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Silas Walker, Deseret News
Conferencegoers leave the Conference Center after the Sunday afternoon session of the 189th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, April 7, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — America would be a more violent place without religious freedom protections, but it hasn't exactly been a peaceful place with them, according to Steven Waldman, a religion expert and author.

In his new book, "Sacred Liberty: America's Long, Bloody and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom," Waldman outlines countless attacks on people of faith throughout the country's history and interreligious tension that persists to this day.

"It's the nature of religious belief that you feel like you've found the one truth. If you've found the truth, it can be quite difficult to be tolerant of someone else who hasn't," he told the Deseret News.

Despite tough conclusions like this, Waldman isn't arguing that America's religious freedom laws are worthless. Instead, he hopes to help people see why this right is worth fighting for.

Waldman, who previously served as national editor of U.S. News and World Report and a national correspondent for Newsweek, celebrates America's faith-related efforts, even as he exposes their dark side.

"The genius of the American system is you don't have to accept the validity of someone else's religion," he said. You do, however, have to let people be wrong.

" It's the nature of religious belief that you feel like you've found the one truth. If you've found the truth, it can be quite difficult to be tolerant of someone else who hasn't. "
Steven Waldman, a religion expert and author

This week, Waldman spoke to the Deseret News about the lessons we can learn from America's long struggle against religious intolerance and what religious freedom advocates should be paying attention to today.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: What do Americans misunderstand about religious freedom?

Steven Waldman: I think many people embrace the myth that America was founded as a bastion of religious freedom. It really wasn’t.

In fact, we really haven’t had robust religious freedom for most of our history. But we do have religious freedom now.

I think it’s important for people to understand how we got it. It happened as a result of hundreds of years of struggle, including persecution of groups like Mormons and Catholics and Quakers.

The whole idea as envisioned by James Madison was to have something like a marketplace where the presence of what he called a 'multiplicity of sects' guarantees religious freedom. Basically, he thought that pluralism ensured one religion wouldn't dominate the others.

Jorg Meyer
Steven Waldman

In a way, the rise of Mormonism proves that point. It exists because of religious freedom and then it helps to, in later years, advance religious freedom when its members demand equal rights.

DN: Speaking of Latter-day Saints, why did you write a full chapter about them?

SW: As a non-Mormon, I was astonished to learn about the level of persecution in the history of (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). The level of brutality and the government's role in it surprised me to some extent.

I thought it was really important for the rest of America to understand both what Mormons went through, why their religious freedom rights were denied, how they eventually got them and what they teach us about some of today's faith-related conflicts, like attacks on Muslims.

DN: What does Mormon history have to do with Muslims today?

SW: One of the things that was said about Mormonism was that it’s not really a religion. People claimed it was a political system. That's said about Islam, too. Anti-Muslim activists say it's a political system and therefore doesn't deserve First Amendment protections.

Mormons were also stereotyped as violent and unable to embrace democracy, which is something you hear about Muslims, as well.

" As far as I know, before 2016 we'd never had a successful presidential candidate make an attack on a particular religion an important part of his presidential campaign. "
Steven Waldman, a religion expert and author

Also, and this surprised me, immigration was a factor. In the 1830s, Mormons in Missouri and Illinois were attacked because people worried about scary immigrants from Canada. Criticisms against Muslims are related to immigration, too.

I think those parallels are worth thinking about.

DN: Near the end of your book, you express concerns about President Donald Trump's relationship to religious freedom and particularly his treatment of the Muslim community. Is he responsible for today's attacks on Islam?

SW: Attacks on Muslims started before Trump. They were picking up steam around 2010, when you saw communities trying to block the construction of mosques and state legislatures passing anti-Sharia laws. There was a big controversy over the Ground Zero Mosque in New York.

However, the demonization of Muslims was kind of a fringe movement until Trump's presidential campaign. Trump normalized it and accelerated it.

As far as I know, before 2016 we'd never had a successful presidential candidate make an attack on a particular religion an important part of his presidential campaign.

DN: But I've noticed in my reporting that many people of faith are thankful for Trump's leadership. They believe he's doing much more to defend religious freedom than previous presidents.

" I think Democrats sometimes fall into the trap of interpreting the separation of church and state in such a rigid way that it gives religion second-class status. "
Steven Waldman, a religion expert and author

SW: I think (Trump) sees religious freedom as a way of appealing to one particular religion.

That doesn't make related policies wrong. Some of the conscience exemptions that he's advocated for make sense.

But my view is that if you’re advocating religious freedom for one particular religion that’s not actually religious freedom. Religious freedom has to be universal for it to be meaningful.

DN: Do you also have concerns about how Democratic leaders approach religious freedom these days?

SW: I think Democrats sometimes fall into the trap of interpreting the separation of church and state in such a rigid way that it gives religion second-class status.

I was just talking to someone about the Alabama abortion law and they were arguing that it violates separation of church and state because its proponents were religiously motivated.

I totally disagree with that. You should be able to have a religious motivation for your public policy views just as much as a secular one.

I said, 'So are you saying that it would only be OK to oppose the Iraq War if you did so on practical grounds rather than moral grounds? That doesn't make any sense.'

I think it’s totally appropriate and, in fact, good for people to have their public policy views informed by their religion. Making only a religious argument may not be the best way to persuade other people, but it's not a violation of the separation of church and state.

I think liberals sometimes devalue religion and its role in society.

" I think it’s our turn to save religious freedom. It was earned through blood and toil and sacrifice but it’s still fragile. "
Steven Waldman, a religion expert and author

DN: As you pointed out at the beginning of this conversation, clashes over religious freedom have long been part of the American experience. But what makes today's conflicts unique?

SW: I may get in trouble for saying this, but we're actually fighting mostly over gray areas at this point.

We have tremendously passionate debates and there are legitimate concerns about competing values. But we have largely vanquished more serious forms of religious persecution and discrimination.

We should keep a sense of perspective. We’ve really come a long way and have a very robust system of religious freedom.

33 comments on this story

People might get mad at me because it sounds like I'm minimizing what they feel are important religious freedom claims. But honestly, arguing about having to fill out a piece of paper to be exempted from parts of the Affordable Care Act is not the moral equivalent of being hung from a tree in Boston because you're a Quaker.

DN: In addition to discussing prominent lawmakers and faith leaders, your book celebrates the role regular citizens played in defending religious freedom. What can everyday people do today to ensure related laws remain strong?

SW: I think it’s our turn to save religious freedom. It was earned through blood and toil and sacrifice but it’s still fragile.

We really had better understand it and appreciate it and defend it or we will lose it.