Friday, October 22, 2010

Church and State

The following was published today in the print and online editions of The Oregonian:

The history behind the separation of church and state

By Laura Jane Gifford

The recent denial by Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell of a constitutionally enshrined separation between church and state is fundamentally flawed. A quick glance at the First Amendment is sufficient to demonstrate that while the specific words "separation of church and state" can't be found in sequence, the concept behind them is unquestionably present.

O'Donnell's selection of this particular issue, however, is especially ironic, given the religious demographics of many in the tea party movement and the history behind the First Amendment's clause preventing establishment of an "official" church.

Early evangelicals were some of the most strident opponents of an established church. In most American colonies, one established church stood at the center of religious and community life, controlled the tempo of religious expression and even levied taxes for its maintenance. In New England, for example, it was the Puritan church; in many Southern states, it was the Church of England. The taxes these churches levied were a mandatory part of life for all citizens living within a colony's boundaries. Even after the American Revolution, established churches remained part of life in several states, dissolving gradually over a series of decades.

In the 1730s, however, a wave of religious fervor struck England and the colonies. The Great Awakening was characterized by fervent preaching, emphasis on the conversion experience of being "born again" and extension of the right to preach and share religious revelation to a broader cross-section of society. Among other things, the Great Awakening dramatically diversified the denominational affiliations of American colonists, as new sects ranging from Baptists to Methodists to Presbyterians added their distinctive forms of expression to the American religious spectrum.

These newly invigorated, fervently devout evangelicals balked at paying taxes to established churches that did not share their theological positions. Indeed, in some parts of the colonies, sects such as the Baptists went so far as to refuse paying church taxes, drawing the disapprobation of colonial elites and sometimes even jail sentences.

Citizens from throughout the American colonies used the language of "freedom" and "liberty" that characterized the Revolutionary movement to anchor their own causes. Some campaigns were more successful than others, and in many cases connections were forged among disparate groups with similar aims. In the case of religious freedom, early evangelicals and Deist elites like Thomas Jefferson could find common ground. Jefferson believed God ceased to be active in the world following creation, but he did not want to see an established church hobbling the rationality of his republican experiment; evangelicals did not want to owe fealty to a national religious establishment that could compromise their deeply held beliefs. The result, of course, was the First Amendment.

Since the nation's founding, myriad religious groups have been able to call upon the First Amendment to legitimate their freedom of expression in the face of considerable oppression. This has been true of Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Hindus -- but also of denominations like the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, of which tea party guru Glenn Beck is a faithful member. Given the long and often violent history of attempts to repress the Mormon faith, it's safe to say that without the First Amendment, Beck would not be safe to express his Mormon beliefs today.

O'Donnell and the rest of the tea party movement would do well to study their history before they make unfounded statements based on false premises about America's religious past.

Laura Jane Gifford is an adjunct instructor at George Fox University and author of "The Center Cannot Hold: The 1960 Presidential Election and the Rise of Modern Conservatism."

Link to the column as it appears in The Oregonian here:


Thomas Eric Ruthford said...

Excellent essay, Laura! There's this constitutional knowledge competition for high schoolers called "We The People" and I participated in it as a student in 1997, and have judged the state finals in Washington five times, and this question comes up every time -- if "separation of church and state" isn't in the Constitution, where did it come from? The answer is always "it's a little more complex than that."

An interesting fact that I did not know until this year is that twelve out of thirteen of the original colonies had official churches at one time or another -- Rhode Island being the exception.

I think an interesting parallel you could draw between the Tea Party and the religious groups protected by the First Amendment is that the Tea Party's interpretation of the text is fundamentalist. (The text being the Constitution in this case.) They take a flat, literal interpretation of individual clauses in the Constitution without considering the context of the whole document, nor the context in which the document was written, nor the the context in which it has lived over the centuries.

Laura Gifford said...

That is a fascinating parallel, Eric! I think this concept of broadly-expressed fundamentalism has a great deal of explanatory value.