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date: 03 August 2020

Introduction: Religious Pluralism as the Essential Foundation of America’s Quest for Unity and Order

Abstract and Keywords

This Handbook offers an overview of how the church and state interact in the United States. The term church–state is a Western term that emerged in the sixteenth-century Europe and it remains useful in the United States as it describes the interaction between religion and government. In the sixteenth-century Christian Europe, the term “church” connoted Christianity. But things began to change in Europe and in the United States as an experiment for separating church and state to maximize freedom for Christians and other religious groups was introduced. The United States led the way in the experiment with the separation of the church and state. This separation was deemed the best way to keep the government out of religion and to ensure religious freedom for believers of religious traditions. However, the experiment posed great challenges. Questions on the equal footing of all religious groups, the importance of a theological foundation for a stable government, the role of religion in determining law and public policy, and religious pluralism compounded the prospect of a separate church and state. Of all the challenges faced by the American experiment, the most important was religious pluralism. While the American nation embraced religious pluralism, many dissenting groups, such as the Christian Right, saw it as a problem. This tension in the introduction of religious pluralism has been a debated issue since its founding, and is still unresolved. While the competing forces of legalized religious pluralism and Christian majoritarianism still create dissension in America, they nevertheless promote harmony. In this book the tension of America being culturally Christian and the many dimensions of the church and the state are addressed.

Keywords: church and state, church–state, church, state, religion, religious pluralism, pluralism, Christian Right, legalized religious pluralism, Christian majoritarianism

This Handbook provides an overview of how church and state interact in the United States. The term church–state, a distinctively Western term that emerged in sixteenth-century Europe, remains useful because it is so commonly used, in the United States and elsewhere, to describe generally the interaction between religion and government. However, “church” connotes Christianity, of course, which is why it was an altogether appropriate term for how church and state interacted in Christian Europe in the sixteenth century. But things began to change, first in Europe, then more dramatically in the United States in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The principal change was a broad experiment with separating church and state to maximize freedom, not only for Christian groups, but for other religious groups as well. The past persecution, torture, and even slaughter of human beings because of religious differences was thought to be largely a product (p. 4) of government having too much power to dictate conformity to one particular religion. The United States led the way in the experiment with the separation of church and state; a formal separation seemed the best way to keep government out of religion and ensure religious freedom for adherents of all religious traditions.

However, the experiment created a host of difficult problems. The United States was profoundly Christian at its founding. Would Christianity really be placed on equal footing with all other religious groups in receiving no favors from government? How could government function without some recognized set of underlying theological commitments that placed it under divine authority in a way that made sense to a majority of the American people? Was not some kind of theological foundation really necessary to ensure a stable government? The need of a common religion to ensure social and political solidarity had been a bedrock principle for millennia. Under the Constitution, how should the United States be characterized in terms of political theory? Was it a secular state, a religious state, some kind of semireligious state, or perhaps something else? What would be the role of religion in determining law and public policy? Would non-Christian traditions really enjoy the same access to government decision making as Christian groups? And, importantly, would religious pluralism actually become a positive value, something to embrace and celebrate, rather than something to be looked upon as a source of disorder and chaos?

All of these questions weighed heavily on the minds of the Founders, although the final one, pertaining to whether the nation would embrace religious pluralism as a positive matter of government policy, was especially important. As it turned out, the United States was serious about embracing religious pluralism, and the nation soon became a haven for all kinds of religious groups that immigrated to America in unimaginable numbers. The tensions created by this commitment to religious pluralism were many. These tensions are detailed throughout this volume, but suffice it to say that perhaps half of American society today still does not accept the notion that the Founding Fathers really sought to separate church and state—at least not in the way that the U.S. Supreme Court sometimes claims. The emergence of the Christian Right in the latter part of the twentieth century, a powerful political movement, is directly attributable to a deepening sense that America is turning away from its Christian roots and needs the power and influence of government to restore those roots before it is too late. The Christian Right frequently targets religious pluralism as the key problem.

