Evarts B. Greene
President of the Association, 1930
Presidential Address delivered before the American Historical Association at Boston, December 30, 1930. American Historical Review 36:2 (January 1931): 257–73.
Persistent Problems of Church and State
Eighteen years have now passed since the last Boston meeting of the American Historical Association, and it is peculiarly fitting that we should gather here at the close of this Tercentenary year to join our Massachusetts friends in celebrating the foundation of the old Bay Commonwealth. On such an occasion we might properly consider the various ways in which the record of these three hundred years has been presented by New Englanders and others. Much water has flowed under the bridge since Charles Francis Adams delivered his famous onslaught on the “filio-pietistic” school. The tendencies which he deplored are now less conspicuous, and the time is ripe for a fresh appraisal of New England’s contribution to the national life. This task, however, I leave to more competent hands, confining myself to a single aspect of the record and taking that only as a point of departure.
I propose, then, first to recall the early Massachusetts experiment in church and state; and, secondly, to consider how far the issues involved have entered into the subsequent experience of the American people. Such a topic will doubtless suggest to most persons dusty treatises dealing with matters long since obsolete or obsolescent; but recent developments, like the evolution controversy in the schools and ecclesiastical partisanship in elections, suggest that perhaps, after all, certain ancient problems are not so comfortably settled as we supposed. If, in attempting to throw some light on these disturbing questions, the historian must hesitate to point a moral, he may at least help to place the movements of our time in more reasonable perspective. From this point of view, then, let us return to our Massachusetts pioneers.
The promoters of the old Puritan Commonwealth began with the conception of a Christian society whose interests were entrusted to distinct but coöperating agencies. In the words of the Cambridge Platform, church and state should “stand together ... the one being helpful unto the other, in their distinct and due administrations”. The magistrate was bound to cherish “not only the quiet and peaceable life of the subject in matters of righteousness and honesty, but also in matters of godliness”. To secure effective coöperation, membership in the body politic was limited to members of some approved church. This interlocking directorate achieved for a time these results: first, a Puritan monopoly of public worship which lasted for half a century; secondly, the maintenance of ministers by public taxation; thirdly, state enforcement of Sunday observance and church attendance; and finally, the ruthless suppression of dissent.
The peculiarity of this system was not the novelty of its underlying philosophy but the drastic thoroughness with which theory was translated into action. From the Protestant Revolution on to the Stuart Restoration, no one of the major ecclesiastical parties in England believed that the state could disclaim responsibility for the religious welfare of the community, however differently that interest might be conceived. The Anglican point of view is fairly stated in the posthumously edited and published eighth book of Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity. It was “a gross error” to suppose that regal power was to serve “the good of the body and not of the soul”—“men’s temporal peace”, and not “their eternal safety”. Kings were not ordained “only to fat men up like hogs and to see that they have their mast”; nor was Parliament “so merely temporal as if it might meddle with nothing but only leather and wool”. The English Presbyterian Thomas Cartwright agreed with Calvin in asserting the responsibility of the state for the maintenance of public worship and the true faith. Hooker could also appeal to the learned Catholic apologist, Thomas Stapleton, in support of the same idea of a Christian commonwealth, to whose spiritual interests the state could not be indifferent. While defending the liberty of the Church against secular encroachment, Stapleton agreed that the state might properly defend the articles of religion and punish the teachers of “perverse things”.
The practical application of these theories in royal orders, parliamentary statutes, and judicial proceedings is a familiar story. In the England of our pioneer generations public worship was the monopoly of a particular church whose forms were regulated by law; there were fines for absence from church, and publicly expressed divergence from the articles of religion was forbidden. Law could not. according to the Ecclesiastical Polity, “make that to be truth which before was not”; but it might, “for public unity’s sake, require men’s professed assent or prohibit contradiction to special articles”. Nevertheless the terms of partnership between church and state were not quite the same in Tudor England and Massachusetts Bay. In the old country, the ecclesiastical settlement was conceived largely in the interest of political unity and independence. The Massachusetts theocracy secured for its special interest a larger place among the objectives of the state. There is another significant difference. The Anglicans of that period still cherished, though with increasing difficulty, that ideal of an inclusive Church which was also a part of Catholic tradition. The trend of Puritan thinking, on the contrary, was toward the selective principle in church membership. The theory that church and commonwealth were “personally one society” did not therefore mean quite the same thing in England and in Massachusetts.
