The Myth of American Religious Freedom by David Sehat

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Synopsis

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.
In The Myth of American Religious Freedom, Sehat provides an eye-opening history of religion in public life, overturning our most cherished myths. Originally, the First Amendment applied only to the federal government, which had limited authority. The Protestant moral establishment ruled on the state level. Using moral laws to uphold religious power, 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, 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 on a series of dissenters--abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, socialist Eugene V. Debs, and many others.
Shattering myths held by both the left and right, David Sehat forces us to rethink some of our most deeply held beliefs. By showing the bad history used on both sides, he denies partisans a safe refuge with the Founders.
 

About David Sehat

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David Sehat is Assistant Professor of History at Georgia State University.
 
Published December 17, 2010 by Oxford University Press, USA. 368 pages
Genres: History, Religion & Spirituality, Education & Reference. Non-fiction

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Kirkus Reviews

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In this weighty text spanning all of American history, Sehat (History/Georgia State Univ.) argues that despite an overarching narrative of religious freedom, the United States has never truly practiced freedom of religion, rightly understood.

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Publishers Weekly

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In this new and compelling examination of American religious history, Sehat argues that this country did not extend freedom of religion to all, but until recently was controlled by a Protestant Christian establishment that sought to impose its will in coercive and often exclusionary ways.

Nov 08 2010 | Read Full Review of The Myth of American Religiou...

A Patchwork of Books

I am happy to consider any theory of myth, but not the crude dismissal of a story or a belief as a “mere myth.” True or false, myth is never “mere.” For to call even a conspicuously false story or belief a mere myth is to miss the power that that story or belief holds for those who accept it.

Feb 04 2013 | Read Full Review of The Myth of American Religiou...

Project MUSE

In a summary, Sehat refers to "the moral establishment's reliance upon legal coercion to propagate religiously derived moral norms" (290).We should distinguish, however, between coercion based on religion as such—illustrated by blasphemy prosecutions and the persecution of Mormons and free-thinke...

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