American Political Mythbuster

David Sehat set out to “bust” apart some myths about the American political process in this new well-written and finger-pointing book: The Myth of American Religious Freedom. He goes after three myths that are both historically inaccurate and yet — because asserted so often and so well — are influencing American culture and the political process.

Here’s a major claim of Sehat’s:

We will never understand the source, the development , or the stakes of the debate about religion in public life until we acknowledge that for much of its history the United States was controlled by Protestant Christians who sponsored a moral regime that was both coercive and exclusionary.

In other words, religious conservatives are right when they say America was a Christian nation — it was not a Christian by consent but by forms of coercion. It was Christian because of a “moral establishment.” Readers of this blog will know that it is the word “establishment” that bothers me. Instead of Christians busying themselves with the alternative peaceable (and local) kingdom, as I’ve sketched in One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, we have spent far too much time — in direct and indirect ways — trying to get the State to do our will.

What do you think of his three myths? How influential are those myths in political rhetoric? Should they be? Have you heard any of these three myths today or yesterday?

Sehat finds three myths at work in American political history and in public rhetoric, and together they form the myth of American religious freedom:

1. The myth of separation: this liberal myth is that American protected religious freedom through the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. The idea of the separation was held by folks like Jefferson and Madison and John Locke, but the US Constitution did not create such a separation. The individual states had a reservoir of power that regulated citizens morally. Many laws established religion by binding a religious morality to the state.

2. The myth of religious decline: this liberal myth is that America has become decreasingly religious — but the numbers show the exact opposite. Namely, religion in the USA has become increasingly influential in public rhetoric and law. Secularization is not the case of the American public. Instead of thinking religious influence has gone from a strong influence to a weakening, pluralistic, and secularistic ethic, the opposite is the case. In fact, Sehat argues that only by religious coercion could early America be as Christian as it was in law and politics.

3. The myth of exceptional liberty: this conservative myth is that America’s religions have grown because America is the world’s leader in promoting religious freedom. America is thus an exception. Sehat argues that the moral establishment set moral boundaries that coerced — by law and rhetoric — dissenters into agreement. It is not exceptional in granting religious freedoms.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Joshua Wooden

    I found myself reading this and thinking to myself, “What is this guy’s [Sehat's] angle?”. Maybe I won’t know until I read the book, but I’m curious to know- does he consider himself conservative, liberal, or in neither. What are the effects of these three myths in the church and in the larger society?

    And a question concerning the first myth: is it a bad thing that Americans (Christian and non-Christian alike) want there to be “a wall separating the church and state” (Jefferson’s words in his letter to the Danbury Baptists). It may not be constitutional in the strict sense, but does that make it a bad thing? Do we want the church using the state as a means to secure hegemony and coerce (his word) the public to toe the party line? Conversely, do we want the state turning to the church to bless it (its policies, agendas, wars, etc.) in return? I guess my own views are quite obvious here- I think its good for the church that the state not interfere with it, and vice versa, and fine movements that try and get “Christian candidates” in office to pass legislation favoring Christian values to be, at best counter-productive and, at worst, divisive, vain and worldly.

  • tm

    Yawn is my answer. Does not Tocqueville talk of mores and communal pressure and even tyranny of the majority? Is that not what democracy has often been about – communal mores being put into law? Might not fit your 21st century ideas of individual rights (a pretty 20th century development as it was), but such a provocative title certainly moves books and selection committees. Just glad to know that such a book is also offering feed for the “Christian America” mill as well. The truth is Protestants tried to make America their own in the 19th century and failed (The South is a different, more unfortunate substory). This book might dress it up differently and try to make different points for the 21st century, but that frankly looks like cover for a tedious and self-righteous history.

  • Scot McKnight

    Joshua,

    Sehat says he’s a former evangelical but no longer; I’d take him as a progressive. But he doesn’t seem to be pushing an anti-Right (or anti-Left) agenda.

