Let me start off by saying that I absolutely loved this book. It’s my favorite kind of history. Sehat takes one idea and traces its history from the American founding to the present, giving his readers a deep understanding of the concept even as we are disabused of some common misperceptions along the way. The concept here is American religious freedom. The misperceptions are these. Liberals often speak as if from our founding the United States has been a secular nation and that Christian efforts to impose Christian morality on everyone else are out of step with this history. Conservatives often speak as if the United States has always been a Christian nation, and that Christianity is in fact the basis of the religious freedom we all hold so dear. Both are wrong.
Sehat begins with the state constitutions that antedated the U.S. Constitution and provided the examples that would later be used by the founders to write the federal document. He shows how most of the States were very explicit in requiring government officials to not only be Christian but Protestant. Several required oaths of office that simply could not be said by Catholics, Jews, or unbelievers. Several states had official government establishment–where taxes were levied and paid directly to churches to support their buildings and clergy.
The key architects of the Constitution debated such things. James Madison emerged triumphant and the U. S. Constitution was drafted and ratified as a “godless” document. But Madison didn’t get everything he wanted. He wanted the Constitution to have a clause that would give it the authority to nullify State laws that imposed majoritarian religious sentiment on minorities, but he didn’t get it. What he did get was the Bill of Rights, passed as a series of amendments to the Constitution, the first of which begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Shortly after the passage of the Bill of Rights American Christianity was transformed, as the “Second Great Awakening” created thousands and thousands of new converts to groups like the Methodists and Baptists. These “evangelical” Christians were at odds with the older Churches (the ones still receiving tax dollars in many states), and Evangelicals joined with freethinkers and others to oppose establishment of religion in the various states. They won.
But having successfully stopped their tax dollars from going to support churches they didn’t attend, the evangelicals next turned to the task of creating what Sehat calls a “moral establishment.” They didn’t want government money to support their churches directly, but they did want government coercive power to enforce their moral beliefs and cultural practices. Thus their alliance with freethinkers was severed, and the Evangelicals joined their old foes the established churches to try to get government to mandate their moral vision.
They tried at the federal level, but the First Amendment stood in their way. So they went to the states. It worked. Throughout the country in the 19th century Evangelicals succeeded in passing all sorts of laws that mandated their moral vision. Blasphemy laws, for example, made it a crime to speak publicly against the Divinity of Christ, the infallibility and inspiration of the Bible, and other key Evangelical doctrines. Sabbatarian “blue laws” made it a crime to conduct business or other public activities on Sunday. Decency laws outlawed all kinds of activities Evangelicals didn’t believe in. And then of course there was temperance and, eventually, prohibition. Public schools were required to have devotional Bible reading and prayer in many states. Sehat gives many, many more examples of how the moral establishment created a powerful, all-encompassing legal and legislative construct that gave Evangelical beliefs the force of law and outlawed practices to which Evangelicals objected.
But the Evangelical moral establishment ran into some serious problems in the 19th century. There was some disagreement over the role of women in public life. Some evangelicals were more open to progressive views of women’s roles than others, so this plank of the moral establishment was never wholly secure. But the big one was slavery. By the mid-19th century evangelicals were pretty much split about it. Southerners saw slavery as THE key to the entire moral order, for in their view Blacks simply did not possess the moral capacity to live independent lives. Blacks NEEDED slavery for their own salvation, and for the good of the social order, which would turn to chaos if Blacks had civil and political rights. Northern evangelicals had different views–some wanted to end slavery and ship all African Americans back to Africa. Others wanted complete freedom for African Americans. The important point for Sehat is that BOTH northern and southern Evangelicals wanted their view of the place of African Americans to be enshrined in law along with the rest of the moral establishment they had created. Since both views couldn’t, the result was war.
After the war further fissures emerged. As more and more Catholics immigrated to the United States, the contradiction between official legal disestablishment and the reality that Protestantism was enshrined in law all over the country in various domains became more and more obvious. Catholics for their part were totally comfortable with the idea of establishing a religion by government power. They just wanted it to be THEIR religion, not Protestantism, and they deeply resented Protestant evasions that tried to claim there was no Protestant establishment. Public schools became the key battleground, as Catholics again and again chafed against their kids being required to read from a Protestant Bible, memorize the Protestant version of the Ten Commandments, say Protestant prayers, and so on. But throughout this period Protestants were able to maintain their formal establishment thanks to their control of state legislatures and state courts. Freethinkers, likewise, continued to meet with serious problems. Intellectual trends like the historical criticism of the Bible and Darwinian evolution were making more and more people, especially intellectuals, doubtful of traditional Protestant theology, and so blasphemy laws were coming under increasing attack.
And yet for all of this the Protestant moral establishment held. Catholic children got paddled for refusing to say the Ten Commandments. Freethinkers had their lectures shut down and were imprisoned for speaking their minds. Mormons, who practiced polygamy, were hounded out of State after State until they fled to Utah, far enough away from the moral establishment to be left alone for the most part.
But then came the Great Depression, and with it the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries the Supreme Court had been a stalwart upholder of the Protestant Moral Establishment. But by 1940 what had been the dissenting view became the majority view on the court thanks to Roosevelt’s appointment of more liberal justices to the Court, many of them the sons of Jews or freethinkers. They believed that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution changed everything. That Amendment had been passed by the Reconstruction Congress to override the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court (1857), which had universalized the Southern moral establishment view that African Americans could never be citizens in the United States due to their moral inferiority. The 14th Amendment, in contrast, said that they were, and went on to say that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Though the original aim of this amendment was to combat Southern efforts to disenfranchise African Americans, the Supreme Court began in the late 1930s and 1940s to apply it to religious minorities as well. It became the Court’s view that the 14th Amendment meant that the Bill of Rights needed to be followed by the States as well as by the federal government. Madison’s federalist check on state majoritarianism had finally arrived.
The next few decades saw the gradual dismantling of the Protestant moral establishment, as the Supreme Court struck down law after law in various states that imposed Protestantism on everyone else. By the 1960s many Evangelicals looked around and recognized that the country no longer was the Protestant country it used to be, not only in terms of demographics (which had long been the case), but legally as well. And they didn’t like it.
The result was the Culture War, a rear-guard effort by Protestants to restore the moral establishment. Ironically, by the 1970s many conservative Catholics had joined this Protestant crusade, forming the so-called “moral majority,” that has been with us in various incarnations ever since. Today’s moral establishmentarians don’t speak of a Protestant but of a more generically “Christian” or sometimes even “Judeo-Christian” foundation to the country. Be that as it may, Sehat’s book helps us all understand why so many Conservative Christians (many of them homeschoolers) feel so alienated from their country today but also think of themselves as the “real” Americans. We see that religion in the United States has seldom really been about freedom but usually been about coercion. We also see that American conservatives are largely right when they look back with nostalgia on the 19th century when America was a “Christian” nation. It was. By force of law.