Separation and Cooperation: Perspectives from the USA and Europe

(Watch the conference presentation on video: Separation and Cooperation: Perspectives from the USA and Europe)

There are widespread fears that the current George W. Bush administration represents an unusual and ominous convergence of religion and politics in American life. The new book by one-time Republican party strategist Kevin Phillips, titled American Theocracy, argues that the Christian Right includes dangerous groups that deny the separation of church and state, embrace a foreign policy agenda resting on pre-millennialist ideas regarding the Rapture, seek to construct a Christian theocracy at home and abroad, and have successfully carried these ideas into the White House.1

At one level, such fears are clearly exaggerated. The war in Iraq, for example, may or may not be a good idea. However, the chief strategists behind it clearly had objectives in mind other than a hastening of the End Times. At another level, though, the contemporary infusion of Christian ideas and energy into American politics is very real. . .and nothing new at all. Indeed, one cannot begin to understand the history and character of the United States without facing the repeated and fundamental blending of religious enthusiasm and American politics, from the colonial origins of American nationhood to the present. The supposed grounding of American political society on the "separation of church and state" is simply not true. Indeed, even the phrase "cooperation of church and state" does insufficient justice to the American experience. To appreciate the American story, it is helpful to compare it to an almost pure case of religious establishment: namely, The Church of Sweden.

Now I stand before you as a spiritual grandchild of The Church of Sweden. I was baptized, raised, and confirmed into the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the American offspring of the Swedish national church. So I confess to a certain fondness toward my subject here.

The Church of Sweden traces its origins to 1527, when Swedish King Gustav Vasa embraced the Protestant rebellion. In part, this came in reaction to Papal intrigues that favored Denmark's efforts to unite all Scandinavia under a single Danish crown. Also in part, Gustav Vasa saw the church's wealth as a fine resource for building a nation. Perhaps there was a genuine conversion, as well. In any case, King and Parliament declared Sweden a Lutheran land in 1544. A century and a half later, The Church of Sweden Act [1686] provided that King and Parliament should jointly regulate this Church, to the exclusion of all others.

At its best, The Church of Sweden evolved into a folkkyrka, a people's church, a pillar of Swedish nationhood. Sweden's bishops gained their own political base, claiming one of the four legislative chambers in the nation's old Parliament. At its worst, The Church of Sweden behaved like a classic monopoly, suppressing all potential rivals, and private conscience.

During the 18th Century, foreign merchants residing in Sweden—including Catholics and Jews—did gain the right to worship quietly in their own manner; and the late 19th Century saw a degree of toleration extended to the so-called "free churches," or dissenting Protestant groups. All the same, as late as 1999, The Church of Sweden was governed by the 1000 paragraph Church Law established by Parliament; all new Swedish babies automatically became members of the church if at least one parent was a member; parishes could levy a church tax of about 1 percent on income; and Parish Councils were elected along political lines.2

Financially, these arrangements left the Church of Sweden at the millennium's end as perhaps the wealthiest religious body on earth. Spiritually, The Church of Sweden was nearly dead. While 88 percent of the population were formally members of the Church, a mere 2 percent were regular worshippers. Moreover, politics altered the church. Prior to 1919, The Church of Sweden reflected the nationalism and conservatism of the old Kingdom, a politics of the 'God, King, and Soil' variety. Since 1931, the Swedish political order has been dominated by the Social Democratic Labor Party, and the Church of Sweden has largely been reshaped in its image.3

A personal story might help here. Several decades ago, I conducted interviews with Alva Myrdal, a key socialist and feminist architect of the contemporary Swedish welfare state. At the time, she served in the radical cabinet of Olaf Palme, as Minister of Disarmament and Church Affairs. In the latter capacity, she was the one who would select new Bishops for the Church of Sweden from a list submitted by the General Synod. She joked: "Here I am, a lifelong atheist, choosing the new leaders of the Swedish Church." For good reasons, most modern Swedes came to view their people's church as merely another branch of government.

In the year 2000, the Church of Sweden was formally disestablished. Church leaders hope for a spiritual renewal. For now, though, the parishes of The Church of Sweden stand mostly as sentimental relics, museums of past faith.4

The American story is less unitary, moving more by fits and starts. During the early colonial years, two broad themes emerged. On the one hand, the Puritan settlement in Massachusetts sought to be as "a city on a hill," an ideal Christian commonwealth freed from the corruptions of the Old World. All the same, most colonial American governments opted for some version of an established church. Ten of the thirteen colonies at some point gave privileged status and financial support to a single church: in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia, the favored body was The Church of England; in Massachusetts (including Maine), New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut, the Congregationalist church prevailed.