Yes, religious pluralism was and is the problem; but it is also the solution. It is a problem if Christianity is to be the essential foundation of unity and order in the American setting; but it is also the solution if religious freedom and equal treatment under the law of all religious groups is to be the foundation of unity and order. The United States has wrestled with this tension since the founding era. It is still unresolved. It will likely remain unresolved, and perhaps that is as it should be. These two competing forces—legalized pluralism and Christian majoritarianism—still create dissension in America, but their coexistence also promotes harmony. There are many, many dimensions to church and state in (p. 5) the United States, and most of those dimensions are addressed in the chapters of this volume. In one way or another, all of the chapters address the underlying tension of America being culturally Christian, but constitutionally secular. Not all of the authors agree about how to find the proper balance in this ongoing tension; a presentation of different perspectives that in themselves illustrate this tension was a goal in the selection of contributors to this volume. To set the stage, I should say a bit more about this ongoing tension—the tension between Christianity as the culturally dominant religion in America and a constitutional order that treats all religions alike. Indeed, many of the church–state controversies in the United States really do center on religious pluralism and its accompanying problems.

Colonial Settlements

From the time of the earliest European settlements in the sixteenth century, America’s face has been one of religious diversity. In the South and West, Spanish and French explorations resulted in the spread of the Roman Catholic faith. Along the eastern seaboard, English, German, Dutch, and Swedish settlements in the seventeenth century brought a diversity of Protestants, most of whom sought to escape the religious persecutions they had experienced in the Old World. By 1700, the colonies were dotted with Congregationalists, Separatists, Baptists, Quakers, Calvinists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Moravians, Dunkers, Pietists, Huguenots, and Mennonites. Although Protestants commanded a majority in all of the colonies, Jews and Catholics increasingly made their presence felt, although by the time of Independence, neither represented more than l% of the total colonial population.

Although religious pluralism was rampant in the colonies, peaceful relations among the various religious groups generally was not. Most of the colonists who departed from the Old World to escape religious persecution had no intention, once they arrived in the New World, of tolerating any religion other than their own. They had ventured to America not to experiment, but to practice and preserve already fully developed systems of belief. Consequently, most of the colonies established their own churches and persecuted, to one degree or another, those outside the approved form of worship. Notable exceptions to this pattern were Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, which never had formally established churches. However, in the New England colonies, Puritans persecuted and sometimes banished Quakers, Baptists, and Anglicans, whereas in many of the southern colonies, Anglicans harassed and persecuted Baptists and Puritans. Huguenots were banished from Florida, Jews from New York, and Catholics from almost everywhere but Maryland, where they had been the first settlers.

(p. 6) Thus, although religious pluralism was a social reality in the colonies, it was not always looked upon as something that was desirable. Religious hostilities were everywhere, and peace among the various religious groups was often thought to be impossible. Gradually, however, this perception changed. At first, peaceful coexistence was mandated by various acts of toleration. Maryland’s Act of Toleration of 1649, for example, encouraged friendly relations among the multiplicity of religions by punishing anyone who would profane another by calling that person such horribles as Brownist, Calvinist, Roundhead, Papist, Puritan, Separatist, Presbyterian, heretic, or schismatic. The English Act of Toleration of 1689, widely enforced in the colonies from the time of its passage, forced the colonies to decriminalize various modes of religious behavior and remove civil disabilities against all but Catholics, Unitarians, and atheists. Later in the colonial period, religious pluralism was increasingly tolerated because it was widely recognized that its effects were not uniformly bad. Gradually, many came to believe that all religions produced character and integrity in their adherents, and that these elements contributed to the common good, especially since free and democratic government required a virtuous citizenry for its survival.

