Religious historian and minister Church examines freedom of religion in late-18th- and early-19th-century America.
Discussion about the separation of church and state often devolves into one-sided, black-and-white debate—either America was founded as a “Christian nation” or every last framer was deeply committed to secularism. In this fascinating and subtle study, Church (The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America's Founders, 2004, etc.) shows that the matter was not nearly so simple. Some early Americans believed that the new nation needed “a strong Christian government” to survive, and others favored a clear separation between church and state. Central to the victory of the latter view—and thus to the story Church tells—is Thomas Jefferson’s drafting of the “Statute Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia,” which disestablished the Anglican Church and created a model for the religious freedom later enshrined in the First Amendment. Church is especially good at revealing small but significant episodes: George Washington’s insisting his troops honor the Sabbath during the Revolutionary War, James Madison’s thoughts on the constitutionality of chaplains in Congress. Perhaps the most fascinating character in this narrative is John Adams, who, though himself disdainful of orthodox Christian teaching, believed that religion was necessary to maintain virtue in the new nation. Church also investigates the seeming irony that a nation with no established religion should remain so religious. There’s no contradiction there, he suggests; in fact, disestablishment guaranteed that churches would not be manipulated by politics, and thus freed them to focus on matters of faith, not statecraft. The author’s discussion of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists—a letter that includes the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state”—would have been enriched if Church had made better use of recent scholarship tracing the origins of that phrase.
Nonetheless, an important, nuanced book, likely to overshadow titles like David Holmes’s The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (2006).