Tag Archives: American History

Religious Freedom in America

I have been reading this collection on “Religious Freedom in America,” edited by Allen Hertzke. The authors cover the subject from a number of perspectives, including Thomas Kidd and Vincent Philip Muñoz with perspectives on the Founding, and important contributions from the Sikh and Muslim traditions, which are not often heard in these debates.

There is also an empirical essay of particular interest for those trying to figure out the current state of religious freedom. America post-Smith has a welter of “mini-RFRAs” establishing balancing tests meant to offer more protection to religious exercise than a “rational basis” standard. The results are not encouraging. Professors Robert R. Martin and Roger Finke collected thousands of religious liberty cases and coded them according to various metrics. One metric was how often courts invoked a “compelling” government interest in considering a religious liberty claim. In an earlier post, I had noted the relative lack of detail in judicial opinions concerning what constitutes a “compelling” interest in federal law that, along with the least restrictive means to meet that interest, would overcome a substantial burden on religious freedom.   The authors provide some answers from their review of state court decisions. Their review indicated that states have articulated at least some compelling interests; these include “completing a trial without a three-day delay in deliberations, maintaining a zoning district as a single-family residential zone and … public safety and ‘aesthetics’”.  Among other things, they conclude that although the United States remains a stronghold for religious liberty by comparison with other countries, religious freedom prevails in less than half the cases, and that “free exercise claimants remain at a stark disadvantage in the face of generally applicable, religiously neutral laws.”

From the results of this study, it seems the legacy of Smith has worked all too well. Despite RFRA and state-level initiatives, the state under cover of “neutral” laws, still wins most of the time. And there is much reason to believe many of these neutral laws are not neutral at all, especially when we consider initiatives like the contraceptive mandate. But this study does give the lie to the arguments of some secularists that religion is too powerful in our society. The contrary seems to be increasingly the case.

Roberts, “Voodoo and Power”

In November, the Louisiana State University Press will release “Voodoo and Power: The Politics of Religion in New Orleans, 1881-1940,” by Kodi A. Roberts (Louisiana State University).  The publisher’s description follows:

The racialized and exoticized cult of Voodoo occupies a central place in the popular image of the Crescent City. But as Kodi A. Roberts argues in Voodoo and Power, the religion was not a monolithic tradition handed down from African ancestors to their American-born descendants. Instead, a much more complicated patchwork of influences created New Orleans Voodoo, allowing it to move across boundaries of race, class, and gender. By employing late nineteenth and early twentieth-century first-hand accounts of Voodoo practitioners and their rituals, Roberts provides a nuanced understanding of who practiced Voodoo and why.

Voodoo in New Orleans, a mélange of religion, entrepreneurship, and business networks, stretched across the color line in intriguing ways. Roberts’s analysis demonstrates that what united professional practitioners, or “workers,” with those who sought their services was not a racially uniform folk culture, but rather the power and influence that Voodoo promised. Recognizing that social immobility proved a common barrier for their patrons, workers claimed that their rituals could overcome racial and gendered disadvantages and create new opportunities for their clients.

Voodoo rituals and institutions also drew inspiration from the surrounding milieu, including the privations of the Great Depression, the city’s complex racial history, and the free-market economy. Money, employment, and business became central concerns for the religion’s practitioners: to validate their work, some began operating from recently organized “Spiritual Churches,” entities that were tax exempt and thus legitimate in the eyes of the state of Louisiana. Practitioners even leveraged local figures like the mythohistoric Marie Laveau for spiritual purposes and entrepreneurial gain. All the while, they contributed to the cultural legacy that fueled New Orleans’s tourist industry and drew visitors and their money to the Crescent City.

Smith, “Religious Persecution and Political Order in the United States”

In October, Cambridge University Press will release “Religious Persecution and Political Order in the United States,” by David T. Smith (University of Sydney). The publisher’s description follows:

Religious freedom is a foundational value of the United States, but not all religious minorities have been shielded from religious persecution in America. This book examines why the state has acted to protect some religious minorities while allowing others to be persecuted or actively persecuting them. It details the persecution experiences of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, Jews, the Nation of Islam, and orthodox Muslims in America, developing a theory for why the state intervened to protect some but not others. The book argues that the state will persecute religious minorities if state actors consider them a threat to political order, but they will protect religious minorities if they believe persecution is a greater threat to political order. From the beginning of the republic to after 9/11, religious freedom in America has depended on the state’s perception of political threats.

Sutto, “Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists”

In November, the University of Virginia Press will release “Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists: Maryland and the Politics of Religion in the English Atlantic, 1630-1690,” by Antoinette Sutto (University of Mississippi).  The publisher’s description follows:

Loyal Protestants and Dangerous Papists analyzes the vibrant and often violent political culture of seventeenth-century America, exploring the relationship between early American and early modern British politics through a detailed study of colonial Maryland. Seventeenth-century Maryland was repeatedly wracked by disputes over the legitimacy of the colony’s Catholic proprietorship. The proprietors’ strange policy of religious liberty was part of the controversy, but colonists also voiced fears of proprietary conspiracies with Native Americans and claimed the colony’s ruling circle aimed to crush their liberties as English subjects. Conflicts like these became wrapped up in disputes less obviously political, such as disagreements over how to manage the tobacco trade, without which Maryland’s economy would falter.

