Curry - First Freedoms

March 31, 2005

Thomas J. Curry
The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment
New York: Oxford University Press, 1986

This is still one of the better books on the evolution of religious establishments in colonial and early national America. Curry's focus is on the politics of the establishment clause, especially as they were being argued in the academy in the 1980s, but his research is good and his analysis is solid.

Curry goes through the colonial experiences and comes to a tricky argument. He claims that, based on their experiences and rhetoric, the founders banned all governmental involvement with religious belief and all endorsement of faiths or sects. But, they did so in the language of the British Establishment, using the word "establishment" to refer to everything from the stereotype of popery, a "state establishment", to the Church of England, to a general assessment of religion. Finally, he argues that the debates about religion and the government in the states and in the First Amendment were about how to apply commonly held doctrines, not about first principles. For example, no one in Massachusetts approved of establishments of religion. However, the Standing Order did not think that they had created an establishment of religion, but instead argued that they had created a mild and generous structure for supporting civil order. Baptists who had their property taken to pay the salaries of the Standing order disagreed.

I found Curry useful more for his research than for his conclusions, in part because I approach the vague overlap of religion and civil government through the lense of civil religion, not of establishment or church-and-state.

It is a smart book and a well researched book. You need not agree with his conclusions - Lawrence Levy does not, for example - but you can not talk about church and state in the American colonies and revolutionary era without having read Curry.

Good stuff.

Posted by Red Ted at March 31, 2005 07:58 AM | TrackBack
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