At the same time, though, the tiny colony of Rhode Island experimented with a radical form of separatism. The colony's founder, Roger Williams, had been expelled from Massachusetts for his religious troublemaking; above all, his disruptive quest for the truly pure church. As Garry Wills has commented: Williams always had trouble finding people pure enough to pray with—his enemies could never make out whether that meant he prayed only with his wife or not even with her. They were certain it precluded him from grace before meals except when he dined alone.5

His colony attracted a rag-tag body of religion eccentrics, including the mystic Anne Hutchinson and the then rowdy Quakers. Orthodox Puritans labelled Rhode Island the "sewer of New England." All the same, Williams' fastidious regard for religious purity led him to conclude that mere fallen men could never rule over the divine church. Emerging as a radical Augustinian, Williams demanded a complete separation of state and church, in order to protect the true church.6 Not coincidentally, the earliest synagogues in America appeared in Rhode Island. In the mid-Eighteenth century, these rival American visions of religion and society rolled into an event called The Great Awakening. As historian William McLoughlin explains, the American "Revolution can be described as the political revitalization of a people whose religious regeneration began in the Great Awakening."7 Starting about 1735, a new wave of evangelists—exemplified by Jonathan Edwards—spread through the colonies. Edward's most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," condemned the colonists for having fallen away from the faith of their fathers, into greed and quarreling. Tens of thousands of the American colonials did fall on their knees, confess their sins, and beg for forgiveness.

These "New Light enthusiasts," as they came to be called, were condemned by orthodox religious authorities as extremists driven by unbridled emotions. And in truth, they did pose dangers to the prevailing order. Their pietism translated into rebellion: hundreds of congregations split after bitter quarrels over the 'New Lights'; many "enthusiasts" were jailed or saw their property seized by colonies with established churches. 'New Light' preaching crossed denominational bonds and encouraged voluntary—rather than inherited—loyalties. 'New Light' post-millennial optimism also led to the conclusion that God meant to convert all the people of America and to engage them in preparation for Christ's return. The New Jerusalem could come through the work of man, a great task that would begin in America. Disobedience to worldly tyrants was obedience to God.

With only slight twists, all of these religious themes could be—and were—transformed into political imperatives. A poem by Philip Freneau, written in 1771, ably captures this bond of religious enthusiasm to political action. Entitled "The Rising Glory of America," it reads:

Here independent power shall hold her sway,
And public virtue warm the patriot breast:
No traces shall remain of tyranny,
And laws, a pattern to the world beside,
Be here enacted first. . .
A New Jerusalem, sent down from heaven,
Shall grace our happy earth—perhaps this land,
Whose ample breast shall then receive, tho' late,
Myriads of saints, with their immortal king,
To live and reign on earth a thousand years,
Thence call'd Millennium. . .8

When the American victors crafted a Constitution for their new Republic, the issue of church and state formally arose. Article Six prohibited religious tests "as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." And the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights declared that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Animating these "establishment" and "free exercise" clauses were beliefs that religious activity was an inalienable but fragile right requiring special protection; that any authority exercised over religion should be a state, rather than a federal, matter; and that the federal Congress was a potential threat to religious liberty and to existing established churches in the states.9 At the fundamental level, these clauses meant that there could be no preference for any religious sect by the new federal government.10

More broadly, these clauses reflected fresh developments in American society. The Revolutionary Army had included a large number of clergymen, who developed a pronounced inter-denominational unity.11 This grew into an informal American assumption of denominationalism, which repudiated—at least at the legal level—claims that "we alone are the true church," which allowed broad use of the Christian label, and which laid the groundwork for cross-denominational cooperation on practical and moral matters. American churches would also rely increasingly on the voluntary support of a committed laity. Hierarchies gave way to democratic governance; religious allegiance grew more competitive. These changes largely explain the steady dis-establishment of churches in the states: South Carolina in 1780; Connecticut in 1818; Maine in 1820; and finally Massachusetts in 1833.12 But this did not mean a separation of religion and state. Indeed, just as the young American Republic settled into a new Century, another outburst of religious enthusiasm shook—and profoundly transformed—the nation. Called The Second Great Awakening, it began in New England. In recent years, church membership had floundered. Alcohol abuse grew widespread. Sexual morals loosened; by 1800, over a third of American brides arrived at the altar already pregnant.13

The revival began with reported "heavenly sprinklings" of the spirit in Connecticut and New Hampshire in 1797. The same year, students at Yale University formed a secret "Moral Society," soon turning that school into "a little temple; prayer and praise seem to be the delight of the greater part of the students." A new generation of evangelists spread from Yale across the land: Nathaniel William Taylor, Bennet Tyler, Asahel Nettleton, and Lyman Beecher. Church membership soared by 300 percent; particularly among the young. Missionary societies formed to convert the Indians, to send ministers to heathen Asia and Africa, and to witness to the frontiersmen. Out on that frontier, great camp meetings convened where "displays of divine grace" transformed the cultural landscape. Dozens of new Christian denominations took form. At the more innovative level, the Second Great Awakening also gave birth to the Latter-day Saints (or Mormons) and the Seventh-Day Adventists, movements that would grow into world religions.

