Archive for religion and American founding

Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom

Posted in American religion with tags , , , , , , , on 01/03/2011 by rossemmett

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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