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One Nation Under Law: America's Early National Struggles to Separate Church and State.

One Nation Under Law: America's Early National Struggles to Separate Church and State. By Mark Douglas McGarvie. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005. xii + 258 pp. $38.00 cloth; $22.50 paper.

In this creative and well-researched book, Mark Douglas McGarvie argues that the Constitution helped construct a wall of separation between church and state, but not primarily through the establishment clause of the first amendment. Instead, he believes that the critical section of the Constitution, used later by John Marshall's Supreme Court to draw a clear boundary between church and state, was the contracts clause of Article 1. This clause protects private contracts from interference by the government. In the colonial period, Christian churches had been seen as having all manner of public functions, from being the guarantors of morality to the chief distributors of poor relief. By the early republic, as highlighted in the landmark Dartmouth College decision (1819), religious bodies became conceived as private voluntary organizations, and faith became seen as an individual, personal matter. This reenvisioning of faith was the critical precursor that allowed the separation of the public governmental sphere from the private realm of the churches.

McGarvie contends that this separation did not result primarily from the circumstantial pressure of American religious pluralism, nor from the advocacy of persecuted dissenters. Instead, he paints the founding period as torn by "ideological war" between the defenders of an older Christian communal view of American society and the promoters of a new Enlightened individualist model (67). In McGarvie's story, quite simply, the Enlightenment won. Some readers may find this dichotomy a bit too stark. For instance, in introducing the secular nature of the Constitution, McGarvie asserts that rather than basing "society on an ethic derived from Christianity, the Founders turned to a legal ethic derived from Enlightenment conceptions of individual integrity" (47). The first amendment, then, "prohibited congressional attention to religion, specifically Christian values and morality, in forming public laws" (48). This seems unnecessarily to exclude the underlying, almost reflexive influence that traditional Christian morality would play in the formation of American law. As the book demonstrates, even the most secular of the founders, such as Jefferson, rarely quibbled with Jesus' ethics, just the Bible's claims about miracles. McGarvie very helpfully shows that legal disestablishment proceeded against institutional entanglements between private church and public state, but it is harder to demonstrate a desire among the founders for the eradication of Christian principles and symbols from any role in federal or state government.

In chapters on disestablishment in New York and South Carolina, McGarvie demonstrates how liberal secularists (and in South Carolina, planter elites) used contract law further to privatize religion in the Revolutionary era. The critical episode with regard to separationism and contract law, however, is the Dartmouth College case of 1819, and this is the subject of the book's final chapter. The 1784 New Hampshire constitution had reaffirmed the state's establishment by requiring towns to support a Protestant minister. The state slowly granted Protestant dissenters the right not to support the Congregationalist Church, but that church maintained its colonial-era function of maintaining public morality.

Chartered in 1769 as a Christian seminary, Dartmouth by the 1810s had become a battleground between evangelicals and liberal republicans. It remained the only college in the state and served both public governmental and private religious interests. Governor William Plumer and the legislature tried to take over the school from its trustees in 1816 and turn it into an exclusively public university committed to liberal learning and religious freedom. The trustees sued, and when the case made it to the Supreme Court, John Marshall voided New Hampshire's restructuring of the college because it violated the rights of a private charitable corporation. While this sheltered Dartmouth College, as an evangelical institution, from state meddling, it also defined the college as an exclusively private entity. Therefore, according to McGarvie, Dartmouth College stopped voluntary religious organizations from maintaining both public and private functions in society. A case that seemed, on its face, to save evangelicals from Jeffersonian liberals actually sequestered religious bodies from the public domain and effectively fulfilled the constitutional potential for the separation of church and state.

In pointing to the ironic role of the Dartmouth College case, and contract law generally, McGarvie has provided a fascinating and convincing examination of the constitutional basis for the separation of church and state. Although the ever elusive matter of constitutional intent remains unclear, he effectively demonstrates that while "the Constitution did not directly separate church and state, it did provide the ideological and legal structure" that made separation possible. Whether the contract clause also made separation "inevitable" is doubtful, for success by liberals seems to have been contingent upon their active use of contract law in the early republic (190). Nevertheless, McGarvie's learned and compelling history opens a substantially new line of investigation in what had seemed to be a well-worn topic.

Thomas S. Kidd

Baylor University
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Author:Kidd, Thomas S.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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