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Harry S. Stout

Don't Ask the Founders

Religion and the New Republic: Faith in the Founding of America

Religion and the New Republic: Faith in the Founding of America, edited by James H. Hutson, Rowman and Littlefield, 213 pp.; $22.95, paper

This volume of essays, growing from a June 1998 conference at the Library of Congress, addresses the relation of government to religion in the Founding period. The timing of its publication could not be better. With presidential candidates tripping over themselves to claim a religious faith—and, by extension, a religious American republic—the question of church and state has assumed a visibility, and vitriol, not seen since the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy.

What did the Founders of the American Republic intend when they drafted Constitutional amendments separating church and state and guaranteeing freedom of religion for all? In fact, the Founders differed profoundly over the meaning of separation of church and state, and have not turned out to be very good role models for their twenty-first century descendants. Despite their great wisdom in conceiving a new republic and designing its constitution, their clashing interpretations and personal behavior can only be described as deplorable.

Differences over religion in the public sphere helped anchor larger partisan debates pitting Jeffersonian "Republicans" against Adamsonian "Federalists" in an almost life-and-death struggle for hegemony. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, pushed through by an angry John Adams in an effort to arrest "disloyal" Republicans as seditious traitors, was merely the most conspicuous act of a very dirty war in which neither side would recognize the legitimacy of the other. Only at the end of their lives could Adams and Jefferson begin to apologize to one another for the folly of their ways.

Two centuries later, thanks in part to the Founders, the issues remain equally divisive. Major Supreme Court decisions, together with a vastly more empowered federal government, have prompted rancor and debate over church and state on a level not seen since ...

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