U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Hartman on Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (Roundtable Part II)

I offer Part II of our Roundtable on David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom. Many thanks to Dan Williams for kicking off the discussion last week with his excellent and provocative review.

My essay addresses five reasons why I like Sehat’s book. I then give five points of criticism.

What I like:

1) The book is ambitious. The Myth of American Religious Freedom is a remarkable achievement for its ambitious scope. Sehat covers the entire span of American history, beginning with the roiling debates at the nation’s founding and concluding with the boisterous culture wars that persist in shaping contemporary political culture. This is particularly extraordinary considering the book originated as Sehat’s dissertation. The typical dissertation topic tends to be something more along the lines of “a thick description of 50 Birchers in Binghamton,” to borrow Leo Ribuffo’s sarcastic take on our discipline’s tendency towards narrowness. Thus, credit should be given not only to Sehat for his vision, but also to his advisor for allowing his student the freedom to design such a big project. This is rare. I thought my dissertation, published as Education and the Cold War, was unusually broad. And yet I never summoned the courage to devote more than a few paragraphs to anything predating the twentieth century.

2) The book is relevant. Sehat is a careful historian. Nobody will stigmatize him as overly presentist. And yet he sees The Myth of American Religious Freedom as a necessary political intervention into the current debates about the First Amendment and the role of religion in American history. But rather than argue one side or the other in this debate has a special claim on the truth, Sehat charges that both suffer from historical amnesia. On the one hand, Christian Right spokespersons (such as David Barton—of recent notoriety) are wrong to assert that the nation’s religious foundations nourish freedom, since religious dissenters often had their liberties crushed under the weight of a coercive moral establishment. But on the other hand, liberals are wrong to insist that the First Amendment inscribed religious freedom, since for much of the nation’s history Jefferson’s so-called “wall of separation” between church and state was de facto non-existent. Sehat writes: “Because most disputes about religious liberty occurred on the state or local level, and because the federal government had limited power until the New Deal, the First Amendment had almost no effect on the protection of religious belief or non-belief until the 1920s, when the federal courts began expanding the protections of the Bill of Rights to include all levels of government” (4).

3) The book works from the assumption that history should inform jurisprudence. One of Sehat’s arguments that I found most compelling is that the liberal mid-twentieth-century Supreme Court that overturned the moral establishment, with landmark cases such as Engel v. Vitale, based its decisions on bad history, which encouraged dissent from moral establishmentarians. “By underselling the liberalizing rationale for their decisions,” Sehat explains, “the Court created a damaging uncertainty as to its purpose in taking on these cases.” Furthermore: “In not acknowledging past religious power and not explaining that that power had led to an unfair exclusion or coercion of individuals, the Court left obscure the reason that it felt compelled to act in the first place, which in turn allowed conservatives to press their claims without acknowledging their desire for a return to coercion” (250). In making this point, it can be argued Sehat downplays the fact that even Supreme Court justices must balance their decisions against popular sentiment—that secularization was made more appealing by recourse to a history of religious freedom, however mythical. That said, I think Sehat is right to argue that Christian Right claims would be less legitimate had the Supreme Court firmly stated that the moral establishment limited the freedom of millions of Americans for well over a century.

4) The book is biographical. Not literally, of course. But when Sehat admits in his preface that he “used to be an evangelical,” he gives the impression that the subject matter is personal and that he sees history as a form of self-exploration. “In the evangelical world, I discovered that to be a patriot and to be a Christian were often considered the same thing. The conflation of American and Christian identities relied on a story about the past” (vii). Sehat’s passion for unmasking this oft-told “story about the past” as a myth seems personal, which from my vantage point makes the book that much more enjoyable to read.

5) The book helps us to understand the culture wars. As some of you may know, I’m currently writing a book on the culture wars. I’m finding that one of my biggest challenges is putting the culture wars in a larger historical context. The Myth of American Religious Freedom helps my cause. Dan Williams points out in his review that Sehat “presents a new historical framework to use in interpreting the contemporary culture wars.” As Sehat sees it, where one stands on the moral establishment tends to track with where one stands on the culture wars (notwithstanding the aforementioned historical confusion all around): the cultural right is in favor of returning to the moral establishment; the cultural left defends a secular public sphere. To this extent, Sehat’s book works well to historicize the culture war struggle over a normative American identity. Is America a Christian nation or not?

Now to my five points of criticism.

1) The book overstates its myth-busting originality. Though Sehat is mostly right that The Myth of American Religious Freedom works against the grain of public memory, which informs political discourse, the book’s narrative seems pretty standard relative to the historiography. Do historians still debate whether Protestants dominated the United States for much of its history? I thought this was settled historiographic terrain. Take the history of education as an example: historians have long made clear that the public schools were Protestant indoctrination factories well into the twentieth century and that Horace Mann-style ecumenicalism was a mere façade. In his standard history of progressive education, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education 1876-1957 (1962), Lawrence Cremin touted secularization as one of the signal achievements of twentieth-century progressive education reformers. In sum, though Sehat’s book seems novel relative to public discourse, it is not that novel relative to historiographic discourse. That said, Sehat indeed challenges other historiographic fault lines, as Williams makes implicit when he contextualizes Sehat’s book relative to church-state historiography.

