Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom, Stephen Waldman. New York: Harper Collins, 2019.
Summary: Rather than a given of American religious history, religious liberty has often been honored more in the breach, and fought for by religious minorities excluded from this liberty.
One of the mythologies of American history was the commitment from the beginnings of the American experiment to religious liberty, beginning with the earliest Pilgrim and Puritan settlers. The reality was actually quite different. Stephen Waldman traces the struggle for religious liberty beginning with the case of Mary Dyer, branded a Puritan heretic for participating in Anne Hutchinson’s Bible studies and eventually becoming a Quaker. On June 1, 1660, she was hung on the Boston Common for her faith. In America.
As the colonies developed, a religious patchwork also developed with particular bodies sanctioned by the state, and others struggling for existence, often restricted by while funding the state-supported churches, Anglicans in one colony, Congregationalists in another. The Baptists seemed to have to fight for their rights everywhere. These religious divisions were submerged during the Revolution, with even Catholics receiving a measure of toleration. Real steps forward were taken with the advocacy of Thomas Jefferson, after his correspondence with the Danbury Baptists, and the genius insight of Madison that the best way to foster religious vitality was to take government out of the business of establishing religion or in any way prohibiting its free exercise. Enshrined in the First Amendment, it was a first major step toward religious freedom–at the federal level. No one had yet applied this to individual states.
The states would follow later, unleashing a fervor of religious activity, confirming Madison’s wisdom. But this at first only applied to Protestants. The arriving Catholic immigrants faced prejudice at different periods, including at one point, opposition from the Klan who expanded their white exclusivism to “100 percent Americans,” excluding Catholics from eastern and southern Europe. Likewise, the tribal religions of slaves were exterminated for a Christianity that liberated the soul but held the body captive. Mormons would pose another challenge, with their strange beliefs and polygamy. They would be murdered and driven out of state after state until finding refuge in Utah. Eventually their liberties were recognized with the concession to monogamous marriage. Native peoples also had their own religions, but as they were subjugated, they were forced into residential schools. The aim was to “Kill the Indian, Christianize the Man.” Only in 1978 did Congress pass legislation protecting their religious rights. Then it was the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their refusal to salute the American flag, which led to the application of First Amendment freedoms at the state and local level.
In more recent years, following World War 2, Waldman traces the Judeo-Christian alliance in public life, He traces the increasing presence of the Supreme Court in religious liberty cases, the influx of people representing the other major world religions–Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism and modern developments that have led to Evangelical and Catholic alliances, attacks on Islam, the conversion of a religious majority into a “persecuted” religious minority whose religious liberty needs protection.
One question Waldman leaves us with is how religious liberty extends to practices that may have impact on the public good, for example, the case of polygamy, or medical treatment when a child’s life is at risk. Must pharmacists dispense medications that violate their conscience or bakers or photographers accept clients whose views of marriage they disagree with? In these latter cases, Waldman seems to encourage common sense accommodations rather than laws or court rulings. Of course, this assumes a pluralistic marketplace, a condition that does not exist in all communities.
One question Waldman did not address, other than in school prayer discussions, is the protection of the belief and liberty those who believe there is no God. Atheists have also been subject to persecution and discrimination and a chapter addressing the protection of their freedom of conscience, something not explicitly included in the First Amendment, unless one defines atheism as a religion, would have been worth discussing.
A recurring theme is that religious liberty often has been the preserve of the religion in power and minorities had to fight for the extension of those rights to them. Waldman demonstrates the genius of Madison and the First Amendment in fostering a vibrant religious landscape. Part of the key was that he realized that political power would sooner or later have a corrupting influence on the religion. The best test of a religion’s veracity was its ability to convince prospective followers without compulsion. The best way to protect a nation from religious conflict was to determinedly protect the freedom of conscience for all.
This is an important book that underscores the wisdom of applying the First Amendment consistently. To protect the religious freedom of any of us is to protect that of all of us. The real test of religious freedom is, will we defend the liberties of those with whom we disagree or even consider heretical by our own standards? Sadly, our story is too often one of attacking rather than defending the rights of those with whom we differ. For all that, Madison’s wisdom has proven itself over time. Will we reflect upon that and continue to preserve this distinctive “first freedom?”