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Solemn Reverence

The Separation of Church and State in American Life

Solemn Reverence Buy Now
Format Paperback Ebook Audiobook
ISBN 978-1-58642-271-4 978-1-58642-272-1 978-1-58642-279-0
Published Feb 2, 2021
Imprint Truth to Power
Politics Religion U.S. History

“A slender but thoroughly argued case for reinforcing the wall between church and state. . . A stern warning that those who push for the intrusion of religion into public life do so at the peril of both.” — Kirkus Reviews

The First Amendment to the US Constitution codified the principle that the government should play no role in favoring or supporting any religion, while allowing free exercise of all religions (including unbelief). More than two centuries later, the results from this experiment are overwhelming: The separation of church and state has shielded the government from religious factionalism, and the United States boasts a diverse religious culture unmatched anywhere in the world. In Solemn Reverence, Randall Balmer, one of the premier historians of religion in America, reviews both the history of the separation of church and state as well as the various attempts to undermine that wall of separation. Despite the fact that the First Amendment and the separation of church and state has served the nation remarkably well, he argues, its future is by no means assured.


Who needs this book? Pastors, professors, and all those who want to preserve one of the great distinctions of America."

--Scot McNight, in Christianity Today

Balmer puts his skill as a historian on display as he makes well-resourced arguments, but he also excels here as a storyteller."

--Los Angeles Review of Books

A thoroughly argued case for reinforcing the wall between church and state. . . A stern warning that those who push for the intrusion of religion into public life do so at the peril of both.”

--Kirkus Reviews

Weaving his way through a history embracing the last four centuries, Balmer insightfully and creatively narrates the contested nature of disestablishment.”

--Journal of Church & State

This moving and sprightly book is filled with backstories from America's struggle for religious freedom that I'll bet you have never heard before . . . a brilliant scholar's telling insights on the right way for church, state and society to interact."

--E.J. Dionne Jr., author of Code Red and Why the Right Went Wrong

This insightful and timely study highlights significant ideas and events related to the separation of church and state in the US from the colonial era to the present. Amid relentless debates and frequent misunderstandings on the subject then and now, Solemn Reverence sets the historical record straight."

--Bill J. Leonard, Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and Church History Emeritus at Wake Forest University

This truth-telling book is the most succinct account now available of the history of government's relation to religion in the United States. If you must read only one book on this exceptionally important topic, this new work by the distinguished historian of American religion, Randall Balmer is the one to read."

--David A. Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley, and author of After Cloven Tongues of Fire

Solemn Reverence is what we need right now: an antidote to the persistent threat of Christian Nationalism. Randall Balmer gives us an accessible and timely reminder of our country's powerful, if far from perfect, religious liberty history. It is a reminder of the wisdom and success of the separation of church and state."

--Holly Hollman, general counsel at BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty)

In a concise and wonderfully clear historical review of important episodes intended to defend the principle of church-state separation, Randall Balmer has provided religious Americans with a powerful reminder of their stake in the matter. The Baptist minister Roger Williams, long before the writing of the Constitution, warned churches not to get involved in the 'wilderness' of worldly politics. American Baptists remained staunch champions of church-state separation until the end of the twentieth century. What they have risked in forgetting Williams' warnings is only now becoming clear."

--R. Laurence Moore, author of Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans



The First Amendment, with its insistence on the separation of church and state, religion and politics, is under attack as never before. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the initial clause of the First Amendment reads, and those sixteen words have served both government and faith remarkably well for over two centuries. And yet various interests have sought in recent years to chip away at what Roger Williams, the founder of the Baptist tradition in America, called the “wall of separation” between church and state.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, for example, Donald Trump promised to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits the use of contributions to tax-exempt organizations, including religious groups, for the support of political candidates. The family of the Trump administration’s secretary of education worked for decades to divert taxpayer money into private and religious schools, an enterprise made infinitely easier by the Supreme Court’s misbegotten Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue decision in 2020. In defiance of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, the Religious Right generally has supported public prayer in public schools and the posting of religious symbols and sentiments in public places. And, both ironically and tragically, in 1979 the largest Baptist denomination in the country, the Southern Baptist Convention, effectively abandoned its historic role of patrolling the wall of separation between church and state.

I served as an expert witness defending the First Amendment’s prohibition against religious establishment. The case took place in Alabama after Roy S. Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, placed a granite monument emblazoned with the Ten Commandments in the lobby of the judicial building in Montgomery. Had Moore allowed other religious representations in that space — or had he honored a request from the Alabama Atheists (both members, no doubt!) — I would have had no objection. But Moore had insisted on the Ten Commandments only, a clear violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits an “establishment of religion.”

My testimony then, and one reiterated in this book, is that the First Amendment is part of the genius of American life. It has protected the common good from religious factionalism, and it has ensured the integrity of faith from too close an alliance with the state.

Although unprecedented, the impetus for religious disestablishment as embodied in the First Amendment grew out of disparate impulses dating back at least to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Martin Luther had emphasized the priesthood of believers, each individual’s responsibility before God, which led almost inevitably (if not immediately) to the concession that everyone might approach God differently from his or her neighbor. The very splintering of Christianity after the Reformation demanded some sort of accommodation to its diversity. Several of the American colonies had done just that — Thomas Jefferson himself cited the examples of New York and Pennsylvania in his Notes on the State of Virginia, written in 1781 — though the established religions in other colonies, such as the Anglicans in Maryland and Virginia, and the Congregationalists in Massachusetts and Connecticut, stubbornly defended their establishment status. Other early voices include such figures and movements as Isaac Backus and the Separate Baptists in Massachusetts or William Livingston and the Presbyterian party in New York as influential opponents of religious establishment. Most often, however, when historians retrace the steps of religious disestablishment in America their paths lead to Roger Williams, founder of the Baptist tradition in America, and Thomas Jefferson, one of the nation’s founders and the country’s third president.

