Life is slowly returning to normal in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, but we’re not quite at the point where it’s safe to do whatever you want. Many states and local jurisdictions remain under some form of lockdown.
If you’re homebound and looking for things to do – or if you’re just looking for some resources related to separation of church and state to check out this summer – we at Americans United can help. During the lockdown, Americans United began running a regular feature on its “Wall of Separation” blog titled “Separating Together.” This article lists some of the resources that were featured in those posts and expands on them.
This collection of books, documentaries and other resources can help you pass the time while giving you a solid education about the importance of separation of religion and government.
Books about Separation of Church and State
Books purporting to provide a general history of church-state separation are not hard to find, but the reader must be careful. Some are written by Religious Right figures whose main goal is to spread “Christian nation” propaganda, not accurate history.
The following books have been vetted by Americans United for accuracy:
Separation of Church & State: Founding Principle of Religious Liberty by Frank Lambert (Mercer University Press, 2014). Lambert, a professor of history at Purdue University, debunks Christian-nationalist mythology while outlining the real story of religious freedom – a freedom he makes clear rests on a high and firm church-state wall.
Former AU staff member Sarah E. Jones (now a writer at New York Magazine) reviewed the book in Church & State of October 2014. “Ultimately, Lambert succeeds in demonstrating that the Religious Right’s vision of American history is rooted in dogma and supported only by confirmation bias,” Jones wrote. “Moreover, he proves it’s a vision that excludes theists as well as atheists: By fundamentalist standards, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and their allies in the clergy wouldn’t qualify as real Christians. For anyone who cares about real history, Separation of Church & State: Founding Principle of Religious Liberty is a valuable tool indeed.”
Church and State in America by Edwin S. Gaustad (Oxford University Press, 2003). This short introductory volume looks at the development of separation of church and state in America and its application by the courts. The late Gaustad, a professor of history at the University of California-Riverside, also authored several books about 17th-century religious freedom pioneer Roger Williams and a tome about Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs.
The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore (Norton, 1997). First published in 1997, this cogent defense of secular government was reissued in 2005 with new information and a different subtitle: A Moral Defense of the Secular State. It serves as an excellent primer of the value of church-state separation and a rebuke to misguided notions of an officially based “Christian America.”
Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers by Brooke Allen (Ivan R. Dee, 2006). Through her examination of the lives and thoughts of six key founders – Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams and George Washington – Allen explodes the myth that the founding generation was influenced by conservative Christianity. Instead, she demonstrates their reliance on Enlightenment principles.
The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American by Andrew L. Seidel (Sterling, 2019). A powerful corrective to much of the bogus history peddled by Religious Right groups, The Founding Myth demonstrates why far-right “biblical principles” not only did not influence the drafting of the U.S. Constitution but are incompatible with its values. Seidel, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is an atheist and pulls no punches, but readers on all points of the religious and philosophical spectrum will find much of value in this work.
Faith in American Public Life by Melissa Rogers (Baylor University Press, 2019). In this compelling work, Rogers, a former attorney for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, former adviser on faith-based initiatives in the Barack Obama White House and professor at Wake Forest University’s Divinity School, challenges the notion that separation of church and state drives religion from public life. Rogers advocates true pluralism that encompasses believers and non-believers, undergirded by separation of religion and government.
In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty by Edward M. Buckner and Michael E. Buckner (Prometheus, 2012). Religious believers should not be put off by the title of this book. The Buckners – a father-and-son team – offer a rousing defense of secular government, secular education and a public square that welcomes all voices. In the process, they remind us of the true value of freedom of conscience, including the right to reject faith entirely.
Liars for Jesus by Chris Rodda (Vol. 1, 2006; Vol. 2, 2016). Rodda, a researcher for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, deftly debunks Christian nationalist claims of a "Christian nation" in these in-depth, well-researched and comprehensive works.
Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President by Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter (Salem Grove Press, 2012). Throckmorton and Coulter do a great job demolishing false claims about Thomas Jefferson peddled by Religious Right pseudo-historian David Barton. .
