Religion and The Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contributions to Original Intent ((Religion in America Series). By Derek H. Davis. N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2000. 309 pp. Hardback
Professor Davis, Director of the Dawson Institute at Baylor University, makes a significant contribution to the historical literature of the Revolutionary - Confederation Period in the area of church-state relations, a subject largely overlooked but nevertheless frequently abused. Much of the writings in this area is shrill: either militantly clamoring for the government to return the nation to its "Christian" roots or ardently asserting the principle of church-state separation. Neither side will be completely happy with this volume; however, its even-handed, objective presentation can be a bridge builder between the warring accomodationists and separationists.
Superbly organized, Davis clearly and comprehensively presents how the Continental Congress related itself to religion within the larger secular historical context. He then objectively discusses accomodationist's interpretations of how the Congress interacted with religion in numerous ways before providing an alternative but rational separationist construction. In a few instances the author readily admits the separationist alternative is weak.
Davis readily concedes that if the meaning of the Constitution's religion clauses was to be based on the record of the Continental Congress it would dramatically favor an accomodationist interpretation. In fact, he states the congressional record "does not readily allow for any other interpretation." However, Davis believes the historical evidence must undergo closer scrutiny. An overarching theme in Davis' study is that the Revolutionary-Confederation era was a transitory period - a period in which not only were revolutionary changes made in government, but also a period in which American attitudes towards church-state relations underwent dramatic change. It was during this era that Americans of different faiths, working together in a common cause, gained respect and acceptance of each other's divergent fundamental religious beliefs .
Another aspect of this theme is that this was an era in which the concepts of separation of church and state were being formulated. For instance the Congress, early in the war, endorsed the printing and distribution of Bibles at government expense; however by the end the Confederation period it refused to set aside sections of land in the Northwest Territory for the support of religion.
This reflects a changing outlook of the American people, who at the beginning of the conflict with Britain believed, along with the rest of the western world, that a church-state union was essential for the survival of both. However by 1791, contrary to the rest of the western world, that position had radically changed to where it was believed a church-state union was not only detrimental but impossible in a federation of states. The new nation's fundamental document, the Constitution, neither mentioned God nor did it provide for a national church - a revolutionary first.
However, in recording these revolutionary changes, Davis points out that, while separating church, and state certain practices of a civil religion remained in the public square. These included opening Congress and the Supreme Court with prayer, congressional and military chaplains, and presidential proclamations. But the author regards these as "routine carryovers" from an era just ended, not as violations of the First Amendment - a landmark of the new era.
While believing some accommodation is desirable, the author is of the opinion that government should sponsor only practices having "longstanding traditions in American life. But the author points out that those who are currently urging more government sponsorship of religion base their arguments mainly on pre-constitutional practices, forgetting that the nation was in the midst of a dramatic transition.
The concept that church and state must be united for the survival of both was ending, soon to be replaced "in favor of a new body of political thought that embodied separationist ideals." James Madison, the architect of the Constitution, expressed the principles of the new paradigm when he "solemnly declared that `any alliance or coalition between Government and Religion ... cannot be too carefully guarded against.'"