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Church and State in America: The First Two…

Church and State in America: The First Two Centuries

by James H. Hutson

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281606,344 (3.38)None
This is an account of the ideas about and public policies relating to the relationship between government and religion from the settlement of Virginia in 1607 to the presidency of Andrew Jackson, 1829-37. This book describes the impact and the relationship of various events, legislative, and judicial actions, including the English Toleration Act of 1689, the First and Second Great Awakenings, the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, and Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists. Four principles were paramount in the American approach to government's relation to religion: the importance of religion to public welfare; the resulting desirability of government support of religion (within the limitations of political culture); liberty of conscience and voluntaryism; the requirement that religion be supported by free will offerings, not taxation. Hutson analyzes and describes the development and interplay of these principles, and considers the relevance of the concept of the separation of church and state during this period.… (more)



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First, one should always be cautious of any work that essentially posits "I'm right and everyone else is wrong", no matter how scholarly that work sounds. Second, I was dying for this book to be finished because I was tired beyond words of the phrase "nursing fathers". Third, well, third, the author accuses people writing a certain version of the First Amendment of cherry picking from the works of authors that support their view, and ignoring the wider range of ideas; the author himself does this, discussing Thomas Jefferson only in context of a small portion of his prodigious output, and ignoring many of his words or actions that make the concept much more complex. He mentions Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance" late in the book, and mostly to sneer at it. In addition, the ideas presented in this book really aren't something that no one else is proposing; most the people I read or see speak are quite aware that the early Republic was not a hotbed of freethought or tolerance, but was instead a convoluted mess of competing ideologies, most of which at some point in our history have wanted government sanction for their own particular brand of belief. The author fudges his point, but in the end it appears that he is saying not only that the "wall of church and state" metaphor is inaccurate to describe how most people felt about it, but that it has no place in our jurisprudence, though he stops short of that final statement, letting it stand by implication. Since the author is willing to stretch the same points as many fundamentalists, i.e., the presence of the standard phrase "In the Year of our Lord" meaning that the Constitution is acknowledging God (hardly) and manages to see the restriction against religious tests for office as another way of acknowledging God, I find it difficult to know how much else of his work I can trust. He also mentions that the Constitution provides for "oaths" (which are God-based) and ignores the fact that they also provide for "affirmations" (a Godless alternative). That, coupled with commas scattered in strange places that can make the text difficult to read, a problem with using articles where they are inappropriate, and general overall sloppiness of editing, make this book dubious in my view, though not without some worth for tracing a complicated history. In response to the idea that the early settlers did not want a wall of separation, I am inclined to say "so what?", which should be his argument as well. We have the right to chart our own course through life, as long as it can fit within the boundaries of Constitutional law, and whether someone who has been dead 200 years wanted the entire nation to worship his God or not is irrelevant. Overall, a disappointment, though with good bits in places. ( )
  Devil_llama | Nov 15, 2018 |
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