Review: America’s Religious Wars

America’s Religious Wars: The Embattled Heart of Our Public Life
Kathleen M. Sands


A Review by Dwight A. Moody


Here is a book I recommend, one I would use if I were teaching a university course in religion and American life, or religion and culture, or American religious history. It is a resource for our current struggles to embrace religion as both an essential component of our national history and culture and also as an ever-present sticking-point in accommodating our diverse population in a land committed to both faith and freedom.


Sands uses four metaphors to make her case, two on the front cover and a fourth on the last page, with the third occupying all the space between.


On the front cover are the words “heart” and “war” both of which, of course, are figures of speech. American settlers escaped Europe which had endured more than one hundred years of actual warfare as it struggled to accommodate religious commitments in the new reality of European nation states. Americans have also struggled with how to integrate heart-felt religion into our common life, but it never turned to actual combat, except when we pointed our guns on the native inhabitants who lived here before the Europeans (Christians) arrived.


The dominate metaphor, though, is from the construction industry: walls and foundations. Sands skillfully and perceptively uses these two elements of a building to interpret three hundred years of efforts to understand how religion relates to, as she says, public life. She demonstrates that the same persons and same groups can invoke the “wall” when they want to create space between religion and politics and turn around within days or months and use the “foundation” to justify embracing religion for some common purpose.


To make her case, she uses seven episodes: Quakers and Baptists (and their resistance to establishment religion) at the founding of the nation; Catholics and Mormons (and their effort to break the stranglehold that Protestants had on power) in the decades before the Civil War; Native Americans (and their non-Christian definition of religion) in the decades after the Civil War; Fundamentalists (and the teaching of evolution in public schools) in the first half of the 20th century; and the Religious Right (and their efforts to resist secularism and sexuality—using also the metaphor of war: Culture War!) in the second half of the last century.


For me the prime relevant was the Mormons, who claimed religious liberty to secure exception from public law—in the case of polygamy—in much the same way people today seek exemption from public law—like serving homosexuals (on the Right) and fighting wars (on the Left). The matter recently came before the Supreme Court in Oregon v. Smith (1990) in which the Justices “decided that although legislators might choose to carve religious exemptions out of a law, they were not constitutionally obligated to do so”. The majority quoted the case involving Mormons—Reynolds v United States (1879) when the Court saw clearly that if the guarantee of religious liberty allowed everyone to determine which laws were consistent with their personal religious convictions, everyone would become “a law unto themselves”. The growing diversity of our nation would make such a standard very hard to manage (280f).


This matter of religious liberty—what it means and for whom and to what extent—is the growing edge of America’s newest (and perhaps oldest) religious battle. And, as this book demonstrates, the further from the founding of our nation the more likely such disputes will end up in the court system, all the way to the top. In fact, the further I read from the first page of this book, the more Sands integrated the legal journeys (rather than religious, or political, or social) to describe how the battles in this long-running war were fought. They were not actually won, however, as so many of the Court decisions along the way were reversed!


All of these facts are compelling for our Supreme Court today, tilted so far to the Right and composed of six Roman Catholics, three Jews, and (for the first time in our history) not a single Protestant. Given how dominate for two hundred years was the definition of (and deference for) religion as understood by Euro-American Protestants, there are truly interesting days ahead!


On the last page of this excellent book, Sands suggests that the construction metaphor—walls and foundations—may not be as appropriate for our times. “In a post-foundational age, what’s beneath our feet feels more like water than earth, and repairing it is more like adjusting sails on a windy sea than sealing cracks beneath a familiar home….Life at sea can be good for the heart, although not always by the reduction of stress, for we must live at close quarters with tense disagreements, yet cooperate greatly to get anywhere.”


She wrote that from her academic post on the islands of Hawaii; and I read it from my retirement place on the island of St. Simons. I’m not a sailor and she may not be either, but I agree with her that it is a splendid image for what it means to be an American, be we religious or not. Thank you, Dr. Sands, from the other coast of the country.