As part of this transformation, evangelicals redefined popular and legal understandings of disestablishment. Early historians had already begun reevaluating the nation’s founding, identifying the hand of Providence in American history, sanctifying its leaders (particularly George Washington, the “American Moses”) and their accomplishments (e.g., the Constitution). Evangelical historians joined in this revisionism, helping to construct, in Jon Butler’s words, “a myth of the American Christian past.” Evangelical writers claimed that the nation’s Founders had not sought to disassociate religion from the state; rather, they sought to avoid rivalry among Protestant denominations while ensuring that America remained a “Christian nation” through government patronage of a general Protestantism. In a widely circulated 1832 sermon, the Reverend Jasper Adams claimed that Christianity “was intended by [the Founders] to be the corner stone of the social and political structures which they were founding.” Adams concluded that “the people of the United states have retained the Christian religion as the foundation of their civil, legal and political institutions.” This new interpretation soon dominated popular attitudes.
A final factor that contributed to the attitudinal shift involved the legal community. Many judges of the antebellum period shared the emerging evangelical perspective. These judges enforced laws prohibiting blasphemy and Sunday activities based on religious grounds while declaring that “Christianity formed part of the common law.” This belief in the Christian nature of America affected interpretations of constitutional provisions as well. In 1824, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a claim that blasphemy laws violated the religious liberty provisions of the state constitution. While declaring that “complete liberty of conscience” existed in the state, the court also explained that “no free government now exists in the world, unless where Christianity is acknowledged, and is the religion of the country.”
The most complete example of this view is found in Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story’s 1833 treatise on constitutional law:
The real object of the [First] amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance, Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity: but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.
For Story and others, the government could advance Christianity generally to the exclusion of other religions. “It is impossible for those who believe in the truth of Christianity as a divine revelation to doubt that it is the especial duty of government to foster and encourage it among all the citizens and subjects,” Story declared.
These factors have led most modern scholars to assert that the model for church-state separation during the nineteenth century more closely tracked the minimalist approach discussed above. Public acknowledgments of religion were commonplace. When church-state separation did arise, according to Philip Hamburger, it was used to justify Protestant dominance over public institutions—particularly public schooling and its funding source—at the expense of Catholics and other immigrants. Church-state separation prohibited the funding of Catholic parochial schools and readings from the Catholic Douay Bible, but not the “nonsectarian” Protestant exercises in the public schools. This truncated understanding of separation during the nineteenth century can also be seen in the federal government’s punishment of the Mormon polygamists and support for efforts by missionaries to Christianize Native Americans.
On the positive side, the Supreme Court relied on the notion of church-state separation to restrict civil courts from adjudicating internal theological disputes of church bodies. In many respects, however, separation of church and state during the nineteenth century more closely tracked Justice Story’s description than it did the ideal advanced by Jefferson and Madison.
That said, it is wrong to view nineteenth-century attitudes toward church-state matters as static. Prosecutions for blasphemy petered out after the 1830s, and Sunday law enforcement declined as the century progressed. By the last quarter of the century, judges generally rejected arguments that courts were obligated to uphold behavioral laws on religious grounds. In public education, the notion of nonsectarian instruction went through several stages, with many school districts minimizing the religious content of the exercises in response to complaints by Catholics, Jews, and other religious minorities. A handful of state courts even struck down the religious exercises as being inconsistent with separation of church and state. By late century, many Protestant leaders complained that public schools were being “secularized.” In contrast, a growing number of educators, intellectuals, and freethinkers commended the changes to public education, calling for a more rigorous application of church-state separation. Like the founding period, therefore, the nineteenth century was a dynamic period for church-state development.
Thus when the Supreme Court became engaged in church-state controversies in the mid-twentieth century, it could draw on various models of church-state relations. In choosing the more separationist paradigm, the modern Court did not create new law; rather, it built on an evolving tradition, one with a long legacy. While the debate continues over which model is more historically accurate, the idea of separation of church and state remains a core concept in the American experience.