The Right-Wing Christians

Some people think the following two propositions cannot both be true: (1) The founders of the United States believed that churches should be protected and encouraged. (2) The founders of the United States believed that government should not assist or support churches.

In fact, there is nothing contradictory about these statements. As Garry Wills puts it in his new book, Head and Heart: American Christianities, the founders were as much “interested in keeping religion free from corruption by the state” as in keeping “the state free from corruption by religion.” They kept a distance between church and state because they thought separation would be better for both.

But what, exactly, does separation mean? Does it mean that a figure of baby Jesus cannot be placed on public property next to Santa Claus? Does it mean that the Ten Commandments cannot be displayed in a courthouse? Or that parochial schools should not enjoy tax exemptions? Or that government funds should be withheld from universities or hospitals affiliated with one or another religious denomination?

The authors of the Bill of Rights, which in the First Amendment forbids Congress from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” did not answer such questions. In fact, they could not imagine them. Until the mid-nineteenth century there were no Catholic schools in the United States. Christmas was not yet a consumer holiday with rituals and symbols of its own, and, since virtually all colleges began in some measure as sectarian institutions, the distinction between public and private was barely expressed. Late in his life, James Madison, the most forceful opponent of religious establishment among the founders, remarked that

it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation, between the rights of Religion & the Civil authority, with such distinctness, as to avoid collisions & doubts on unessential points.

And so the fine distinctions have been left to the courts, where lawyers and judges have kept busy for centuries arguing church–state cases—from the question of whether the post office should move the mails on Sunday to the issue of whether children may pray in the schools.

In the early years of the republic, Europeans watched the American experiment in church–state separation with amazement. As early as 1781, the French émigré Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur remarked that in the Old World, sectarian “zeal…is confined” till it explodes like “a grain of powder inclosed,” while in the New World it “burns away in the open air and consumes without effect.” Fifty years later, his countryman Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “Christianity maintains more actual power over souls in America than anywhere else”—a “peaceful ascendancy” of which he approved, and which he attributed to the “complete separation of church and state.” In short, religion flourished in America because, by and large, government left it alone.

Garry Wills thinks this American tradition of benign neglect is under threat, and so he has written a book to defend it. He …

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Letters

In The Name of the Father May 29, 2008