Please Don't Wish Me a Merry Christmas: A Critical History of the Separation of Church and State


Whether in the form of Christmas trees in town squares or prayer in school, fierce disputes over the separation of church and state have long bedeviled this country. Both decried and celebrated, this principle is considered by many, for right or wrong, a defining aspect of American national identity.

Nearly all discussions regarding the role of religion in American life build on two dominant assumptions: first, the separation of church and state is a constitutional principle ...

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Whether in the form of Christmas trees in town squares or prayer in school, fierce disputes over the separation of church and state have long bedeviled this country. Both decried and celebrated, this principle is considered by many, for right or wrong, a defining aspect of American national identity.

Nearly all discussions regarding the role of religion in American life build on two dominant assumptions: first, the separation of church and state is a constitutional principle that promotes democracy and equally protects the religious freedom of all Americans, especially religious outgroups; and second, this principle emerges as a uniquely American contribution to political theory.

In Please Don't Wish Me a Merry Christmas, Stephen M. Feldman challenges both these assumptions. He argues that the separation of church and state primarily manifests and reinforces Christian domination in American society. Furthermore, Feldman reveals that the separation of church and state did not first arise in the United States. Rather, it has slowly evolved as a political and religious development through western history, beginning with the initial appearance of Christianity as it contentiously separated from Judaism.

In tracing the historical roots of the separation of church and state within the Western world, Feldman begins with the Roman Empire and names Augustine as the first political theorist to suggest the idea. Feldman next examines how the roles of church and state variously merged and divided throughout history, during the Crusades, the Italian Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the British Civil War and Restoration, the early North American colonies, nineteenth-century America, and up to the present day. In challenging the dominant story of the separation of church and state, Feldman interprets the development of Christian social power vis--vis the state and religious minorities, particularly the prototypical religious outgroup, Jews.

