Sacred Liberty (Steven Waldman) -- A Review

SACRED LIBERTY: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom. By Steven Waldman. San Francisco: Harper One, 2019. 405 pages.

The United States prides itself on its protections of religious freedom. We like to tell the story of how the Pilgrims came to the shores of what would become the United States so they might find a safe haven to practice their faith. Truth be told, these early colonists were only interested in freedom for themselves. The same was true of most of those groups that followed them. At the time that the nation was founded in the late 18th century, most states had some form of an established church (most likely either Congregationalist or Anglican). There were a few states, like Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, that offered some form of religious freedom, but they were the exception. Even after the Constitution was ratified, some states kept their establishment well into the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified that First Amendment protections were applied to the states. Before that, they only applied to the federal government's ability to establish a religion. Down through time, religious freedom has been a contested issue in the United States. Many assumed that it applied only to Christians, and by Christian that meant Protestant.  

Steven Waldman's book Sacred Liberty tells the story of how this nation has dealt with matters of religious freedom. Waldman is a journalist who co-founded Beliefnet and now serves as President of Report for America, which seeks to place talented journalists in local newsrooms. Several years ago, he authored the book Founding Faith, to which I gave high praise.

Waldman takes us on a journey from the earliest colonies to the present, by which he demonstrates that from the very beginning the majority set the rules for everybody else. So, in New England, the Congregationalists dominated religious life. In the South, it tended to be Anglicans. Only a few colonies offered some form of freedom. The stories that emerge from this period include reports of persecution of Catholics and especially Quakers. All of this is told as a precursor to the moment of independence from British rule and the establishment of a constitutional republic. As a result of the needs of the moment, at least at the federal level, the new Constitution precluded religious tests for those who held public office and promised religious freedom, including free exercise to all citizens. The conversation that leads to the current situation really begins in chapter two, which explores "Madison's Model," which is expressed in the First Amendment. While Madison established the model of religious freedom, as we see in chapter three, it was the eruption of the Second Great Awakening that ultimately undermined the states’ religious establishments.

While the Constitutional protections and the effects of the revival influenced developments in the early period, true freedom really was only given to Protestants. During the early years of the Republic, the big question facing the nation was whether Catholics could be granted religious freedom. When the nation was founded Catholics formed a distinct minority of the population, but as time went on things changed. Immigration, especially from Ireland and later from southern Europe, made this an urgent concern (does this sound familiar?). This question wasn’t really resolved until the 1960s. While the question of how and whether Catholics might be included in the nation’s religious life, they weren’t the only group that faced suppression. First of all, there was a distinct effort to suppress the religious freedom of African slaves, some of whom were Muslim. While both African spiritualities and Islam were suppressed by slave owners, Christianity was only reluctantly shared (and only if it helped keep slaves in line).

In chapter six, Waldman notes that the religious freedoms promised by the First Amendment were first applied generally to the states only after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. This amendment and its application resulted from the efforts of John Bingham. While we think of the Fourteenth Amendment in terms of ending slavery nationwide, religion was a significant beneficiary. What is important to note is that Bingham argued for the religious benefits of the Amendment from a religious point of view. In fact, he believed this was all part of a "Divine Plan." (p. 90).

While the Fourteenth Amendment applied the Frist Amendment protections to all levels of government, the battle for liberty was not yet won. For example, the nation faced the challenge of Mormonism and its practice of polygamy. Mormons defended it based on the free exercise of their religious faith. The courts disagreed. Eventually, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, set polygamy aside, allowing Utah to become a state, but the battle over polygamy raised important questions about the limits of one's free exercise. Then there was the government effort to ban Native American spiritual practices, including the dances that defined their spirituality. Once again, the government chose to limit individual freedom, endorsing a policy of imposing Christianity on Native Americans, so as to "kill the Indian" within them. None of these examples express our better moments as a nation.

Perhaps you have heard that God has been pushed out of the schools? We’re told that God has been expelled through the bans on prayer and Bible reading. What partisans of this effort seem not to understand is that government-sponsored prayer and Bible reading was largely an effort to keep Protestantism in a dominant position in the country (In the early 20th century the KKK emerged as a foe to Catholic immigration). Catholic school systems were developed because of debates over which Bible translation could be used in school. Much of this was rooted in anti-immigration efforts, largely directed at Italians. Again, this was not one of our better moments, but it is largely forgotten today.

Then there is the story of the Jehovah's Witnesses and their struggle to achieve the freedom to practice their faith. Their unwillingness to salute the flag, believing it to be idol worship, led to children being suspended from school, as well as adults being arrested and sometimes beaten nearly to death. But they persisted in the courts, and some of our freedoms we have today result from their efforts to confront attempts to institute coercive laws against religious communities.

World War II saw the elevation of religious freedom and the inclusion of Jews at the table. This is the era when we began to talk about the Judeo-Christian world. As this was going on the Supreme Court began to rule on religious issues, helping to sort out what establishment and free exercise mean to residents of the United States. Chapter 12, which lays out some of the elements of this struggle is very important, but it can be supplemented by Melissa Rogers' book Faith in American Public Life, which goes into much greater detail on these matters. Even as the courts began to settle matters, while Protestants, Catholics, and Jews began to solidify their relationships, Congress passed important immigration reforms that allowed millions of Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus to migrate to the United States. These actions helped open up the nation to much greater religious diversity. Even as this was taking place, conservative Protestants and Catholics began to work together on issues like abortion, even as they set aside old animosities. Moving closer to home, evangelicals, perhaps feeling the impact of changing demographics moved from claiming to be the moral majority to being a persecuted minority. That, as we are seeing, has produced political implications.

Since 9-11 greater focus has been placed on Islam and its presence in our nation, so Waldman devotes two chapters to the place of Islam in the country. Interestingly, 70 percent of Muslims voted for George W. Bush in 2000. Sixteen years later, Donald Trump won as a Republican on a platform that included the suppression of Islam in America. These chapters explore how Islam has navigated these challenges and what it means for the religious freedom of everyone. Is it only for Christians? Or, does it apply across the board? As Waldman notes, one effort underway is to delegitimize Islam as a religion, defining it as a political ideology. By doing this, activists hope to remove First Amendment religious protections from Muslims.

Waldman closes the book with a summation of the journey the nation has taken regarding religious freedom. He points out areas where progress has been made and areas where it is deficient. In other words, the United States remains a contested space when it comes to religion. The Constitution may offer protections, but the ways in which these protections are applied merits great concern.

There are places where I might quibble, especially his reference to David Barton as an influential evangelical historian. Barton is not a historian, he's a propagandist. Otherwise, I was very happy with the presentation. I believe Sacred Liberty merits close attention as we try to live out the freedoms imagined by James Madison, where religion flourishes because it is set free from government interference. Waldman is a journalist, but he has a good eye for history. Therefore, this is a book worth spending much time with, especially as we debate religious freedom at this time. He provides a narrative that can assist us in discerning the future of religious liberty in this country. In other words, I highly recommend this book to all residents of the United States.


Popular Posts