Steven K. GreenJun 14, 2022
Separating Church and State
Cornell University Press 2022
In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson distilled a leading idea in the early American republic and wrote of a wall of separation between church and state. That metaphor has come down from Jefferson to 21st-century Americans through a long history of jurisprudence, political contestation, and cultural influence. Separating Church and State: A History (Cornell UP, 2022) traces the development of the concept of separation of church and state and the Supreme Court's application of it in the law.
Steven K. Green finds that conservative criticisms of a separation of church and state overlook the strong historical and jurisprudential pedigree of the idea. Yet, arguing with liberal advocates of the doctrine, he notes that the idea remains fundamentally vague and thus open to loose interpretation in the courts. As such, the history of a wall of separation is more a variable index of American attitudes toward the forces of religion and state.
Indeed, Green argues that the Supreme Court's use of the wall metaphor has never been essential to its rulings. The contemporary battle over the idea of a wall of separation has thus been a distraction from the real jurisprudential issues animating the contemporary courts.
Lane Davis is an Instructor of Religion at Huntingdon College.