A Book Review of Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom

Steven Waldman tells the story of the American quest for religious freedom, ending with a look at our present dilemmas of fear and faith. This is Waldman’s second book on religion in America, the first, Founding Faith, being an examination of the religious beliefs of America’s founders. Sacred Liberty is not so much a sequel to that earlier work, but a companion volume, tracing the development and challenges to religious freedom throughout American history, though with an eye very much, in the end, on the present.

Waldman’s concern with the present comes at least in part because he writes not as a religious or legal historian, but as a widely-read journalist. This background serves him well on the whole, as his accessible, story-driven writing makes the book enjoyable to read, and his investigative reporting side causes him to move outside the well-worn ruts of much church/state scholarship.

We’ve all read about the freedom-stingy Puritans, Roger Williams and the Rhode Island experiment in freedom. We have generally heard of Madison’s contribution to the Constitution and the First Amendment, and the eventual incorporation of the Free Exercise and Establishment clause protections through the Fourteenth Amendment by the Supreme Court in the early to mid-20th century.

But we’ve heard much less about the religious beliefs of slaves and Native Americans, and the overt efforts by both churches and the government to replace these beliefs with versions of Christianity. Waldman reports that something like 10% of African slaves were Muslims, which would make Islam larger than Judaism and Catholicism in colonial America. But through a combination of coercion, pressure, and voluntary choice, this early Islamic presence was soon gone. The chapter on the coercive educational practices brought against Native American children in attempts to “civilize” and “Christianize” them equal stories usually associated with the medieval inquisition in terms of brutality.

Native American children were physically removed from reservations, parents who resisted were assaulted and at times arrested, and the children themselves were subject to harsh and unhealthy conditions. There were as many deaths from disease, illness, or suicide as one would expect from military units in battle, with one school recording 110 deaths out of a total of 640 students over a thirteen-year period. The children were required to attend church and study the Bible, and forbidden from practicing their native religions and associated rituals and dance.

Waldman also traces with accuracy episodes of intolerance and persecution that are more well-known to those familiar with American history. These include the war on Mormonism in the latter part of the 19th century, and the cycles of anti-Catholicism that would recur from time to time into the 1970s. The cultural and sexual revolution of the late 60s and 1970s caused faith communities to band together and face the common enemy of “secular humanism” and the rising tide of American “socialism.”

Waldman reminds us that the growth and activity of the KKK was driven as much by anti-Catholic animus as it was by racism. The leadership of the Klan were as concerned with keeping America Protestant as they were with retaining its whiteness. At one rally in 1927 in New York, Waldman informs us, nearly 1,000 robed Klansman marched at a Memorial Day parade to support native-born Protestant Americans and the right to “one flag, the American flag; one school, the public school [as opposed to Catholic parochial schools]; and one language, the English language.”

This reminder of how religious intolerance and racial xenophobia have been so closely intertwined in our history is made especially relevant by the revelation that Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump, twenty-one at the time, was listed by local newspapers as one of the seven Klansman arrested at the rally. Charges against Fred Trump were dropped, but the historical evidence seems quite solid that he attended the rally, refused to disperse when ordered, and was likely dressed in a Klan robe. President Trump has flatly denied his father’s involvement in the Klan rally, but parts of Trump’s denial have been shown to be false, including his denial that his father lived at the address listed in the news accounts of those arrested.

This story of a Trump being connected with the KKK, racial animus, and religious intolerance in the 1920s is no mere gratuitous poke against the heritage of our current President. Rather, this point fits within a larger argument that Waldman is making in telling his history of religious freedom and intolerance. He tells the story of America’s fits and starts in pursuing religious freedom, and its frequent lapses into intolerance and persecution to make a point about the present — that America, with all its ideals of equality and liberty, is very much making the same mistakes of intolerance and even persecution against certain groups today, including immigrants, and especially Muslim immigrants.

In telling the story of earlier intolerance against Catholics, and then slaves, especially Muslim slaves, and then Mormons, and Indians, and then Catholics again, and then Jehovah’s Witnesses, he makes the point that the current outbreak of intolerance against minorities is nothing new. Our present concern and even fear of immigrant groups, along with a rising “Islamophobia,” is merely part of the American pattern of finding enemies to fear and unite against.

Many historians tell their stories of the past, and leave to others to apply it to the present. This can be wise, as it insulates one against accusations of presentism and of bias in the handling of the facts and stories from the past. On the other hand, history is generally written for a purpose, to tell us lessons for the present and future. If the history is to be useful, somebody is going to have to apply its lessons to the present, and who better to do that than the author himself or herself?

