Dr. Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College, is a prize-winning author who has penned several books, many of which deal with the role of religion in American life. Balmer’s latest, Solemn Reverence: The Separation of Church and State in American Life, is a real gem.
This slender volume of essays covers a lot of ground, with a focus on history. An overarching theme of the book is that the United States is not, and was never intended to be, an officially Christian nation.
“Were I to identify a foil for this book, it would be those voices breezily claiming that the United States is, and always has been, a Christian nation,” Balmer writes in the book’s Preface. “That assertion is demonstrably false. Those same voices have sought, and continue to seek, a diminution of the First Amendment and its wall of separation between church and state. That, in my view, is a dangerous course. I say that not as a secularist trying to root out all expressions of religion but instead as someone who believes along with Roger Williams that religion functions best from the margins and not in the councils of power, that the integrity of the faith suffers from too close an association with the state.”
Balmer, who was ordained an Episcopal priest in 2006, offers just what we need right now: an unapologetic, full-throated defense of separation of church and state as the best vehicle to protect and promote religious freedom in America. Solemn Reverence underscores how this separation is bound up with American history and makes the case that we should proudly embrace the principle; after all, we pioneered it.
The book is especially welcome now, as Americans United seeks to restore and protect church-state separation in the wake of the Trump years and the nation faces an emboldened movement of white Christian nationalists eager to mix religion and government.
The forthcoming March issue of Church & State will feature an excerpt from Solemn Reverence. In the meantime, you can learn more about the book here.