A Review of
America’s Long, Bloody and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom
Reviewed by Michael Bowling
If you are interested in the backstory of how religious liberty was not addressed in the original U.S. Constitution and how the subject was hotly debated during the formation of the Bill of Rights, then Sacred Liberty by Steven Waldman is the book for you. If today’s tensions around religious expressions linked to terrorism has caused you to be pessimistic toward the future of religious tolerance, then this book is for you. Waldman reminds all of us that American society has come a long way in securing religious freedom. However, progress was slow and had to endure atrocious setbacks. The historical backdrop Waldman paints gives us hope that the present anxieties over challenges to religious freedom are simply part of our national pattern.
The dream of the national “melting pot” where differing cultures find common ground and common purpose continues to be elusive in America. Waldman attempts to tell the story of religion’s part in America’s struggle of living into that dream. In Sacred Liberty, he builds upon his bestselling book Founding Faith which chronicles the beginnings of faith expressions in America’s early years. Readers of Founding Faith could have anticipated Sacred Liberty which concentrates on the winding path towards religious freedom.
In an age of political and religious polarization, an age increasingly pessimistic and cynical relative to both government and religious institutions, Waldman strikes a note of optimism toward both. He makes the case that not only is it possible for an unprecedented level of religious freedom to exist in a nation which is committed to civil authority and the “rule of law,” it is also essential to both religion and civil authority.
Waldman is not simply an unengaged storyteller; he has an agenda. He cares about the story of religious freedom which is evidenced by his work as a co-founder of the award-winning multi-faith website Beliefnet. Also, he cares about the story being told, which is evidenced by his recent work as co-founder and president of Report for America, a national service program focused on local journalism.
Before offering a summary of the book, a couple of criticisms are in order. Sacred Liberty is written as both a chronological history and a thematic history. These differing dimensions challenge the reader’s ability to follow either the developing chronology or the incremental changes in ideas related to religious liberty. Further complicating the matter is Waldman’s sacrifice of clarity in telling the whole story for the sake of telling particularly interesting stories of individuals or groups. Regardless of this occasional sense of disjointed storytelling, Waldman is a gifted storyteller.
For a nation founded by those fleeing religious persecution and oppression, early American history is dominated by religious intolerance. The introduction and first chapter tell that story with heartbreaking detail. It is with these first pages of Sacred Liberty that Waldman offers a critical observation: when events produce a heightened need for common cause, religious differences wain in importance. This common-sense insight continues throughout the book.
However, Waldman posits that the American version of religious freedom is not and cannot be built on periodic necessity of common cause; it must be founded on the level of a fundamental right for all people. Clearly, Waldman’s hero in this regard is James Madison. Thomas Jefferson is given plenty of credit for his role in protecting religion from government and government from religion, but it is the genius of Madison which results in the pivotal policy enshrined in the First Amendment. Waldman details the nuance of difference in Madison’s views when compared to Jefferson and other “framers and founders of their day; the contrast was most stark between those appreciative of religion and those only willing to tolerate religion, as was the case with Jefferson.” Readers who are unprepared for more detailed or scholarly treatment of the often debated “establishment” clause or the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment will find Waldman an excellent guide toward greater clarity.
Another benefit of Sacred Liberty comes in its treatment of the tension of “states’ rights” with the First Amendment. Until the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, abuses of religious freedom continued under laws of intolerance put forth in many state legislatures. Waldman’s next hero in the story is John Bingham. Bingham’s tireless work to shape and pass what is now the Fourteenth Amendment gave citizens protection from oppressive state laws. Waldman points out the importance of Bingham’s work, but is quick to remind the reader that real progress was a succession of “fits and starts” moving at glacier-like speed.
Michael Bowling is a member of Englewood Christian Church, home of The Englewood Review of Books, and also serves as one of the congregation’s pastors.