The “Wall of Separation” Has Preserved Religion — Including Mormonism

You’d think that of all people, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, would know better.

In his recent, quasi-confessional speech about his religion and the role of religion in the town square, Romney said: “Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.”

In fact, it is Romney who has it wrong, and in that remark he perpetuates one of the central myths of the religious right in our country. The religious right, a club that Romney desperately wants to join, tells a story of moral decline: America was once great and righteous and true, and now we have slid into depravity and turpitude.

The details of this declension are always vague – notice the unnamed “they” of Romney’s speech – but the cause is always some hazy conspiracy of people who have stripped religion out of public life. And the antidote is the same: more religion, preferably more of that “old time” religion. In our private lives and in our politics.

This gets the history of the separation between church and state exactly backwards. We can date the beginnings of this separation to William Penn’s Philadelphia. When he founded the City of Brotherly Love in the 1680s he did so without an official, “state” religion (in contrast with the Massachusetts and Virginia colonies) and announced to the world that people of any religious faith would be welcome. To Penn we owe our freedom of religion.

Penn was a deeply religious Quaker. He called Pennsylvania a “holy experiment.” As a Quaker he had been persecuted for his religious beliefs in England. His Quakerism, and his refusal to renounce it, led to his expulsion from Oxford University and ultimately to jail. For Penn, religion was a matter of private conscience, not public policy. When he founded Philadelphia without an official religion he did so precisely to keep the state out of the church. Penn knew personally what could happen when the state and church mixed.

A century later, the Founders were inspired by the Enlightenment’s promotion of reason and liberty. They shaped the United States on Penn’s model: without a state religion and with the promise that the government would not meddle in the affairs of any church. That’s why Thomas Jefferson responded to the Connecticut Baptists’ appeal with his famous reference to a “wall of separation” between the state and the church.

In the 19th century, Mormons experienced more harassment and hostility from state and federal governments than any other religious group. When Mormons established a settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois, the hostility broke out into something approaching war. The state legislature intervened and revoked the town’s charter.

Having moved to the Utah territory, Mormons clashed with the federal government. President Buchanan declared the Utah territory to be in rebellion for its attempt to establish a Mormon Zion on federal land. He sent in federal troops to remove Brigham Young as the territorial governor, precipitating the so-called Utah war.

Buchanan, like most Americans, found the Mormon practice of polygamy to be abhorrent. Buchanan’s successor, Lincoln, signed the first federal law banning polygamy in 1862, a law that was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, where its constitutionality was upheld.

Since then, Mormons have managed an uneasy compromise with the rest of the nation. In return for disavowing the practice of polygamy, Mormons have largely been left alone by the state. The sect has grown and expanded as a result.

The lesson of Mormon history would seem to be clear: keep the church out of the state and the state will stay out of the church. Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy should be an opportunity to remind Americans about that critical lesson. Unfortunately, Romney chose instead to tell the religious right what it wants to hear: more prayer in public places.

Romney’s understanding of theology may or may not be palatable to the Republican base he courts. What should trouble us more than his Mormonism is his misunderstanding of our tradition of religious freedom. Religion has flourished in the United States precisely because we have separated state and church.

Steven Conn is Professor of History and Director of Public History at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.

December, 2007