Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Church - State Partnership

"...when scandal and corruption in the Indian Service became a national disgrace, President Grant threw the doctrine of church-state separation to the winds and literally parcelled out the task to the denominations."
-Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People,(861).

The separation of church and state is one of the essential aspects of American history, right?

In practice, those two powers haven't always been separated, at least not in regards to Indian policy. In fact, missionaries and government Indian agents were working together long before the United States became a country.

In his preface to American Protestantism and United States Indian Policy, 1869-82, Robert H. Keller reports that in order to do justice to his subject, he had to gain expertise on a whole century of federal Indian policy. On the one hand, Keller tells us, Ulysses S. Grant's "Peace Policy" was "unique in many aspects." But on the other hand, Grant's new policy "involved ideologies and dilemmas characteristic of all Indian-white relations"(page xi).

Keller summarizes the evolution of America's church-state partnership in his introduction. Much of that discussion was about the "Civilization Fund" established in 1819 as Congress realized that churches were struggling to support their missions. They set aside $10,000 for the churches that first year and then the fund became bigger and bigger over a period of time. Remarkably (according to Keller on page 7), the constitutionality of the Civilization Fund was "never challenged or tested in its fifty-year history."

Of course the United States is much different today. This country is now a nation that understands the importance of culture. I probably don't need to explain that making people "civilized" is tampering with those people's culture.

For Grant, the importance of Christian missions among the Indians had more to do with teaching agriculture than with promoting Christianity. Although Grant wasn't an atheist, Keller tells us (on page 25) that he wasn't really a Christian either, not receiving baptism until death was near.

For further reading:
American Protestantism and United States Indian Policy, 1869-82
by Robert H. Keller
Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

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