Christian Nation? The United States in Popular Perception and Historical Reality

By T. Adams Upchurch | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
The American “Magna Carta”
Congress Shall Make No Law … So Neither
Should the Supreme Court

DIVISION OF LABOR

One aspect of the American way that “has often been rated as our most distinctive contribution to modern statecraft” is separation of church and state. “The churches have thrived on it, and the government has flourished under it. Freedom of thought and freedom of faith have progressed under it.”1 Many observers believe that, of all the good examples that the United States has set for the rest of the world to follow, its separation of church and state is the greatest.2 The jury of public opinion in Western civilization deliberated upon that issue for many years, however, before accepting separationism. As late as the 1830s, some foreign visitors to the United States, such as English writer Frances Trollope, were still convinced that lack of an established church created “unseemly vagaries” in the American conception of morality. Churches of various denominations and strange doctrines sprang up on “individual whim” and carried off thousands of Americans into the gray area of moral uncertainty. Trollope believed an established church could act “as a sort of headquarters for quiet unpresuming Christians, who are contented to serve faithfully, without insisting upon having each a little separate banner, embroidered with a device of their own imagining.”3 Likewise, the Catholic Church still stood adamantly opposed to separationism even in the 1860s, as Pope Pius IX published his “Syllabus of Errors,” in which he called separation of church and state one of the most egregious “errors” in modern history.4 Yet

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