Dr. Donald Drakeman: Church, State and Original Intent

Latest from the RAI Events blog by Ursula Hackett

On 31st January the RAI community welcomed Dr Donald Drakeman to speak on the subject of his recent, fascinating book: ‘Church, State and Original Intent’. The talk, which was entitled ‘Why Do We Think the American Framers Wanted to Separate Church and State?’ drew an audience from across the University and provoked a lively discussion.

Dr Drakeman’s view is that the authors of the Constitution and its Bill of Rights did not intend to create a broad ‘wall of separation between church and state’ but merely to prohibit the establishment of a national church. After Jefferson’s use of the phrase in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists it was eighty years before the idea resurfaced in a United States Supreme Court decision on polygamy, Reynolds v United States. In his opinion on this case, Chief Justice Waite used historian George Bancroft’s characterization of Jefferson to impute a much broader meaning to the First Amendment than was ever intended by the framers. More famously, both Justice Black and Justice Rutledge’s opinions in the 1947 Everson transportation case characterised the Constitution as requiring strict separation between church and state. The originalist mythology of church-state separation is, according to Dr Drakeman, a product of nineteenth century historians, Evangelical separationism and in the case of Justice Rutledge, anti-Catholic animus.

Gratifyingly for the RAI’s community of historians, a common thread in Dr Drakeman’s talk was that scholars had a decisive effect on Supreme Court religious freedom jurisprudence. Chief Justice Waite engaged in an act of constitutional creation ‘ex nihilo’ in Reynolds, and he based his judgement entirely on the scholarly interpretation of history by his friend, Bancroft. Predictably, the talk gave rise to a number of lively questions and wide-ranging discussion, from seventeenth-century Rhode Island colony founder Roger Williams, to nineteenth century Evangelicals, to modern-day originalists on the United States Supreme Court. Questioners invited Dr Drakeman to compare the United States with England or Canada; discuss the relationship between national- and state-level religious freedom jurisprudence; and even put himself in the shoes of a modern Supreme Court justice and muse on the value of originalism. It was a highly entertaining and thoroughly absorbing debate.

Ursula Hackett is a DPhil candidate in Politics

Read the full text of Dr Drakeman's talk (PDF)