Historic Preservation, Recommended Readings, The Times We Live In
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Religious freedom and the American experiment

The First Baptist Church

Few things set my father into action more than news of some fellow Baptist or other Evangelical Christian trampling over the doctrine of the separation of church and state in order to advance the views of their personal brand of religion or to persecute a faith community they saw as un-American.

That rare breed of liberal Southern Evangelical Christian, my father was a regular on the Letters to the Editor page of the local newspapers, as he worked to tell his neighbors why Baptists—of all denominations—should cherish religious freedom. Just before he died, my father—a proud member of the Religious left—sent in his last letter on the topic, in response to Tennessee’s consideration of naming The Bible the official State Book. As one of his neighbors described the letter to me at his funeral, “It was a good one!”

Sacred Liberty
“Sacred Liberty” by Steven Waldman

Suffice it to say that Tom Brown would have appreciated Steven Waldman’s new book, Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom as a welcome addition to our understanding of this important right.

Waldman’s 2019 work is a companion, of sorts, to his earlier Founding Faith, and it stands as an impressive overview of America’s long struggle to craft a new way forward in supporting religious freedom. He begins by showing how the colonies originally used traditional approaches to religious tolerance. In other words, the majority religions—all Christian and usually of the Anglican or Congregational denominations—persecuted those whose faith differed from the government-sanctioned variety. Waldman’s style ties together historical considerations with modern-day issues. Thus, he writes that the devout Puritans, who brought their antipathy to Catholicism and Paganism with them to America, “launched the first war on Christmas” under the direction of their leader, Cotton Mather.

“The Bible did not sanction the holiday, which in their eyes was both papist (invented by Catholics, they believed) and pagan (in that it co-opted the winter solstice festivities of pre-Christians). And people tended to get excessively, well, merry. . . .  ‘Men dishonored the Lord Jesus Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas’ than during the rest of the year, (Mather) declared. So in 1659, the Puritans made Christmas illegal.”

Thankfully the war on Christmas soon went away until it was rejuvenated in another day and time by FOX News as a false political wedge issue.

More importantly to our story, James Madison stepped on the scene as the Constitution was being drafted. Waldman goes into some depth to describe Madison’s “ingenious, counterintuitive, and often-misunderstood blueprint for the religious liberty we enjoy today.”

Madison argued that the best way to promote religion was to leave it alone. That was—and still is—a radical concept. Instead of government, as under the Puritans in New England or the Anglicans in Virginia, favoring one denomination or belief, Madison argued that the state should neither “constrain nor coddle” religion. His feelings on this point, Waldman suggests, came from his interactions with Virginia’s Baptists, who were very much persecuted by the ruling Anglican church. Madison also believed that religious liberty would arise from a “multiplicity of sects” with different denominations all working to find converts and followers. He wanted open competition. He also wanted rules so that the majority religions could not use their status to hold down the newer and smaller sects. Throughout the book, Waldman holds up Madison, with his belief in the free market of religious ideas, as a true hero of religious liberty in America.

One of the book’s main selling points from my perspective is the ecumenical nature of Waldman’s worldview. The stories of persecutions of Catholics, Mormons, and Jews in America are fairly well known. Yet even in his detailed telling of these stories I found new information. Did you know there was a Donald Trump before Donald Trump? In the 1830s,

“One prominent New Yorker got a great deal of attention for his nationalist tirades. A celebrity who used his fame in the commercial sector to launch a political career, he argued that a foreign country was intentionally sending us ‘their criminals’ because America did not have sufficient ‘walls’ and ‘gates’ to keep them out. While acknowledging that some immigrants might be good, he said, ‘we must of necessity suspect them all.’ What’s more, he advocated restricting the entry of those immigrants practicing one particular religion that was, he said, associated with violence and tyranny.”

Who was this herald of our current president? None other than Samuel Morse, an inventor of the telegraph and the Morse Code. And was he fighting against Islam? No. He was assailing “Popery.” It is clear that what goes around in terms of religious bigotry can very well come around again.

Waldman’s work is important for his examination of the groups often left out when we consider religious freedom from only the Christian context. African spirituality and Islam were purged from the religious practices of the slaves, creating what one scholar calls a “spiritual holocaust.” Waldman notes that at the time of the nation’s founding, about 10% of the slaves—literally hundreds of thousands of people—were Muslims. There were probably more Muslims in America at the time than Jews or Catholics.

