President George H.W. Bush caused a few chuckles—and, more than likely, a few groans—when, out on the trail during the 1988 presidential campaign, he recalled being shot down over the South Pacific in World War II:
Was I scared floating in a little yellow raft off the coast of an enemy-held island, setting a world record for paddling? Of course I was. What sustains you in times like that? Well, you go back to fundamental values. I thought about Mother and Dad and the strength I got from them—and God and faith and the separation of Church and State.
Mother, Dad, God, faith—“and the separation of church and state.” This train of thought probably strikes us as a bit absurd. And yet, it is entirely American. That “God” and “faith” could not be invoked by the future President, as “fundamental values,” without the addition of “the separation of church and state” speaks volumes about how we Americans think about the content and implications of religious freedom, our “first freedom.” Indeed, Professor Daniel Dreisbach observed not long ago that “[n]o metaphor in American letters has had a greater influence on law and policy than Thomas Jefferson's ‘wall of separation between church and state.’” For many Americans, this metaphor supplies—in Professor Philip Hamburger's words—the “authoritative interpretation” of the First Amendment's Religion Clauses; and “vast numbers of [us] have come to understand [our] religious freedom in terms of Jefferson's phrase. As a result, Jefferson's words often seem more familiar than the words of the First Amendment itself.”