It was the movement for independence from the mother country, however, that more than any other single factor made peaceful allies of the ever-increasing multiplicity of religions in America. Despite doctrinal differences, most religious revolutionaries seemed to share three separate but interrelated commitments. First, they believed that the American independence movement was in keeping with eternal principles of nature, liberty, good government, and justice. All human affairs, they believed, are imbedded in the natural order conceived on the pattern of creation and creator. Thus, Thomas Jefferson, a deist, could say that “the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.”1 Second, many American patriots from all religious persuasions believed that God controlled history and that the colonial cause against the British held God’s favor. Oliver Wolcott, a Congregationalist and member of the Continental Congress from Connecticut, held firmly to his belief that the “God who takes care of and Protects Nations, will take care of this People.”2 Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts apparently agreed. In a letter to Samuel Adams, he wrote that “history could hardly produce such a series of events as has taken place in favor of American opposition. The hand of Heaven seems to have directed every occurrence.”3 Third, Americans representing a great variety of faiths shared a commitment to republican government. Greatly simplified, republican government was understood to represent a constellation of political ideas: government by the people, separation of powers, limited government without jurisdiction to interfere with the people’s natural rights, and a dependence upon public virtue. Thomas Paine exclaimed in 1776 that it was only common sense for Americans to become republicans.4 And in the view of John Adams, “There is no good government but what is republican.”5 Republicanism was widely thought to embrace biblical ideals, and was therefore a uniting force among most Americans with religious commitments. These three factors, then, were instrumental in forging new bonds of unity among the nation’s medley of peoples.6

(p. 7) Unity and Nationhood

Some of the nation’s earliest official acts reflected the people’s desire to subdue their differences in the interest of unity. The Declaration of Independence was itself a compromise of sorts, a coming together of 13 autonomous states that had always prized their individual sovereignty. The Declaration also seemed to mask the people’s religious differences, using generic references to the “Creator,” “Nature’s God,” and “Providence” in identifying the One whom they believed backed the colonies’ revolutionary cause. On the same day that it adopted the Declaration, July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin to devise an official seal for the newly formed nation. One of the committee’s recommendations, the motto E Pluribus Unum (“Out of many, one”), became a part of “the Great Seal” as finally adopted on June 20, 1782. Although the motto pointed primarily to the unity of the 13 states, it also was, and remains, a normative description of America as a pluralistic society, not merely religiously, but politically, ethnically, and socially as well.

The spirit of elation that came with victory over the British soon subsided as a host of problems plagued the new nation. The problems centered on the central government’s inadequate taxing power, its inability to formulate binding foreign policy, and its feeble status as a mere creature of the states. A Constitutional Convention was called in 1787 to remedy these problems, and a new Constitution was the result. A matter of special concern for the framers in writing the Constitution was the protection of religious liberty, a concern generated by the diversity of religious opinion that spread across America. The framers virtually assured the continuance of America’s religious pluralism by placing no restrictions on the free exercise of religion and by refraining from giving preferential status to any particular form of religion. Although the Constitution, as drafted and presented to the states in 1787 was silent on these matters, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention unanimously understood the document in this way. The people, however, wanting explicit assurances that these ideals would be realized, made their ratification contingent on the adoption of a constitutional amendment to this effect, which in final form appeared as the first 16 words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The religion clauses rendered the federal government incompetent to make judgments regarding the truth or falseness of any citizen’s religious beliefs. In short, the framers created a secular, or neutral, state, one which was in no way hostile to religion, but which would be required to maintain some distance between it and religious matters. Religious belief was to be a matter of private right. As James Madison wrote, “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man…. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is [to be] abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.”7 Moreover, Article VI of the Constitution (p. 8) made one’s religious faith irrelevant in terms of one’s right to hold federal office. The requirement that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” was not only a profound acknowledgment of the secular character of the American state, it also indirectly encouraged religious pluralism because no person would be legally disqualified from public service on account of one’s religious opinions.

These ringing pronouncements for religious liberty in the federal Constitution mirrored a simultaneous movement for religious liberty in the various states. One by one, the states ended long-held religious establishments in which one or more preferred Protestant denominations were given monetary and other forms of support from the state. When independence from Great Britain was declared in 1776, only four states—Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey—were without religious establishments. By the time the Constitution and Bill of Rights had been ratified, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina had joined the list, and by 1833, the remainder of the original 13 states—Georgia, Maryland, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts—had also ended their establishments. The decision of the last holdout, Massachusetts, to end its Congregational establishment proved wrong the prediction of John Adams that it would be easier to “change the movements of the heavenly bodies as [to] alter the religious laws of Massachusetts.”8 The Constitution’s emphasis on the protection of the free exercise of religion, moreover, was reflected in a growing tendency in the states to decriminalize religious acts. For example, there were removed during the founding period laws in Virginia that provided for whippings for disrespect shown to an Anglican minister; the death penalty for blasphemy, impious reference to the Trinity, or habitual cursing; and the suppression of Quakers as “an unreasonable and turbulent sort of people … teaching and publishing lies, miracles, false visions, prophecies, and doctrines….”9 One by one, the religious tests for holding civil office in the various states likewise vanished. Most of these tests, such as Maryland’s requirement that an officer “profess a belief in the Christian religion,” North Carolina’s exclusion from office any person who denied the “divine authority” of the Bible, or Pennsylvania’s requirement that one “confess a belief in God,” were eliminated during the 50-year period following independence.10

