(RNS) — In October of last year, Josh Mandel, a candidate in Ohio’s Republican primary for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat, insisted during a debate that “there’s no such thing as separation of church and state.” Three months later, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch made an off-hand reference to the “so-called separation of … church and state” during oral arguments.
By June, Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, speaking at a Colorado church, proclaimed, “I’m tired of the separation of church and state junk that’s not in the Constitution. It was in a stinking letter, and it means nothing like what they say it does.”
The growing popularity of these kinds of declarations is striking given the place the separation of church and state has occupied in American politics going back to the Founding Fathers. Though the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, the notion is deeply rooted in American jurisprudence and popular culture.
More immediately, the rhetoric has alarmed some Americans who associate the constitutional debate over the church-state split with extreme versions of Christian nationalism.
Yet, antipathy toward the separation of church and state among conservatives is not new but, rather, is a decades-old argument popularized primarily by a controversial Texas activist in the early ’90s, when the religious right was ascendant.
In 1993, the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., founder of Liberty University and co-founder of the Moral Majority, promoted a book called “The Myth of Separation” by a Texan named David Barton. According to a Christian Century report, less than a month later on Falwell’s television show, “The Old Time Gospel Hour,” he preached a strident sermon in which he said, “Let everyone know that this separation of church and state business is bogus.”
In 1988, Barton, a self-taught historian and activist, had founded WallBuilders, a group dedicated to “presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built.”
The organization has dutifully forwarded Barton’s Christian vision of American history ever since, serving as a one-stop shop for his books, videos and materials. It has consistently taught that the separation of church and state is a modern fabrication.
While Barton was not necessarily the first to make the claim, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian and professor of history at Calvin University, said Barton is “extremely influential in evangelical spaces, and has been for decades.”
Barton did not respond to a request for an interview, but his argument has been articulated in presentations and books over the years. He focuses on an 1802 letter penned by then-President Thomas Jefferson to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, in which Jefferson assures the Baptists that the “establishment clause” in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution builds a “wall of separation between Church and State,” when it declares Congress shall “make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Micah Schwartzman, a professor at University of Virginia School of Law, said Jefferson’s wall metaphor was “widely viewed among many in the founding generation to capture the sense that the ends of the state were not the same as the ends of the church.”
“What the state wasn’t for was saving souls,” Schwartzman said. “There was a deep separation between the legitimate purposes or ends of the state as compared to religious institutions — the church.”