The Second Disestablishment

Nineteenth-Century Artisans Played A Key Role In Shoring Up The Church-State Wall

In 1811, a man named Ruggles went before the high court of New York to fight a blasphemy conviction. He had been found guilty of “wickedly, maliciously and blasphemously” uttering false and scandalous words about Jesus Christ and the Christian religion.

Ruggles’ attorney noted that the state had no law prohibiting blasphemy and demanded that his client’s conviction be declared invalid.

Chief Justice James Kent, however, was unmoved.

Christianity, he declared, is part of the common law of the state and “whatever strikes at the root of Christianity tends manifestly to the dissolution of civil government.”

The court affirmed Ruggles’ conviction and the penalty of three months’ imprisonment and a whopping $500 fine.

As this episode illustrates, the American people may have – in the words of Thomas Jefferson – built a wall of separation between church and state, but it was decades before that protective First Amendment barrier extended across the country.

In his fascinating new book, The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 462 pages, $39.95), Steven K. Green traces the uneven but relentless American march toward church-state separation during our nation’s second century.

Green, a professor of law and adjunct professor of history at Willamette University (and a former Americans United legal director), contends that scholars have focused on church-state developments during the nation’s founding era and during the post-1947 period at the U.S. Supreme Court, but have neglected the “second disestablishment” that took place during the 1800s.

Green notes that Americans held a broad consensus in the late 1700s about the non-religious character of the U.S. Constitution.

“Most observers,” he says, “acknowledged the secular foundations and purpose of the Constitution and new government. Enlightenment notions of natural rights and a limited secular state, bereft of any religious authority or concern, inspired the founders.”

But events soon undermined that consensus. The Second Great Awakening drove tens of thousands of Americans into membership in evangelical churches, and the French Revolution made many wary of the potential excesses of secularism.

A political and cultural movement developed that sought to enforce the maxim that “Christianity is part of the common law.” The crusade also featured promotion of Protestant Christianity in public schools, enactment of Sunday laws and temperance statutes and even a determined attempt to amend the Constitution to recognize the authority of God and the lordship of Jesus Christ.

While the National Reform Association and its conservative Christian allies won battles here and there, the crusade ultimately was unsuccessful. And while it was under way, a persistent countervailing movement toward secular government was advancing in the courts, the public schools and other public institutions. Immigration brought greater religious diversity, industrialization and urbanization lessened religious influence over communities and the legal and educational professions came to broadly reject reliance on sectarian concepts.

Observes Green, “By 1900, the religious perspective of the law had been replaced by a secular perspective…. The Christian-nation maxim was dead as a legal principle and retained only symbolic significance as a cultural paradigm.”

The stage was set, he contends, for the Supreme Court’s monumental rulings in 1947 and afterward that affirmed church-state separation.

“The twentieth-century Court was standing,” he concludes, “on the shoulders of innumerable nineteenth-century judges, politicians, educators and commentators.”

Green’s richly documented book is must reading for anyone interested in church-state affairs. I recommend it to you enthusiastically.