Church, State, And Freedom by Leo Pfeffer (Beacon Press, 1953; 2nd ed., 1967). Pfeffer was an eminent scholar who once stated, “I believe that complete separation of church and state is one of those miraculous things which can be best for religion and best for the state, and the best for those who are religious and those who are not religious.” This classic work is out of print, but you might find it in a used-book store or online. (Several copies are listed on BookFinder.com.) While the information about Supreme Court rulings is out of date, Pfeffer’s work is still valuable for his survey of the history of religion and government, spanning the ancient world to the 20th century.
Jews, Turks, and Infidels by Morton Borden (University of North Carolina Press, 1984). Borden persuasively argues that since the religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment were not self-executing, it took sustained efforts by Jews and other religious minorities to bring the promise of freedom of conscience for all to fruition.
God and the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law by Marci Hamilton (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Hamilton’s book is an eye-opening, if disturbing, look at how conservative religious groups twist the meaning of “religious freedom” to buttress child abuse, discrimination and other social ills.
If you’re looking for something with a bit of a travelogue vibe to it, try two books by Boston University law professor Jay Wexler. His 2019 book Our Non-Christian Nation: How Atheists, Satanists, Pagans, and Others Are Demanding Their Rightful Place in Public Life (Redwood Press) is an engaging look at how non-believers and non-Christians are reshaping church-state law, based on Wexler’s first-hand reporting. His previous book, Holy Hullabaloos: A Road Trip to the Battlegrounds of the Church/State Wars (Beacon Press, 2009) is in a similar vein, in which Wexler travels to the places where prominent church-state cases have occurred and talks with participants. (A review of Our Non-Christian Nation appeared in the May 2019 issue of Church & State, and a Q&A with Wexler about Holy Hullabaloos is in the January 2010 issue, both online at AU’s website.)
Books by Americans United Authors
Members of the Americans United staff have been publishing books since the 1950s. Here’s a look at some of the more recent titles.
Former AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn published Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom in 2006 (Crown Forum), which reviews church-state history and examines contemporary points of controversy. Lynn followed it up in 2015 with God and Government: Twenty-Five Years of Fighting for Equality, Secularism, and Freedom Of Conscience (Prometheus Books), a collection of his writings from a quarter-century of defending church-state separation and the freedom to believe or not as the individual sees fit.
Steven K. Green, former legal director at Americans United, is a scholar of constitutional law who has authored a number of books. Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding (Oxford University Press, 2015) debunks the revisionist history of the Christian nationalists and outlines the origins of the “Christian nation” myth. Two other books by Green, The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash that Shaped Modern Church-State and Doctrine (Oxford, 2012) and The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford, 2010) are loaded with valuable information.
In 1987 the Rev. Robert L. Maddox, then executive director of Americans United, published Separation of Church and State: Guarantor of Religious Freedom (Crossroad), a pastor’s reflections on religious freedom.
Not to be too self-promotional, I have published four books since joining Americans United in 1987. The two most relevant are Why the Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation of Church & State (Prometheus Books, 1993; 2nd ed., 2003), a history of church-state separation and its application by the Supreme Court aimed at the general reader; and Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You The Right To Tell Other People What To Do (2014, Prometheus), a critique of recent attempts by Religious Right groups to distort the meaning of religious freedom.
Books about the Religious Right
So many books have been published about the Religious Right that we can’t list them all. Here are some recent works of interest:
The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart (Bloomsbury, 2020). This book, a recently issued inside look at the rise of Christian nationalism in America and its corrosive effects on politics, is a reminder of all we stand to lose if the church-state wall is undermined. Stewart discussed the book in an interview with Church & State last month. The tome is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the ongoing chokehold of Christian nationalism in American politics and culture.
Jeff Sharlet, an award-winning literary journalist, has published two books about the secretive Religious Right group The Family. Check out The New York Times bestseller The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, 2008) and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy (Little, Brown, 2010).
Books about School Prayer
The recent March issue of Church & State focused on school prayer. In that issue, we recommended several titles that give the history of religion in public schools. Among the best is School Prayer: The Court, the Congress, and the First Amendment by Robert S. Alley (Prometheus Books, 1994). Alley, late professor of humanities at the University of Richmond, provides an overview of the development of church-state separation in colonial America and then segues into a discussion of government-sponsored school prayer, placing special emphasis on efforts by Congress to add a school- prayer amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
For an in-depth discussion of the first school-prayer case to reach the Supreme Court, try The Battle Over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America by Bruce J. Dierenfield (University Press of Kansas, 2007). Dierenfield examines the 1962 New York case and offers an assessment of its impact.
