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Book Review: Ten Tortured Words3 min read

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Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…
First Amendment of the United States Constitution

The words seem so straightforward and simple. Yet no other part of the Constitution of the United States is so misunderstood and misconstrued as the First Amendment, particularly the first ten words which deal with freedom of religion. Bestselling author Stephen Mansfield delves into the history of the amendment that has caused more uproar and more court battles than any other in his outstanding new book Ten Tortured Words: How the Founding Fathers Tried to Protect Religion in America…and What’s Happened Since.

Mansfield, who has spent many years working on behalf of religious liberty all over the world, starts with a careful examination of the Founders original intent in crafing the First Amendment. He takes the reader back inside the debates within the Constitutional Convention and the amendment is being debated. By relying on the transcripts from the Convention, he shares the Founders thoughts in their own words. As the original intent behind the amendment is revealed it is easy to see how these ten words have been so twisted over time.

But the story doesn’t just end there. In fact, the drafting of the amendment is really only the beginning of the story. Mansfield moves on to a detailed examination of the man whose words in a private letter have become the basis for almost all battles over religious liberty in the United States for the past sixty years: Thomas Jefferson.

On January 1, 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut. The Danbury Baptists had written to Jefferson regarding concerns they had about the government’s role in religion. Jefferson’s reply included a phrase that has since become familiar to many Americans: “a wall of separation between church and state”. Although Jefferson’s intent was to simply emphasize that the First Amendment prohibited the federal government from establishing any particular religion (similar to the Church of England in Britain), many courts have taken the phrase to mean that the government should not have any role in religion and vice versa.

It was the Supreme Court, in the case of Everson vs. Board of Education (1947) that would first use the “wall of separation” phrase. What’s most interesting about this decision is not so much the case itself (although the case is quoted in the appendices and reveals the convoluted logic the Court used to arrive at its decision) but the personalities behind the case, particularly Justice Hugo Black who authored the decision.

Perhaps most surprising is the chapter on the ACLU and their involvement in First Amendment litigation. Many readers will no doubt be shocked to learn how the ACLU has turned this type of litigation into a profit-making endeavor by taking advantage of loopholes in current civil rights statutes.

Ten Tortured Words brings history alive through its engaging narrative. Mansfield avoids the trap of getting bogged down in legalese in discussing the court cases and instead focuses as much attention on the personalities involved in the battles. As a result, it is a highly entertaining and informative book.