America and Religious Freedom: Two Stories

America and Religious Freedom: Two Stories May 3, 2014

Listen carefully to the culture war in the USA and you will hear two stories of America’s religious freedom. A friend (Carl) pointed me to a book by Steven D. Smith, The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom, that exquisitely outlines these two stories, and I hope you’ll give this post a good read and consideration. I am finding his proposal, or his “revised story,” something compelling enough for me to being to rethink how we talk about church and state, the culture wars and American religious freedom — the whole Christian and the public sector debate.

Before I get to Smith’s book, however, I call your attention to Steven P. Miller’s new book, The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years. If you want an event-by-event account of the evangelical relationship to the State, this book is it — richly documented, balanced in judgment, and wide in scope, Miller’s book makes the case that evangelicalism’s influence has had its day and that the Age of Evangelicalism (1970s and beyond), when evangelicalism’s major concerns were major political concerns, is more or less the ending of a movement, not the stepping stone to more and more influence or power. As I read through Miller’s book I experienced the various postures and hopes and rants of evangelicals ever since I began to follow these postures, hopes and rants — from Carter and Reagan and Schaeffer and Falwell all the way up to Obama and the resurgence of the evangelical progressive/left. Miller’s book more or less fits into the Standard Story of Smith’s book, though Miller’s not interested in that Story (Standard or Revised) but in the seeming arrival of evangelicalism as a major player only to discover it has lost its steam.

I begin with his sketch of the Standard Story, which has five parts.

1. Americans are innovators as a result of the Enlightenment. That is, America is a “lively experiment” (1). Americans inherited Christendom with its Inquisition and Bloody Mary incidents, and the colonies/States had an “audacious new vision and a bold break with the past” (2).

2. The First Amendment was a monumental, meaning-full contribution to the history of ideas and culture. It was a sweeping commitment to keep government from intruding on religion and equality of religion/s.

3. The Fall, or what he calls “the long, dark interlude” or “this long relapse.” American failed to live up to the First Amendment and reverted to the older Christendom model, to the unEnlightenment ways of sponsoring one faith — Protestantism.

4. The modern court-led realization. But the in the middle of the 20th Century SCOTUS realized the mistakes and began to rectify the problems created in the long, dark interlude by being activist about realizing the First Amendment’s vision.

5. The conservatives of today are seeking to undo the court-led realization of the First Amendment and sending us back to the long, dark interlude. Hence, we are in danger of theocracy and genuine freedom is jeopardized.

This Standard Story is winsome to many, not least to judges and lawyers and jurists who see themselves as creating a new way of freedom. And it all begins to sound like the story of racism that is being undone.

But Smith: “Aggregated, the standard themes add up to a story that is, if not flatly false, at least fundamentally misleading” (6). He thinks court-led interventions are undermining religious freedom.

Then we go to his Revised Story, but not in the sense of revisionism but in the sense of “more accurately revised to…”. Five parts once again.

1. American religious freedom is mostly a Christian, with some paganism, idea.  Yes there was something new in the USA but there was something powerfully continuous with the past, and that past was more Christian than anything else. In other words, don’t give the Enlightenment too much credit!

2. The First Amendment was unpretentious, uncontested, undebated. It was designed to affirm the jurisdictional status quo, not to map a new way of life. The point was to affirm the rights of States and to keep the Federal govt from intruding on States rights to determine religion. There would be no national church. Remember, a number of States virtually had a State religion.

3. There was no Fall; until the 1950s or so America experienced a more or less inhabitation of the First Amendment. He calls the relationship of State and Religion the “American settlement” (9). It was separation of church from state, not religion from government and it was about freedom of conscience, and the modus operandi of the USA during this time was “open contestation” (9). Of what? Providentialist readings of history and secularist readings. It was a mass of people of different faiths opening contesting one another without diminishing the unity of the nation. That is, it was e pluribus unum.

4. Dissolution and denial came in the middle of the 20th Century when the SCOTUS opted to enshrine into law the secularist reading of American history and law. The principle of open contestation was denied. It’s decisions are undermining religious freedom.

5. Religious freedom is in jeopardy. The historical reasons for toleration and open contestation are religious enough to be virtually banned from the conversation. There is then, he thinks — and he points to the Obama administration — some clear violations of religious freedoms at work today in the SCOTUS and cultural, standard story vision. The threat is from the so-called religious egalitarians, not the religious conservatives.


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