    The issue on the wall for Sehat is whether it is Constitutional.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/majlens_art/ gingoro

    “Former evangelical” means very little! I consider myself a former evangelical also. But that does not mean that I have changed my theology just that the term evangelical has changed and now seems to include many who used to be called fundamentalists.
    Dave W

  • Scot McKnight

    OK, folks, enough on Sehat’s own beliefs. This is what he says about himself — “former evangelical.” But, the post is about three myths …

    What do you think of his three myths? How influential are those myths in political rhetoric? Should they be?

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    This was an excellent read —

    Basically, both liberals and conservatives get history wrong, and taint it to suit their own contemporary political narrative.

    Religious current in the streams of the “founding fathers” thinking ran in three threads, two of which (throughout history have united and trumped a third, and this changes composition every century or so)…

    * …”establishmentarians”, seeking total church-state unison. Patrick Henry would be an example of this group.

    * …moderates that, while not overtly religious, strongly believed in the “moral establishment”, the role of religion in keeping the masses from licentiousness, drunkenness, slovenliness, etc.… Washington (and Franklin to a degree) is a prime example of this group and they swayed early on, frightened by the zealotry in the first group to the side of Madison & Jefferson

    * …advocates of religious independence and “wall of separation” between church and state. That no man could have liberty without total religious freedom — Madison and Jefferson are the main individuals here, and this was not a view that was popular with the public — not that the public was overwhelmingly in the 1st (“establishment”) group, but as time passed, and effects of The Great Awakening propagated, the “evangelicals” and “establishmentarian” church ultimately united against such “freethinkers”. The more I study Madison, the more he appears to be the true founder genius, weaving the middle group with his in charting the Constitution and early government foundation, falling short of his ideal setup but he did steer things in this direction enough…

    As noted, there were state laws that still stipulated religious tests, wording that prevented Catholics and Jews (anyone non-WASPish) from participating or holding office (worded carefully that it was not overtly forbidden, but by the very definition, framed to preclude such individuals of low or questionable moral standing). Laws against blasphemy were enforced (even if a state had no law on the books, on the merit of “common law”/”natural law”), Sunday blue laws, non-theists could not hold or convey property in trust, etc.…

    In the aftermath of civil war of reconstruction, a stodgy SCOTUS reinforced this “moral establishment” and it wasn’t until late 19th century / early 20th century, it began to unravel.

    Again, what I found interesting, was how the author identified (totally tangential to his missive, but the more I study American political history, see this pattern repeated and repeated), different times, three distinct threads of thought, and two joining against one other. Also, the more I read of founding history, the more Madison shines as brilliant — even though the nation’s charter fell short of his conceived religious liberty, it was remarkable how he engineered such an imprint of “separation of church and state”.

    Historically, US high courts repeatedly upheld the “moral establishment”, even when it had little to do with legislative benchmark or precedent.

    Sehat: So my problem with much of the political debate over the role of religion in public life, especially when that debate invokes history, is that the various parties are simply enacting the culture wars rather than using history to frame their arguments in a meaningful way. As a result, the history is bad on all sides. Liberals are too tendentious when they claim a separation of church and state in the past. To them, I say that Christianity was so thoroughly entwined with law and government that Protestant Christianity had significant power through its connection with the state. And I have to say that when conservatives claim that the United States was a Christian nation in the past, in a certain sense they are right. But I also have a problem with religious conservatives, because the past was not the Christian utopia that some of them claim. Christians relied upon law to protect their religion. And what law involves, above all else, is the coercive capacities of the state. So if we say that the United States was a Christian nation in the past, we must also say that it was a coercively Christian nation.

  • http://andypotter.org Andrew Potter

    My response would be an appeal to do some reanalysis about the concept of neutrality. Is this possible? Do we want really want this? This could be done in two areas:

    1.) In what periods of history has humankind seen the most societal transformation toward God and a proliferation of God’s message to the people? Off the top of my head it appears to me that the ruling government was often if not always involved. Constantine, Charlemagne, Colonial USA … etc. I’m not denying that a Christian movement can flourish without government approval but when has it occurred. Maybe some of the history buffs could enlighten us.

