THE UNITED STATES has continually negotiated and renegotiated the meaning of freedom of religion under the First Amendment ever since Congress approved it in 1789. The language is clear: the government cannot infringe on citizens’ religious exercise or provide support for one religion over another. But the details remain murky. Precisely how much religious involvement in public affairs is “too much” defies easy answer.
In 1956, Joseph M. Dawson, the leader of what was then the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and a founding member of what became Americans United for Separation of Church and State, published a little-known book, Baptists and the American Republic, which framed the First Amendment as a bothersome prohibition against the church’s natural involvement in politics. The Fundamentalist-Modernist dispute among Protestants, which culminated in the 1925 Scopes Trial over evolution, had caused many churchgoers to drift away from politics. But Dawson argued that to do so was to ignore the Baptist legacy of productive citizenship and that the principle of church-state separation should not be seen as a prohibition against trying to influence government.
He certainly sensationalized the role of Baptist players over the complexities of the actual history, but recent scholarship suggests that apolitical evangelicals never truly existed. In his latest volume, Solemn Reverence: The Separation of Church and State in American Life, religious historian Randall Balmer positions himself in a role opposite Dawson’s.
In 2021, Americans are faced with some of the same questions that they faced in 1956 about the role of religion in public life. Where Dawson encouraged Baptists to become more engaged in politics, Balmer pumps the brakes, reminding the reader of the importance of the wall that separates religion from the feral wilderness of the state. The more frequent deployment of religious rhetoric in our political discourse is perhaps only matched by the shallowness of many of these appeals to Americans’ closely held beliefs. The Trump campaign’s assertion that Joe Biden would “hurt God” if he were elected president is only one example of these Cotton Mather–style blasts. “Christian Nationalists” represent a more serious threat than laughable rhetoric, some of whom led a prayer from the United States Senate dais asking God’s blessing on their trespassing and violence.
Balmer avers that such follies may be partly counteracted by returning to a strict separationist view. Solemn Reverence provides an evidence-based rebuttal to what he identifies as the “foil” for his book: “[T]hose voices breezily claiming that the United States is, and always has been, a Christian nation.” The title accurately reflects Balmer’s feelings about the importance of the official agnosticism afforded by the First Amendment, which is “part of the genius of American life.”
Solemn Reverence is not a textbook or a dense historical tome, but a story told through a collection of vignettes. Each chapter concisely recounts a defining moment in the history of American religious freedom, with such foci as Roger Williams and the founding of Providence; the history behind the Blaine Amendments that took aim at Catholic schools; JFK’s supposed “allegiance to Rome”; and the ongoing debates over prayer in schools. The longest chapters are only eight pages; most are shorter. Each chapter may stand on its own, and one could easily skim the book, choosing two or three chapters at random without feeling as though they missed important information. In Solemn Reverence, Balmer puts his skill as a historian on display as he makes well-resourced arguments, but he also excels here as a storyteller.
Balmer hammers one idea home with the force of a fist on a pulpit: the United States was not founded as a Christian nation. One such effective example comes from the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, which ended the overseas conflict with Barbary pirates. Article 11 declares that “the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” and has no inherent quarrel with Muslims or Muslim nations on that account. Would we have remembered that better.
While telling a compelling tale, Balmer falls short in telling a narrow tale. The simplicity and concision of Solemn Reverence belie the complex realities of religious freedom in the United States. The First Amendment has also been used as a cudgel to harm religious minorities and groups that may not fall so neatly into dominant definitions of what constitutes “religion.” Balmer does allude to this, acknowledging that “some of the characters who have contributed bricks to the wall of separation have been less than savory or their motives less than pure.” He notes, for example, that the Religious Right has used claims of religious freedom to preserve segregation at institutions such as Bob Jones University. A Christian-dominated view of religious culture has often left many on the outside looking in. For another example, the San Carlos Apache Nation has found little sympathy for its religious freedom in its ongoing fight to prevent the opening of a copper mine at the sacred site of Oak Flat in Arizona.
Beyond the harms that the First Amendment has failed to prevent, Solemn Reverence also elides the true breadth of its successes. Balmer notes Jefferson’s desire to foster a “marketplace” in which a diverse array of religions could be in “competition.” Yet, of the book’s 15 chapters, the only diversity in focus beyond Protestants and Catholics is Chapter 11’s handling of Mormonism. He refers occasionally to Islam and Judaism, but they are never at the center. How is it that at the center of nearly every story selected lies a Christian?
J. M. Dawson himself might have been pleased to see the starring role of Baptists in many of these squabbles, from Williams to Isaac Backus to John Leland to George W. Truett. While it is true that Baptists have often been prime actors in the debates over church and state, and have largely been vocal in their opposition to a “state church,” Balmer devotes a chapter to the need for “more Baptists” to embrace a strict separationist view of the First Amendment. And he specifically means Southern Baptists, who he says have long upheld the “rights of minorities” as a “bedrock Baptist principle.” This is a curious observation about a denomination that split off from their northern brethren in 1845 to preserve their support for slavery.
These minor qualms aside, Balmer has produced an engaging and highly readable book without sacrificing attention to detail. If meant primarily for a Protestant Christian audience, or even an audience of evangelicals who may need to hear this rebuttal of Christian Nationalism the most, then the book has met and exceeded its goals. But if Balmer is seeking to instill reverence for the true scope of the impact that separation of church and state has had, we must look further afield. What should not be overlooked in either case is Balmer’s warning that the First Amendment has been “resilient,” but that does not mean its “future is secure.”
Over the past two years, we’ve become accustomed to hearing the quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin: Americans have “a republic, if you can keep it.” That also applies to our wall of separation, which needs a night watch that respects its purpose and history. Solemn Reverence proves a valuable tool to that end.