The real story of America's bloody struggle for religious freedom

This is an edited transcript. Listen to our podcast for the full interview.

Paul Glader: We're delighted to have an author, entrepreneur and journalist in our studio today: Steven Waldman. He wrote a best-selling book called Founding Faith. He was a journalist and editor at many outlets. He also founded BeliefNet, and another project called Report for America. Maybe he'll tell us a bit about some of those things. But what he's here to talk about today is his new book, Sacred Liberty, America's Long, Bloody and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom.

Glader: So, tell us about this book. What’s the thesis?

Steven Waldman: Well, I did a book about 10 years ago about the founding fathers and religion, and it focused on their views and the First Amendment. But as I researched it more and thought about it over the years, I realized that it didn't actually all end with the passage of the First Amendment. And in fact, you could argue that we really haven't had religious freedom for most of American history.

The First Amendment planted an idea, but it turns out, it took another 200 years of real struggle and bloody fights to achieve a really robust model of religious freedom that we have today. So the book is about that struggle, of how we got religious freedom, despite the fact that we had kind of a brutal wave of persecution of religious groups, for hundreds of years here.

So the notion that we're sort of taught in school, that this nation was founded with religious liberty in mind, that that's why the Puritans came here, and that sort of was our birthright from the beginning, is wrong. And we really have to understand how we got religious freedom, if we're going to have any hope of preserving it. 

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Glader: You point to some heroes like James Madison. With this fighting and bloody struggle around religious freedom, was that Pre-Madison or Post-Madison?

Waldman: Well, there was bloody struggle before Madison came along for about the first 150 years of America's life or the settling of the land that we call America. Most of the colonies were experimenting with theocratic models, meaning there was an official state religion. In the New England states it was the kind of Puritan and congregational churches. And in the southern states it was the Church of England, the Anglican Church. And very often taxpayers would pay for subsidizing the salaries of the ministers of the official state church. And some of it was really brutal. I mean Quakers were hanged from the Boston Commons by the Puritans for the crime of being a Quaker. Baptists were imprisoned on the eve of the American Revolution for the crime of being a Baptist minister.

And this in particular was very consequential because it was right in Madison's backyard, and he was aware of what was going on.

So the Constitutional period was a turning point. Essentially, the founding fathers said that the approach that the founding grandfathers had taken was not working very well and we need to take a new approach. The two big things that the Constitution did were it said, “You can't have a religious test for office” and then ultimately, the First Amendment said, “You can't have an establishment of religion.” But what we tend to forget is that all of that just applied to the national government. It allows for the states to pretty much do whatever they wanted. So the next 150 years was spent really fighting through the same issues.

Glader: So legislatively how did the First Amendment apply eventually not just to national issues, but to state and national? 

Waldman: Well, the next critical step was the Fourteenth Amendment. So that was the amendment that was passed right after the Civil War. Its primary purpose was to ensure that African Americans got rights. But the broader sweep of it was to say those Bill of Rights, those are supposed to protect us against not only the tyranny of the national government, but also the tyranny of the local government. That was a seismic shift in the whole approach to rights in general.

Now, it took many decades for the implications of that to play out. And in the case of the religious freedom clauses of the Bill of Rights, it really wasn't until the 1940s, that it really became enshrined. As a legal matter, it was really the Fourteenth Amendment that said religious freedom is actually something that should be in every nook and cranny of the country, not just the thing that protects us in a limited way from Congress doing something bad. 

Glader:  Tell us about some of these heroes who helped Madison and others define what was religious freedom in a new context.

Waldman: There was Mary Dyer, a Quaker woman in Massachusetts, who challenged the law against Quakerism and was hung by the Holy Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as it was called, a government that professed religious freedom. But it was a sign that, you know, they were defining religious freedom as we should have the right to live our lives the way we want to. It wasn't really a universal right. So you'd have Anglican ministers come up to a Baptist minister as he's preaching and stick a butt-end of a horse whip in his mouth, take him outside, beat him up, throw him in prison. These [preachers] were heroes and they would go and do it again. They really had their conscience and their faith drove them to persist with this despite being imprisoned and beaten up. And this persisted throughout American history.

Catholics were horribly persecuted. Thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses in America were beaten up, imprisoned, harassed, and in one case, castrated by a mob for exercising their rights of conscience. One of the things that they said was that the legal requirement to salute the flag in schools violated the Jehovah's Witnesses teachings. They thought that was idolatry.