When a writer of history does speak about the present, however, one must look carefully for “cherry-picking” of historical facts and stories, to see if the history is being slanted to support the current concerns. But if the author seems to have been even-handed in telling the story, giving both sides their due, and not leaving out pertinent historical facts and elements, then they can be best positioned to discuss the current implications, as they are most familiar with the history itself.

Waldman, in my view, meets these standards. His training and experience as a journalist leaves him very willing to spin out the implications of his history for today. In my view he does a basically even-handed, careful, and relatively un-biased job in telling his story and making his lessons. At times, I think his more progressive, journalistic outlook does not let him take seriously enough the existential threat that left-wing liberalism at times can pose to the religious convictions of not just Evangelicals, but all traditional faith groups. Businesses of Christians not willing to participate in same-sex weddings have been fined tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars, resulting even in their closure; employers of faith have been ordered to have themselves and their employees undergo mandatory “re-training” regarding matters of sexuality and gender; and Christians have even been ordered not to speak publicly about their convictions regarding the Bible and marriage. These are no small and inconsequential matters, as Waldman at times suggests.

In Waldman’s defense, he also chides the left as being too assertive and aggressive in not respecting the convictions of people of faith, and wanting to force them to bake cakes or make flower arrangements for same-sex weddings. He is on firmer ground when he talks about the hyperventilation by Fox News and other outlets about the “War on Christmas,” and the fear of Christians about their ideals being removed from the public square. This is a more serious concern in highly secular Canada or Western Europe, but not so much in the U.S. The Supreme Court has defended a robust reading of the Free Speech Clause, and its recent additions give it a strong majority to legally defend majoritarian Christianity.

And this is the real problem, as Waldman paints it, and I think realistically so. The Court will defend the majoritarian faiths in America, which at this point includes Evangelical and mainstream Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, at least most of the time. But there will be less concern for minority groups, whether from within the Christian, Protestant camp, and certainly much less for those outside it, especially those connected with Islam.

And here Waldman documents a widespread campaign within the conservative media to increasingly paint all Muslims as being connected to the extremism of radicalized Islamic groups that have come to be associated with terrorism. This painting is grossly unfair and misleading, and like insisting that all Protestants have a view of minorities and Catholics as held by the pro-Protestant KKK. This extreme portrayal is also highly dangerous, as our history shows the intolerance and even violence that often emerges from this combination of public hysteria and misinformation.

Adventists have predicted the rise of religious intolerance against an unpopular religious minority: who will be singled out with lies and misinformation; whose holy books and worship ceremonies will be vilified; and then who will be subjected to persecution and even violence. Of course, in the story, we, the Adventists, are the heroic victims. But it is sad that we cannot see this very story begin to happen around us, because it is happening to someone else. It makes me think we really don’t understand the principles involved in our own eschatology when we are simply unable to see its manifestation in the lives of others, and offer them care and support during their time of need.

I hope I am overstating the case. I know that some Adventists are connecting with local Muslim groups. Our Adventist American leadership has someone assigned to encourage our local churches to connect with Muslims and mosques. The University I teach at has made friends with the leadership of the local mosque, and I and others have been involved in friendly dialogue with them. Recently, when there was a bomb threat at their mosque, representatives from local churches and my university attended the mosque in solidarity.

But other voices in our community have joined in the strident anti-Islamism found in the conservative press. I just pray that more Adventists can read Waldman’s book, and see where its history warns us of just such extremism, and the intolerance and violence it can lead to. Just as importantly, I hope they can see the importance and opportunity of building bridges to these and other God-fearers while we have the time and opportunity. Our view of liberty is only truly sacred if we see its importance for others, and not just for ourselves.

Sacred Liberty: America's Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom by Steven Waldman (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2019) is available now in hardcover and e-book.

Nicholas Miller is Professor of Church History at the Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University where he is also Director of the International Religious Institute. He recently published a book on the development of religious freedom and civil rights in the west titled 500 Years of Liberty: From Martin Luther to Modern Civil Rights (Pacific Press, 2017).

Book cover image courtesy of HarperOne.

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9727
1 Like

As a first to fourth grader, I lived in Pound, Wisconsin. Population 306 in a county of about 29,000. The town boasted a Catholic , Methodist, Baptist, and Seventh Day Adventist, churches. The “Holy Rollers” as they were know only held street services on the one block business section. The local priest would hand out firecrackers to teen age boys to throw at the feet of the singers et al.
I returned to Pound about 15 years ago. The priest came to Pound from Green Bay once a month if the weather was good. The Adventist Church was boarded up. The Methodist and Bsoist Church were all but empty. Just out of town was a large Butler building with a large gravel parking lot with dozens of pick up trucks. This was the home of the Holy Rollers.
Now a highly respected dispensational congregation.


