A Historical Take on Religion and Politics

David Sehat, Assistant Professor, History DepartmentCongratulations to Prof. David Sehat of the History Department, who has just published his book The Myth of American Religious Freedom (2011).

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, 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. With the First Amendment originally applying only to the federal government, 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.

David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious FreedomIn 1940, the Supreme Court extended the First Amendment to the states and, as the 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. Sehat focuses on a series of dissenters—abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, socialist Eugene V. Debs, and many others—to trace the rise and fall of this Protestant establishment. Arguing that both liberals and conservatives have used bad history to support their positions, Sehat denies political partisans any safe refuge with the Founders. (From publisher’s description).

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