When Religion Is Too Free

The limits of liberty without commitment.

Steven Waldman’s Sacred Liberty is an ardently evangelical book. Waldman’s faith, however, is not in any particular creed or sacred text; the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty is what garners his reverence. Religion has thrived in America because the Founding Fathers, but especially James Madison, understood that it would best prosper if “left untouched by government.” In a “free marketplace” of competing Christian denominations, and eventually a public square in which many different faiths operate, America tamed the propensity for religious violence while democratizing traditional faith communities. The result, Waldman argues, is a religious vitality rarely found in other modern societies. He uses economic metaphors to explain the triumph of religious liberty. The “Madisonian arena of religious competition” has rewarded the “product and marketing innovations” of religious entrepreneurs and punished faith communities that no longer meet the needs of congregants. The result is “a religious landscape so fragmented that no denomination is big enough to dominate.” 

Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom
by Steven Waldman
HarperOne, 416 pp.

Waldman’s previous book, Founding Fathers, made many of the same arguments, but Sacred Liberty extends the story from the Founders to Donald Trump’s efforts to antagonize Muslims. Religious change is not an unexplored aspect of U.S. history, but it is an often neglected one. Waldman (a Washington Monthly contributing editor) lucidly explains Supreme Court First Amendment rulings, the theologies of Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the nation’s long and virulent history of anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. Among the many historical oddities of how religion has taken shape in America, it is good to learn, or be reminded, that the Puritans once banned Christmas; that the contents of the Bible and the order of the Ten Commandments are different for Protestants and Catholics; that many African slaves were Muslim; and that the Ku Klux Klan had very popular glee clubs (!). 

Waldman, a cofounder of Beliefnet.com, which describes itself as “the leading lifestyle site dedicated to faith and inspiration,” covers an enormous amount of material. There are chapters on the “failed experiments” of established churches in the original thirteen states; the Moral Majority and the Christian right; and contemporary struggles, after 9/11 and Trump’s election, to protect the religious liberty of Muslims, a challenge Waldman thinks is now the gravest threat to religious pluralism.  

Despite the language of the First Amendment, it took the better part of two centuries for many Americans to accept the idea that America was not a Protestant or narrowly Christian nation (and, of course, many conservative evangelicals are unwilling to concede that fact even today). World War II and President Roosevelt’s efforts to unite the country, especially his articulation of America’s “Four Freedoms,” which included freedom of worship, were instrumental in ushering in a new era of ecumenical cooperation and religious pluralism. “Roosevelt expertly offered language that was vague enough to be unifying and meaningful enough to be inspiring,” Waldman writes. President Eisenhower went further, arguing that democratic government “has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion that all men are created equal.” 

Waldman embraces Eisenhower’s nebulous formulation. “What unites us,” he concludes, “is not a shared conception of God but rather a shared commitment to the idea that a search for God must be unobstructed.”

That seems an accurate description of how people understand the place of religion in American society. But has such an understanding really created the sort of robust religious “landscape” Waldman celebrates? He shows only a little concern about the recent growth of what are called “nones”—Americans, especially the young, who are unaffiliated with organized religion, and who now account for nearly a fifth of the population. Nor does he find it troubling that Americans routinely switch from one religious community to another, seemingly with the same nonchalance with which they trade in a Toyota for a Chevy. Indeed, he welcomes it. 

But while a competitive “marketplace” of religion certainly exists, it is difficult to see how this consumerist mentality can fulfill religious aspirations. What keeps people moving from church to church is not satisfaction but disappointment or indifference. The original root of the word religion, after all, means to “bind” or “fasten.” Can you have a religion that only frees its adherents? Is it surprising that so many Americans find religion increasingly irrelevant or meaningless when they are told, not just by the secular culture but by some religious leaders as well, that what religion you choose hardly matters? 

The Constitution’s separation of church and state has certainly been an extraordinary achievement. The end of coercion in matters religious is a fundamental moral as well as religious value. But Waldman’s conviction that religion is thriving in the United States is questionable. The “religious churn” he celebrates is also a sign of instability and failure. One-third of those raised Catholic have left the church, and the number of defections is higher for many other Christian groups. Even evangelical churches have suffered significant losses. Church attendance has cratered. Waldman cites statistics showing that most of the unaffiliated are still engaged spiritually. But it is institutional religion that has contributed the most to the vitality of American democracy and culture, and those institutions are in disarray, viewed with increasing and often warranted skepticism by more and more Americans.  

Nor do I think religious liberty alone is enough to unite Americans. At the moment, nothing divides this nation more, it seems to me, than religion. The pious, both evangelical and Catholic, have elected the most vulgar, immoral, and corrupt president in the history of the Republic. At the same time, the unwavering support of conservative Christians for Trump and the Republican Party has driven the unchurched to the Democrats. In fact, political allegiance is now the best predictor of religious affiliation. It will take more than hosannas to pluralism to resolve these divisions. 

Waldman writes that “America’s democratic values should occasionally alter the DNA of even ancient religions.” True, but only up to a point. In this regard, his analysis of the teachings of the Catholic Church is instructive. He praises the work of John Courtney Murray, an American Jesuit theologian, who was instrumental in convincing the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) to recognize the right to religious liberty for all. But it is not quite correct to say, as Waldman does, that the “Vatican position was now fully aligned with the United States Constitution.” The Catholic Church continues to insist that religion, properly understood, provides the foundation for freedom and democracy, and not the other way around. (So did Madison, as Waldman notes.) Murray himself was not confident that the American experiment in religious freedom would end well, for he feared that in an increasingly secular age, both democracy and religious liberty would come to be understood and defended on merely pragmatic grounds, rather than anchored in moral and philosophical truth. Murray’s famous book was titled We Hold These Truths—not Let’s Just Agree to Disagree. He certainly did not think liberty itself was sacred. Rather, he thought liberty depended on sacred things, on traditional biblical morality, and on the natural law. Vagueness about first principles may ultimately undermine democracy, and a society that abandons a transcendent religious vision could more easily succumb to authoritarianism. Murray’s argument can be jarring for Americans to hear, but it should not be dismissed out of hand. Many survivors of Soviet totalitarianism put stock in it.

Waldman’s analysis of the contemporary culture war surrounding religious liberty is fair-minded and sensible. He strikes a welcome note of tolerance in urging LGBT advocates to “drop the assumption that anyone who opposes same-sex marriage is a bigot.” And he is correct to criticize the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ refusal to accept the Obama administration’s compromise regarding the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. By insisting that even requiring Catholic institutions to request an exemption infringed on their religious liberty, the bishops looked more partisan than principled, risking the loss of public support for legitimate religious exemptions. 

But Waldman is too sanguine about the benefits “Americanizing” will have on the DNA of “ancient” religions. Some real tension should exist between an individualistic, often hedonistic society and traditional religious communities. Liberal democracy must cultivate in its citizens the virtues of loyalty, devotion, and sacrifice. Illiberal institutions such as organized religions, the family, and the military can do that in ways that economic and cosmopolitan liberalism cannot. The competitive marketplace, where ambition and immediate gratification are principally rewarded, is simply not up to the task of protecting the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, and the dying—or possibly even the nation. In this regard then, religious liberty is a necessary but not sufficient means for unifying a country as diverse, heedless, and contentious as ours. If both religion and democracy are to flourish, more than a cacophony of choices is needed; a common language that is not merely a celebration of our differences is required. Religion, like democracy, is threatened when the marketplace becomes the predominant measure of value.  

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Paul Baumann

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.