Separation of Church and State

Separation of Church and State

Separation of Church and State

Separation of Church and State


Examining an issue that has been a matter of controversy since the founding of the United States, "Separation of Church and State" offers a chronological survey that helps put the ongoing debate in broad historical context.

The book briefly traces the earliest instances of tension between church and state within the Western tradition, from the era of Constantine to the Reformation, before moving on to the American experience. Attention is paid to the colonial debates about the ideal relationship between faith and politics, the 18th-century trends that culminated in a constitutional settlement, and the experiences of various religious groups during the early republic and 19th century. Finally, the book focuses on the post-1940 era, during which church-state controversies came before the Supreme Court. In the course of the discussion, readers will learn about complex legal and theological issues and debates between the great and powerful, but also about ordinary Americans whose religious scruples led to some of the most important legal cases in U.S. history.


Few issues in American history have generated quite so much controversy as the relationship between Church and State. For four hundred years, from the earliest colonial days to the Supreme Court decisions of the 20th and early 21st centuries, quarrels about the interaction between the secular and religious realms have raged. They show little sign of abating. This centuries-long process has sometimes provided clarification, but as often as not, it has muddied the waters. The fact that the United States still seems unable to reach definitive conclusions about the Church–State conundrum just goes to show how contentious that issue is and always has been.

This book provides a whistle-stop tour through America’s encounter with this most puzzling of topics. It is aimed at the general reader, and so, for the most part, it revisits well-trodden historical terrain—the most famous incidents and personalities in this long and winding story. It also adopts the broadest possible historical perspective. In recent times there has sometimes been a tendency, on both sides of a furious debate, to glibly recruit ideas and individuals from bygone eras in order to shore up current-day arguments. This is a regrettable, often misleading, and from the historian’s point of view, rather disreputable tendency. We should always remember that our conception of Church–State relations is very much the product of its time.

Avoiding anachronism or unnecessary generalization is therefore vitally important. Americans of the 17th century, for instance, would simply not have framed their arguments as we do today. Latter-day, philosophically motivated defenses of religious freedom and pluralism, or of a sharp distinction between sacred and profane concerns, did not enjoy wide cultural currency . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.