Review by Ch, Capt Shaul Rappeport, USAF.
As Americans, we take great pride in our freedoms. The founders of our country fought for them, and their descendants continued to fight to preserve and expand them. Certainly all of us service-members feel exceptionally partial to our freedoms and what they represent. We proudly don the uniform to protect these freedoms as well as our American way of life. Broadly speaking, many of us believe the origins of America in the image of peaceful, persecuted Puritans fleeing to the shores of the New World, from where unabated freedom has existed for centuries. Steve Waldman’s Sacred Liberty extraordinarily dispels this myth with regards to freedom of religion.
As Waldman takes us back to Colonial America, we quickly discover that it was a far cry from the free world we imagine. Although often fleeing persecution, Colonial Americans were not hesitant to persecute anyone deemed heretical or sufficiently “other.” This took the form of dominant groups restricting religious practice of minorities, as well as outright violence and even judicial killings. Many states had official religions supported by the state at the expense and exclusion of other religions, and there were even “faith tests” for those desiring to serve in public office. It is from this state of affairs that Madison, architect of the First Amendment, emerges.
Further dispelling our misconceptions, Waldman shows us the excruciating battle that Madison underwent in order to get his amendment passed. Indeed, freedom of religion faced vicious political opponents. It was an arduous process getting it into the Bill of Rights. It is important to realize this point: Not all the Founding Fathers equally valued religious freedom, and Madison and his supporters had to battle hard to achieve it. Yet another reason we ought to not take it for granted.
Sacred Liberty then walks us through the next couple of centuries, showing us both the challenges to religious liberty and the by-products it created. The “Free marketplace of ideas” and the “multiplicity of sects” created a ripe ground for the religious fervor of the 18th and 19th centuries, with their awakenings and birth of new religions. Indeed, it is shown that it is precisely due to the unique freedom of religion America granted that this religious manifestation was possible.
At the same time, we learn that America was (and still is) very much a work in progress. As new sects and religions emerged, so did bias and violence against them. We discover that religious persecution and bigotry knows no bounds. For example, Anglicans once persecuted Baptists, despite them both being Protestants; something that today sounds quite unusual. Often, groups only just barely no longer the persecuted, joined the majority in persecuting the “new” despised minority. This trend is clearly demonstrated, and is highly disturbing.
Waldman also shows how a free religious environment has the power to influence religious groups themselves, even beyond US borders. Mormons ultimately gave up on an avowed fundamental belief – polygamy – due to the influence of American values. American Catholics influenced the Vatican’s own approach to religious freedom and pluralism. Jews in America began to create a uniquely “Americanized” version of their faith, which in turn has had worldwide impact on Jewish life around the globe. Even Muslims had begun this process of influencing Islamic norms around the world, but they were cut short of having long range and long-term impact, due to 9/11.
Beyond the journey through history, Waldman’s book is a call to action. It takes us all the way to the current day, demonstrating cases where religious freedom has been ignored, and where it has been abused for political gain. Most importantly, he demonstrates astutely why attaining religious freedom took so long, why it might be lost and what we can do to save it.
Sacred Liberty by Steven Waldman is equally academically satisfying as it is accessible to readers without theological or religious studies backgrounds. The reader gets the feeling that they are not reading a distant historical record; rather, they are reading their very own story. The story of who we are, and how we got here. An enjoyable, empowering and important read.
Originally published in the Tishrei 2020 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.