The Corner


The State of Communion: Blaine Amendments and the Future of Religious Liberty

(Jason Redmond/Reuters)

At the end of April, Lyman Stone at the American Enterprise Institute published this report on the history of American religiosity from the era of the Founding to the present. His exposition of the root causes of past and present religious trends is magisterial and makes for engaging reading. There are many surprising reversals in the report of widespread assumptions about the religious history of the country. For example, we learn that, according to certain measurements, the United States is more religious now than it was at any point between 1750 and 1930, and that weekly attendance of religious services actually peaked in 1960 before entering the decline that continues to this day. The simple correlation between secularization and the onward march of time that informs many popular assumptions is simply not to be found in the historical record.  

Stone does an excellent job of showing his work as he goes and of balancing his presentation of the data with explanations of his methodology that are intelligible to the lay reader while also giving a sense of the sheer multiplicity of approaches available when dealing with complex data sets. There is not space here to discuss even a fraction of the author’s findings, and I heartily recommend reading the report in its entirety to get a proper sense of the data. But there is one point in particular that is worth drawing out as an example of how Stone’s work relates to practical politics.

The issue concerns what came to be known as the “Blaine Amendments,” named for James G. Blaine, a Republican senator of the late 19th century who pushed for a federal constitutional amendment prohibiting taxpayer funding of religious schools. The attempt failed but, starting with Wisconsin in 1848, more and more amendments of this kind were adopted at the state level. Today, 39 states have some provision to this effect. The original intention of the Blaine Amendments was not to make American public schools more secular in a strict sense, only to make them less Catholic. “Sectarian” (read, Catholic) education was the target of these initial measures. Over time, this discrimination was co-opted by the courts as a mechanism of full-on secularization.

As Stone observes, ever since Everson v. Board of Education in 1947, the establishment clause has been read by the Supreme Court as including “an unwritten Blaine Amendment.” “Blaine Amendments,” he writes, “began as an attempt by Protestants to limit Catholic influence on society. But today, they are used as catchall tools for the government at many levels to ensure the secular character of public education.” This dynamic is still alive and well in the activist faction of the judiciary. Stone gives the example of anti-sharia laws. These laws, sometimes called “foreign law bans,” prohibit courts from taking any “foreign law” into account when resolving legal disputes. Sharia law can be given no quarter in an American court of law, but these “foreign law bans” do not contain within themselves any limiting principle. It is quite easy to see how the precedent set by these bans could be used at a future date to infringe upon the rights of Christian or Jewish communities to resolve internal disputes according to their own doctrinal commitments. As Stone writes:

Much as Blaine Amendments began as a form of discrimination—trying to protect America’s Protestant majority from Catholicism, which then metastasized into a tool for state-driven secularization—anti-shari’a laws similarly represent an attempt to protect America’s Christian majority from Islam, which may end up being tools for restricting religion generally.

Something for Americans concerned about religious liberty to ponder. 


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