Contemporary Politics, Mormonism, and Sehat?s Myth of American Religious Freedom

By February 7, 2011

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. [1] 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.? [2] 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.? [3] (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.? [9] 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. [4] 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.

[1] Sehat, 8; [2] Thomas M. Spencer, The Missouri Mormon Experience (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2010), 17; [3] Sehat, 169; [4] Ibid, 9; [5] Ibid, 8.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Current Events Intellectual History Popular Culture


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful review, Ryan, as well as for your pertinent observations. This indeed seems to be a hot topic lately, as several books have recently explored how a Protestant tyranny has suppressed religious rights of those found outside accepted boundaries. John Corrigan’s recent documentary history or religious intolerance in American comes to mind, as does Leigh Eric Schmidt’s book on Ira Craddock.

    While the deep complexities of these issues continue to be teased out, I keep returning to the question of whether religious freedom and democracy can ever fully coexist.

    Comment by Ben — February 7, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

  2. Discrimination is a part of the Protestant
    Playbook in any country they control.
    Google this: Buddhists protest religious
    discrimination in South Korea

    Comment by Steven — February 7, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

  3. Nice review, Ryan. I’m excited to read Sehat as soon as I finish comps (along with a slew of other books). In addition to those mentioned by Ben, Fluhman’s forthcoming book addresses these themes as well.

    Comment by Christopher — February 8, 2011 @ 9:59 am

  4. Thanks for the review, Ryan. I’d heard that this had some discussions of Mormonism. Nice to see some discussion of that.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 8, 2011 @ 11:38 am

  5. Aren’t we about as free today as we’ve ever been? We are no longer under Protestant domination, there is no Catholic domination, at least on a national level,the religious right has pulled back from politics a bit, and our church, it seems to me, is thriving.

    Comment by Aaron — February 8, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

  6. Aaron: I don’t think anyone is saying that we are more enslaved today than in the past. Quite the contrary. We are saying that religious tolerance has indeed come a long way, but that that progress has been much more nuanced and problematic than generally assumed. And we do enjoy more religious freedom today, but it still isn’t what we sometimes idealistically imagine.

    Comment by Ben — February 8, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

  7. Ryan–

    A very helpful review!

    I wonder if there might be another debate opened up by Sehat’s book and our discussion here: that being how religious groups themselves deploy the memory of religious persecution to defend the principle of religious freedom and relate this connection to contemporary politics.
    I don’t think that Mormons or Catholics, for example, should be faulted for basing their calls for the defense of religious liberty on past experiences of the lack of such freedom. (or on the Constitution!). Yet I do offer the thought that we need to debate the appropriate use of this history when it’s used justify the right to deny freedom to others (religious or otherwise) in the contemporary American polity.

    Comment by Max — February 8, 2011 @ 6:11 pm

  8. Thanks, folks, for weighing in.

    You raise an interesting point, Max, about the influence of religious memory on advocacy of religious freedom. There is, no doubt, a relationship between the two. And plenty of people have said of Mormonism, for instance, that there is a lingering persecution complex that might lend itself to that kind of project.

    I have to say, though, that because of some of the work I do I am quite familiar with the contemporary arguments being made about religious freedom by a variety of religious (and nonreligious) groups and the memory of (distant or historical) religious persecution doesn’t figure significantly, that I have seen, in very many of them – and then only as a point of reference. The response by secularists, though, to those who advocate religious freedom or warn of its erosion is often to accuse them of making themselves victims.

    Comment by Ryan T — February 8, 2011 @ 11:46 pm

  9. In response to Max, way too many Mormons are apparently ignorant of history–they join too readily in lockstep with “Know Nothing” anti-Muslim agitation, for example, completely ignoring the opposition faced by the church whenever it attempts to build a temple outside of the Mormon Corridor. (See, e.g., Boston, Harrison, NY (anybody seen that temple recently?), Nashville, Phoenix, et al.) For many, it seems, religious freedom ends at their ward boundaries–and God help you if you’re not a member of the congregation.

    As to how robust religious freedom is these days? Read the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith. And weep. The standard established by the court in that case eviscerates most of “exercise” from the free exercise clause.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 10, 2011 @ 5:29 pm

  10. Question on Religious Freedom ?? Agency in The Religion Making Business

    Are the players ever honest or are we dealing with unreliable narrators making it up as we go along?

    Religion is, of course, subjective and requires some sort of leap to free fall into
    the wrap of a preordained reality.
    Such as it is, The Mormon Takes on how things work ?? the plan of salvation is, as it is ?? heaped conjecture.
    Still contested by many thinkers and scholars; Mormons themselves have a difficult time
    embracing all the ins’ and outs’, all the working parts in the plan of salvation.

    Religious Freedom does have some problems, Mormons could fall within this purview.
    Mormons started by claiming more land and money than was needed ?? like the faith itself.
    Some religions believe less is more,
    in the market there are
    so many Swamis and there is so Little Time.

    For Religion to claim Divine Right there must be
    some thought behind the premise, for Mormonism, this has never been fully divined.

    On religious freedom, a programmer would chime, “What’s with all this stuff tagged on?
    This won’t run on any machine I know of. Jesus, you’d think Elohim
    would think things out first ya know ?? garbage in . . .
    “The Religion Making Business is not tidy but, what the heck, slaughter the goat anyway.”

    Comment by Gus O. Kahan — February 13, 2011 @ 5:24 pm

  11. WWJD, Ardis, WWJD? He’d heal the sick. You can’t do that, Ardis, so just go quietly about your business …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 13, 2011 @ 6:24 pm


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