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The Myths Of American Religious Freedom


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
David Sehat

Author, 'The Myth of American Religious Freedom'

Today (Jan. 16) is the National Day of Religious Freedom, a day in which we are supposed both to recognize our nation's heritage of religious liberty and to promote that liberty to the world. But as Walter Lippmann once said, "Nations make their histories to fit their illusions," and the American celebration of our religious freedom is no exception. Our self-conception is in fact based on a three-fold myth of American religious freedom that distorts the current debate about religion in public life.

The first myth is that of church-state separation, which claims that the First Amendment separated church and state for the protection of each from the other and the mutual prosperity of both. Liberal writers love to point to Thomas Jefferson, who first coined the "wall of separation" metaphor that made its way into mid-20th-century church-state jurisprudence, and to James Madison, Jefferson's protégé and the architect of the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights. And liberals are correct when they suggest that Madison and Jefferson supported an absolute separation of church and state. But the First Amendment did not create the separation for which Madison and Jefferson hoped. Its religion clauses (like the rest of the Bill of Rights) did not apply to the states until 1940. Since almost all church-state issues emerged on the state level, the First Amendment did not apply. And, contrary to the myth of separation, states were free to do any number of things that surprise us today. They could pay churches out of the public treasury, as some did until well into the antebellum period. They could prosecute for blasphemy against the Christian God. They could establish laws that favored churches as the originators of charitable institutions. They could prosecute violations of the Christian Sabbath. They could require public Bible-reading and prayer in the name of Jesus Christ in public schools. They could do all of this and more -- and they did -- without violating the First Amendment.

Those who acknowledge this past religious coercion are sometimes tempted to wave it away as irrelevant to the current debate. They claim that such religious power has faded with the loss of personal faith in religion that is a mark of modernity. But this is the second myth of religious freedom: the myth of religious decline. Historical sociologists tell us that between 10 and 20 percent of the U.S. populace were church members in 1776. But starting in the early 19th century during the Second Great Awakening, church membership expanded rapidly, doubling to 35 percent of the population by 1850. Church members became a simple majority in 1906, and 62 percent of the American populace belonged to religious institutions in 2000, though not exclusively Christian churches. Evangelical Christians led the way in this organizational expansion. Because evangelicals have long felt that their religion requires them to spread God's word in an attempt to bring their theological understanding to bear on public life, religion has become more important in the public life of the United States over the last 200 years, not less.

Taken together and in a certain light, the first two myths might seem to aid conservatives, but they actually entail a third myth that undermines positions all around: the myth of exceptional liberty. This is the myth most clearly celebrated in the National Day of Religious Freedom. The general idea is that the United States was on the vanguard of religious freedom so that it has become a beacon of freedom to the world. Yet foreign observers of the United States and dissenters within it constantly criticized the notion that America had perfected religious freedom. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1835, a "moral empire" in the United States exerted a powerful force against individuals by using the mechanism of the state. This moral empire, which was led by religious partisans, would grow with the evangelical expansion that Tocqueville observed first hand. As it did so, Tocqueville suggested a troubling dynamic. Unlike in Europe where religious groups sponsored political parties, religious power in the United States did not require formal religious partisanship. Religious partisans worked instead indirectly. They sought first to direct morals, Tocqueville noted, which eventually worked "to regulate the state" even without a formal political apparatus. That actually made religion more powerful in public life -- and more coercive as a result -- while disguising the preferential standing that religious partisans maintained in law and government.

These three myths are long-standing and both liberals and conservatives draw upon them to advance their political aims. But because they are so detached from an accurate history they have yielded a remarkably unproductive discussion about religion in contemporary American life. Rather than advancing the same tired myths, which result in gridlock and falsity in public debate, it is time that we stopped celebrating ourselves and started looking seriously at our past. Overcoming our myths and our illusions about the religious coercion in our national history is a first step toward having an honest debate about the public role that religion should have in the present.