Our current climate of divisiveness over religion is not new, but our misinterpretation of religious liberty is. In fact, Steve Waldman argues, we are now at risk of undermining this hard-won and fragile American right.
Waldman’s latest book, Sacred Liberty, (HarperOne, $28.99), is a sweeping historical survey of how our principles evolved and matured from the founding of the nation and the Constitution under James Madison to the fraught and often controversial integration of various faiths—Jews, Catholics, Native American, African slaves and their religions, Mormons, and now Muslims—into the American mainstream, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
Waldman makes clear that these battles resulted in today’s firm legal foundation of both the separation of church and state and the protection of religious minorities—which, counterintuitively, has allowed the U.S. to become the most religious country among developed nations. He contends that religious liberty is at the core of America’s success.
“Depriving someone of their money or property can certainly wound,” he writes, “but blocking their path to God deprives them of
something even more important—their own quest to find meaning in life.”
Yet the consensus around religious freedom is fragile. There are signs that the core principles of religious freedom are not universally shared or understood. In reminding us of our past, Waldman hopes this history can illuminate our path forward.
Over the course of its development, America has been tempted to forget its principles of religious freedom and vilify particular religious minorities.
But each time there have been heroes who have stepped forward to remind us of our better natures and encourage us to stand by our core principles.To protect out most fundamental rights—enshrined in the First Amendment—we must remember the lessons of our past and defend the hard-won progressive values that are the true heart of America’s greatness.