"The Building of the Wall": Historical and theological reflections on the American experiment in church and state
Temple, C. Chappell
Nielsen, Niels C.
Doctor of Philosophy thesis
Two centuries after its formulation, the American doctrine of the separation of Church and State yet remains a continuing source of controversy and confusion for many. For the interpretation of that idea--as embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution--has been frequently beset by two historical myths or misunderstandings. From early in our history on, for example, there has been an attempt to cast our national beginnings in explicitly Christian terms, exemplified by such notions as "redeemer nation" and the belief in ours as a Christian republic. A clearer reading of the evidence suggests, however, that such an interpretation is not warranted by the facts, nor has it ever been. Yet likewise, neither true is the suggestion that has frequently been advanced by the other historical misunderstanding, namely, that the Founding Fathers set out to create an intentionally "secular" state, wishing to completely deny any significant role for religion within the affairs of public life. For the reality is that the First Amendment was the finely balanced product of compromise, reflecting not simply the more well-known elements of Jeffersonian rationalism and Enlightenment political theory, but an equally significant theological pedigree, as well. One may see within even its few words, in fact, the reflections of such Christian thinkers as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and particularly perhaps, Roger Williams. Taken together with the insights of Locke, Jefferson, and Madison, American separationism thus emerged as a synthesis of sorts between those two visions, as well as a practical solution to the very real problem of vastly different religious experiences between the American states. As a compromise, therefore, the Amendment (and the subsequent American understanding of Church and State), should not be "pushed" too far in either direction. Rather, the key to understanding its continuing relevance for today is to both recognize the complex and varied context out of which the notion of separationism was adopted two hundred years ago, and the truly revolutionary changes which the American experiment was to represent.
American Studies; Religion, History of; History, United States