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The Myth of American Religious Freedom Hardcover – January 14, 2011


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (January 14, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195388763
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195388763
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 1.2 x 6.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #402,223 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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. An assistant professor of history at Georgia State University, Sehat shows how state and federal courts sided with the Protestant moral establishment in battles with Roman Catholics over public schools, with Mormons over polygamy, and with freethinkers over the right to be irreligious. This argument might surprise 21st-century Americans convinced their country has always been a beacon of religious liberty, but it is precisely this flaw in the national religious image that Sehat attempts to illuminate, if not always concisely. His argument is timely in light of the controversy over a proposed Islamic center near ground zero in New York City. It is also an important corrective to the ongoing culture wars between the religious right, which claims this country was birthed on a Christian foundation, and secularists, who insist that the First Amendment spells out a separation of church and state. (Jan.)
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Review


"The Myth of American Religious Freedom is a clear, well-argued, carefully researched book that serves as a model of the ways in which excellent and thorough scholarship can also be relevant to contemporary American life.... Wonderful, important, and refreshingly iconoclastic."--Church History


"Sehat has written a wonderful intellectual history of the United States addressing a topic of perpetual concern to Americans since the founding."-American Historical Review


"This is a compelling history and is engagingly told.... This excellent book advances an interesting twist on the traditional legal interpretations of the free exercise clause and makes a compelling case for a careful reexamination of our assumptions regarding its history.... More than any other book I have read over the last six months, I find myself continuously referencing this analysis."--Law and Politics Book Review


"This is a smart and sophisticated book. It should be widely, and carefully, read."--Journal of Church and State


"David Sehat is a myth-demolishing historian in the mold of C. Vann Woodward and Edmund Morgan. Just as they destroyed myths about liberty, slavery, and segregation, Sehat now devastates the idea that the United States was born, reared, and raised in religious freedom. He shows that, instead, control and power have long dominated American religious history. This is a rich and sad saga that delves brilliantly into law, politics, and reform. Deeply researched and passionately argued, The Myth of American Religious Freedom transforms how we think about religion and the United States."--Edward J. Blum, author of Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898


"This vigorously argued, carefully documented book traces the coercive function of religiously derived moral norms throughout the history of American law and politics. Sehat gives little comfort to today's advocates of a greater role for religion in public life, but he also calls into question the historical foundation of most defenses of a sharp church-state separation. This smart, provocative book invites a wide and attentive readership." --David A. Hollinger, President, Organization of American Historians, 2010-2011


"Sehat provides food for thought...he unmasks and attacks the moral establishments across American history." -Kirkus


"New and compelling. Timely. An important corrective to the ongoing culture wars between the religious right, which claims this country was birthed on a Christian foundation, and secularists, who insist that the First Amendment spells out a separation of church and state." -Publishers Weekly


"Sobering and persuasive." -The Christian Century


"The Myth of American Religious Freedom is a clear, well-srgued, carefully researched book that serves as a model of the ways in which excellent and thorough scholarship can also be relevant to contemporary American life...a wonderful, important, and refreshingly iconoclastic book...."--Matthew Avery Sutton, Washington State University


"David Sehat boldly slices through all of American history."--The Journal of American History


"A short review cannot do justice to David Sehat's complex book...a detailed history of federal and state policies affecting religion...persuasive."--The Journal of Southern History


"[Sehat] makes his case convincingly...A knowledge of Sehat's argument would elevate the substance of contemporary political debates about the separation of church and state, about religious tests for political office, and about finding common moral ground."--Southern Humanities Review



More About the Author

David Sehat is Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University. His first book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom, won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians.