Although it is true that Protestants far outnumbered non-Protestants in the colonial and founding eras, there is good evidence that the new emphasis on freedom of religious belief was intended as more than a tolerance among the Protestant denominations. Even in Connecticut in 1784, in which the Puritan heritage was especially strong and the Congregationalist Church still established by law, Zephaniah Swift, a prominent Connecticut lawyer and politician, acknowledged that “Jews, Mahomedans, and others” enjoyed perfect religious freedom on the ground that they could practice their religion within the state—even if they had to pay for the support of the Christian one.11 Thomas Jefferson clearly sought religious freedom even for nontheists. He wrote, for example, that his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written in 1779, but not enacted until 1786, was “to comprehend within the mantle of its protection the Jew and Gentile, the Christian and (p. 9) Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”12 He later added that he did not care whether his neighbors believed in one or twenty gods, so long as they kept the civil peace.13 On the strength of pronouncements such as these, religious pluralism in the new Republic seemed assured.

The Expansion of Religious Pluralism

Given the legal framework of disestablishment and religious free exercise that was well in place by the 1830s, one might have expected an immediate explosion of religious diversity. This is precisely what occurred. Hundreds, if not thousands, of new religious groups sprang up everywhere. Most failed to distinguish themselves and are now forgotten chapters in American religious history. Others, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Christian Scientists, and the Shakers gathered large followings and found their place in the religious landscape. The new standard of tolerance likewise became an agenda for the rise of Unitarians, transcendentalists, atheists, and philosophical pragmatists such as John Dewey and Horace Kallen. Catholics by the millions, and later Jewish and Eastern Orthodox peoples found their way to American shores. Meanwhile, in the midst of these rapid changes, Protestantism experienced growth patterns unparalleled in American history. Groups that had held the controlling positions in American religious life before independence—Episcopalians and Congregationalists in particular—began to take back seats to groups that previously had been religious minorities. The changes became evident in the Second Great Awakening, which witnessed the rise of the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians as the dominant forces of American Protestantism. So powerful was the Awakening that it allowed Protestants to maintain their de facto establishment in American life, a state of affairs that lasted, according to Robert Handy, until after World War II, when Protestant ideals lost their ability to control America’s political, social, and religious destiny.14

During this period of unprecedented growth in the diversity of American religion, unity, always the goal of E Pluribus Unum, more often than not was cast aside. The nineteenth century is replete with examples of widespread bigotry toward Catholics and Jews as well as the host of newly emerging religious groups. Catholics in particular, whose numbers increased more rapidly than all other immigrants combined, experienced widespread religious discrimination, reinforced in many instances by repressive state laws.15 The Nativists, or “Know Nothing” party, seized control of a number of state legislatures and passed countless laws specifically directed against Catholic immigrants. Mormons were successively run out of New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois before finding a somewhat more peaceful haven in the uninhabited regions of Utah. From their beginning in 1872, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the object of ridicule and persecution for their hostile attitude toward a government they believed was controlled by Satan.

(p. 10) At the beginning of the twentieth century, approximately 35% of the American populous was affiliated with a church or religious group; as the twenty-first century opened, the figure was 65%.16 In 1800 there were fewer than 40 identifiable religious groups in America; there are presently more than 1,500 communities of faith—churches, sects, temples, synagogues—each claiming to possess the truth on religious matters. If the constitutionally mandated framework of religious freedom can make any claim whatsoever, it is that it gave official sanction to a phenomenal growth in religious diversity. Even Benjamin Franklin, who at the Constitutional Convention remarked, “Finally, we’re going to turn religion loose,”17 could never have anticipated the growth of religion in so many directions.

