Commentary Magazine

Six Books on Church and State

Religion and the American State

Church, State, and Freedom.
by Leo Pfeffer.
Beacon Press. 675 pp. $10.00.

Church and Society: Catholic Social and Political Thought and Movements, 1789-1950.
by Joseph N. Moody.
Arts, Inc. 914 pp. $12.00.

The Catholic Church and the American Idea.
by Theodore Maynard.
Appleton-Century-Crofts. 309 pp. $3.50.

The Church and Social Responsibility.
by J. Richard Spann.
Abingdon-Cokesbury. 272 pp. $2.75.

America’s Way in Church, State, and Society.
by Joseph Martin Dawson.
Macmillan. 189 pp. $2.50.

The Great Tradition of the American Churches.
by Winthrop S. Hudson.
Harper. 265 pp. $3.75.


Two of the six books on church and state reviewed here, Church and Society and Church, State, and Freedom, are monumental works of scholarship. One of them, Spann’s symposium, is an elaboration of Protestant social ethics in its bearings on current problems. The other three have some kind of apologetic intent. Theodore Maynard makes a plea for the acceptance of Roman Catholicism as a natural part of the “American Idea.” Dawson and Hudson are chiefly concerned to develop the argument for separation of church and state.

Personally, I should select Leo Pfeffer’s Church, State, and Freedom as the book of most solid and enduring worth, and of greatest interest to the intelligent citizen and general reader. The scope of the volume is incredible. It covers every sort of church-state relationship in American history. In Part I, Mr. Pfeffer gives us the evolution of a principle. In Part II he discusses state aid to religion, church intervention in state affairs, state intervention in church affairs, and the whole question of public and parochial schools. In Part III he considers the bearings of this issue on the common defense, on domestic tranquillity, and on general welfare. There is abundant citation of the important court decisions, of the testimony of witnesses, and of the relevant body of political philosophy and tradition. There is also an impartial presentation of the various arguments for and against each position taken. Just as remarkable as the amplitude of this erudite work is the richly human quality of its texture, and its readability.

Joseph Moody’s symposium on Church and Society treats of Roman Catholic social and political thought and movements from 1789 to 1950. Its nine hundred pages have sections on the Papacy, France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Spain and Latin America, England, and the United States. It also contains reproductions of important documents, both lay and ecclesiastical. While the section on the United States is somewhat perfunctory, and the section on Spain and Latin America inadequate, those parts which deal with France and Germany appear to be exceptionally meritorious. Some readers will want to compare this writing with the work of a distinguished Protestant scholar that covers much of the same ground—James Hastings Nichols’ Democracy and the Churches. All readers will be grateful for the thorough character of this study and for the persistently liberal intent of the authors. The reference value of the book is tremendous.

Theodore Maynard is trying to persuade us that Roman Catholicism, far from being antagonistic to the American idea, “is really the most powerful support that it can find in the modern world.” This claim will strike many persons as extraordinary, and it must have appeared so finally to Maynard, because I see no evidence in the book that he has even begun to substantiate it. However, he does give an interesting account of the Roman Catholic community in the United States, with particular regard for the various ethnic and national ingredients in it, and with attention to activities in evangelism, education, culture, politics, and labor. Mr. Maynard’s presentation is marked by lucidity and wit. He is temperate in his treatment of the Protestant persecution of Roman Catholics in this country, and discriminating in his specific claims for Roman Catholic achievements.

The last two books cited are a reminder that there is a powerful liberal movement in Roman Catholicism that is determined to reconcile its religious values with political democracy. This is noticeable in Maynard’s writing, in spite of his dismissal of “theological Americanism.” It shows up, for instance, in Moody’s symposium when the citation from Mirari Vos against the “senseless and erroneous idea” of freedom of conscience is preceded by the label, “The Voice of the Past.” It appears in the same volume in the explicit repudiation of the idea that Roman Catholic espousal of religious toleration in this country is merely a temporary expedient until the “population-triumph of Catholics.” It is evident in the frankness, to the point of severity, with which historic betrayals of liberal values by Roman Catholics are treated by these writers. One finds an expression of the same temper in an article by the Reverend John Tracy Ellis in Harper’s for November 1953, where, in defending the doctrine of separation, he blandly brushes aside those “pontifical statements which, in abstract and universal terms, call for a union of Church and State.”



