The Myth of American Religious Freedom

The Myth of American Religious Freedom

The Myth of American Religious Freedom

The Myth of American Religious Freedom


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.


I used to be an evangelical. My coming of age included a conversion to Christianity in a mainline Presbyterian church and what might be considered a second conversion to evangelicalism about a year later. In the evangelical world, I discovered that to be a patriot and to be a Christian were often considered the same thing. This conflation of American and Christian identities relied on a story about the past. Claiming that freedom had long been dependent upon evangelical Christianity, evangelicals saw their religion as the source of both America’s democracy and its ascendant fortune. Once I left evangelical life, this belief seemed to me a peculiar quirk of the culture that I had gladly left behind. But a few years later I was surprised when I read Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote in 1835, “Americans so completely confuse Christianity and freedom in their minds that it is almost impossible to have them conceive of the one without the other.” Tocqueville’s comment suggested an old genealogy to the notion of a Christian America, an ideal that continues to thrive in evangelical circles but seems either unintelligible or offensive to outsiders.

After I left the fold I realized that I still understood this point of view in a way that many outsiders did not, though communication with my remaining evangelical friends had become more difficult. When they explained that they were trying to “win the culture,” I thought that they wanted to control other people. When they explained that organizational effectiveness and churchplanting initiatives were among the most effective ways to “spread the gospel,” I pointed out how often ecclesiastical institutions had become co-opted by partisan politics. When they explained that they had a divine imperative to “take their place at the table” because politics and law drew upon norms that were religious in nature, I asked what the rules for the newly reconstituted table would be, who was going to make them, and whether everyone would be allowed a seat.

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