Thursday, March 24, 2022

David Sehat's "This Earthly Frame"

David Sehat is a professor of history at Georgia State University. He is the author of The Jefferson Rule and The Myth of American Religious Freedom, which was awarded the 2012 Frederick Jackson Turner Award.

Sehat applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, This Earthly Frame: The Making of American Secularism, and reported the following:
Page 99 of This Earthly Frame finds the U.S. Supreme Court trying to define the limits of religious freedom. In 1940 the Jehovah’s Witnesses brought a case seeking to have their children excused from saluting the flag in public schools. The Witnesses understood the flag as “the devil’s emblem” and thought the requirement to salute it violated their religious freedom. The members of the Court are making up their mind about how to decide the case.

The Page 99 Test works for my book. The story of This Earthly Frame is about the making of American secularism, a political arrangement in which religious ideas have no authority outside a religious organization or institution. That arrangement emerged through social conflict between various religious groups as they fought for their own views through the court system. The court, confronted with the bewildering set of religious ideas in the middle of the twentieth century, responded by privatizing religious authority and by altering the historical place of Christianity in the United States.

But within its rulings was a key tension. The court received its constitutional authority to decide the role of religion in public life from the religion clauses of the First Amendment. The Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Court decided that the first clause, the establishment clause, required a secular political order. It decided that the second clause, the free exercise clause, protected religious freedom as a component of social, intellectual, and moral pluralism. On page 99 the Court began to see the problems that religious freedom would pose for a secular political order. The Witnesses claimed a nearly unqualified religious authority for themselves. In practice, that meant that the Witnesses demanded exemption from a whole range of neutral laws that offended their conscience. The Court struggled to uphold religious freedom without undermining secular authority entirely.

In time this tension would grow more acute, particularly as others joined the Witnesses in demanding recognition. By the 1970s, the Religious Right began to mobilize under the banner of religious freedom. As the Republican Party turned to conservative religious voters and as appointees to the court became more ideological, the rhetoric of religious freedom became more prominent. The result has been the creation of an alternate kingdom within the wider legal system of the United States, in which religious authority holds near total sway. My book seeks to explain how we got where we are, which cannot be understood without taking account of the history that caused the American secular order to take the shape that it did.
Visit David Sehat's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Myth of American Religious Freedom.

--Marshal Zeringue