Mount Taylor
Mount Taylor in New Mexico, a site threatened with uranium mining. Visible from up to 100 miles away, it is a pilgrimage site for as many as 30 Native American tribes and it has special religious significance to the Acoma people.

Waldman also looks seriously at Native American spirituality, which—like the fight against the spirituality of the slaves—was purged primarily with violence. The majority religions pushed to “Kill the Indian and Christianize the Man.” One scholar quoted in the book notes that the Jesuit missionaries first had to convince the Crow Indians that “there was such a thing as sin, which was not a concept in the Crow religion.” Without sin we wouldn’t need a redeemer. This confused the Crow, who could not fathom why God would create people in his own image and yet have them be steeped in sin. And, of course, fights between denominations also came into play, as Catholic missionaries complained that Indians were being sent by the government to Protestant schools, and vice versa. They argued that “the First Amendment guaranteed the parents’ right to choose . . . between Christian religions.” Waldman’s explanation of the fight against the Ghost Dance and the subsequent massacre at Wounded Knee led him to the conclusion that “Whites didn’t view their war on the Ghost Dance as an assault on religious freedom, but the Indians surely did.”

Each chapter in this book has a wealth of information. Waldman looks at the history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (and the dozens of important court cases they fought to gain their freedom); the alignment of Jews and Christians during World War II; the fight over prayer in public schools (where the Supreme Court ruled, in a core idea that some Protestants have long resisted, that the majority religion doesn’t get special privileges); the impacts of the entry of millions of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists into our society; the political alliance of conservative Catholics and Evangelicals after decades of fighting each other; the approach taken by the majority Christian religion to cast themselves as a persecuted minority; and the current attacks on Islam (despite the work of George W. Bush following 9/11). There is much to discover and ponder in this thoughtful book.

Touro Synagogue
Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI – a landmark of religious liberty associated with the rights of non-Christian denominations; an affiliate site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (Photo: National Trust)

Where I found Waldman’s work lacking is in his approach to nonbelievers. To his credit, he is not hostile to the 23 percent of Americans who are unaffiliated with a religion, but it is clear that he favors a country with strong religious beliefs, even as he makes the case for pluralism. He chides secularists for seeking the same type of space that he argues religious adherents need in the public realm. When speaking of court decisions about LGBTQ issues, Waldman doesn’t make a strong effort to differentiate between the individual’s practice of a religion and the push by corporations and others to discriminate, because of the religious beliefs of the owners or managers, in the private business sector where we all live and work under a secular system of laws, public investment, and taxation. In reading reviews online, I found some evangelical readers felt that in discussing the rights of LGBTQ individuals and communities Waldman went too far in the other direction. Waldman, of course, might argue that being challenged on both sides of the issue means that he hit his target.

The final chapter—in which Waldman lays out his thoughts on how we can preserve religious freedom from the current threats that are all around us—is one that is certain to bring both delight and despair, often to the same reader. It is a thoughtful list, and I will just mention a few to whet your appetite.

First, he begins this chapter by surveying the status of religious liberty in other countries. Most would agree that we remain a beacon of freedom in this area, even with the threats we are facing. Waldman also notes how quickly the persecuted become the persecutors in America, recalling that “Puritans fled religious harassment in Europe and then hanged Quakers in America” while “Evangelical Christians led the way for religious freedom early in our history, but many of their leaders have turned against it in our own time.”

Waldman moves on to his prescriptions with the reminder that we are a nation of religious minorities. No one dominates, and our system should reflect that fact. Unfortunately, the biggest threat we face at the moment is the powerful effort to demonize, marginalize, and persecute Muslims in the United States. Not only does it harm Muslims, but in Waldman’s view it “represents a disintegration of the basic compact that sustains religious freedom for everyone.” The lines of attack today against Muslims are strikingly similar to those used in the past against Baptists, Mormons, Catholics, Jews, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To strengthen religious freedom in America, Waldman calls for

  • Religious groups to cultivate a heartier all-for-one, one-for-all solidarity around religious freedom.
  • Americans to appreciate each person’s right to seek God, even when they “detest” the person’s theology.
  • Better understanding of religious freedom by the press.

Three other prescriptions call for more explanation (or pushback).

First, Evangelical Christians should work to regain their position of moral leadership. 

