Researcher Uncovers the Unexpected History of Separating Church and State

April 15, 2016

A forthcoming book from a Penn Arts and Sciences professor will showcase how the formal separation of church and state moved slavery to the political sphere, but defenders of slavery argued that religious critiques of slavery violated that separation. 

Sarah Barringer Gordon, a history professor in Penn Arts and Sciences and the Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law at Penn Law, is in the process of writing Freedom’s Holy Light: Disestablishment in America, 1776-1876, which will offer fresh perspectives on the disestablishment of religion during the century following the American Revolution.

In Freedom’s Holy Light, Gordon hopes to explore the separation of church and state not in theory but in practice. No one has ever studied how it worked “on the ground,” she says.

“Disestablishment was widely assumed to separate religion from politics. At the same time, defenders of slavery understood the institution as a purely political one,” Gordon says. “The idea that religion and politics were so separate that a person could confine slavery to only the political side of the spectrum and keep religion completely separate—this notion was misguided and unworkable.”

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