    2.) (perhaps related to the response from tm) If our moral codex does not have its roots in theology from whence does it come? What is the alternative? Do we really want our governments moral guidelines to be absent of religious influence. I can think of two theological areas which influence and are influenced by such decisions. a.) The are of natural theology. i.e. is a moral code outside of biblical revelation possible and/or desired? b.) Anthropology, what is the non-Christian population capable of? In light of Romans 3, do we want our society to be run by such individuals.

    Again, I’m not positing a specific line of thinking but I do see major doctrines at play in the matter.

  • David Himes

    One point regarding the “coercive capacities of the state.”

    These capacities derive from the consent of the governed — they are not imposed by some unrepresentative outside or higher power. So, if Sehat is correct that, in effect, the state protected Christianity, it is likely because the dominant majority of voters were Christian and supported that line.

    Sehat’s failure to recognize this connection is a fundamental flaw in this premise.

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    @David Hines, #8, wrote: These capacities derive from the consent of the governed — they are not imposed by some unrepresentative outside or higher power. So, if Sehat is correct that, in effect, the state protected Christianity, it is likely because the dominant majority of voters were Christian and supported that line.

    But that is precisely the rub — “majority rule” often means that the rights of minorities are trampled, along with their property, safety and freedom. Establishment of a charter that declares (or prohibits making laws that violate), freedom of religious worship, speech, etc.… as opposed to a “coercively Christian nation” that discriminates against Jews, Catholics, women, African-Americans and actively denies not just “equality” but participation and degrades their dignity.

    Sehat explores in detail, court cases, that upheld the “moral establishment” — blasphemy cases where conviction was upheld (for “freethinkers” advocating atheistic thought or even doubt) even though state had no blasphemy law on the books, laws that prohibited anyone of non-Protestant faith from even participating in the government process, state religious tests, etc.…

  • normbv

    I would venture that it doesn’t matter if it’s constitutional because each successive generation will define the “constitution” to their own liking. That drives constitutionalist up the wall, but the fact is that it is living people who govern themselves not the past dead.

    Every society that governs itself is influenced by its religiosity, so it seems that America is simply following natural patterns. Perhaps there is progress being made in the collective religious conscience of America as we evolve away from antiquated forms of thought. Time will tell

    The guy sounds like a frustrated libertarian to me that hasn’t come to grips with how things actually work. I don’t think many people are typically happy with the way things are when we get right down to it.

  • EricG

    Regarding myth number 1, it is more complicated than described in the post, and there is support for a nuanced liberal position. One key point is that when first written the Establishment Clause clearly only applied to the federal government, and at that level it was envisioned as a wall of separation (there is good support for this). States were free to do as they wanted, and were all across the map (although Virginia set up separation of church and state early on, others did not).
    But the Civil War amendments incorporated the First Amendment so that it applies to the States now, or at least SCOTUS has held so since the thirties. So now the wall that applied to the fed government applies to States. Conservatives could start questioning incorporation, but that raises bigger problems. If there is no incorporation, for example, States are free under the Constitution to trample our free expression and freedom of religion rights, which is a very problematic position.

  • Rick

    Normbv-

    “That drives constitutionalist up the wall, but the fact is that it is living people who govern themselves not the past dead.”

    But, in our relatively young country, the living appreciate and like the ideas of “the dead”.

  • smcknight

    EricG, the difference between the federal and State is the point of his study in this regard. Yes, the summary is simple but the only other option is to write a post so long no one will read it.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Andrew Potter @ #7:

    The first 300 years of Christianity saw amazing spread and growth in spite of the government (not with it)- starting with the movement recorded in the book of Acts. Today, the church in China, and other countries where it is forbidden, have grown at an astounding rate (and still continue to grow). This is not done with, but in spite of the government. Regardless, the point is that God’s Kingdom does not genuinely grow through coercion, and this may be evidenced by the apathy expressed in an increasingly secular Western society, that believes it is making up for the past ill of so-called Christian movements, that relied upon the power of the state to do its bidding and vice versa.

  • EricG

    Thanks Scot. Does he say anything about incorporation of the First Amendment by the 14th to apply to the states? That is what gives the liberal argument teeth, IMO.