This spiritual episode sparked moral revival, as well. The Temperance movement took form; within a century it would ban alcoholic beverages nationwide. In a stunning turn, pre-marital pregnancy fell sharply: from 35 percent of new brides in 1800 to only 10 percent by 1850. Most importantly, the anti-slavery movement was nurtured in the bosom of the Second Great Awakening. Lyman Beecher, "baptized into the revival spirit" in 1797, headed the family and the campaign that would finally crush The Slave Power in 1865.14

This Nineteenth Century also witnessed a budding cooperation between church and state. While established churches disappeared among the states, the Second Great Awakening actually gave the Christian churches enhanced political influence. In an important 1817 court case, Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state governments could not arbitrarily seized the property of churches or church-related institutions. In the words of the Jesuit analyst John A. Hardon, this decision established "the principle that most Americans are citizens of the two societies, Church and State, and that consequently they have rights and privileges which no political power may take from them."15 The "common school" movement of the 1830's, which spread rapidly throughout the country, actually rested on a generic Protestant Christianity, complete with prayer, Bible readings, and instruction in Christian morality.

For the next 130 years, most court decisions and Congressional actions reinforced a model of cooperation. Some examples: In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal immigration law that prohibited an Episcopalian church from hiring a minister from abroad. The Court explained "that we are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity."16

In 1923, the Supreme Court ruled that a parent had a right to educate his child in a parochial church school, an extension of rights "to marry, establish a home and bring up children [and] to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience."17 Three years later, in the case Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the same Court overturned new Oregon law that required all children to attend state schools. It declared that "the child is not the mere creature of the state" and that parents have the liberty "to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control."18

Court decisions during the early-20th Century allowed for free transportation and the distribution of state textbooks to children in church schools.19 Military chaplains have existed since the Revolutionary War; their status was fully regularized in 1937. War Department regulations instructed chaplains to "promote morality, religion, and good order." In 1942, the Congress appropriated funds to build chapels on military posts throughout the country, for worship by Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.

Since their origin, both houses of the U.S. Congress have had chaplains as well, who open each daily legislative session with prayer. In times of crisis, American Presidents and—on occasions—Congress, too, have formally called for national days of prayer. As far back as 1789, George Washington instituted a day of Thanksgiving, so that Americans might "acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will,. . .and humbly to implore His protection and favor." A Congressional Resolution of 1941 fixed this day as the fourth Thursday of each November.

To this list we might add: the tax deductibility of gifts to religious entities; the legal recognition of religious conscientious objectors to war; the exemption of seminarians and clergymen from the military draft; a series of generous tax benefits for the clergy; and legal protection of priests relative to the confessional. All such forms of cooperation are the fruit, more or less, of the pervasive religiosity that infused American life during the 19th Century.

In similar ways, subsequent religious outbursts have marked American life. In 1906, a small revival among African-Americans on Azusa Street in Los Angeles exploded into the modern Pentecostal or charismatic movement: again, dozens of new denominations formed; revivalists filled with the spirit fanned out across the continent and globe. Today, exactly one hundred years later, an estimated 500 million persons worldwide are the spiritual children of that event. Between 1945 and 1965, Roman Catholics in the United States poured out of ethnic urban ghettos into new suburban homes, sparking the "marriage boom" and the "baby boom" of that era. The proportion of Catholic families with four or more children more than doubled. Meanwhile, a young evangelist, Billy Graham, organized a small revival in Los Angeles in 1949, which sparked the modern Evangelical movement. Still another revival in religious enthusiasm and behavior appears to have begun in the late 1970's; we still live in its wake. All of these religious episodes, I need add, had important political consequences: most recently, the faith-based initiatives in social services launched by the current Bush administration.

Now, as a spiritual grandchild of The Church of Sweden, I am appalled by this American spectacle: the excessive emotion; the ill disciplined worship; the promiscuous spread of new denominations; the chaotic relationship of government to religion; the theological laxity. However, as an historian—and as an American—I find this pageant to be endlessly fascinating. Moreover, The Church of Sweden stands today largely as an empty shell; while the spirit-driven churches of America enjoy a turbulent growth.

