Tuesday, February 1, 2011

David Sehat's "The Myth of American Religious Freedom"

David Sehat, Assistant Professor of History at Georgia State University, is a cultural and intellectual historian of the United States. His work focuses on the role of religion in law and politics from the First Amendment to the present.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Myth of American Religious Freedom captures one of the central themes of the book. I argue that much of our understanding of the American religious history is shrouded in myth. Rather than a happy past of religious freedom, my book shows that the United States was long controlled by Protestant Christians who sponsored a coercive and exclusionary moral regime. Dissenters from this regime—who included abolitionists, women’s rights activists, labor organizers, educational reformers, and more—were particularly acute in their criticism of the coercive arrangements of the past, so I rely upon them to point out the nature and extent of these connections of religion and state.

On page 99, I discuss Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leader of women’s rights, fierce opponent of religion in public life, and organizer of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, which sought to advance women’s rights in the United States. Stanton had first attended the 1840 convention of the world antislavery societies in London, where she met the radical William Lloyd Garrison. She would later say that Garrison helped to free her from the chains of “spiritual bondage.” Once freed, she came to the conclusion that women had been oppressed in American law by an improper connection of religion and the state. This connection installed Christian patriarchy into law, putting the full force of the state behind Christian gender ideals. At the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, Stanton led the other delegates in rejecting the oppression of women in law and calling for their “immediate admission to all the rights and privileges .... as citizens of these United States.” This claim of equal and individual rights in the face of religious oppression was a common one by dissenters, who argued that the Protestant Christian control over the United States had unfairly excluded them.
Learn more about The Myth of American Religious Freedom at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue