Frank Lambert, professor of history at Purdue University, does an excellent job of surveying this complex topic over a 200-year period. He does so thoroughly, yet concisely, in only 296 pages. While making generalizations at times, he often illustrates his points with quotations from original sources of the time period.
He begins by criticizing extremists on both sides of the issue, and proceeds to present a balanced approach. However, as I will explain at the end of this review, he shows his bias at the end.
Lambert’s thesis is this: America WAS first settled by people who wanted to make it a Christian nation, whether Puritans in New England, Anglicans in Virginia, or Quakers and others in Pennsylvania. These early founders had a vision of making America “a city on a hill,” a model Christian commonwealth. However, two major influences led the founding fathers to establish a government that separated church and state. These two influences were the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening. Men like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, who were influenced by the Enlightenment, felt that men should be free to use their own reason in matters of religion. The Baptists and others who benefitted from the rapid growth of “free” churches in the Great Awakening were persecuted by established churches and wished to have no established church, so they joined with men like Jefferson in calling for separation of church and state.
Lambert shows that there was great division over these issues, and gives interesting anecdotes and quotations from both sides. He quotes frequently from religious leaders on both sides of the issue. However, near the end of the book he spends much more time quoting Republicans like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and gives little space to Federalists like George Washington and John Adams. At one point, on page 161, Lambert implies that John Adams was a deist, even though biographies of Adams have shown him to be a devout Christian with a Puritan heritage.
Lambert shows his view in his conclusion, as he criticizes accomodationists such as Judge William Rehnquist and “religious right” preachers like Pat Robertson.
While Lambert gives both sides of the argument, he clearly leads the reader to his own separationist interpretation. Because the book is so full of useful information, I highly recommend it as a textbook on the subject, but let the reader understand that Lambert has his own bias, too.