Exploring the Historical Roots of Religious Freedom A Conversation with Steven Waldman

STEVEN WALDMAN is a former journalist he was the national editor of US News & World Report, a national correspon­dent for Newsweek, and the founder and former editor in chief of Beliefnet), and he served as a senior advisor to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2009-2011. In 2017 he co-founded Report for America, a nonprofit committed to sustaining local newsrooms and support­ing journalists. He is the author of the bestseller Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty (2008) and has written for major newspapers and periodicals, including the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review, the New Republic, National Review, First Things, and Christianity Today.

In his new book, Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom (HarperOne, May 2019), Waldman offers a sweeping overview of how the United States built a unique model of “religious freedom.” Given the current US president’s embrace of evangelicals, prosperity gospel preachers, and white nationalists, a conversation with Waldman can place current debates about religious liberty into sociopolitical and historical perspective.

Becky Garrison: How do you define the distinctly American model of religious freedom?

Steven Waldman: The American model of religious freedom assumes that every person has the right to pursue their own spiritual path. So, it really goes beyond separation of church and state to the idea that the government shouldn’t put its finger on the scale of any religious approach, that it should allow a wide-open, vibrant spiritual place.

Garrison: Why is this value key for a functioning democracy?

Waldman: In world history, the inability of societies to manage people’s passionate desire to follow their spiritual quest and not kill each other has been really hard. The norm of human history has been that botching the approach to religious liberty has undermined democracy in general.

Garrison: Based on your research, what can history tell us about contemporary debates pertaining to religious liberty?

Waldman: In some ways, our system of religious liberty is very well developed and robust. But it’s really disheartening to see some of the worst patterns of our history returning in the form of attacks on religious freedom of certain groups, particularly American Muslims. So, progress has moved forward in a kind of fitful way but not always a straight line. We’re definitely seeing some tendencies that we thought were long vanquished coming back. And that’s frightening. So, it’s a bit of a mixed message: we’ve come a long way but it’s still fragile partly because I’m not sure we have a sufficient consensus about what religious liberty means and a sufficient understanding of what people went through to get it.

Garrison: How do you respond when a religious right pundit like Eric Metaxas says, “the Founding Fathers believed…”?

Waldman: Any sentence that begins with “the Founding Fathers believed” is almost certainly wrong because the Founding Fathers were not a unitary thing. They were different people who had different beliefs. That is true for their positions on religious freedom as well. The evidence is overwhelming that the key founders did not wish to establish a Christian nation in any formal sense. Quite to the contrary, they were very focused on creating a kind of free market of religion that would allow a variety of different denominations and religions to flourish. That’s not to say the founders weren’t Christians. Most of them were, and as a personal matter, they believed Christianity was very important for the country. But they didn’t translate their Christian beliefs into thinking everyone else had to have the same views. And that’s a very important point.

The other thing I’d like to say about Christian America is there was no such thing back then. We now use the term “Judeo-Christian heritage” as if it was common to all. In the colonial period there weren’t so many Jews or Catholics. There was some consensus around a few Protestant denominations but there wasn’t even really a Protestant consensus.

Garrison: How did we get from John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” to the Founding Fathers wanting to create a free market for religion?

Waldman: The Founding Fathers looked at the approach their predecessors had tried and decided it hadn’t worked very well. That’s an oversimplification because you had experiments in different colonies. Roger Williams’s approach in Rhode Island was a key model, though the more influential was James Madison’s focus on Pennsylvania. Even that had problems, and over time they came to see that the approach of Winthrop, where the state supported and encouraged religion, didn’t work well. Also, the colonies had gotten diverse. So, even if they had wanted an approach where the government encouraged religion, they would not have been able to agree on what religion that should be. So, the combination of the bad experiences in the first 150 years and the diversity of the country pointed them in a different direction.

Garrison: How does colonial-era religious meddling compare to contemporary evangelical Christian meddling?

Waldman: Ironically, there’s probably no group that did more to advance the positive definition of religious liberty in America in those first hundred years than evangelical Christians. My message to modern evangelicals is to tap into their history and the approach their own forefathers took. The unfortunate parallels are with the waves of anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, and anti-Jewish sentiment at other points in US history. You see the same arguments and language in the current attacks on Muslims.