Customer Reviews

I recommend it to anyone who likes not just to read about history, but to think about its meaning.
emerson
One is based on the idea that America is a Christian nation, and religion and politics work together for the common good.
iHappy
The author appears to be an excellent scholar - I can't imagine how he managed to put all that together.
Charly0

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By iHappy on April 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover
As I understand the author's argument, there have been two dominant trends in America's relationship with religion. One is based on the idea that America is a Christian nation, and religion and politics work together for the common good. The other is the idea that the United States is based on separation of religion and politics. These two trends have been in conflict from the beginning (from before the beginning even), and the struggle between their adherents has shaped important developments in American history. The author frames that history as a debate between those who promote the "moral establishment" as necessary for fulfillment of American ideals, and those whose full participation in American political life is threatened by the establishment. It's an interesting argument, well documented and thoroughly explained, and intuitive in our own time--which, of course, is the whole point, or ought to be. The argument is compelling, and the author's own background as an ex-evangelical gives him a unique perspective, one that informs the thinking throughout the book. If you like stimulating thought, and having your assumptions challenged, then reinforced, and then challenged again, you will profit from this book.

One minor criticism: I found the writing at times a bit dull. Sentences are routinely long, with multiple modifiers, and explanatory clauses tacked on to the introductory phrases instead of separated into shorter sentences. There are flashes of really good writing, but many people, especially college students, will be looking to the end of the chapter to see how many pages they have left. They may even be tempted to skip a few. That would be too bad. Good books deserve good readers, and while I wish the writing were a bit more engaging, this is a good book. I look forward to more from this author.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By emerson on April 30, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This book challenges long-cherished notions by both the right and the left, so it is no surprise that both the right and the left feel threatened by its central message. The argument is deceptively simple--America has always had a Protestant Christian establishment which has worked to repress other faiths. At no point does Sehat deny that we have an intellectual tradition that privileges religious freedom (Jefferson and Madison made sure of that), but he places this within its proper legal and political context. Religious establishments tend to fend off rivals by means both subtle and forceful, and Sehat labors to reveal them all.

Those who enjoy reading and thinking will enjoy this book. It is not for the small minded, but neither is it impenetrable. It is instead alive with ideas which are not dressed up in academic jargon, but are rather expressed clearly and forcefully.

One final note. This book makes a persuasive argument, but it is not one with which I agree. One of this book's most rewarding features is that it invites people to engage. I recommend it to anyone who likes not just to read about history, but to think about its meaning.
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful By James V. Holton on May 11, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As the teach of a secular subject (history) at a Christian college, I was well aware of the arguments that stated an unequivocal "Christian nation" which privileges Christian "religious liberty" first and foremost. Likewise, I was aware of the liberal arguments that posited a secular religious liberty tradition dating back to the country's founding, and which needed tending and revitalization if we were to truly honor the First Amendment.

Sehat's book wades full-on into that debate. He tackles this issue forthrightly by doubting the primordial religious freedom both sides espouse. Instead, Sehat argues that the boundaries of religious freedom have been formed by that very debate, subject to change and interpretation, but mostly shaped by the existence of a "Protestant moral establishment" that decreed what was and was not (religiously) acceptable.

The Myth of American Religious freedom is a nuanced, sophisticated book that goes beyond mere Constitutional arguments and into larger the larger political and social climate of US religion. Sehat links American religious freedom with the rise of the Protestant moral establishment, and traces its development to the present day, and forecasts its future. Sehat points out that morality and law are linked to religious values, indeed that they have intimately informed them in the American context. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that religion has not been taken seriously by Americans. His middle chapters on slavery and women's rights should cause readers to think how extensive this link is. As such, to argue some sort of pre-existing state of consensus religious freedom is nearly impossible.
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By Peter A. Butzin on May 26, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Provides a sweeping history of how Protestantism in America (primarily) shaped the Law, particularly in state legislatures and the U.S. Supreme Court. My own studies in American Religion and social history brought me to the same conclusion as the book's hypothesis, but David Sehat's book has provided the evidence that confirm my own suspicions. Particularly the latter chapters also provide a compelling overview of jurisprudence on the subject in the 20th Century. It also lays the groundwork for better understanding the battle between Evangelical conservatives and liberals who have embraced individual rights over religious-based moralism. It provides a thoughtful case that both sides have had it wrong by embracing different versions of history related to "the myth of American religious freedom.
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