Protecting the Wilderness: Comments on Howe’s The Garden in the Wilderness

By Kathleen Flake, Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 79, 4 (Dec. 2010): 863-870.

“AND the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, … set up the tabernacle of the tent of the congregation…. put therein the ark of the testimony…bring in the candlestick, and light the lamps thereof.” No, I am not going to preach a Puritan sermon to you. I want only to remind you of the Puritan in Roger Williams who said the words that provide the title of the book under consideration. The words come from Williams’s debate with John Cotton over church government: “When they [or the those who desired to Christianize the world through the use of worldly power] have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God had ever broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, and made His garden a wilderness.” For Mark deWolfe Howe, Williams’s “theological wall of separation” represents the evangelical impulse in American religion and is an important source for understanding American law concerning church and state. A key contribution of Howe’s monograph was to remind its readers that not only Jefferson’s sense of natural law and individual rights but also Williams’s congregational and biblical notions informed the First Amendment religion clauses. Howe finds fault with the Supreme Court’s ignoring this dual lineage and favoring only Jefferson’s Enlightenment view. For Howe, the modern Court’s use of Jefferson’s language to impute due process values to the religion clauses “distorts their manifest objectives” to grant religion constitutionally protected status—a status distinct from other forms of conscience, not least irreligion. These other forms of conscience are, he argues, protected by other constitutional guarantees, such as speech, press, and association.

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