One Nation under Law: America's Early National Struggles to Separate Church and State

By Bradley, Richard | South Carolina Historical Magazine, January 2006 | Go to article overview

One Nation under Law: America's Early National Struggles to Separate Church and State


Bradley, Richard, South Carolina Historical Magazine


One Nation under Law: America's Early National Struggles to Separate Church and State. By Mark Douglas McGarvie. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004. Pp. xi, 256; $38, cloth.)

Evangelist Pat Robertson once stated that "there is no separation of church and state in the Constitution. It's a lie of the liberal left." Anyone who cringes at that statement would do well to read this excellent monograph. McGarvie has produced a well-documented and subtly informed descriptive analysis of the movement to separate church from state in antebellum America.

As Philip Hamburger has shown in Separation of Church and State (2002), the First Amendment establishment clause, rather than separating church and state, was initially intended as a protection of Christian religious liberty. Hamburger, however, goes so far as to argue that the authors of the Constitution never intended any separation of church and state-and there is good evidence to support this opinion. Before the Revolution, eleven of the thirteen colonies had established churches, supported by local taxes. They provided many vital public services, including public-record keeping and poor relief. This situation did not immediately change after the drafting of the Constitution in 1787.

But while accepting the generally uncontroversial interpretation of the First Amendment, McGarvie directly contradicts Hamburger's broader claim. While admitting that separation of church and state was neither effected nor intended by the First Amendment, he argues that the contract clause of the Constitution, by delineating a rigid separation between public and private institutions, laid the ground work for the Enlightenment project of disestablishing church from state in early America. Or, as the author puts it, "The constitution did not separate church and state, but it did endorse a conception of society that made separation inevitable" (p. 13). That is, the protection of private institutions from public control established by the contract clause would inexorably force the churches of the infant United States into the private sphere.

An important and relatively unknown story is how these churches were disestablished and changed into private organizations throughout the early national period. Another signal contribution of McGarvie's work is to discredit the widely disseminated idea that disestablishment was a simple and perfunctory process. …

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