There's one guy in Litchfield, Illinois, trying to escape a mob. They catch up with him. And the mob drapes an American flag over the front hood of the car, and basically says, you're going to salute the flag, and he says no, and they smashed his head into the flag-draped car. And they say, you're going to salute the flag, and he says no, and they smash it again and again. And meanwhile, the sheriff is sitting there watching this. So this is not just a lawless mob. This has official sanction. The Jehovah's Witnesses were particularly important because they end up bringing all sorts of lawsuits that then make it to the Supreme Court and end up expanding everyone's rights. So a lot of times this persecution led to progress. 

Glader: Wow. At that time, were some Americans concerned that Catholics were more loyal to Rome than the new nation?

Waldman: Yeah, they were. Again, all of these cases, there were substantive complaints against the religion and also in some of the cases the religions themselves weren't acting particularly well, like in the case of the Baptists who really basically were Evangelicals by a different name.

The Anglicans said that the Evangelicals were undermining authority of the church because they believed you could have a direct relationship with God. They were preaching to the slaves, which [Anglicans] thought was dangerous. And they thought that adult baptism was horrendous and undermined morality because it gave a kind of a “get out of hell free” card. In the case of the Jehovah's Witnesses, this is not a humble religion that was preaching tolerance to all. They were vociferous in their hatred of Catholics.

So one of the things that you find out over the course of the American history is that, you know, religious liberty is supposed to be for religious groups, even if you think they're obnoxious. So in a lot of these cases, there was legitimate disagreement.

Probably you could make the case that no group was more persecuted in American history than the Mormons. The governor of Missouri issued an official order for the extermination of the Mormons in Missouri, essentially a genocide order from the state. But the thing is not -- obviously, not to justify that -- is that Mormons were not a passive group. They were pushing very hard, they did not believe in separation of church and state themselves, particularly. They were aggressive. They were ruffling feathers. But religious rights are not only for the meek.

Glader: This work is of great interest to people interested in history and theology. But it also seems to have a lot of modern corollaries. It seems like this tension around obedience to God or obedience to the state is a big one both then and today. That's present here, right? 

Waldman: Yeah, there's a few parallels or issues that keep coming up. One case, where you see it is, is I think, in attacks on American Muslims. A lot of the attacks on American Muslims echo attacks that we saw on Catholics and Mormons, in particular, in earlier parts of American history. In particular, one that was very interesting to me was as this sort of anti-Islam sentiment grew, people would say, “it's not really a religion, it's more of a power structure. It's an engine of foreign tyranny.” So you mentioned before that one of the attacks on Catholics was that they were under the rule of the pope or Catholic law. That's very similar to what the accusation has been against Muslims on Sharia, that American Muslims are going to have to follow this foreign law of Sharia, and they won't be able to be patriotic Americans, and they'll support undemocratic functions.

For a good part of American history, religious freedom meant a lack of persecution, like don't shut down churches and don't hang them and put them in jail for their beliefs. And it took a while to get that kind of freedom.

But there was always a second question of what happens if there's a secular law that isn't really targeting a religion, but ends up as a side effect constraining religion?

In the 19th century, the government of the United States passed a law banning polygamy. And they didn't say banning Mormon polygamy, they said, “Polygamy, this is a practice that we don't allow in America for all sorts of reasons.” Now, the fact was that the only religion that was practicing it was Mormonism. So Mormons made the claim that even though it was a secular law, it was infringing on their religious rights, because polygamy was a was a core belief of Mormonism at that moment. And the Supreme Court ruled against the Mormons and said, actually, religious freedom protects religious belief, but it doesn't necessarily protect religious actions. So it was a it was a kind of a narrow ruling that ended up really constraining religious freedom rights.

And when you think about things like, should a Catholic working at a hospital be forced to work on an abortion. Well, under the ruling that went against the Mormons, the court would have said, yeah, that's the law.

Starting in the 40s, and then accelerating into the 1960s, the Supreme Court and society as a whole started to take a different posture, which was actually that we want America to bend over backwards, to accommodate religious groups to make it so that they can live their lives according to their faith, so that they don't have to choose between their faith and the law.

So as a big court case involves Seventh Day Adventists, a woman who was being forced to work on a Saturday even though her religion said that Saturday was the Sabbath. And again, the state South Carolina said we're not trying to pick on Seventh Day Adventists, but it's just the law that you have to work on Saturdays, if that's what the employer wants. And then in that case, the court ruled in the other direction. They said, no, actually, even though the law was secular in intent, and they weren't really trying to pick on Seventh Day Adventists and it did infringe on the religious rights of that group.