Garrison: Elaborate on what you mean when you write in Sacred Liberty that real religious freedom exists because of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Waldman: When the framers wrote the First Amendment, the compromise Madison had to go along with was a separation of church and state (vis-à-vis the Establishment Clause) at the national level but with states free to do whatever they wanted, including favoring particular religions. This included taxing people to pay for ministers’ salaries and religious tests for local offices. It wasn’t until the Fourteenth Amendment that the ideas and principles in the Bill of Rights got applied to local and state government. Even then, it took another hundred years for religious liberty to play out. It wasn’t until decades after the Fourteenth Amendment that the Supreme Court actually started to enforce it.

Garrison: Describe how early American diversity included the nonreligious.

Waldman: We think of the colonial period as being this religion-soaked time. But in fact, religious appearance and church-going was very low during this period. This informed the founders’ calculation in coming up with the system that worked for a wide variety of people. There were other periods where religion was much more dominant.

Also, when you look at contemporary statistics about those who claim no religious affiliation—the “nones”—quite a high percentage of nones say they pray regularly. So, they’re not necessarily atheists. Some are, but a good chunk of them have been alienated from organized religion though they’re still searching for some way of fulfilling themselves spiritually and morally.

Garrison: Why do you suppose the nonreligious are so often ignored in the telling of American history?

Waldman: There’s a difference between secular and atheist in that regard. There was a big block of secular people in the colonial period and all future periods, but never a big vocal block of atheists in the same way that there is now. The more secular part of the spectrum tended to be people who were non-practicing, weren’t religious, or had a kind of spirituality that was more deistic. The fights tended to be centered more on questions like: “Is the Bible infallible?” “Is the church messing everything up?” and “Is the government supposed to be advancing religion?” rather than “Does God exist?”

When you get to that later period when Madalyn Murray O’Hair and others were starting to challenge the constitutionality of some of this mixing of religion in public spaces, the Supreme Court started to play a bigger role. Before this, it was largely adjudicated on the state level where the majority of the population is religious.

Garrison: It does appear that no one objected when the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower put “In God We Trust” on US coins and inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance.

Waldman: Part of what made Eisenhower’s approach interesting is that he became obsessed with religiosity. He was the first president to use the term Judeo-Christian, and he was also known for saying, “Everyone should be religious, and I don’t care what the religion is.” Hence, it was an aggressive push for religiosity and a radical pluralism at the same time. I think that’s why it didn’t create a secular backlash, as it was in the context of a broadening and pluralistic approach. Also, Eisenhower and Harry Truman used religious freedom as much as religion to rally against Communism and fascism. So it wasn’t just “America is great because God favors America,” it was “America is great because we have religious freedom that the Nazis and the Communists don’t have. For the first time religious liberty became a unifying idea.

Garrison: You also had the National Prayer Breakfast coming into existence during this period.

Waldman: Part of the issue is when events like the National Prayer Breakfast become a moment for different religious groups to poke other religious groups in the eye or make a combative statement instead of celebrating pluralistic religious freedom. When religion gets politicized, it doesn’t just hurt politics—it also hurts religion. If you use religion to try and advance a political point, then it turns religion into a political prop. When you do that, you’re not advancing religion, you’re devaluing it.

I‘m fine with politicians being motivated by their faith and even using religious language, but they have to realize that if they’re doing it to persuade people, there are risks attached. The more you use religion to sell politics, the more likely you are to corrupt religion.

Garrison: What do you mean when you say in the book that the preachers of the Second Great Awakening finished what the legislative reformers began?

Waldman: In that period, from 1800 to the 1820s, two things were going on at the same time. There was the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening, which brought a huge outpouring of new activities. Protestants demanded the end of the formal establishments of religion in different states and were an important part of the political constituency that broke down remnants of the old religious establishments. In addition, it provided the proof of why separation of church and state would lead to a healthy religious outcome. Madison was a very strict separationist but it wasn’t that he wanted a more secular society. Rather, he thought separation of church and state would lead to more robust religions. He pointed to the revivals and the Second Great Awakening as proof of this healthy religious activity of all different types.

