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The famous phrase “wall of separation of church and state” today enjoys the status of legal precedent, but here’s a curious fact. The phrase comes from the letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Connecticut Baptists who feared that state politicians would suppress them. When the Baptists received the letter, however, they didn’t celebrate and publicize the statement. They didn’t even record it in the minutes of their proceedings. “They pretend it never existed.”

That final comment is by Columbia law professor Philip Hamburger, who spoke on December 4th at the CUNY’s Institute for Education Policy on the topic “American Education and the Separation of Church and State: Face vs. Fiction.” The event is recorded here, and after Hamburger speaks a local social studies teacher, Matthew Yellin, takes the podium.

“I want to talk today about separation of church and state,” Hamburger begins. “My overall theme is simply this: that religion has a place in American life, including education, and ideas of separation of church and state should not get in the way of understanding this.”

To make the case, Hamburger begins by recounting the history of that famous line.

First, he cites the Establishment Clause and comments, “I don’t see much overlap between that phrase and ‘separation of church and state.’”

Why was the Establishment Clause so limited? he asks. Because religious minorities wanted freedom. They regarded God as central to governance—separating Divinity from human decision-making was impossible, they believed—but they did want to protect themselves from religious majorities. Separation of church and state was unthinkable, but they did think the power of the state could be withheld from religious favoritism.

So, Hamburger continues, how did this idea of separation become so important? During the heated 1800 presidential campaign, Federalist clergymen in New England denounced Thomas Jefferson. Jeffersonians fought back with the general point “we need to separate religion from politics.” Jefferson didn’t join in the call during the election season, but he later expanded the theme in the letter to the Connecticut Baptists, who were religious and political opponents of Jefferson’s critics. In other words, in part at least, the “wall of separation” statement was designed to quell political resistance in the region.

The wall-of-separation surfaces again in the 1840s, Hamburger recounts, when nativists regarded the influx of Irish Catholic immigrants with alarm and disdain. They leveled the phrase “separation of church and state” in order to restrict Catholic voting, in particular, claiming that Catholics would vote according to the dictates of Rome, not American principles. They used the argument as a way to limit public funds for Catholic schools, too, and to keep Catholics out of the teaching profession (Protestant schools enjoyed public funds and Protestant ministers as teachers). Nativists advocated public schooling, Hamburger says, “as a means of homogenizing the population in the name of ‘Americanism.’ They explained that public schools would inculcate separation of church and state. That’s why everyone has to go to public schools, so Catholicism would be knocked out of them.”

Such nativist organizations were influential throughout the century and into the twentieth century, and the most powerful of them was the Ku Klux Klan of the 1910s and 20s. The Klan of those years was virulently anti-Catholic and it embraced the wall-of-separation point. (Hamburger doesn’t say so, but the Klan in the 20s, in some estimates, claimed five million members, and states with the highest membership were Indiana and Ohio.)

A leading member of the Klan in his earlier years was Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. He was third in command of the largest Klavern in the United States. It was Justice Black, of course, who revived Jefferson’s line and planted it into American jurisprudence. “Black used his opinion in Everson to secure the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ in Establishment Clause jurisprudence and this prejudiced phrase has remained there ever since.”

There is much more to the discussion, which lasts a little more than an hour. At the very least, it undercuts the high-minded solemnity that accompanies wall-of-separation positions, which often treat absolute separation of church and state as necessary to civic order and American pluralism. In Hamburger’s view, separation of church and state, in its current form, in fact, is an instrument of intolerance and partisan politics, and has been from the beginning.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

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