Before the Puritan experiment began in Massachusetts Bay, the foundations of the Anglican system had been laid in Virginia. The first representative assembly recognized the claims of the Church and this legislation was rounded out during the early years of the royal government. Governors were charged with the promotion of religion in accordance with the laws of England, and the assembly required conformity of clergy and laity alike. In Virginia, as in Massachusetts, Catholics were excluded and there was penal legislation against Puritans and Quakers. Statutes enforced church attendance, Sunday observance, and the payment of tithes to the clergy. “It is thought fitt”, so runs a statute of 1629, “that all those that worke in the ground of what qualitie or condition soever, shall pay tithes to the ministers.” No doubt the enforcement of some regulations was less drastic than in New England, but the researches of Mr. Bruce have shown that even the Sabbatarian legislation of Virginia was not a dead letter.
Not only in Virginia and New England was seventeenth century religion a matter of state concern. In Maryland, Lord Baltimore had a more complex problem. A Catholic by profession, he held his province under a charter requiring conformity to English ecclesiastical law, and aggressive Puritanism made his task still more difficult. In the colony, an active Catholic mission labored for the Indians and for immigrants who were partly Catholic and partly Protestant. From the outset Baltimore adopted a statesmanlike program of mutual tolerance, which in the stress of the Puritan Revolution and with the coöperation of the colonial assembly took form in the Toleration Act of 1649. There was no organic union of church and state; and Baltimore, though a son of the Church, defended his prerogatives as head of the state so vigorously that he was sharply criticized by the clergy. Nevertheless the Toleration Act itself recognized certain common elements in Catholic and Protestant theology. Toleration was limited to Christians, and denial of the Trinity was made a capital offense. So, too, the Dutch in New Netherland, though comparatively liberal in practice, did not maintain a purely secular state. The Reformed Church was supported by the civil authority; and for a time the director and council prohibited other forms of public worship. Passing over minor New England variants from the Massachusetts system, and merely noting for the present the exceptional situation in Rhode Island, it remains generally true that the earliest colonial governments, whether English or Dutch, agreed in assuming some degree of responsibility for the religion of their people.
The Stuart Restoration brought new forces into play, which, taken as a whole, tended toward the secularization of the state—the natural reaction from the violent ecclesiastical controversies of the previous period; the secularizing tendency of scientists and philosophers; the rise of a more systematic economic imperialism. The course of the main stream was, indeed, disturbed by cross-currents as in the early years of Charles II., when the rising tide of loyalty to throne and altar ran high. Notwithstanding the royal promise of “liberty to tender consciences”, the new Act of Uniformity showed slight regard for Puritan scruples, and there were harsh penalties for those who remained outside the pale. Later in this reign ecclesiastical animosities found expression in the “Popish Plot” affair and the Exclusion Bill. Against such survivals of religious partisanship, however, must be set other and, on the whole, more important facts. The Catholic sympathies of the last two Stuarts and the Declarations of Indulgence weakened the traditional relations between church and king. The exclusion of the Puritan clergy from the national church ended the dream of a comprehensive Christian society in which church and state were only different aspects of the same community. Finally, merchants and statesmen were thinking less of religious issues than of regulations for increasing national wealth and knitting the realm with its dependencies into a self-sufficient economic whole.
These English developments naturally affected the colonies. The new proprietors, whatever their attitude toward uniformity at home, were less interested in extending that system oversea. By “reason of the remote distances of these places”, so ran the Carolina charter, toleration would involve “no breach of the unity and uniformity established in this nation”. So the proprietors promised in 1665 that no one should be molested or called in question “for any differences of opinion or practice in matters of religious concernment”, who did not “actually disturbe the civill peace”. Two of these proprietors adopted a similar policy in New Jersey; in both cases they were governed by considerations of business interest, quite inconsistent with a rigid ecclesiastical policy. Notwithstanding the formal establishment of the Anglican church in the Carolinas, none of these proprietary governments of the Restoration set up the exclusive systems of early Virginia and New England.
