Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom

The Myth of American Religious FreedomThe Myth of American Religious Freedom by David Sehat
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Given that Sehat follows in the same tradition of American intellectual historiography that I do, you will not be surprised to find that I found his argument compelling, even if I would quibble over some things. A healthy civil society, he argues, “preserves a disorderly space that provides a buffer between the power of the state and the freedom of individuals and serves as a breeding ground for the contentious politics that are a healthy part of modern democracies” (p. 285, my emphasis). In this sense, his book is a defense of the notion that America has had a health civil society throughout its history.

But the notion that America’s religious history has been a “breeding ground” for contentious politics undercuts both the myths about religious liberty held by conservatives and liberals. Sehat argues that American history has neither been a gradual decline away from a Christian nation (the myth of the Right) nor a nation that from the beginning protected politics from the incursion of religious controls (the myth of the Left). Sehat traces the tension and debate over what religious freedom means from Virginia to the Moral Majority (most of his emphasis, I might say, is on pre-20th century episodes).

I particularly enjoyed Sehat’s account of colonial Virginia in the early chapters, and the debates among the abolitionists in the second part. His account of the creation of a “moral establishment” in the early 19th century is compelling: “Moral establishmentarians … dismissed the assertion that religious liberty entailed freedom from religion in public life. They asserted instead that it required the freedom of believers to bring their religion into public life to establish an ordered society” (p. 155, emphasis in original). A common moral code escaped the constitutional constraint on religious activity in the public sphere, but simultaneously allowed coercion by the dominant religion; a point made well by Tocqueville and J.S. Mill. In a sense, that conundrum — how could America be both free of religious involvement in political life and at the same time dominated by a particular religious perspective that ended up exercising moral and political control — is the impetus behind Sehat’s book.

I would encourage those who read Sehat’s book to also read Hugh Heclo’s Christianity and American Democracy. What Heclo’s book lacks in historical detail, Sehat provides; and what Sehat lacks in philosophical nuance, Heclo provides!

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One Response to “Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom

  1. Not only an interesting subject, but a most important one. Don’t have time to read the books, but thought I would just make a short comment on the subject for those interested in better understanding what God may have in mind.

    America was indeed a “Christian” nation, but not as many think. She did not base her values on the Muslim faith, nor the Hindu beliefs. She was not a Catholic nation. No, she was established as a “Christian” nation. But, there is a better description that will bring this subject into focus if one is really wanting to understand why she was blessed in such a great manner as we have witnessed. America WAS a Protestant nation.

    Europe witnessed what happens when religion is removed from the context of Bible truth. The failed twisting of truth did not end with fall of Roman Catholicism. No, Luther’s church in like manner ended up murdering men in the name of religion just as had the Catholics. America was to change all of this for a time. Here was created a government to be free from kings and popes. A people who could worship God in freedom.

    Yes, there were difficulties, but they got worked out. Rhode Island led the way. Freedom of religion and liberty of conscience, the foundation of Protestantism took hold and America became the bastion of freedom in the world. Freedom from religious persecution, but not freedom from moral law. This is where the ACLU and the Evangelicals need to come together and pray about the reality of truth and justice in the setting of American freedom.

    American jurisprudence is, was, based on Bible principle, which holds nothing in common with current ACLU philosophy. Morality is expected in civil societies. Can you imagine having moral laws that are not in harmony with Bible truth? There is no other standard of morality except what the Bible sets out as truth and justice. We even find provisions for “mercy” in Scripture.

    Today, if we wish to have an ordered society that will benefit its members, we can only base law and order according to God’s law. There is a caveat. We all, who have a bit of rationality, agree that this system of justice ought to include principles found in five of the last six commandments inscribed on the the tables of stone handed to Moses. We cannot all agree that the first four ought to be included in that set of civil laws we wish for all to live by. It would indeed be good for societies to live by all ten, but we ought not legislate all ten. Why not?

    In matters of conscience, let the mind be untrammeled when it comes to how one is to worship God. This is not the domain of the state. America got it right in the beginning. How many professing Protestants, I am not sure there are many left, get it right today? Not many who belong to what we consider Protestant churches today, know what Protestantism is. They have perverted both great principles of Luther’s protest. They no longer believe in true justification by faith, witness their holding of hands with Catholicism, and neither do they believe in liberty of conscience as they seek to establish their form of religion in American politics.

    As we prepare for the soon coming of Jesus, prophecy will be fulfilled when we see this once great nation of liberty transformed into a persecuting power by those who profess to believe Bible truth.

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