What Were They Thinking?

A new book contends that the initial wall separating church and state was thinner than we think.

By Amy Vames

In Church, State, and Original Intent (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Drew Trustee Donald L. Drakeman weaves the Constitution, its framers and the Supreme Court into an examination of one of this country’s most contentious issues.

You argue that the Constitution’s framers looked at the separation of church and state in a far more limited way than we do today. A number of people who came to the state conventions when the Constitution was ratified worried that the federal government might try to set up a national church like the Church of England. Church-state issues were important to people, but they weren’t debated in Congress because there was only one issue that everyone agreed on: Nobody wanted a national church.

Even after the Bill of Rights was adopted, the government lent significant support to religion, didn’t it? The minute Congress adopted the Bill of Rights, it asked President George Washington to declare a national day of prayer. And for over 100 years, the federal government paid missionaries to convert Native Americans to Christianity. Some of the issues that are hotly contested today were not hotly contested then or were thought about in different ways.

How did the “wall” separating church and state espoused by Thomas Jefferson come to have such traction? In the 1870s, Chief Justice Morrison Waite had to decide what the First Amendment meant. So he went to his next-door neighbor, a historian named George Bancroft, who was a big fan of Jefferson. Bancroft told Waite that the First Amendment meant what Jefferson and his friend James Madison were thinking about around the time of the Constitution. So literally, by going next door and chatting with his neighbor, the chief justice created a history of Jefferson and the wall of separation between church and state. Since then, people who believe in that wall see this as what the framers intended.

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