The policy of the Crown, in effect if not in intention, worked in the same general direction. In the new charter of Rhode Island royal approval was given to an advanced program of toleration, with no preference for, or discrimination against, any religious group. Williams and his associates had developed a theory of complete separation between church and state, and now their “livelie experiment, that a most flourishing civill state may stand and best bee maintained ... with a full libertie of religious concernements”, could proceed, with the sanction of the Crown. The implications of this action should not be pressed; for the Church of England still received special consideration overseas as well as at home, and in royal governments that preference still had practical meaning. English officials hardly realized how far Williams had gone in his advocacy of the secularized state. When all is said, however, the Rhode Island charter marks an important stage in the evolution of an American philosophy of church and state.
Elsewhere in New England, British policy had a disintegrating influence on the older tradition. Whatever royal officials might think about establishment as a principle, they did not sympathize with the Puritan systems of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Imperial control under the last two Stuart kings was qualified after the Revolution of 1688; but the New England theocracy never recovered its old position. Dissent—whether Anglican, Quaker, or Baptist—secured a foothold, and a legal protection, which prepared the way for further advance in the next century.
The most familiar chapter in the church and state development of this period is Penn’s “Holy Experiment”. Rejecting all compulsion in matters of faith and every form of church establishment, he probably contributed more than any other one man toward the secularization of the American state. His personal outlook, however, was not that of the modern secularist. Approaching political problems in a religious spirit, he thought of liberty as the logical conclusion of Christian teaching; the state still had its religious function. The “Great Law” of 1682 required Sunday observance, not merely to give relief from “common toil and labour”, but in order that, after “the example of the primitive Christians”, men might “the better dispose themselves to read the Scriptures of truth at home” or attend public worship according to “their respective persuasions”. Finally, Penn’s colony was a Christian commonwealth in the sense that participation in political affairs was the privilege of those who professed the Christian faith. Generally speaking, then, colonial theory and practice up to the English Revolution of 1688 took for granted some degree of governmental responsibility for the religious welfare of the community. On the other hand, the idea of using the civil authority to support the claims of a particular church was losing ground.
The adjustments which followed the Revolution open a new chapter. The English Toleration Act of 1689 was a practical, though illogical, compromise between churchmen who had asserted their special privileges against a Catholic king, and Protestant dissenters whose support was needed in a common cause. The concessions made to the latter were not generous; dissent was legitimized, but with irksome restrictions, while the establishment was buttressed by ecclesiastical tests for public office. Even these limited concessions were denied both to Catholics and to those radicals who could not accept the commonly recognized standards of orthodox Christianity. The exclusion of Catholics was, of course, determined largely by political considerations, it being assumed that allegiance to the papacy was incompatible with entire loyalty to the national state. The propriety of this exception to the general rule was elaborately argued by John Locke in his memorable Letters Concerning Toleration. While rejecting compulsion in matters of belief per se, he insisted that the claims of the papacy were inconsistent with the freedom of the state, a point of view not unlike that presented by certain opponents of Governor Smith.
These aspects of English opinion were reflected in colonial politics. Under the second Massachusetts charter, for instance, there was toleration of a kind not different in principle from that of the mother country. Here also Catholics were denied the equal protection of the law, and concessions to dissenters, including in this case members of the Anglican communion, were grudgingly made under the double pressure of growing minorities in the colony and of the home government. The Virginia Toleration Act of 1699 was on the general lines of the earlier English statute, while in Maryland and New York the overthrow of Catholic rulers was followed by severe legislation against the old faith. Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, though refraining from active persecution, each took a backward step in the next half century by denying to Catholics equality of political rights. Even in such comparatively liberal circles colonial opinion did not get beyond “an equal universal toleration of protestants”, to quote the words of a New York historian.
