The Myth of American Religious Freedom: Interview with David Sehat

Paul Harvey

In the tradition of this blog of posting author interviews from recently published important works in our field (when we're not thinking about zombies, or finding paeans to Sarah Palin on YouTube), I'm pleased today and tomorrow to post a two-part interview with David Sehat, author of the new book The Myth of American Religious Freedom, just out with Oxford.

We've blogged about the book in pre-release before, and I made some false promises to put up a post about Sehat's book together with Sally Gordon's The Spirit of the Law. Sadly, that post will have to wait until the tsunami of the semester calms down a bit, but I believe putting those two books together provides a most stimulating narrative (complementary on some points, contrasting on others) of the intellectual (Sehat) and social (Gordon) history of the concept of religious freedom. In the meantime, here is part one of our interview with David Sehat. You may follow more of his thoughts from his book over at U.S. Intellectual History, where he is a contributor and has recently posted great stuff based on the book, and also check out his recent entry at the Huffington Post, which contains an extensive summary of some of the major themes of the book.

Interview with David Sehat, Part I

Paul Harvey (PH): David, the central phrase in your book is "moral establishment," and you argue that for much of American history we have had a "moral establishment that connected religion and the state." Can you briefly define what you mean by this term for our readers, and why you have chosen to make it central to your book?

David Sehat (DS): Paul, thanks for reading the book and for interviewing me.

When I began researching this book, I was reading the letters and writings of a nineteenth-century agnostic named Robert Ingersoll. My intention was to write a book about American freethought or American agnosticism as a way of showing the informal power of Protestant Christianity. But as I read Ingersoll’s papers, I came across a case (he was a lawyer) that puzzled me. In 1886, he unsuccessfully defended a man named Charles B. Reynolds, who was being tried on two counts of blasphemy. I was stumped: How could a man be convicted of blasphemy nearly one hundred years after the passage of the First Amendment? As I went deeper into the case, my confusion grew. I discovered that blasphemy law existed for much of the nineteenth century, even if its enforcement was erratic. According to its proponents, criticizing Christianity or any elements of Christianity undermined the public foundation for morals. I also discovered that blasphemy was similar to many other kinds of law in that Protestant Christian ideas received the formal protection of law, which was a surprise to me. In other words, the judgments in this case, and many others, only made sense if Christianity was something like an official religion that relied upon the protection of the law.

To make sense of what was going on, I borrowed the idea of a “moral establishment” from the legal scholar John Witte Jr. Taking Witte’s concept further than he might have intended (and probably not in a way that he would agree with), I claim that the moral establishment involves the use of law to perpetuate Christian morals in society. The more I researched, the more I saw that this moral establishment was one of the chief mechanisms throughout American history by which Protestant Christian partisans maintained religious power over society in often illiberal ways.

: You spend a good amount of time criticizing positions on the left and on the right of our current politics, in terms of how they employ religious history to make their favored points about religion/state issues (and moral issues generally). What do you think each side gets basically wrong about history, and if you were anointed Historical King, what would you tell your subjects about how to use history properly in framing arguments about present-day concerns?

: I see both the Left and the Right as misguided in their understanding of the past. Both regard American religious history as a history of freedom that is threatened by the policies of the other side. But I don’t see U.S. history as a history of religious freedom. Instead, I see U.S. history as predominantly one in which Protestant Christians used law and politics to maintain religious power. That is evident in the case of blasphemy laws, but also in a host of other laws and practices that survived for much of U.S. history. It was only in the mid-twentieth century that the Supreme Court began dismantling this connection between religion and the state in order to mitigate religious power and to protect the individual. The Court’s actions caused religious conservatives to mobilize for the restoration of their past power, thus beginning the culture wars of the last fifty years.

So my problem with much of the political debate over the role of religion in public life, especially when that debate invokes history, is that the various parties are simply enacting the culture wars rather than using history to frame their arguments in a meaningful way. As a result, the history is bad on all sides. Liberals are too tendentious when they claim a separation of church and state in the past. To them, I say that Christianity was so thoroughly entwined with law and government that Protestant Christianity had significant power through its connection with the state. And I have to say that when conservatives claim that the United States was a Christian nation in the past, in a certain sense they are right. But I also have a problem with religious conservatives, because the past was not the Christian utopia that some of them claim. Christians relied upon law to protect their religion. And what law involves, above all else, is the coercive capacities of the state. So if we say that the United States was a Christian nation in the past, we must also say that it was a coercively Christian nation.

At bottom, I think all discussions about religion in public life have to acknowledge this past of religious coercion so that, while addressing present day concerns, we can be sure that we do not go back to that coercive past.

