U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Myth of American Religious Freedom: Whiggism and American Religious History

David Sehat

It used to be a historical commonplace to claim that the nineteenth century was the century devoted to equal and individual rights, characterized by rugged individualism, and defined by a laissez-faire economic arrangement that looked to the individual as the chief economic actor. Following the publication of Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America in 1955, historians portrayed classical liberalism as the reigning orthodoxy of nineteenth century political and legal thought. Common law protections gave way to statutory and equity law to enshrine the primacy of contract. The rights of citizenship expanded almost inevitably to include greater proportions of the people. And the American ethos triumphantly marched on with its focus on personal independence, sunny optimism, and rational calculation. At least, that was how the story went.

Although social historians have devoted the better part of the last forty years to revealing the many evasions, contradictions, and falsifications in the idea of a liberal America, in many quarters this essentially progressive story—touched by moments of tragedy, to be sure, but tending toward the general inclusion of all—remains firmly in place. To quote but one example of the contemporary liberal narrative, in his Pulitzer-prize winning book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood portrays the revolutionary rhetoric of individual rights and the equality of all men as an inescapable force for freedom and equality. The egalitarian ideological core of the American Revolution had such hold on the American psyche, he claims, that “once invoked the idea of equality could not be stopped, and it tore through American society and culture with awesome power.”

The Whig quality of this still salient narrative is particularly striking when it comes to religion in the United States. As I argued in an earlier post, many writers connect the story of American religious freedom to the broader story of the American democratic experiment. Because the broader American narrative maintains such a Whig cast (at least in popular historical writing), much scholarship on the role of religion in public life portrays religion as an essentially emancipatory force. Religious communities, so the story goes, were central to reform movements by appealing to transcendent ideals in order to challenge unjust social orders. It is through religious movements, in other words, that American liberalism expanded.

But this generally progressive narrative of American religious history has led historians to overvalue the religious sources of reform while simultaneously underestimating the extent to which religious sensibilities formed a critical bulwark in the promotion and protection of illiberalism.

The illiberal impulse of nineteenth century religion did not escape the notice of John Stuart Mill. Mill is often portrayed as a quintessential nineteenth-century political thinker whose classical liberalism stands in as the reigning philosophy of the era. Yet he did not see himself that way. In his rousing 1859 tract On Liberty, Mill claimed simply that all political theory should start with the recognition that “the individual is sovereign.” Anglo-American political thought, according to Mill, had failed to do that and seemed to be moving in the wrong direction. He feared in particular what he characterized as “the engines of moral repression” that he saw gearing up in modern society. The growing number of religious believers strove to gain “control over every department in human conduct” or at least to minimize “divergence from the reigning opinion.” He pointed to the requirement in Britain (similar to the United States) that witnesses must swear belief in the existence of God and a future state of rewards and punishments to testify in court, the increasing prevalence of temperance legislation, the expansion of Sabbath laws, and the crusade against Mormonism, as examples to the mounting religious coercion that seemed to parallel the expansion of evangelicalism. Claiming that it was “not difficult to show, by abundant instance” that “the moral police” presented a danger to the “liberty of the individual,” Mill saw himself not as someone who sat comfortably in a century that honored his social philosophy but rather as a clarion voice who was critical of the nineteenth-century norm.

Because so many have looked to Mill as expression of the reigning orthodoxy of nineteenth-century political thought instead of recognizing him as one of its most cogent critics, they have misunderstood the century’s legal and political arrangement, particularly when it comes to religion. Legal historians have often claimed that although colonial law equated criminality with sin, American law dropped its moral concern after the Revolution, which, as the legal history Kermit L. Hall has claimed, “unleashed powerful forces of market capitalism and individualism.” Those forces, in the standard legal narrative, shifted the focus of law away from the maintenance of moral communities and moved property protection and personal security to the forefront of criminal law. Law, in other words, became the mechanism to regulate autonomous individuals interacting in a free marketplace with a minimum level of interference. Religious historians, following the trajectory, have suggested that religious partisans accepted the de-moralization of law, rejecting the coercion that law provided and looking instead to “moral suasion” as the means of promoting their social goals. In the Whig narrative, the nineteenth-century social movement, born out of religious ideals, becomes the ultimate means of moral suasion, whereby American liberalism expanded to more perfectly include everyone and to embody its own ideal.

This is a partial, if not false, narrative. Religious historians would do better to follow William Novak. Novak has has shown that law in the nineteenth century became a way of advancing a regulatory regime that held a relative view of individual rights subordinated to what courts thought was the good of the whole. This relative view of individual rights often cashed out in a frank illiberalism. As the political scientist Rogers M. Smith has argued, “Through most of U.S. history, lawmakers pervasively and unapologetically structured U.S. citizenship in terms of illiberal and undemocratic racial, ethnic, and gender hierarchies.” Taking seriously these two historical works would reorient American religious history. As Mill pointed out, religious partisans often set the parameters of mutual obligation that ruled in Anglo-American society. That mutual obligation downplayed or rejected the liberty of the individual, resulting in the illiberalism that Smith has documented. Fearing the liberty that might devolve into license and conclude with anarchy, the American moral establishment often upheld the limitation, the situational qualification, or even the flat denial of individual rights to women, Afro-Americans, and religious minorities including Catholics, Mormons, and free thinkers. In other words, the recognition of past religious illiberalism requires a new narrative of religious history that focuses not on freedom but on the power and control that religious believers exercised in the American past.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that use material from my forthcoming book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom. The book can be found here and here. The previous posts can be found by clicking on the keyword below.