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.
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.
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.