Arming history for political purposes

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History has somehow become a weapon of choice in political discourse. The problem is that those who use it do not know their history and make all possible historical errors.

A recent example came from U.S. Representative Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who drew on historical figures like Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson to assert the worn-out motto, “separation of church and state.”

Her op-ed addressed a speech by U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., in which she said, “The church is supposed to run the government. The government is not supposed to run the church. … I’m tired of this “separation of church and state”. It was this comment that led Representative Kinzinger claim on Twitter“There is no difference between this and the Taliban.”

To be fair to the congressman, Rep. Boebert’s remarks were problematic and laudable. the church should not
run the government – of this the US Constitution is clear. Yet his larger argument was about the positive role that Christianity plays in the public square. As Kinzinger’s editorial continued, this aspect of Boebert’s comments seemed to be his main target. Its adoption of a strict separatist secularism is in itself a problem – and a huge one.

In recounting his concerns, Kinzinger cited recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Carson v. Makin and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. The former ended Maine’s discrimination against religion-affiliated schools for the state’s voucher program, while the latter concluded that personal prayer, even on the 50-yard line on a football field public high school, does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Taken together, Kinzinger lamented what he called the erosion of the separation of church and state in America. Boebert’s assertion that Christians should publicly proclaim their beliefs and the Supreme Court’s strong defense of the First Amendment led the congressman to conclude that ‘growing support for religion in public spaces’ amounts to a Taliban American. He sided with Justice Sonia Sotomayor and her belief that the current Supreme Court “continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build.”

There is still this sentence: “separation of Church and State”.

It’s a phrase Kinzinger holds up as a historical precedent of collective wisdom that conservatives seem right to question. He then tries to seize history as a weapon against his adversaries. The congressman goes first to Roger Williams, the famous religious dissident and founder of Rhode Island. In 1644 Williams wrote of the perils which awaited any society which “opened a breach in the hedge or wall of separation between the church garden and the desert of the world”. Kinzinger also cited Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, in which Jefferson interpreted the First Amendment as “the building of a wall of separation between church and state”.

It is historical malpractice to suggest that Williams or Jefferson intended the “separation wall” to mean that religion has no place in the public eye or in the public square.

In Kinzinger’s estimation, these historical examples linked the political tradition of church-state relations in America to a supposedly time-tested and secular idea. For him, the “separation wall” is a sacred testimony to the pluralistic character of America. He maintains the neutrality of the public square, protecting it even from the whisperings of religious arguments concerning politics.

The congressman, however, made a classic historical error: anachronism, or the colonization of an idea from the past with modern concepts and meanings.

British novelist LP Hartley once quipped: “The past is a foreign land; they do things differently there. In other words, the presence of colloquialisms from the past — like “separation of church and state” — may not have meant what people like Rep. Kinzinger think. The story is complex. The world of Jefferson, and especially of Williams, was entirely different from our present context.

Thus, it is historical malpractice to suggest that Williams or Jefferson intended the “separation wall” to mean that religion has no place in the public eye or in the public square. As Philip Hamburger has written, the “separation of church and state” in the 17th and 18th centuries rarely meant the banishment of Christianity from public life. Advocates of religious freedom, he wrote, “wanted no more a separation of church and state than an establishment.” Extracting historical quotes results in a handpicked, context-free history of the past intended to bludgeon contemporary political opponents whom you intend to label as outside the mainstream of tradition and historical wisdom.

The quote from Williams, for example, must be placed in its seventeenth-century context and in the larger body of his writings. Indeed, while Williams certainly spent much of his career fighting for dissolution and religious freedom, he also wrote in 1652 that magistrates had a role to play in preserving and nurturing Christian communities within of their jurisdiction. Civil leaders, he argued, had a responsibility to ensure that Christians and churches prosper.

A word of warning, then, to anyone looking to the past for political weapons. Historical errors will abound, and you can cite figures who would have strongly disagreed with your conclusions.



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