The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America

The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America

The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America

The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America

Synopsis

Debates over the proper relationship between church and state in America tend to focus either on the founding period or the twentieth century. Left undiscussed is the long period between the ratification of the Constitution and the 1947 Supreme Court ruling in Everson v. Board of Education,which mandated that the Establishment Clause applied to state and local governments.

Steven Green illuminates this neglected period, arguing that during the 19th century there was a "second disestablishment." By the early 1800s, formal political disestablishment was the rule at the national level, and almost universal among the states. Yet the United States remained a Christian nation, and Protestant beliefs and values dominated American culture and institutions. Evangelical Protestantism rose to cultural dominance through moral reform societies and behavioral laws that were undergirded by a maxim that Christianity formed part of the law. Simultaneously, law became secularized, religious pluralism increased, and the Protestant-oriented public education system was transformed. This latter impulse set the stage for the constitutional disestablishment of the twentieth century.

The Second Disestablishmentexamines competing ideologies: of evangelical Protestants who sought to create a "Christian nation," and of those who advocated broader notions of separation of church and state. Green shows that the second disestablishment is the missing link between the Establishment Clause and the modern Supreme Court's church-state decisions.

Excerpt

During the 1800 presidential election, a group of conservative New England clergy, distressed at the prospect of Thomas Jefferson being elected president, produced a series of pamphlets attacking the vice president’s heretical religious beliefs. Relying on rumor, suspicion, and excerpts from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (among other writings), the clergy accused Jefferson of being a “confirmed infidel” and a “howling atheist.” Although the Federalist-leaning clergy were motivated largely by political considerations, the divines genuinely feared that Jefferson’s election would bring down God’s wrath upon the new nation. a “crisis of no common magnitude [would] await … our country,” the Reverend John Mason wrote, through such “national regard or disregard to the religion of Jesus Christ” by Jefferson’s election. “If there be no God, there is no law,” echoed the Reverend William Linn, another Jefferson critic. “[G]overnment then is the ordinance of man only, and we cannot be subject for conscience[‘s] sake.” Jefferson’s deistic beliefs made him an easy target for his Calvinist critics. But his nonconforming theology represented only the surface of the ministers’ complaints; more troubling for the clergy, Jefferson epitomized the nation’s embrace of Enlightenment rationalism, which they believed had brought about a diminished role for religion in public life. Religious conservatives feared that rationalist principles were becoming integrated into the culture and government at the expense of evangelical Christianity.

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