  • http://jeffkclarke.com Jeff

    What I find interesting is how Christians living within a Canadian political landscape (though quite different in a number of ways) share these same myths with our American neighbors. Specifically, the underlying myth of acquiring national and regional transformation primarily through governmental protest and legislation.

    While Christians should make their voices heard, as every religious group has the right to do within a religiously pluralistic country, we should also conclude that authentic change will never be fully realized through governmental action alone. As I mentioned in a recent blog, Christianity was never meant to be something that is enforced, but received by grace, through faith. And, any attempt to do so will lead us into a time of superficial Christianity, where people submit out of guilt or remorse brought on through manipulation, rather than genuine Spirit conviction.

    http://jeffkclarke.com/2011/01/22/church-an-state/

    Great post.

  • dopderbeck

    I haven’t read the book yet. My reservation just based on these descriptions is that, prior to about the turn of the 19th Century, and with the excetion of a few radical Enlightenment thinkers, all law and all policy in America was fundamentally “reglious” — no mater what side of the issues folks were on. So, there were “Christian” arguments for and against slavery, woman’s suffrage, Chuch establishment and Church disestablishment, and so on. This seems to make the whole argument a bit anachronistic.

  • normbv

    Rick #12

    “But, in our relatively young country, the living appreciate and like the ideas of “the dead”.

    Didn’t say they don’t give it lip service but the realities are that people will change the interpretation to fit their contemporary fancy if they deem it desirable to. That’s what the fight over Supreme court appointees is all about.
    In other words you can write something and put it in what you think is concrete and come back 50 years and see that it wasn’t in concrete after all. The world changes and so do people and they way they look at things. Sometimes they choose wisely and sometimes not.

  • AHH

    The myth of religious decline: this liberal myth is that America has become decreasingly religious

    Am I the only one who went “Huh?” at seeing this one described as “liberal”?

    It is the religious conservatives who are always lamenting the secularization of American society, the rise of the secular humanist bogeyman, the decline of a formerly “Christian nation”, etc. It was in conservative circles that the statistic about how only 5% of current youth were going to be Christian adults (or whatever the phony number was) spread like wildfire.
    On the other hand, among some liberals (this was more common during the Bush administration), it is not uncommon for fears of developing “theocracy” to be expressed.
    So if the decline of religion in the U.S. is a myth, I’d say it is believed by conservatives at least as much as by liberals.

  • Scot McKnight

    AHH, fair enough. You are probably right, but progressives use this argument as well to foster less and less of a religious presence and more and more of a pluralistic worldview.

  • Rick

    Normbv-

    Clearly people can decide to change at an instant. They may decide to create a dictatorship. However, the mindset in our country is to adhere to the principles expressed in the Constitution. Part of this is the difficulty in making drastic changes. Applications may change quickly, but not adherence to the overall principles.

    AHH-

    I think you are right, although I wonder if there is confusion about the use of “secular”, “religious”, and pluralism. Liberals may think the country is becoming secular, while conservatives are concerned the country is becoming pluralistic (no longer a “Christian nation”), although still largely religious.

  • Dale A. Brueggemann

    One comment wondered if the church ever grew strongly apart from times when government sided with it. I think of the Apostolic church under the Roman Empire and the church in China under today’s oppression. Mind you; I’m not areguing from that to defend Madison’s “wall of separation.”

  • JohnM

    Myth #1 Busted. As as EricG pointed out, initially the first amendment imposed no limitations on state governments. For better or worse our federal system used to be more federal.

    Myth #2 Plausible. Depends on what you have in mind. Remember, religious isn’t the same as Christian.

    Myth #3 Confirmed. Look at the number of sects that originated on American soil. Sehat seems to be one of those who think religious freedom is absent if religion has any kind of influence at all.

  • Theo

    Our constitution in Arkansas forbids atheists from holding public office. It is useful in ensuring we remain conservative.

  • Doug Indeap

    The constitutional principle of separation of church and state is neither “liberal” nor a “myth.” By treating this as a modern-day liberal-conservative political issue, Sehat reveals more about himself than law or history. He has those leftie-rightie glasses on pretty tight.

