The Siren Song of History: Originalism and the Religion Clauses

16 Pages Posted: 22 Oct 2011 Last revised: 29 Oct 2011

See all articles by Jeffrey Shulman

Jeffrey Shulman

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: 2011


It is hard to foresee much happiness in the lot of those seeking the original meaning of the Religion Clauses. We may acknowledge the opacity of the historical record, the variety of viewpoints held by founders forgotten and non-forgotten, the humanness of the founders who did not always practice what they preached, even the basic indeterminancy of language; still, we are seduced by the siren song of interpretive certainty. But the search for greater clarity is not without its payoff. As the three books under review here illustrate, the more we look for answers in the historical record, the more we are likely to find ambiguity -- and with each step we take away from the promised land of historical clarity, we move a step closer to the richer, if less certain, terrain of historical truth.

This essay reviews the following works:

The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life. Edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall and Jeffrey H. Morrison. Foreword by Mark A. Noll. University of Notre Dame Press 2009. Pp. 316. ISBN: 0-268-02602-5;

Church, State, and Original Intent. By Donald L. Drakeman. Cambridge University Press 2010. Pp. 371. ISBN: 0-521-11918-9; and

God and the Founders: Madison, Washington, and Jefferson. By Vincent Phillip Muñoz. Cambridge University Press 2009. Pp. 242. ISBN: 0-521-51515-7.

Keywords: constitutional interpretation, religion, religion clauses, originalism, church and state

JEL Classification: K19, K00, K39

Suggested Citation

Shulman, Jeffrey, The Siren Song of History: Originalism and the Religion Clauses (2011). Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 27, p. 101, 2011, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 11-130, Available at SSRN:

Jeffrey Shulman (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

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Washington, DC 20001
United States

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