Understanding the religious life of early America is an important business, and not just for scholars. That is because all sides in today’s religious and constitutional arguments appeal to the past when they lay out their ideas for how things should work in the 21st century.
Conservatives generally want churches and church-affiliated organisations to enjoy wide sovereignty; they cite the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of faith, and also its bar on the establishment of any religion, the so-called “non-establishment” clause. At least since the 20th century, non-establishment has often been taken to mean that the government and judiciary should avoid delving much into the internal affairs of a church, because to take any position could imply state backing for one religious line. Liberals, meanwhile, tend to have an idealised image of the absolute separation of church and state, as laid down by the founding fathers; they use that picture as an argument for keeping religious ideas and taboos out of policymaking. For both camps, Thomas Jefferson’s statement of belief in a “wall of separation” between church and state is another important text. Liberals see the wall as protecting politics from religion, while conservatives see it more as protecting religion and its followers from political interference.
But what if both camps are wrong, because in the young American republic, state and religion were never fully separated? Sarah Barringer Gordon, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says 20 years of research have convinced her that during the early decades of American life, state authorities interfered heavily in the affairs of churches and in doing so, helped to remould the American religious scene. The story she tells is nuanced and intriguing.