A Nuanced Report Card on Religious Liberty

Steven Waldman has produced an excellent overview of the development of religious liberty in the United States. It is well-written, as one would expect of a journalist (the Beliefnet.com founder is a veteran of Newsweek, among other publications), but also well-researched and reasonably nuanced. Experts on particular eras or subjects will find details about which they can justly complain, but on the whole, Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom deserves high marks.

Just one of the book’s 18 chapters is devoted to the early colonies. Waldman overstates the extent to which Puritans enforced repressive laws with “sadistic enthusiasm.” Yet he is certainly correct that no colony—not even Rhode Island or Pennsylvania—embraced a modern, liberal conception of religious freedom.

America’s Founders rejected Old World approaches to church-state relations. They shared a commitment to protecting religious liberty, and many Founders were coming to question the efficacy of religious establishments. These views contributed to the adoption of a constitution that banned religious tests for federal offices, and to the crafting of a First Amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Jurists and scholars often act as if James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are the only Founders who matter when it comes to religious liberty and church-state relations. Refreshingly, Waldman cautions that Madison “did not alone invent the general concept of religious freedom,” and he notes that even the major Founders differed regarding the extent to which governments should encourage religious practices. 

Waldman identifies Madison as a separationist; but this misunderstands the extent to which he was committed to strictly separating church and state. For instance, he writes that Madison “opposed the appointments of congressional and military chaplains, on the grounds that using tax dollars to pay ministers was creating a religious establishment,” and that he “objected when Presidents Washington and Adams issued prayer proclamations.”  

As a member of the confederation and federal congresses, Madison voted to pay chaplains, and as the nation’s fourth President, he issued four calls for prayer. After he left the presidency he questioned the constitutionality of these practices, but he did so in a private document that was not published in his lifetime. Even if these were views he held earlier, he did not act on them, and there is little evidence that other Founders (except Jefferson) shared them.

In the popular telling of history, America’s Founders embraced religious liberty and everybody lived happily ever after. This is not the story that Waldman tells. Sacred Liberty includes excellent chapters detailing discrimination against, and even persecution of, Roman Catholics and Mormons in the 19th century and Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 20th. As well, he offers solid accounts of the lack of religious liberty afforded to slaves and Native Americans.

An overlooked landmark in the rise of religious liberty in America is the National Conference of Christians and Jews, founded in 1927. In 1933, three of the group’s leaders, a Protestant minister, Catholic priest, and Jewish rabbi, embarked on a 38-city tour to promote interfaith understanding. Their journey was covered by Time magazine, and their endeavor inspired a host of similar tours by other trios throughout the 1930s. 

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Supreme Court began to protect citizens from state laws that hindered their ability to act upon their religious convictions. During the Second World War, civic leaders highlighted religious liberty as a core American value. Anti-Catholicism remained alive and well into the 1940s and 1950s, but John F. Kennedy’s successful presidential bid and the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) did much to alleviate Protestant concerns.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 played an important role in increasing religious diversity in the United States. As of 2017, America had “3,727 synagogues; 2,100 mosques; 810 Hindu temples; 290 Sikh gurdwaras; 2,340 Buddhist centers; 150 Baha’i temples; 60 Afro-Caribbean churches; and 90 Jain worship centers.” Fortunately, by the late twentieth century most Americans had embraced a robust understanding of religious liberty, so the ability of these diverse believers to practice their faiths has been reasonably well protected.

A good example of the widespread support for religious freedom in our time was the nation’s reaction to the 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith. In this case, a majority of justices rejected a test that required the strict scrutiny of laws burdening religious citizens. In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to restore this test. It is noteworthy that the bill was passed in the House without a dissenting vote, was approved 97 to 3 by the Senate, and was signed into law by a Democratic President, Bill Clinton.

Waldman’s book has a mostly happy ending. Religious liberty is well protected today, and legislatures often go out of their way to craft accommodations to protect religious minorities. But he emphasizes that the struggle is not over. Since 9/11, some religious and civic leaders have suggested that Islam is not protected by the First Amendment, and according to a recent poll, 28 percent of Americans favor a ban on the building of mosques in their communities. If we desire to honor the memories of the men and women who sacrificed much to secure religious freedom in this country, we must vigilantly work to ensure that all Americans are able to act according to the dictates of conscience.

Reader Discussion

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on November 25, 2019 at 11:37:02 am

" Since 9/11, some religious and civic leaders have suggested that Islam is not protected by the First Amendment...".

Exactly! And that means that aggressive strictures of the Quran such as Jihad and Sharia, as interpreted and APPLIED by a significant number of Muslims cannot be "protected" forms of religious "freedom" as they deny the religious freedom of the rest of us. There must always be such distinctions if we are to depend on the First Amendment to truly protect freedom of religion for those who do not impose their religion on others.

Muslims who reject such aggressive primitivist interpretations of their holy scripture are welcome, but that cannot apply for the other kind who actively seek conquest and total submission of non-believers as they reminded us with the 9/11 attack.

