An energetic pop history surveys America’s commitments to religious liberty from the 17th century to the present.
As journalist and Beliefnet co-founder Waldman (Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America, 2008, etc.) shows, whatever you may have learned in elementary school about the Puritans, the Colonies were hardly bastions of religious freedom; in fact, using executions and arrests, English leaders harshly enforced various ecclesial establishments. It wasn’t until the American Revolution that the Founding Fathers crafted norms of religious liberty. James Madison is the star of Waldman’s account; Thomas Jefferson shows up for his 1801 use of the phrase “wall of separation between Church & State,” but the author pays too little attention to his important role in pushing for religious toleration in revolutionary Virginia. The late-18th- and early-19th-century articulations of religious freedom were the true beginning of the story. In the decades that followed, many groups, including Catholics, Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, prodded the nation to further embody its ideals of religious liberty. As late as 1942, Franklin Roosevelt opined that America was “a Protestant country and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.” Indeed, as Waldman’s especially helpful discussion of the post–World War II landscape demonstrates, the 1940s brought a new push for interfaith understanding—Amy Vanderbilt’s etiquette guide included a chapter on it—as a sort of generic, pluralist faith was marshalled as a counter to communism. The 1940s also saw the Supreme Court taking a more expanded role defining religious freedom; in earlier decades, argues the author, the shape of religious liberty was largely left up to local governments. Turning to the present, Waldman suggests how anti-Islamic sentiment among non-Muslim Americans provides a way of assessing the reach and the limits of America’s commitment to religious pluralism.
Armchair historians who can tolerate Waldman’s occasional stylistic indulgences—e.g., dramatic single-sentence paragraphs, breathless ellipses, lengthy block quotes—will be rewarded with an informative account.