This is a great history of the various religious movements that settled the United States and contended with one another. It is worth reading for the way it shows how the result of those contentions was the mutual tolerance that prevails today, and that can provide a lesson for other countries.
The contention largely stems from Europe before the settlement of the New World, with its conflicts among various factions that became the various Roman and Greek branches of Catholicism, the many protestant churches, and Islam. Those branches were considered schisms, from which bloody conflict was expected, as each sought not only dominance in numbers of adherents, but in political matters. Each feared that it might become extinct if it did not have dominance in numbers and political institutions. Much of that contention was carried by settlers to the New World, with its very difference frontier situation that promoted dispersal and congenial competition. That contention became entrenched in the First Amendment to U.S. Constitution, that forbade government-supported "establishments" of religion, in a Constitution that forbade religious tests for public office. But that was just on parchment. It would take long years of struggle to become realized in practice. The influence of the frontier was explored in great depth in The Great Frontier, by Walter Prescott Webb. We can see how that influence played out among various religious movements. One of the key factors was dispersal, and the ease with which people could and did organize new religious organizations. Today most people in the U.S. still seem to embrace at least a general faith in God, if not a personal one that responds to prayers or grants blessings, then at least in some kind of divine principle of righteousness, hearkening back to Zoroastrianism, today called Mazdayazna" by most of its followers, perhaps the first of the "revealed" religions, from which most of the others seem to have sprung. The result in the U.S. is a proliferation of "nondenominational" churches, consisting of people mainly united by fellowship, if not by doctrine. Many admit they are mainly attracted by the quality of the other members, and perhaps by the gentle, nonjudgmental rhetoric of the pastor. Even "nonbelievers" can be comfortable in such congregations, many led by women. Waldnan largely tells the story of various religious leaders, though not all them would have thought of themselves that way, as they led their followers, mostly out of previous denominations.
Much of the book leads up to discrimination against Muslims, the American branch of which is treated as a kind of reformation within the larger Islamic community. The author has faith that it will assimilate as other denomination have. However, he does suggests there are some differences in the way the religion is being pushed, which might make it more troublesome than others have been.
It's hard to find a history book as accessible, informative, powerful and timely as Sacred Liberty. Steven Waldman gives a sweeping overview of how American religious freedom developed over the course of the past 300+ years, concluding with a warning on the danger posed by contemporary bigotry and discrimination against American Muslims. Politicians like Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and many others could benefit from a thorough reading of this book. Sacred Liberty teaches readers a valuable lesson on how religious freedom has made America great. This is one of my all time favorite history books and I couldn't recommend it more highly!
Very timely in this contentious age. Begins with the religious context of the Colonies and carries the evolving narrative up to the present. Some might consider parts to be "liberal" as most of the negative examples cited are from the far right, but that challenges the reader to think it through. Recommended as a fine social history, even if one isn't particularly interested in religion.
I join the other reviewers in considering this to be a very good book and for the reasons they site. However I was disappointed by the complete absence of any mention of Scientology. Waldman touches on the question "What is the definition of a religion?", but he doesn't face the question square on. Plenty of religions or sects involve an element of scam but Scientology is the most recent and clearest. Without an analysis of Scientology's claim to be a religion that deserves tax exemption, Waldman's book is incomplete.