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The Myth of American Religious Freedom 1st Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195388763
ISBN-10: 0195388763
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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


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (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
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #300,273 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Reading Dr. Sehat's book one can hear echoes of Howard Zinn's "A Peoples History". Where Dr. Zinn tries to tell the history of the United States from, as he puts it, the perspective of its victims, Dr. Sehat tries to tell it from the perspective of its dissenters. In both cases the result is not the history that most of us grew up with, the history that the government of most any nation tends to tell of itself, as Zinn has it, like that of a family, "a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest", a history that obscures, ignores, or even denies fierce disagreements and conflicts of interest.

The reason both authors take this approach is not to condemn the government, or romanticize the virtues of the victims, in Zinn's, case, or the dissenters in Sehats, but to advance the dialogue on who we want to be as a people and why, based on a broader and more accurate grasp of who we have actually been, and why. In Dr. Sehat's case, the polarization of views on the nature and role of religion in American politics over that last 50 or so years is, for the most part, because the debate on both sides has suffered from the perpetuation of three distinct but related myths. The first is the liberal myth of church-state separation. The First Amendment, he says, was itself a bitter compromise that did not create the separation advocated by Madison and Jefferson. The second myth follows from the first, that religious believers fled the persecution in Europe in order to establish religious tolerance in the United States.

Quite the contrary had been the case.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Today most Americans believe that our country has a rich history of religious freedom. This pervasive perspective stands in contrast to our nation's actual practices, which have been less than ideal since the beginning. While progress has been made toward a society with true religious freedom, it has been uneven, slow and incomplete. Furthermore, most contemporary accounts idealize the past or cast it in a more favorable light than is historically credible.

True to his discipline, Sehat provides an historical account of what he understands to be the real story of American religious freedom. Based on my own rather limited prior study of the subject matter, I found nothing in the text that seemed misplaced or without appropriate context. Unfortunately, Sehat's book is a more difficult read than it should be due to his writing style. His over-reliance on lengthy and complex sentences as well as his inconsistency in effectively developing arguments for a broad readership are shortcomings.
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