2) The book folds too much history into the moral establishment paradigm. Sehat understands the moral establishment as the most important conception for understanding power and resistance throughout much of American history. In many cases, this framework works well. For example, feminist resistance to patriarchy can logically be equated to resistance to the moral establishment insofar as patriarchy was closely intertwined with religious-based order. But in other examples, the moral establishment seems more like a convenient rationale than the source of power. Take slavery. Sehat writes: “The slavery question raised a host of others. The ultimate goal of the moral establishment was to tame the individual. But the radical branch of abolition, which claimed that slaves had absolute rights, raised the individual above the whole and rejected the entire logic of the moral establishment” (97). I would argue that, to the degree that the moral establishment factored into the slavery question, it was simply as an opportunistic cover for slave power. White supremacy and the concentrated wealth of the slaveowning class held that power together, and were concomitantly that which abolitionists fought to undermine. The same criticism can be made with regards to the labor question. If the corporate order that gripped the nation after the Civil War seemed to go hand-in-hand with the moral establishment, this was a marriage of convenience. The labor movement need not be understood as resistance to the moral establishment, even if a Protestant elite saw Eugene Debs as a threat to order.

3) The book’s wide scope sometimes limits its analytical depth. Here I am essentially saying that one of the book’s strengths—that it covers so much ground—contributes to one of its weaknesses. Towards the end of the book, as Sehat analyzes the modern Christian Right, something I know a great deal more about than, say, the raucous debate over the Pennsylvania state constitution in 1776, I found myself increasingly disagreeing with some of his finer points and wondering why he failed to consult this source or that monograph. For example, Sehat thinks race is the most important factor in the formation of the modern Christian Right. By making race central to modern conservatism, Sehat is only able to remain true to his larger thesis because he thinks the moral establishment is a racial project. Though I am convinced that the Christian Right made a return to the moral establishment a centerpiece of its political goals, I think the contention that the Christian Right is a racial project is reductionist. (Regular readers of this blog might already be familiar with the differences I have with Sehat on this topic. If you are interested, consult the lengthy comments section of my post on George Nash, where Sehat and I engage in a collegial back-and-forth.)

4) The book’s moral lens occasionally crowds out complexity. The Myth of American Religious Freedom is a narrative of progress. The twentieth-century victory of secularism over the moral establishment ushered in a freer nation. In this narrative, there are good guys and gals (liberals, secularists, individualists, feminists, abolitionists) and bad guys (moral establishmentarians, all men). Though I largely agree with this premise—as an atheist, I certainly would not want to live under the coercive shadow of the Protestant moral establishment—Sehat’s moral lens occasionally crowds out complexity. For instance, the book tacitly ignores liberal coerciveness. Sehat relates the post-World War I Palmer Raids to the moral establishmentarian desire for social order. But how then would Sehat explain Franklin Roosevelt’s trampling of civil liberties during World War II? FDR was no moral establishmentarian, but Japanese Americans and native fascists (those Ribuffo calls the “Old Christian Right”) certainly felt his coercive side. Also, how do we explain Harry Truman’s loyalty oaths, signed into law in 1947, which crushed the liberties of thousands of left-leaning government employees, teachers, and homosexuals? Truman’s coercive anticommunism did not stem from the moral establishment (though it nourished it).

5) The book mutes the problems of individualism. I address the problems of individualism in an earlier post, where I bring together my analysis of Sehat with my readings of Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture and David Hollinger, Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity. Sehat convincingly demonstrates that the loudest opponents of the moral establishment during the nineteenth century were radical individualists, or even libertarians, from abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison to women’s rights activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton to freethinkers like Robert Ingersoll. But what about solidarity? Sehat asks: “Where did liberty end, and mutual obligation and social solidarity begin?” (175). How can we bridge this gap? David seems to contend that answers to this vexing question were found in the liberal moral vision developed in the Progressive Era by thinkers in the orbit of The New Republic, such as Herbert Croly, who “claimed that the radical diversity of American life—created through immigration and the centrifugal forces of market expansion—invalidated ‘the earlier instinctive homogeneity’ that moral establishmentarians had sought to promote.” But to what ends? “The new political philosophy had to be capable of promoting ‘solidarity’ in American life without eliminating the ‘desirable individual and class distinctions that were integral to a society that was liberal and free” (206). It is unclear how this vision offers solidarity, especially since Croly recognizes “class distinctions” as “integral to a society that was liberal and free.” In other words, liberal attempts to form a post-moral establishment solidarity falter due to accentuation of the individual and neglect of class solidarity. In conclusion, Sehat’s progress narrative needs to be tempered by the historical reality that individualism breeds inequality.

I hope it is apparent that I am a big fan of The Myth of American Religious Freedom and that my points of criticism are meant to serve as a launching pad for further discussion. So in that spirit, I look forward to your comments. I also look forward to the other installments in this roundtable—from Ray Haberski, Christopher Hickman, and the author himself, our colleague David Sehat.