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Editorial Reviews

Examines the history of two institutions frequently joined in controversy, from the origins of Christianity to the present day. Feldman (law, U. of Tulsa) challenges the dominant assumptions that the separation of church and state is a constitutional principle, and that this principle emerges as a uniquely American contribution to political theory. While for those already well versed in this debate Feldman's text will sound like the strumming of a familiar chord, his work is thoroughly researched and documented, and provides a useful introduction to an important topic. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Matt Wetstein
If you run across Stephen Feldman during the holiday season, here is some advice for you: please don't wish him a merry Christmas. He is likely to give you an icy glare and launch into a lively and critical analysis of the history of the separation of church state from the perspective of a well-read American Jew. Instead of placing yourself in that situation, I recommend that you buy this wonderful book and enjoy the way Feldman can use personal stories and critical historical analysis to turn the dominant story of church-state separation on its head. A Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Tulsa, Feldman makes two important arguments in this book. First, he criticizes the "dominant story" of church state separation as promoting religious freedom and toleration in America -- particularly freedom for "outgroups" like Jews and other non-Christians. Instead, Feldman argues that the history of church-state separation seen in a different light (a mainly Jewish light) is a history of domination by Christian religious groups, and a history of antisemitism. Second, Feldman argues that American legal scholars are wrong to argue that the notion of religious toleration is a uniquely American product. Thus it is wrong to claim that the separation of church and state is (to quote Stephen Carter from THE CULTURE OF DISBELIEF [1993]) "one of the great gifts that American political philosophy has given to the world" (Carter as cited in Feldman, 5). Instead, Feldman's critical history of this concept maintains that the idea evolved slowly through western history as Christianity evolved. For much of western history, religious toleration meant tolerance of Christianity, not of other religious movements. In many ways, this is a book about the dominant power of Christianity in the western world, and the strands of antisemitism that came with that domination. Feldman traces the argument back to the time of Jesus and the struggle to develop a Christian faith in the wake of his persecution, trial, and crucifixion. Jews, of course, became the scapegoat outgroup because of their alleged role in the crucifixion. Later acceptance of Christianity by Roman emperors led to the struggle over the division of power in "this world" between rulers of the state and rulers of the church. Thus, separation of church and state is a construct that has troubled western history since the days of Roman power, and any historical study of the battles between Catholic church leaders and civil kings and princes makes this evidently clear. This is a book filled with nuggets of important material for scholars of church history, Jewish persecution, normative political theory, and constitutional law. The historical sweep of the book is impressive -- ranging from the beginnings of the Christianity to the late 20th Century. The book is often painful to read because of the detailed accounts of Jewish persecution through history by Christian and civil rulers. Scholars of normative theory will find a number of great authors discussed, including Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Martin Luther, Machiavelli, and Madison. Inevitably, the discussion of these authors turns to their treatment of Jews, "heathens," and religious minorities in theological or political terms. Constitutional laws scholars will derive benefit from the discussion of establishment and free exercise clause cases in Chapter 9 of the book. The book's strengths are many. Foremost, the topic and thesis of the book are important. In an age of growing intolerance between ethnic and religious groups, it is important to recognize scholarship that highlights the past vilification of Jewish people, and the roots of religious toleration and intolerance. This history of intolerance of the "prototypical religious outgroup" is clearly described and is systematically developed through the historical chapters. The roots of religious toleration are rightly found outside of America, prior to the writing of the U.S. Constitution. The volume of sources cited in this work to document this history is extraordinary. The evidence of de facto Protestant domination in American history, and de facto establishment of Christian traditions is clearly described. In brief, this is a significant work of scholarship, deserving the attention of scholars of religious studies, history, normative political theory, and constitutional law. Of particular interest to readers of the LAW AND POLITICS BOOK REVIEW is the nuanced analysis of religious cases in Feldman's work. Once again, a critical Jewish eye is taken toward the Supreme Court's rulings. While Feldman applauds rulings that establish protections for religious outgroups (for example LEE V. WEISMAN [1992], overturning prayer at a public school graduation), he points out that the Court usually writes from a decisively Christian conception of religion. Thus, victories emerge on occasion, but the Court often sides against religious minorities, and often endorses laws that appear to entangle Christian traditions with government. One example of this argument should suffice. In 1961 the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional Sunday closing laws without exemptions for Jews or others who celebrate non-Sunday sabbaths. The Court's rationale was to honor a day of "rest, repose, recreation, and tranquility" -- a secular day of rest, regardless of the Christian roots of the law (MCGOWAN V. MARYLAND, [1961]). Contrast that ruling with the Court's rejection of a Connecticut law in 1985 in THORNTON V. CALDER. There the Court overturned a state law establishing an employee's right not to work on his/her religious sabbath. Feldman criticizes the ruling in the following way: "If the dominant story of church and state is accurate -- that is, if the separation of church and state were a constitutional principle that equally protects the religious freedom of all, including outgroups -- then one would expect the Court to uphold the Connecticut statute. After all, the Court already had upheld Sunday laws, and this statute appeared merely to accommodate the religious practices of outgroups. Nonetheless, the Court held that the statute violated the establishment clause. To reach this conclusion, the Court relied on the second prong of the Lemon test, reasoning that the primary effect of the statute was to advance religion" (Feldman 252). Thus, what was good for Christianity (that is, a secular day of rest) in 1961 was not good for others in 1985. This provides a brief taste of the argument Feldman makes in this book. While Feldman's book is clearly a superb work of scholarship, one minor flaw emerges. Feldman's emphasis on the mistreatment of Jewish people through history means that many other religious outgroups are omitted from the analysis. In Feldman's defense, this is perhaps an unfair criticism, because it is obvious he set out to write a book on church state separation from the perspective of a critical Jewish scholar. Indeed, the opening line of the book reads: "I am Jewish" (Feldman 1). But a nagging question is left with the reader: What about other religious perspectives that are not Christian? For example, the religious conversion of Native Americans, and the attempt to bring them into the "city of God" at the end of a sword, gets no attention here. On another level, it is important to realize how many non-Jewish minority groups were active in bringing suits before the Supreme Court to defend their religious freedom, their right to free expression, or to attack religious establishments. The list of denominations is long, and includes Jehovah's Witnesses (CANTWELL V. CONNECTICUT, [1940]), Native Americans (OREGON V. SMITH, [1990]), Seventh Day Adventists (SHERBERT V. VERNER, [1963]), Buddhists (CRUZ V. BETO, [1972]), Moslems (O'LONE V. SHABAZZ [1987]), the Santeria faith (CHURCH OF LUKUMI BABALU AYE V. HIALEAH [1992]), the Amish (WISCONSIN V. YODER, [1973]), and the Hare Krishnas (INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY FOR KRISHNA CONSCIOUSNESS V. LEE [1992]) -- just to name a few standout cases. Indeed, one of the striking features of recent religious cases is the propensity of religious denominations of many different traditions to join hands in filing briefs with the Court to protect religious freedom. But bringing law suits and winning them are two different matters. Thus, Feldman is right to draw attention to one critical point: while Christian sects often win free exercise cases (even members of small minority Christian groups), non-Christians never win free exercise cases before the Supreme Court (Feldman 246). Still, there is little here to quibble with and much to applaud. Indeed, readers might get the most benefit out of the many modern-day examples of antisemitism Feldman catalogs in the closing chapter of the book. The examples are astounding, and certainly influenced Feldman's book title. The only warning I provide for readers of the LAW AND POLITICS BOOK REVIEW is that the book is longer on history, and shorter on constitutional law than they may desire. But if you seek more evidence of the historical development of church and state issues, and religious toleration, you will find much in Feldman's book to enjoy. With that, I wish you all a very merry .... reading holiday!
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814726846
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/1998
  • Series: Critical America Series
  • Pages: 395
  • Product dimensions: 0.91 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen M. Feldman is the Jerry W. Housel/Carl F. Arnold Distinguished Professor of Law and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Wyoming. Previous titles include Please Don’t Wish Me a Merry Christmas: A Critical History of the Separation of Church and State (NYU Press, 1997) and Law and Religion: A Critical Anthology (NYU Press, 2000).