Thank you Doctor Nicholas Miller for your splendid review
of this consequential and pivotal book
outlining religious freedom in America :

Waldman makes the point that

He cites
— all as examples of minorities subjected to intolerance and religious persecution
by other religious groups.


So new in fact, that within the past month,
another marginalized minority
has been “thrown under the bus “ by a religious group,
who viciously, vehemently, and venomously
targeted this minority
with loss of housing, loss of employment and denial of access to
subsidized public housing.

All this merely because this minority were born with a certain peculiarity
— that is an affinity for same sex romantic affections rather than
opposite sex attractions.

The EQUALITY ACT recently passed by the lower house of Congress
prohibits discrimination on the basis of SEXUAL ORIENTATION in

Currently, and amazingly, in this 21st century,
hateful homophobia in THIRTY STATES,
allows a landlord to evict a gay tenant
even if he / she is celibate .— merely if they acknowledge
that they are gay— and this without any legal recourse.

Similarly employers can fire a gay employee, merely because they
are homosexual.

Case in point—- a gay sky diving instructor.
Sky diving instructors, when mentoring their
pupils have to hug them as they hurtle out of the plane.

To reassure a young woman pupil that his close
contact to her was nothing personal,
this gay man told the woman that he was gay

He was immediately fired by his employer
as a result of this simple and authentic statement
about who he was .— and he had zero legal recourse
in the state in which he lived !

The EQUALITY ACT would have outlawed this blatant bigotry!


Surely having a decent job and a roof over one’s head.
should be an INALIENABLE RIGHT ???

SURELY employment and housing are essential to the PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS .??

That our own Adventist church would actively agitate
against the EQUALITY ACT,
to actively deny their gay members
their pursuit of happiness,
is unconscionable, vindictive and cruelly vicious!

The church does not have the best interests of its LGBT
members at heart, with this deliberate, despicable debacle
which targets both
ex LGBT Adventists ( the majority ),
current LGBT Adventists ( the minority )
biblically celibate gays,
promiscuous gays ,
single lonely gays,
and gays in a same sex relationship
— all can be discriminated against in employment
and housing as a result of this active advocacy by our church.

So sad that this blatant bigotry is cloaked in the
euphemism of “ religious liberty “

was a ballot initiative on the California Ballot
agitating against same sex marriage.

Heterosexual marriage at that time ( 2008. )
in California, conferred multiple
property rights,
adoption rights,
social security rights
on those legally married in the state
— multiple huge and advantageous benefits
categorically denied same sex couples who could not
legally marry

None other than the
( himself an attorney who should have known better )
actively worked to foster this discriminatory ballot initiative
( I believe even spent tithe payer money funding his actions)
thereby FOISTING
narrow Adventist discriminatory theology,
not just on their own
SDA LGBT members,
but on
Hindu gays,
Muslim gays,
Jewish gays,
Atheist gays,
secular gays,
and gays from Protestant churches
who held a more enlightened view on same sex attractions.

All of these gay Californians were tax paying citizens, who surely
deserved the same financial protections that their
straight siblings and cousins enjoyed.

to impose one’s narrow theological views
on others who have a differing theology,
or even who have a ZERO theology is surely the antithesis of
all that RELIGIOUS LIBERTY stands for?

Yet, Adventism was guilty of this infringement
of religious liberty in 2008,
with its support of proposition EIGHT,
and again in the last month with their outrageous
advocacy against the EQUALITY ACT.

I have a dear friend who is a long term lead pastor
of a 1600 member Adventist congregation

I am not a member of that congregation but he and his wife
have been house guests of mine
in my home on the French Riviera and my home in Maui Hawaii.

I asked him recently, since he is so closely
attuned to his church members,
how many of his 1600 members he could identify
as gay / lesbian.

Although he is socially and spiritually connected
with all his parishioners, he could not identify a single member
as being LGBT. — and he is a gay friendly, inclusive pastor!

With the demographics of gays being
four per cent of the larger population
that 1600 member Adventist church should boast

That none exist, tells me that most have

Not surprising with the hateful homophobia,
the shaming and shunning,
the denigration, discrimination, demeaning, denunciating
of LGBTs by Adventism.

With this latest BETRAYAL of its gay members!
in its opposition to the EQUALITY ACT
— a deliberate “ throwing under the bus “ of its gay members,
—-denying them their pursuit of happiness in housing and jobs,
I would advocate for all remaining LGBT Adventists
who still cling to Adventism despite its hatred of them,
to vote with their feet and seek out other denominations
who will not be so unkind and so unchristian!

My gay partner and I have been together
for almost twenty years. Together we own
seven homes and are hugely itinerant between them.