    The phrase “separation of church and state” is but a metaphor to describe the principle reflected by the Constitution (1) establishing a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) and, indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in the First Amendment where the point is to confirm that each person enjoys religious liberty and that the government is not to take steps to establish religion and another provision precluding any religious test for public office. That the phrase does not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, only to those who may have once labored under the misimpression it was there and, upon learning they were mistaken, reckon they’ve discovered a smoking gun solving a Constitutional mystery. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to describe one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

    Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that is the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    The First Amendment embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others. By keeping government and religion separate, the establishment clause serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted. Moreover, they are good, sound principles that should be nurtured and defended, not attacked. Efforts to undercut our secular government by somehow merging or infusing it with religion should be resisted by every patriot.

    Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you. http://tiny.cc/6nnnx

  • Joshua Wooden

    Theo at 24- is that tong-in-cheek, or are you serious?

  • Susan N.

    dopderbeck @ #17 – well said. Look back at our nation’s history without rose-colored glasses or blinders, and one has to wonder what “Christian nation” means to some people?

  • Jeremy

    Joshua – “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court.” It is unenforced though, to my knowledge, as there’s no way it’d survive a federal challenge.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Jeremy –

    It is unenforced though, to my knowledge, as there’s no way it’d survive a federal challenge.

    It’s unenforceable. Invalidated in the Supreme Court case Torcaso v. Watkins.

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    @Doug Indeap, #25, wrote: The phrase “separation of church and state” is but a metaphor to describe the principle reflected by the Constitution (1) establishing a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) and, indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in the First Amendment where the point is to confirm that each person enjoys religious liberty and that the government is not to take steps to establish religion and another provision precluding any religious test for public office. That the phrase does not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, only to those who may have once labored under the misimpression it was there and, upon learning they were mistaken, reckon they’ve discovered a smoking gun solving a Constitutional mystery. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to describe one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

    “Separation of church and state” is precisely what Madison sought when architecting the Constitution and the language got tamed down a bit from previous incantations as Madison sought the alliance of the middle camp pitted against “establishmentarians”. In the mind of Madison (and Jefferson), no liberty could be possible without complete religious liberty, or “separation of church and state”.

    Sehat: Madison recognized that majorities could use their access to government to suppress and tyrannize minorities. Therefore, the rights of the minority had to be protected from the will of the majority. That formulation made no sense when rights belonged to the people at large, as they had in much of 18th century political thought. To make sense of this puzzle, Madison suggested that individuals had rights that the government, even when supported by the majority, could not trample. Religious belief in particular was the most fundamental individual right, according to Madison, and in order to protect it the government needed to stay out of religion altogether.

    See Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessment (along with Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom)

    Sehat: Madison wanted the complete eradication of the establishment, putting him at odds with the evangelicals over the long haul. But, in the short term, they forged an effective political alliance.

    And, finally, Sehat again on the 1st amendment: The debate over the 1st amendment — along with the earlier debate in the Virginia Assembly — had established the symbolic import of religious liberty. But the passage of the 1st amendment muddied the clear waters of what had been a godless Constitution. Rather than providing a clear institutionalized form of religious liberty, the 1st amendment created a ambiguous legal framework in which religious partisans could use the levers of law and politics to create a moral establishment while claiming religious freedom. It was exactly the result that Madison feared.

  • R Hampton

    Also, see Madison’s Property, March 29, 1792

    …If there be a government then which prides itself in maintaining the inviolability of property; which provides that none shall be takendirectly even for public use without indemnification to the owner, and yet directly violates the property which individuals have in their opinions, their religion, their persons, and their faculties; nay more, which indirectly violates their property, in their actual possessions, in the labor that acquires their daily subsistence, and in the hallowed remnant of time which ought to relieve their fatigues and soothe their cares, the influence [inference?] will have been anticipated, that such a government is not a pattern for the United States. (emphasis Madison’s, not mine)

  • http://getrad2.blogspot.com Blessed Economist

    The protestant church in America is a Christianist movement.


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