Violations of Christians’ religious liberty is a small problem compared to the much bigger issue of the attacks on religious liberty involving American Muslims.

Garrison: How does immigration inform the fights over religious freedom throughout American history?

Waldman: I would argue that immigration has been a really important positive force in the creation of religious liberty. In the long run, it justified Madison’s vision that the more different religious approaches you have, the safer everyone would be. Madison used the antiquated term “the multiplicity of sects” that prevents one religion from having too much power.

Garrison: Elaborate briefly what you mean when you write that, “Just as World War II prompted an interfaith moment, the culture wars turned old enemies into allies.”

Waldman: That was a bit of a surprising twist for me. During World War II, the need to fight Hitler and Communism prompted America’s leadership at the national and local level to promote religious tolerance, and to advance religious liberty as the defining American idea that unifies us all.

Now, flash forward to the 1960s and ’70s when we were chipping away at intolerance, more and more groups were being invited into the tent, but there was still hostility and suspicion. Then suddenly, Catholics went from being on the outside to being welcomed in. On the left, you had people who were joining forces around political issues like civil rights. On the right, conservative Catholics and Protestants, who had strongly distrusted each other, suddenly decided to come together over certain issues like Communism and abortion. So, they dropped their theological antagonisms in search of a political unity.

Garrison: How do you see evangelical Christians going from the moral majority to a persecuted minority?

Waldman: The American model of religious freedom made a big shift around the turn of the last century. Evangelicals now believe they’re being overwhelmed by secularism and that it’s starting to infringe on their ability to practice their own faith, especially in the public sphere. What’s interesting is they’ve started to adopt the tactics of religious minorities; they’re literally using arguments and court precedents in cases brought by Native Americans, Jews, and other religious minorities to claim that the Constitution protects their ability to express their faith. Hence, it’s not enough to not persecute a religion or its followers, as a society we have to bend over backwards to give them room to breathe and make it so that secular laws don’t infringe on their rights.

Garrison: But they’re arguing for their right to practice their faith not just in their churches, homes, and private institutions but also in the public sphere. How can conservative Christians discriminate against others while also receiving federal funding for Christian hospitals, schools, and businesses?

Waldman: There are many ways that Americans allow government to privilege religion. Religious organizations are exempt from the oversight requirements by the IRS. A huge percentage of radio and TV licenses go to religious organizations. A lot of things being talked about as really egregious violations of religious liberty are actually pretty gray area cases in my opinion. The complaints about the violations of religious liberty that Christians are experiencing right now are not entirely fabricated, but I do think they’re exaggerated. It’s a small problem compared to the much bigger issue of the attacks on religious liberty involving American Muslims.

Garrison: Why do you view secularism as a threat to religious freedom?

Waldman: Secular folks need to give religious people room to express themselves publicly. For example, some folks objected when some of the money for historical renovation projects went to churches. You don’t want a situation where religious liberty ends up creating a lower status for religion. I object to all sorts of instances where tax dollars are favoring religion, but we also don’t want to go in the other direction and disadvantage religion.

Garrison: How do nonbelievers benefit when believers are protected?

Waldman: Nonbelievers really have a big stake in making sure there is a system that protects this diversity of viewpoints. The same system that has protected religious minorities also protects nonbelievers. The right to believe what you want also gives you the right to not follow any religious doctrine. They go hand in hand. Especially in other countries right now, you can see how less religious freedom endangers nonbelievers.  For example, in Saudi Arabia there’s all this attention on their oppression of women and of anyone who doesn’t follow a particular brand of Islam. They also execute and imprison atheists, skeptics, and nonbelievers. Personally, I think the French approach that’s a more militant secularism of state doesn’t work either. That creates backlash that ends up being unhealthy for society, and that includes nonbelievers.

Garrison: How do you see the rise of the nones as informing current debates over religious liberty?

Waldman: The rise of the nones and the growth of non-Christian religions underline the importance of having a pluralistic model. You can’t even talk about a Judeo-Christian model anymore because there are so many people who don’t fit anywhere within it. So you must have a model that allows for the broader range of different religious and nonreligious perspectives.