The most remarkable development in the last 25 years has been the arrival of sizable numbers of adherents of Eastern and Middle Eastern religions, especially Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. The number of Muslims in the United States is disputed, but in 2009 the estimates ranged from 1.5 million to more than 7 million. However, even if the lower estimates are accurate, they still represent a sizable increase in Muslim presence in the last few decades.18 More than 100 different Hindu denominations have been planted in America since 1965 and more than 75 forms of Buddhism currently exist; each of these two communities now claims from 3 to 5 million adherents, and their rate of growth continues to be among the highest in the country.19 Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism provide the most complete alternative on the most basic issues to Christianity. Dismissed for many decades as illegitimate in the American context, these groups are now forcing the encounter with non-Asian Americans at every level of society.

During the twentieth century, the New Thought metaphysical churches (Religious Science, Divine Science, and the Unity School of Christianity) became familiar sights on American street corners. Now with numbers in the hundreds of thousands, their influence has permeated the mainstream of American culture through the spread of their literature. Occult religions, among the least understood religious options, are also on the rise. Spiritualism, for example, often thought of as a nineteenth-century fad, has experienced a revival, especially in urban settings. Theosophy, based upon teachings received by Helena Blavatsky by what she claimed were ascended masters of wisdom, has spawned more than 100 organizations and several tens of thousands of members. Astrology and belief in reincarnation also now reach a growing segment of the American public.20

Not to be forgotten in the massive pluralism so evident in American contemporary life is the continuance and revival of Native American religious traditions. Native American themes of oneness with the sacred land, shamanism, and the transformative power of Indian rituals such as peyote ingestion, have caused dramatic increases in the number of Americans returning to ancient Native American practices so long suppressed during the days of American expansionism.

Those who are without religious faith also contribute to America’s diversity. The Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) sponsored by Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, released in 2008, reveals some interesting facts about the rise of unbelief in the United States. The survey suggests that Americans claiming no religious (p. 11) ties have grown more than any other group surveyed. What the survey calls “Nones”—atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists—now comprise 15% of the American public, up from 8.2% in 1990. Vermont is the state with the heaviest concentration of “Nones,” 34% of its residents. The survey reveals that the religious landscape in the United States is changing dramatically in other ways as well. First, American citizens embracing Christianity are now only 76% of the population compared with 86.2% in 1990. Second, an increasing number of Christians identify with no particular denomination; rather than being Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian or Lutheran, many Christians now want to be referred to more generally as “Christian” or “Believer.” Third, the poll concludes what has already been generally stated: non-Christian religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Scientology, Daoism, Spiritualism, and other nontraditional religions have more adherents today than in 1990.21

Despite these interesting alterations to the religious landscape, the Christian community continues to dominate the American scene. Protestants now make up 55.2% of the total population, Catholics represent 28.6%; together they constitute a Christian majority—83.8% of the total U.S. population.22 The number of Jews in America, about 6 million (2.4%), has remained roughly constant over the last 30 years. By all accounts, the spread of new and nontraditional religions in America is certain to influence the nation’s future in a variety of ways. The reactions to these developments take many forms.

Responses to Religious Pluralism

One response to the rising religious pluralism of recent times has been the call for a return to “Christian America.” Threatened by the loss of Christian hegemony and the realization that Christians are a shrinking culture group, there are movements today in America that actively seek to impose a particular theocracy on the rest of the nation. Theocracy, the direct rule of a nation by God through divinely selected spokesmen, has many exemplars in the modern world. Saudi Arabia and Iran are nations with obvious theocratic tendencies. In the United States, the Christian Reconstruction Movement proposes the purest form of theocracy. Reconstructionism, which claims 20 million members but probably is considerably smaller,23 believes that the law given for the political and legal ordering of ancient Israel is intended for all people at all times; therefore, America is duty-bound to install a political system based entirely on biblical law. According to Rousas J. Rushdoony, the society that fails to do this “places itself on death row: it is marked for judgment.”24 The Reconstructionists’ revamped polity would require capital punishment for adulterers, homosexuals, and incorrigible children.25