From then on, we've been in these issues of like, how do we make it so religious people have enough room to live their lives according to their faith? So a lot of the modern controversies are called accommodation cases, which are really more gray area cases, like the whole debate over the Affordable Care Act and the contraceptive mandate, so the court had to wrestle with this gray area case.

Glader: It never stops being an issue of tension in the courts. You point to a few interesting aspects of history, like you said in the book that World War II had some impact on this topic? What happened during that epoch -- you've referred to it a few times, the 40s to 60s -- what changed during that time?

Waldman: World War II really changed everything. And part of what happened was, first, we're fighting fascism, we're fighting against Hitler. And Roosevelt decides that religious freedom is part of what differentiates us from fascists. And that is part of what we're fighting for. So when he does the Four Freedoms, which is a kind of rallying cry, for the country to mobilize around to fight Hitler, one of the four is religious freedom. And along with that goes, this kind of popular effort to encourage interfaith toleration where you'd have what we would call tolerance trios, a rabbi, a minister and a priest-- it's probably somewhere in there that the rabbi, a priest, and a minister walking into a bar joke was born-- but it became this thing and by the thousands, these trios would go around to military bases around the country as a team to promote this and it became part of the propaganda effort, to promote interfaith toleration between Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

Then you have the end of the war, and now the war-weary nation has to turn to fighting communism. And at this point, President Truman and then President Eisenhower shift to using religious freedom as a tool against communists. Godless communists against religious freedom, and the [Americans] are all religion. And so it was, again, a very, very important point of contrast that America has religious freedom. And the rhetoric shifts from being America is great because we have religious passion to America is great because we have religious freedom.

Religious freedom, of course, allows for religious passion, but it also allows for pluralism. It's during Eisenhower that under God says shows up in the Pledge of Allegiance. Where “In God We Trust” comes on to our paper currency.

But [Eisenhower] pairs that extra God talk with a pluralism. He's the first president who uses the phrase Judeo-Christian, and he makes the case that we are religious people, but we're a pluralistic people. And so from that point on, those two things go hand in hand.

Glader:  Yeah, it's interesting this duet concept. Does it turn into a trio? Or is the other Abrahamic faith, Islam, harder to get into that choir?

The one thing striking as you were mentioning these political leaders who were significant on this topic was that George W. Bush got a mention, which might surprise some people, and maybe that fits in with the notion that Evangelicals played some kind of role? George Bush became president also when 911 happened, and we went to war in the Middle East. So what did he do, pro and con, for religious freedom?

Waldman: Yeah, I actually argue that [Bush] was a really important figure for religious freedom, mostly because of how he handled religious matters and Islam after 911. You know, when you think about it, we've have riots and pogroms and things like that in this country, over false rumors over religion, right? Well, here you had 911. And it wasn't false that this was carried out by Muslims who were claiming to do it in the name of God, and they were being, you know, funded by the Taliban, a religious group. So it could have gotten really, really ugly. 

And what Bush did was he basically made a very clear distinction between the terrorists and American Muslims and Islam in a broader way. He basically says, these terrorists are trying to hijack the religion. So he's not saying Islam is rotten to the core, he's saying Islam is in a civil war and the bad guys are trying to hijack it. So we should be on the side of the good guys, meaning moderate Muslims.

And he also just made the distinction that, you know, it may seem obvious, that American Muslims are your neighbors and judge them on the basis of their behavior as American Muslims. Don't impute on them the worst behavior of Muslims overseas or terrorists. So you had this really remarkable thing where in the year after 911, American public opinion and favorability polls about Islam went up right after 911. And I really do credit Bush with most of that. He set this tone and threaded the needle in a way where obviously, he was leading a war in both Afghanistan and ultimately in Iraq against Islamic terrorism. So it's not like he was soft on Islamic terrorism. But he did that while making this really important distinction championing religious freedom and in an important way, eventually, that faded, and the anti-Muslim activists that really started getting stronger, you know, by the end of that decade, basically abandoned Bush's formulation and really mocked Bush for it. They turned against Bush. 

Glader: And from both sides, I would guess. From that group as well as from Muslims abroad who think this is a crusade?

Waldman: Yeah, well, you know, Bush had practical reasons for this, too. He was trying to assemble a coalition that included Muslim countries. So he didn't want this to be viewed as a religious crusade. He wanted this to be a multi-faith attack on radicalism and terrorism.

Glader: You note he identified as an Evangelical, George Bush Jr., and you make a statement that no group has done more to advance religious liberty than Evangelical Christians. But their position hasn't always been consistent. Is that right?  