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on November 25, 2019 at 14:37:37 pm

Waldman is the typical secularist promoting the modern agenda. He doesn't know the founding. "[E]xcellent overview" and "well researched "? Give me a break.

Waldman overstates the repressive laws of the Puritans because he's not a Christian nor does he know the faith. The Puritans did a poor job of teaching their children and grandchildren the proper scriptural roll of faith and nationhood.

As to religious liberty, the founding fathers destroyed the nation at the very foundation. Those pitiful fools doomed freedom and liberty from the start, mandating: paganism, devil worship, the occult, witchcraft and every other kind of blasphemy, inviting God's judgment to us all. Those idiots were so clueless, they had the audacity to implore God's forgiveness for their sins (slavery no doubt among others), while at the same time violating the scriptures by eliminating Christ as the foundation of the republic and sinning when forming the founding documents.

What stupidity and lawless! Had only Edwards, Whitefield and Davies lived to see it! Those fools had no idea what Islam truly is. On at least two occasions the koran records Mohammed thought he was demon possessed while having epileptic seizures, while a pagan woman convinced him they were revelations from Gabriel, but actually from Satan, mohammed's ilah, the moon god of the kabah in arabia.

Not to mention all the other wickedness the founders sealed into the founding documents, and to what they called a Christian nation. John Jay specifically called what he helped form a Christian nation.

The children of the Puritans allowed liberalism to infest the entire population through an antichrist doctrine regarding faith, called federalism; i.e. religion is left to the states, started by enlightenment pagans such as Reid, Hutcheson, Locke, Newton and Clarke, the latter three clearly unitarians and probably the others, who perverted the colonists and the church by de-emphasizing the bible for everything else but God's word. The states were free to establish whatever false religion they wanted and that's what we have today.

How could they be so blind to eliminate Christ as the foundation of the founding documents and sovereign of the republic and allow the states to form whatever pagan religion they wanted; all the while these people called themselves Christians.

How could they think God would approve of idolatry and demonism. It's as though they were under a spell.

Even one of the chief culprits of this tragedy, James Madison, called this a Christian nation.

America’s Founders rejected Old World approaches to church-state relations

There's way more to it than that. They threw away the good part of it (Calvin's Geneva) and kept the worse part of it (lawlessness and tyranny). They didn't protect religious liberty, they destroyed it by promoting every other false religion under the sun.

How could a true regenerated born again believer in Christ, allow and promote idolatry? For instance, you mentioned Hinduism, the worship of dead animals.

religious diversity

How were they to do this when they all mandated assimilation? Just more stupidity from ignorance from possibly fake Christians. Even Roger Sherman went along with this disgraceful travesty.

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on November 26, 2019 at 10:02:51 am

“ If we desire to honor the memories of the men and women who sacrificed much to secure religious freedom in this country, we must vigilantly work to ensure that all Americans are able to act according to the dictates of conscience.”

And therein lies the Crux of the matter, for if our Founding Fathers actually believed all Americans should be able to act according to “the dictates of their conscience”, and not according to the dictates of God Who Is Perfect Love, in essence, all men would become a religion onto themselves.

We can know through both Faith and reason, if our Founding Fathers believed every man to be a religion onto himself, our Founding Fathers would not have felt the need to protect and secure our inherent Right to Religious Liberty, which can only be endowed to us from The True God, in order that we can come to know, Love, and serve The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Life-affirming and Life-sustaining Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, In this life, and hopefully, be with God and our beloved forever, in Heaven.

Love, which is always rightly ordered to the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the persons existing in a relationship of Love, is not possessive, nor is it coercive, nor does it serve to manipulate for the sake of self-gratification, Love is a Gift, given freely from the heart.

“God Is Love.” Love Exists In Relationship. Love Is Trinitarian; The Lover, The Beloved, And The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love Between The Lover And Beloved, The Beloved And The Lover.

And so God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity Has Endowed us with free will so that we can come to know, serve, and freely Love God, as God so Loves us, and in Loving God, authentically Love our beloved according to The Word Of God, Who Desires The Salvation Of Souls.

At the end of the Day, it is still a Great Mystery, but it is no Mystery, that we exist because Perfect Love exists.

“Who do you say that I Am”, has always been the question, as only The Way, The Truth, And The Light Of Perfect Life-affirming and Life-sustaining Salvational Love, can answer the question, “Who am I, why am I here, and where am I going”.

“What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”

In Athens and in Jerusalem, like on every point of Time and Space in God’s Created Universe, Christ Is King, due to Salvational Love, God’s Gift Of Grace And Mercy.

“No one can come to My Father except Through Me.” - Jesus The Christ

The Sacrifice Of The Cross Is The Sacrifice Of The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity; “For God So Loved us, that He Sent His Only Son...”

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on November 26, 2019 at 16:48:13 pm

Well ... sure, no one should be able to impose Sharia law on nonbelievers--just as no one should be able to impose the Ten Commandments or other Biblical codes. And the law should resist efforts for one person to impose his religious views on others--for example, efforts to impose legal discrimination against gays. But the mere existence of religious codes--even if unenforceable--does not put a religion beyond the protection of the First Amendment.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.