By Jeff Sharlet
Beacon Press has just published a useful little volume for journalists on the God beat: The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by American Founders. It’s sized to fit beside cash registers in bookstores, and as such it should easily find space on any reporter’s bookshelf. The editor, Forrest Church, is senior minister at All Souls Unitarian in New York City, and liberally-inclined. And yet the collection of writings — Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments”; Washington’s “Letters on Religious Laws”; and three selections from Jefferson, including, of course, “A Wall of Separation” — is fundamentally conservative. The separation of church and state is important, this collection suggests, because that’s how the country was conceived. Church would like to keep it that way.
Another editor might draw together enough writings from the founders to make a collection “proving” an opposite version of history, but the real counterpoint to this volume would be a book that argues the separation case — for or against — based not just on the founders, but on the idea’s development across the last couple of centuries. That is, a collage of arguments that acknowledges that ideas change, that what the founders wrote is not necessarily true forever, no matter how much we might like it to be.
What if, for instance, one were to trace this story not from Patrick Henry — Forrest Church’s starting point — but from Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century revivalist most famous for his declaration that we are all “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” less well-known for the democratic spark he inadvertently gave to New England’s inland farmers and future revolutionaries?
From there we might proceed through a bundle of founding father pieties — regardless of their personal beliefs, most were able politicians, willing to use one idea in service of another — and on to figures equally influential in the development of the nation, such as Charles Grandison Finney and Dwight L. Moody; not forgetting, of course, Abraham Lincoln, a great blurrer of the line between church and state, or Theodore Roosevelt, who didn’t feel the need for one at all since God had so clearly indicated his preference for American empire.
Once that empire was established, things got even stickier — progressives like Woodrow Wilson cleaved to their God, while conservatives like Herbert Hoover seemed disinterested. Roosevelt’s leftist VP Henry Wallace chaired the first Senate Prayer Breakfast; Barry Goldwater liked religion inasmuch as it helped fight the commies. Americans for Separation of Church and State was founded as Protestants and Other People for Separation of Church and State, and once seemed primarily concerned with alleged plots in the Vatican to seize control of America. The American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, works in another protestant tradition and depends for much of its support from liberals schooled in Jewish ethical traditions.
A full reader on the separation of church and state might reveal that it is more of an ideal than a reality, a theology in itself of a kingdom — or a nation — or a some-other-word-for country that isn’t loaded with religious meaning — yet to be attained.
But maybe that’s a project for another day. The task at hand in this season of religiously-inspired campaigning is well-served by Church’s collection, a reminder of how this whole question began. Not that most journalists need reminding that the U.S. was built on a shaky wall of separation — in fact, most accept that fact as gospel. Church’s slim volume allows them to understand it as history.