At Liberty to Pray (and Evangelize and Legislate)

American Religious FreedomFreedom of religion speaks to the liberty to practice as one sees fit. Freedom from religion means protection from those who would impose their faith into the private lives of others. In The Production of American Religious Freedom, Professor Finbarr Curtis demonstrates that the religious impulse to convert everyone and establish spiritual purity for America has a storied history in the United States. In one consistent theme emerging from this study, those often described as Evangelicals have consistently upheld that their freedom of religion must triumph over others’ right to freedom from the imposition of evangelical Christianity.

The book is a loosely connected collection of eight essays opening with a discussion of a 19th-century revivalist preacher, Charles Grandison Finney, and closing with an insightful look at the US Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. For all the talk of religious freedom these days, Professor Curtis argues that there is wide and strong disagreement over the precise meaning of the term, with that disagreement evident in the public square, government and the press. The malleability of the phrase “religious freedom” allows the meaning to be shaped by social, political and other forces, and, as a result, freedom of religion permits imposing on another person’s freedom from religion.

In the first chapter, we read of Rev. Charles Grandison Finney, who sought to bring sinners into the faith by “melting down” their sin, allegedly for their own good. After all, if he has the only truth and your spirit is at risk and his faith demands that he lift you up from faithlessness and sin, then he has the benevolent responsibility to enter your life and bring you along with him. In a later chapter, 20th-century New York governor, presidential candidate and political trailblazer Al Smith reflects his Catholic background by articulating a vision for progressive public policies that would advance the collective wellbeing. The author is at his best in the final two chapters, offering probing analysis of the intelligent design (ID) movement and the Hobby Lobby decision.

Curtis calls attention to ID proponents for adopting the clever strategy of desacralizing religious teaching to pass a low-bar smell test so that it looks like science. ID advocates may not directly argue that the Grand Canyon came from Noah’s flood but merely respect the possibility, an argument calculated to increase the chances of this purported science worming itself into public education. When ID is rejected by those—secular, godless—liberals who believe in evidence-based science education, ID champions cry foul and thunder how it is bigotry to teach only one scientific theory of evolution. They go on to argue that teaching evolution debases the faith of their kids. They demand that public schools teach both, evolution and ID; it’s only fair to give kids the information they need to make up their own minds. This model serves other religious initiatives that attack the safety of birth control and safe abortion, as well as gay rights and the advancement of climate protection.

The US Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision on contraception coverage in employer-sponsored health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act allows some bosses the freedom to block employees’ access to birth control, with troubling implications. Curtis demonstrates how Hobby Lobby upholds that “sincere beliefs need to express themselves through money.” The decision gives bosses the so-called religious freedom to enter a worker’s decision making on how to stock a home medicine cabinet. He adds, “While employed she is part of another corporate person” who seeks “to extend personhood to diverse phenomena, including citizens, embryos, and corporations.”

Evangelicals have consistently taught that each person is a sinner, each soul needs to be transformed into one  that follows Jesus and the faithful are responsible for bringing all sinners into the religious fold. They also claim that laws that interfere with their conversion mandate discriminate against those who seek to save souls. After all, Americans should be free to practice their faith, even if it demands that they convert people. Thus, their freedom of must triumph over the freedom from of others.

Hobby Lobby is the latest religious salvo against the personhood of women. This decision enshrines what some teach to be the key message of the Bible’s story of Eden: man’s triumph over women. Where I and many others take a different approach, the Court effectively played favorites and upheld one negative biblical interpretation that demands women be cursed to yearn for man’s rule, leaving her subordinate to his labor—and now the personhood of his corporation.  

While the author is reluctant to over-synthesize his arguments or overanalyze the issues, more commentary at the close of each chapter and in the epilogue would have given the book more coherence and allowed the reader to further benefit from the author’s gifts. A  reader with a cursory knowledge of American history would benefit from more biographical information about all the featured personalities.

Seen from one Jewish perspective, today’s “religious liberty” fight is just the latest chapter in a long history of religious persecution. I’m thinking of the notorious 13th-century Paris Talmud burnings, when a kangaroo court convened by French religious and civil authorities put the Talmud, the Jewish book of the law, on trial for blasphemy. The court affirmed the charge and public burning of cartloads of the handwritten manuscripts followed. The Paris Talmud Burning is all too sadly but one example of the many times that Jewish books were put to flames under a political regime formed by a fusion of church and state that sought to convert its followers to what they insisted was the only true religious way. Today’s faith-driven attacks leave Jewish books intact, even as they stir the Jewish memory of the blunt force evangelism of medieval times. Bad things happen when faith and government mix. 


The Production of American Religious Freedom
Finbarr Curtis
(NYU Press, 2016, 240 pp)
978-1479856763, $28.00

Dennis Ross directs Concerned Clergy for Choice for Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts and is the author of All Politics Is Religious: Speaking Faith to the Media, Policy Makers and Community.

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