In every location we visit,
we have found a welcoming, Inclusive, embracing Sunday church.
All of them willing for us not merely to warm their pews,
but also if we were permanent members of that
community, to FULLY PARTICIPATE in the life
of their church — should we wish to become
deacons / elders/ church board members .

Adventism’s active advocacy against the EQUALITY ACT
demands a large scale EXODUS of all current LGBT
members still occupying Adventist pews,
to find a more welcoming spiritual group.

You make your point loud and clear. But Adventist are know to have more than one phobia. Catholics, movie goers, pork eaters, the list is almost endless to even belt or suspenders. Yes dresses that are too long or too short. Mall going on Sabbath afternoon. Even a glass of wine.

I plea for open communion.


The Western model of religious liberty is not adequate to deal with Islam. Islam is not only a religion in the Western sense–beliefs about the unseen world and the hereafter–it is an earthly ideology and jurisprudence that is totalitarian in scope, aggressive, violent, and supremacist. Islam does not intend to live as one religion among many; it intends to be supreme–if necessary, on a field of corpses–and subject all to sharia law, which means at best dhimmitude–distinctly second-class citizenship–for all non-Muslims. The problem of Islam is not what to do about the religion, which is a fairly typical monotheistic religion, but what to do about the violent, supremacist, totalitarian political/jurisprudential ideology that is inseverably attached to the religion.

Kemal Ataturk had a solution, to wit, to separate the religion of Islam from its political component, and to ruthlessly suppress the latter. Sadly, today’s Western ruling elites seem to be a million miles from acknowledging the reality of what Islam actually is, much less embracing Kemal’s practical solution. It has been almost 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which killed 3,000 Americans, and yet we’ve admitted millions of Muslim immigrants since then, and we seem farther from acknowledging the reality of Islam than we were on September 10th, 2001. The dream of multi-culturalism–I would say the disease of multiculturalism–dies very, very hard.

1 Like

David, your The Camp of the Saints approach to the world is incompatible with biblical Christianity and is not grounded in factual reality. The US is not being overrun by Muslims. There are only about 3.45 million Muslims here, which is about 1.1 percent of the US population. Muslims in our country are extraordinarily productive, peaceful, and patriotic. Our country has been enriched by Muslims. The best way to curb one’s bigotry against a minority is to meet and befriend members of that minority, and I encourage you to do so.

If Islam has a “violent, supremacist, totalitarian political/jurisprudential ideology,” so does Christianity. If some Muslim outliers believe that Sharia Law should govern, there are Christian outliers who believe similarly about biblical law. Neither Muslims nor Christians deserve to be judged by the outlier in their respective communities. And no faith community should be judged by historically-conditioned statements that might be contained in its sacred writings. If you understood hermeneutics, you would realize how easy such statements, which we appropriately deem harsh and unacceptable, can be interpreted in a way that does not pose a danger to society.

David, I appreciate your willingness to step outside the insular walled-in compound that is fulcrum7, which remains beyond the fringe of Seventh-day Adventism. I don’t know how to reach those Seventh-day Adventists who have become radicalized in this age of Donald Trump. They don’t read books that Nick Miller and the rest of us read. Their worldview is informed by something other than facts and I am not quite sure what that something is. But I thank you for your comment, because it inadvertently demonstrates why the book reviewed by Miller should be read by certain members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church who remain the object of our patience and long-suffering.



You make very pertinent points about Islam.

Sharia Law is incompatible with democracy and the US constitution.

I will never go to an Islamic country nor spend my tourist dollars there, because they treat their women and their gays with such barbarity.

And even though Emirate Airlines may give huge bargains to other tourist destinations I might wish to visit — I will not fly that airline.

Female genital mutilation is an atrocity practiced on their teenage girls.

Why do we let these people into our country?

Both responses (Brantley and Read) have elements of truth that many want to deny. It shows the lack of listening and understanding in America today. Of course, Muslims deserve the same liberties as everyone else and those who settle here are good citizens in 99% of cases. But religions of the past (like Catholicism) had the same vision of world conversion and forced it on people as Waldmon pointed out. To deny that some aspects of Islam aren’t similar is to ignore the history he tries to give us. The solution is to make friends with these folks and always protect their legitimate rights. It is harder for them to integrate into western society than most groups who have come here. (Think Amish who also do not integrate.) Many do bring with them their own prejudices. We only need to hear the Muslim member of the House to have that proven to us. I also believe that the targeting of “evangelicals” is increasing and they may prove to be in as much danger of bigotry. They are often misrepresented and put into one box.

1 Like

This topic was automatically closed after 30 days. New replies are no longer allowed.