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Religious Freedom

August 19, 2019

During my vacation these past two weeks I read two very important books. I’d like to talk about the first one today, and the second one next week.

The first book is Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle For Religious Freedom by Steven Waldman. The title almost says it all. The concept of religious freedom has been part of the history of this nation since the beginning, but it has been understood and practiced (or not) in widely different ways. America’s religious history is, unfortunately, marred by frequent and shocking episodes of violence. And that violence continues even today.

We sometimes look at the Pilgrims as our pioneers of religious freedom, and it is true that they came to this land seeking religious freedom, but it was religious freedom for themselves, not for others. For the Pilgrims, religious freedom meant freedom for them to practice their own religion–and impose it on anyone who lived in their colony. This attitude predominated in most of the colonies (Pennsylvania and Rhode Island being exceptions to an extent)each favoring a particular religious expression, and outlawing all others. Waldman credits the Baptists in particular (especially in places such as Virginia), for espousing the concept that all religions should be allowed to be practiced, even within the same colony or state. A lot of Baptists had to go to jail (or worse) before this radical idea began catching on.

Famously, the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But what does this mean? Waldman lays out the various ways the founding fathers, and later the Supreme Court, understood this sentence. He gives particular attention to the thinking of James Madison who, more than anyone else, was the designer of the Constitution. It is a complicated and fascinating history. Waldman makes the case that the first amendment is a careful and difficult balance between the government protecting the exercise of all religions, while at the same time not endorsing or getting entangled in any religion. In many cases, these two goals are at odds with each other, which results in a crazy patchwork of laws that are not entirely consistent. Nevertheless, Waldman believes the courts have generally moved in the right direction, sustaining the proper balance.

Despite this amendment in our Constitution, local and state governments over the centuries have frequently suppressed or even attacked various religions: Catholicism, Judaism, Native American spirituality, African religions brought by the slaves, Mormonism, Jehovah Witnesses, and–especially today–Islam. Waldman notes the sad irony that, in the past, Protestant evangelicals were in the vanguard of promoting religious freedom, but today it is white evangelicals who are most frequently undermining the religious freedom of Muslims.

On the other hand, Waldman notes that evangelicals who believe their religious beliefs and practices are under threat are not entirely wrong. Though many of their claims are based on exaggerations or baseless conspiracies, some of their fears are quite legitimate, and Waldman calls on the government to be more careful in allowing the free exercise of Christian conscience–as well as the free exercise of all other religions.

Waldman is clearly sympathetic to historic evangelicalism, while also not being afraid to call out its current hypocrisies when it comes to religious freedom. The last five chapters are “must reading” for understanding the massive political and religious changes that have occurred in the U.S. in the past forty years. No one can talk intelligently about the current dynamics of religious freedom in this country without having read (or being familiar with) the information in these 100 pages.

Waldman makes a strong case that the U.S. is unique in its approach to religious freedom, and because of it, religion thrives in this country much more than in any other developed country in the world. But if we make Christianity, or the so-called “Judeo-Christian heritage,” the ipso facto preferred religion of the U.S., it will backfire to the detriment of Christianity. Religion thrives in the U.S. precisely because it is not endorsed by the government. 

If you are interested in the complex issues surrounding religious freedom, please read this book. 

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