God and Politics in a Time of Cholera

Historian Adam Jortner tells Brian about the election of 1832 and one of the first religious “wedge issues” – as presidential aspirants sparred over whether the government should intervene in a cholera epidemic…with prayer.

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BRIAN: But first, let’s go back to the beginning. What do the founders actually mean with this business about separation between church and state? On cable TV, it all depends on who you ask. Take this recent exchange on CNN between former Senator Rick Santorum and former Governor Howard Dean.

RICK SANTORUM: I don’t think that’s what the First Amendment stands for. And I don’t–

HOWARD DEAN: The First Amendment says Congress shall establish no law regarding the establishment of a religion.

RICK SANTORUM: Or the free exercise thereof.

HOWARD DEAN: That’s pretty clear. Your employer doesn’t get to tell you–

RICK SANTORUM: Or the free exercise thereof. You didn’t finish the First Amendment.

PETER: Part of the confusion comes from the fact that the First Amendment’s reference to religion has two parts. There’s the free exercise clause. That’s the part that says Congress can’t prohibit people from practicing their religions. This is the part conservatives tend to focus on.

For liberals on the other hand, the Establishment Clause raises the hot button issues. That’s the part that prohibits an establishment of religion by the government.

DAVID SEHAT: Liberals believe that that, in fact, separated church and state. And so the genius of the First Amendment and the American arrangement is that church and state was separate. Religion flourished in the United States. And we had religious peace.

BRIAN: That’s historian David Sehat, author of The Myth of American Religious Freedom. He says that both sides of the political spectrum tell stories about the separation of church and state that, you know, just are not quite right. We’ll get to the conservatives in a little bit. But first, let’s explore the liberal take on church and state. Sehat says there’s one big problem with the idea that the First Amendment sets up a hard separation.

DAVID SEHAT: A lot of people don’t realize that the Bill of Rights didn’t apply to the states. If you read in, in fact, the First Amendment, it says very clearly Congress shall not make a law. It’s a prohibition against Congress but not states. And so when the First Amendment was passed, there was six states that paid institutional churches. That is they paid churches out of the public treasury.

But beyond that there were lots of laws the protected religion in various ways. There were blasphemy laws. So you couldn’t blaspheme Jesus Christ or God in general. There were Sabbath laws protecting what you could do and not do on Sunday. And so in many ways, both subtle and not subtle, states favored Christianity and often Protestant Christianity in particular.

ED: And Sehat says this leads us to a key text that many liberals misunderstand– Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists. In the early 1800s, Connecticut was one of the states that had an established religion– congregationalism. Baptists in the town of Danbury were persecuted because, although Christian, they weren’t congregationalists.

BRIAN: In 1802, President Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists to say he hoped that someday Connecticut would stop persecuting them. He said there ought to be a wall of separation between church and state. But Jefferson couldn’t actually do anything for the Danbury Baptists, because the Bill of Rights didn’t apply to the states. So Connecticut’s laws weren’t unconstitutional.

PETER: Connecticut did actually separate its government from the Congregational Church in 1818. But the Supreme Court did not apply the Establishment Clause to the states until 1947. And when they did, the court first invoked Jefferson’s wall of separation.

DAVID SEHAT: What that meant was prior to 1947 if, let’s say, Connecticut decided, we made a mistake back in the early 19th century. We actually should be paying churches. They could have done so theoretically. But in 1947, the court said, actually no, you really can’t do that, because the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause applies to the states. And they used that phrase, the wall of separation, to explain what the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment meant.

PETER: And David, you’d be inclined to say with many conservative commentators that that’s bad law. That is, of course, distorting history.

DAVID SEHAT: Yeah. I don’t know that I would call it bad law, because the court actually gave a sort of narrative that claimed that church and state had been separate the entire time up until that point. And they were just clarifying. And I would call it bad history in support of a defensible law.

PETER: Yeah. We don’t care about law. History is what matters to us on this show. So let’s pivot to the conservatives. What do they claim about the historic original relationship between church and state in America?

DAVID SEHAT: Conservatives look back at the past. And they see all these connections between church and state, the ways in which Christianity or Protestant Christianity were protected. And they say that that was put in place for a reason, that that’s how the founders, in particular, wanted to support religion, that they did, in fact, create the First Amendment to allow for the public support of religion. And so conservatives claim that this is part of the genius of the American arrangement that the First Amendment allowed the freedom of religion that liberals really are trying to overturn by a kind of aggressive secularism.

PETER: OK. So David, what’s the downside with this conservative position?

DAVID SEHAT: Well, I think conservatives, when they look back at the past, it’s too often tinged with nostalgia. And they don’t acknowledge the real coercion inherent in many of the arrangements of the past. If you say to somebody, you can’t blaspheme God, what you’re really saying is, you need to keep your religious beliefs, even if that includes the disbelief in God. You have to really keep that to yourself, because any kind of expression or disbelief could, in some cases, be interpreted as blasphemy. And if you take and you spread that over and look at all the different laws and ways in which states supported or protected Christianity, you begin to see a kind of coercive society that I think even many conservatives if they really confronted would pull back from.

PETER: And where does that leave us? So let’s say that every judge in America read your book and came away with the wisdom that that book imparts. Where would we be then?

DAVID SEHAT: I think that we would realize that there are not the easy answers in the past that many judges seem to imply in their opinions, because the meaning of the First Amendment in the past was contested. And the place of religion in the United States has long been problematic. And it seems today that we’re just in the latest chapter. And so it does seem like, at least in contemporary political debate, so often when people start talking about the past, what they’re really doing is projecting their desired vision for the future somehow back on the past. And that’s a complicated maneuver, because the past is often very different than we might imagine it.

PETER: David Sehat is a historian at Georgia State University and the author of The Myth of American Religious Freedom.

ED: It’s time for a quick break. When we return, an election year wedge issue in 1832. Should the government ask the nation to pray to God to stop a plague?

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.