A final question remains? If cooperation between church and state is the main American story, why do many talk today about a crisis in American church-state relations?

Part of the problem derives from a 1947 Supreme Court decision in the case, Everson v. Board of Education. Appealing to Thomas Jefferson's interpretation of the First Amendment as erecting "a wall of separation between church and state," the Court ruled here that even sect-neutral support of religion was unconstitutional. This reading of the First Amendment has since led to bans on prayers in public schools or at school-sponsored events and to the prohibition of tax deductions and credits for church school tuition.20

Critics of the Everson decision point to four historical mistakes made by the Court. First, in judging the intent of the drafters of the First Amendment, the Court relied almost exclusively on the ideas of Jefferson and James Madison. True, they were key figures in the drafting of the Constitution and their personal opinions tack closely, at times, to a strict separtionist view. However, the Court ignored the hundreds of other voices—and votes—at the Constitutional Convention and in the state ratifying conventions which clearly offered a much more expansive view of church-state relations. Second, the Court completely misunderstood why Catholics had founded their own schools in the 19th Century. They did not object so much to the secular nature of the state schools, but rather to their informal Protestant nature. Lack of Bible reading was not the problem in the state schools of 1880; use of the King James Version was. Third, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was never meant to limit the free exercise of religion. And fourth, the Court's implicit fear of religious zealotry flew in the face of real American history, which has been largely defined by a form of religious zealotry.21

Also, something new appeared on the American scene during the 1970's: a militant secularism designed to drive religious sensibilities out of the public domain. The logic behind the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which overturned the abortion laws of all fifty states, was of this pedigree. So were a series of regulatory initiatives launched during the Jimmy Carter Presidency designed to control church fund raising practices, sharply narrow the definition of church, shut down many religious schools, and curtail religious tax exemptions.22 These clumsy efforts directly contributed to the rise of the contemporary Religious Right, portending the "culture war" in which Americans are still engaged.


1 Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (New York: Viking, 2006).

2 See: Nicholas George, "Swedish Church and State Looking for Divorce," Scandinavian Review 82 (Autumn 1994): 19-22.

3 As an example of this leftist orientation, see: Kenneth Hermele, "A Letter from Sweden: The Bishops Take the Lead," Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine 45 (Feb. 1944): 30-32.

4 E. Kenneth Stegeby, "An Analysis of the Impending Disestablishment of the Church of Sweden," Brigham Young University Law Review (1999, #1): 703-67.

5 Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990): 345.

6 Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972): 154-55.

7 William G. McLoughlin, "'Enthusiasm for Liberty': The Great Awakening as the Key to the Revolution," in Jack P. Greene and William G. McLoughlin, Preachers and Politics: Two Essays on the Origins of the American Revolution (Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1977): 73.

8 Philip Freneau, Poems on Various Subjects (London: Russell Smith, 1861): 50-51.

9 Arlin M. Adams and Charles J. Emmerich, A Nation Dedicated to Religious Liberty: The Constitutional Heritage of the Religion Clauses (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990): 43-47.

10 Gerard V. Bradley, Church-State Relationships in America (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987): 19.

11 McLoughlin, "Enthusiasm for Liberty," p. 67.

12 Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 381-83.

13 Daniel Scott Smith and Michael S. Hindus, "Premarital Pregnancy in America, 1640-1971: An Overview and Interpretation," The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 5 (1975): 553.

14 Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 415-440.

15 Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, "Cooperation of Church and State in the United States," at: (5/1/2006).

16 Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457-71 (1892).

17 Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 397 (1923).

18 Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 45 U.S. 571 (1924).

19 Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education, 281 U.S. 370 (1930).

20 Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 15 (1947).

21 See: Bradley, Church-State Relationships in America, pp. 1-13; 121-46; William K. Lietzau, "Rediscovering the Establishment Clause: Federalism and the Rollback of Incorporation," DePaul Law Review 39 (1989): 1191-1234; Mary Ann Glendon and Raul F. Yanes, "Structural Free Exercise," Michigan Law Review 90 (Dec. 1991): 477-550; Michael W. McConnell, "The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion," Harvard Law Review 103 (1989): 1410-1517; and John Witte, Jr., "The Essential Rights and Liberties of Religion in the American Constitutional Experiment," Notre Dame Law Review 71 (1995): 371-450.

22 Allan Carlson, "Regulators and Religion: Caesar's Revenge," Regulation: AEI Journal on Government and Society (May-June 1979).