Steven Waldman on Sacred Liberty — America’s Struggle with What Freedom of Religion Means

Nell Minow
5 min readJul 17, 2019

Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom is Steven Waldman’s latest book about what he calls America’s greatest invention, the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion. Our history shows that goal has been complicated and often unsuccessful, and each Supreme Court term asks us to think through the issues again. In an interview, Waldman talks about the past and future of our country’s efforts to make sure all citizens can worship as they are called to.

Which President was the most devoutly religious?

Really hard to know but most historians would say some the strongest candidates would be Jimmy Carter and James Garfield (a Disciples of Christ minister), with strong showings from William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson and John Quincy Adams.

Which supported the idea of a state religion?

John Adams supported the preservation of the state religion in Massachusetts. When confronted by Baptists seeking greater freedom in his state, Adams responded petulantly. “We might as soon expect a change in the solar system” as to expect Massachusetts to give up its official state religion.

Which was the most committed to religious pluralism?

Well most of the post World War II were committed but of the founding fathers, I’d say Madison was the most deeply committed to the idea of pluralism.

The courts, including the Supreme Court, have not always upheld the right of any religious practice. Which ones have been restricted and what is the rationale?

Many whole books have been written on this so I cant be comprehensive. But one of the most interesting cases involved the Mormons. In the 19th the century the court decreed that Mormon’s could not practice polygamy, even though the LDS church said it was a deeply important part of their faith. At this point, the courts defend most religious practices — unless they directly harm others or conflict with secular laws (and even then it may be allowed). For instance, the courts have generally thrwarted efforts by Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses to deny some kinds of medical care to their children.

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Nell Minow

Movie critic, corporate critic and shareholder advocate, Contributing Editor at @ebertvoices plus @moviemom, and #corpgov #movies and editor at @miniverpress