U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Great Forgetting: Review #3 of David Sehat’s "The Myth of American Religious Freedom"

Recently in a brief exchange over different ways to teach intellectual history, David Sehat mentioned the film Memento and the possibility of using its unorthodox narrative structure to talk about the relevance of history to students. In that film the main character Leonard Shelby has suffered a traumatic experience/injury that prevents him from keeping short-term memories. In other words, he claims to know who he is but not where he’s going. As soon as he makes a memory it begins to fade away—thus taking directions is laborious, though that doesn’t prevent him from strutting confidently into the dark. To help him navigate life, Leonard devises a “system” to record new memories. He writes down everything he thinks is important but does so in different forms, from notes on paper to “truths” he has tattooed to his body.

I know this movie quite well because I use it in a course on historiorgraphy.Probably like David, I find the narrative structure attractive because it suggests the ambiguity of history and slipperiness of recording “facts.”The great lesson of the film is that the present is in large part a product of a manipulated past.And the shocking revelation of the film is that Leonard is manipulating his own past with the knowledge that he won’t remember what he did when he acts in the future—he is at once both culpable and innocent.Does that sound like something else we often discuss?

If not, let me make it plain: I use the film to help students imagine how historical understandings come to be, from an individual’s perspective to that of a nation.For example, when I try to explain how the idea of innocence has remained a characteristic often ascribed to the United States, I use the experience of Leonard to suggest how that understanding might be produced and carried forward.Every generation acts with the burden of the past, whether it recognizes it or not, but manipulates that past in order to create a rosier present and a heroic future.And while my use of the Memento model of history works well in historiography, I was struck by how ingeniously David employed this method in a major work of legal, cultural, and religious history.

While David did not set out to construct a narrative that jumps back and forth across time, his main argument, it seems to me, is the same as the morale of Memento.In David’s case it is this: beginning in 1947 with Everson v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court played a dangerous game of historical amnesia.As David writes in what I see as the pivotal section of his book, with this case “the myth of American religious freedom entered into law.”How?In the court’s attempt to impose, for the first time, a genuine separation between church and state, the justices imagined that the Constitution had enshrined this concept in spirit if not in practice.Yet, this was simply not the case: “Whatever Madison’s or Jefferson’s intent, strict separation had never existed in U.S. public life, law, and government,” David explains.“The assumption that strict separation had been the norm in the past threatened to place the legal transformation on a false historical foundation that undermined its intellectual rationale.”

So why was this leap so dangerous?Like Leonard from Memento, the Court’s willful amnesia didn’t just misremember the past but created a better world than the one that actually existed.Recognizing the role religion had always played in American life—including American law—would have enabled the Court to tackle the problem of church-state separation in specific terms.At issue was not the abstract relationship between faith and politics, but the much more serious situation of one kind of faith—primarily evangelical Protestantism—playing a major role in establishing the ground rules for understanding a national morality at the expense of all other faiths and all dissenters.At issue was the way religious arguments were used to justify and expand slavery, outlaw the ability to be an unbeliever, to keep women consigned the status of un-citizens and labor to the status of un-American and un-Christian, and, more recently, to tag anyone who dissents from a faith in American exceptionalism as simply immoral.

Instead, the Court in a series of rulings in the 1940s and 1950s acted as if the United States had figured out how to operate as a pluralistic society that seamlessly regarded different religions as all equally significant and sacred.Acting within this fictional account of American history, the Court denuded religion of political importance—religion became something like oxygen to the American body politic, necessary, beneficial, and never oppressive.But religion was political and had been pushed on generations of Americans to the point that evangelical Protestantism has constituted a “moral establishment.”Thus even though the Court in the 1940s through the early 1970s clearly challenged that “moral establishment,” it did so without “any apparent intellectual framework,” David contends.“It enunciated a principle of separation but then did not consistently follow it in practice. Without a clear sense of what it was doing and why, the Court’s opinions became contradictory, yielding a confusing body of religious-liberty jurisprudence that never quite acknowledged the moral establishment the Court had begun to dismantle.” Like Leonard, the Court acted in a present based on a skewed version of the past, thus doing two things that we continue to live with today: first, it undermined the ability to know who we are as Americans; and second, it created a future in which groups from all sides of the church-state issue no longer needed to account for the past.In other words, the myth of American religious freedom allowed religious factions totally off the hook—they were no longer contributors (at times central contributors) to slavery, bigotry, and moral hypocrisy, and became instead the only alternative to a society wracked by immorality and the decay of values.

