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Alan Wolfe


Why Separation of Church and State Is Still a Good Idea

even if it may not be what the Founders had in mind

In 1947, the U. S. Supreme Court decided the case of Everson v. Board of Education and thereby officially enshrined into American constitutional law the principle of separation of church and state. New Jersey had passed a law providing state-subsidized busing to all students, those who attended parochial schools as well as those who attended public ones. In his opinion for the majority, Justice Black invoked the metaphor of a "wall" of separation (used once or twice in earlier Court decisions) that Thomas Jefferson had coined in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, written in 1802. All of our contemporary debates over separation—whether they involve crèches in public places or the recent effort by the Ninth Circuit Court to remove the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance—trace themselves back to Everson.

Immediately after the Everson decision, The Washington Post editorialized that "the principle at issue is one of the most fundamental in the American concept of government—the separation of church and state." Philip Hamburger's book is dedicated to proving that just about every word in that editorial's sentence is incorrect.

Far from having roots in the American past, almost none of our early writers and politicians, Hamburger shows, accepted the notion of separation of church and state. When the term was used at all, it meant simply that politics and religion were different kinds of activities, not that the one should be kept entirely out of the other. Early theorists generally held that a good society required religion and its attendant morality, so that, when they used the term separation of church and state, they were not defending an ideal but launching an attack on those who denied such a self-evident truth. Nor did dissenting religions dissent from this consensus, for even if they believed in the principle, which not all of them did, they generally kept silent about it, given how unpopular the principle was.

To illustrate these points, Hamburger goes right ...

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