On the trip home from Dave’s on Sunday, I caught the last half of this week’s episode of the radio show On Being, which explores themes of religion and spirituality. Luckily enough, later in the evening I caught the whole show a few miles further down the road.
This week’s episode, special for Independence Day, dealt with the history of the principle of separation of church and state in the U.S. The guests were two authors, Steven Waldman, who wrote Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty, and Philip Hamburger, author of Separation of Church and State.
My prime takeaway from it was, what most Americans think of as “separation of church and state,” what they’ve always thought of, in fact, is the separation of the state from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. In the early days of this country, they were not concerned with religion in general. In fact, most of the colonies had official, established faiths—Protestant ones, though. The last state with an established faith, Massachusetts, finally disestablished it in the 1830s. Anti-Catholic sentiment existed for decades and decades, if it’s even gone today. But to say, as some of us do today, that the separation notion means things should be especially secular is something that many Americans vehemently disagree with.
Should “separation of church and state” mean all churches? The wording tends to be broad enough to imply yes.
Another interesting tidbit was the role of the Ku Klux Klan in supporting the separation of church and state. Well known for its racist tendencies, the Klan was at least as anti-Catholic as it was anti-black. So it supported separation of church and state because it kept Catholics down. Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, who wrote several opinions that defined a broader reach of separation, was in his younger days a member of the Klan, though late in life he said it was mostly because he thought it was good for his political career to do so (he was a U.S. Senator before his Supreme Court tenure).
This is all stuff I should’ve learned long ago. And the radio show covered more, too. Take a listen at the link in the first paragraph.