Friday, December 5, 2014

Separation of Church and State

Frank Lambert, Separation of Church and State: Founding Principle of Religious Liberty. Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 2014. ISBN 9780881464771

Was the United States founded as a Christian Nation? Did the Founders set up a wall of separation of Church and State? How do we interpret the first amendment which has two parts: no establishment and free exercise. Frank Lambert in his new book, Separation of Church and State attempts to answer these questions and others. Lambert is a respected historian who has authored other books on religion in American life: The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (2003) and Religion in American Politics: a Short History (2008). Lambert was motivated to write this book because he thought some authors were distorting the historical record of what actually happened at American Founding in regards to the separation of Church and State. Lambert notes, "To today's most vocal Conservative Evangelicals, separation of church and state is a myth perpetrated by latter-day liberals. However, that position is undercut by evangelicals of the Revolutionary Era who fought hard for the doctrine of separation as a constitutional safeguard of religious liberty" (12).

The first chapter is a critique "of the Christian Right who are unanimous in demonizing 'academic historians' as tools of secular and liberal perspectives" (13). This was my favorite chapter of the book. IN this chapter he discusses the methods of historians and show how the Christian Right historians distort history. He examines the writings of David Barton, Timothy LaHaye, John Eidsmoe, and others. He charges that "rather than pursuing a systematic and comprehensive investigation of the nation's founding that begins with probing questions, the Christian Right historians start and end with preconceived answers" (33). Lambert finds that the qualifications and practices of these "historians" are severely deficient.

The "remaining" four chapters analyses the historical record in regards to the claims made by the Christian Right historians. Chapter two explores the historical documents to see if America was founded as a Christian nation. This is a popular question currently. Some evangelical historians have argued that it was not. The author argues that "Puritans did indeed establish Christian states, but delegates to the Federal Convention of 1787 chose to ignore them in favor of a secular frame of government" (64). The author thinks that "Christian Right historians conflate English settlement of North America in the early seventeenth century with the establishment of the republic in the late eighteenth century" (64). In other words, the Puritans in New England, in some sense, set up a Christian state; the American founders at the Federal convention did not establish a Christian nation.

Chapter three examines the claim "that present-day 'secularists' and 'liberals' have distorted the place and importance of religion in America's past" (14). In this chapter he examines the historical documents that records the history of the Great Awakening. The author has written other books on the eighteenth-century revival known as the Great Awakening. He examines about the Enlightenment at this time. He shows how the religious record shows America to be "both deeply sacred and deeply secular" (15). This phenomenon continues to puzzle non-Americans.

The last two chapters examines the concept of separation of church and state. Chapter 4 looks at the place of religion in the state constitutions and chapter 5 examines separation of church and state in the federal constitution. The author shows how separation of church and state has not harmed religion but has made it more vibrant. We have the paradox that America is both secular and religious.

Frank Lambert in his book, Separation of Church and State shows himself to be an excellent historian. He shows how Christian Right historians writings fall short of the standards of historical scholarship. They do not deal adequately with the historical sources and in some cases distort it. They show themselves to be motivated by a political agenda not the seeking of truth. This book is intended for generally educated reader who is not a specialist in American history. This book is recommended for those interested in this important topic.

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