The American Tradition in Church and State -- By: James E. Wood, Jr.

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 05:0 (NA 1972)
Article: The American Tradition in Church and State
Author: James E. Wood, Jr.

The American Tradition in Church and State

James E. Wood, Jr.

The American tradition of a free society in church and state, the non-establishment of religion and the free exercise of religion, represented on behalf of the founding fathers a bold experiment unparalleled in human history. The fact is that not until the twentieth century were the principles constitutionally and unequivocally enunciated anywhere else in the world. The uniqueness of America as a free society in church and state is of profound importance in understanding both its political and religious history.

Religious liberty, which significantly is the concern of the First Amendment in America’s Bill of Rights, was fundamental in the development of American civilization. And for Americans the principle of complete religious liberty, to quote from a famous case before the New York Supreme Court, “has always been regarded by the American people as the very heart of its national life.”1 More than three-quarters of a century ago, David Dudley Field, one of America’s greatest jurists of the nineteenth century, declared that the separation of church and state in America was the “greatest achievement ever made in the cause of human progress.” “If we had nothing else to boast of,” Field wrote, “we could lay claim with justice that first among the nations we of this country made it an article of organic law that the relations between man and his Maker were a private concern, into which other men have no right to intrude.”2 Indeed, the American tradition of the free society in church and state is, as Leo Pfeffer has expressed it, “America’s contribution to civilization.”3 Peter Drucker has written that “the relationship between religion, the state, and society, is perhaps the most fundamental—certainly it is the most distinctive—feature of American political as well as American religious life.”4


The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” is historically rooted in a distinct doctrine of the church and a particular view of the state. It is derived from: (1) the concept of the

free or secular state in which the church, independent of the state and political control, is thus to be dependent upon God for its authority and the accomplishment of its mission; and (2) the principle of voluntarism in religion, which affirms that the church must depend upon the volu...

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