Abstract Views of
Church -- State Relations
It has often been noted that the U.S. Constitution is not a document containing detailed policies but is rather a general framework within which American politics is conducted. The Constitution contains the rules under which political conflict is managed and the most general values underlying the practice of political competition. As we noted in chapter 1, the brief, spare language of the religion clauses of the First Amendment has occasioned the contemporary controversy over the meaning of religious establishment and free exercise of religion.
When the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court evaluate the types of issues discussed in chapter 1, they generally use abstract general principles to justify their votes. Many political activists and scholars who take positions on concrete issues of religious establishment or expression attempt to link these positions to some underlying philosophic position. A substantial amount of discourse among scholars and among political and religious elites concerns these abstract principles of church-state issues.
Although political elites may reason from abstract principles to concrete applications (or at least attempt to justify their positions with reference to these principles), it is not clear how many Americans have ever considered the abstract questions of religious establishment. More than three decades ago, Philip Converse( 1964) wrote that few Americans understood abstract political terms such as "liberal" and "conservative" and that the public was largely incapable of reasoning from abstract principles to concrete positions.
Converse's classic study used data from surveys conducted nearly