Skip to content Skip to navigation

Beyond Belief, Beyond Conscience: The Radical Significance of the Free Exercise of Religion

Oxford University Press
2020

Today, Americans believe that the early colonists came to the New World in search of religious liberty. What we often forget is that they wanted religious liberty for themselves, not for those who held other views that they rejected and detested. Yet, by the mid-18th century, the colonists agreed that everyone possessed a sovereign right of conscience. How did this change develop? In Beyond Belief, Beyond Conscience, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jack Rakove tracks the unique course of religious freedom in America.

He finds that, as denominations and sects multiplied, Americans became much more tolerant of the free expression of rival religious beliefs. During the Revolutionary era, he explains, most of the new states moved to disestablish churches and to give constitutional recognition to rights of conscience. These two developments explain why religious freedom originally represented the most radical right of all. No other right placed greater importance on the moral autonomy of individuals, or better illustrated how the authority of government could be limited by denying the state authority to act. Together, these developments made possible the great revival of religion in 19th-century America.

As Rakove explains, America's intense religiosity eventually created a new set of problems for mapping the relationship between church and state. He goes on to examine some of our contemporary controversies over church and state not from the vantage point of legal doctrine, but of the deeper history that gave the U.S. its own approach to religious freedom. In this book, he tells the story of how American ideas of religious toleration and free exercise evolved over time, and why questions of church and state still vex us.