Separation of Church and State

“The Constitution of the United States of America forbids the government from mixing with religion,” the young free-thinker said to his Ethics teacher. The High school class was on a field trip to Washington D.C. and had witnessed the legislature open the day’s activities with a prayer delivered by a local clergyman. The young man was incredulous, “How can there be separation of church and state when the Congress opens each session with prayer?”

Another young man in the group, a zealous Christian, and equally as outspoken as his humanist classmate interjected, “There is no separation of church and state. After all, witnesses in a trial swear an oath on a Bible and with a ‘So help me God.’ Our money blatantly states ‘In God We Trust’, and when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court swears in the newly elected President he uses a Bible. Even the Declaration of Independence frequently mentions the ‘Creator’ and ‘God’; plus you just heard the legislative branch of the United States government begin with prayer. So how can you contend that there is supposed to be this separation of church and state?”

Of course the quid pro quo response to such impassioned discussions is, “read the first amendment.” One cannot find the words “separation of church and state” in the first amendment or in any other part of the Constitution. The principle of government not mandating and operating religious organizations and the concept of religion being separate from the government is implied in the first amendment. The separation of church and state debate has raged on for at least half of a century.

In the early 1960s three suits were heard by the United States Supreme Court which set the current policy of no public prayer or Bible reading in public schools. Those cases were the 1962 case of Engle v Vitale. In this case a parent from New Hyde Park Long Island sued the local school district, and her argument stated that a prayer which was written by the New York State Board of Regents and recited every morning, on a voluntary basis, violated the first amendment. The school district argued that the prayer was non-denominational in nature and thereby did not breach the establishment clause. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parent; prayer in schools was now considered unconstitutional.

In the following year of 1963 the Supreme Court combined two similar cases: Murray v Curlett and Abington v Schempp. In the later case the Schempp family had sued the Abington school district for being in violation of the first amendment on the grounds of the then Pennsylvania law that required ten Bible verses being read aloud at the start of each day. The Court ruled that the mandatory reading resulted in religious instruction and was in violation of the first amendment. The former case was sensational not because of the subject matter, which was prayer in school, but because of the principle player: Madalyn Murray who was an avowed atheist and insisted on her atheistic philosophy being included in the opening brief of her legal challenge. As a result of these three cases compulsory prayer and Bible reading in public school classrooms has been classified as unconstitutional.

Sadly, proponents and opponents of this matter are so polarized that intelligent debate is nigh unto impossible. Those who favor prayer in public institutions often cite the exact same sources as those who passionately fight against prayer in public places; both sides of this debate champion the names and writings of Jefferson, Madison, Paine, and Washington.

The words “separation of church and state” have been rehearsed ad infinitum, and the tired phrase has been misquoted and misrepresented to the point that many people actually believe those words to be written in the Constitution. It does not, however, appear in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, or even any of the minutes from the Constitutional Conventions. Still, as one Supreme Court justice rightly predicted in 1958, the phrase separation of church and state has been so misused that it is believed to be written in the aforementioned documents.

The Constitution prohibits the government from establishing, regulating, recognizing, or requiring any religious system or denomination. But as Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey write in How Now Shall We Live,

“Institutional separation does not mean that religious truth must never influence public policy…which is where the Christian concept of separation of church and state differs from the liberal conception.”

The Christian heritage of the United States of America is undeniable. Even a cursory study of America’s past will show that a majority of Americans shared a common faith and ethic. Most of America’s earliest founders were self-professing Christians and their documents expressed a belief in a Christian worldview. Fifty-two of the fifty-five delegates to Constitutional Convention professed to be Bible believing Christians. And I’ll join the long line of Christians who favorably quote Democracy in America, the famous two-volume work of Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville,

“there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility, and of its conformity to human nature, than that its influence is most powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.”

The voluminous quotes of the Constitution’s framers and signers are well documented, yet the following quote from a letter written by John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, two collaborators of the Declaration of Independence, will be sufficient:

“The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence…were the general principles of Christianity.”

The United States was most definitely a Christian country in origin; however a state sanctioned religion is not beneficial for the country.

In this nation’s genesis the overwhelming majority of people were of English Protestant ancestry, except for thousands of slaves which were brought to the colonies. In the late 1700s and even into the mid 1800s there were few Catholics, Jews, or atheists in America. Yet, even in the face of that national sameness James Madison and the other Constitutional framers had the sense and the foresight to include Article VI of the Constitution that concludes with these words,

“No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

With this bold stroke, the framers broke the European tradition and opened public office in the national government to people of all faiths or none. And Article I of the Bill of Rights states,

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Taken together, these two clauses safeguard religious liberty by protecting religions and religious convictions from governmental control, regulation, and interference. They ensure that religious belief, or no belief, remains voluntary and free from government coercion. The citizens of the budding United States did not want repeated in America what they had fled from in Europe: a state run church as in England, or a church-dominated government as in most Catholic states.

The Great Awakenings of the eighteenth century evoked a deeply personal and emotional response in many Americans. The evangelical fervor of the Awakenings cut across denominational lines and undercut support of state established and state operated churches. Religion was seen by many as a matter of free choice and churches as places of self-government. Thus, was written at the very head of the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The first amendment clearly states the government’s support of religious liberty and its neutrality towards religion. The government shall neither support nor prohibit religion. The separation of church and state has worked. The nation has flourished without an official religion, and the church has flourished without the official support of the government.

That misunderstood phrase “separation of church and state” was coined by then President Jefferson in a personal correspondence with concerned Baptists from Danbury, Connecticut who were alarmed about rumors of a national denomination. In that letter, Jefferson assured the Baptists that “[the first amendment has erected] a wall of separation between church and state”. One must keep in mind that Jefferson was serving as U.S. Minister to France and he was neither a signer of the Constitution or an attendee of the Constitutional Convention. Jefferson was simply reassuring this Baptist organization that the government would not interfere with their religion.

The modern concern for the separation of church and state is vastly different from the Danbury Baptists’ concern. Humanists and atheists are disturbed by the presence of anything Christian in government. When former President Bush called the nation to prayer, or when he thanked those who had prayed for him, the separation of church and state drum was beaten with a zealous (one might say religious) ferocity. When Major League Baseball played “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch of baseball games following the 9/11 attacks (a practice still followed to a certain degree), atheists and humanists bristled.

The atheist and humanist groups have twisted the intent of the first amendment. If the President, or any government official, stood up and declared America a Protestant nation, Baptist nation, or use any such religious identifier, the clamor for separation of church and state would be valid. But why should an elected official be forced to keep his faith private?

The framers of the Constitution never intended to disconnect government from God or prohibit a Christian influence on national policy; at least that had been the consensus until the early 1960s. The first amendment does prohibit the government from establishing a specific state run denomination, and does prevent national and state governments from interfering with religious activities and organizations. The church and state should be separate, but this does not mean that Christian principles are to be exempt from public discourse.

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About Travis

Happily married. Blessed to raise three young men. Associate pastor of Rodgers Baptist Church.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Culture, Government. Bookmark the permalink.

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