Sehat, David. The Myth of American Religious Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Once again, the issues of religious freedom and freedom of conscience have surfaced in public discussion and popular awareness, both in the United States and abroad. Though often invisible in modern democratic life, these major issues have continued to rise to prominence episodically in American history, and it appears that we may be in or coming into one of those episodes. Between the debates over the building of Islamic mosques in various parts of the United States, the emerging conflict of the prosecution of gay rights with religiously-informed resistance, and the likely prospect of another religiously-informed presidential election – the matter of religious freedom is increasingly at issue in the United States. This is, of course, to say nothing of other global developments like the recent persecution of Coptic Christians, the Pope’s consequent advocacy of religious freedom, and other religious freedom issues around the world.
For Mormons the significance of this issue was recently heightened as Elder Dallin H. Oaks gave a major address on Friday at Chapman University, urging the collective commitment of religious people of all faiths to the protection of religious freedom. To some extent, this address, the previous ones Oaks has given, and recent parallel comments of other Church leaders suggest the growing interest of the LDS Church in the cause of religious freedom and its significance for Latter-day Saints.
It is into this environment that Oxford University Press has recently published David Sehat’s new book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom. Sehat is an up-and-coming scholar of intellectual history at Georgia State University and a prominent blogger at U.S. Intellectual History. (Sehat’s name came up recently in Ben’s post on a Mormon comps list.) The thesis of Sehat’s new book is outlined clearly enough in its title; it argues against what he sees as the fallacious impression of a robust historical tradition of religious tolerance and freedom in the United States.
In outlining his work in a recent promotional piece at the Huffington Post, Sehat borrowed an line from Walter Lippman, who once suggested that “Nations make their histories to fit their illusions.” “The American celebration of our religious freedom,” Sehat argued, “is no exception.” His point was that neither the patchy episodes of true religious liberty in American history, nor the perennial praise of religious freedom by Americans constitutes the robust tradition we claim.
The impression that the US has exemplified religious freedom to the world may be widely held, but is fanciful, Sehat says, and it is this “detach[ment] from a true historical foundation” that his book seeks to remedy.  To this project Sehat brings an extensive, diachronic analysis of episodes where religious freedoms disappeared, working largely in the domain of law. Moving from the beginning of nation through the early twentieth century, he focuses on experience of nonconformists like William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Eugene V. Debs. The study is essentially an investigation of what he characterizes as the “coercion” of these individuals by a tacit moral establishment.
Mormon historians may be inclined to agree with Sehat. Mormon history, after all, presents a number of instances where the institution of American religious freedom was seemingly absent, making Mormonism an important context for the discussion. The recent edited volume The Missouri Mormon Experience seems to endorse this. Though it falls short of its promise to demonstrate it, the volume observes that the periods of conflict between Mormons and non-Mormon Missourians in Missouri, at least, could “[teach] us a great deal about the true state of religious tolerance in the American frontier during the 1830s.”  I’ve suggested before that the broader version of this impulse strikes me as a promising idea; I likewise think that Mormonism has potential as point of entry to meaningful discussion on the broader history of religious freedom in American history. Indeed, in some scholarship such as Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity and Gordon’s The Mormon Question, it has already playing something of this role.
Sehat thinks that Mormonism is promising for this too, though he doesn’t exhaust it. Mormons were, he argues, one group that suffered under the informal moral establishment of Protestant Christianity, highlighting Reynolds v. United States. Since it involved a Federal territory, the case was the “first opportunity for the Court to clarify the meaning of the religious clauses of the First Amendment.”  (This opportunity, he notes, came ninety years after the Amendment was ratified – this delay because the Bill of Rights was not incorporated to the States until the first part twentieth century.) This aspect of Mormon history, at least, Sehat regards as a context ripe for discussion on the religious freedom topic.
It clear from the first that The Myth of American Religious Freedom has political entailments. Sehat is fairly transparent on this by saying that the book is “not just a work of history.” He invokes David Hofstadter, claiming that the project is “a ‘historical inquiry’ into the historical origins of our contemporary situation.”  In his approach, then, Sehat is unabashedly assessing history through the lens of modern politics – doing history, at least in part, for contemporary purposes. This is a surely valid method of inquiry, though of course it also involves significant risks.
But Sehat argues that his approach is needed not only for the correction it provides for the historical record, but because the several myths that exist in the public mind on the topic endanger political discourse. While these common myths about American religious freedom may serve civic interests and solidarity, they also fuel political animus and wrangling. His aim then is to “dispense with the historical myths” that have contributed to “unhelpful” public dialogue.  While any treatment of his subject would naturally impinge on political discussion, Sehat manages that effect.
Sehat’s book, then, is intended to influence political debate, somewhat like Jill Lepore’s work on “historical fundamentalism” and the Tea Party. (Indeed the projects are connected.) Sehat’s work may not engage the issues of contemporary politics as directly; religious freedom is still largely a latent issue, while the historical imagination of the Tea Party is hard to ignore.
As a piece of historical analysis (rather than as a political intervention) my primary initial criticism is that Sehat relies on an outdated, crude model of the religious and secular. Religious conservatives are easy targets when we read a strict modern conception of secularism backwards and ignore the hybrid notions of the secular that prevailed at the time. Sehat gives this complexity lip service, but it does not influence his narrative. Much more can be said on the historical significance of this decision, but it may harm Sehat’s political objectives as well. Embracing the old dichotomy may do more to promote division and entrench political antagonists than it does to reframe and improve their conversations.
Still, there is no question that the book introduces important corrections and clarity in the historical record. Sehat is certainly right that these corrections can only serve to abate some of the posturing and put the debate on sounder, more informed footing. HIs ideas, as some have already noted, are not entirely novel, but insofar this book helps to actually install these important revisions it does a real historical service. Meanwhile, as religious freedom continues to come to the forefront of public discussion, Sehat’s history and others on the subject will have an ever greater influence both on the past and in the present.
 Sehat, 8;  Thomas M. Spencer, The Missouri Mormon Experience (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2010), 17;  Sehat, 169;  Ibid, 9;  Ibid, 8.