American Religious Freedom?

I regularly find myself saying that Christians in America are in a historically peculiar place. Whereas our defining documents (the New Testament writings) were written by socially and politically marginalized people, reflecting on the life and teachings of a man who met the ultimate political opposition in death, we live in a place where we are invited to be active participants in the political process, adding our voice and our vote to the direction America takes.

Often, we fumble about badly in this attempt to be dutiful citizens, and the history of that bumbling is captured well in the new book by David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom.

Today I want to summarize Sehat’s argument, tomorrow I will work out some of my own responses. Being a biblical scholar, not a historian of American Christianity or of American law (I hope to have someone else write a guest post on the book from those angles), the concerns I have from reading the book are perhaps tangential to the books own argument. So for today, Sehat.

Sehat’s argument is simple: in contrast to the conservative argument that this country was founded as a Christian nation by common consent, he shows that the Christian overlay to our laws and their enforcement was a coercive arrangement–Christians using the state to enforce peculiarly white Protestant Christian mores.

But on the other side of the ledger, despite what the clear readings of the founding documents seem to be, America never had a history of pluralistic religious freedom. This is a myth referred to by a liberal Supreme Court in the early to mid-1900s as it enacted a series of judicial decisions to overturn the Christian moral establishment.

“Establishment.” We know that there isn’t really to be a government-established religion in the US. What Sehat shows in the first section of the book, however, is that we need to distinguish between “institutional establishment”, where the government pays clergy and the like, from “moral establishment,” where the laws of the land enshrine, protect, and promote the practice of Christianity.

It is the latter that Sehat succeeds in showing was a major element of early US jurisprudence. Sabbath laws, blasphemy laws and the like are upheld, sometimes explicitly, as indications that ours was founded as a Christian nation. Thus, the state becomes the coercive arm of the church, its power being employed to uphold and enforce the laws of the church.

Two movements in American history help underscore the coercive and religious power enshrined in our laws: slavery/segregation and women’s rights.

In both cases, the Christian religion, with its understanding of how God has made and ordered the world, with its claims to be mimicking divine order in both the state and the home, was often the moral grounds for establishing of laws to promote and enforce the status quo.

Throughout, there is an idea that the moral law of God, enshrined in the Bible, is of a piece, and no thread (such as treating women as individual human beings) can be removed without undoing the fabric of the whole. In fact, the idea that the individual is the primary locus of liberty is not common. The locus of liberty is society as whole, for which individuals must often sacrifice exercise of their own freedoms in order to maintain a just social order.

Enter Christians here telling striking workers to stop being disobedient to God and to get back to work.

That argument was turned on its head beginning in the 1920s-40s. The Supreme Court began to see itself not as the protector of the society as a whole, even if needs be at the expense of the individual, but of the individual from the tyranny of the majority. And this included implications for religious freedom and paving the way for desegregation and treating women as equal in the eyes of the law.

The book leaves us hanging with the question of what will become of American religious freedom, created by that liberal mid-20th century court by appeal to a past that did not exist, now that the Court has once again taken a decidedly conservative swing. What will happen to individual liberties? What will happen to the arguments about a morality that is not explicitly tied to one slice of Christian expression?

In all, the book does a good job of complexifying the issues of religion and freedom in America. It raises the mirror to Christians and demands that we ask ourselves what sort of power we want the government to be exercising in our name. We’ll get to those questions tomorrow.

I highly recommend The Myth of American Religious Freedom as a historical primer to the questions that swirl around us today about the place of Christianity in the public sphere, including how we might posture ourselves toward issues such as homosexual marriage and abortion. The book provides the requisite history to open our eyes to what we might be asking of the world around around us.

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