1963’s Abington Township School District v. Schempp was a landmark case in which the Supreme Court struck down schoolsponsored recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and Bible reading in Pennsylvania public schools. Ellery’s Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle Over School Prayer by Stephen D. Solomon (University of Michigan Press, 2007) tells the whole story of this important ruling.
Books about School Vouchers
A central claim of voucher proponents is that public education is failing, and that’s why we must move to a privatized system. The assertion is false. Public education is not failing. In The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And The Attack On America’s Public Schools (Basic Books, 1996), researchers David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle marshal an array of facts and statistics to prove that public schools are doing the job they’re supposed to do – educating the masses – and that they would do even better with adequate funding and support.
The late Gerald Bracey, an education-policy researcher, wrote a number of books defending public education from voucher proponents. One of his best works is Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the U.S. (Heinemann, 2004, 2nd ed.).
Diane Ravitch’s latest book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools (Knopf, 2020) offers a strong defense of the public good promoted by public education. Ravitch rebukes ultraconservatives she calls “the Disrupters” – a coalition of billionaires, anti-government activists and religious-school interests who seek to privatize secondary education. (The book was reviewed in the April 2020 issue of Church & State.)
Books about Creationism
For a good overview of the evolution/creationism issue, start with Evolution v. Creationism: An Introduction (University of California Press, 2009, 2nd ed.) by Eugenie C. Scott, the former executive director of the National Center for Science Education. Scott, currently a member of Americans United’s Board of Trustees, outlines the scientific basis for evolution and provides an overview of the history of creationism, including a look at the courtroom clashes between evolution and creationism.
Barbara Forrest, a former AU Board of Trustees member, penned the best response to intelligent design creationism in a 2004 book she coauthored with Paul R. Gross, Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford University Press, 2004). Renowned scientist Edward O. Wilson called the book “the definitive work on modern creationism, an exhaustively detailed and compelling exposure of the attempt – by the well-known process in nature called by biologists ‘aggressive mimicry’ – to corrupt science in the service of sectarian religion.”
Kenneth R. Miller’s Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (Penguin Books, 2008) is a powerful defense of evolutionary theory against creationist assaults. In its review, the Baltimore Sun remarked that the book “demolishes the assertions of advocates of Intelligent Design.”
After Americans United and its allies vanquished an attempt to teach “intelligent design” in Dover, Pa., in 2005, several books were written about that celebrated trial. The best of the lot is Laurie Lebo’s The Devil in Dover: An Insider’s Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America (New Press, 2008). Lebo was a newspaper reporter in the area at the time and in her book brings an insider’s eye to the proceedings, adding valuable context and background that only someone from the community could know.
For a classic account of 1925’s Scopes “monkey trial,” try Six Days or Forever?: Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes by Ray Ginger (Beacon Press, 1958). Though now out of print, this work is easy to find on sites that sell used books.
In 2016, a group of 11 scientists came together to write The Grand Canyon: Monument To An Ancient Earth (Kregel, 2016). This informative and attractive book includes 255 photographs (mostly in color), 17 photographs of artwork and 104 diagrams or sketches. The authors include professors of geology, biology, paleontology and other disciplines. Eight of the authors are evangelical Christians, while the other three identify as agnostic. Their aim, one of the authors told Americans United, was to “help counter the misleading information being disseminated by the young-Earth creationist ministries.”
Works of Fiction
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale (Anchor Books), is a now-classic story of a dystopian future America run by oppressive Christian nationalists. Last year, Atwood released a sequel to the book called The Testaments.
In 2013, attorney Fred Rich published a novel called Christian Nation (Norton). In this intriguing “what if,” Rich presents an alternative version of recent U.S. history: an America in which John McCain and Sarah Palin won the 2008 election and McCain’s death shortly thereafter led to a Palin presidency and a slide toward theocracy.