Waldman: Yeah, I think that Evangelical leaders at least are kind of on the wrong side of history right now. But it's important for us to see the really significant role at a number of points in American history.

So first is the Baptists in Virginia and Madison. You had this really amazing situation where Patrick Henry became kind of Madison's nemesis. And he kept trying to keep Madison from being elected to Congress. First he banned him from being becoming a senator. And then he gerrymandered the district so that Madison couldn't get elected. And it was all fun. And then it turned out this district was full of Baptists and Evangelicals and Patrick Henry's forces and James Monroe's running against him spread the word that Madison doesn't believe in religious liberty anymore, because he doesn't want a Bill of Rights, which is true. But Madison really worked his whole life to defend religious freedom. So it was a bit of a, you know, ironic charge against him. But it was true that he didn't really want the Bill of Rights. And so he came back home and essentially made one of the most consequential campaign promises in American history, which was to his Evangelical constituents. He said, if you support me, I will propose a Bill of Rights. And they did support him, he won his race for Congress on the basis of Baptist votes, and then went to Congress and proposed what became the First Amendment.

Then the Second Great Awakening in the 1820s was Charles Finney and, you know, the growth of Methodism and Baptist faith, and it was happening around the same time as the collapse of the religious establishment in the States.

In Connecticut, they taxed people to pay for the congregational ministers. At the point of the American Revolution, nine of the 13 colonies banned Jews and Catholics from holding office. So there were still a lot of rules in the states that were not against religious freedom. So you had this like virtuous circle, where the, this religious fervor helps destroy these regulations. And in turn, the collapse of those religious regulations makes it easier for this religion to flower. So you have this nice, like virtuous circle, where the freedom leads to more religion and more religion leads to more freedom.

And then the last one I mentioned is, is around the Fourteenth Amendment. One thing people don't talk about is the guy who wrote the Fourteenth Amendment, John Bingham, was a devout Christian who talks over and over again about how this is part of the divine plan for America is to have this Fourteenth Amendment in part to protect religious freedom.

Now, why do I think that Evangelicals are on the wrong side of history now? Well, a lot of it has to do with the fact that the number one threat, in my opinion, to religious freedom right now is the attack on American Muslims. You have one poll that said that half of Republicans in America, were not willing to declare that Islam should be legal in America. That's a pretty fundamental attack on religious freedom rights. And a lot of evangelical leaders are going along with this or encouraging it.

Glader: This relates to our current president right?

Waldman: Yeah, yeah.

Glader: How do you rank Trump and his record on religious freedom?

Waldman: Yeah, I was going to say that even though he talks a lot about religious freedom, and he's done some really positive things in terms of rights of conscience for healthcare workers and things like that, I actually think he's probably one of the worst presidents in American history on religious freedom, specifically, because of what he has said and done on Muslims. The idea of having a ban on immigrants that is based on your religion, just never even in the worst moments of the 18th century, no one went that far. And the idea of having a registry where all people of one religion would sign up-- the closest thing we had was the internment of Japanese Americans.

Now, fortunately, that hasn't happened. But that was part of what he proposed. And his rhetoric on this has been very similar to the anti-Muslim activists in a particular way, which is that he routinely conflates Muslim terrorists with regular ordinary Muslims.

So you have these groups that are mainstream groups in America that are on radio and TV who literally say that Muslims who support Sharia should not be allowed to hold office-- it's like going back to the 18th century in terms of advocacy of real restrictions on religious freedom.

So my hope would be that modern Evangelicals would look at this, and this is not a matter of them disagreeing with, you know, modern secularists or atheists. It’s a matter of modern Evangelicals disagreeing with 19th century Evangelicals. It's like, get back in touch with the history of your forefathers, who were so articulate, and were so important and gave their lives for this kind of religious freedom. Listen to what they were saying. Because religious freedom will die if it doesn't have a universal spirit to it.  

Glader: How do we compare as a nation on this topic, to others?

Waldman: Well, you know, I almost titled this book, America's greatest invention, because I actually think this is one of our greatest achievements, this American model of religious freedom. And it's not just that we have less persecution, like there are other countries you can go to that don't have religious persecution. But were the only really industrialized country that has managed to have a lot of freedom from persecution and religious vibrancy.

