U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Daniel K. Williams on David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom

Dear Readers: This review by Daniel K. Williams, author of God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, serves as the first of several posts dedicated to a roundtable on David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom. Expect follow-up posts in the coming weeks from me, Ray Haberski, and Christopher Hickman. Also look for responses from David. We welcome comments from readers, as always.

David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2011).
ISBN: 9780195388763. 356 pages.

Review by Daniel K. Williams
University of West Georgia
April 2011

David Sehat has written a sweeping two-hundred-year history of the battle between moral establishmentarians and proponents of individual rights that challenges conventional scholarly understandings and popular impressions of the history of church-state relations in the United States. While numerous monographs have examined the meaning of the First Amendment, the disestablishment of state churches in the early republic, the campaigns of moral reformers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the role of religious dissenters in expanding civil liberties, Sehat is the first to weave these different strands of analysis together into a strong, persuasive narrative that argues that the tension between a religiously based social order and the protection of individual rights is at the heart of the American experiment. His book not only challenges readers to rethink their assumptions about the degree of religious freedom in America, but also presents a new historical framework to use in interpreting the contemporary culture wars.

Sehat’s narrative begins with the framing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. By that time, most Americans were convinced that they wanted some measure of religious liberty that at least gave people the right to attend the Protestant church of their choice, but most also believed that social harmony and the internal security of the nation depended on the maintenance of a moral order, which they thought could be supported only by religion, and more specifically, by Protestantism. As a result, most of the Founders believed that there should be a relationship between church and state, even though in the late eighteenth century, fewer than 20 percent of Americans were church members. Some Founders, including John Adams, believed in state support of established churches. Others, including Benjamin Franklin, supported a less overt link between religion and the state, believing that the public moral order was based on religion and that officeholders should be required to profess a belief in God, but that direct state support of churches was neither necessary nor desirable.

Few went as far as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in advocating the complete separation between church and state. Madison and Jefferson were successful in enlisting evangelicals in their campaign for the disestablishment of the old mainline Protestant denominations at the state level. But evangelicals did not subscribe to Jefferson’s idea that a societal moral order could be maintained without religion or to Madison’s proposal for a constitutional amendment that would give the federal government the power to protect religious liberty and other individual rights in the states. Instead, what the nation received was the First Amendment, which, as originally interpreted, only prohibited Congress from creating a religious establishment or preventing the free exercise of religion; it did nothing to protect the states from restricting religious liberty in the name of maintaining the public moral order. The result was more than a century of Protestant moral establishment at the state level, which was manifested in blasphemy laws, Sabbath legislation, religious tests for office, and Protestant devotional readings in the public schools. As an evangelical revival swept the nation in the early nineteenth century, the Protestant moral establishment became even more secure. Unlike other authors who highlight the role of evangelical Baptists in the emergence of American religious freedom, Sehat views the evangelicals as proponents of a coercive moral establishment.

Sehat argues that the Protestant moral establishment received its first major challenges in the nineteenth century with the conflict over slavery and women’s rights. Moral establishmentarians justified the subjugation of women and African American by appealing to dominant Protestant interpretations of Scripture, which prioritized social order over individual rights. But William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other radical abolitionists and women’s rights proponents argued that the rights of the individual were more important than societal order. As they came into conflict with evangelicals over their views of individual rights, Garrison and Stanton distanced themselves from both evangelicalism and the moral establishment.

The conflict between secular defenders of individual rights and religious advocates of the moral establishment continued in the twentieth century when secular liberals such as Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann appealed to the social sciences as an alternative moral standard and used empirical evidence and secular philosophical assumptions to advocate civil liberties in defiance of the religiously based moral standard. For a brief period in the mid-twentieth century, a liberal Supreme Court advanced individual rights and dismantled aspects of the moral establishment using a framework very similar to Croly and Lippmann’s. But a conservative turn in politics and the Court in the 1980s curtailed this trend and led to renewed conflict between secular proponents of individual rights and an increasingly powerful contingent of people who advocated a return to a “Judeo-Christian” moral establishment – an establishment that had, by this time, come to include conservative Catholics and a few Orthodox Jews in addition to evangelical Protestants.