Antoinette Sutto argues that the best way to understand this strange mix of religious, economic, and political controversies is to view it with regard to the disputes over the role of the English church, the power of the state, and the ideal relationship between the two—disputes that tore apart the English-speaking world twice over in the 1600s. Sutto contends that the turbulent political history of early Maryland makes most sense when seen in an imperial as well as an American context. Such an understanding of political culture and conflict in this colony offers a window not only into the processes of seventeenth-century American politics but also into the construction of the early modern state. Examining the dramatic rise and fall of Maryland’s Catholic proprietorship through this lens, Loyal Protestants and Dangerous Papists offers a unique glimpse into the ambiguities and possibilities of the early English colonial world.

Walther, “Sacred Interests”

This month, the University of North Carolina Press releases “Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921” by Karine V. Walther (School of Foreign Service in Qatar).  The publisher’s description follows:

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Americans increasingly came into contact with the Islamic world, U.S. diplomatic, cultural, political, and religious beliefs about Islam began to shape their responses to world events. In Sacred Interests, Karine V. Walther excavates the deep history of American Islamophobia, showing how negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims shaped U.S. foreign relations from the Early Republic to the end of World War I.

Beginning with the Greek War of Independence in 1821, Walther illuminates reactions to and involvement in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the efforts to protect Jews from Muslim authorities in Morocco, American colonial policies in the Philippines, and American attempts to aid Christians during the Armenian Genocide. Walther examines the American role in the peace negotiations after World War I, support for the Balfour Declaration, and the establishment of the mandate system in the Middle East. The result is a vital exploration of the crucial role the United States played in the Islamic world during the long nineteenth century–an interaction that shaped a historical legacy that remains with us today.

Is Christianity Part of the National Heritage?

There is a fair amount of moral preening in this article from Slate on an ill-advised (at best) move by a city council in Coolidge, Arizona to allow Christian-only prayers at their meetings. The piece, by Dahlia Lithwick, is a little overheated. The resolution went nowhere. She acknowledges that prayers at council meetings are allowed under a 2014 Supreme Court decision. Town of Greece v. Galloway, so long as there is no intent to discriminate, and that the Coolidge City Council rescinded the resolution shortly after the 4-2 vote in favor (which in any event needed to be voted on again to pass). Not to mention that the council assured one member that if he didn’t like what he was hearing from another faith, he didn’t have to listen.

Lithwick thinks both the actual proposed Coolidge resolution and one that simply permitted religious groups within the town limits to offer prayers at council meetings are examples of religious “intolerance” (Lithwick calls the latter “sneaky and subversive” even though it is perfectly reasonable and constitutional to only allow those groups actually present in a town to offer prayers). This theocracy-under-every-bed approach is tiresome and implausible, without disagreeing that the council’s decision was not a good one.

What interests me here is that Lithwick and others (such as historian Kevin Kruse, who has written a very interesting book on the rise of the Religious Right) mocked the proponent of the resolution for saying that Christianity was “our heritage.” As a historical matter, I don’t think this is remotely debatable, and Lithwick has the losing side. Further, as a constitutional matter, there is voluminous evidence that the Founders were very much influenced by the Reformed Protestant tradition, which is reflected in the documents they wrote.

This topic came up during a recent Libertas conference I had the privilege of attending, and has deep roots. (Thomas Jefferson, for example, argued that Christianity did not form part of the “law of the land.”) Lithwick’s view dovetails with a good article by Stuart Banner on Christianity and the common law. Banner finds that the decline of the belief that “Christianity forms part of the common law” coincides with the rise of a notion that the law was made by judges and not simply reflective of underlying truths, be they religious or otherwise. He writes: “Law was a body of principles separate from other bodies of principles, not just in its source (the decisions of government officials), but in its field of application. Religious norms, even those universally subscribed to, did not qualify as ‘law,’ not just because they were not made by government officials, but also because they were not enforced by government officials.” This conception of law increased (unsurprisingly) the power of lawyers and judges, who now presided over an autonomous realm untouched by the beliefs of the people, yet somehow superior to it.

Holding that law and culture are not the same is different from believing that culture need not influence law. Lithwick’s position has its own history, one that is not self-evidently true (and, in light of the “clerisy” theme these posts have been developing, arguably not desirable as well).

Richard, “Not a Catholic Nation”

In November, the University of Massachusetts Press will release “Not a Catholic Nation: The Ku Klux Klan Confronts New England in the 1920s,” by Mark Paul Richard (State University of New York at Plattsburgh).  The publisher’s description follows:

During the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan experienced a remarkable resurgence, drawing millions of American men and women into its ranks. In Not a Catholic Nation, Mark Paul Richard examines the KKK’s largely ignored growth in the six states of New England—Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont—and details the reactions of the region’s Catholic population, the Klan’s primary targets.