Installing a theocracy is one method of dealing with the problems associated with religious pluralism. Despite its commitment to bring America back to its senses, such a program fails in its efforts to unify America, however, because, as (p. 12) Robert Booth Fowler has noted, it fails to deal with “the reality of pluralism in the modern United States.”26

Meanwhile, others who have sensed that commonality among America’s citizens is slipping have sought in a less particularistic way to find a set of core values around which all Americans can unite. In the 1960s, a group of social analysts and scholars, among them Sidney E. Mead, Robin Williams, Martin Marty, J. Paul Williams, and Robert Bellah, began a search for a common set of symbols to be transmitted across regions, generations, and peoples in America. The necessity for Benjamin Franklin’s “public religion” came to be expressed in such terms as common faith, the religion of the republic, and the one that became most popular, civil religion. According to Bellah, the new search for a civil religion was caused by a crisis of meaning that produced a deepening cynicism among the American people, “and a good deal of anxiety about the future.”27 Moreover, the search became essential in a day of uncertainty about the nation’s underpinnings, a condition exacerbated by a rapidly expanding religious pluralism. The search for the exact nature of America’s civil religion continues until the present day. However, the reality of an American civil religion, albeit one that is imprecise in its dimensions, can hardly be denied.

The form of civil religion that exists today in the United States seems to embrace ideas from two distinct theological traditions. On the one hand, American civil religion consists of ideas derived from Puritanism such as the covenanted, millennial, and chosen nation. These ideas have been, and remain, inherently religious, and implicitly particularistic and coercive. On the other hand, ideas contributed from the American Enlightenment, such as the Declaration’s affirmation that “all men are created equal,” and are entitled to rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” are clearly more secular, and implicitly universalistic and persuasive in character. Both traditions have usually sought the aid of government for their advancement, which of course has created unique problems for the propagation of the more distinctly religious Puritan ideas because of the Constitution’s church–state separation principle. Nevertheless, as Richard Hughes has rightly observed, most Christian patriots during the course of our nationhood have never perceived any tension between “the god of Puritan particularism and the god of universal liberties.”28 Even Bellah, the foremost scholar on the subject of American civil religion, uncritically fuses the two traditions in his description of that civil religion to which the nation should commit itself.

However, there are dangers in “constructing” any type of civil religion. Martin Marty noted more than 20 years ago that many seemed to be taking too seriously Robin Williams’ assertion that “every functioning society has to an important degree a common religion,” for Marty, an “observation that for many became an injunction: develop one.”29 If a civil religion must be developed, however, it should not intrude on, or offer itself as a substitute for, traditional religions. All religions should retain their autonomy and their freedom to proclaim their own understanding of truth. In short, any American civil religion should respect religious pluralism.

(p. 13) Religious pluralism, contrary to the assumption of many, does not threaten truth; in theory it only expands the possibilities of truth. A political framework that allows for religious pluralism is not committed to relativism, as it might seem. Rather, it is a policy fully open to truth, and entertains even the possibility of a final consensus on truth. What the Constitution does not permit is a governmental regulating and monitoring of the search for religious truth, or siding with any particular version of religious truth. This principle was clearly enunciated by the Supreme Court as early as 1872, in Watson v. Jones, when it declared, “The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect.” Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the case of Lee v. Weisman (1992), insightfully offered the view that civil religion, whatever its merits, is religion nonetheless and therefore as unqualified as any traditional sect or dogma to receive official governmental endorsement.

It should be noted that, although the church–state separation principle prohibits an official governmental endorsement of civil religion, the same principle in no way prevents the development of a cultural civil religion. It is civil religion as a legal institution rather than as a cultural institution that the Constitution prohibits. Bellah is surely correct in saying that “the fact that we have no established religion does not mean that our public life has no religious dimension nor that fundamental questions of our national existence are not civil religious questions.”30 Thus the prospect that a unifying civil religion might develop in America remains intact, although the precise elements of such a common faith remain uncertain.

