BOOKS | Probing the original meaning of the First Amendment
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One of the most misunderstood civics issues in our time is the relationship between church and state (and, more broadly, between religion and politics). In the popular imagination, the First Amendment creates a vacuum seal–like lock, keeping the absurdities of private “beliefs” from tainting the rational operation of government. In this rendering, “government” is a dispassionate organization of perfectly objective individuals. The First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses have been so twisted and distorted that the popular imagination cannot fathom their original purpose.
This is why Nathan S. Chapman and Michael W. McConnell’s Agreeing To Disagree (Oxford University Press 2023) is such a welcome book, for it corrects so much of the progressive tut-tutting around religion and politics. But neither does their argument bolster Christian nationalism. The authors argue that the original purpose of the establishment and free exercise clauses was not to create an impregnable wall between church and state wherein the government can have no interaction with religion. It was instead to limit the ability of the government to forge formal relations with religious bodies and to allow individuals of minority religions to live freely.
“The Establishment Clause was not intended to secularize society any more than it was to Christianize it,” they write. “Its purpose was to prevent the government from using its power to mold the society into any particular religious shape; it was to leave the degree and nature of religious practice to the free choice of the people, as nearly as is possible.” The goal was to make way for an organic religious republicanism whose freedom to operate without the watchful gaze of government would help it thrive.
This means that an organization like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which adopts a strict separationist approach to government, actually opposes the original purpose of the First Amendment. Organizations like my former employer, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, which advocates an accommodationist approach to church-state issues, are far more in line with the First Amendment’s original intention.
Agreeing To Disagree is divided into two sections. The first section traces the meaning of establishment and free exercise at the beginning of America. It looks at the process of how those clauses were applied throughout the various states, each unique in its own way. The second part of the book explores modern-day questions related to gray areas around church and state, questions such as the development and abandonment of the Lemon Test, the role of religious accommodation with generally applicable laws, the role of neutrality in questions of government funding, and the place of religious symbols in American political life.
The authors shed light on the erratic back-and-forth of church-state jurisprudence and how the Supreme Court in the middle 20th century adopted a jurisprudence more resonant with Voltaire’s atheism than with John Jay’s Christian republicanism. In Chapman and McConnell’s telling, the originalist majority of today’s Supreme Court is doing a one-eighty in putting church-state jurisprudence on firmer historical grounds.
Though I would not have chosen the title they went with for the book (there is not much about pluralism, per se), the book helps us understand different controversies around church and state with different facts and contexts. As the authors show, it’s hard for there to be a seamless application of the establishment and free exercise clauses apart from the unique circumstances of each controversy.
The principles of the First Amendment are timeless, yet applying those principles requires careful rulings that one-size-fits-all approaches cannot typically deliver.
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