At the same time there is no mistaking the fact that even the liberal Roman Catholic has a considerably more flexible view of the meaning of separation of church and state than do some other people. There is only a suggestion of this in Maynard’s assertion that his Church does not want “union” but does want “concord.” How much is involved in this “concord”? In the Harper’s article cited above the author tells of Bishop Hughes’ battle for state funds to help parochial schools, and then goes on to give a quotation from the Bishop expressing his unalterable opposition to the “obnoxious union of Church and State.” There seems to be no awareness in the author that, to many persons, the theory and the practice of his Bishop are in contradiction. Moreover, one must ask of the liberal Roman Catholic just what he means by religious toleration. Will it allow a minority full freedom of public worship, freedom to build churches and synagogues and schools, to establish a religious press, to engage in missionary evangelism? Or does it mean a religious freedom that is pretty well confined to the conscience, but cannot get very far outside of it? If it should be the latter—as it is in some countries—then such religious freedom is altogether too private an affair to satisfy a free society.

Of course, the institutional separation of church and state was never meant to preclude the interpenetration of persons and of principles. Spann’s symposium on The Church and Social Responsibility reflects the larger interest. Attention is focused here on the community, on the economic order, and on the political order. While the book has Methodist sponsorship and editorial design, the fifteen contributing authors come from various denominational backgrounds. Together they may be said to represent fairly well the character of contemporary liberal Protestantism in its concern for social problems.

Messrs. Dawson and Hudson are concerned more specifically to elaborate the argument for the separation of church and state. Mr. Dawson is a member of the Religious Liberty Department of the National Council of Churches, and directs his writing to the popular reader in a hortatory mood with a sense of the urgency of immediate issues. Mr. Hudson’s approach in The Great Tradition of the American Churches is that of the historian with a bias for biography. Both men speak with strength from the best Baptist tradition, and both of them refuse to succumb to the current hysteria against “secularism” as the chief foe of religion.

These two books are a reminder that there are amazing ambiguities today in the use of the term “secularism.” The historic fact is that Protestantism, with reference to Roman Catholicism, is secularism in religion. It is secular in stripping down the authority of the hierarchy and in diminishing the sacramental functions of the church. It is secular in its doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and in its teaching of the sacredness of the secular calling. Roman Catholic writers, indeed, tend to equate the rise of “secularism” with the rise of Protestantism. Dawson and Hudson understand their ground here, but it is astonishing to note the number of distinguished Protestant divines and theologians who affect to make common cause with Roman Catholics in attacking; an identical “secularism.”

At any rate, in the American brawl over church and state there already begins to emerge one major casualty—the public school. Doubtless it is for this reason that Pfeffer devotes a substantial part of his study to the problem. Taxpayers’ leagues attack the public school for reasons of economy. Reactionaries attack it because they don’t believe in public education. Traditionalists attack it because of the curriculum. And religious folk of both orthodox and liberal persuasion attack it for being godless. This sort of activity, I suggest, is especially reprehensible on the part of Protestants, since they like to boast that the public school is the offspring of their own religious heritage. There is less excuse, therefore, for them to take part in the nagging and needling and knifing of the public school which has recently become one of our principal national forms of recreation. Such Protestants would do well to reflect on Hudson’s sharply documented thesis that, when “secularism” begins to triumph over religion, it is because of the “secularism” within the church, not the “secularism” outside of it. For that matter I see no reason why the same thesis might not be elaborated in principle for the devotees of all faiths.

If there is anything hopeful in the six books that lie before us, it is that, with all their differences in emphasis and in degree, there seems to be a common realization that separation of church and state is for the best health of both the church and the state. After all, it is within a system of free competition for religion as for other institutions that Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism all enjoy such extraordinary vitality in the United States.



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