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction: Different Stories 1
A Story about the Ways of Power 1
A Dominant Story about the Separation of Church and State 3
2 Origins of Power: The Emergence of Christianity and Antisemitism 10
The New Testament 10
The Christian Discourse of Redefinition: An Excursus on Power 15
The Roman Establishment of Christianity: The First Crystallization of Church and State 21
3 The Christian Middle Ages 28
The Early Middle Ages 28
The Later Middle Ages 37
4 The Christian Renaissance and Reformation in Continental Europe 50
The Renaissance 50
The Lutheran Reformation 54
The Calvinist Reformation 64
5 The English Reformation, Civil War, and Revolution 79
The English Reformation 80
The Civil War, Restoration, and Revolution 84
English Political Theory 98
Church and State at the End of the Seventeenth Century 116
6 The North American Colonies 119
The Early Years: Calvinist Roots 119
Christian Declension and Revival 133
7 The American Revolution and Constitution 145
The Revolution and Its Aftermath 145
The Constitution 158
8 The Fruits of the Framing: Church and State in Nineteenth - And Early-Twentieth-Century America 175
The Nineteenth Century 175
Church and State in the Early Twentieth Century 203
9 The Fruits of the Framing: Church and State in Late-Twentieth-Century America 218
The Supreme Court Intervenes 218
A Brief Assessment of the Supreme Court Cases 246
10 A Synchronic Analysis of the Separation of Church and State in the Late Twentieth Century: Concluding Remarks 255
Symbolic Power 256
Structural Power 265
The Interaction of Symbolic and Structural Power 270
Final Thoughts: A Political Statement 282
Notes 287
Selected Bibliography 376
Index 389
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2004

    A Disturbing But Compelling View of Church and State

    This is not a book about Christmas. Instead, it is a radical re-evaluation of the separation of church and state. Feldman, professor of law and political science at the University of Tulsa, opens with a personal account of his effort to end Christmas ob-servances at the public school his daughter attended. (Feldman is Jewish.) It failed, as such efforts by non-Christians usually do. What ever happened to the separation of church and state? The rest of the book is Feldman's an-swer, and it is lacerating. '[T]he dominant story of the separation of church and state is woefully simplistic and seri-ously misleading,' Feldman declares (p. 8). He charges that church-state separation is neither as uniquely American nor as benign to religious minorities as commonly supposed. Since separa-tion is a tale told by the Christian majority, we should not be surprised when it turns out to benefit that majority most of all: '[C]onstitutional discourse furnishes a façade of governmental neutrality and indi-vidual religious freedom, but behind that legitimating façade, Christian cul-tural imperialism pulses through the social body of America' (p. 272). If this rhetoric sounds postmodern, it is. Feldman declares himself a postmodernist, at least concerning historical, social and textual analysis. (Does he consider science a unique and valid way of knowing? He doesn't say, and in any case that sort of postmodernism is irrelevant to his topic.) Early on, Feldman serves up four pages of dense Foucaultian rhetoric, describing his book as a 'critical social narrative' primarily concerned with interpreting power relationships. There-after he lessens the postmodern jargon and launches a cogent, accessible -- though surely contro-versial -- analysis of church-state separation. I closed the book convinced that Feldman is onto something. There were just too many times when, peering through the lens of his interpretations, I watched seemingly contradic-tory elements in today's church-state environment start to make new, if terrible, kinds of sense. Feldman organizes his material historically. He finds the earliest roots of church-state sepa-ration in the New Testament proscription against coercing the conversion of Jews. (A meaning-ful commitment to Christ had to be voluntary.) Christians responded by dividing their world in two. The secular, or carnal, realm belonged to the Jews, while the heavenly realm was reserved for Chris-tians. This division would also become a well-spring of anti-Semitism throughout the two mil-lennia that followed. (Feldman's zeal in presenting examples of this sometimes verges on the tiresome.) The next element was the idea of religious toleration, which emerged after the Thirty Years War, 'not be-cause of a principled theological or political commitment to toleration, but rather because harsh experience had re-vealed that neither side ¿ could crush the other' (p. 73). In time Jews, too, could enjoy the benefits of toleration, but only as, at best, the 'incidental beneficiaries of ... Christian stalemates' (p. 98). Feldman traces the beginnings of American church-state separation to the Puritans, whose idea of 'freedom of conscience' was both limited and rooted in Christianity: Conscience was meant to be 'free' only in order to accept Christ. Things were no better during the American Revolution: If 'Madison could have seen America from a Jewish viewpoint (highly unlikely),' he would have recognized that 'America was hegemonically Protestant' (p. 160). Indeed, by the 19th century, Protestantism was the de facto national religion. Legal establishment was unneces-sary. When Jewish and Roman Catholic immigration swelled in the late 19th and early 20th cen-tury, Protestantism needed new responses. To Feldman the Social Gospel, Progressive, and Common School movements all sought to preserve Protestantism by imposing Anglo-Saxon val-ues (and if possible, Protestantism itself) on immigrants. American Jews met this pressure by be-comi

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