Church and State

Georgia State history professor David Sehat adds to the Washington Post “Five Myths” series a worthy “Five Myths about Church and State in America.” I’d like to add a few observations, though.

1. “But when the First Amendment was ratified in 1791, it did not apply to the states and would not until well into the 20th century.” This is very true. And it may surprise you to know that the last state to abandon its established religion was, unless my memory is tricking me, Massachusetts, in 1832 or thereabouts.

Until then, Massachusetts had an established Congregationalist Church, which had begun as a sort of non-hierarchical Puritan body (unlike the more hierarchical Presbyterians) but had devolved into de facto unitarianism so that more orthodox Christians led the disestablishment drive.

What happened that the First Amendment came to apply to the states “well into the 20th century”? The last established church having been disestablished more than one hundred years earlier, what prompted a change in the Constitution or the cases construing it?

In the seminal case, what happened was that some (no doubt anti-Catholic) folks objected to allowing reimbursement of parents whose children rode public busses to any school, not just public schools. The Supreme Court responded by extending much of the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, which were a sort of package deal in case you’ve forgotten) to limit states and by expanding the meaning of “establisment of religion” into a “wall of separation.”

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion …  In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State.'”

Be it noted that applying the Bill of Rights to the States, when they clearly were mostly aimed at the national government originally (“the power of the federal government would not be used to advance, say, Congregationalist beliefs over Presbyterian ones” — Sehat), was a major factor in the homogenization and nationalization (versus federalization) of America. (Popular culture, like television, was another, but I’ll not digress to that now.) Legally, the states are now much less free and independent than before the Supreme Court shackled them.

3 (I’m following Sehat’s numbering). It is questionable, though probably pretty conventional, to describe blasphemy and Sabbath laws as coming from “Christian conservatives.”

These folks were predominantly Puritan-type dissenters or their descendants. Their later descendants would create the public school systems of America, which at least until the Supreme Court redefined “establishment of religion,” were powerful inculcators of mainstream Protestantism. They and their later descendants were fierce opponents of Roman Catholicism, which was far more conservative than they (in the sense of being historically rooted). Many of the state constitutional provisions that now are being invoked as barriers to school vouchers, for instance, were Nativist provisions meant to privilege “public” (read “de facto Protestant”) schools over Roman Catholic schools, as the objectors in the Everson case wanted only public school students to ride public transportation to school on the taxpayer’s dime.  It appears to me that Sehat himself has a powerful title on this topic as well: The Myth of American Religious Freedom.

You may note the italicized “at least” in the prior paragraph. I would argue, at least in the spirit of Devil’s Advocate, that public schools today are still inculcators of “mainstream Protestantism,” which has constantly shifted leftward (for lack of a better figure of speech), as have the Protestant “conservatives” as well. I suspect that “public” schools today remain comfortably in the tradition of what have usually been called “mainstream Protestant” Churches: United Methodist, United Presbyterian (or whatever they’re called today), American Baptist, etc. It is the Protestant dissenters against public schools who are outside America’s historic mainstream, though the “mainstream” churches are famously shrinking as the dissenters’ flavors increase.

To go further, into my conviction that schools cannot really be neutral, would be to digress. Buy and read The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis for an evocation of how education shapes things far beyond a neutral acquaintance with “the three R’s.”

5. I love Sehat’s quote of Justice Robert Jackson (on of my heroes for his dissent in the shameful Korematsu case: “My evangelistic brethren confuse an objection to compulsion with an objection to religion. It is possible to hold a faith with enough confidence to believe that what should be rendered to God does not need to be decided and collected by Caesar.”

I have written elsewhere of my distrust of the “Christian conservatives” among whom I formerly numbered myself:

The culture wars are unwinnable on the present terms, too, because there’s darned little difference between the two sides on some of the deep presuppositions.

At the other end from the relativist “conservatives,” there’s a Protestant Church in my home town that produces a disproportionate share of Religious Right activists. Several of them have been elected to public office. But they’re theonomists, or more specifically Reconstructionists. If they had their way, there would be 18 Old Testament Capital Crimes in our law books – including sassing parents. They’d shut down my Church and desecrate its icons. They might, for all I know, execute me for one of those 18 capital offenses for the icons in my home prayer corner.

We Orthodox have been here before. After the attempted union with the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Florence (see also here), the Orthodox decided they’d risk rule by Sultan over rule by Pope.

That is not a throw-away line: I’m not so sure a secularist regime would be worse than what Christian Reconstructionists would bring upon me and my fellow Orthodox Christians that I’m willing to be bedfellows with Recontructionists.

My point is that I’m anything but anti-religious. I’m an adherent of a deeply historical Christian tradition that is a small minority in America and is pretty deeply inconsistent with the kind of Krustianity that has devolved from the Protestant Reformation and, in the case of America, the 19th century frontier revivalists. They are far larger than Orthodoxy in America and, on top of that, politically influential beyond their numbers.

I had a law school classmate, who like me was in his 30s when we went back to school, who hailed from Southern Indiana but had become Roman Catholic from a kind of redneck Protestant background. I asked why he’d done that and he said something that’s stuck with me for some 30 years now (though I’m sure I’ve expanded it a bit): “Well, I decided that I’d rather be under a well educated guy in Rome — who claims to be the infallible Vicar of Christ but pretty well leaves me alone — than to be under some pompadoured Preacher Boy who says he’s just a simple guy, readin’ the simple message of the simple Bible — which says what it means and means what it says, just like him — but who wants to micromanage every part of my life.”

That same spirit of resistance to zealous but uninformed oppression, not a spirit of anti-religion, motivates many minority Christians and Jews (and increasingly others) to prefer a regime of fairly strict separation of Church and State, even as I at least continue to acknowledge that the constitution did not and (lacking any relevant Constitutional change) still does not really decree it.