In the battles over religion and politics in America, both liberals and conservatives often appeal to history. Liberals claim that the Founders separated church and state. But for much of American history, David Sehat writes, Protestant Christianity was intimately intertwined with the state. Yet the past was not the Christian utopia that conservatives imagine either. Instead, a Protestant moral establishment prevailed, using government power to punish free thinkers and religious dissidents. As is so often the case with popular debates, they miss the nuances that reveal complex history behind the ideological perspective.
In The Myth of American Religious Freedom, Sehat provides an eye-opening history of religion in public life, overturning our most cherished myths. Originally, Sehat argues, the First Amendment applied only to the federal government, which had a limited authority. Conversely, the Protestant moral establishment ruled on the state level, using Christian moral beliefs to uphold "a Christian society", while religious partisans enforced a moral and religious orthodoxy against Catholics, Jews, Mormons, agnostics, and others.
Not until 1940 did the U.S. Supreme Court extend the First Amendment to the states. As the Supreme Court began to dismantle the connections between religion and government at the state level as well as teh Federal, Sehat argues, religious conservatives mobilized to maintain their power and began the culture wars of the last fifty years. To trace the rise and fall of this Protestant establishment, Sehat focuses his studies on a series of dissenters--often times Protestants themselves--who helped usher in social changes the helped restructure American society.
Shattering myths held by both the left and right, David Sehat forces us to rethink some of our most deeply held beliefs about government, society, religion, tolerance, and the relationship between government and religion. He exposes the bad history used on both sides, denies partisans a safe refuge with the Founders, and clears away the dross in order that clearer thinking my prevail in light of history.
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