It’s important to stipulate here at the outset that the phrase church and state has evolved into a kind of shorthand for understanding the relationship between two much larger, albeit amorphous, entities. One of the characteristics of the Atlantic seaboard during the colonial period was its religious diversity, ranging from Puritans in New England to Anglicans in the South. In between, groups as diverse as Baptists in Rhode Island, the Dutch Reformed in the Middle Colonies, Swedish Lutherans in Delaware, Jews in New York City, Presbyterians in New Jersey, Catholics in Maryland, and Quakers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania all established a toehold on the religious landscape of colonial America. In addition, Pennsylvania alone sheltered such diverse religious minorities as Lutherans, Mennonites, Moravians, and Schwenckfelders.

Not all groups existed in perfect harmony. The Puritan government in Massachusetts hanged Quakers on Boston Common. In 1649 Maryland, founded by Roman Catholics, passed a Toleration Act ensuring religious liberty, but it was rescinded five years later after Puritans seized control of the colony. Under Edward Hyde, Viscount Cornbury, the governor of New York, the colonial government sowed unrest in Dutch Reformed congregations as a way of preferring the Church of England. In some places, authorities sought to coerce religious uniformity and conformity. In colonial Virginia, for example, the Church of England was the established religion, and some magistrates were zealous in defense of Anglican prerogatives. Baptists, because of their insistence on religious liberty, often felt the sting of persecution. Baptists were thrown in jail in Spotsylvania in 1768 for disturbing the peace because of their preaching. A judge named Edmund Pendleton sentenced Baptist preachers to jail for what one contemporary called “the heinous charge of worshiping God according to the dictates of their own consciences.” A sheriff brutally horsewhipped a Baptist minister, and a “gang of well-dressed men” nearly drowned two other Baptists by holding their heads underwater in a nearby river, a cynical riff on the Baptist insistence on believers’ baptism by full immersion.

Amid all this diversity and persecution, some colonists began to warn publicly against the dangers of religious establishment. “It is not to be doubted,” William Livingston, a graduate of Yale, activist in New York politics, and later the first governor of New Jersey, wrote in 1768, that “every man who wishes to be free will by all lawful ways in his power oppose the establishment of any one denomination in America.” Remarking on “the inconveniences and mischiefs of religious establishments,” Livingston concluded: “Religious establishments are very hardly kept from great corruption.”

By the middle of the eighteenth century, it had become clear that no religious group would emerge with anything approaching hegemony. When Congress appointed a committee on July 4, 1776, to design a seal for the new nation, the committee recommended E Pluribus Unum — out of many, one — as the nation’s motto, a nation comprising people representing a great variety of ethnicities and religions.

The First Amendment emerged from this multicultural miasma; even if the founders wanted to establish a “church,” which would it be? As a consequence, in the place of a dominant single institution (a “church”), multiple groups and associations attempted to make claims to authority, especially in the early national period. This process produced the marketplace of religious associations, movements, and institutions that we have generally called religious pluralism.

On the political side, state, federal, and administrative institutions have undertaken to coexist while sharing political power (and authority) in contested ways. The phrase church and state remains useful, but what we really have is multiple religious movements and organizations confronting several layers and levels of political movements and structures. In sum, this presents us with a dynamic “system” that defies easy description. It is rather a messy set of shifting alignments attempting to frame the exercises of power legitimated by disparate claims to religious and political authority.

As should be clear by now, I’m a historian, not a legal scholar. Volumes and volumes have been written by lawyers and legal experts about the First Amendment and the meaning of various cases decided by the Supreme Court over the decades. This book is not an addition to that corpus; I defer to those experts and their technical analyses. Instead, as a student of American religious history, I offer here some reflections on the First Amendment and the relationship between church and state — those complicated, amorphous entities — throughout American history.

Were I to identify a foil for this book, it would be those voices breezily claiming that the United States is, and always has been, a Christian nation. That assertion is demonstrably false. Those same voices have sought, and continue to seek, a diminution of the First Amendment and its wall of separation between church and state. That, in my view, is a dangerous course. I say that not as a secularist trying to root out all expressions of religion, but as someone who believes along with Roger Williams that religion functions best from the margins and not in the councils of power; that the integrity of the faith suffers from too close an association with the state.

The First Amendment has been resilient over the years, over the decades. But that does not mean that its future is secure. Those who believe in the separation of church and state must continue to patrol that wall of separation. Some on the left argue that voices of faith have no place in the arena of public discourse, while those on the right don the mantle of victim, insist that the United States is a Christian nation, and engage in rhetorical Kabuki to assert that the First Amendment does not mandate the separation of church and state.

Both positions represent misunderstandings of the First Amendment. The long sweep of American history amply demonstrates the genius of the First Amendment, this grand experiment of constructing a government without the interlocking apparatus of an established religion.

About the Author

Randall Balmer

Randall Balmer (Ph.D., Princeton University), a prize-winning historian, Emmy Award nominee and ordained Episcopal priest, is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College. He was professor of American religious history at Columbia University for twenty-seven years, and he has been a visiting professor at Princeton, Yale, Drew, Emory, and Northwestern universities and in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including Evangelicalism in America and Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy CarterMine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, now in its fifth edition, was made into a three-part series for PBS. He is writing and will host his third PBS documentary, a history of the Orthodox Church in Alaska. His commentaries about religion in America appear in newspapers across the country.