The legal establishments which existed at the beginning of the eighteenth century were continued with varying effectiveness until the outbreak of the Revolution. Notwithstanding concessions to dissenters both in New England and the South, many grievances remained. Nevertheless, extra-legal developments were slowly undermining the old system. Of prime importance was the inflow of immigrants from Germany and Ireland, not so much into New England as to the southward. Some of them were Catholic but this immigration was discouraged by hostile legislation, both British and colonial. Protestants, however, of almost every conceivable variety came in. The established churches held their ground better in the older settlements, but in the back country it was quite another story. In the middle colonies, the heterogeneous character of the early population was intensified; and the South which began, like New England, with a tradition of solidarity gradually saw that solidarity disappearing.
Then came the Great Awakening, that extraordinary movement which, under the preaching of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Tennents, drew men toward a more personal and emotional religion than they found in most Anglican churches or Puritan meeting houses. Regarded with suspicion by the conservative clergy, the new spirit found expression in the separatist churches of New England and the “new side” Presbyterians of the middle colonies and the South; it furnished recruits also for the rising “popular churches” of the Baptists and the Methodists. None of these new dissenting groups had much strength among the influential classes; but their day was soon to come. Meantime, the colonial establishments had to face no less serious dangers from within. The “Parson’s Cause” in Virginia illustrates the friction between Anglican clergy and laity. Both there and in New England, orthodoxy also suffered from the peaceful penetration of deism and secularism. The thoroughgoing convictions on which the old order rested were losing their influence.
So matters stood on the threshold of the Revolutionary era. In the political antagonisms of that period, religion had a minor, but not quite negligible, part. The fear of an American episcopate was exploited by Whig propagandists among New England Congregationalists and middle-state Presbyterians. Anti-Catholic feeling, intensified by a century of international conflict with Frenchmen and Spaniards, was invoked to discredit the Quebec Act of 1774 with its concessions to the Church in Canada. The outbreak of hostilities, however, brought a larger, or more realistic, outlook. With hopes of Canadian support, Congress no longer denounced the “Popish” tendencies of the British government; Washington discouraged the observance of “Pope Day” in the Continental army; and a Catholic priest accompanied the American delegation to Canada. New associations with the Catholic governments of France and Spain had their influence also. More immediately recognized, however, was the need of uniting Americans in a common cause by further concessions to Protestant dissenters.
The movement toward complete religious liberty was carried most nearly to its logical conclusion in Virginia, where a variety of circumstances cleared the way. The establishment, though at first founded solidly on local sentiment, now suffered from its associations with the old monarchical order. Friction between clergy and laity, the grievances of Presbyterians and Baptists, the liberalism of Jefferson and Madison—all these influences converged in the two great measures of this period. The Bill of Rights, with Madison’s amendment, established the principle of liberty—not merely toleration—and Jefferson’s statute of 1785 practically completed the separation of church and state. Important as these measures were, they did not represent a consensus of American opinion. Even without detailed enumeration of constitutional and statutory provisions, it is easy to show how misleading it is to compare Revolutionary liberalism in its most advanced form with the less favorable aspects of present day opinion.
In New England, church and state relations were not fundamentally changed by the Revolution. The Massachusetts constitution declared that each man might worship according to his own conscience; but it also asserted the universal obligation, “publickly, and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being”; each community was expected to maintain “public protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality”. As in colonial times, persons who maintained other services than those of the majority church might have their share of church taxes applied to the support of such dissenting services; but minority sects were still subject to irritating regulations. Though all Christian denominations were said to be “equally under the protection of the law”, one denomination was in effect given a privileged position. There was, on the other hand, definite discrimination against Catholics. Every governor, lieutenant governor, or member of the legislature must renounce the authority, ecclesiastical as well as civil, of any “foreign Prince, Person, Prelate, State or Potentate”, “within this Commonwealth”. In short, the state was held to be distinctly religious, Christian, and Protestant.
