Retelling Church-State History in America

AHA Session 159
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Scottsdale Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
James P. McCartin, Seton Hall University
Sarah B. Gordon, University of Pennsylvania

Session Abstract

The classic liberal narrative of American church-state relations portrays strict separation as the primordial condition of American life, firmly embedded in the First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses and defended ever since from myriad threats in a series of iconic struggles for religious freedom. This progressive narrative has recently come under attack, most notably by Philip Hamburger, whose 2002 book The Separation of Church and State portrayed church-state separation as a “myth” that persists in the American political imagination due to a deep-seated anti-Catholicism among Protestants and other non-Catholic Americans. The participants in this panel will offer new historical perspectives on American church-state relations that depart in important ways from both the classic liberal narrative and recent reactions to it. Linda Przybyszewski’s paper will point out that liberal church-state theory was far from hegemonic in Alexis de Tocqueville’s antebellum America and faced serious rivalry from three religiously-based theories, in particular a Catholic American theory that supported disestablishment during those years. Moving into the twentieth century, Healan Gaston’s paper will examine the development of the now-familiar “accommodationist” position, which holds that the First Amendment does not prohibit government aid to religion so long as such aid is provided to all religions equally. She will trace the emergence of this claim in the writings of legal scholars and public intellectuals during the 1940s and 1950s. Finally, Kathleen Holscher’s paper will consider the fate of such church-state arguments in the 1960s, when anxieties about church-state separation helped to galvanize the rise of the Christian Right by fueling unprecedented forms of cooperation between conservative Protestants and Catholics. Above all else, this panel will highlight how discrete historical contexts have shaped the ways in which religious believers view American church-state relations. As the papers will suggest, the fact that some groups have taken diametrically opposed positions on that question from one century to the next complicates both the classic liberal narrative and Hamburger’s revision. Sarah Barringer Gordon, a well-known expert on issues of religion and law in American history whose books and articles span the period under consideration in these papers, will add valuable perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the going paradigms and the relative merits of the new approaches developed by the presenters. In the question-and-answer session, the panel will invite the audience to reflect on how scholars can move forward in this highly charged, yet profoundly important, area of historical investigation. What interpretive resources do we have for either reconciling the dispute, bridging the chasm, or simply choosing between the existing paradigms?

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