Throughout his book, Wardman rightly points to the work of Evangelicals in the push for religious liberty. But he sometimes glosses over the past role of these groups in some of the nation’s worst sins, such as slavery, the devaluation of women, and LGBTQ persecution. There is also no real discussion given to the current Evangelical support for separation of immigrant children from their families and for unrestricted access to assault rifles and other weapons of destruction. Waldman also assumes the best from some evangelical leaders who—to my eye—are clearly con men and hucksters out to make a buck. Religious beliefs have little to do with the core of their work.

I was also frustrated that Waldman does not highlight the role of the “Religious (or Christian) left” as a beacon for moral leadership. The Christian left was a force during the Civil Rights era (think of The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray—member of the LGBTQ community, Civil Rights and Women’s Rights activist, the lawyer responsible for producing what Justice Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible of Civil Rights law,” the first female African American Episcopal priest, and an Episcopal saint—or the seminarian and martyr Jonathan Daniels) and the work of these believers continues to be a force today. Waldman—like the press in general—unfortunately gives those Christians very little airtime. Franklin Graham is quoted throughout the book (in both positive and negative ways). The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II of the Moral Monday and Repairers of the Breach movement and theologian Jim Wallis of Sojourners never get a mention.*

Second, LGBT rights advocates should drop the assumption that anyone who opposes same-sex marriage is a bigot.

There may be some (or many) gay-rights advocates who feel this way, but I found Waldman to be “over the top” on this point. First, he writes, “for two millennia organized religion has been the leading force in marginalizing, criminalizing, and destroying the lives of LGBT people” (emphasis added). Thus, he is asking for an extraordinary sense of graciousness on the part of gay-rights advocates with this prescription. Yet, as the father of a gay son, that is exactly what I’ve found among many who support LGBTQ individuals and their rights. I know there are people of faith who believe strongly about this issue. I don’t think they are all bigots. But I do believe—as Timothy Egan wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed—that many of those who feel this way are being very selective in what church doctrines they choose to enforce.** Waldman never really addresses that issue.

Finally, the devoutly religious should “show a little more confidence in God.” 

This is the crux of Waldman’s argument, and I couldn’t agree more. He writes, “Madison decried the ‘unchristian timidity’ of those Protestants who wanted government support to prop up their church. Believers need to embrace the idea that in a free arena, their faith will triumph or at least reach the right people, even if it does not have the help of an assistant principal leading schoolchildren in prayer.” Christians—especially of the right-wing variety—convey an image of a “faith that is petty and a God who is insecure.” I would also add that the image conveyed by the so-called “Christian right” is one more focused on power than Christ-like politics.

Religious freedom is an important topic, and I’m glad Waldman’s book has come forth at this time. Clearly, we need to understand the importance of religious liberty—including the freedom not to worship, if we choose—in these troubled times.

More to come…

*The Repairers of the Breach seek “to build a moral agenda rooted in a framework that uplifts our deepest moral and constitutional values to redeem the heart and soul of our country. We challenge the position that the preeminent moral issues are prayer in public schools, abortion, and property rights. Instead, we declare that the moral public concerns of our faith traditions are how our society treats the poor, women, LGBTQ people, children, workers, immigrants, communities of color, and the sick. Our deepest moral traditions point to equal protection under the law, the desire for peace within and among nations, the dignity of all people, and the responsibility to care for our common home.”

**Egan writes: “In Indiana this summer, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson stripped a Jesuit prep school of its Catholic identity for refusing to fire a gay, married teacher. The same threat loomed over another Indianapolis school, until it ousted a beloved teacher with 13 years of service. He was fired for getting married to another man—a legal, civil action.

The archbishop claimed he was upholding Catholic teaching, an example of the kind of selective moral policing that infuriates good people of faith.

Catholic teaching also frowns on divorce. But when a divorced teacher, at the same school where the gay teacher was fired, remarried without a church-sanctioned annulment and posted her status on Facebook as a dare, the archbishop did nothing. For this is a road that leads to thrice-married, politically connected Catholics like Newt Gingrich, whose wife Callista . . . is now Donald Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican.

Archbishop Thompson says he tries to be ‘Christ-centered’ in his decisions. If so, he should cite words from Christ condemning homosexuality, any words; there are none. That may be one reason a healthy majority of Catholics are in favor of same-sex marriage, despite what their spiritual sentries tell them.”


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