I remember this chart that the Pew Research Center did that plotted affluence and religiosity among countries. It was this amazing chart like that one part of the chart, you have this cluster of countries that are poor, but very religious, like Djibouti and Ethiopia and things like that. And then on the other end of the chart, you have  this cluster of other countries that are rich, or affluence, or advanced, but pretty secular, you know, Germany, and Sweden and England, and then off, kind of on its own up in the upper right of the chart is this one little stray dot, which is the United States. It's the only country that has managed to have both religious vibrancy and religious freedom. At the same time. Certainly the only country that does that now. And as far as I can tell, one of the only countries in world history. So I think America really has figured out something that has been bedeviling, to say an appropriate phrase, countries for millennia, and is really one thing that makes America exceptional. But we're going to blow it if we don't understand what it really means and how we got it and how we can preserve it.

Glader: So what are your thoughts, takeaways, and recommendations of the way forward to sustain religious freedom in America and to try to encourage it in other places?

Waldman: Well, it's really not so much legal things that have to be changed as much as attitudes and culture. So, for one, there has to be a real, all for one, one for all attitude among different religious groups, that you know, the threat to one religious group is a threat to all of theirs.

At this moment, that's about rallying to the defense of American Muslims. In other moments, it's been different groups. But that's the test right now, is how do we react to the attacks on American Muslims?

I happen to think that a really important element of this would be for America's Evangelicals to reclaim their moral leadership on this.

And then I also think that part of what has to happen is that secular Americans have to adjust. This kind of growth of aggressive secularism, that has the potential to sort of subordinate religion, and American society. Now, I tend to think that the fears about that are a little bit exaggerated, but they're not fabricated, like it's a real thing. It's a real concern. And so I think that secular Americans have to also take the view of like, well, if you want religious people to respect your right to be non-believers, you have to respect their right to not just pray privately at home, or in their churches, but actually live their lives according to their faiths, including in public spaces.

And American Muslims, what they need to do is what I think they've already been doing, frankly, is they need to continue to transform Islam and America in a way that emphasizes American values. And that really has been happening a lot. You look at it with Muslim women, you know, there's a really deep strain of feminism among Muslim women. It's like American stamp on Islam. American Muslims need to continue to lead the way, as champions of the idea that Islam and democracy are very compatible.

Glader: There is a line here in the book that I really like where you say, “depriving someone of their money or property can certainly wound but blocking their path to God deprives them of something even more important, their own quest to find meaning in life.” And I think that's a powerful way to frame it. You do so much work in journalism and in training. Press freedom is part of the First Amendment right, along with religious freedom. So it's interesting that you say the greatest invention was, religious liberty, religious freedom.

Waldman: Press freedom’s, a close runner up.

Glader: How do the two work together, because a lot of our listeners are journalists in different parts of the world. So we are interested to hear your take on how those two freedoms work for societies and how do they help each other or not?

Waldman: Well, that's true, it does actually cut both ways.

There are a whole bunch of different moments in American history where religious freedom rights were gained, because they were tied together with press freedom rights, or with freedom of speech, in general, the other parts of the First Amendment. So this was particularly evident around the period right before the Civil War, where the anti-slavery writings often were done by ministers, or distributed by ministers. And so when the South started passing laws designed to clamp down on anti-slavery sentiment, they did it from both sides, they shut down printing presses and publications that were anti-slavery, and they prosecuted ministers who were anti-slavery. Sometimes the presses were run by ministers.

[The Founding Fathers] were very aware of the fact that if you violate freedom of religion, you'll end up violating freedom of speech, and vice versa.  

When the Jehovah's Witnesses a century later were making their case for religious freedom, they also made it on both religious freedom and freedom of press, and assembly grounds, because they were publishing their sentiments and distributing them and they said, this is also a violation of press rights. Now, where, as with everything else, when you have a very free press, you sometimes have irresponsible journalists, and throughout all of American history, whether it was the persecution of the Mormons or American Indians or Muslims in modern times, there have been publications and journalists that fueled the fire by promoting false stereotypes and facts about American religion. And it absolutely has happened in modern times with media.

So I guess my only message to journalists is that it really matters, understanding religion as journalist is really important, and a lot of journalists don't. And being nuanced in how you cover religion is really important. And that our religious freedom rights really do depend on the press in part having a responsible attitude towards how they write about religion.

Glader: Yeah. Well, this has been wonderful to talk to you because this work is a great contribution to history and current thinking on these topics. And these are topics that we, The Media Project and Religion Unplugged, care the most about: religion in public life, religious freedom, and religious literacy along with press freedom and media literacy. So this is really a great book. I hope that listeners read Sacred Liberty, buy a copy, buy copies for your friends. Thanks, Steve, for being with us today. It's been wonderful to hear about your book.

Waldman: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.