Tiber, Thames, Potomac
That the First Amendment establishes a “separation” between church and state throughout all levels of government has long been a stubborn myth of American life, shared by both nativists and, at least since the early part of the last century, most liberals. Philip Hamburger, in a book reviewed in this issue, demonstrates—if further demonstration were needed—that this myth has no basis. Indeed, the separation of church and state is more ideology than history, designed to serve those elements of public life who would drive people of faith from acting on their convictions in the public sphere, and would penalize them in the participation in public goods and services merely on account of their faith.
A fairer understanding of the role of religion in the development of the American nation reveals the clear and central role Christianity has played in establishing what we now consider the basic protections of a secular, pluralist state. Harold Berman has done significant work here, as Bruce Frohnen discusses, in uncovering the medieval roots of Anglo-American liberty. His reflections provide a nice contrast to some recent writing by conservatives, who have questioned whether religion plays any role in forming culture or in serving as an organizing principle of society.
William Hay continues that story, in a different key, through the present, with a nuanced look at J. G. A. Pocock’s study of the world made by British power, from New Zealand to New York. The old narrative of a unitary British power has given way, in part, to a more multilayered account of British history, which sees the cultural and ethnic connections among England and its former possessions forming a larger story of British influence after the contraction of its former empire.
Rome and its fall continue to hold pride of place in the Western imagination. Gibbon famously concluded the Christian religion was a strong cause of the Western Empire’s fall, while Christopher Dawson saw the acceptance of the faith by Constantinople and the west as a saving act of a decadent empire that lead to a new cultural flowering. As Matthew McGowan shows in his review of two significant books examining the passing of Rome, Gibbon is now out of fashion, and Dawsonian insights have gained some traction. The fall and its aftermath, while real, was not a mere transitory period before the medieval era, but had its own culture, and saw the interplay of the three Abrahamic religions. As the British and Roman examples show, empires, even beneficent ones, fall as a result of overextension, corruption, and the mere passage of time, something that may be worth remembering as we inch toward a new presidential election cycle in the new Rome on the Potomac.
In addition to all of the above, we are pleased to feature the first of a two-part review of a new study of Pakistan, as that nation has grown in importance for American foreign relations since September 11, as well as reviews of other important recent books from the United States and abroad.
Gerald J. Russello
Posted: April 12, 2007 in Editor’s Notes.