In this weighty text spanning all of American history, Sehat (History/Georgia State Univ.) argues that despite an overarching narrative of religious freedom, the United States has never truly practiced freedom of religion, rightly understood.
Instead, a moral establishment, marked by Protestantism, has continually attempted to squash dissent and the voice of other faiths. For the most part, it has been quite successful. The author points to early court cases, such as those on blasphemy, to suggest that even in the first years following the ratification of the Constitution, Christian viewpoints stood as de facto law. The abolitionist and suffragist movements both posed unique challenges for the moral establishment, which Sehat defines as “the creation of an active religious minority who believed that God had established moral norms, and that it was incumbent upon them to enforce those norms through law.” As the slavery question was settled, the establishment began to practice a moral superiority over freed blacks, while continuing to fight women’s rights. Into this late-19th-century setting entered two other challenges, Catholicism and Mormonism, which sought religious freedom and parity yet were continually denied it. The American narrative throughout these eras, and into the 20th century, spoke of religious liberty, yet Sehat argues that this concept was mere fancy. The reality was far more complex and volatile. “Protestants wanted a connection between religion and the state,” writes the author, “that relied on both a common nonsectarian Christianity and an institutional separation between church and state while still protecting absolute religious freedom. This was an impossible position.” The author argues that in order to move ahead as a society marked by true freedom of religion, it is imperative to recognize that such freedom has not actually existed in the history of American culture and law.
Sehat provides food for thought in a sometimes acidic tone, as he unmasks and attacks the moral establishments across American history.