Sinclair Lewis’ classic 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here (Signet) deals with the rise of fascism in America, led by Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a demagogue who promises economic populism and traditional values and then sets up a fascist police state after winning the 1936 election over Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Afterwar (Orbit, 2018), a science-fiction novel by Lilith Saintcrow, explores an America working to rebuild after a band of “Firsters,” extreme nationalists whose Trumpian ideology includes elements of Christian fundamentalism, have been defeated in a second civil war.
Teen readers should check out Box Out (Scholastic Press, 2008), a young adult novel by John Coy. The book deals with the challenges faced by Liam Bergstrom, a sophomore basketball player at a public high school. Among the struggles he confronts is a coach who insists on praying with his players. Americans United makes a cameo appearance in the book.
Documentaries and Movies
Take a break from all that reading with a film. If you like documentaries, take a look at “The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today,” a 2010 film that tells the story of McCollum v. Board of Education, a 1948 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down a program of religious instruction in an Illinois public school. The documentary includes interviews with members of the McCollum family. It can be viewed online at https://topdocumentaryfilms.com/lord-trial-here-today.
If you’re interested in the issue of creationism and evolution, you’ll want to watch “We Believe in Dinosaurs,” a documentary that chronicles how creationist Ken Ham built an alleged replica of Noah’s Ark in rural Kentucky with taxpayer support. The film is available through several streaming services, including Amazon Prime, Google Play, Apple TV and Vudu. Visit www.webe lieveindinosaurs.net/ for more information.
“American Heretics” is a thought-provoking documentary about efforts by progressive clergy in Oklahoma to challenge the dominance of the Religious Right. The film is slated to be available for streaming this summer. Find out more at https://www.americanhere ticsthefilm.com/.
For a more in-depth treatment of the Religious Right, try “The Family,” a documentary series available on Netflix. The series examines the rise and influence of the Fellowship Foundation (aka The Family), a secretive Christian nationalist organization that works to cultivate relationships with powerful political leaders in Washington, D.C., and around the world. It’s based on the books by Sharlet mentioned above.
Netflix also has “Wild Wild Country,” a six-part documentary series about the conflict in the 1980s between residents of a small town in Oregon and followers of an Indian guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who purchased a nearby ranch of 64,000 acres and set up a commune with the aim, according to critics, of creating a mini-theocracy.
For fans of classic films, 1960’s “Inherit the Wind” is a dramatized version of the 1925 Scopes trial, based on the play of the same name. While the film takes liberties with the actual story, the movie was nominated for several Academy Awards and often appears on lists of critics’ favorites.
Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted twice – once as a feature film in 1990 and more recently in 2017 as a Hulu series.
If you’re like the AU staffers who are working from home right now, you might not have a long commute during which to listen to podcasts. But if you do have some time to plug in your headphones, here are some audio programs that feature the intersection of religion and politics.
The “In The Dark” podcast’s previous seasons focused on true crime and criminal justice reform, but the show’s producers have been putting out a special series called “Coronavirus in the Delta” about how Mississippians are coping with COVID-19. The first episode, “Greenville,” features the legal battle brought by a few churches that sue to remain open in defiance the local mayor’s attempts to protect public health.
The daily NPR radio show and podcast “1A” touches on current events, through the lens of the First Amendment (the genesis of the show’s name). Many episodes touch on religious freedom and connected social justice issues, such as the April 23 program on “Abortion Bans During The Pandemic” and the March 29 episode, “Worship In A Time Of Pestilence,” which featured faith leaders from several religions who talked about how their congregations were continuing without in-person worship services.
The podcasts “More Perfect” from WNYC’s Radiolab and NPR’s “Unprecedented” both are devoted to seminal Supreme Court cases. “Unprecedented” in particular features several cases that connect freedom of religion and free speech, including the lawsuit filed by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell against Hustler magazine for alleged defamation and the 2018 case involving fake women’s health centers operated by anti-abortion religious groups that objected to informing women of the centers’ true motives and lack of medical resources.
The “Public Universal Friend” episode of NPR’s “Throughline” is a fascinating story about a Quaker who confronted Revolutionary War-era America’s concepts of religious freedom and gender identity.
Have we missed anything? Feel free to email your church-state separation favorites to us at americans firstname.lastname@example.org.