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

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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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What prompted the addition of “in God we trust” on the money and ‘under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance?

This happened in the 1950s and was part of a general move to elevate religion in public life — as part of the fight against Communism. Eisenhower, who was president, captured the zeitgeist when he explained that our rights came from the Creator: “In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion that all men are created equal.” Some mocked his “I don’t care what it is” line. As one critic put it, Eisenhower seemed to be “a very fervent believer in a very vague religion.” But in his own way, he captured well the way most Americans were increasingly approaching faith — with a combination of passion and tolerance. Eisenhower understood that a surge in “God talk” required a parallel emphasis on pluralism.

How did evangelicals become first leaders on behalf of religious freedom and then opponents of it?

As I wrote in Newsweek: “No group did more to advance religious freedom than evangelical Christians. We owe our freedoms in part to evangelicals like the Reverend John Waller, who was preaching in Caroline County, Virginia, in 1771 when an Anglican minister strode up to the pulpit and jammed the butt end of a horse whip into Waller’s mouth. Waller was dragged outside, where a local sheriff beat him bloody. He spent 113 days in jail for the crime of being a Baptist preacher. These were among 150 major attacks against Baptists in Virginia between 1760 and 1778, many of them carried out by leaders of local Anglican churches — and, significantly, many of them within a horse ride of a young James Madison. “This vexes me the most of any thing,” Madison, then 23, complained to his friend William Bradford in 1774. “That diabolical, Hell-conceived principle of persecution rages.”

The evangelical leaders fervently advocated for separation of church and state. They believed that both government oppression and government hurt religion, in the first case by squelching freedom of conscience and in the second by making state-supported religion lazy and corrupt. Madison was influenced by the evangelicals’ courage, philosophy and votes. It was evangelical voters who elected Madison to Congress — on the condition that he push for religious freedom.

Do the rulings in the Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Cake cases open the door for challenges to the new state laws restricting access to abortion as a religious issue?

The idea that government should bend over backward to accommodate religious practice — even when they conflict with secular laws — started before Hobby Lobby, and yes, will lead to all sorts of other applications. I wrote a Jonathan Swiftian article suggesting that by the logic of these decisions, pro-choice people could argue that abortion should be legal as long as the doctors were Jewish or Muslim, since they have a different conceptions of when life begins. (Editor’s note: I made the same argument, and not in Swiftian hyperbole.)

Does it matter that there are no Protestant Supreme Court justices currently serving?

I think it’s a rather positive development that the court for a while is comprise of people who wouldn’t have been allowed to hold office at the time of the Declaration of Independence.

Will there ever be a Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh justice? Or President?

Yes. (And how will you prove me wrong?)

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James Madison

How did the 1st Amendment language about freedom of religion change from Madison’s version to the one that was adopted?

Madison originally proposed it as a natural right. It ended up as a limitation on Congress’s powers at the national level. It wasn’t until the 14th amendment that the U.S. Constitution enforced religious freedom at a local level. He lost on his other proposal that religious freedom be applied to the states too.

What do the demographics of the people now in their 20’s and 30’s tell us about the future of religion in public life and policy?

More of them are “nones,” fewer of them are evangelicals, and more of them are non-Christians. The country is becoming more religiously diverse so our approach to religious pluralism will have to expand.

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