Separation anxiety

The day after an evangelical Baptist preacher won the GOP primary, with religion set to again play a major role in the 2008 presidential election, Northwestern University history professor Gary Wills outlined the unsettled relationship between church and state in the United States. To those who say there is no separation in our country's founding document, Wills pointed out: "Separation is the only original part of our Constitution."

Speaking at Chicago's Union League Club, Wills went on to outline how U.S. founders such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison argued that church-state separation was best for religion. "By the late 1770s, churchgoing was at its lowest ebb in colonial history," said Wills, at a mere 17 percent. Almost immediately after the ratification of the Constitution, though, the Second Great Awakening, swept the country. "There were more Methodist ministers than postal workers," Wills said. "The revival lasted nearly 30 years and probably would have lasted longer had the churches not split over slavery" in the years prior to the Civil War.

Wills also argued that religious groups, rather than the government, have posed the greatest threat to the American system of separation. While the revival of the early 19th century was "do it yourself," without an appeal for government support, the fundamentalism of the early 20th century and Religious Right of the 1980s and '90s sought government power, a tactic which led in both cases to their downfall. The failure of Prohibition in the 1920s and the Terry Schiavo case in 2005—when religious groups convinced President George Bush and Congress to intervene—both resulted in what Wills called a "a popular reaction against religion controlling government," which he expects to continue in this election cycle.

Wills didn't restrict his at-times partisan defense of church-state separation to U.S. political history. Commenting on an opportunity to interview the Dalai Lama, Wills asking what the Buddhist Tibetan religious leader would do differently if he returned to Tibet. "Disestablish the religion," reported Wills. "The American system is the proper one"—an opinion with which Wills most certainly agrees.—Bryan Cones

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