Book Review: ‘Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom’ by Steven Waldman

Review by Richard Mouw. Richard Mouw served as president of Fuller Theological Seminary for 20 years. He is the author, most recently, of Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels (Brazos).


We evangelicals have been complaining quite a bit lately about increasing infringements on our freedoms as people of faith. I frequently join in voicing those complaints.

My own worries tend to focus specifically on higher education. Evangelical colleges and universities benefit considerably from federally funded student loans—in many cases, three-fourths of a school’s tuition income is dependent on such resources. This pattern is seriously threatened by efforts to deny federal student loans—as well as federal funding for faculty research projects in the sciences—to schools where faculty are required to subscribe to doctrinal standards and students and employees are expected to abide by traditional Christian norms of behavior.

Similarly, on some secular university campuses these days Christian groups are being denied access to meeting spaces. The insistence that student leaders in these groups must affirm specific theological commitments is seen as incompatible with prevalent standards of free inquiry.

Reading Steven Waldman’s fine new book, Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom, has been good for my soul, in that it helps me keep the issues of religious freedom in a proper perspective. Waldman wouldn’t want people like me to stop complaining about such matters. But he does encourage us to see them in their larger historical context.

The Madisonian Model

Waldman makes it clear, for example, that things have been much worse for religious minorities in the past. By the time of the American Revolution, the Anglican clergy in the Virginia colony had seen to it that over half of the Baptist preachers there had been arrested and jailed at some point and even severely tortured on occasion—simply for being Baptist. Nor did matters improve much with the establishment of the new republic. A half-century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, not only were Protestant mobs setting fire to Catholic convents, but they also treated the teeth of nuns buried in the convents’ crypts as valuable souvenirs. And as recently as the World War II period, Jehovah’s Witness were treated brutally—in some cases they were castrated—for their refusal on conscientious grounds to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Waldman’s narrative does not dwell on these horrific details, but he does provide us with just enough background to show how bad religious persecution has been in American history. And his account attends not only to the suffering faced by the groups featured in standard narratives of American religious history—Quakers, Catholics, Mormons, and others—but also to the oppressive treatment imposed upon Christian slaves, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Muslims.

Nor were the nation’s founders paragons of virtue in the realm of religious freedom, since they disagreed among themselves about the degrees of tolerance that different faith traditions deserved. Thomas Jefferson was an Enlightenment thinker who was not all that enthusiastic about religious freedom as such. Indeed, as Waldman points out, when Jefferson pledged “eternal hostility toward every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” the “tyrants” that he actually had in mind were some Congregationalist leaders with whom he had been disputing.

Waldman’s hero from the founding generation is James Madison, whose views on religious freedom—and Waldman is clearly right on this—hold up well in our contemporary setting. As Waldman puts it, while Jefferson supported “the freedom to think,” Madison was passionately committed to “the freedom to pray”—in other words, to act on one’s faith in the public square. Madison believed that a healthy social order depends on a diverse and vibrant religious life among the people.

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Source: Christianity Today