Drawing The Line Between Church And State

Meacham cited another example: "In the Civil War, President Lincoln was presented with a proposed amendment to the Constitution to declare our allegiance to independence and Jesus … and in a brilliant parliamentary move, he referred it to a Congressional committee from whence it never emerged."

And another example, "Theodore Roosevelt, in 1908, was defending William Howard Taft, who was a Unitarian being attacked by William Jennings Bryan's supporters who were evangelicals who believed that Unitarians were not Christian."

And of course, lately, Teichner observed, we've been reminded of John F. Kennedy's famous speech.

On September 12, 1960, Kennedy said, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. Where no Catholic prelate would tell the President, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote."

Kennedy's self-defense to Houston ministers was that year's chapter in a long history ... Mitt Romney's speech was this year's.

In his speech, Romney said, "the founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation under God, and in God, we do indeed trust."

The two speeches, 47 years apart, show how the conversation about what Jefferson called the "wall of separation" has evolved.

"Americans have tested that wall in every possible way," Meacham told Teichner. "We've run trucks up against it, we've thrown firecrackers at it, and the wall has stood pretty strongly. And it requires, I think, constant vigilance."

Because, as history and the First Amendment tell us, the relationship between government and religion is as fragile as it is strong.