Friday, June 10, 2011

The Myth of American Religious Freedom by David Sehat

I am pretty much dancing with joy right now for having finally finished this book. It took me forever to get through! While it was interesting and very relevant, it was slow, slow going for me.

The Myth of American Religious Freedom is an incredibly thorough look at religion's intersection with politics since America was formed. It is sort of a history of the "war" in American between the non-religious left and the religious right. At least, that's how most of it was framed. The book has long sections regarding slavery, abolition, equal rights and women's liberation and how those debates and political changes were affected by religion. Court cases and supreme court decisions were an important part of the book as well. While the book goes right up to 2010, everything since Roe v. Wade seems pretty rushed and cursory.

The real take-away from the Myth of American Religious Freedom is that both sides of the debate on the role religion should play in American politics are trying to misappropriate history. Our founding fathers, who everyone seems to want to say were playing for their team in this debate, were largely not the extremists for either side we like to pretend they were. America was historically not completely secular as many proponents of the separation of church and state would like to believe, nor as Christian and members of the religious right would like to teach. The truth is apparently more complicated than that, fraught with inconsistency and change. I definitely learned a lot about history from reading this book. It certainly corrected some things I had heard wrong previously. It really shows how history repeats and how some current issues that seem so unique have been dealt with before. Politicians were always politicians.

One thing I enjoyed about this book was its use of vocabulary broadening words! It makes me really excited to read and look up new words. Some in this book were the following, as defined by
Inculcate: to implant by repeated statement or admonition; teach persistently and earnestly.

Abrogate: to abolish by formal or official means; annul by an authoritative act; repeal.

Heterodox: not in accordance with established or accepted doctrines or opinions, especially in theology; unorthodox.

Proscribe: to denounce or condemn (a thing) as dangerous or harmful; prohibit.

Cobelligerent: a state or individual that cooperates with, but is not bound by a formal alliance to another in waging war.

Suasion: the act of advising, urging, or attempting to persuade; persuasion.

Elide: to suppress; omit; ignore; pass over.

If you like reading comprehensive bits of well annotated history, and are interested in the history of America with regards to religion, you will enjoy this book. If you have a short attention span and no memory for historical facts, you will probably be with me in finding this book tedious! It reads like a history text book. I understand that some people enjoy that, but I am not one of them. This author fails to make the subject matter come alive in any way. I felt like I was back in high school trying to memorize names and dates for a test or remember themes for essay topics. Maybe that's why I felt guilty every time I dozed off reading...

It's difficult for me to assign this book a rating because I really feel like its subject matter is important and its dry nature is to a degree necessary to get in all the documentation that needed to be there. It must be this high school history flash back I am having, because I feel like it is my own fault I couldn't enjoy this book due to my short attention span rather than any failing of the book itself.



  1. I would somewhat quibble with the phrases religious right and non-religious left. I know plenty of far-right libertarians who aren't religious, and several far-left Democrats who certainly are.

    Sounds like an interesting book, though! I would agree that all sides in politics try to claim the Founding Fathers for their own viewpoint.

    Also... I'm pretty sure that you knew some of those words at some point in time, because I think some of them were words on vocab lists in Mrs Mooney's class...

  2. Yeah I definitely agree that religious liberals and secular conservatives exist, but this book pretty much treated them as nonexistent!

    I don't doubt I once learned some of those words, but I've certainly forgotten them since Jr. High!


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