The Massachusetts position was, in general, that of New England as a whole, outside of Rhode Island. Insurgent Vermont, the state of Ethan Allen, required members of its legislature to be Protestants and expected every one to keep the Sabbath and support public worship. Even among the heterogeneous populations of the middle region the state was not altogether neutral in religion. New York now took a comparatively advanced position, promising “the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference ... to all mankind”. Nevertheless, the leading member of the constitutional convention, John Jay, had the traditional colonial outlook on the Catholic Church, and the convention required every candidate for naturalization to abjure “every foreign king, prince, potentate and State in all matters, ecclesiastical as well as civil”. Pennsylvania, rounded by men who believed that all external authority must yield to the inner light, required its representatives to acknowledge the divine authority of the Old and New Testaments. In the South the Anglican church lost its legally privileged status, but outside of Virginia religion was still a state concern. Maryland conceded religious liberty to all Christians; but its constitution included religious tests and permitted taxation “for the support of the Christian religion”. Protestantism was made a test for office in North Carolina; and South Carolina declared that “the Christian Protestant religion” was “the established religion of this state”, specifying certain articles of religion necessary for the incorporation of any religious society. Generally speaking, then, the early state constitutions retained much of the older European tradition.
The language of the Federal Constitution was liberal so far as it went, excluding religious tests for Federal offices; and the first amendment forbade any Federal establishment of religion. These clauses did not, however, prevent state action in this field; and, in general, so far as the Federal government was concerned, the issue was largely academic.
Nevertheless progress had been made. At their worst, the discriminatory clauses of the constitutions could not have the vitality of similar phrases in earlier times. The Virginia statute, though exceptional, showed how the tide was running, and the optimism of some representative contemporaries was not unreasonable. Washington, for instance, was doubtless right when, in his response to a congratulatory address on his inauguration in 1789, he observed that “Christians of different denominations” were “more charitable toward each other than in any former age, or in any other nation”. A few months earlier, William Samuel Johnson—conspicuous Anglican layman, Connecticut member of the Federal Convention, and first president of Columbia College—wrote in a similar vein to his Congregational friend, President Stiles of Yale. Johnson emphasized the progress of religious toleration in his time and “in our enlightened Country”, which in this respect had “now advanced certainly beyond any other nation upon earth”.
During the first quarter century of the new Union cross-currents and backwaters tended to obscure the general drift. Federalism, in alliance with the New England “standing order”, exploited religious conservatism against Jefferson and his “Jacobin” hosts. Meantime, however, Catholics and Protestants alike were demonstrating the possibility of effective organization without state aid, as “free churches in a free state”. When, in 1818 and 1833, Connecticut and Massachusetts eliminated from their fundamental law the principle of discrimination for or against particular religious groups, the separation of church and state had become a shibboleth of American political philosophy. This separation, however, was, and still is, qualified by some public recognition of religion, in such matters as devotional exercises on public occasions, the provision of chaplains for the army and navy, and, more substantially, in the exemption of church property from taxation.
It was this situation which Tocqueville discussed in his Democracy in America. He was no undiscriminating admirer of American religious thought; but he believed that the American experiment had its lessons for contemporary Europe, then confronted by the advance of democratic ideas. Democracy must somehow be educated and the new order must be reconciled with the permanent interests of religion. In his own country, he saw religion suffering from alliances with the old political order, while the advocates of democracy and liberty were turning against religion. In the United States, on the contrary, no religious teaching, Protestant or Catholic, appeared to show “the slightest hostility to democratic and republican institutions”. Tocqueville also emphasized the general agreement of Americans on the value of Christianity, and particularly Christian morality, to society and the state. Religion, through its separation from the state, escaped entangling alliances with changing political fashions and was strengthened within its legitimate sphere. In this respect, Europe had something to learn from America.
From this point of view, the trend of affairs in Europe in the next generation seemed encouraging. England retained its formal establishment; but religious tests for public office gradually disappeared, dissenters were released from compulsory church rates, and the Anglican church in Ireland was disestablished. In Continental countries, whether Protestant or Catholic, the tendency was toward the secularization of the state and equality of civic rights to members of different communions. Notwithstanding the protests of the papacy against the overthrow of the old régime in Rome, Leo XIII. agreed with Tocqueville that the Church should not commit itself to any particular form of the political state.
