Praying with the Founders

In March 1801 the newly elected vice-president of the United States, Aaron Burr, was criticized for his neglect of religion. A close political associate warned Burr, who was the grandson of the great theologian Jonathan Edwards, that if he wanted to continue to have a successful political career, he had better think of the Presbyterian vote. “Had you not better go to church?” he suggested.

Despite America’s presumed separation of church and state, the situation hasn’t changed much in the past two centuries. Americans who want a successful career in politics had better be believers or at least have the capacity to make believe they are believers. Religion is still very much alive in America and very much involved in its politics. Indeed, ever since the emergence of the Moral Majority in the 1970s, religion seems to have taken on a special potency in political campaigns. Not only have Americans had two born-again Christians as recent presidents, but the former Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee did surprisingly well in his primary campaign. And interjections by religious figures like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr. and his black liberation theology always have the capacity to influence political campaigns in startling ways.

The liberal humanist assumption that American society, like that of Europe, would become progressively secular was always something of a delusion. Although several antireligious books recently made the best-seller lists—Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything—these secularist outbursts seemed unduly angry and suggest an underlying apprehension of religion’s continuing strength among large numbers of ordinary folk. Religious struggles in the United States used to be among the different denominations of Christianity. But since at least the 1960s if not the 1920s, the struggle has more and more become one between religious belief and a growing secularism in American culture.

Sorting this struggle out over the past several decades has largely fallen to the courts, which in turn has led to ever more books (two of which are here reviewed) on what the Founders of the country believed and what they meant when they wrote the First Amendment’s statement about religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Stephen Mansfield, a former evangelical pastor and author of several works on religious faith, contends that the Supreme Court over the past several generations has gone terribly wrong in its interpretation of what he calls the “ten tortured words” of the opening clause of the First Amendment. He has no quarrel with the idea of preventing an established church in America: that prohibition, he says, was “a miracle of history.” But preventing an official national church is one thing; discouraging the public practice of religion in general is quite another. And that, he writes, is what has happened over the past sixty years.

Mansfield, in his very biased and polemical book, dates …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.