Religious Liberty

Today in class we’re going to be discussing one of my least favorite subjects: religious liberty.  It’s my least favorite subject for a list of reasons.

  1.  Lots of people think the United States was “founded on religious liberty.”  By which they mean puritans, then laugh when they acknowledge the puritans didn’t believe in religious liberty, then they mean the First Amendment, except that was (arguably) the very final act of the Revolutionary era.  Unfortunately, this conversation, which every historian of early American history has had dozens (hundreds?) of times, collapses the early-seventeenth-century puritans and the first Congress of the United States into one moment.  It not only elides all the complexities of the history of religious liberty over 150 years, it also erases all of the period I care about into a shrug.
  2. Religious liberty, in the eighteenth century and today, was more of an issue of how groups related to their governments than it was an issue of how they related to anything that had to do with their faith.  In that sense, it was an issue about religion, but not really a religious issue.  Have fun parsing that one.
  3. Arrangements of toleration and tolerance varied hugely from colony to colony and from government to government, as lots of great scholars, like Chris Beneke, have ably pointed out.  Trying to draw any kind of cohesive narrative out of that morass misses the point that the British Empire had no settled policy on religious matters and was, more to the point, politically  incapable of creating said policy.
  4. Often discussions of religious liberty devolve into teleological histories of “progress,” which end with either an ode to James Madison or a somber head-shaking at the nation’s failure to live up to its secular ideals.
  5. Most important, any discussion of pre-First Amendment religious freedom runs the serious risk of obscuring just how utterly transformative that moment was for the very concept of religion, which was, after that moment in the United States, a question of foundational law.

With all that in mind, I can’t not teach eighteenth-century establishments, which is my version of religious liberty, because I’m more and more convinced that they were utterly central to what “religion” was to most leaders of religious communities in the eighteenth century.  Amazingly, I’m even more obsessed with that little corner of history than I am irritated by David Barton, who I will leave those with stronger stomachs than mine to fight.

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