To-day, however, nearly a century after Tocqueville published his commentary, the drift of things is not altogether clear. Issues long regarded by most Americans as comfortably dead, or dying, now seem very much alive. In England, for instance, Parliament has to consider seriously at least four distinct attitudes toward public education in its bearing on religion. Anglican, Catholic, dissenter, and secularist—each has his own reaction toward educational legislation. The right of Parliament, including every shade of Christian and non-Christian belief, to control the forms of worship in the Anglican communion is still asserted. Imperial relations have also their ecclesiastical aspects, as in the recent controversy between the British government and the Vatican about the affairs of Malta. Certainly no student of French politics in the past half century can neglect the religious factor, by no means eliminated by the formal separation of church and state. In Germany and elsewhere confessional affiliations still count in determining party alignments. The Fascist régime in Italy has decided convictions as to what is due to Caesar—convictions not always harmonious with those of the Church. Meantime the Vatican Treaty and Concordat of 1929 serve to illustrate the significant place occupied by the Church in our present international order.
Finally there is Soviet Russia. Its theory and practice present difficulties of interpretation; but the chief supporters of the present régime certainly concern themselves actively with ecclesiastical institutions. The orthodox Communist dogma was conveniently summed up by Karl Marx. The “people”, he said, “can not be really happy until it has been deprived of illusory happiness by the abolition of religion.” The enactments of the Soviet government indicate a similar view of religion in its historic institutions and processes. A church may not “own property” or enjoy corporate privileges as a “juridical person”. “The teaching of religious belief to young children and persons under age in state or private educational establishments and schools” has been made a penal offense. All ministers of religion are disfranchised and officially stigmatized “as belonging to the class of exploiters”. Though citizens are declared “free to profess any or no religion”, here is obviously something quite different from the nineteenth century concept of “a free church in a free state”. Nearly three hundred years ago, Milton complained that “New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ large”. So to-day one suspects that the twentieth century “ideologist” has more in common with the ecclesiastical partisans of the seventeenth century than he would care to admit. Like them he has his orthodoxies to protect and like them he leans heavily upon the compulsory power of the state.
In short, the simple optimism of American thinking a century ago needs qualification so far as contemporary Europe is concerned. May we then console ourselves with the reflection that the Old World is suffering from pathological conditions from which we, in our isolation, are happily free? This is a comfortable theory but the facts are less encouraging.
Figgis pointed out some years ago, in his admirable Churches in the Modern State, certain deeper issues which can not be disposed of by the simple formula of separation. Whatever may be the formal relations of church and state, religion and politics, with the corporate societies which represent these great human interests, will act in the same areas and claim the allegiance, in part at least, of the same people. In most countries we can no longer assume, like the medieval thinkers or even such Protestant apologists as Calvin and Hooker, a Christian commonwealth in which a single church may speak with undisputed authority for the whole community. Nevertheless, the individual who owes allegiance to a church also belongs to the body politic; between church and state, therefore, there are still possibilities of conflict and coöperation. To-day, as in the past, we may agree that Caesar should have his due and God the thing’s that are God’s, and yet find it difficult to apply the principle in relation to certain common interests, as for instance marriage or education. Whatever we may think about the distant future of religion, we can hardly foresee a time when the state may not have to face the stubborn insistence of individuals or churches that they must obey God rather than man. Must the state always have the last word, or should it concede to other societies an authority in some measure independent of its own? These are certainly not dead issues.
Let us consider, for instance, the common interest of church and state in education. In colonial New England, both worked together in setting up the educational system. The state assigned to the towns the duty of maintaining schools; but school and college were expected to serve the religious needs of a society substantially agreed upon the main tenets of Protestant Christianity. Even in the nineteenth century, the clergy exerted a considerable influence on school committees and simple religious exercises were considered a normal part of the school program. Presently, however, the situation was radically changed by the new mass migration. In New England particularly, the old Puritan stock adjusted itself with difficulty to the very different outlook of the newcomers. It became impossible to find a formula of religious education which satisfied one group without implications objectionable to another. The controversy on this subject has passed through various phases—too many to be adequately dealt with here. It is worth while, however, to indicate the essential issues involved.
