Interviewer: In the forthcoming fourth edition of Give Me Liberty you’ve chosen to strengthen the coverage of American religion throughout the book. Why did you choose this subject as one focus of the revision, and how does the subject work with the book’s overall theme of a changing American freedom?
Eric Foner: In previous editions of Give Me Liberty, American religion was discussed at many points. You can hardly avoid it if you’ve giving a comprehensive view of American history. But in the present, in the last couple of years, the role of religion, of religious belief, religious faith, and religious liberty in American life has come to the fore again as a major public question, just as it has at numerous points in our history. And I think that for that reason it’s important to put greater emphasis on students’ understanding the very complicated history of religion and religious liberty in our past.
Today there are debates about the role of Muslims, for example, in American life, and how far religious toleration can and should go. Many non-Muslims are uncomfortable with the growing number of Muslims in this country, even though most of them are law-abiding, patriotic Americans.
Debates about the role of religion in politics, the so-called Christian Conservatives, as a significant part of the Republican Party, and their role in shaping national policy is controversial today and there are antecedents of that all the way back.
Also important is the issue of how religious beliefs entitle someone to not adhere to national law. There are debates over whether religiously grounded institutions, for example, must provide health insurance coverage to their employees, coverage which includes birth control. Some religious groups, the Catholic Church particularly, are against birth control on principal. Do they have the right to say that a non-Catholic person working for a Catholic employer cannot have access to birth control through their health insurance?
These are all complicated questions, which, again, have not recently arisen. They go way back in American history.
As to the theme of religion and American liberty, I think those two things are deeply entwined in our history, particularly the question of what is religious liberty. On the one hand, I think many Americans would say that we don’t have an established church. Unlike many other countries, there is no one church that receives public funding or is the official church of the country. Many, many countries have such a church. In England it’s the Anglican Church. In parts of Scandinavia it’s the Lutheran Church. Other countries have seriously separated religion from any kind of role in public life. The French try to do that, although are not always 100% successful.
We do not have an established church. That is, no church receives direct public funding from the government and there are no religious tests for holding office. You can be a member of any religious faith, or none, and be president or a member of congress or any kind of public official. There is no religious requirement to vote, or anything like that.
However, what’s interesting, and this goes back to the Constitution itself, which is a very secular document, the irony is that the lack of any established church has actually strengthened religion in this country. It has created a kind of free market of religion, with all of these different groups, dozens and dozens of denominations, all of them competing on an equal plane, struggling to gain adherence. In fact, this competition amongst religious groups makes the country more religious. The United States has far more people going to church regularly than most Western European countries.
One gets to more complicated issues when one gets to the question, for example, of religious groups imposing their views on others. Now, this goes all the way back to the days of the Puritans who, of course, did not believe in religious liberty in the colonial era. They thought that this was a Puritan colony and that one had to be a Puritan. If you’re not, leave. The notion of people being free to practice other religions didn’t occur to them. There was one true religion and the government should promote that.
We don’t have that view today but still we have many people who, in the name of religion, want to impose their particular beliefs on the whole society in an effort to make society more religious, more Christian, more moral.
And so, again my feeling is that this goes back deeply into American history and I think it enables students to understand the current controversies if they look back at how those conflicts have worked out in the past.