For the present, the more important goal, and one that should never be disparaged, is building a healthy respect for religious pluralism—and for the related commitments that make it possible, religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Religious pluralism, for all of American history, has never been perceived as a major obstacle to unity. Thus, unity rightly remains a national goal, but it should never be achieved at the expense of limiting the people’s constitutional right to believe in and practice their diverse religious traditions. Religious pluralism is one of America’s best, not worst, traditions. Now and for America’s future, religious pluralism is not something to be condemned, but something to be celebrated.

Unity in the Face of Diversity

Americans will never agree on a common religion; but this is not necessary for constructing a healthy society in which various religious traditions can live together in peace and with mutual respect. What is most necessary is that all faith communities in America have equal access to participation in public discourse. As long as every religious person and group in the nation knows with confidence that they can enter public dialogue, can be players in the making of law and public policy, and can have a real voice in influencing the course and direction of the nation, then unity in the (p. 14) face of diversity is possible. Although many in America are uncomfortable with this right of equal access to the public table, many are not and they accept it as principally the correct way to order American society, as central to religious freedom, and as a positive means to build mutual respect among the various religious traditions.

This framework of equal participation by all citizens and groups, religious and nonreligious alike, is central to the American political tradition. In theory and practice, religious arguments are as welcome and as potentially effective as any secular arguments that might be presented toward formulating public policy. This framework of equal respect accorded to all religious traditions in the public square is central to the very meaning of the separation of church and state. There are multiple dimensions to the separation of church and state, of course, and most of those dimensions are addressed in this volume. However, the separation of church and state in America has never been understood to exclude religious persons or groups from participating in public debate. This nondiscriminatory right to make genuine contributions toward the public weal, to have a bona fide voice in formulating policies that will affect all Americans, is a valuable tradition that forms a solid foundation for unity, respect, and tolerance among Americans in the face of their great diversity.


The American experiment in separating of church and state is, to say the least, highly controversial. The fundamental drive to merge church and state, to ground political life in the “other,” a tendency feverishly characteristic of all societies throughout human history, continues to energize a large segment of the American population. Mostly conservative Christians, this segment of America has increasingly become a major political force in America since the 1970s. Often labeled the Christian Right, this sector of the U.S. citizenry frequently chafes at court rulings that restrict prayer in the public schools, limit public financial aid to religious institutions, permit abortions, allow homosexual couples to cohabit or marry, curb the display of religious symbols on public property, or otherwise challenge Christian hegemony in American culture. The Christian Right seeks merely to “unify” Americans around a common set of Christian beliefs and practices, but more liberal elements of the American population frequently criticize them for behavior that sometimes fails to respect and protect diversity. These more liberal critics also seek unity among American citizens, but they seek it under a different banner, under a different set of core beliefs that respects diversity of religious belief.

The “culture war,” as it is sometimes called, is always at work, resulting in heated rhetoric and sometimes violent behavior. It is intense enough to draw as participants not just common citizens, but societal elites, including politicians, judges, and academicians. My own contention is that the culture war is fueled not (p. 15) simply by politicians and judges who pander to the Christian Right for political reasons, but by politicians and judges who fundamentally agree with many of the views of the Christian Right. They too feel the tensions created by competing world views, and thus find themselves contributing, however unwittingly, to the culture war by their legislative agenda or court rulings. It is not uncommon, for example, for judges, lawyers, and legal scholars to comment on the state of disarray in which U.S. Supreme Court decisions on church–state issues find themselves. This is mostly an accurate assessment, for almost anyone, save experts in the field, is certain to be frustrated when trying to discover logic and consistency in the Court’s church–state decisions. The Court was very separationist in its rulings until the 1980s, when the Court began to make a more conservative turn after several conservative justices were appointed by Republican presidents. Church–state cases are now hotly contested and usually confusing in their outcomes to many American citizens. But however one analyzes the appointments to the Court, the anomalies, inconsistencies, and sometimes confusing rulings of the Court are mostly a reflection of disagreements among the justices generally about how religion, state, and law should interact, and specifically the extent to which Christian values and traditions should be legally protected.

