Outlook: Five Myths about church and state in America

Apr 25, 2011

Author David Sehat will be online Monday, April 25 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his latest Outlook piece "Five Myths about church and state in America." In it he writes, "Liberals claim that the founding fathers separated church and state, while conservatives argue that the founders made faith a foundation of our government. Both sides argue that America once enjoyed a freedom to worship that they seek to preserve. Yet neither side gets it right."

Hello everyone. I'm David Sehat, author of The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Today I'll be answering any questions you have about church and state. Or religion in America. Or whatever you would like to discuss.

What do you make of the fact that the Federalist papers, written by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, which were intended to explain the nascent constitution to residents of NY state, make virtually no reference to god or gods? Isn't this grounds for the of the "myth" of separation of church and state in America? And that the Constitution itself doesn't mention the word "god"?

This is a good question.  The Constitution was called the godless Constitution by its critics, precisely because it largely omits reference to God (there is a reference to "the year of our Lord").  But remember that the federal government had much less power at the beginning than it does now.  And the states could do pretty much what they wanted with religion.  So when it came to church and state the real action for much of American history (until 1920s) was on the state level.

Some conservatives are claiming that the "Establish Clause" in the First Amendment, was intended to prevent a national religion/church, while the Supreme Court has ruled (in my opinion) that public funds for church/religious related activitiesare prohibited by the "Establish Clause." What is your take on these different ideas of this clause?

There are two parts to this question. The first is historical.  Yes, it seems the original purpose of the Establishment Clause was to prevent a national religion, though some, such as Madison, wanted it to go farther and wanted it to apply to the states as well.  This changed over time with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which made the federal government Supreme over the states and eventually made the Court apply the Bill of Rights to the states.

As for state money to schools today: The mid-century Court said that money could not be given to the schools except in certain controlled circumstances.  But the trend has been to allow more and more federal money to go to private, even sectarian schools.  The Roberts Court seems prepared to continue that trend.

Would you please tell us a little more about your book, what it covers, and what some of your major conclusions are?

Thanks for this question.  Like the article I wrote yesterday, I argue in the book that both liberals and conservatives have the history wrong.  Instead of a history of freedom, the American past had multiple limits on religious freedom that came from Protestant Christian control over law.  I argue that the mid-twentieth century Court began to enact the separation of church and state to do away with this heritage of official discrimination.  But as they did so, they claimed (falsely) that they were only trying to maintain the freedom of the past.  Meanwhile, religious conservatives mobilized to continue their control over law.  Both sides claimed to be the heirs of a past of freedom. 

My main point in the book is that we must to have a correct historical foundation, before we can have a meaningful debate about the proper role of religion in public life.

What were the founders more afraid of: Freedom of Religion being lost for particular minority sects? Or Freedom from Religion being lost for the new sons and daughters of the Enlightenment? Follow up: how did they value religion in the public sphere?

I think it is diffult to talk about what "the Founders" as a whole thought.  There were a lot of different people and they thought a lot of different things.  James Madison believed that one's religion was something that the state could not have any say over.  He thought that liberty of conscience was a foundational liberty for political liberty as a whole.   But John Adams, who wasn't at the Constitutional Convention and didn't seem to like the Constitution at first (though he was a Founder), supported the Massachussetts arrangement, which payed Congregational churches through a special tax. 

Another way to get at this is to say, what kind of political system did they create? They created a federal system, in which the federal government had certain responsibilities and the state government had certain responsibilities.  And they left control over religion to the state government.

You mentioned the blue laws. They derived from religious intentions. Repealing them was met with opposition from people who saw it is an offense to religion. For this, is it correct to assume that numerous laws that do not mention religion were in fact religious based?

Yes, I think so.  In my interpretation, even after states stopped paying churches, Protestant Christians exerted significant control over law.  They claimed that religion provided the morals to be enforced in law.  And the religion that they meant was often Protestant Christianity.

So there were many laws that did not mention religion but that enforced a religious and moral point of view.  These moral laws made up what I call in my book a "moral establishment" that allowed Protestant Christians  to maintain power over others.

As a Baptist missionary (to Mexico) I find it ironic that it is many of my Baptist brethren who seem to be advocating for an imposition of our faith and beliefs on the larger society. Wasn't the Baptist community instrumental in the inclusion of the "establishment clause" in the Bill of Rights? Of course, that is when Baptists were clearly in the minority. I know we are not in the majority at present, but many of us act as if we were. It is easy to see why our various faiths need protection from those who would impose their own from a position of strength.

The Baptists were, indeed, instrumental in the passage of the establishment clause.  Baptists were among the most persecuted sects.  They came to the conclusion that the less the state had to do with religion, the more free that religion could be.  

But Baptists still supported the use of law to enforce their own morality.  So that is not new.

When people discuss religion and politics, the first image that usually comes to mind is the Religious Right, whose brand of religion might cross some denominational lines, but can be fairly termed "Southern-style Protestantism." There's another highly religious demographic that practices pretty much the same type of religion, but doesn't implement it the same way politically -- African Americans. Some conservatives believe that the Left excuses religious involvement by African-American churches, whose conservative-white analogue would be considered an egregious violation of the First Amendment, like campaign rallies at Af-Am churches or the publication of voting guides. Are the secularist political activists fair across the political spectrum?

This is an interesting question.  There are historical reasons for black religious political activism.  Under Jim Crow in the South, black churches were often the sole institution within black control.  They performed multiple functions: intellectual, social, economic, and religious.  I suppose those liberals who oppose the place of religion in public life should be more critical of the role of black preacher/politicians.  The difference, of course, is that their politics are often liberal, rather than conservative or illiberal, so that makes black Christian influence in public life easier to support for liberals. 

