Book: One Nation Under Law
If asked, most Americans would probably point to the First Amendment as the legal basis for the separation of church and state. As Mark Douglas McGarvie shows in this fascinating new book, however, they would be wrong. It is the Constitutionâ€™s â€œcommerce clauseâ€?â€”article 1, section 10â€”which separates church and state by protecting contracted private arrangements from government interference. Americans in the early republic, McGarvie writes, â€œreconceived of churches as private, voluntary associations, legally recognized as private, not public, corporations.â€?
Drawing on a range of materials, McGarvie examines the disestablishment of religion that followed this legal change, a process that meant not only eliminating public support for religion but also stripping churches of their traditional role as public service providers. Focusing on three key states, New York, South Carolina, and New Hampshire, McGarvie reveals that disestablishment produced a sharp conflict between two competing worldviews; one informed by evangelical Christianity and the other by Enlightenment humanism, inspiring a â€œculture warâ€? still raging today.
â€œThis conflict emanatedâ€? he writes, â€œfrom different conceptions of God as well as of man.â€? If man is weak and inclined to evil, as the devout believe, then strict institutions must preserve public order against manâ€™s tendency to sin, teaching Godâ€™s law as a moral absolute. If man is rational, reasonable, and free, however, then the law need only secure liberty by protecting individual rights.
Through his close study of this heated debate from its eighteenth century roots through to contemporary fights over â€œfaith-basedâ€? initiatives, McGarvie has made a tremendous contribution to the study of American law, politics, and religion.