Drawing on a wide range of previously untapped sources—French-language newspapers in the New England–Canadian borderlands; KKK documents scattered in local, university, and Catholic repositories; and previously undiscovered copies of the Maine Klansmen—Richard demonstrates that the Klan was far more active in the Northeast than previously thought. He also challenges the increasingly prevalent view that the Ku Klux Klan became a mass movement during this period largely because it functioned as a social, fraternal, or civic organization for many Protestants. While Richard concedes that some Protestants in New England may have joined the KKK for those reasons, he shows that the politics of ethnicity and labor played a more significant role in the Klan’s growth in the region.

The most comprehensive analysis of the Ku Klux Klan’s antagonism toward Catholics in the 1920s, this book is also distinctive in its consideration of the history of the Canada–U.S. borderlands, particularly the role of Canadian immigrants as both proponents and victims of the Klan movement in the United States.

Thompson, “For God and Globe”

In November, the Cornell University Press will release “For God and Globe: Christian Internationalism in the United States between the Great War and the Cold War,” by Michael G. Thompson (University of Sydney). The publisher’s description follows:

For God and Globe recovers the history of an important yet largely forgotten intellectual movement in interwar America. Michael G. Thompson explores the way radical-left and ecumenical Protestant internationalists articulated new understandings of the ethics of international relations between the 1920s and the 1940s. Missionary leaders such as Sherwood Eddy and journalists such as Kirby Page, as well as realist theologians including Reinhold Niebuhr, developed new kinds of religious enterprises devoted to producing knowledge on international relations for public consumption. For God and Globe centers on the excavation of two such efforts—the leading left-wing Protestant interwar periodical, The World Tomorrow, and the landmark Oxford 1937 ecumenical world conference. Thompson charts the simultaneous peak and decline of the movement in John Foster Dulles’s ambitious efforts to link Christian internationalism to the cause of international organization after World War II.

Concerned with far more than foreign policy, Christian internationalists developed critiques of racism, imperialism, and nationalism in world affairs. They rejected exceptionalist frameworks and eschewed the dominant “Christian nation” imaginary as a lens through which to view U.S. foreign relations. In the intellectual history of religion and American foreign relations, Protestantism most commonly appears as an ideological ancillary to expansionism and nationalism. For God and Globe challenges this account by recovering a movement that held Christian universalism to be a check against nationalism rather than a boon to it.

Mislin, “Saving Faith”

In October, the Cornell University Press will release “Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age,” by David Mislin (Temple University).  The publisher’s description follows:

In Saving Faith, David Mislin chronicles the transformative historical moment when Americans began to reimagine their nation as one strengthened by the diverse faiths of its peoples. Between 1875 and 1925, liberal Protestant leaders abandoned religious exclusivism and leveraged their considerable cultural influence to push others to do the same. This reorientation came about as an ever-growing group of Americans found their religious faith under attack on social, intellectual, and political fronts. A new generation of outspoken agnostics assailed the very foundation of belief, while noted intellectuals embraced novel spiritual practices and claimed that Protestant Christianity had outlived its usefulness.

Faced with these grave challenges, Protestant clergy and their allies realized that the successful defense of religion against secularism required a defense of all religious traditions. They affirmed the social value—and ultimately the religious truth—of Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. They also came to view doubt and uncertainty as expressions of faith. Ultimately, the reexamination of religious difference paved the way for Protestant elites to reconsider ethnic, racial, and cultural difference. Using the manuscript collections and correspondence of leading American Protestants, as well the institutional records of various churches and religious organizations, Mislin offers insight into the historical constructions of faith and doubt, the interconnected relationship of secularism and pluralism, and the enormous influence of liberal Protestant thought on the political, cultural, and spiritual values of the twentieth-century United States.

“The Polygamy Question” (eds. Bennion and Joffe)

In November, the Utah State University Press will release “The Polygamy Question,” edited by Janet Bennion (Lyndon State College) and Lisa Fishbayn Joffe (Brandeis University).  The publisher’s description follows:

The practice of polygamy occupies a unique place in North American history and has had a profound effect on its legal and social development. The Polygamy Question explores the ways in which indigenous and immigrant polygamy have shaped the lives of individuals, communities, and the broader societies that have engaged with it. The book also considers how polygamy challenges our traditional notions of gender and marriage and how it might be effectively regulated to comport with contemporary notions of justice.

The contributors to this volume—scholars of law, anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, and religious studies—disentangle diverse forms of polygamy and polyamory practiced among a range of religious and national backgrounds including Mormon and Muslim. They chart the harms and benefits these models have on practicing women, children, and men, whether they are independent families or members of coherent religious groups. Contributors also address the complexities of evaluating this form of marriage and the ethical and legal issues surrounding regulation of the practice, including the pros and cons of legalization.

Plural marriage is the next frontier of North American marriage law and possibly the next civil rights battlefield. Students and scholars interested in polygamy, marriage, and family will find much of interest in The Polygamy Question.