: I have often used the phrase "de facto establishment," or "de facto Protestant establishment," in classes, to suggest something of the informal Protestant establishment of the 19th century (the phrase you use in the book is "informal religious establishment," which you then go on to critique as wrong). In effect, your book suggests that my phrasing is wrong, because it fails to capture the legally coercive nature of the moral establishment. So, can you tell me how, in classroom setting, I should explain to students how and why we had effectively a legal establishment even after the First Amendment said we couldn't have one?

: Perhaps we can introduce more concepts than just “legal establishment.” First, we have to explain to students that the religion clauses of the First Amendment did not apply to the states until 1940. The Bill of Rights, for much of American history, applied only to the federal government: at the time when the First Amendment was ratified, six states still paid churches out of the public treasury and continued to be free to do so under the Frist Amendment. To put it most clearly: students need to understand that the First Amendment is really beside the point when we are talking about religious establishments and religious power prior to 1940.

Second, we can explain to students what exactly we mean by an “establishment.” As I mentioned earlier, I rely on John Witte Jr., who argues that there are three components of the American religious establishment: institutional, ceremonial, and moral. Institutional establishment is when states pay churches with public funds. Ceremonial establishment is when states incorporate an homage to God as part of their public ritual ceremonies (like swearing on a Bible or saying “So Help Me God” in the oath of office). And moral establishment is when states draw upon the moral ideas of Christianity (or Protestant Christianity) to craft their laws. When states finally decided to stop paying churches—in other words, when they did away with institutional establishment—there were still two other components of the American religious establishment in place.

I think the moral establishment is the most important because it enabled Protestant Christians to use the idea of morality to establish a special place for their religion in law. As a result, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and freethinkers, along with a host of others who purportedly failed to demonstrate proper moral norms, faced an active and state-sponsored discrimination that grew out of Protestant legal control.

: The American Missionary Association (AMA) was one of the primary institutional expressions in the nineteenth century of what you call the "moral establishment." Yet its vision for southern blacks after the Civil War, "education for citizenship," eventually gave way to what you call the "white Southern vision of the moral establishment . . . in which maintaining moral order, in this case with a decidedly racial cast, overcame the black argument for individual and equal rights." Do you see this as a case where the center of the moral establishment could not hold? Or I'll put the question another way, paraphrasing Randolph Bourne's famous question to John Dewey about the support of progressive liberals for World War I: if the moral establishment was so dominant, and so (as you frequently suggest) coercive, then how was it so weak as to not be able to prevent the coming of the Civil War, or do anything about the horrific carnage of the Civil War (except to give it religious meaning)?

: This is a great question, thanks for asking it. I don’t want to claim that the moral establishment was all-powerful or even powerful enough to stop the Civil War. I want to make the opposite case: the issue of slavery split the moral establishment, with southern proponents claiming that slavery was an institution for the perpetuation of Christian society and northern proponents seeing slavery as a state-sponsored concession to evil and, therefore, not within the moral establishment. This split allowed for a host of dissenters, mainly radical abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and women’s rights proponents such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to challenge the moral establishment by rejecting the idea that religious sensibilities should have a central place in public policy debates.

My narrative here tries to answer the same question that many other writers have sought to answer: why did this moment of liberalism and individual rights during Reconstruction prove so evanescent? I suggest that this liberal moment came into being through the division of the moral establishment over the issue of slavery, a division that gave proponents of individual rights the upper hand. The AMA, the dominant organization of the northern moral establishment after the Civil War, did in certain respects favor individual rights but, ultimately, its low view of black racial capacity meshed with that of the southern moral establishment. The moral establishment came back together after the Civil War around their desire for denominational harmony and their suspicion of black rights—in other words, around a shared distrust of individual rights. This allowed establishment proponents to again maintain their collective (and, in this case, racist) moral norms and undermined the Reconstruction moment of liberal individualism.

[2nd half of interview will be posted tomorrow; stay tuned!]


Edward J Blum said…
great interview and tremendous book!
Matt Sutton said…
I am about half way through this book and it is excellent. I suspect it will work great in the classroom.
Tom Van Dyke said…
Heh heh. A "Christian nation," and Mr. Sehat seems damn unhappy about discovering the truth, judging by his choice of words.

"Illiberal," of course is subjective, especially when used by a 21st century liberal. One might also say instead that people were obliged to behave "decently."

I haven't read his book, but I suspect he overreads into his evidence a bit. The nation was founded on "natural law," and it was held---even by nonbelievers like Jefferson---that the biblical morality was not in conflict with reason.

As for blasphemy, an examination of the Western world's history [incl the Greeks] was that "blasphemy" was not theological, but a threat to peace and order. Heresy = sedition. Socrates' impiety towards the gods of the city is a threat to order, hence the hemlock. And it was well-known he had the option to flee Athens. It wasn't about theology.
Anonymous said…
I'm looking forward to reading this book. It's been on my "must read" list. Great interview.

Curtis J. Evans