In the seventeenth century, Massachusetts hanged people for being Quakes. At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, nine of the thirteen colonies barred Catholics and Jews from holding office. In 1838, the governor of Missouri issued an executive order to exterminate the Mormons. In the 1830s, Protestant mobs burned convents, sacked churches and collected the teeth of deceased nuns as souvenirs during anti-Catholic riots. It was one of the spasms of anti-Catholicism that dated back to the colonial era and continued into the 20th century. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were stripped of their liberty and religion when they were brought to America as slaves. The United States government banned the spiritual practices of the Native Americans and forced them into Christianity. Before and during the World War II Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned, beaten, and even castrated for refusing, as a matter of conscience, to salute the American flag. In Sacred Liberty, Steven Waldman argues that although these kinds of attacks seem alien today, there is a lot of ground yet to be covered.
Today we enjoy such robust religious freedom that this kind of persecution seems not only horrifying but also unthinkable. Steven Waldman says that proof of how far we have come came in 2016 when the United States Supreme Court began its session by seating six Catholics and three Jews as justices. Men and women who would not have been allowed to hold office in early America would pass judgment on paramount questions of state, including religious liberty. Progress can also be seen each time Congress conveners, with invocations offered by every flavor of Christian clergy as well as by Muslim imams, Hindu priests, and Jewish rabbis. Steven Waldman argues that the strength of America’s approach may be judged not just in the relative absence of persecution but in the nation’s spiritual vibrancy — three hundred sixty thousand houses of worship, from Adventist to Zoroastrian, from urban storefront churches that seat a dozen to Christian mega-churches that hold forty thousand worshippers. The spiritual practice thrives even more in the privacy of our homes — 76 percent of Americans pray regularly. Steven Waldman argues that America has reduced religious persecution without subduing religious passion. This accomplishment is rare in world history. Government efforts to promote a single faith often had short-term benefits — the favored religion would gain influence, wealth, and security — but they levied tragic costs as well: wars against heretics, persecution of religious minorities, and corruption of the faith itself.
Why does religious freedom matter for Americans? Steven Waldman says that, for most Americans, the pursuit of happiness requires a pursuit of meaning. That manifests differently for each of us: the perfect ritual, polished through a thousand years of use, to help us grieve; a small prayer that makes us feel significant by connecting us to something far greater than ourselves; a moral code, and a battle plan that guides our behavior, an inspiration to live. Steven Waldman argues that religious freedom has helped create a more perfect union. Faith has fueled our most significant social movements, including the efforts to ban slavery, gain women to vote, and combat poverty, as well as more controversial efforts to advance same-sex marriage and limit alcohol use and abolition. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was fundamentally a religious crusade, made possible in part because African Americans, who had been denied so many rights, mostly held one to one, the ability to gather in churches, read scripture, and imagine the Exodus story bought forward into modern times.
One of the lessons we learn from this insightful book is that we Americans have successfully defeated all threats to religious freedom and will not succumb to new threats that surface. The religious vibrancy and diversity have been our biggest national strength and we should keep fighting for it. The right to believe is one of the most important rights we have. If Sacred Liberty gives hope, it also shines a light on the dark corners of our history. Without knowing about the mistakes we made in history, we may repeat them in the future. This well-researched and fascinating book is a must read for all of us.