Hello, Thanks for initiating a discussion on this fascinating but tricky subject. I'm wondering what your take is on controversy surrounding Article 11 of the Treaty between the U.S. and Tripoli of 1797, which states that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." This would appear to be a pretty clear statement of the early intentions of our government, but some have accused it of being fraudulent. What do you think?

I think the Treaty of Tripoli is correct.  The government of the United States--meaning the federal government--was not founded upon the Christian religion. But at the state level, several states still paid churches.  Some that did not still had civil liabilities for non-Christians.  And all states had laws and practices that favored Christians over non-Christians.  So I don't think the Treaty is fraudulent in its claims.  But I also don't think that it is the final statement.  You have to look at what is actually going on.  And what you see is that people were fighting over the place of religion, but that Protestant Christians remained (largely) in control.

If I understand your article correctly, there is most definitely a separation of church and state. But, it has changed from the federal government wanting nothing to do with religion--i.e the US has no state religion--to the federal government (supreme court) saying you cannot exclude any one religion, you must all people of all religions and not discriminate. Is that a correct synopsis?

That is mostly a correct synopsis.  The only thing I would add is that the U.S. Supreme Court does not much  use the phrase "separation of church and state" anymore because it turns out that there remain many connections between church and state.  So in 1971 in Lemon v. Kurtzman, Chief Justice Burger proposed a three prong test.  For a law not to violate the Constitution it must 1) have a secular purpose, 2) must not primarily advance or inhibit religion, and 3) must avoid excessive entanglement of religion.  This test has turned out to be problematic as well, and the current jurisprudence is a mess.  But liberals still hold, like the mid-twentieth century Court, that since non-discrimination and the embrace of pluralism is the goal, the separation of church and state is the best way to go.  Conservatives tend to argue that this discriminates against believers.

One of the myths that you attempt to debunk is the belief that "America is more secular than it used to be." If this is, indeed, a myth, then how do you account for the dramatic increase of "nones," or people claiming no institutional religious affiliation, especially among the younger generation?

This is a good question that I'm not sure that I can answer without more intensively studying the survey data that is coming out.  It does seem that we are going through something of a religious transformation, but in my reading of the survey data, some of it is contradictory and quite complex.  A good new book that digests this is Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2011).  My source for the membership data is Roger Finke and Rodney Starke, The Churching of America (2005).

I don't really understand your point - why should we be concerned that the ideals and goals of the constitution were not observed or enforced in the early days of the Republic? Human beings were enslaved in the US for almost 85 years after it was written, and blacks did not win even basic rights for another 100 years after that; women did not have the right to vote (as well as innumerable other inequities). But I don't think that any serious person today would believe that those practices would be constitutional, aside from the nutball originalists. So why treat early unfair and inappropriate religious practices as specially protected?

I agree with you.  The point is that both liberals and conservatives appeal to the past and claim that their own side represents the freedom of the past.  I don't see the American religious past as a story of freedom.  I see it as one of contestation and coercion.  And just as we don't want to return to the subjugated past for women or African Americans, I don't think we should want to go back to the American religious past, because it was coercive.

So my plea (both in my book and in my WashPo article) is that we recognize this coercion of the past and begin to have a new conversation that takes it into account.

Should we be afraid of the rising influence of religion in politics?

Well, I'm concerned about it.  I think that many Christian conservatives who are promoting a renewed influence of religion in public life are seeking to use the coercive apparatus of the state in a way that is not good.   I've tried to show that in the past when Protestant Christians used the law to maintain their power, it inhibited American democracy and fell short of any standard of justice. 

Many people now claim that the Religious Right is past its prime, especially with the recent Republican concentration on fiscal issues rather than social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Is it too early to declare the Religious Right of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson dead?

The Religious Right of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson may be dead, but there are always new generations.  The Religious Right is the central constituency of the Republican Party.  And it is the main source of Republican political organization in Iowa and South Carolina, two early primary states.  So I suspect that you will be hearing a lot more about the Religious Right in the near future.  

Which side do you think will eventually win this debate: the secularists or the Christians?

I wouldn't frame the debate in this way.  Instead, I would say the debate is between pluralists, who recognize that there are multiple different faiths that need to be able to live under a single law, and establishmentarians, who seek to maintain their religious power through law.

Why should we believe today's history teaching when they contradict the teaching over 30 years ago. Why are Historical accounts of the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s so skewed to favor the point of view that is based on political correctness and not the true intent of the account that would discredit or credit a liberal point of view. Is it wrong and not politically correct to be Christian, a conservative, believe historians who have information that contradicts your view to some extent?

Historians always revise and contradict one another.  The historians of the 1950s were critiquing the historians of the 1930s.  And the historians of the 1930s were doing the same before that.  And historians today do it to those who came before us.

The reason for this is that historians write about the past, but they do so with the concerns of their own time.  After a few years those concerns fade and other concerns take their place, so new histories need to be written.  

I am obviously writing out of the concerns of our time.  The place of religion in public life is a hot button issue.  Both all sides appeal to the past in a way that I think is incorrect, so I have tried to provide a better account of that past.  It is not political correctness to say that Protestant Christians used law to maintain their power in the past.  It is, I regret to say, a reality of the past that we have to come to terms with.  I have written a entire book to help us do so.  I invite you to check it out so that you can judge the evidence for yourself.  

I didn't get to everyone's questions--there were too many, I'm afraid.  But thanks for tuning in.  If you would like to explore these issues further, I'd point you to my book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (2011).  Thanks again.  

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David Sehat
David Sehat is an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University and the author of “The Myth of American Religious Freedom.”
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