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Separation of Church and State

February 01, 1987

In his review of "The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment" (The Book Review, Dec. 15), Jeffrey Allen blatantly substitutes tendentious personal opinion about the book's important subject for a responsible consideration of the book itself. Leonard Levy has written a clearly argued and authoritative book intended to inform public consideration of the role of religion in American public life by providing a scholarly account of the intent of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In a 10-paragraph review, Allen gives one paragraph to an unskilled summary of Prof. Levy's scholarship and purports in the rest to be taking issue with it. In fact, he indulges in a plaintive, self-contradictory and ill-informed evasion of the book's information, its conclusions and its arguments. He also ignores altogether the book's unusually prepossessing literary qualities, its spirited and yet fair engagement in important issues of conscience and public life, its erudition and power, its use of scholarship to vivify our Constitution.

Why not? The purpose of books like Levy's is to inform people about the Constitution and, in this instance, the Framer's intent in writing the First Amendment Establishment clause as they did. Levy does not say what should be done about this intent; he gives as clear a historical picture as can be given of what the intent was and how the issue has developed. He shows his readers what the issue of church and state in the First Amendment meant and why. Allen does not think this is information citizens should be encouraged to have. He is concerned with the roots of public morality and not about constitutionally well-informed citizenry.

One would have thought that Allen, "executive director of the California Bicentennial Commission on the United States Constitution," would have taken it as his responsibility to inform the public about this contribution to constitutional scholarship by our most acclaimed constitutional scholar, a scholar who lives and works in Southern California. I suppose we should be used to having to defend the Constitution from those officially or informally empowered to protect it; the Framers knew we were better off trusting the document than its self-proclaimed defenders.

I should declare my interest. I am Levy's colleague, his long-time reader and most important an American citizen grateful for constitutional protections and determined to defend them.

ROBERT DAWIDOFF

Los Angeles

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