In brief, the thoroughgoing churchman—Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran—conceives of education as an integral process preparing the individual for his place in a Christian society, with all its implications for this world and the next. The interest of the state in civic training is acknowledged, as in the recent encyclical of Plus XI.; but since no generally accepted formula of religious teaching is available for public schools in so complex a society as ours, it is thought desirable to maintain other schools in which this integration of religion with the whole educational process may be secured. A typical argument for the distinctive church school has been conveniently summarized by the Anglican writer, Lord Hugh Cecil: “To teach no religion as true while teaching much secular learning, is in fact to raise in the mind of the pupil a presumption against religion. To teach what may pass as the Christianity common to various religious bodies is to create a presumption against the distinctive teaching of the English and Roman Churches.” On the other side stands the secular and nationalistic state which also desires to mold the ideas of youth, ideally in the interest of the whole community, actually, too often, for the maintenance of a system acceptable to more or less temporary majorities within the state. The two points of view are not always clearly defined; but each is upheld by powerful social forces, both in the Old World and the New.
One of the most important American debates on this aspect of church and state took place in New York City in the middle years of the nineteenth century. In the absence of a comprehensive school system, state grants for education were then administered in that city by a “Public School Society” which aimed to be “nonsectarian”, but offered some religious instruction, said to be “exclusively general and scriptural in its character”. From the Catholic point of view, however, this instruction was unsatisfactory and a discrimination against Catholic schools which received no such subsidy. The outcome of this discussion was the establishment of a distinctly secular and public system, which took over the work of the Society.
During this New York controversy, the Catholic theory was vigorously stated by Bishop John Hughes and his associates. They maintained, first, that the instruction given by the Society was in fact sectarian; and, secondly, that if instruction were wholly neutral, it would “exclude Christianity, and leave to the advantage of infidelity the tendencies which are given to the minds of youth”. Catholic families, therefore, felt obliged to provide their own schools. This in turn involved “a second taxation, required not by the laws of the land, but the no less imperious demands of their conscience”. One solution then proposed, and discussed from time to time since, is an arrangement like that now in effect in England, where so-called “voluntary schools” under religious auspices receive government grants, along with the public or “Board Schools”. A well-known variant of this plan is that suggested by the late Archbishop Ireland of St. Paul; but neither that nor any other similar proposal has proved generally acceptable.
After three generations of controversy, the American public school has become more consistently secular, though practice still varies in this respect from one state or locality to another; but there has been also a large scale development of church schools for every stage of the educational system. From the standpoint of those who support the latter program, the grievances complained of in 1840 still continue: First, that the whole community is taxed to support a type of education antagonistic in effect, if not in intention, to the convictions of a considerable part of the community; secondly, that those who can not accept the state program are forced, in the language already quoted, to a “second taxation” required by the “imperious demands of their conscience”.
Whatever the merits of the opposing positions, interest in-the issue is not confined to any country or any particular communion. It would be easy to multiply illustrations of the practical difficulty, in view of the emotional factors involved, of maintaining a strictly secular education. Our recent anti-evolution agitation illustrates the belief of many people that a particular scientific hypothesis has been associated with anti-religious influences in the schools. However mistaken such an attitude may be, no serious student of history, or of contemporary European conditions, should find in it anything novel or surprising. It is, however, surprising that, with ignorance and fanaticism on one side of the debate, there was, on the other, almost no adequate discussion.
Nor can we ignore the possibility of intolerance on the part of the state. Discounting exaggerated accounts of the Russian situation, the policy of the Soviet authorities has certainly been to exclude the church from the educational field, and the educational program of the dominant Communist group certainly includes the inculcation of a particular attitude toward traditional religion. If Americans are inclined to thank God that they are not as these benighted Europeans, they should recall the Oregon law of 1922, which not only made elementary education compulsory but, with a few carefully guarded exceptions, required such instruction to be given in state schools. The supporters of the law argued that the mingling of “all races and sects” in the public schools was a proper safeguard against “internal dissensions” and “foreign dangers”. The decision of the United States Supreme Court (1925) annulling the Oregon statute, widely discussed here, was also brought to the attention of Europeans through a passage in the papal encyclical of December, 1929. With innumerable “pressure groups” demanding legislation for the promotion of their special views, the possibilities of state monopoly are obvious. It is also significant that the measure in question was defeated only by Federal intervention in a field generally reserved to the states.
