Recap: “Disestablishment & Religious Dissent,” with MU’s Carl Esbeck and Samford’s Jonathan Den Hartog

We’ll keep this recap brief and direct those interested in the topic to the recently-published experts, but we were thrilled to have MU R.B. Price and Isabelle Wade & Paul C. Lyda Professor Emeritus of Law Carl Esbeck and Samford University Professor of History Jonathan Den Hartog on the fourth floor of Jesse on November 8 to discuss their co-edited Disestablishment & Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the New American States, 1776-1833, out just weeks prior to the talk as part of the Kinder Institute’s Studies in Constitutional Democracy monograph series with University of Missouri Press.

In their presentations, both editors underscored how the new book, the first ever to tackle disestablishment on a state-by-state basis, not only fills a significant gap in the historical literature on church-state relations but also corrects some popular misconceptions about religion and U.S. politics in the revolutionary and early republic eras. Many of the book’s core findings in fact address what state disestablishment was not integrally associated with. For example, unlike in France, where antireligious and anticlerical sentiment were at the heart of revolutionary rhetoric, resistance to church establishment—congregational in New England and Church of England in the Southern colonies—was not, Prof. Den Hartog noted, a material cause of the War for Independence. Though we might expect the opposite, Prof. Esbeck detailed how neither the U.S. Constitution nor the First Amendment contributed significantly to the disestablishment process in the original 13 states (though the First Amendment did apply to federal territories). And though we might have been told the opposite, the conventional wisdom about Jefferson’s outsized influence on state disestablishment has little support in the way of historical evidence. Instead, Prof. Den Hartog argued, it’s Madison who should be getting more attention on this front, as his “Memorial & Remonstrance,” the echo of which resonated in Georgia and Louisiana, made a powerful argument regarding disestablishment as both useful for the state and beneficial for the church.

What, then, is the story of disestablishment? On one hand, both editors stressed that it’s not a story but multiple unique stories: some of near immediate disestablishment and others of a gradual, sometimes arduous break between church and state. In addition, this latter class of disestablishment narratives speaks to the way in which the process was as much—if not more—one of bureaucratic deregulation and legal reform as it was one of philosophical decoupling. As Prof. Den Hartog showed, while protecting the right to private judgment in religious observance “came easy,” issues related to state funding for churches and the repeal of religious tax assessment and glebes was slow work. However, acknowledging the more bureaucratic factors in play should not be misconstrued as a dismissal of the non-regulatory stakes of this period in U.S. History. As Prof. Esbeck pointed out when wrapping up his portion of the talk, the majority of colonists agitating for disestablishment were religious dissenters seeking freedom on faith-based grounds—they were Baptists, Presbyterians, and Separatists who may have agreed with many of the general tenets of Protestant Christianity but still differed materially in their practices and beliefs from the established Protestant church in their state.