- Of Liberal Persuasion
David Sehat's The Myth of American Religious Freedom is a work of historical scholarship that directly engages today's political debates about religion and politics, church and state. The work's chronology is broad, spanning from the founding of the American Republic through the twentieth century. Its narrative is episodic, exploring events such as the Founding, the nineteenth-century women's movement, the experience of Catholics and ex-slaves, the emergence of corporations, and modern Supreme Court decisions, all knit together with a thematic indictment of the Republic's claim of religious freedom. The work's style, its language and emphases, reveal how today's political debates inform the narrative, often suggesting the connections between past and present the author intends, as in recurring words like "evangelicals," "coercion," "moral authority," "the family," and "religious control." Sehat, though, forswears partisanship in this debate, striking the pose, at least early, of the proverbial moderate mediating today's political divides between religious conservatives and secular liberals. His purpose, he explains, is "to dispense with the historical myths by which each side supports their position and in so doing make way for a new and more meaningful conversation on the public role of religion in the present" (p. 8).
Clearing the conversation of old myths, Sehat identifies the secular liberal myth as the claim that the United States was not significantly a Christian society at its founding. "In many ways," he notes, the United States "was a Christian nation in that Christians had significant control over law and governance and used it to enforce morality." To highlight this point, Sehat discusses the strong Protestant elements in the early state constitutions, such as religious tests for public office requiring officials to avow the veracity of biblical text. He maintains that proponents of these practices thwarted James Madison's attempt to invest the national government with veto power over such state formulations. These Christian elements, he insinuates, simply cannot be ignored in understanding the Republic's founding. Sehat takes similar aim at religious conservatives, whose myth is the implied claim that the Christian [End Page 308] components of the Founding and thereafter worked through consent rather than coercion. "If it was a Christian nation, it was not so by consent," he insists, but by "the coercion of law" (p. 8). This notion of coercion infuses the narrative, seemingly applied to all social institutions and norms hindering the liberation of the individual. The America that emerges is probably unfamiliar to even well-informed citizens: an America in which religious and moral coercion are integral national practices. This is key to the author's choice of titles. "Because the morality enforced in law often came from Protestant Christian ideals and was presented as such, behind the claim of exceptional liberty stood the reality of religious control, which worked through much of U.S. history to coerce rather than to persuade citizens to behave according to religious norms" (p. 7).
Highlighting this religious coercion defines Sehat's endeavor. He seeks to uncover the legal enforcement of religious norms throughout American history by analyzing what he calls the nation's long-standing "moral establishment." He borrows this phrase from John Witte Jr. to explain that, even after the ending of "legal establishments" publicly funding churches, evangelicals—many of whom denounced public funding—constructed a moral establishment by using legislatures and courts to enact their religiously informed moral norms into law. Early examples of such norms, overtly religious, include Sabbath laws restricting Sunday activities and antiblasphemy laws restricting religious speech, both clearly breaching modern sensibilities of religious freedom. Coverture, however, restricting the legal rights of married women, breaches less the modern sense of religious freedom than of gender equity, though Sehat maintains that the antebellum conflation of Christianity and the common law sustained the moral establishment by infusing its norms into such arenas not overtly religious. The success of such arguments is less clear in exploring attempts to "civilize" ex-slaves after emancipation. The claim is that "racial theories" and "bourgeois values...