The Myth of American Religious Freedomby David Sehat
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In the battles over religion and politics in America, both liberals and conservatives often appeal to history. Liberals claim that the Founders separated church and state. But for much of American history, David Sehat writes, Protestant Christianity was intimately intertwined with the state. Yet the past was not the Christian utopia that conservatives imagine either. Instead, a Protestant moral establishment prevailed, using government power to punish free thinkers and religious dissidents. In The Myth of American Religious Freedom, Sehat provides an eye-opening history of religion in public life, overturning our most cherished myths. Originally, the First Amendment applied only to the federal government, which had limited authority. The Protestant moral establishment ruled on the state level. Using moral laws to uphold religious power, religious partisans enforced a moral and religious orthodoxy against Catholics, Jews, Mormons, agnostics, and others. Not until 1940 did the U.S. Supreme Court extend the First Amendment to the states. As the Supreme Court began to dismantle the connections between religion and government, Sehat argues, religious conservatives mobilized to maintain their power and began the culture wars of the last fifty years. To trace the rise and fall of this Protestant establishment, Sehat focuses on a series of dissenters--abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, socialist Eugene V. Debs, and many others. Shattering myths held by both the left and right, David Sehat forces us to rethink some of our most deeply held beliefs. By showing the bad history used on both sides, he denies partisans a safe refuge with the Founders.
"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.... Wonderful, important, and refreshingly iconoclastic."--Church History
"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.
- Oxford University Press
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Meet the Author
David Sehat is Assistant Professor of History at Georgia State University.
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