Metaphor Man: "A Wall Between Church and State"

The debates in this most recent election cycle about the separation of church and state, and its presence or lack thereof in the Constitution, caused Metaphor Man to notice this comment on the Talking Points Memo blog. It traces the history of the metaphor of the wall separating church and state. This metaphor is attributed to Thomas Jefferson and extended by Justice Hugo Black in a Supreme Court decision in 1947. He wrote:

The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state.That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.

We note that Black’s presentation matches how FrameWorks’ simplifying models frequently unfold. That is, he begins with a comparison, then extends the comparison with a few of what we call “entailments,” which you can think of as conceptual offspring of the metaphor, or its ramifications. There are three entailments: that the wall is high, that the wall’s job is to keep two domains separated, and that the wall must do its job absolutely.

If you’ve seen FrameWorks’ recent simplifying models, they’re structured in a similar way. We lay out a few of the entailments for one very good reason: there are often many entailments to a metaphor, so we provide the ones we’re most interested in having the public start to think about. When we test the simplifying models, one of the things we’re doing is to make sure that there aren’t unarticulated entailments that might ambush the meaning.

Yet as Metaphor Man has noted before, people often dig up an obscure entailment and wield it against the metaphor. For instance, there’s a Heritage Foundation essay about this metaphor  that declares it “misused” and “mythical,” mostly on the basis of one assumption they make about walls: that “the very nature of a wall…is a bilateral barrier” that “inhibits the activities” on both sides of the wall. The  writer goes on to contend that the wall between church and state affects churches and religious expression disproportionately, and no wall can be unilateral.

Metaphor Man wonders what sort of wall the author had in mind — an infield wall in the baseball stadium, perhaps, which keeps the players in and the fans out? Because Metaphor Man’s grandmother’s prized roses were very interested in the unilateral walls that protected them from the sheep.

In other words, the HF author’s contention isn’t with a very salient part of the metaphor. He may not like the metaphor’s life in American jurisprudence, but launching a battle over one (non-)entailment makes for a meager battlefield indeed.


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