This volume, in the final analysis, is a description of the many controversies pertaining to religion that make unity in American life seemingly impossible or at least improbable, but simultaneously, because of a Constitution that mandates equal respect for all religious traditions, eminently possible. Indeed, the contributors to this volume fall into different camps about how to resolve these controversies. However, vigorous debate is healthy. Controversy in any society is good, provided the discourse it engenders remains civil and free of violence. Democracy in America does not always succeed because agreement is reached on all points of controversy, but rather because peaceful disagreement, understood as essential to the system, is somehow usually achieved. A vibrant democracy never permanently enthrones a particular viewpoint; those who disagree remain hopeful that their ability to participate equally in pubic discourse might make them able to eventually champion a new perspective, a new law, a new policy. This is the beauty of a healthy democracy. It keeps citizens engaged, vigorously advocating change according to their own perspectives, believing that they can make a difference for good in their nation and in the world. If controversy over the merits of the separation of church and state helps fuel democracy, as I believe it does, then separation of church and state is a positive force in society.



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(1.) Thomas Jefferson, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” 1 August 1774, in American Archives, ed. Peter Force (Washington, DC: n.p., 1837-1846), 1: 690.

(2.) Oliver Wolcott to Laura Wolcott, 2 May 1778, in Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789, ed. Paul H. Smith (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1979), 9: 568.

(3.) Elbridge Gerry to Samuel Adams, 13 December 1775, quoted in Benjamin F. Morris, Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States (Philadelphia: George W. Childs, 1864), 119.

(4.) Thomas Paine, “Common Sense,” in Common Sense and the Crisis (New York: Anchor Books, 1973), 21.

(5.) John Adams to J.H. Tiffany, 30 April 1819, in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, ed. Charles F. Adams (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1856), 10: 378.

(6.) For an expansion on these three themes, see Derek H. Davis, Religion and the Continental Congress, 17741789: Contributions to Original Intent (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000), 57–64.

(7.) James Madison, “A Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” 1785.

(8.) John Adams (1774), in Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L.H. Butterfield (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 2: 152.

(9.) William W. Hening, Statutes at Large (Richmond, VA: n.p., 1810–1823), 1: 532.

(10.) Carl F.G. Zollman, American Church Law (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1933), 5–7; William Addison Blakely, American State Papers on Freedom of Religion, 3rd rev. ed. (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1943), 395.

(11.) Thomas J. Curry, The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 184.

(12.) William Addison Blakely, American State Papers on Sunday Legislation, rev. ed. (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1911), 133, n.1.

(13.) Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: n.p., 1892–1899), 1: 30.

(14.) Robert T. Handy, A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

(15.) William Warren Sweet, The Story of Religion in America, enlarged ed. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), 334–335.

(16.) Ibid., 205–222.

(17.) Verner W. Crane, Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1954), 200.

(18.) In a speech in Cairo, Egypt on June 4, 2009, President Obama referenced the “nearly 7 million American Muslims in our country today.” A 2007 Pew Research Center study estimated the American Muslim population to be 2.35 million. See “Political Punch,”

(19.) Gordon Melton, ed., The Encyclopedia of American Religions, 3rd ed. (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, Inc., 1989), 174–176.

(20.) Ibid., 20.

(21.) Derek H. Davis, “Survey’s Implications for Education,” May 28, 2009,

(22.) Derek H. Davis, “Christian Faith and Political Involvement in Today’s Culture War,” Journal of Church and State 38 (Summer 1996): 477.

(23.) Anson Shupe, “The Reconstructionist Movement on the New Christian Right,” Christian Century, 4 October 1989, 881.

(24.) Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1984), 4.

(25.) David A. Rausch and Douglas E. Chismar, “The New Puritans and Their Theonomic Paradise,” Christian Century, 3 August 1983, 713.

(26.) Rob Boston, “The Christian Nation Debate,” Church and State 46 (January 1993): 10.

(27.) Robert N. Bellah, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), preface.

(28.) Richard T. Hughes, “Civil Religion, the Theology of the Republic, and the Free Church Tradition,” Journal of Church and State 22 (Winter 1980): 77–78.

(29.) Martin Marty, “A Nation of Behavers,” Worldview 17 (May 1974): 11.

(30.) Bellah, The Broken Covenant, 169.