Obviously, I am an admirer of David’s book.He writes cleanly and crisply and as Dan and Andrew have already noted, covers the entire expanse of American history.I’d like to know how David settled on the intellectual device of historical amnesia on which his argument turns.Moreover, rarely have I read a concluding chapter as strong as the one David offers.I hope that he takes that concluding chapter and writes a second book based on it.

In making this suggestion, I have a few questions regarding the book at hand.I want to know why the Court in the 1940s and 1950s curried historical amnesia.David makes clear how this happened and the consequences of it, but are there records in the papers of the justices regarding their arguments?Did they not contend with the history of laws and the development of a “moral establishment” that David chronicles?Furthermore, what did religious intellectuals think of this twist on history?I recall Martin Marty expressing his surprise and admiration for the way the Protestant majority “shared” its control over American morality in the post-war period.He claimed that it was the first time in history that a religious group that had been so dominant for so long had so peacefully given away its position in society.While such an argument disagrees with David’s view, it seems that Marty’s argument, like the Court’s, took a happy turn in history so that he could suggest a way beyond the impasse of his moment—for Marty this was, of course, the battle between liberal and conservative churchgoers during the culture wars.Apart from Marty’s understanding, were there not observers of the postwar era who picked up on this historical amnesia?David does point to Reinhold Niebuhr’s critique of Billy Graham’s relationship to the politically powerful as an example of religious leaders doing battle over role religion plays in substantiating the nation.And David is also on target when he hits Robert Bellah for his dreamy version of civil religion as a viable alternative to any fighting between the right and left over American morality.But even civil religion was hotly contested at the time Bellah proposed his vision and certainly in the years following it.My question is this: what happened to observers of the Court and the churches who realized that the role religion played in the American life had always been hotly contested?

In Memento, Leonard eliminates the one character who could have saved him from himself—who could have kept him intellectually honest.David’s book reminds us that we have an obligation to keep each other intellectually honest, especially when we confront versions of ourselves that we’d rather just forget.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Ray: Thanks! No I’m going to have to rescreen Memento to fully understand your review! I jest (somewhat), but I do remember being fascinated by that film. – TL

  2. Yeah, check out Memento. I hope that my endorsement of the film only serves to illustrate my enthusiasm for David’s book. I think David took a chance by making the argument he does and so his book his well worth contending with for that reason among many others.

  3. I haven’t gotten to the end of David’s book, so I apologize if, riffing off this fascinating review, I step into territory that David has already covered better, but it seems to me that the view of history that the Court takes in these cases is a pretty typical way that Americans have dealt with their past: by affirming that US history–and particularly the Founding–got everything right in principle, even if the details have been muddled in practice and need correcting (come to think of it, that might itself be a very Protestant way of thinking about the past).

    I’m thinking, for example, of Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1852), which argues that the Constitution, properly understood, is a “GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT,” utterly opposed to slavery.

    The mid-20th century was a particular high-water mark for this kind of thing in American culture. Just about any kind of politics could be wrapped in the garb of the American past.

    The Popular Front left was particularly adept at such maneuvers. Think, for example, of John LaTouche and Earl Robinson’s “Ballad for Americans” (1939) (here’s the famous Paul Robeson recording, if you don’t know it). (The brilliance of Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again” (1935) is its simultaneous invocation and questioning of this myth of the immanence of social justice in the American past).

    And in framing An American Dilemma (1944) with his discussion of the “American Creed,” Gunnar Myrdal gave this vision the blessing of sophisticated social science.

    In this sense, the myth of American religious freedom is just a special case of a more general phenomenon, a desire to find one’s own vision of the American future in the American past.

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