In other forms, also, the influence of religious or ecclesiastical issues has been felt in our politics, long after the disestablishment of particular churches. Students of American history will hardly forget the nativistic movements of the ’thirties and ’forties, the Know-Nothings of the ’fifties, the A. P. A. of the ’eighties and ’nineties, the recent activities of the Ku Klux Klan, and the injection of the religious issue into the political contest of 1928. In all these movements we have to reckon partly with sheer ignorance and prejudice, which are not the monopoly of any party, religious or political; but also with real issues which have to be squarely faced.
To what extent adherence to particular cults may be inconsistent with loyalty to the state is a question which can only be touched here; but this problem also is not the exclusive concern of any one church. In 1928, it was discussed in the case of a Catholic candidate for the Presidency. This summer, the Lambeth conference of Anglican bishops, which included representative American churchmen, agreed that, after an international engagement for the pacific settlement of diplomatic issues, “the Christian church in every nation should refuse to countenance any war in regard to which the government of its own country has not declared its willingness to submit the matter in dispute to arbitration or conciliation”. Again, the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of United States vs. Schwimmer, as interpreted by Justice Holmes in his dissenting opinion, would seem to imply that believers in the historic Quaker teaching about war would not be eligible for American citizenship. Other cases involving the same general issue are now pending. In the background is the general issue, of interest to students of political theory, whether corporate bodies, religious or otherwise, can possess any authority not derived directly or indirectly from the political state.
Though we may draw theoretical distinctions between religious and political issues, it is harder to maintain such distinctions in practice. Questions of social welfare which are thought to have a religious significance are discussed from the pulpit and in formal pronouncements by church officials or assemblies. Among these topics are marriage and divorce; the liquor problem; the abolition or regulation of war; the justice of particular social arrangements, such as slavery or the present status of labor. On such matters churches have repeatedly expressed themselves from the beginnings of Christendom to the present time. Yet all these questions are also dealt with by the modern state and may become in that sense political issues. As a matter of fact, many men are governed in their attitude toward any given form of church intervention mainly by their personal opinions about the particular question discussed. If a man favors prohibition, or the abolition of war, or child labor legislation, he finds it hard to refuse help from any organized group. If, on the other hand, he happens not to like any or all of these things, he is impressed with the danger of “mixing religion with politics”. Evidently, no simple formula has yet been devised which will hold in times of stress.
Within the necessary limits of this paper, it has been possible to suggest only a few aspects of a large subject. To those who believe that science is bringing in a new era, in which religion will have a steadily diminishing part, the present discussion may seem a profitless threshing of old straw. The historian, however, can not forget the fate of many similar predictions, the stubborn survival of ideas and attitudes whose disappearance has been confidently expected.
Meantime what conclusions can we draw from this survey of American experience? First of all, it would seem that we are not exempt from the clash of ideals which has troubled the theologians, philosophers, and politicians of Europe. Secondly, we may take just satisfaction in such measure of tolerance as has actually been achieved, rejecting a pessimism based on exaggerated ideas of what was accomplished by the “Fathers”. Thirdly, it appears that neither the formal separation of the church from the state, nor any other simple formula, has permanently disposed of issues deeply rooted in human experience and human psychology. Finally, may we not agree that the perspective of history should help men, in this as in other matters, to rise above the level of partisan and ephemeral controversy? With this longer perspective we can see better how important it is to enter into the states of mind, congenial or uncongenial, which are reflected in social institutions and movements. The desire to understand—this normal approach of the historian either to the past or to its reflection in contemporary life—is also the necessary condition of genuine tolerance, as distinguished from mere indifference. In the wider acceptance of this mode of approach lies our best hope of avoiding, or at least mitigating, the tragic errors of the past.
Evarts Boutell Greene (July 8, 1870–June 27, 1942) earned his PhD from Harvard in 1893, where he taught from 1890 to 1923. He also taught at the University of Illinois, becoming an emeritus professor in 1939. Greene is noted for his pioneering work, The Provincial Governor in the English Colonies of America (1898).