Introduction: The Myth of American Religious Freedom
Part I Moral Law
1 Contested Liberties
2 A Godless Government?
3 The Moral Establishment
Part II Challengers
4 The Moral Purpose of Slavery and Abolition
5 Moral Reproduction and the Family
Part III Retrenchment
6 Morals, Citizenship, and Segregation
7 Women's Rights, Woman's Individuality, and the Bible
8 Religion, Morals, and Law
Part IV Fragmentation
9 A Conflict of Authorities
10 Liberal and Conservative Moral Visions
11 The Liberal Moment
12 A Moral Majority?
Conclusion: Moral Maximalism and Religious Control
Posted April 3, 2013
No text was provided for this review.