Early in May, my eleventh-grade daughter joined tens of thousands of other high schoolers from across the country in sitting for the American history advanced placement test. Helping her prepare, I was struck by the large number of sample questions in one popular workbook that offered misleading visions of America's history. Often the topic of confusion was the nation's religious history.

Consider the following example:

The Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony wanted their settlement to be primarily:

  1. A place where they could get away from persecution.

  2. An example to the rest of the world.

  3. A place where they would have the opportunity to prosper free from government regulation.

  4. A society that practiced complete separation of church and state.

  5. A pluralistic society in which all would be free to practice and teach their beliefs.

According to the authors of the workbook, the correct answer is B. And the choice is not a terrible one, for the Puritans did indeed hope to provide for the world (the Christian world, anyway) a shining example of how God's people should live. Yet many thoughtful historians would surely argue that a better answer is D. The authors of the workbook reject this choice because "The Puritans, had they thought of such things, would have rejected the idea of separation of church and state."

No, they wouldn't have, and they "thought of such things" all the time. As a matter of fact, they were great believers in separation of church and state, and their keen desire to split the two great powers from one another represented one of the ways in which they sought to "purify" the church. (Hence their name.) Indeed, it might fairly be said that their principal complaint against the established Church of England ...

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Civil Reactions
Stephen Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University. He is the author of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (2012), The Violence of Peace, The Emperor of Ocean Park, and many other books. His column, "Civil Reactions," ran from 2001 until 2007.
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Remedial History
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In the Magazine

July 8, 2002

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