The Myth of American Religious Freedom goes beyond the existing scholarship in its explication of the longstanding battle between moral establishmentarians and civil libertarians. Other recent books, such as Steven K. Green’s The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2010), have pointed out that disestablishment was a gradual process that lasted long after the First Amendment was written and that occurred in several stages, first with the disestablishment of state churches in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and then with the gradual rejection of the Protestant basis for the legal code in the decades following the Civil War. But Green’s book leaves one with the impression that by the end of the nineteenth century, the Protestant-based moral establishment was collapsing. Sehat’s work, on the other hand, argues that although secular forces and religious pluralism weakened the moral establishment in the late nineteenth century, it never entirely disappeared, and in fact, is still with us today to a certain extent. While most studies of the Christian Right view the movement solely as a recent phenomenon, Sehat argues that the modern Religious Right is a manifestation of a moral establishmentarian effort that dates back more than two centuries. Our modern culture wars, he claims, are merely the latest phase in an ongoing conflict that was occurring at every stage of American history.

Sehat’s argument that conflicts over civil liberties and individual rights are linked to a larger conflict over religious establishment and the source of societal order is also original and represents an exciting contribution to the field. I think that he is correct in arguing that evangelicals and other proponents of a moral establishment privileged social order over individual rights and that they believed that social order required as its foundation a religiously based morality codified in law. Sehat makes a persuasive case that for most of the nation’s history, the majority of jurists, politicians, and opinion shapers supported the moral establishment, often at the expense of the individual rights of minorities.

But while Sehat’s work is impressive in many respects, I think that it needs to be balanced with some alternative perspectives that might call into question some of the author’s claims, particularly concerning the secular basis for the expansion of individual rights. In Sehat’s narrative, the supporters of individual rights were almost invariably secular liberals, ex-evangelicals who lost their faith, or religious liberals who quickly realized that their arguments did not depend on religious faith and who therefore embraced secular language in advancing human rights. He minimizes the importance of the Social Gospel, arguing that it was not as influential as most historians think and that its radicalism is often exaggerated. He includes little discussion of the African American church’s long effort to promote human rights, and he portrays the civil rights movement in largely secular terms, with the exception of a short discussion of Martin Luther King, whom he concedes was a “man of faith” who nevertheless broke with moral establishmentarians (p. 245). The extent to which King grounded his view of rights in a religious framework is a concept that Sehat skims over. Reinhold Niebuhr receives only a single sentence in the book. Sehat seems to be so eager to make the case that the protection of individual rights depends on secularism that he overlooks the many instances in which various Americans promoted individual rights in the name of religion. Nor does Sehat deal with the nuanced ways in which individuals could defend the moral establishment in one arena while advancing individual rights in another. Frances Willard, for instance, receives only negative coverage in this book, but Sehat could have mentioned that as the head of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, she combined her advocacy of Prohibition with a strong defense of women’s rights and the rights of workers.

I look forward to assigning this book to graduate students in the future, but I also plan to balance it with some other monographs that offer important counter-perspectives to Sehat’s. The Myth of American Religious Freedom points out the inability of the First Amendment to secure real religious liberty, but Frank Lambert’s The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton University Press, 2003) would give students an understanding of just how far-reaching the First Amendment was for its time, especially when contrasted with seventeenth-century colonial understandings of religion in public life. Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University Press, 1989) would give students an understanding of the reasons why early-nineteenth-century evangelicals viewed themselves as strong proponents of individual liberty, even though Sehat does not see them as such. Charles Marsh’s God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton University Press, 1997) or David L. Chappell’s A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) demonstrate the way in which religion, rather than secularism, has sometimes provided the basis for the expansion of individual rights. And John T. McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (Norton, 2003) offers a sympathetic examination of a religiously based moral order, explaining why Catholics objected when the Protestant state establishment denied them the right to religious freedom, but simultaneously promoted a moral order of their own and rejected the primacy that Sehat’s civil libertarians placed on individual rights above all else. McGreevy’s book would give students an opportunity to examine the appeal of the religiously based moral order for a large number of Americans, which is a concept that they won’t get from Sehat’s study.

In short, I think that Sehat’s book offers an exciting reinterpretation of important issues, and it definitely deserves to be read, discussed, and assigned. It is likely one of this year’s most important contributions to the historical study of American church-state relations. But in view of its blatant iconoclasm and partisanship, I think that it is especially important to balance Sehat’s views with competing voices. The Myth of American Religious Freedom is provocative and intriguing, and there is no doubt that it will be of great use to scholars and students in the field, but I think that the jury is still out on whether Sehat’s path-breaking conclusions will eventually be considered definitive or merely an important counterpoint to the dominant narrative.