Religion Exhibit Raises Holy Fuss: Separation Wall's Chink Defended

Article excerpt

Librarian of Congress James Billington has defended the neutrality of an exhibit on early American religion that interest groups say is having a partisan impact on public opinion.

Mr. Billington is telling critics that the exhibit's curator, James Hutson, had given a fair interpretation and not library dogma when he said Thomas Jefferson was motivated by politics to declare that a "wall of separation" stood between church and state.

"I do not believe that either Dr. Hutson or other library staff have been presenting or would present interpretations as `settled fact,' " he wrote to historian Robert Alley of the University of Virginia and a critic of the exhibit.

"The Library of Congress is not, nor has it ever aspired to be, the equivalent of a High Court of American scholarship, promulgating definitive judgments on controversial matters," he wrote in a letter dated Aug. 19.

While Mr. Alley and 23 other professors rebuked Mr. Hutson's scholarship on Jefferson, the protest also targets religious conservatives who are publicizing that Jefferson's "wall of separation" is no obstacle to religion in civic life.

The debate over Jefferson may be drawn out for another two years. The collection of historical items goes on the road in February for showings around the country until early 2001.

The exhibit, "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic," ends in Washington on Saturday.

Library spokeswoman Helen Dalrymple said 25,000 visitors have toured the display. "Most of the exhibit will travel," she said of the nearly 200 texts, documents and prints covering 1620 to 1830.

When the exhibit opened June 4, Mr. Hutson wrote a separate paper arguing that Jefferson penned his famous "wall of separation" letter to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut as a calculated political move to please supporters and silence critics.

Scholars such as Mr. Alley hold that Jefferson's letter reflected a pure philosophical position of the Founding Fathers to strictly separate religion from public domains. …