Thursday, November 8, 2012

"Christian Century" Review of John Barry, "Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul"

My review of Barry's book appeared in a recent issue of The Christian Century.  Here is a taste:

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the members of the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptist Association. The Danbury Baptists were a disgruntled religious minority in a state with a Congregational establishment. Though they were no longer required to pay taxes to support Connecticut’s Congregational ministers, they remained engaged in a battle for complete religious liberty through the disestablishment of Congregationalism in their state.

Jefferson sympathized with the plight of his correspondents. Though he had no power to change the religious laws of Connecticut, he did encourage the Danbury Baptists by calling for “a wall of separation between Church & State.” In 1947 the Supreme Court of the United States agreed with Jefferson. It concluded in Everson v. Board of Education that there is indeed a “wall of separation” between religion and government, and it is “high and impregnable.”

Most Americans do not realize that the phrase “separation between church and state” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. Nor did the concept originate with Jefferson. It stems from the work of 17th-century dissenter Roger Williams, who called for a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” As John Barry argues, Williams thought that such a wall or hedge was absolutely necessary because the mixing of church and state corrupted the church. Williams, says Barry, believed that “when one mixes religion and politics one gets politics.”

Read the rest here.

6 comments:

Joshua Wooden said...

I wonder how many Americans (David Barton crown included) have looked at it from an ecclesiological perspective rather than a secular perspective.

Joshua Wooden said...

should read, "David Barton crowd included"

Gabriel said...

Having read the book, John, do you think it would work as a book for an intro to early American history class? I like to assign a different, readable, monograph each semester, usually something I haven't read. Biographies often work well. Do you think this one would be good for undergrads?

John Fea said...

Gabriel: I probably would not assign it. It is definitely undergraduate accessible, but it is very long.

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

Jefferson sympathized with the plight of his correspondents. Though he had no power to change the religious laws of Connecticut, he did encourage the Danbury Baptists by calling for “a wall of separation between Church & State.”

In 1947 the Supreme Court of the United States agreed with Jefferson. It concluded in Everson v. Board of Education that there is indeed a “wall of separation” between religion and government, and it is “high and impregnable.”


Or: In 1802, Jefferson gave an-oft misunderstood minority opinion about religion and state.

Almost 150 years later, the Supreme Court unilaterally codified the assertion.

Perhaps this considerably shorter argument is worth a glance for your students. The "history" of the wall of separation is hardly a history atall, but more a recent "legal fiction," as Gordon Wood puts it [somewhat approvingly].

;-P

Daniel L. Dreisbach:

https://www.hillsdale.edu/news/imprimis/archive/issue.asp?year=2006&month=10

By late January 1802, printed copies of Jefferson’s reply to the Danbury Baptists began appearing in New England newspapers. The letter, however, was not accessible to a wide audience until it was reprinted in the first major collection of Jefferson’s papers, published in the mid-19th century.

The phrase "wall of separation" entered the lexicon of American law in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1878 ruling in Reynolds v. United States, although most scholars agree that the wall metaphor played no role in the Court’s reasoning. Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite, who authored the opinion, was drawn to another clause in Jefferson’s text. The Reynolds Court, in short, was drawn to the passage, not to advance a strict separation between church and state, but to support the proposition that the legitimate powers of civil government could reach men’s actions only and not their opinions.

Nearly seven decades later, in the landmark case of Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Supreme Court "rediscovered" the metaphor and elevated it to constitutional doctrine. Citing no source or authority other than Reynolds, Justice Hugo L. Black, writing for the majority, invoked the Danbury letter’s "wall of separation" passage in support of his strict separationist interpretation of the First Amendment prohibition on laws "respecting an establishment of religion." "In the words of Jefferson," he famously declared, the First Amendment has erected "‘a wall of separation between church and State’. . . . That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach..."


Etc.